The American Experiment

We’re looking for big answers from big thinkers this week, in the first episode of our series on the American Condition.

Pick one: the American Experiment (A) has run its course, (B) is catching its breath after a half-century of agitation and much liberation, (C) it ran aground overseas as an empire of chaos in wars we weren’t supposed to win, and didn’t, or maybe (D) the long shot, that in 2017 the American Experiment has gone deeply, desperately improvisational to shake a losing streak, maybe to find a reinvented self.  Nobody’s got a simple name for our disorder, this dysfunctional funk in the confident old crucible of “freedom, opportunity, power.”

Our guests this week—the philosopher and lay preacher Cornel West and Brazilian legal theorist  Roberto Mangabeira Unger—have been co-conspirators for over 20 years . This year, they’ve been tinkering in the laboratory of Harvard University, where they’re teaching a blockbuster class on American democracy. But neither man is willing to limit himself to the constraints of his academic field (“fields are for cows,” they say.)

Unger & West in the classroom at Harvard (illustration by Susan Coyne)


Instead, they’re asking big questions about “how to revitalize the Democratic possibilities within the empire” as Cornel West puts it. For him, the possibilities are, unfortunately, rather limited. West takes Bernie Sanders’s view, that ” the Democratic Party elites [just] want first class seats on the Titanic.” Outside mainstream electoral politics, the threat of violent repression—the kind that led to the assassinations of Martin, Malcolm and Medgar—is still all too real for West.

But Unger, on the other hand, has a more utopian take. The Brazilian theorist, not unlike the Frenchman de Tocqueville, believes that “the most important attribute of the United States is its extraordinary vitality. It seethes with human energy and hope.”

Unger thinks that we need more than just equality of conditions. He thinks the left needs to emphasize— in pseudo-Trumpian terms—”bigness” in its political vision.

The historical objective is bigness, what I call a shared bigness. It’s our ascent. It’s the bringing up of human life, of the life of the ordinary man and woman, to a higher plane of intensity, scope, and capability and the method is change in the structure of society in its institutions and in particular in the institutions of the market economy and of Democratic politics.

Unger’s own political project can seem a bit unwieldy on first listen, so producer Frank Horton helped us break it down into a handy four point chart. Hang it up at the office of your local progressive org, and let’s get to work.

Click here to read the full unabridged conversation between Chris, Roberto and Cornel.


Guest List
Cornel West
preacher, philosopher, and author of Black Prophetic Fire.
Roberto Mangabeira Unger
professor at Harvard Law School and author of The Religion of the Future.

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  • dirkinomaha

    Unger’s prometheanism is tragically ahistorical, the cutting edge of engineering has and will always serve the capitalists until they have left us in the rubble of our public infrastructures, would be great to have Saskia Sassen on the show to talk about her Expulsions book on the ways in which technology is being employed in extractive economics (as C.West rightly points out thuggery) that renders ever more of us displaced and resourceless.

  • Gordon Adams

    A major reform I doubt will come any time soon, if at all, is moving from an interest based economy to a fee based economy. In my lifetime, a worker who could live well on $50 a week in 1946 now must earn $663.27 per week, on average. On a small scale, there are experiments showing a fee based economy is more stable than an interest based economy.

    I would love to hear a broadcast on this. A great resource is the Schumacher Center for a New Economics, in Western Massachusetts.

  • Steve

    Interesting remarks by Unger. One should compare them to those of Lyndon Larouche and his organization. (Who actually are much more precise. Unger is somewhat vague and hortatory.)
    Do they use Larouche in their course? because that has been his subject since the 50s.

    Anti-disciplinary blather (“…I’m not sure that C. and I have fields…false marriage…reified disciplines…enemy of thought…”) This is crap, very superficial, and a hoary cliche.

    But Unger wants conscription? would it include the young women? what does West think about this? i notice how they both skip away from this, and Lydon does not pursue. (I wonder why?)

