Phenomenal World

January 19th, 2021

Phenomenal World


DECENTRALIZATION The simultaneous integration of global markets and decentralization of government within nation states has been a hallmark of the age of globalization. In a 2004 article, NEIL BRENNER looks to Europe to argue that through processes …
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January 9th, 2021

Plucked Goose


The deep divisions in American political and social life have long been thought to explain the unique weakness of America’s welfare infrastructure, and the absence of an integrated system of universal benefits.

But on their own, demographic divisions need not necessarily fragment coalitions for universal demands—history is teeming with political movements which were capable of uniting different factions. In his 1981 book, City Trenches, political scientist IRA KATZNELSON situates a history of immigration and racial conflict within a structural account of America’s urban geography and economic development.

From the text:

"Analyses of games or contests, political or otherwise, must do more than describe the players and their adversary play. They must also say something about the boundaries of the contest, which define its limits prior to the playing of the game itself. Attempts to make sense of what is special about class in America have ordinarily proceeded without this specification. They have most frequently focused on one of three conditions of American life—the racial and ethnic fragmentation of the working class itself, the unusual economic rewards of the economy, or the values that integrate American society—and they have generally argued that these conditions have made virtually impossible the development of class-based politics.

But America’s working class was not created once and for all. It has been fashioned and refashioned as members of national, ethnic, or religious groups that had been outside of the frame of capitalist labor relations have entered the ‘free’ labor market. I argue below that the unique characteristics of American institutions are aspects of a sharply divided consciousness about class in American society that finds many Americans acting on the basis of the shared solidarities of class at work, but on that of ethnic and territorial affinities in their residential communities. Each kind of conflict has had its own separate vocabulary and set of institutions: work, class, and trade unions; community, ethnicity, local parties, churches, and voluntary associations. Class, in short, has been lived and fought as a series of partial relationships, and it has therefore been experienced and talked about as only one of a number of competing bases of social life. What is distinctive about the American experience is that the linguistic, cultural, and institutional meaning given to the differentiation of work and community, a characteristic of all industrial capitalist societies, has taken a sharply divided form, and that it has done so for a very long time."

Link to the book.

  • "The factors that lead people to see the world in class terms may not be the same as those that sustain organizations created to act on such a vision. We need to investigate the conditions which encourage both the world view and organizational longevity in critical moments." Kim Voss’s 1992 paper examines American Exceptionalism through the rise and fall of the Knights of Labor. Link.
  • Mike Davis considers the question in a 1980 NLR: "On the one hand we must discard the idea that the fate of American politics has been shaped by any overarching telos. On the other hand, we cannot underestimate the role of sedimented historical experiences as they influenced and circumscribed capacities for development in succeeding periods." Link.
  • "Perhaps the debate over American exceptionalism has gone on for so long and so inconclusively because the question itself is fundamentally flawed. Perhaps beginning our investigation with a negative question inevitably invites ahistorical answers." A 1984 article by Eric Foner casts doubt on the debate. Link.
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December 19th, 2020

Au Matin

GREEN CENTRAL BANKING In the wake of recent financial convulsions, central banks have emerged yet again as the first responders to crisis. But to confront the crisis of anthropogenic climate change, there is growing acknowledgement that central …
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December 12th, 2020

Eight View


Between 1940 and 1990, housing growth in the United States outpaced population growth by 173 to 88 percent, and the proportion of homeowners nearly doubled. The same trend is observable internationally, and scholarly debate weighs whether demographic shifts or policy decisions are to blame.

A 2015 book by NANCY H. KWAK examines the rise of homeownership in light of US foreign policy and economic objectives. Focusing on the export of low-income homeownership programs, the book situates housing policy within broader distributional debates.

From the introduction:

"In the US, the homeownership ideal had begun forming in the mid-nineteenth century. Tracts on pastoral-republican suburbinization, Calvin Coolidge's call for a 'Nation of Homeowners,' the Better Homes in American Movement and the Home Modernizing Bureau all helped build an ideology that connected national identity with single-family owner occupancy. At the end of World War II, American advisors began urging countries around the world to push local, undocumented land uses to the margins and consider formal homeownership as a long term goal for the masses. Mass homeownership fuelled globalization by standardizing local processes of housing and land valuation, use, and tenure into a uniform system facilitating national and international investment. As more people participated in a globalized property and credit system, more of the urban landscape became friendly to corporate investment, making policymakers amenable to mass urban resettlement and modernization schemes. Implicit and reinforced in this system was the belief that the middle class served as a critical anchor for political stability, and that homeownership not only anchored the middle class but created it.

