the visionary fire of Roberto Mangabeira Unger

We are deep into our annual Summer Institute of Civic Studies, with as much as six-and-a-half-hours of class and many hundreds of pages of reading each day. The most blogging I can manage will be less-than-daily notes about the texts we discuss. Today, one important text is Roberto Mangabeira Unger’s False Necessity: Anti-Necessitarian Social Theory in the Service of Radical Democracy. (Unger is a Harvard Law Professor and cabinet member in his home country of Brazil.)

Unger takes “to its ultimate conclusion” the thesis “that society is an artifact” (p. 2). All our institutions, mores, habits, and incentives are things that we imagine and make. We can change each of these things, “if not all at once, then piece by piece” (p. 4). When we observe that people are poisoning their environment or slaughtering each other–or are suffering from a loss of community and freedom–we should view the situation as our work and strive to change it. He “carries to extremes the idea that everything in society is politics, mere politics”–in the sense of collective action and creation (p. 1)

Unger is a radical leftist but a strong critic of Marxism. He views Marxism as one example of “deep-structure” theory. Any deep-structure theory identifies some “basic framework, structure, or context” beneath all our routine debates and conflicts. It treats each framework as “an indivisible and repeatable type of social organization.” And then it explains changes from one framework to another in terms of “lawlike tendencies or deep-seated economic, organizational, and psychological constraints” (p. 14-5). So–according to Marxists–all the politics that we observe today is a function of “capitalism”; capitalism is a unitary thing that can repeat or end; and the only way forward is from capitalism to a different deep structure, namely socialism.

Unger argues that this theory fails to acknowledge the virtually infinite forms of social organization that we can make (including, for instance, many definitions of private property and many combinations of property with other laws and institutions). It suggest that perhaps nothing can be done to alter the arc of history. The only possible strategy is to start a revolution to change the unitary underlying structure of the present society. But that solution is generally (perhaps always) impractical, so the leftist thinker or leader is reduced to denouncing capitalist inequality. “Preoccupied with the hierarchy-producing effects of inherited institutional arrangements, the leftist reaches for distant and vague solutions that cannot withstand the urgent pressures of statecraft and quickly give way to approaches betraying its initial aims” (p. 20).

Instead, writes Unger, the leftist should be constantly “inventing ever more ingenious institutional instruments.” The clearest failure of actual Marxism was its refusal to experiment, which was legitimized by its deep-structure theory. (Once capitalism was banished, everything was supposed to be fixed). “The radical left has generally found in the assumptions of deep-structure social analysis an excuse for the poverty of its institutional ideas. With a few exceptions … it has produced only one innovative institutional conception, the idea of a soviet or conciliar type of organization” (p. 24). In theory, a “soviet” was a system of direct democracy in each workplace or small geographical location. But, Unger writes, that was an unworkable and generally poor idea.

In contrast, Unger is a veritable volcano of innovative institutional conceptions. He wants a new branch of government devoted to constant reform that is empowered to seize other institutions but only for a short time; mandatory voting; automatic unionization combined with complete independence of unions from the state; neighborhood associations independent from local governments; a right to exit from public law completely and instead form private associations with rules that protect rights; a wealth tax; competitive social funds that allocate endowments originally funded by the state; and new baskets of property rights.

None of these proposals is presented as a solution. Together they are ways of creating “a framework that is permanently more hospitable to the reconstructive freedom of the people who work within its limits” (p. 34). The task is to “combine realism, practicality, and detail with visionary fire” (p. 14)

On deck: Madison, Hayek, and Burke–all defenders of tradition and enemies of the Ungerian project.

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  1. Pingback: Roberto Unger against root causes « Peter Levine

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