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K. Sabeel Rahman

My academic work focuses on questions of how power, law, and conceptions of political economy together shape the prospects for an inclusive democracy and economy—and how these structures construct systems of exclusion, extraction, and inequality. This research agenda links together my interests in law, intellectual history, political theory, social science, and public policy. From an LPE perspective, my research agenda revolves around four overlapping areas of inquiry.

First, I examine how conceptions and theories of political economy shape and are shaped by legal structures, with a particular interest in neoliberalism, rival conceptions of state and market, and how these ideas either create conditions of unjust domination, or can be remade to create a more democratic political economy. My first book, Democracy Against Domination explores the clash between laissez-faire, technocratic, and more democratic conceptions of political economy in progressive law and thought, from the first Gilded Age to the 2008 financial crisis. I’ve argued that the problem of domination should be front and center in our debates over market capitalism, and that genuine democracy requires a rejection of both neoliberal / laissez-faire market concepts, and more technocratic forms of market management. These ideas have informed my contributions to the modern wave of scholarship on “constitutional political economy”, and neorepublican political theories of domination and democracy. In this work I’ve also focused on the problem of structural inequality, and how neoliberalism in particular erases underlying structural inequities that need to be surfaced and contested. These theoretical frameworks have also informed our Law and Political Economy conceptual framework co-authored with David Grewal, Amy Kapczynski, and Jed Purdy.

Second, I apply these concepts to focus in particular on the legal construction of modern economic power, with a particular interest in concentrated corporate power at the “commanding heights” of the economy: finance, new tech platforms, anti-monopoly, and the implications for what a 21st century regulatory agenda and new social contract must look like. This work has involved some deep dives into debates over financial regulation in my book and in stand-alone articles. I have also argued that public utility-style regulatory tools—and in some cases, outright public provision—will be critical to address the power imbalance arising from the ways in which finance and tech serve as privately-controlled critical infrastructure for the modern economy. These projects have shaped my participation in the new interest in anti-monopoly ideas and policy.

Third, I apply these concepts to explore how law affirmatively constructs access to public goods and basic needs—the essential infrastructure of economic inclusion. In these works, I’ve argued that social exclusion is constructed in part by legal regimes that restrict access to basic goods: through the privatization, means-testing, or re-segregation of everything from water systems in Flint to housing in gentrifying cities, law reproduces systemic inequities of race, class, and gender. I have also explored how these new forms of economic power represent a major shift in the nature of the modern corporate form, and will require a dramatic reinvention of the modern safety net.

Fourth, I explore the law and political economy of the administrative state, and argue that the administrative state is a central technology of inclusion or exclusion—and that debates over agency authority, accountability, and structure are often proxy debates over the substantive ideas of what equality demands, and who can access the full privileges and benefits of membership in the polity. As part of this critique, I have also focused in particular on the question of what a more radically inclusive, participatory administrative state might look like. I explore these ideas in my first book, and in my second book, Civic Power, co-authored with Hollie Russon Gilman. With my colleague Jocelyn Simonson, I have also explored how grassroots racial justice movements have pioneered new forms of community control and democratized institutions that shift power.

In pursuing this work, I am also deeply interested in longer-term social and ideational change. Along with other LPE colleagues, I share an interest in imagining new forms of pedagogy, particularly for foundational public law classes that I teach, including Constitutional Law and Administrative Law. As a practitioner, through my work at Demos I work with a wide range of policymakers, social movement partners, and philanthropic partners to develop and advance transformative ideas around racial equity, and structural economic and political reform, connecting these ideas to the live policy and social movement battles of the moment.