The World Bank played a particularly important role in normalizing an American version of mass homeownership at the end of the twentieth century. Up until the 1970s, the Bank had not exhibited much interest in directly addressing urban poverty, and its workers thought of housing primarily as welfare provision rather than generative investment. It was only in an era of explosive urban poverty and declining congressional support for American bilateral aid programs that the Bank took a more active role, beginning in Senegal, then moving to Tanzania, Zambia, Indonesia, and others. World Bank housing experts clarified that property rights could confer 'enormous benefits on many poor families.' "

Link to the book. h/t the one and only Paul Katz.

  • "In Canada and the United States, industrialization and urbanization occurred more or less simultaneously, creating a substantial working class in the growing cities by the early 20th century. In Latin America and the Caribbean, on the other hand, dependent industrialization resulted in a rapidly growing urban population with a relatively small industrial sector, a large commercial service sector, and a significant informal urban economy." Kwak and Sean Purdy introduce a 2007 Urban History issue on "Public Housing Histories in the Americas." Link.
  • "Planning colonias proletarias required surveying and subdividing land, actions undertaken by municipal engineers, architects, and planners. But it also required negotiating with resident associations and political brokers who deftly manipulated municipal codes and blueprints." Emilio de Antuñano's dissertation on urban planning in Mexico City, 1930-60. Link. And another dissertation by Michael William Sugarman compares housing policy in Bombay, Hong Kong, and Singapore from 1894-1960. Link.
  • "Taking the city of Sydney, Australia, as exemplary of a dynamic that has unfolded across the Anglo-American economies, we explain how residential property was constructed as a financial asset and how government policies helped to generate the phenomenal house price inflation and unequal capital gains of recent years." A 2019 precursor to Lisa Adkins, Melinda Cooper, and Martijn Konings' The Asset Economy. Link. And stay tuned for Martijn Konings forthcoming Phenomenal World piece on property inflation.
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December 5th, 2020



This year's turbulent oil market, in combination with the Covid-19 pandemic, has threatened the financial outlook of several Latin American nations. With many governments dependent on oil revenues, the issues of public ownership of the oil sector and financial liberalization are subject to intense political debate. But given the fluctuations of the market and national responses over the past three decades, some have called into the question the ideological nature of oil policy in the region.

In a chapter from the 2019 volume The Political Economy of Taxation in Latin America, FRANCISCO MONALDI examines oil expropriation and taxation across Latin America, arguing that oil policy is determined less by political ideology and more by structural factors of the oil sector and investment cycles.

From the chapter:

"In 2013–2015 Mexico opened up its oil industry to private investment, following seventy-five years of exclusive state control. Other Latin American governments, including Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, and even Venezuela, covering all political tendencies, are also enthusiastically courting foreign investment in oil, offering increasingly attractive fiscal conditions, with lower government-take. This trend would seem to proclaim a new liberalization cycle in the industry. In contrast, during the previous decade, under an oil price boom, the region had witnessed a resource nationalism cycle. Most countries in the region significantly increased the government-take on hydrocarbons and the government control over the industry. What are the determinants of these swings in oil policy, and in particular in hydrocarbon taxation policy? This chapter argues that structural factors, such as the characteristics of the oil sector (rents, sunk costs, risk profile of projects), the countries’ geological endowments, and price and investment cycles are key determinants of oil taxation policy. These factors interact with the broader institutional environment of a country to define oil policy. Ideology usually plays a role in how policy change is enacted, particularly regarding the degree of government control, but the general direction of oil taxation policy is largely determined by the incentives provided by structural factors and market conditions.

