Contesting Power

Acemoglu and Robinson's Why Nations Fail (2012) offers insight into why wealth and poverty exists (see post here). It also provides direction as to how more inclusive political and economic institutions are formed, which draws on their 2006 book, On the Origins of Democracy and Dictatorship. They open with a comment about the Arab Spring: "In this book we will argue that the Egyptians in Tahrir Square, not most academics and commentators, have the right idea. In fact, Egypt is poor precisely because it has been ruled by a narrow elite that have organized society for their own benefit at the expense of the vast mass of people." (p. 3) Towards the conclusion of the book, the idea of conflict is returned to: "Inclusive economic and political institutions do not emerge by themselves. They are often the outcome of significant conflict between elite resisting economic growth and political change and those wishing to limit the economic and political power of existing elites" (p. 332)

  • "Political institutions determine who has power in society and to what ends that power can be used. If the distribution of power is narrow and unconstrained, then the political institutions are absolutist… In contrast, political institutions that distribute power broadly in society and subject it to constraints are pluralistic. Instead of being vested in a single individual or narrow group, political power rests with a broad coalition of plurality of groups." (p. 80)
  • "The rule of law is a very strange concept when you think about it in historical perspective. Why should laws be applied equally to all? If the king and the aristocracy have the political power and the rest don't, it's only natural that whatever is fair game for the kind and the aristocracy should be banned and punishable for the rest. Indeed, the rule of law in not imaginable under absolutist political institutions. It is a creation of pluralist political institutions and of the broad coalitions that support such pluralism. It's only when many individuals and groups have a say in decisions, and the political power to have a seat at the table, that the idea that they should all be treated fairly starts making sense." (p. 306)

However, it has not only been violence and conflict:

  • "…there were other ways to influence Parliament and thus economic institutions. The most important was via petitioning, and this was much more significant than the limited extent of democracy for emergence of pluralism after the Glorious Revolution. Anybody could petition Parliament, and petition they did. Significantly, when people petitioned, Parliament listened. It is this more than anything that reflects the defeat of absolutism, the empowerment of a fairly broad segment of society, and the rise of pluralism in England after 1688. The frantic petitioning activity shows that it was indeed such a broad group in society, far beyond those sitting or even being represented in Parliament, that had the power to influence the way the state worked. And they used it." (p. 193)

They conclude not on the means, but the outcome:

  • "What is common among the political revolutions that successfully paved the way for more inclusive institutions… is that they succeeded in empowering a fairly broad cross-section of society. Pluralism, the cornerstone of inclusive political institutions, requires political power to be widely held in society" (p. 458)
Post-doc: Religion & Society
Co-opting Aid for Political Purposes

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