    Unger’s revision of federalism should be coordinated with the system of regional federal banks set up during the New Deal but whose real potential to finance regional development projects has never been really used. (See the historical essay on this subject done by Michael Kirsch for the Larouche organization, on their website).

    I have to confess, Brother West is quite the gas bag here, mostly lacking in content. But Unger himself is more a trafficker in epigrams and sermons than in real concrete information and analysis.

    Score (out of 10): wind content — 9; real content — 3. Not that good, rather disappointing, actually.

    (Note to Mr. Lydon: constant bashing of the President without real content wears thin and will work to discredit those who continue to rely on them.)

  • The show’s premise was good: the Melville guy vs the Transcendentalist guy.
    Unfortunately, it devolved into a look back to big ideas and movements, then ending on a self-congratulatory note.

    Maybe it is my bias, I’m a Melville guy, but I have to score this in a unanimous decision for West.

    Thomas E. Watson was a really interesting antidote to Unger’s call for populist movements and ideas.
    State’s rights (Federalism) means oppression of blacks and any and all minorities.
    We still have a militarist economy supported by militarist politicians like Warren.

    Unger’s views are unbelievably, provincially Cambridge-ian – a good example of the harm too much thinking-off can do.

    • FWIW
      They mention hope in the show, which reminded me of the wife’s soliloquy in Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1979 film Stalker.
      Hope is a gestalt: it is the way in which bitterness and happiness co-exist.
      Neoliberalism on one side posits too much happiness; whereas, on the underside it posits too much bitterness.
      The wife’s soliloquy can be summarized thus:
      Better to fill the liminal emptiness with a bitter happiness, than to be without hope.

  • lukelea

    Another title for this episode: “Wanderings in the Wilderness: Year One

  • Potter

    A consciousness raising session! I hope that this volley, from these well paired beautiful minds, does not rush by too fast for folks. I had to listen and press the back button a lot. There are some gems to be mined here and I hope I can write more about that from notes and thoughts. But thank you ROS. I have been wanting us to pull the camera back and get a wider, longer view.

    Susan Coyne, your painting above of the SS Democracy is incredible! Make prints. I’ll buy!

    • Al W.

      I looked her up after seeing the awesome work she does on this site – you can find her here:
      Maybe she’ll work something out with the “Open Source” folks and offer prints of these illustrations. I’d buy too!

  • Floyd C. Wilkes

    Progressive project needed by the left? 1) Single-payer health care 2) Single-payer education (kindergarten through the grave) in the USA?

    Unleash the vast reserves of creative energy and harvest the great yet latent intellectual potential dwelling in her downtrodden. Harness this pair to a freshly equipped Chariot of Liberty & Justice with which to confront the big challenges and ravaging forces arrayed against the world’s youth and vitality.

  • A in Sharon

    The left has failed because they continue to peddle a failed ideology. West and Unger, showing their age, are perfect examples. It’s selling nostalgia, pure and simple. It’s like using songs from the sixties to sell soda pop. Human progress is moving away from collectivist ideals. People are demanding individualist policies, which is the natural state. Like all other collectivist movements in history, the only way they would get their way is through tyranny. Bowing down to government bureaucrats is no different than bowing down to corporate plutocrats. Or, are we to believe the government types are different because they are doing what’s good for us. When it comes to progress, liberty-driven innovation is what creates better futures. How’s this for an innovative idea? The cost for educating our people driven up by the monopoly in higher education. A monopoly these bastions of enlightenment don’t want to give up any time soon. Harvard, wanting to help people should not charge a single penny for any student. Are we to believe they couldn’t afford it?

    • Potter

      People are demanding individualist policies, which is the natural state.

      Not so! We are social animals. We need cooperation to survive. This does not have to translate into bowing down to government bureaucrats. People are required to be involved.

      Education (lower and higher) for the masses, no need for Harvard to be the only, public education of quality is definitely needed to free people up. Add on healthcare. The left ideology is very sound.

