Roberto Unger against root causes

I am co-teaching the Summer Institute of Civic Studies and blogging about roughly half of the 18 topics on our syllabus. One of our topics yesterday was the work of Roberto Mangabeira Unger, the former Brazilian cabinet member and Harvard law professor (see my summary from 2010).

Here is a little fable (mine, not Unger’s) that illustrates how his theoretical position relates to everyday civic efforts:

A group of middle class students has volunteered to serve meals at a homeless shelter. They love the experience. During the reflection session later, one remarks, “Serving the homeless was so great! I hope that shelter will still be open in 50 years, so my grandchildren can serve.”

A progressive educator cries, “No! Our goal must be to end homelessness. You need to think about root causes, not just serve free food once a week. What are the fundamental causes of homelessness?” Chastened, the students do serious research and determine that homelessness results from poverty, which, in turn, is a byproduct of late capitalism.

They are trying to figure out what to do about capitalism when Roberto Mangabeira Unger happens to walk by. “No!” cries Unger. “You are assuming that the link between poverty and homelessness is natural or inevitable. You have seen patterns in our limited experience and have derived ‘lawlike tendencies or deep-seated economic, organizational, and psychological constraints’ from the data; these now limit your imaginations. We human beings have made the social world and we can change any part of it–not only the parts that you have identified as deep structures, but also any of the other elements or links.

“Your ‘confining assumptions … impoverish [your] sense of the alternative concrete institutional forms democracies and markets can take.’ By focusing on the biggest and most intractable factors, you guarantee defeat, whereas any part of the picture could be changed. It would be possible to have a capitalist society with poverty but no shortage of homes. What if we got rid of all zoning rules and rent control but gave everyone a voucher for rent? What if public buildings were retrofitted to allow people to sleep comfortably in them at night? What if some houses were shared, like ZipCars, and homeless people occupied the temporarily empty ones? What if …?

The readings were:

About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.
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  • Neocles Leontis

    great story!