Ideas man decides it’s time to act

February 24, 2006

Huw Richards meets Roberto Unger, a leftist legal scholar and political thinker considering a presidential run in Brazil

The journey from lecture hall to presidential palace is far from uncharted, particularly in Brazil where the tenure of Fernando Henrique Cardoso, President from 1994 to 2002, is a recent memory. Even so, the proposed candidacy in this year’s election of Roberto Mangabeira Unger, a Harvard Law School professor, promises something new in the way of campaigns.

Unger, displaying his fondness for paradox, says it is not certain that he will run: “It is a matter of winning the support of one or two political parties. This is necessary to receive sufficient coverage. It is a paradox that it is much harder to become wellknown in Brazil than in the US or Europe because of the problem of access to television. But at the same time, it is much easier in Brazil to win mass support for ideas outside accepted orthodoxy because there is a desperate desire for alternatives.”

Unger, 58, comes from a highly political family — his grandfather was Foreign Minister, his mother a pioneering feminist editor and one of his greatuncles founded the Brazilian Socialist Party. But he is far from the clubbable model of the Identikit politician. He has confessed to a “strong bent towards isolation”. He was Harvard’s youngest professor and one of the leaders of the Critical Legal Studies movement, which argued that the US legal system rested on power relations rather than neutral principles. He is also a polymath author, drawing on knowledge across a range of
disciplines for his Politics trilogy of theoretical works.

He will not come naturally to the truncated idioms of modern electioneering. He memorably retorted when a London Review of Books contribution was rejected as “insufficiently conversational” that “even in conversation my style would never be considered conversational”. His answers tend to be the antithesis of the soundbite.

Unger has acted as an éminence grise to notable Brazilian politicians — including the leftist leader Leonel Brizola and the defeated 2002 presidential candidate Ciro Gomes — but ultimately felt thwarted. “This was the characteristic error of the philosopher in politics, which is to try to find somebody else to do the work. I identified practical politicians whom I hoped would put my ideas into practice, allowing me to return to my books. Politics is like philosophy — it is about everything, and it requires the unconditional devotion and mobilisation of the emotions, intellect and energy of the individual. And you cannot achieve your objectives through another person, because they remain that other person. It’s easier to change a country than a person.”

He places himself firmly on the Left. His newest book — published in the UK by Verso — is What Should the Left Propose? Perhaps his most significant political initiative has been the creation, along with the Mexican political economist Jorge Castañeda, of the Latin American Alternative group.

He says: “In the 1990s, we saw an opportunity to give voice to ideas opposed to the neoliberal ascendancy. We had meetings with the participation of leaders of the Left from most Latin American countries.”

He has called neoliberal hegemony the “dictatorship of no alternatives” and says: “No continent has been more faithful to the proscriptions of neoliberalism, and it has been disastrous, delivering stagnation and greater poverty.”

At one level it might be argued that those meetings were hugely successful. Several participants, including Castañeda, who was the Mexican Foreign Minister in President Vicente Fox’s first government and is contemplating his own pitch for the presidency this year, have come to power as Latin America has swung to the Left. The past few months alone have seen victories for the Left in Bolivia and Chile to follow those secured in Argentina, Brazil and other nations. