Roberto Mangabeira Unger: Social theorist/politician

(I have been working on this for a while for my studies, but seeing as Minister Trevor Manuel is quoting Roberto Mangabeira Unger in the 2008/09 budget, I thought it appropriate to get this blog done, even though I still need to think about this much more.)

And what we seek, then, as the final reward of our efforts, is not serenity but this enlargement of ourselves, not benevolence but love, or at least the possibility of love among equals.

These words are from Roberto Mangabeira Unger to describe the end point of his political project. No longer a Harvard professor, he was appointed to think about the future of Brazil as head of the long-term planning secretariat in the Brazilian government. The Financial Times describes his title as “Extraordinary Minister for Strategic Affairs”. Basically, he is tasked as a Cabinet minister with developing a long-term vision for Brazil.

Love among equals — or the possibility thereof — as a desired outcome is romantic, and certainly not an outcome to be associated with many politicians.

Unger’s colleague at Harvard, Professor Dani Rodrik, describes him thus:

It seems like stuff out of a dream. My Harvard Law School colleague Roberto Mangabeira Unger, at once the most erudite and impenetrable man I know, has just been appointed a minister by President Lula in Brazil. Roberto will be heading a new ministry called, improbably, “the special secretariat for long-term actions”. His task: to draw out a long-term strategy for Brazilian government and society.

Having read post-Marxist literature, I must disagree. (Looks around to find a dictionary of deconstruction, just in case.) Unger provides an accessible read and speaks to my experiences. But what is Unger arguing? Of course, what follows is not an exposition, a summary or even a critical reflection on Unger’s work. It is simply about getting these ideas down on paper at this stage, because I have to think about them. He takes key theoretical and practical challenges forward.

  • History is not on our side: One reading of the Marxist text is that it is too focused on the inevitability of social change that is egalitarian; in theoretical speak, the “teleological closure of history”, or something like that. Unger is doubtful about this inevitability, and instead argues that agency — especially government — is needed to ensure that cycles of exclusion and poverty are broken.
  • The work of crises: Despite democracy, it does not mean that social crises are resolved. Yet, what is required is to do the work of a crisis, without a crisis. For instance, the biggest redistributive schemes in history have been the results of war. Unger challenges us to think about the possibilities of social change based on a widening of democracy and shifts in power that makes responding to a social crisis possible.
  • The market: He argues that imagining a new set of market mechanisms could expand opportunities and thus provide opportunities to excluded households and people. In turn, the market holds possibilities for social change. There is also a heavy dose of reality. In a 2001 interview, he speaks of the market in the following way:
    The market economy has no inherent form. Contrary to what the conservatives think, the market does not have a natural and necessary form. The market can be reinvented, it can be redesigned — it can be either more concentrated or more participatory. We cannot solve the crucial problems of the informal economy by imitating the forms that the market now takes in the rich countries. We must have a different kind of market economy — one based on a decentralised alliance between the little guy and the government. Today, the world over, the progressives generally have no programme — their programme is the programme of their conservative adversaries with a 10% discount. My main effort in debates throughout the world has been to demonstrate that there is a sequence of institutional changes that allow us to do something more than put a human face on the globalised market — that allow us to actually reorganise our societies.

Cornel West, in his usual brilliant way, describes Unger’s project as “Third World left romanticism”. West makes a very specific criticism: Unger is trapped in Eurocentric and patriarchal discourse, because he does not engage with questions of mobilisation and organisation. West, however, still praises Unger’s work as advanced beyond much social theory, and that it offers a way to imagine transformation.

Unger starts with a criticism of left programmes as being minimal — focused on extending grants via social democracy, or focusing on policy technicalities of improving distributional outcomes. (He has criticism for every philosophical/ social/political project imaginable, but his project is about imagining a new radical left project). He asks that the left imagine something more radical, more transformative and more sustainable. For instance, he calls social democracy “capitalism with a discount”.

In doing so, we need to imagine revolutions unlike the ones we have experienced. In his words, doing the work of crises, without the crises. By this he means that periods of great changes in society occur after a crisis. Unger asks us to accept the possibility that great structural changes can occur (the work of crises) without needing crises. Is that not the question we raise when we argue — to use unfashionable Marxist parlance — that democracy provides a shell in which to transform apartheid material conditions?

Part of the reason this is vitally important is that Marxist theory is strongest about creating a revolution. But what happens after the revolution is not fully theorised, especially since Third World revolutions almost always involve a strong nationalist party that is both multiclass and patriarchal — in a broad brush-stroke sort of way. The point is that the simple polarisation in the Marxist model on the basis of class fails to take into account a multiplicity of identities. Gramsci — as the most political of Marxists — of course offers much. Unger is explicitly political, and thus continues a strand of thought focused on practicalities of social change through emancipatory theory.

Unger is, however, at his most daring when he argues that we need “democratic experimentalism”. Through what he calls a high-energy democracy project, he envisages a new citizen. While not explicit in his work, it must imply significant changes to the power structure. The high-energy democracy project sits together with:

  • the universal empowerment project;
  • the socially inclusive innovations project;
  • the embodied solidarity project; and
  • the high-energy democracy project.

