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 ...
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.
In recent weeks, our comments section has been filled with request to define a term we use constantly on this show: neoliberalism. For people who like buzzwords parsed and spelled out, this hour’s for you. ...
In recent weeks, our comments section has been filled with request to define a term we use constantly on this show: neoliberalism. For people who like buzzwords parsed and spelled out, this hour’s for you.
There are countless avenues that neoliberalism can lead us through: from the dismal science of efficiency and austerity to the dismal politics in Washington on both sides of the aisle. In our neighborhoods, neoliberalism may mean the defunding of our public schools as well as the deregulation of our public services. It’s driving impulse may be the ruthless privatization of everything in existence: from parking meters to prisons. It’s affective influence can transform our personal relationships, both intimate and platonic; gamifying our everyday relationships and turning the dating pool into a competitive market. Through the co-option of feminist and anti-racist struggle, it can disguise class enemies as “woke” allies. Through the commercialization of our artistic works and the corruption of our scientific research, it can convert our greatest human achievements into metrics on a spreadsheet.
So, instead of pursuing a single definition in this show, we’ve enlisted an all-star cast of public thinkers to discuss where they see neoliberalism creeping into their daily life and work.
Corey Robin—professor of political science at CUNY, author of The Reactionary Mindand a formidable blogger on the left—sees a specific evolutionary chain in the American political system. Against journos like Jonathan Chait, Robin has argued that neoliberalism is not just a pejorative synonym for “liberalism.” Its political use, in the U.S. at least, refers to a specific transformation within the Democratic party elite as well as their allied beltway outlets. The formal outlines of neoliberalism were drafted in the pages of the Washington Monthly—most notably Charles Peters’s 1983 “Neo-Liberal Manifesto,” but its influence extended well beyond this journalistic clique. Free-market friendly policies of the so-called “Atari Democrats” culminated in Bill Clinton’s election in 1992, but its deregulating drive began, as Robin reminds us, with the administration of Jimmy Carter:
Writer, editor, and queer activist Yasmin Nair—reporting from the grounds of American neoliberalism’s birthplace and de facto capital: Hyde Park, Chicago —tracks the ideological revolution through trends in mainstream feminist writing. From Lena Dunham to Arianna Huffington, Nair sees a rhetoric of therapy and inclusivity for elite women displaying analysis of class and power for the mass majority. The defining symbol of neoliberal feminism, Nair suggests, may be the bronze-casted “Fearless Girl” statue now staring down the bull on Wall Street. For the State Street Global Advisors, the Wall Street who funded the metal girl’s construction, the artwork was “intended to highlight efforts to get more women on corporate boards.” For Nair, it’s a cynical testament to elite striving and the desire to be recognized symbolically without resisting materially.
Greg Lindsay is the super-smart, MIT Media Lab-affiliated urbanist and technologist who has written for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and Bloomberg BusinessWeek. He’s looking at neoliberalism’s effect in the global city, where innovation and corporate cash flows in while families and working people are pushed out.
Moira Weigel, our favoritechronicler of love in the time of capitalism and the editor of the new tech magazine Logic, grapples with the interpersonal implications of neoliberalism in a digital world—one which profoundly alters our approach to friendship, courtship, and sex. She’s joined by Yarden Katz, our local biosystems whiz at Harvard,who argues that “neoliberalism reorders the priority of scientific projects according to what’s sellable and profitable in the short term, while steering science as a whole towards serving the technological interests of private stakeholders.”
If you’re still trying to nail down a definition, here are a few helpful guidelines sent in by our friends and our correspondents over email. Put your own definition in the comments!
George Scialabba, essayist and author of Low Dishonest Decades: 1980-2015:
I’d say neoliberalism is essentially the extension of market dominance to all spheres of social life, fostered and enforced by the state. In economic policy, this means deregulation and privatization. In culture, it means untrammeled marketing and the commoditization of everyday life, including the intimate sphere. In law, it means consumer sovereignty, non-discrimination (which is after all economically irrational), and a restrictive conception of the public interest. In education, it means the replacement of public by private (i.e., business) support for schools, universities, and research, with a concomitant shift of influence over curriculum and research topics. In civil society, it means private control over the media and private funding of political parties, with the resultant control of both by business. In international relations, it means investor rights agreements masquerading as “free trade” and constraining the rights of governments to protect their own workers, environments, and currencies.
Bonnie Honig, Professor of Modern Culture and Media at Brown University and author of Public Things: Democracy in Disrepair:
Talking about public things is THE way, in my view. And also, as I say in my book, Public Things, it is always key to notice the ideological character of the privatization claims of neo liberals, who say prefer markets to the state but always — nonetheless — enlist the state (policing, resources, etc) while claiming to have “privatized”.
