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Equity & Power: A Renaissance Of America’s Institutions

James French was invited to speak at the 2024 SXSW Conference in Austin, TX about Structural Parity—a concept deeply rooted in history but very relevant to today’s institutional power dynamics, from cultural heritage sites to artificial intelligence (AI). Having led the campaign to achieve structural parity at Montpelier, James Madison’s former plantation home, French highlighted how representative democracy can illuminate the complexities of history and prepare us for building a better future.

Achieving Structural Parity at Montpelier taught us two crucial lessons. First, the way institutions are run is all about the choices we make—anything done before can be rethought and improved. Second, power isn’t a limited resource; it can grow and adapt. This makes Structural Parity a versatile tool for various contexts.  When stakeholders are empowered, nonprofits and for profit companies see the best results.

Structural Parity is a tool for building a better future with more equitable and effective institutions. However, as we design that future, we must first fully grasp the historic relationship between governance, stakeholders, and power.

Below is a recap of this powerful idea.

Foundations of Structural Parity

Structural Parity originates from governance frameworks established by historic institutions, designed to address power imbalances and ensure representative and accountable decision-making. This approach is rooted in the principles of Madisonian representative democracy.

Untold Narratives: Governance Across Empires

French’s talk traced the rise and fall of ancient empires, focusing not on the well-trodden narratives of Classical Antiquity in Europe, but on the thousand-year history of the Sahelian kingdoms of Africa—Djenné, Ghana, Mali, and Songhai. These empires, located at the southern terminus of the trans-Saharan trade routes, once flourished with sophisticated governance systems that managed diverse ethnicities and strategic threats from Berber caliphates, leaving lasting impacts on the region and the world.

Economic Dynamics and Governance: From Gold to Slavery

Since ancient times, the regions of modern-day Ghana, Mali, and Senegal were prosperous and supplied a significant portion of the world’s gold. The trans-Saharan gold trade played a crucial role in the economic and political rise of Al-Andalus, the Islamic states in the Iberian Peninsula (modern-day Gibraltar, Portugal, Spain, and parts of Southern France). This steady flow of gold and other commodities facilitated cultural and intellectual exchanges, extending to Asia along the Silk Road.

Mali’s second ruler, Mansa Musa, hailed by scholars as perhaps the wealthiest individual in recorded history, became famous for his legendary 14th-century pilgrimage to Mecca via Egypt. During this journey, he transported up to sixty tons of gold to Cairo to visit the Mameluke Caliph. News of his opulence reached medieval Europe, prompting Portuguese explorers to venture down the West African coast in search of its origins, thus initiating the “Age of Discovery.”

The Portuguese presence in West Africa, driven by the quest for gold, persisted for decades before they attempted to round the Cape to find a route to India. Eventually, the trade in African gold was overshadowed by the trade in captive Africans, starting with the first slave plantation established by the Portuguese on São Tomé. This sugar plantation model proved more profitable than gold trading and was subsequently exported by the Portuguese to Brazil, where conditions favored its expansion.

In the 17th and 18th centuries, European powers replicated and scaled the plantation model across the Caribbean and the Spanish and British colonial outposts in North America. They used an innovation in governance—the joint-stock company model—to finance the capture and transport of people from Africa across the Atlantic. European royals and merchants collaborated to exploit this opportunity. Early examples include the East India Company, founded in 1600, which wielded enormous power and shaped trade and political dynamics across continents, and the Virginia Company, chartered by King James I in 1606 to establish settlements in North America. These joint-stock companies were early examples of corporate governance influencing societal structures.

In 1660, Charles II and his brother James, the Duke of York (after whom New York was named), became shareholders in and granted a monopoly to the Royal African Company to scale the plantation model with enslaved labor. This move significantly bolstered the trans-Atlantic slave trade, contributing to the forced transportation of between 10 million and 12.5 million Africans to the Americas.

The Enlightenment’s Unfinished Business

The presentation explored the Enlightenment, featuring figures like David Hume, John Locke, Montesquieu, and Adam Smith, whose revolutionary ideas continue to influence modern thought. Locke and Hume’s empiricism, Montesquieu’s separation of powers, and Smith’s economic theories collectively shaped political and philosophical landscapes. However, their ideas were marred by hypocrisy, such as Locke’s investment in the Royal African Company. The core Enlightenment concept of empiricism must honestly account for the laborers, many of whom were enslaved, who applied their knowledge to build the physical world, raising the essential question: who were the true empiricists?

Madison, Montpelier, and Paradox

Madison’s revolutionary philosophy of governance over a vast “extended republic” integrated Enlightenment ideas like liberty, representative democracy, and a system of checks and balances with his practical experience as a statesman. Writing as Publius, his philosophy is outlined in Federalist No. 10, where he enumerates the benefits of representation over pure democracy:

  • Refines and enhances public views through elected representatives.
  • Controls the effects of factions by reducing their influence on governance.
  • Increases the likelihood of electing qualified individuals.
  • Provides security against majority tyranny by ensuring a diversity of interests and creating obstacles for unjust majorities.

However, Madison’s moral values were entangled with his economic interests as a plantation owner. His vision of liberty and democracy did not extend to those who produced the wealth responsible for his elite education and high social status. He considered the over 300 individuals held in bondage by his family for more than 140 years as little more than property, not fully human.

Significant evidence suggests that Madison’s views on slavery evolved over time, yet even his gradual emancipation plan with reparations for slave owners aligns with his view that the state’s foremost role is to protect property. This reveals the deep-seated contradiction in Madison’s philosophy: advocating for liberty and democracy while simultaneously upholding and benefiting from the institution of slavery.

Montpelier, Madison’s historic plantation estate, is now a museum governed by Structural Parity since 2022, an initiative spearheaded by French. Buried within its landscape, serving as a natural memory device, lies archaeological evidence of the colossal clash between two opposing visions of power: a world-changing pursuit of freedom coexisting with the brutal imposition of slavery.

This conflict underscores the profound paradox at the heart of America’s earliest governance systems. By faithfully and accurately telling a more complete history, under Structural Parity, historic institutions such as Montpelier now have the potential to bridge historical divides, reconcile communities, and establish a broader and more accurate origin story for the nation.

Pivoting to the Future: The Math of Structural Parity

Achieving Structural Parity at Montpelier revealed two paramount lessons. The first is that governance is a design choice. What has been tried before can be revised and improved. Secondly, power is an infinite and generative concept. This recognition underscores the strategic value of Structural Parity and its versatility across various contexts. Research consistently shows that a stakeholder-led approach to strategy yields optimal outcomes for institutions, whether nonprofits or for profit corporations.

Furthermore, ethics and performance are not mutually exclusive; they reinforce each other, delivering optimal performance. This is empirically evidenced in the case of Montpelier and can be mathematically modeled using game theory. Similar to principles in game theory, a stakeholder-led approach to corporate strategy yields optimal outcomes when stakeholders adopt “tit-for-tat” strategies, prioritizing cooperation and reciprocation. This approach demonstrates that institutional power is maximized when shared with stakeholders.

Power, Ethics and Performance

Adopting Structural Parity as a governance model offers a path toward more equitable and effective institutions. A stakeholder-representative approach to governance leads to more informed decision-making and robust innovation. This approach benefits historic institutions and is crucial for addressing the governance challenges of emerging technologies like AI.

Application of Structural Parity to Modern Challenges

The presentation concluded with a practical discussion of how Structural Parity offers a uniquely effective approach to successfully manage the governance challenges of AI, whose immense power rivals that of states. For more on this, visit Brownland’s AI Initiative.

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