To understand the dynamic of resource nationalism it is important to focus on the deeper determinants of the historical cycles of private opening and expropriation. These are the incentives faced by political leaders under different scenarios of international prices, stages of the investment cycle, production and reserve tendencies, and size of net exports (imports). Expropriation in its different forms, including significant tax increases, tends to occur when prices rise substantially – that is, when its benefits increase significantly for the government. Expropriation is also more likely to occur in an environment of high and increasing reserves and production, and when the country becomes a large net exporter. Thus, after a cycle of significant and successful private investment, the probability of expropriation paradoxically increases. Given the amounts of the oil rents, which can be as high as 90% of revenues, the fiscal benefits can be politically irresistible. Most relevant petroleum exporters are fiscally reliant on oil. Thus, in this so-called high-sunk-cost sector, the effects of a decline in investment can take years to lead to the consequent decline in production. Therefore, government leaders with short-term horizons may be tempted to obtain high current benefits while deferring costs, leaving future leaders to bear the political consequences of declining production and revenues."

Link to the text.

  • "The scaling-up of NAFTA to the SPP (Security and Prosperity Partnership of North America)—which bolstered U.S. national security—is the basis for changes in the Mexican energy sector." Alejandro Alvarez Béjar's account of NAFTA's implications for energy policy challenges Monaldi's framing. Link.
  • "Contrary to an explanation based on rentier state theory, Chavez's proclivity for state intervention, both as a candidate and as president remained constant regardless of significant changes in oil prices." Gustavo Flores-Macías' study of Latin American leftism sheds light on Chavez's resource nationalism. Link.
  • "Compared with high-income resource-abundant countries, Latin American & Caribbean commodity exporters have much lower (known) natural resource endowments per capita but are much more dependent on natural resource revenues." Emily Sinnott, John Nash, and Augusto de la Torre's World Bank report provides an overview of commodity dependence in the region. Link. And Maristella Svampa examines the tensions between commodity dependence and indigenous rights. Link.
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November 21st, 2020



Recent studies estimate approximately 60% of the world's population earns their wages in the informal economy. Focusing on the prevalence of informal work across Africa, Latin America, and South Asia, analysts frequently advocate for a transition to the formal economy in these regions as part and parcel of development goals. But increased attention on informal work in the US and Europe has complicated how the informal economy is defined across both high-income and low-income nations.

In the introduction to his co-edited 2000 book, sociologist FARUK TABAK considers informalization through a long term, world-systems view.

From the text:

"From the late 1960s to the 1980s, the interest in and literature on the informal economy grew almost exponentially—as did the informal economy itself. The term informal economy originally referred to that great mass and realm of economic activities and transactions lying outside official accounting, more by default than design (at least initially). And during the opening decades of the post-1945 period, its overwhelming presence in what was then referred to as the developing world was no surprise. Indeed, the informal economy was considered one of the developing world's defining characteristics; the failure of these transactions to show up in official statistics was attributed mainly to the inability of state apparatuses to compel compliance and thereby reinforce relations of rule. In fact, in modernization theory, administering and overseeing the eradication of the informal realm was a political priority for buttressing relations of governance. It was a forgone conclusion that once these relations were solidly (re)established, the informal realm would steadily yet inexorably be brought under strict statal regulation.

This paradigm reigned as long as informalization remained an attribute of the periphery, but was eventually undermined by the equally relentless pace of informalization in the core zones after the 1970s. As the research suggests, the inability of state apparatuses to effectively administer and regulate a wide and growing range of productive activities conducted within their jurisdictions contributed to the spread of the informal economy. At other times, a state's unwillingness—not necessarily its inability—to police these activities and transactions was the most salient determinant. In certain locales, corporate restructuring swelled the ranks of of the informal sector by farming out the production of goods and services formerly produced in-house. In other locales, massive rural-to-urban migration and the resulting urban demographic explosion precipitated and sustained the process of informalization. Moreover, state bureaucracies in the periphery—the very agencies expected to preside over the demise of the informal sector—resorted to hiring and farming-out to firms and enterprises in the informal sector as they administered "public" enterprises. Yet the multiplicity of processes underlying informalization and the inability to identify a single cause does not mean the concept or the term itself should be dispensed with in toto. A narrow focus on the variety of the processes underlying the informal economy overlooks the sheer magnitude and cumulative significance of these activities in the functioning of the capitalist world-economy."

Link to the book.

