Conceiving Prosperity Again, Composing, 23/07/2018

If all goes well, this is going to be a very different kind of website in a few months. It’s why I might not post here as frequently as I have before. It will be the first good reason behind any sustained pauses in blog updates I’ve had in nearly a year.

So I came home from the gf’s place Sunday afternoon and after I unwound, I started work on my review of Raphael Sassower’s book, The Quest for Prosperity. It’s not quite finished yet, though I wanted to get it done by now. But I don’t have much longer, and it should still go live by Thursday at SERRC.

A key idea I’m writing about in that review is the notion that civic institutions aren’t sufficient to prevent the rapacious activities of oligarchs. I think our current political moment seems to be demonstrating that. What American Trumpism shows is that institutions – despite all the structural precautions that may exist – can always be corrupted somehow.

Shepard Fairey drew this image of Ronald
Reagan on a wall in the Little Tokyo
neighbourhood of Los Angeles in 2011, as
part of a public art initiative called the
Freewalls Project. He had the support of
the city's Museum of Contemporary Art.
Image by Wally Gobetz via Flickr /
Creative Commons
I think it’s a bit of shortcoming in Sassower’s analysis. But only in the sense that landing a crew on Luna is a shortcoming in that we eventually need to get to Mars.

Sassower, in the latter chapters of his book, asks what kinds of civic institutions can best guide people to socialize each other into communitarian moralities, where oligarchical personal greed is less likely to develop. He identifies several key ethical principles, and a few very intriguing examples among existing institutions and organizations.

I can probably add to his list of example institutions, given what I’ve been reading lately as well. I’m thinking of how Leanne Betasamosake Simpson describes the ethics and socialization paths of Ontario’s Indigenous societies.

It’s a life that’s called Nishnaabewin, and I’m going to talk about my own engagements with these ideas, including how I want to use them in my own work, later on. As you can imagine, it’s probably going to get awkward.

So we have our guidelines and we have our models. But those guidelines and models aren’t enough because institutions alone can’t do anything when power imbalances grow.

Here’s an example to illustrate what I’m trying to say. Because I’m at the point in the review where this is what I’m trying to say, and I’m having a tough time articulating it.

Let’s say you’re a claimant in a civil case. Doesn’t matter if you’re technically in the plaintiff’s or defendant’s chair. All that matters is that you’re making a claim with the help of your legal defence, and the other side is making their claim too.

In terms of your civil rights, you’re both equal. That’s what equality before the law means – the institutions regard you as equal claimants whose dispute will be settled according to reason. But in terms of your material resources, you aren’t equal.

You can tell how unequal you are when you see your opponent walk in with Alan Dershowitz as his counsel, and you’re sitting next to a snot-nosed, freshly graduated, already-drunk part-timer.

Material power dynamics overcome nominal equality in the context of civic institutions. This fact is a powerful reason why it’s so difficult to overcome greed – no matter the law, money is always power. Now what do you do about that?

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