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Legal System As Oppressor

M.S. Ganesh

By Robert Asen
Rawat Publications (First published in the USA  by Michigan State University Press), Jaipur, 2004, pp. 325, Rs. 625.00

By S. Muralidhar
Lexis Nexis Butterworths, New Delhi, 2004, pp. ixv 454, Rs. 325.00

VOLUME XXIX NUMBER 12 December 2005

The books under review, both born of doctoral dissertations, complement one another remarkably. Their perspectives arise from different disciplines but both are concerned with policy orientations and their consequences. Asen’s study is located in political science, history, rhetorical studies and economic policy. Muralidhar’s thesis concerns itself with the efficacy or otherwise of legal aid to the underprivileged and disadvantaged.   Asen’s contrapuntal thesis pits the paradigm of community against the market model of reviewing current approaches to welfare policy. He uses Benedict Anderson’s metaphor of “imagined communities” to explicate “collective imagining about poverty and the poor in the institutional forums of public policy debate” (pp.6-7). Inevitably, in democratic society, welfare reform generates its own “politics” of representation and also “a fundamental tension ….. between standing for something and embodying that something” (pp.12-13). The latter tension not only comes to idiom (as in Raymond Williams’s Keywords) and to postmodern perception (as in Derrida) but also creates “the problem of speaking for others” (Linda Alcoff’s phrase). Thus, in some instances, when privileged persons speak on behalf of less privileged persons, though with the best of intentions, unequal relations of power and unjust social arrangements may actually be reinforced (p.13 and fn.21 at p.246).   These discursive dangers are compounded by the perversity thesis, the conservative social theorist’s reaction to progressive social reforms, which Albert O. Hirschman has defined as the view that “any purposive action to improve some feature of the political, social or economic order only serves to exacerbate the condition one wishes to remedy” (p.25 and fn.1 on p.248). The Enclosure Movement and the Elizabethan Poor Laws in Tudor-Stuart England in the 16th and 17th centuries, that impoverished and drove out tenant farmers and agricultural workers from the countryside into cities and industrial townships also appeared to have been carried on the Mayfair to the North American colonies (pp.27ff.). As recently as Carter’s presidency, “stagflation confounded widely applied Keynesian macroeconomic approaches and evidenced for conservatives the bankruptcy of liberal economic theory” (p.71) and “the Reagan administration sought answers to the economic woes in ….. ‘supply-side economics’” (p.75). Just earlier, in the 1960s, the Civil Rights Movement connected racial and economic justice with greater frequency” (p.57) and “Poverty lawyers worked to change discriminatory laws and regulations – the tools employed by local administrators to judge deservingness”. In King v. Smith (1968), the U.S. Supreme Court ...

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