  • A previous JFI Sources examines the International Labor Organization's attempts to quantify the informal economy in the "developing world." Link. And Saskia Sassen's 1997 article looks to the US to understand informalization, asking "whether these systemic conditions in advanced market economies in the post-fordist era are also engendering a new dynamic of informalization in the Third World along with older dynamics." Link.
  • Zoran Slavnic rejects the notion of separate informal and formal economies. Instead, "All economic actors are increasingly ready to adopt informal economic strategies." Link. Martha Alter Chen comes to a similar conclusion, finding "most informal enterprises and workers are intrinsically linked to formal firms." Link.
  • "The common impression that the devaluing of labor is a function of globalization and competition from lower-cost producers in the global south does not appear to be the case." James DeFilippis, Nina Martin, Annette Bernhardt, and Siobhán McGrath examine informal work in Chicago and New York, finding that the bulk of labor violations occur in industries that serve local consumption. Link.
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November 14th, 2020

The Continuous Moment


The conclusion of the United States election has prompted a resurgence of commentaries on the state's role in markets. By focusing on the state's capacity to shape and alter market structure, these discussions build on a longstanding academic tradition which overturned classical historical accounts of free markets.

Among the most influential texts is CHARLES TILLY's 1990 book, which examines the co-development of commercial capitalism and nation states.

From the introduction:

"The story concerns capital and coercion. It recounts the ways that wielders of coercion, who played the major part in the creation of national states, drew for their own purposes on manipulators of capital, whose activities generated cities. Men who controlled concentrated means of coercion (armies, navies, police forces, weapons, and their equivalent) ordinarily tried to use them to extend the range of population and resources over which they wielded power. When they encountered no one with comparable control of coercion, they conquered; when they met rivals, they made war. War, and preparation for war, involved rulers in extracting the means of war from others who held the essential resources—men, arms, supplies, or money to buy them—and who were reluctant to surrender them without strong pressure or compensation.

The organization of major social classes within a state's territory, and their relations to the state, significantly affected the strategies rulers employed to extract resources, the resistance they met, the struggle that resulted, and the sorts of durable organization that extraction and struggle laid down. These relations varied significantly from Europe's coercion-intensive regions to its capital-intensive regions. The demands major classes made on the state, and their influence over the state, varied correspondingly. The increasing scale of war and the knitting together of the European state system through commercial, military, and diplomatic interaction eventually gave the war-making advantage to those states that could field standing armies; states having access to a combination of large rural populations, capitalists, and relatively commercialized economies won out. They set the terms of war, and their form of state became the predominant one in Europe. Eventually European states converged on that form: the national state. "

Link to the book.

  • A 2019 article by Didac Queralt compares tax-financed and externally-financed wars from 1816 to argue that "globalization of capital markets in the nineteenth century undermined the association between war, state making, and political reform." Link. And a recent article by Roberto Bonfatti, Adam Brzezinski, K. Kıvanç Karaman, and Nuno Pedro G. Palma draws on "money stock and tax revenue data for European states from antiquity to the modern period" to argue that "monetary and fiscal capacity, and by extension, markets and states, have a symbiotic relationship." Link.
  • In the most recent edition of Herman Mark Schwartz's States Versus Markets, a helpful overview of debates on the Great Divergence: "Other ancient agrarian empires, like China and the Ottomans, were successful in monetizing their territory, taxing peasants, and subordinating both merchants and the landed aristocracy. But no European state succeeded in unifying Europe." Link.
  • "The emergence of a peculiarly British version of the fiscal-military state, complete with large armies and navies, industrious administrators, high taxes and huge debts, was not the inevitable result of the nation’s entry into European war but the unintended consequence of the political crisis which racked the British state after the Glorious Revolution of 1688." From John Brewer's classic Sinews of Power. Link. And a recent article by Benoît Maréchaux challenges Brewer's traditional narrative by "analyzing the business organisation and activities of Genoese naval entrepreneurs who managed galleys for the Spanish Empire in the late 16th and early 17th centuries." Link.
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November 7th, 2020



With Covid-19 cases again rising around the globe, the World Health Organization (WHO) has faced increased scrutiny from governments on its handling of the early pandemic. Today, the organization plays a key role in defining global public health and coordinating responses to disease, but this mandate has shifted over time.