Jason Jackson, Lecturer in Political Economy in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning at the MIT:
In my work the primary way that I conceptualize neoliberalism is as a particular relationship between state and market, but my own perspective differs from the conventional relationship that is supposed between the two. Neoliberalism is often touted as laissez-faire, free markets, and ‘getting rid of the state’. In my view (and those of others in my field who work on this) this characterization is misleading. It is more analytically useful to see neoliberalism as a particular mode of economic governance by the state. That is, neoliberalism refers to the imposition to particular rules by the state (laws/regulations, policies, etc.) that (re)structure markets in ways that are held to be more efficient as well as to guarantee freedom of choice.
Jill Lepore, historian at Harvard and New Yorker writer:
Neoliberals prefer numbers to facts and data to numbers. They are now among those decrying the fall of the fact, but they have had a real hand in that.
David Bromwich, Yale professor of English:
Seven or eight years ago, I was walking to lunch with a friend, a former dean of the law school, who mentioned he’d been “talking at the reunion to Bob Rubin, who said, you know, America is getting to be a less and less desirable place to live, it might be time to think about living elsewhere.” This was conveyed in a neutral tone – as a curious and maybe perceptive remark, anyway interesting considering from whom it came! I didn’t react neutrally. But it has occurred to me that neoliberals act with something like the presumptive authority of absentee landlords between the time of the elder Pitt and Gladstone. Now the world is their Ireland and it is no more supposed to know how to run itself than the average smallholder or tenant-at-will.
Bill Deresiewicz, author and literary critic:
Neoliberalism is all the rhetoric you hear in advertising and the media that assumes that our chief goals are to become more productive and competitive, to optimize ourselves like machines with apps and gadgets and “life-hacks” and lists of the 13.8 habits of highly workaholic individuals. The emergence of the word “creativity” as the great desideratum for individuals and corporations. Because it isn’t about self-expression or making art; it’s about creativity understood as a business good: “innovation” and so forth.
It wasn’t a war of ideas that produced Donald Trump, but his election surprise has produced a war of ideas to define Trumpism. In our program, the battle will be waged by ambitious, 20-somethings hungry ...
It wasn’t a war of ideas that produced Donald Trump, but his election surprise has produced a war of ideas to define Trumpism. In our program, the battle will be waged by ambitious, 20-somethings hungry for ideas worth fighting about. The new blood in the chattering class this hour comes from two magazine editors who seem to be living parallel lives right here in Boston.
Nathan Robinson, a Yale Law JD now working on his second advanced degree in sociology at Harvard, is the founder of the left-swinging magazine, Current Affairs. His glossy pages first caught our attention last February, in high primary time with a provocative prediction: “Unless Democrats run Sanders, a Trump nomination means a Trump presidency.” His hot take proved prophetic, and he’s become a regular on our program, providing side-eyed skepticism of both political and media establishments and giving voice to the millennial view of the rising Trump resistance. His polemics against the president have developed into a book-length attack in Trump: Anatomy of a Monstrosity.
Julius Krein, meanwhile, is trying to give voice to a rather different millennial set. Coming from the world of finance, he last month debuted his own prosaically named magazine, American Affairs, at the Harvard Club in Midtown Manhattan — an odd setting for a publication that champions Trumpian populism and trafficks in Žižek and Hegel citations. A recent profile in Politico points out, Krein is “coincidentally” the same age that William Buckley was when he founded The National Review and set the tone for the mid-20th century conservative movement in America. But Krein is now seeking to distance himself from these conservatives past: “We hope not only to encourage a rethinking of the theoretical foundations of ‘conservatism’ but also to promote a broader realignment of American politics.”
Krein told the New York Times that he thinks “our politics, like Barthes’s wrestling, has become “a spectacle of excess which has no sense of time, and no logic of the future.” It’s a point that our final guest, Chris Hedges, struck way back in 2009, his book Empire of Illusion, in which he argued that”wrestling works from the popular and often unarguable assumption that those in authority are sleazy.” With the sleaziest authorities in our country now occupying the White House, the wrestling mat analysis may be more relevant than ever. The question is, who will win this round in the ring?
On Super Bowl weekend, we’ve lined up a couple of hall of fame political players who run outside Establishment lines to help us watch the game that’s unfolding so far in the Trump White House. Pat ...