This link will take you to the lecture, as I will not go through these projects individually.

But what is at play is nothing short of the reclaiming of social theory for emancipatory ends. Post-Marxism, post-development, post-structuralist (or is it postmarxism, postdevelopment, poststructuralism?) have had one major impact: depressing the imagination of the possible, often under the ruse of making marginal voices heard. There are, of course, exceptions. I, for instance, like Laclau and Mouffe, James Ferguson and others. But there is often critique without a project. And most importantly, social theory has in my view been hijacked by the tyranny of linguistic gymnastics. Floating signifiers, float into signposts, silences, deconstruction, discourse — all very boring but, more importantly, also disempowering.

On a different track, there have been the strong battles to “bring inequality back”. It is amazing that development economics has taken more than 50 years to recognise that inequality is not good for growth. In other words, that more equal societies foster higher growth rates. In winning these debates, perhaps tackling inequality has become defined in an instrumental sense (it is good for growth), and not in its ethical sense. Unger does not directly speak to development economics at all, but drawing on the pragmatism of Dewey, he argues for a significant upscaling of the role of the state, but with a very complex formulation of the market.

In the broader literature on left strategy, it exceeds in my opinion the work by, for instance, Laclau and Mouffe, precisely because it speaks not to a short-term tactical response to a new right agenda, but rather to a systemic change in society — a strategic reorientation. It also offers what the anti-globalisation writers like Klein and, in our context, Patrick Bond do not. He simply goes beyond talk left, walk right — and instead asks for a re-examination of the end goals, and the challenge to imagine it.

To both the strands of Marxism and “left development economics”, he argues that at play is the very meaning of development. Here is Unger on development:

There is a widespread desire in Brazil to change the model of development. Traditionally, development has been led by the advanced and international sectors of the economy, which have generated wealth, and this has been distributed through transfer programmes. Now the country wants more; it wants development based on the broadening of educational and economic opportunity. So broadening of opportunity becomes the driver of growth. The world changes through a combination of initiative and message. There have to be concrete actions that are a down payment on an alternative future. It is this combination of initiative and message that changes the world.

The message is one of “experimentalism” and widening and deepening of democratic practices. No self-proclaimed stages of revolution, or an inevitable revolutionary end — rather, the end is unclear in terms of a specified outcome, but the values that guide experimentation are explicitly so. It is for this reason that I think many materialists will not like Unger — he is too focused on process.

So we have an imagination of the possible — kinda dreamy, romantic, possibly not embedded in a real-world context. And Unger being a politician in such a senior position looks frankly weird — at first glance. I have great difficulty imagining any social theorist cutting it in the cut-throat world of politics.

More difficult to imagine is that Unger was once a political opponent to Lula, the Brazilian president. Perhaps, most remarkable to imagine is that Brazil as a country has established a process that seeks to imagine a long-term planning focused on bringing opportunity to all its people. India has done the same, with an equally interesting character, Montek Ahluwalia, at the helm of its Planning Commission, but he comes from a completely different perspective than Unger. Ahluwalia blusters on about markets, but the new five-year plan in India represents some significant thinking and action on “inclusive growth”.

Fortunately, the social theorist is communicating as a politician. In a recent interview with the Financial Times and in one with the New York Times he outlines his view of changes in Brazil.

I understand Unger to be saying three important things.

First, that real and substantive alternatives can be crafted, but must take account of the contextual settings.

Second, redistribution without “institutional reorganisation” is unsustainable.

Third, that providing opportunity is key.

Again, the article is worth reading. It provides a start to imagining the Brazilian government projects in concrete terms.

I cannot help but wonder if Unger will be successful. He will need to build support across the organised tendencies in the PT — which from Johannesburg looks very complicated. He will need to convince President Lula, who in turn needs to convince unions, business and other interest groups. But, mostly, he will cease to be a public intellectual. In Latin America, there is a much stronger tradition of intellectuals moving between politics and academia, so perhaps from a South African lens imagining such an appointment is surprising simply because of our context.

Unger has proven an astute politician; for instance, removing articles critical of Lula from his website. Apparently he is shaking up the independent economic advisory services that are linked to the Brazilian government by bringing in new people. He has been criticised for both actions, which would be normal for a politician but not for a public intellectual. Gaining a public representative like Unger might mean losing him as a public intellectual.

If there is a lesson for South Africa, it is that long-term planning is needed to reorganise society so that we deliberately craft opportunities for the poor. South Africa does not have any such process of long-term planning. Brazil has a prospect for change, not because Unger has been appointed, but because the government has adopted a long-term perspective. It is just a prospect for Brazil, but it is a prospect that we do not yet have in South Africa.

At a theoretical level, we can knock huge holes in Unger’s theory. A project so vast cannot be without significant weaknesses. It is at a personal level for me that social theory has become interesting, valuable and useful. Just in time … Let us think about doing the work of crises by attacking the social crises of poverty, unemployment and inequality.

Links This a good web source Roberto Mangabeira Unger’s official Harvard page

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