A 2011 paper by THEODORE BROWN, MARCOS CUETO, and ELIZABETH FEE investigates the origins of WHO's current global public health program and its partnerships with non-governmental institutions.

From the paper:

"In January 1992, the Executive Board of the World Health Assembly decided to appoint a 'working group' to recommend how WHO could be most effective in international health work in light of the 'global change' rapidly overtaking the world. The executive board may have been responding, in part, to the Children’s Vaccine Initiative, perceived within WHO as an attempted 'coup' by UNICEF, the World Bank, the UN Development Program, the Rockefeller Foundation, and several other players seeking to wrest control of vaccine development. The working group’s final report of May 1993 recommended that WHO—if it was to maintain leadership of the health sector—must overhaul its fragmented management of global, regional, and country programs, diminish the competition between regular and extrabudgetary programs, and, above all, increase the emphasis within WHO on global health issues and WHO’s coordinating role in that domain.

In 1998, the World Health Assembly reached outside the ranks of WHO for a new leader who could restore credibility to the organization and provide it with a new vision: Gro Harlem Brundtland, former prime minister of Norway and a physician and public health professional. She established a Commission on Macroeconomics and Health, chaired by economist Jeffrey Sachs of Harvard University and including former ministers of finance and officers from the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the World Trade Organization, and the UN Development Program, as well as public health leaders. The commission issued a report in December 2001, which argued that improving health in developing countries was essential to their economic development. The report identified a set of disease priorities that would require focused intervention. Brundtland also began to strengthen WHO’s financial position, largely by organizing 'global partnerships' and 'global funds' to bring together 'stakeholders'—private donors, governments, and bilateral and multilateral agencies—to concentrate on specific targets. A very significant player in these partnerships was the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which committed more than $1.7 billion between 1998 and 2000 to an international program to prevent or eliminate diseases in the world’s poorest nations, mainly through vaccines and immunization programs.Within a few years, some 70 'global health partnerships' had been created."

Link to the piece.

  • Anne-Emanuelle Birn and Nikolai Kremenstov offer an account of the 1978 Alma-Ata conference, which was hosted by the Soviet Union and advocated for a WHO focus on primary health care. Link. David A. Tejada de Rivero recounts WHO's move to selective primary health care, relying on smaller, low-cost interventions. Link.
  • "Infectious diseases have gained ground as global health priorities, while non-communicable diseases and the broader issues of health systems development have been neglected." By Eeva Ollila. Link.
  • "Although the [World Bank's] role in generating and disseminating global health knowledge is important, its main advantage compared with other international institutions is its ability to mobilize financial resources." Jennifer Prah Ruger looks at the role of the World Bank, which began to increase its influence in global public health in the 1980s. Link.
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October 31st, 2020

Calling the Dogs


The confirmation of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court has sparked ongoing debates over the institution's merits and relationship to American democracy. Among liberal democracies, the United States stands apart in the strength and autonomy of its judiciary. A 2010 book by STEPHEN SKOWRONEK demonstrates that this strength originates in political developments following the Civil War and Reconstruction.

From the text:

"The demise of the Radical Republican crusade and the resurgence of the Democrats in 1874 ushered in an extended period of intense electoral competition in American politics. The major parties organized the electorate into two highly mobilized and evenly divided political armies contending for the spoils of the federal government. The creation of more centralized, stable, and functionally specific institutional connections between state and society was impeded by the tenacity of this highly mobilized, highly competitive and locally oriented party democracy. The distinctive logic of institutional modernization in this context was bounded, on one side, by the fact that America had never developed a dynasty, a nobility, a standing army, or an insulated bureaucracy, and, on the other, by the fact that it had far outpaced all other states in the development of organizations of mass democracy. At the very time that parties were developing in Europe to challenge the hegemony of more traditional state institutions, state-building efforts in America aimed at the disintegration of party hegemony as it had developed over the course of a century.

