Association for Political and Legal Anthropology
Oral Presentation Session
As they struggle to lead the fight against corruption in Brazil, the political Left and Right advance distinct models of corruption. These models are evident within the two sides’ conflicting orientations to the Bolsa Família Program, the main redistributive policy of the (leftist) Workers’ Party government (2003-2016). Both sets of actors thematize the Program’s relation to the ostensibly perverse, patron-client relationships linking poor people to the state, as well as the Program's capacity either to end those relationships (according to the Left) or to scale them up (according to the Right). I claim that both perspectives mobilize a liberal ethics predicated on a ‘non-mercenary preserve,’ i.e. a field of objects (votes, sex, bodily organs, term papers, etc.) whose exchange must be protected from market logic. Because the dualism implicit in such an ethics fails to apprehend the many possible entanglements between the mercenary and the moral, neither the Left nor the Right anti-corruption narrative can account for the way Bolsa Família actually transformed small-town patronage in the Northeast, my field-site. Understanding the role of non-mercenary preserves within liberal ethics illuminates a common feature among many modern corruption narratives, that is the frequent conflation of characterological venality with the transgression of the public-private divide.