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Book Review

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The New Rambler Review




This is a review essay of Camila Vergara, Systemic Corruption (Princeton 2020). In this lively and important book, Vergara argues that corruption should be given a structural definition, one that connects corruption with inequality and is plebeian rather than elitist. After surveying the work of thinkers from Machiavelli to Arendt, she proposes a set of solutions grounded in the civic republican tradition.

I press several points in my essay. First, Vergara's linkage of corruption with inequality is promising, but introduces tension between a general problem (domination of the many by the few) and a more specific problem (the domination of perennial outcasts). Second, the materialist-consequentialist mindset required to maintain an anti-corruption constitution, while valiant, will revive an older question: the extent to which any written text can constrain future politics, much less interpretation, in a maximal sense. Third, turning to the American experiment, we have learned that what is plebeian or local isn't necessarily liberationist. Fourth, Vergara's proposal to create a new network of local constituent assemblies is exciting but would require clear limits on their roles as such an innovation introduces additional layers of complexity to existing, often already dysfunctional, forms of governance. Five, allowing non-citizens to participate in such assemblies is defensible but controversial. Six, some of Vergara's insights about the need for direct levers of popular control of elected officials could be cashed out through other methods, such as a national referendum to overturn presidential orders or Supreme Court decisions. As we have seen at the state and local level, such means of direct democracy have been successfully used to advance egalitarian objectives.

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