It should come as no surprise that the power of the courts grew with the power of party machines. The judiciary's governing capacities were stretched to their limits in the late 19th century to fill the 'void in governance' left between party hegemony and rapid social change. As Congress tore down the Civil War institutional apparatus with one hand, it vastly expanded the jurisdiction of the federal courts with the other. The expansion of federal judicial power in the late nineteenth century was the natural response of the early American state to demands for national authority in the industrial age. By the 1890s, the Supreme Court had articulated principles of nationalism, substantive due process, and constitutional laissez-faire that extended and consolidated its traditional hold over governmental operations. But no matter how authoritative and aggressive the courts were, they could not hope to supervise the new economy or manage the kinds of conflicts to which it gave rise."

Link to the book.

  • "Beginning soon after the Civil War, 19th century common law understandings of the public obligations of associative communities in a confederated republic were replaced by a new emphasis on the constitutional rights of individual citizens in a nation-state—one insistently expanding its regulatory authority." William J. Novak challenges Skoronek's account, arguing that the American state was "stronger, larger, more durable, and more interventionist" than the literature suggests. Link.
  • Keith E. Whittington on executive interest in strengthening the Supreme Court: "The political incentives that lead presidents to choose either to challenge or to defer to the Court’s constitutional leadership have shaped both the substance of our constitutional understandings and practices and the place of the judiciary within the constitutional order." Link.
  • "I argue that the expansion of federal judicial power in the late-19th century is best understood as the sort of familiar partisan or programmatic entrenchment that we frequently associate with legislative delegations to executive or quasi-executive agencies." Howard Gillman argues that the strengthening of the courts was a "by-product of Republican Party efforts" to enact an agenda of economic nationalism. Link.
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October 24th, 2020

Counter Music


India's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, has dominated Indian politics in the past decade, upending the country's long-standing Congress Party rule at the national level and competing with regional and ethnic parties in state elections. While the BJP's Hindu nationalist ideology and economic agenda appeal to elite Hindu voters, the party has also secured votes from marginalized communities, using tactics that fall outside of well-documented clientelist models.

In a 2011 paper, political scientist TARIQ THACHIL examines the role of nonstate service provision in building lower-caste support for the BJP, which has been central to the party's electoral success.

From the text:

"The Bharatiya Janata Party's (BJP) efforts to woo lower castes were seen as particularly daunting, given that the Brahminical ideology it espouses has largely been understood as one appealing to Hindu elites and not to those subjected to the daily humiliations of caste practice or to those whose spiritual traditions have been denigrated as improper or even uncivilized. Further, the party supported policies that largely appealed to upper castes, whose economic interests and preferences were the diametrical opposite of those of most poor voters. However, recent electoral evidence suggests several instances of counterintuitive support for the BJP from two of India’s most marginalized communities: Dalits (former “untouchable” castes) and Adivasis (India’s indigenous tribal populations).

I analyze how the upper-caste BJP has relied on the services provided by its grassroots affiliates in the Hindu nationalist Sangh Parivar (family of organizations) to make unexpected inroads among lower-caste voters in India. I argue that even when used to win votes, service provision should not be narrowly classified as simply a variant of clientelist strategy. There can be no doubt that a major part of the appeal of services for poor communities is material, particularly in areas where basic health and educational services remain woefully inadequate, as they do still in many parts of India. Yet to be successful, service activists had to provide services over multiple electoral cycles without linking provision to the quid pro quo protocol that underpins clientelist exchange. Further, to provide services reliably, activists must literally embed themselves within communities. This embedded quality generated several nonmaterial mechanisms through which activists could affect political choices, including even those of many voters not directly benefiting from their services. Providers exploit their formally nonpartisan status and the high regard accruing from their dedicated provision to garner credibility and influence within their local communities."

Link to the paper.

  • "Vidya Bharati ran approximately 6,000 schools in the late 1980s, and by 2003 this number had reached a total of 19,741." In an earlier paper, Thachil argues that India's defunding of education facilitated the growth of private schools (called Vidya Bharati) run by Hindu nationalist group RSS, which played a key role in service provision to rural communities. Link.
  • Susan Stokes' definitive account of clientelism emphasizes the centrality of excludable benefits and qui pro quo exchange. Link. James C. Scott's earlier work defines patron-client relationships through their socioeconomic asymmetries. Link.
  • For more on the BJP's rise, see Pradeep Chhibber's 1999 book on the transformation of India's party system and Christophe Jaffrelot's 1996 book on the Hindu nationalist movement. Link, and link.
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