Progressive alternatives

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LAW - 2391



Roberto Mangabeira Unger

Areeda 226

Telephone: 617-495-3156


Office Hours: Fridays 2:00pm-4:00pm

Faculty Assistant: Kevin Doyle, 617-496-1764,
An exploration of the past and future agenda of progressives, whether self-described as liberals or as leftists. What should they propose, now that they no longer believe in the usefulness of governmental direction of the economy or in the sufficiency of redistributive social programs? A basic concern is the relation of programmatic thought to the understanding of change and constraint.

The course will draw on many disciplines and consider examples from many settings. It will try to develop ways of thinking as well as proposals for change. Readings from classic and contemporary social and political theory.

Extended take-home examination. Jointly offered by the Law School and FAS.READING ASSIGNMENTS
The assigned readings equip students to engage the argument of the course. They also help provide common ground for discussion in class and in section.

Six books are assigned. Five of the books are available at the central Harvard Coop, as well as on Amazon.

Norberto Bobbio

Left and Right: The Significance of a Political Distinction

University of Chicago Press

Roberto Mangabeira Unger

The Left Alternative

Roberto Mangabeira Unger

Democracy Realized: The Progressive Alternative

Roberto Mangabeira Unger

False Necessity

The sixth book, Roberto Mangabeira Unger and Cornel West The Future of American Progressivism, is accessible on the course website.

In addition to these books, a number of brief texts will be assigned and placed on the course website. You should consult the website regularly.

There is usually no one-to-one relation between these reading assignments and particular classes. Nevertheless, the readings are indispensable instruments for engagement with the argument of the course.

You should undertake the readings in three stages.
By February 11:

Read all the texts collected on the course website under the heading “Readings on social democracy and varieties of capitalism.”

Read as well “Deep Freedom,” Chapter 6 of The Religion of the Future (course website) and Norberto Bobbio, Left and Right: The Significance of a Political Distinction.

This first set of readings is designed to introduce you to the agenda of the course. It does so by focusing on ideas and experiences that have occupied center stage in the politics of contemporary societies

By March 11:

Read the following texts in the assigned books.

This second set of readings addresses programmatic and social-theoretical themes that test and overstep the limits of the discourse of contemporary progressive politics.
RMU, The Left Alternative
RMU, Democracy Realized: The Progressive Alternative, pp. 263-277
RMU and Cornel West, The Future of American Progressivism (also especially pertinent to the class of April 4) (course website)
By April 15:

The last set of readings, drawn from two of the assigned books, deepens the programmatic and social-theoretical conceptions that we shall have explored in the course.

RMU, Democracy Realized: The Progressive Alternative

(with the exception of the passage already assigned for the second set of readings)

RMU, False Necessity, Introduction to the new edition and pp. 1-40, 172-230, 246-331, 341-395, 441-508, 570-603.


During the semester undergraduates will write two brief papers. The first paper will be due in class on February 25. The second paper will be due in class on April 1.

Each of these papers, on topics to be set, will respond to a major problem or idea discussed in the course up to that time. Each will be between 6 and 10 double-spaced pages long. Each will count for 20% of the final grade.

In lieu of a final examination, all students will write an extended take-home examination. This final paper or examination will provide them with an occasion to respond to a central aspect of the argument of the course. It should have a minimum of 15 and a maximum of 20 double-spaced pages. The topic or topics will be described in class on April 1. The final examination paper will be due by 4 p.m. on April 30 (no extensions). It will count for 50% of the final grade for undergraduates. 10% of the final grade for undergraduates will be attributed to participation in section.

The grade for all graduate students, including law students, will be based entirely on their final take-home examination, which will be for them the only writing requirement in the course.

January 28: The dictatorship of no alternatives.

-- The nature of the progressive cause.

-- Its situation in the contemporary world: why and in what sense progressives and leftists have ceased to have a program.

-- The limited repertory of institutional options in the world today.

-- Reasons for the disorientation of the progressives.

-- The distinction between Right and Left reinterpreted.

February 4: Social democracy.

-- Social democracy as the default position of the progressives.

-- Relation of social democracy to neoliberalism.

-- Nature and origins of the social-democratic compromise in the twentieth century. The Scandinavian example.

-- Achievements of social democracy.

-- Inadequacy of social democracy.

-- The class structure of the contemporary societies and the agenda of social democracy.
February 11: General character of a progressive direction today.

-- Local and universal alternatives.

-- The major sets of initiatives and ideas that would give content to an alternative of worldwide significance.

-- The issue of normative authority.

-- The issue of political realism.
February 18: Structural constraint and transformative opportunity in the history of social theory

-- Deep structure social theory (exemplified by Marxism). The insight into the made character of social life: we made the structures. The combination of functional explanation with the deep-structure assumptions: a closed list of institutional systems, each system indivisible, laws of historical change.

-- Practical consequences of the necessitarian assumptions. Contrast between reformist and revolutionary politics. Idea of the objectivity of class and other group interests.

-- The repudiation of classical social theory and the prevalence of rationalizing, humanizing, and escapist tendencies across the whole field of social and historical studies.

-- The recovery of the idea that we make the structures, freed from the necessitarian premises.

-- The practice of programmatic argument.

February 25: A normative ideal.

-- Contrast of the position of the positions of the nineteenth-century liberals and socialists with their contemporary successors.

-- Deep and shallow equality. Deep and shallow freedom.

-- The progressive position reinterpreted as a commitment to deep freedom.

-- Secured through change of both institutions and consciousness.

-- The conception of human nature informing this view.

March 4: Democratizing the market economy.

-- The democratization of the market economy. Contrast to regulation and compensatory redistribution.

-- The premise of the institutional indeterminacy of the idea of the market.

-- Long-term goals. People and machines. Wage labor and the higher forms of free labor.

-- The road there. Alternatives in the relation among economic agents. Alternatives in the relation between governments and firms.

-- Reshaping the relation between finance and the real economy.

--The transition beyond mass production as an opportunity. The socially inclusive form of the "new economy."
March 11: Deepening democracy.

-- Low-energy democracy and their failure to master the established structure of society. Change dependent on crisis.

-- The aims of transformation. Change in the meaning and scope of democracy.

-- The institutional changes required for the advancement of a high-energy democracy.

-- The nature of political life resulting from such institutional changes.
March 25: Educating the individual and facilitating the self-organization of civil society.

-- Civil society and social cohesion. Beyond money transfers as the sole basis of solidarity.

-- Civil society and the provision of public services.

-- Aims of education in a democracy.

-- The most important educational initiatives.

-- The transformation of consciousness.

-- Democracy and religion.
April 1: The United States.

-- The cumulative inequalities of the second half of the twentieth century.

-- Race and class. Contrasting moral agendas.

-- The position of the American progressives and its weaknesses.

-- The content of a program responsive to the needs and aspirations of a working-class majority.

-- The path to the development of a progressive position in American politics.

April 8: Europe.

-- The nature and limits of European social democracy.

-- The development of the European Union: its achievements and failures.

-- Beyond institutionally conservative social democracy: the institutional initiatives.

-- The transformative impulse, the prophetic voice, and the culture of disillusionment.
April 15: The BRIC countries and the world.

-- The examples of China and Brazil.

-- The insufficiency of the combination of neoliberalism, state capitalism, and compensatory social democracy in the BRIC countries.

-- The institutional organization of socially inclusive economic growth.

-- Relation of such national alternatives to the present global political and economic order (especially the world trade regime). Alternative globalizations.
April 22: The progressive cause reconsidered.

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