Ian Shapiro and “Power-Based Resourcism”

Dec 01

I just finished reading a recent article of the Yale Political Science Professor, Ian Shapiro, “On Non-Domination,” in which he contrasts his view of “power-based resourcism” and non-domination as the bedrock of justice to egalitarian and libertarian conceptions of justice. 

One of the features of his discussion of non-domination that makes it appealing to me in the context of practical politics is that it eschews meta-answers to questions of “basic structure” and instead proclaims that his theory “always operates at the margin”. As a result, it calls on us to turn our attention from hierarchy or inequality simpliciter to relationships of actual domination, recognizing that while hierarchy gives rise to the risk of domination, is not always the same thing as domination in fact.  Accordingly, one must give due consideration to the views of the people involved in the relationship itself before coming to a conclusion.  Second, it also requires us to distinguish between degrees of domination: not all instances of domination — the arbitrary use of power by one person to interfere in the free choice of another — are equal.  It is much worse to be subject to arbitrary control over the necessities of life than it is over the kind of winter coat one can purchase, for example.  If one does not have time to read the entire article, the conclusion, pp. 332-35, nicely sum up how his conception of justice as non-domination rooted in access to the resources necessary for a dignified life contrasts with other theories of justice.  I think his conception of degrees of domination and degrees of non-domination are also very useful for thinking — in the realm of practical politics — how one is to prioritize political action: we are always asked to triage, attacking the most egregious sources of domination in social life, which do not necessarily coincide with legal status of formal hierarchy.  Accordingly, when an employer recharacterizes his relationship with an employee as one resting on principles of independent contracting, the employer, on the one hand, elevates the legal status of the employee by deeming him an independent contractor, but the substantive result, in fact, is to make that person more subject to the employer’s domination insofar as the legal rights of independent contractors are less than those of employees. Finally, I think his approach to particular political questions is, structurally speaking, analogous to certain kinds of Muslim legal reasoning, specifically, the maqasidi approach to applied law which attempts to triage legal interests — whether benefits or harms — into three categories: primary, secondary and tertiary.  Protecting the most vulnerable, which follows from the notion of justice as anti-domination rather than simple egalitarianism, for example, is also consistent with an important principle (qa’ida) of Muslim jurisprudence: dar’ al-mafasid muqaddam `ala jalb al-masalih.

Politically speaking, Shapiro is a strong supporter of simple majoritarianism as the best tool against domination, not on the theory that majorities cannot engage in arbitrary exercise of power, but that, on a relative scale, majorities are less likely to engage in arbitrary use  of the power given to them in the hierarchical relationship between majority and minority, than the reverse, i.e., minorities can be reliably predicted to abuse their powers against majorities, whenever they are so entitled.

He concludes his article with an interesting comment about Madison’s anti-majoritarianist opinions famously expressed in The Federalist Papers:

It is well known that James Madison offered a trenchant defence of these [republican anti-majoritarian] institutions in
The Federalist. At the time he was thirty-six years old, and the bulk of his political experience lay ahead of him. Perhaps this is
why much of what he wrote about political parties and competition in The Federalist reads like someone who is trying to learn to swim by walking up and down next to a lake while discussing the theory of swimming. What is less well known is that the mature Madison rejected the republican thinking that is famously attributed to him . . . . His years in the rough and tumble ofpolitics in Congress, as secretary of state, and as the fourth president of the United States convinced Madison that democratic competition is the best available guarantor of the values that republicans seek to protect. In 1833, three years before his death, he was unequivocal that ‘if majority
governments…be the worst of Governments those who think and say so cannot be within the pale of republican faith. They must either join
the avowed disciples of aristocracy, oligarchy or monarchy, or look for a Utopia exhibiting a perfect homogeneousness of interests, opinions and
feelings nowhere yet found in civilized communities.’ Subsequent evidence suggests that the mature Madison was right that democratic com-
petition offers the best hope for mitigating domination. As a result, working to protect and expand it is the best path forward for those who regard non-domination as the bedrock of justice.
If one agrees with me that the biggest problem in Egypt is that of oligarchical domination of a narrow elite over the vast majority of society, than that the standard by which one should judge all political developments in the post-Mubarak era is whether the proposed legal/constitutional changes entrench that elite, or does it provide tools by which the power of that oligarchy can be reduced, even if it cannot be eliminated? (To demand the destruction of that power would be utopian would be unrealistic and risk another kind of domination but that is another story . . . )

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