Swag

Xi Jinping

He haz it

It’s Xi Jinping visiting Pakistan and being escorted by an honour guard of JF-17s, in case you missed it.

For comparison, try this:

Gozzoli Magi

Or this:

Persepolis

Or this:

Bonampak

With the return of personality politics (a term that I prefer to ‘clientelism’, which is pejorative and Eurocentric – plenty of good, stable, efficient clientelist systems exist, but they don’t conform to the bureaucratic-democratic European model, and so get dismissed as bugs rather than features) we’re seeing the return of another phenomenon: the entourage.

Of course, it’s been making its return in different ways and at different rates in different places.

In much of the Middle East, the majlis never stopped being a central instrument of government, with oil execs and dusty Bedouin flying in from Dubai or trundling out of the desert every now and then in their 4x4s to attend this or that royal majlis. And while the majlis is a way to consult citizens, build consensus, and mediate disputes, it also a message to the world: ‘look at the homies I’ve got; do you really want to mess with this?’ (It’s also excruciatingly dull for the guy at the top, by all accounts.)

In Russia on the other hand, the tradition has made a come-back after the long years of communist atomisation of society. Plenty of people would say that it began at the top – Vladimir Putin is well-known for his gangsta rap-style entourage (i.e. it’s very big, not full of black guys) – but personally I suspect that he just realised which way the wind was blowing and was an early adopter.

What is interesting here isn’t so much the fact that this is happening, but the chain of cause and effect. People tend to believe that the development of liberal democracy in Europe and all that it entails led to the breakdown of clientelism. In fact, it seems more likely that it was the other way round: the breakdown of clientelism led to the development of liberal democracy.

The key thing about a clientelist system is that the guy at the top is expected to keep an open house. The degree depends on the culture, but it’s always there. In China you’re expected to bring a gift when you go visiting, for example, but once that’s out of the way you can hang around drinking tea for hours and hours. In much of Africa you can pretty much just show up, help yourself to anything that looks tasty in the fridge, play Dance Dance Revolution with the kids, sign for his post, take a nap in one of the spare rooms… all over the course of several days, if that’s what takes your fancy (I’m a parasite of many years’ standing).

We used to do this in Europe, back in the days of yore. You can see it in the construction of medieval houses. You’ve got a grand hall where vassals could hang out, and then the solar upstairs where the Lord and his family can get some fucking peace and quiet. And therein lies the problem: solitude is a luxury, and as soon as people are rich enough, they buy some for themselves (I know one girl – the daughter of a Chinese official – who told me that it was her secret dream to one day have a bathroom of her own).

In Europe, as people got wealthier, and the middle classes grew, the concept of privacy – and more importantly, the private home – developed. Clients no longer spent their days kicking their heels in their protectors’ kitchens, and without the physical proximity the system declined.

Of course, this doesn’t tell us anything about why it’s making a comeback now, of all times. My guess is that it’s to do with increasing levels of uncertainty. The development of privacy in Europe also coincided with a time of relative peace and stability, meaning that people no longer had to cling together to have a chance of surviving whatever the competition was intending to throw at them next.

So as China, Russia and the others get richer and more middle class, will the entourage system survive or decline? My guess is that uncertainty will win out over the desire for privacy, at least in the medium term. But I’m not advising you to bet the farm on it or anything.

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