Democracy and Inequality

Noah Resnick, 1L

On October 11th, Professor Sabeel Rahman spoke with ACS about his book, Democracy Against Domination. Professor Rahman is an Assistant Professor of Law at Brooklyn Law School and a Visiting Assistant Professor of Law at Harvard Law School.

Professor Rahman began his talk with a description of our current politics, which he argued has its immediate roots in the 2008 financial crisis. The Obama Administration’s approach to the financial crisis was to install a managerial and technocratic fix, in which the economy was fine-tuned with expertise, insulated from political pressure.

This approach, however, underplayed the idea of economic power; the power of individuals over the whole (Banks and CEOs over the people) and systemic and structural powers. The real issue of economic policy is power and domination. The rise of right populism, Professor Rahman argued, filled the vacuum created by the liberal technocratic response to the financial crisis.

In his book, Professor Rahman looked to the Progressive Era for lessons. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, economic power became concentrated among a few large institutions. A democratic movement rose in response to that economic power and ultimately enacted big change via antitrust laws and New Deal programs.

Professor Rahman highlighted the thinking of two Progressive Era figures, John Dewey and Louis Brandeis. Dewey argued that in moments of financial crisis, the biggest problem facing democracy is that it is hard to know how to respond. Brandeis argued that one way to respond is to enact democratic policies that counteract economic power, and one way to do that is to experiment in the states.

In response to a question about how we can create economic change today, Professor Rahman acknowledged that the opportunity best presents itself after large-scale economic events, such as the 2008 financial crisis. That crisis gave way to a massive opportunity for structural financial change, but we did not take advantage of it. The next crisis, which may be sooner rather than later, will provide another opportunity.

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