On Super Bowl weekend, we’ve lined up a couple of hall of fame political players who run outside Establishment lines to help us watch the game that’s unfolding so far in the Trump White House. Pat Buchanan was the pit-bull strategist in Richard Nixon’s White House; he’s a Latin-Mass Catholic, a cultural conservative and America First nationalist who’s turned sharply anti-Empire, calmly post-Cold War with Russia and flat-out anti-war in the Middle East. Ralph Nader was Mr. Citizen as auto-safety crusader, then first among the relentless Raiders against corporate power, and a prickly third-party candidate in three presidential campaigns.
It was this left-right pair that practically called the game for Trump way back in August 2015. Both said that a man backed by his own billionaire funds and showbiz glam could run the ball all the way to the White House.
After the election, though, both men are turning their eyes to the man who may be quarterbacking the presidency: Steve Bannon.
Buchanan—a “paleoconservative” who coined the term “America First,” essentially drafting the Bannon playbook—now hopes that Trump doesn’t drop the ball after his executive order blitz. “Republicans have waited a long time for this,” Buchanan says. “[Trump] ought to keep moving on ahead, take the hits he’s gonna take.” If he keeps it up, Bannon might bring the political right “very close to a political revolution.”
Nader, as a green-tinted independent on the left, understands the enthusiasm that his longtime sparring partner has for Trumpism. Yet he also sees the contradictions and challenges Trump presents, not only for Buchanan’s vision of America, but also for Nader’s own: Both men share a strong, anti-corporate stance and are worried about the Goldman Sachs and Wall Street executives Trumped has packed his cabinet with. What Buchanan and Nader fear most is that a thin-skinned president, egged on by his hawkish advisors, could spark a war with Iran if provoked.
Strategically, Nader thinks the Republican team does have the chemistry they need to pull of their so-called political revolution: “You’re gonna get very very serious early-year conflicts here that are going to be very, very destabilizing,” he says. “Republicans on the hill they don’t know what the hell is coming.”
And everyone on the sidelines worries – if the Trump’s team fumbles, who will be there to pick up the ball?
Resolved in this New Year: read, and listen closely, to more poetry. This week, we’re starting with one of our favorite local poets, Stephen (or Steph) Burt. Burt, beyond his formal role as professor of ...
Resolved in this New Year: read, and listen closely, to more poetry.
This week, we’re starting with one of our favorite local poets, Stephen (or Steph) Burt.
Burt, beyond his formal role as professor of English at Harvard University, is a naturally omnivorous reader, listener, and watcher with eclectic taste from high culture to low.
His most recent book, The Poem is You: 60 contemporary American Poems and How to Read Them serves as a critical guide to this wild and wooly world of contemporary verse. Starting in the overlooked world of early 80s poetry, Burt’s sharp eyes and ears are a guide through this vast and varied landscape into our present moment. As he explained in our conversation, the book serves “an introduction not to one community and not even to one thing called contemporary American poetry that has one set of rules and one style and one sort of monument, but rather an introduction to several different overlapping kinds of practice and kinds of pleasure that come from poetry.”
This multiplicity of forms, in poems as well as in movies, TV, music, and even people, may be at the heart of Burt’s worldview. His main concern is that you shouldn’t learn to like every line in the modern canon, but that you should find and cherish the words that strike you:
“There are so many different ways of writing American poetry and so many different lines of descent — from Shakespeare, from Whitman, from Dickinson, from Longfellow and, if you like, from adjacent artforms from the Last Poets, from Willa Cather, if you like – that there’s just a lot out there, a lot that you might like if you have the right entrée to it.”
So for novice readers and seasoned poets and critics alike, let this conversation serve as its own entrée to something new: whether it comes from Joseph Massey or Angie Estes or Agha Shahid Ali. As our tour guide or DJ, Steph Burt samples a variety of poems that we hope will strike a chord with you.
Michael Lewis is the great tale-spinner in the Second Gilded Age in America. He’s part muckraker, but part Mark Twain, too, for finding classic characters as good as the King and the Duke in Huckleberry ...
Michael Lewis is the great tale-spinner in the Second Gilded Age in America. He’s part muckraker, but part Mark Twain, too, for finding classic characters as good as the King and the Duke in Huckleberry Finn on Wall Street today: the good, the bad, the geeky, the banks and traders making billions mostly in the dark.
Like a great novelist, Lewis writes the moral ecology of the story. Five years ago in The Big Short, after the meltdown of the subprime mortgage racket, the center of the story was a thick air of anger and doom – because near-autistic social misfits saw the problem, when the go-along greedy guys didn’t. Only the mentally strange acted, and they weren’t called heroes for being right.
Now Lewis has taken on another disease in the money system: Trading is a war of robots, a black box that almost none of the players get to see inside – too fast, too algorithmic, too fragmented, too automated, too layered for human understanding. He says the market at the heart of capitalism is still rigged and that it’s become a means of systematizing unfairness.