      • A in Sharon

        Firstly, I am not arguing against the social traits of people. I am saying there are limits to it’s scale. The perception of social connections of people diminishes rapidly the further away you get from our center. It is an argument for the small, not the big. I despise the word masses. It looks at humans as a blob to be managed and controlled. The chances for my individual survival goes down relative to the rise of leftist policies. Could you please point out a single state in history that has provided prosperity to most of it’s people under socialist rule?

        • Finland?

        • Potter

          A in Sharon: Well what if I, and the majority of people living in this country feel that so-called leftist policies, that is policies that are more to the left than where they are now, are necessary for survival? (Start with climate change regulations being secondary, if at all of any importance, to business interests. )
          As matter of fact, the perception of social connections diminishing, the need for them that is, the further away one gets from the center, I believe ( from reading countless interviewing of people voting Trump) is a perception, perhaps just yours. Or maybe you can cite some reference. What people say they want is often unreliable, especially if their immediate needs are all or most of what they know. When you look deeper or with some information they are really asking, or would be asking, for something else.

          • A in Sharon

            All I am saying is that US has been, and remains, a place whose people mostly favor liberty, privacy, and freedom over more collectivist policies. It doesn’t mean we are anarchists. In fact, the many immigrants we are now trying to defend come here for the chance to live truly free lives. I can’t speak to how or where you live but I see people in this land more and more looking inward and seeking acceptance and accommodation for their unique needs, not the other way around. All social movements today are seeking validation for the minority, for the uncommon, for those outside the group norm. They want their own pronouns, they want group dynamics which favor the individual over groups needs. That’s why the grocery store is filled with 100 different brands of cereal. It’s why communism did not take hold here in the early 20th century and why, even now, when they would probably help, workers refuse to embrace unions. It is still the case that one of the most unpopular things you could call yourself is a socialist (outside a college campus). Will it change? Probably not before I leave this life.

          • Potter

            All I am saying is that US has been, and remains, a place whose people mostly favor liberty, privacy, and freedom over more collectivist policies.

            Not mutually exclusive.

            All social movements today are seeking validation for the minority, for the uncommon, for those outside the group norm. They want their own pronouns, they want group dynamics which favor the individual over groups needs.

            They are social movements, not individual, and they also want to be a part of the greater whole, even the nativists who want to make “America great again”.
            People did not seem to get too hung up in the term socialist this time around…that dog did not hunt. Many who went for Bernie Sanders were not on college campuses.

        • “Could you please point out a single state in history that has provided prosperity to most of it’s people under socialist rule?”

          Norway wiki:
          From 2001 to 2006, and then again from 2009 to 2017, Norway had the highest Human Development Index ranking in the world. It also has the highest inequality-adjusted ranking. Norway ranks first on the World Happiness Report, the OECD Better Life Index, the Index of Public Integrity and the Democracy Index.

          I wasn’t gonna mention Norway because they have oil (the world’s largest producer of oil and natural gas outside the Middle East), but we are the world’s largest producer of NatGas and instead of using that position for the betterment of the population (Alaska) the Capitalists in Washington are promoting the use of coal.

          “The chances for my individual survival goes down relative to the rise of leftist policies.”
          Re: survival of individuality
          Consumer Capitalism is about control – the aggregation of desires; segmentation of the masses into buyer groups. The limits of control have been reached when there are no possible alternate futures.
          Though a false sense of control makes people happy, la vida no vale nada.

  • Mary Fonseca

    How about someone getting us a legal holiday for elections so everyone can vote; uniform (and simple) voter registration across the whole country, plenty of polling places. End the Electoral College.

    • A in Sharon

      The Electoral College sustains disproportional political power to less populated states. Doing away with the college requires Constitutional changes possible only through the approval of those smaller states. Please explain why smaller states would willingly cede power to larger states like California, New York and Texas?

      • Potter

        Houston, we have a problem.

        • A in Sharon

          I will agree with you there. Big money is a problem but I don’t seek resolution in government nor any party. D or R, it makes no difference.

  • Pete Crangle


    “Nowadays, people believe in things by buying them.” — Xu Zhen

    Xu Zhen – ‘Artists Change the Way People Think’ | TateShots

    Pestering Tony Judt (1948 – 2010)

    Laffer curveballs

    “The government should be run like a great American company. Our hope is that we can achieve successes and efficiencies for our customers, who are the citizens” — Jared Kushner

    Vampire Squids don’t collect taxes. They extract fees in the form of subsidies, tax codes, municipal asset stripping and debt collection, and other forms of pandering from the political class that fortifies their unproductive capacity and pumps up their up rentier prestige. It is proforma deindustrialization and globalization.

    With the election of Donald Trump, the lionized business caste has been combined with a charismatic reality TeeVee fascist to give us the apotheosis of absurdity that promises to be a Dickensian Redux wrapped in a crisis management nightmare. The fiction of functional efficiency baked into a ruthless corporate ethos is one of the greatest cons ever embraced by a democratic republic. Whereas democracy encroaches upon private, for-profit institutions with an obsequious, gentle patter (one share, one vote does not a democracy make), the neoliberal business imperative continues its assault upon a democratic republic. This can be wrapped in any kind of intellectual packaging that suits the tastes, but it is in ceteris paribus terms, a movement that will continue to plunder government for the enrichment of a few, while the rest of us will continue be poorer, sicker, dumber. Oxfam has plenty of material to assemble for the next Davos rendezvous.

    Downhill and Endlessly Conserved

    Brass Aggots

    “This isn’t a democracy, it’s a f*cking business.” — Not a scene from Glengarry Glen Ross.

    That quote was the opening remark to a pep talk I was once required to attend. It was given by a CEO at a place where I was formerly a hired gun and shareholder. This pep talk could be described as a Come to Jesus meeting, a telling the team like it is and will be, and adjusting attitudes for appropriate expectations. It was a launchpad for a Lamborghini Napoleon to strut around a stage and wage a morale suck campaign upon workers and investors. This is a form a theatrical drama, and in the hands of an natural authoritarian, a psycho-drama cleansing where subordinates are positioned to assume responsibility for near certain failure without any autonomous agency, and then given the choice to suck it up, or hit the door. You can imagine how much fun that must have been; codependency isn’t just for family dysfunction, you can find it in the work place, too.

    Survival is often contingent upon the pleasure of those we serve, and how well we dance for our supper. If this sounds like a hyperbolic form of a pro-labor versus anti-management position, I assure it is not. The quote was a simple statement of fact meant to orientate understanding and focus the minds of those in attendance. The meeting, and the memory of it, are a form a phenomenology. In the neoliberal worldview, such matters can be made fungible, and it is the fungibility that creates the legitimacy. This has import for understanding our lived hierarchies, even loose ones, and how our lives are cleaved by the public narrative and the private reality that underlies much of what we experience, including the discussion here between Chris and Professors West and Unger. It turns out discussions of democracy suffer from the qualia wedge, too.

    What color is your democracy? Is it floated upon debt, colored by the one drop rule, and shielded by depleted uranium?

    Rights in the Time of T.I.N.A.

    “They’re always polite, they always upsell, they never take a vacation, they never show up late, there’s never a slip-and-fall, or an age, sex, or race discrimination case” — Andrew Puzder, chief executive of CKE Restaurants Inc., speaking of the wonders of job automation as the future for outsourcing human labor to machines.

    “No worker should have to work as if he were a machine … the purpose of the machine is to do for us what we have learned to repeat, so that we can reserve our time for the not yet repeatable” — Professor Unger.

    I will put aside the development of both general and specialized AI systems that can yield novel and unpredictable ‘solutions’ within a domain of focus, and the philosophical and technological underpinnings that exist for such technologies, and accept Professor Unger’s statement on face value. It is within the context of this discussion, precise and humane, at least until various technological ‘solutions’ begin to reach critical mass in labor and security job displacement. I feel certain Professor Unger will be able to retool his statement to accommodate that reality, and see in the ‘intelligent’ machine age, either our possible demise or possible liberation.

    One thing that comes with the territory of the non-agrarian, non-frontier lifestyle is that nearly everyone is deeply buried inside someone else’s economic food-chain. This has produced with it ‘rights’. Since The Left (whatever the hell that is) has decided to compete for corporate money and serve corporate interests, along with The Right (whatever the hell that is), we find that ‘rights’ have tilted towards corporate personhood and investor primacy. The language is spoken through the currency of power: money.

    The right to work is the euphemism for the right to be canned, laid-off, outsourced, downsized, leveled, RIF’d, relocated, or transferred. It means you can be lumped into a reduction, an optimization, a pay-cut, a cost-containment, or a transition. You, or a department, or a project, can be defunded or debudgeted. You might be low hanging fruit for early-retirement, or a leveraged buy-out. You may find yourself tethered to a company or sector that has tanked due to its inherent risk addictions and mismanagement. It means you might become head of Special Projects, where your project is to find new employment ‘possibilities’. In the globalized, jobless recovery cycle, this can mean the right to spend quality time with your debt due to no fault of your work performance or attitude. It can mean the right to a gig existence; those side hustles pimped out by Uber culture that become a primary source of income. We are nickled and dimed, and turned into time units for micro-management.

    Is the last person to turn out the lights the winner or the loser? Logical question, perhaps the wrong thread.

    All Contemporary Politics aspires towards the Condition of it’s Donor Class

    The right to work euphemism hangs over many people’s lives. Competition is actually conflict driven zero sum scenarios. Such are the existential necessities that weigh upon people. This is about insecurity and scarcity. Not Donald Trump. Not Paul Ryan. Not Mitch McConnell. Not Nancy Pelosi. Not Chuck Schumer. Not SCOTUS. Not the Islamic State. Not the general health and fitness of a democratic republic. Such matters are not where the rubber meets the road, or carry much weight in those long kitchen table considerations.

    I suggest we acknowledge something if we’re to consider rehabilitating our democratic republic: Where one spends their life and the activities associated with that time are the meaning to be found in one’s life, and therefore, the term for which ‘a life’ is given substance. We don’t live our lives in a democracy, or a republic. Our lives are lived where we spend our time, and for many of us that means work, job, gig(s), employment, career, etc. And with that comes the right to work euphemism. These are not matters for Jeffersonian flights of fancy. These are matters that feed our stomachs, cloth our backs, and house our bodies; for ourself and our families.

    Work structures, for most of us, are anything but democratic. Every business I’ve worked at, from startups to multinational, multi-headed monstrosities, tend towards being petty fiefdoms with variations of authoritarian, and sometimes, autocratic rule. I stopped pretending that my life was lived in a democracy. This was to acknowledge that if our best and most productive years, along with the prime hours of nearly every day, are spent in non democratic institutions, we should not kid ourselves. The democratic republic is tangential, and given the amount of voter turn-out that can be observed over many decades, not much cared for. Besides, who has the time? It’s a hamster wheel existence to stay above the waterline. Trump seems entertaining, so fine, here’s our vote, screw it. We’ve got debt and family and pressure cooker issues to deal with. Democracy will have to take care of itself. Maybe the celebrity apprentice can do something with it. Should we be concerned about the Alt Right? Who gives an Alt F*ck about a bunch of social rejects dreaming of the Fourth Reich?

    There is far more meaning in the indexes for Consumer Confidence or Consumer Price Index and how these matters relate to our day-to-day lives, than any poll or metric of voter turn-out. We have been trained to be first and foremost consumers, spectators, and laborers, not citizens. Want to repair our democratic republic? Better figure out a way to make it a core part of everyone’s life during the prime hours of the day, across the peak years of our lives. Otherwise, it will be abandoned and left to the diddling around by others: Experts. Wonks. Pundits. Pols. Lobbyists. Politicians. Celebrity Journalists, and Specialists and Opportunists of every variety that run the spectacle. Most of these people have no interest in extending ‘democracy’ to the many. Their motives run from the deeply insecure to the deeply corrupt to the deeply greedy. In this, they are not dissimilar to many of the founders. This is embedded in the weakness, if not downright failure, of representative democracy for which recall measures are nearly impossible.

    Next Steps?

    “We need myths that will identify the individual not with his local group but with the planet. A model for this is the United States. Here were thirteen different little colony nations that decided to act in the mutual interest, without disregarding the individual interests of any one of them.” — Joseph Campbell, “The Power of Myth”

    Not God, Marx, Adam Smith, nor Mother Nature are not going get us out of this pickle. Pick your favorite cult of personality to pour hope into, and you’ve made another sucker’s bet. We must find the ability to huddle up without turning into a circular firing squad to work through difficult problems. This is becoming more and more urgently imperative. This is the next step. I am cautiously pessimistic about the ability or willingness to even acknowledge the need.

    It is difficult for me to distinguish between the erosion of a status quo that is in decline and whether that leads to an apocalyptic future. It may be the case the democracy has hit its end-point. Or, the versions of democracy that we understand and have been with us have hit its end-point. Or, it’s in a slump, and will pull out of it. We look to the past and the people of the past who thought in terms of past, present, and future to find our way. This is not atypical, but the urgency of the exercise suggests we suffer the anxiety of possible calamity. The urgency is in not having anyone or any group in the present context for which those past touchstones predicted would emerge now, when it is most needed. And this, from my perspective, is the apocalyptic void, or dead end. Or, it could be that the hero’s journey is dead.

    These discussions here at ROS are important. Chris is an excellent moderator. The guests are superb. These discussions are welcome not because of some magic bullet to be pulled out of thin air to solve a problem. They are welcome first and foremost, because they are generative and work over the multiple layers of our humanity, from its darker machinations to its aspirational overreach. Discussions such as these can move us not only out of the cave, but out of our lethargy and into thought and action.

    I found no panacea in this discussion, which made this discussion not only realistic, but extremely relevant. To do the huddle up, people are going to have to become comfortable with uncertainty and risk, and perhaps most important, themselves as equals. As the mania of ecocide and resource exhaustion continue to bother our capacity to live on this planet, we will either learn to cope with one another and our planet, or we will parish. When it gets right down to it, neoliberalism has leapfrogged democracy and communism, and its proponents, who have been in charge and continue to be, now must confront a series stark realities that neoliberalism has bother inherited and made worse.

    What is not uttered, except in apocalyptic drama is mass depopulation. Mass depopulation may be the answer neoliberalism supplies, and not even a consumer herd is going to enjoy that reality show. As weapon systems become more and more automated, and habitat resources become more and more scarce, this is the reality we are being directed towards. Titanic. Pequod. Soylent Green. Name your dystopian nightmare.

    The American Experiment? Or, The American Mythos? Are societies laboratories or myth makers? My personal appetite for splitting the baby is fairly low, these days. Thank you Chris, and Professors West and Unger.

    * ‘u’

  • Potter

    There was a volley between Profs. Unger and West about federalism that was interesting. Unger said that the states are and can be good laboratories for policies that are experimental. Rightly so. West interjected that the states also can promote or allow racism and discrimination to fester or to even pass laws that promote this (as in North Carolina). As well, anti-environmental practices and policies can be favored in the name of jobs. This is where the federal government needs to get involved for the general welfare.

    But good news: I heard a report of how some states are promoting college courses to be given in public high schools, courses that earn college credit. An associates degree can even be earned this way in some locations. This goes some way, a good bit of the way, towards free public college for all. It’s quite a motivation for high schoolers, nurturing a culture of academic competition and achievement.

  • The Guardian: Rex Tillerson: ‘America first’ means divorcing our policy from our values
    “Our values around freedom, human dignity, the way people are treated – those are our values. Those are not our policies.”