Friday, December 20, 2013

The fault, dear Brutus ...

... is not in our stars, but in ourselves.

Grand rhetoric courtesy of William Shakespeare. But not a particularly ringing endorsement of the possibility of social change.

Which is why Roger Cohen's heartfelt column in the international edition of the NYT seems oddly bloodless. He's right in his diagnosis: inequality is a massive problem -- in India and throughout the world. 'When a phrase like “the bottom 90 percent” [or, I might add, 'we are the 99 percent'] rolls off the tongue as if this were a normal state of affairs,' he writes, 'something is amiss.'

But what's his prognosis? Only that nugget from Shakespeare. "Policy change can help," he writes in his last sentence, but the real change "must come from within each of us."

Well, sure. Duties and obligations, as Simone Weil wrote decades ago, come before rights.

Indeed, to look at the full quote from Shakespeare (full text of the play here), reveals that the Bard was not making a plea for inward inquiry but rather one for revolution: 'The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars but in ourselves, that we are underlings.' Cassius, who speaks this line, wants Brutus to join a bloody plot to oust the current leader, Julius Caesar, and seize power.

Yes, as Cohen notes, the system is rigged and "the common man and woman have been had." But individualism -- a.k.a. the profit motive -- got us into this mess. Individualism -- a.k.a. charity, or, in Cassius's and Brutus's case, the desire for power and fame -- is not what's going to dig us out.

There are lots of things groups can do collectively to promote change and reduce inequality. Here's one place to start: the mass of people -- the squatters and System D merchants who are actually the bedrock of every city in every developing world country -- need to organize and empower themselves. Their self-mobilized, self-governing groupings will lead the way to development that is more democratic and egalitarian.

As Nobel-prize-winner Elinor Ostrom wrote in a paper that's as relevant today as it was when it was written in 1994, "we will all be the poorer if local, self-organized institutions are not a substantial portion of the institutional portfolio of the 21st century." 

tip o' the hat to Jacqueline Novogratz, a.k.a. @jnovogratz, for the link to the Roger Cohen article.

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