Meanwhile the eccentrics and iconoclasts are still not rewarded for their clear sight:
It’s a problem that people who speak truth to power get quickly classified as oddball rather than important. Maybe it’s always been that way. It’s a big problem in culture of elites, in the structure of institutions. On Wal Stret, elites have lack of sense of responsibility — or their responsibility is not to the larger society. They have responsibility to shareholders, to the bottom-line, to short-term results, etc. But there isn’t a sense of noblesse oblige. That got drained out of us, I think. They don’t have any sense that they’re lucky to be there. They think they deserved whatever they got.
This week we’re talking about roads, rails and powerlines — and the lives we live with them. Our Boston staff and radio listeners are mostly hearty New Englanders, but this winter of discontent has exposed all kinds ...
This week we’re talking about roads, rails and powerlines — and the lives we live with them. Our Boston staff and radio listeners are mostly hearty New Englanders, but this winter of discontent has exposed all kinds of shortcomings in the underpinnings of our great city.
The roads are a mess, and the MBTA won’t be up and running fully until one month after the last snow. We spoke to commuters on the Charles/MGH platform whose fingers are cold and nerves are shot — and they told us that the T had been mismanaged, the governor needed to step in, and that (finally) we all had to take responsibility for building a tougher, better transit system.
Meanwhile, Fred Salvucci and Gov. Michael Dukakis remind us that our hometown’s got a proud tradition of public transporation: from streetcars and smooth-roads legislation to the Tremont Street Subway, the oldest in North America. Boston is a pre-car city wondering how to become a post-car city — in time for the Olympics, if we’re lucky!
But we’re seeing here, as everywhere, how the big American building craze has gotten complicated. As infrastructure improvements shrink in the budgets and the keystone projects of the last century show their age: subways flood, bridges crumble, and highways fall apart. We’re not quite boosters for our own Olympics bid yet — but it would make for a real opportunity to futurize our 400-year-old hometown. And opportunities like that are hard to come by in an moment of debt, climate change and patching up potholes.
How did it get this way? How do we break a cycle of disappointment and decay? And if the state of American infrastructure is an index for the state of American civic life, what does it say when the train breaks down?
The Sound of the Subway
Our producer Conor Gillies spoke with Paul Matisse, grandson to the great painter and draughtsman, poignantly looking on to his installation, The Kendall Band. It’s a now-famous series of swingable chimes hanging between Red Line rails at the Kendall Square stop — and like other parts of the MBTA, it’s broken.
Peeking Over the Snowbanks
And, if you need something to look forward to, check out Pat Tomaino’s round-up of our favorite infrastructure ideas for a new century — from shovel-ready, to prototypes, to sci-fi. Which ones would get you buying infrastructure bonds?
Last week before our show on violent extremism, we were talking over a big week in media news. We don’t quite know what we’ll do without Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert; we never had much ...
Last week before our show on violent extremism, we were talking over a big week in media news. We don’t quite know what we’ll do without Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert; we never had much use for Brian Williams or the latest iteration of The New Republic, but Bob Simon was the real deal.
The dream guest to talk it through was David Carr, the New York Times legend and booster, who had come last fall to Boston University to teach budding journalists. Carr was honest but balanced, candid, self-conscious, and lively. And he managed to avoid the solipsism that comes with media on media. So we wrote David that afternoon, and of course discovered that night that we had lost him, too.
We spoke to some of Carr’s students this week, and discovered that he was almost utopian about the future of news media. The Carr line was that journalism is a joyful job — hardly ‘work’ —and that there were so many new ways to join the conversation. In the next century, he thought, more diverse groups of more people are going to tell more stories, and the New York Times will weather all the change. How could that be anything but good news?
But there are warning signs all over that big-paper model, evident recently around the war in Iraq. So this week, we’re hacking journalism in the shadow of David Carr. We’re calling reporters and others from all over who want to build a better media establishment: more comprehensive and inclusive, more credible, and less the captive of power when it counts.
(Our apologies for the audio problems on Chris Lehmann’s line — take it as proof that this journalism work is a kind of trapeze act, and that things, sometimes, go wrong.)
That “New Media” Sound
Venture capital flows into media startups, so we’re keeping our ears out for the sound of new journalism. Call it a “new media mashup” of the storytellers behind #storytelling—Amy O’Leary of the Times’ Innovation Report, Alex Blumberg of Gimlet, Jonah Peretti of Buzzfeed, and others.
Steve Brill is our guest. He’s an old-fashioned reporter at book length – out of the David Halberstam school. He’s taken apart the passage of Obamacare in an investigation he titled America’s Bitter Pill: Money, ...
