An Interview With Roberto Unger on Why Progressives Need to Defeat Obama

In late June of this election year, a short YouTube video entitled “Beyond Obama” rocked the political media and blogosphere. In the eight-minute clip, a besuited and bespectacled man sits grasping the edge of his chair, as if his intensity would carry him away, and with the unwavering stare of a prophet unloads a radical critique of the American political system that ends with a call for the defeat of Obama and a progressive takeover of the Democratic Party. The message was delivered from the far left of the president, and the program espoused implies nothing short of a fundamental rethinking and reformulation of our social, political, and economic institutions. It is no wonder that both Democrats and Republicans were bewildered. What has been somewhat surprising, however, is the failure of progressives to engage with this imperative to drop the false hope of a lesser of two evils and develop a real progressive program that expands economic and educational opportunities to empower regular men and women.

The speaker was philosopher and Brazilian politician Roberto Mangabeira Unger. As the Roscoe Pound Professor of Law at Harvard University, Unger has tutored many of the American and world elite, including Barack Obama. He is the author of over two dozen books on social theory, legal thought, economic thought, political alternatives, and philosophy, in which he develops a profound theory of self and society that can only be likened to Hegel, Marx, and Weber—combined. Politically, Unger has long been at the forefront of the opposition movement in his native Brazil. He authored the founding manifesto of Brazil’s main opposition party in the 1980s, ran the presidential campaigns of Leonel Brizola and Ciro Gomes in the 1980s and 1990s, ran himself for president in 2000 and 2006, and from 2007 to 2009 served in the Lula cabinet as Secretary of Strategic Affairs, receiving a presidential medal of honor for his work on revamping the national defense strategy.

At the heart of Unger’s thought and activity is the conviction that the world is made and imagined. There are no natural social, political, or economic arrangements upon which our individual or social behavior must be based. Property rights, liberal democracy, wage labor—these are all historical artifacts that have no necessary relation to the goals of free and prosperous human activity. In fact, for Unger, only by seizing the ideals of social, political, and economic activity and freeing them from their institutional chains can the full extent of human potential be released and, as he puts it, “make us more god-like.” The market, the state, and human social organization should not be confined to certain rigid and predetermined institutional arrangements but needs to be left open to experimentation and revision according to what works for the project of the empowerment of humanity.

I spoke with Professor Unger in his Cambridge office on June 27. What his proposed program means in political terms—and how exactly to bring it about—was the subject of our conversation.


One of the interesting things to observe in the eruption of debate over your “Beyond Obama” video was the disagreement about the problems we face today, not to mention the solutions. This extended from local commentators to figures in the two major political parties, all of whom threw out ideas about special interests, about congressional deadlock, about tax cuts, and so forth. But all this is bickering about the top line while leaving the bottom line untouched. In your estimation, what are the major problems that we face today?

Over the past two centuries, a certain ideology has aroused the idea that the ordinary man and woman need not just be a cog in the machine in this grinding system of entrenched social division and hierarchy. That he can rise to a higher life. But that is not how the world is organized today. There is a systematic compression, a humiliation, a sterilization of all of this human potential. Seven aspects of this problem accentuate the failing of the promise to raise humanity up to a higher level of capability and of experience.

One aspect of this problem is that all contemporary societies remain classicized, including the most egalitarian European social democracies. They are based on the division of society into classes that are reproduced with the differential transmission of wealth and educational opportunity by the family. Social mobility is limited, and a person’s life span is shaped by the accident of their birth.

A second aspect is that a vast majority of people in the world remain consigned to economically dependent or oppressive wage labor and condemned to do repetitious work that could in principle be done by a machine.

A third aspect is that as science and technology relentlessly evolve and help form revolutionary methods of production and of learning, they are relatively isolated from the rest of society and the economy. The division between the vanguard and rearguard has become a new source of inequality and exclusion.

A fourth aspect of this problem is the immense trouble and threat created by finance. Under current arrangements, the vast amount of the savings of society that is concentrated in the banks and the stock markets is spent in trading activity that has only an oblique or episodic relation to production. The production system is largely self-financed by the savings of large firms—and finance, rather than being a good servant, becomes a bad master.

The fifth aspect of the problem is the reorganization of labor. The whole form of protection, representation, and organization of labor that developed in the world from the mid-nineteenth century to the mid-twentieth century was based on the concentration of large numbers of workers in large productive units under the aegis of large corporate entities. Labor is increasingly being reorganized on a worldwide basis around decentralized contractual relationships, such as offshoring. The result is economic insecurity and the weakening of labor in relation to capital.

The sixth aspect is education. Take the United States. There are two different educational worlds. There is the world of top private schools, which teach people the doctrines of John Dewey in analytical problem solving, and there are the rest, which offer a kind of vast babysitting, in which people are abandoned and not equipped to rethink the dominant ideas in their situation.

A seventh problem is that all democracies of the world are relative and weak democracies. They are organized in a way that makes change depend on crisis. The general rule is “no crisis, no change.” The practical result is that democracy is impotent to alter basic institutional arrangements and class structures, except in the cases of extreme crisis.

These problems you have just laid out are problems that every society and country in the world faces today. Is there a more specific situation in the United States? 

The United States is an extreme case of this universal problem because no country is more of a cauldron of vitality and ingenuity. The American political religion continues to be the religion of the constructive genius of ordinary men and women associated with the idea that everything is possible. But what has happened in the United States is that Americans have exempted their institutions from the experimentalist impulse that is otherwise so vital in American culture. Thinkers from Jefferson to Dewey, who were in rebellion to this exemption, have failed to persuade their fellow Americans to lift this exemption and subject institutions to democratic experimentation in the service of these higher ideals.


How do the current politics fail to address these issues? 

Progressives in the world, and in the United States especially, do not contribute to the objective of social and inclusive economic growth. They do not work for a form of national development based on a sustained broadening of educational and economic opportunities. Instead they accept the present arrangements and seek to humanize them through compensatory redistribution, that is entitlement programs. Thus, the progressives become the humanizers of the supposedly inevitable. They don’t have a program. Their program is the program of their conservative adversaries with a humanizing face. The practical result is that the talents and the energies of the vast majority of ordinary men and women are squandered.

This is not simply a problem about how resources are allocated by the government. It is a problem about the way things are organized. Thus my focus falls on institutional reimagination and institutional reconstruction.

Has not the Democratic Party attempted to address these issues?

The Democratic Party, at least since the time of Lyndon Johnson, has failed to propose to the American people a program that would be responsive to the needs and aspirations of the broad working class of the country—a program of education and economic opportunity, of equipping the vast vitality and dynamism of the American people by innovating in policies and in institutions.

To be clear, the Republican Party and the Republican candidate are much worse than their Democratic equivalents in every respect and in all the dimensions that we have been discussing. However, all the Democratic Party has offered, at least since the presidency of Johnson, is a sugarcoating, a dilution, a humanization of the Republican program. It has allowed conservatives to exercise power in the United States by combining concessions to the material interests of the moneyed classes with concessions to the moral anxieties of the moneyless classes.


Here you have outlined a set of dire problems. Similarly, in the “Beyond Obama” video, you issue a devastating critique of the American political system, ending with a call to defeat Obama in November. You offer more than critique, however, and in many places you have articulated at great length a program. In the context of the American political situation today, what should the progressive do? 

The most important task is to form a vision of the national future. What matters most in a programmatic statement is to mark a direction and then to define the first steps to move in that direction. The first task of the progressives is to have such a vision.

The second task is to form movements and to ensure that some of these movements engage what has been the chief instrument of progressive politics in the United States, the Democratic Party. The movement should be to form a position within the Democratic Party, to seek power within the Democratic Party, and to change the course of the Democratic Party.

You go quite far in laying out such a vision for the United States in chapter nine of your book The Left Alternative. Can you expand upon this for the current situation in light of the problems we now face? 

There are six families of initiatives to address the problems at hand:

1. Production. Propagate through large sectors of the economy and society the advanced practices of production that now flourish in relatively isolated productive vanguards, like Silicon Valley. The vast majority of the American economy is locked out of those advanced practices. It can only have access through the development of a form of coordination between government and firms that is decentralized, pluralistic, participatory, and experimental. State governors are beginning to experiment with such initiatives, not just the Democratic governors but the Republican governors as well.

2. Finance. Enlist finance in the service of the real economy. Finance should serve the real economy rather than being allowed to serve itself. For example, institute tax and regulatory changes that encourage speculative finance that has a direct relation to the enhancement of productivity and the expansion of output. At the same time, discourage speculative finance that does not.

3. Labor and its relation to capital. Increasingly, in the United States and throughout the world, labor is being organized in decentralized networks of contractual relationships. The question is, will this mean general economic insecurity? We need to develop a form of legal protection, organization, and representation for labor performed under these conditions and do so always with a view of the long-term objectives—the twin long-term objectives of the realization of self-employment and cooperation and the construction of a world in which people are not condemned to do the formulaic and repetitious work that can be done by machines but rather the time of our lives is reserved to develop that which we do not yet know how to repeat.

4. Taxation. Understand that what matters in taxation in the short term is the aggregate level of the tax take. The country needs to increase its tax base but do so through a neutral tax that mitigates the effects of high taxation on economic incentives. Use this capital to invest in people.

5. Education. There are two great priorities in education. The first is to overcome the dualism between the two worlds of education that exist in the United States: the Deweyian world of analytic and problem-solving education in the private schools and top-tier public schools and the regressive educational Fordism, the superficial information-orientated, encyclopedic learning, and the social control that prevails in the public schools. To develop a form of education that is analytic rather than informational in its focus, that introduces information selectively as a device for the acquisition of analytic capabilities, that favors cooperation in teaching and learning over the combination of individualism and authoritarianism, and that approaches every subject from contrasting points of view. Furthermore, in the secondary schools, to create a continuum between technical and general education—a form of technical education that is focused on generic capabilities rather than on job-specific and machine-specific skills and a form of general education that is focused on dialectical and analytic learning rather than on the encyclopedia.

The second priority is to reconcile the local management of schools with national standards. This requires not only a national form of assessment and a mechanism to redistribute resources from richer places to poorer places but also a procedure for corrective intervention to take over local failing school systems, fix them, and return them fixed.

6. The organization of politics. Here is something very difficult in the United States, and difficult in part because of the extreme case of the exemption that the Americans give to their institutions from the reach of the experimentalist impulse. What we should desire is a high-energy democracy that increases the level of organized public engagement in politics, creates a mechanism to rapidly overcome impasse between the branches of government, exploits the capacities of the federal system to create countermodels of the future in particular localities or sectors, and enriches representative democracy with features of direct democracy, especially at the local level.

On this last point, you have painted the horizon, but what is the point of departure? 

The point of departure is to sever the link between politics and money—to take politics out of the corrupting shadow of money. If there are legal and constitutional obstacles to the restraint of the use of private money in politics, this influence of private money can be greatly diminished by increasing the public funding of political activity and extending the access of political parties and social movements to the means of mass communication. There is no reason why political parties and organized social movements should not be able to get free media time on the broadcast networks.

These six sets of initiatives you outline appear to be the rudiments of a progressive program with a structural content. Nothing like this exists in the United States . . . 

The Democratic Party has defined itself ever since the late 1960s by the absence of such a program. It has thus allowed the political initiative in the country to be seized by its conservative adversaries. Its whole posture has been to propose to the American people a softer and more humane version of the project of its conservative adversaries.

How will the defeat of Obama help realize and implement such a program? 

The defeat of Obama is not a sufficient condition for this change, but it is a necessary condition. It is a condition that is admittedly attended by significant risks, such as the loss of judicial and administrative appointments, but it is the indispensable preliminary to the struggle over the Democratic Party—and more generally over the progressive vision. Otherwise, the United States and the progressives in the country are going to continue indefinitely in the situation in which they find themselves: they come to power, they delegate the formulation of policy to people who are entirely pliant to the interests of the financial plutocracy, they persist in this worldwide military adventurism, and then all progressives have to be silent and play along with them for fear that were it not for them things would be even worse. This is the bargain progressives have made. What I am arguing is that this bargain puts the progressives and the American people in an impossible situation.

Impossible the situation may be, but it is almost a gamble to revoke our political support for Obama.

The decisive issue is whether the Democratic Party and its candidate for the presidency will stand for an alternative. There is no prospect of a vital contest over the redirection of the party so long as it remains in the presidency, bereft of a structural vision or of a transformative impulse. Such a contest is much more likely to occur in the sequel to a loss of the presidency, as American political history has repeatedly confirmed.

This is really a question of whether progressives should continue to resign themselves to the lesser evil or to forge a new path altogether. 

For progressives to continue having as their program the humanization of the program of their conservative adversaries—while justifying their abdication as realism—is to concede and to ensure defeat before the fight has even begun. There has been no attempt to develop a program of institutional innovation responsive to the interests and aspirations of the broad working-class majority of the country. The Democratic Party has continued to rely on a modicum of regulation and compensatory redistribution through tax-and-transfer as a substitute for any structural vision, and it hopes that the courts and the bureaucracy will make up for the failures of democratic politics.

If I believed that the paths taken by the Democratic and the Republican parties in power, with regard to either domestic or foreign policy, were fundamentally different, my conclusion would be different. The issue therefore is not political purity, the handwashing of Pontius Pilate. It is, on the contrary, the willingness to confront, unflinchingly and without illusion, the tragic character of political choice while sustaining a much higher level of hope than American progressives have generally been willing to allow themselves.

It is thus important to have a comprehensive vision of what we want and a developed program on how to get there. Otherwise we find ourselves chasing after immediate gains, such as health care, or fighting against repeals, such as labor laws. 

I do not dispute that differences between the parties about issues such as health care are real and important. I do deny that they are as important as success or failure in the formulation and advancement of a program to democratize the market economy and to deepen democracy in the United States. And I do not believe in change without cost and without struggle.

One of the assumptions of my view is that the United States is not a country condemned by its history and culture to a permanent antipathy to such an impulse. The Democratic Party and its presidents have consistently failed to develop a successor to Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal—Johnson’s presidency was the last attempt, and a compromised one at that. They have pursued no consequential project for the sustained broadening of economic and educational opportunity. Instead, they have placed at the center of the national agenda a series of initiatives and commitments that offend the sensibilities of a large part of the country and inhibit the emergence of a transracial progressive majority. As a result, they have allowed their conservative adversaries to win and hold power by combining material concessions to the moneyed interests with immaterial, symbolic concessions to the moneyless majority. To end this situation, it is necessary to have ideas, to take action, and to stop taking the defense of the lesser evil to be the whole point of progressive politics.

Another assumption of my view is that a major transformation can take place, indeed, must take place, by small, cumulative steps. Change that is structural in its outcome can nevertheless be experimental and fragmentary in its method. As always in programmatic argument and transformative practice, what matters is to mark a direction and to envisage, in the circumstance, the first steps.


What is a progressive in your view?

The thesis that defines what a progressive is today is the ideal that extending the powers and intensifying the experience of ordinary humanity is combined with a disposition to change the institutional background of society—the structure—in the service of this ideal. Someone whose position is simply the humanization of the present structure through a combination of administrative and judicial action is not a progressive. Unfortunately, this latter view is the view that is in charge in the Democratic Party and throughout the country and will continue to be in charge until there is a shakeup.

So the difference here is one of commitment to institutional transformation? 

What typically defines the leftist position is a combination of a theoretical egalitarianism with an institutional or structural conservatism or resignation. Leftists say that what defines them is their commitment to greater equality, but at the same time they accept the present framework of political and economic institutions. How is it this egalitarianism can coexist with an acceptance of present structures? The practical significance is that egalitarianism means the attenuation of inequality and exclusion through the compensatory redistribution of tax and transfer.

What are the end goals of all of this? What can we hope for?

Look at what was common to the liberals and socialists of the nineteenth century. They never thought the supreme objective was equality; rather it was the ascent of humanity—of ordinary humanity—to a higher plane of life, a higher plane of capability, of experience, and of scope. The struggle against entrenched inequality was always understood as accessory to the larger objective. The aim was never the humanization of society, it was the divinization of humanity—the increase of our share in what we ascribe to the divine. The means by which to achieve that objective is a cumulative institutional reshaping of society, especially of the institutions that define the market economy and democracy.


What prevents the implementation and realization of this program? 

What prevents the advance of the proposals I just laid out is the combination of interests with superstitions. In the present debate, every alternative is tarred with suspicion of being the advance of the state over individual freedoms. For example, I propose an alternative form of organizing the market economy. Then someone will say that it is not really an alternative form of organizing the market economy but only a way of subordinating the market economy to the state. In other words, under the established ideological vision, the existing organization of the market is represented as somehow natural, and any attempt to reorganize the market in service of inclusion and empowerment is then misrepresented as a statist intervention in the market. The chief obstacle, then, to the progress of such alternatives is the association of material interests with this discourse, with this conceptual world that has no place for such alternatives.

One way of understanding what you have said today is that there needs to be a three-pronged approach to realizing the remaking of American politics: infiltration of the Democratic Party, a continued pressure and discourse among activists, and the development of insight, ideas, and institutional alternatives. Two interrelated problems have been present in moving in this direction however: the lack of a program and the lack of a directed movement. The Occupy Movement offered a focal point that had potential to do this. Does it still? Does the Occupy Movement still have capital that it can invest in the realization of such a program?

My impression from afar is that it is in search of such a program. In fact, a great deal that is happening in the United States today suggests that there is a search for such a program. There is no country in the world that is better placed to address these problems than the United States. There is no country in the world with greater vitality and energy, where the majority of ordinary men and women continue to believe that anything is possible and that we can become more human by becoming more godlike.

Macabe Keliher is a PhD Candidate in History and East Asian Languages at Harvard University.

This interview was originally published by Possible Futures, a production of the Social Science Research Council.