Short form: It’s the story of a messy democracy awash in special-interest money trying to reform a messy health care system itself awash in money and private powers. The moral is every bit of the discontent; everything that’s wrong with Obamacare comes directly out of the way the bill was cooked. There were many steps in good directions, Steve Brill would tell you, but still our politics and our doctoring both need emergency care.
Among the Washington compromises and insurance-industry negotiations, we’re discussing a story that hits close to home here in Boston, too: that of the medical device industry. As Steve Brill says:
The medical device industry is one of the most profitable industries. Their profit margins are through the roof; the leading medical device company, Medtronic, has much higher profit margins even than Apple.
So part of the Obamacare law that made some sense was: they put an excise tax of 3% on all medical devices—all durable medical equipment, as they call it. Now the rationale was we’re about to give people who make pacemakers, and artificial hips, and artificial knees, and neurostimulators for your back that nobody really needs but everybody gets—we’re about to give them tens of millions of new customers. Let’s get a little bit of a tax on them. It’s an excise tax, which means it’s not just on domestic companies, it’s on foreign companies.
And the industry howled. They said: This is a jobs killer; this is a profit killer; it’s terrible. And it wasn’t just the Republicans. In Washington, when it comes to healthcare lobbying it is bipartisan.
The sainted Elizabeth Warren is trying to get that tax repealed. Al Franken is trying to get that tax repealed, as well as the Republicans. It’s the one bipartisan thing going on capitol hill—is let’s repeal the medical device tax—because their tentacles are so deep on capitol hill.
Now is it a jobs killer? Is it a profits killer? Let’s look at Medtronic. Since Obamacare was signed, Medtronic’s profit is up 67% and it’s added more than 5,000 people to the payroll. Doesn’t sound like a jobs killer; doesn’t sound like a profit killer. … Obamacare is a gravy train for these companies. The idea that a 3% tax has hurt them is hilarious, there’s just no evidence of it.
For the Delta to become the chief grower of the industrial world’s most important commodity – a kind of Saudi Arabia of the early 19th century – its land had to be taken from its ...
For the Delta to become the chief grower of the industrial world’s most important commodity – a kind of Saudi Arabia of the early 19th century – its land had to be taken from its original inhabitants; and labor, capital, knowledge, and state power had to be mobilized… Wealth, as viewed from the front porches of the lavish and elegantly furnished mansions in the Delta, appeared to flow out of the soil, the result of a strange alchemy that combined emptied lands, slave labor, and… the never-ending flow of European capital.
Sven Beckert at Harvard is the point man in a fascinating project to rethink Capitalism not as “dismal science” but as lively “biography.” His exhilarating Empire of Cotton — aptly called “remarkable and unsettling” — is a 250-year profile of a commodity that pre-dates the Industrial Revolution but came to model and drive the drastic growth of invention and productivity after, say, 1780.
The deeper we plow in Beckert’s history, the more we feel we’re watching the unfolding adventures of a complex and contradictory stage character, maybe two. Cotton itself – the fiber and “fabric of our lives” nowadays — has an ancient Asian pedigree. Until the middle of the 18th Century, it is almost a stranger in Europe, which dressed more in wool, flax and silk. And then quickly, the imperial expansion of Europe (England in the lead) captures (literally!) the labor of West Africa, the low-tech of Asia and the farm lands of Latin America, the Caribbean and the Mississippi Delta. And so a global colossus takes shape around a burst of European inventions that multiply the speed of spinning and weaving cotton by several hundred fold into the 19th century. And of course it thrives in North America.
The politics of Cotton Capitalism suffers a near-catastrophic breakdown in the US Civil War, yet cotton cultivation keeps growing without slavery – on the bargain price of many other kinds of captive labor in Egypt and India, for example, in the share-cropping American South and today in the fields of Kazakhstan and West Africa. Textile production gravitates back toward Asia, toward the “almost absurdly dangerous” and noisy factories of Bangladesh in the present day.
What we’re learning about our long-lived twin protagonists is that both cotton and capitalism are inventive and mobile; energetic to an extreme, resourceful, often predatory, opportunistic and instinctively global in their ambition and reach. They have radically increased human productivity and improved living standards in general. At the same time they have fattened on coercive, often violent exploitation and environmental devastation. They still do.
What Sven Beckert would ask us to remember as we order up our elegant Uniqlo T-shirts for embarrassingly few pennies is that “the global story of cotton is a story of great change… great tragedy… great courage… The world we live in today was created by people who’ve been enslaved for many generations – by taking the land of America’s native people… That legacy is still with us.”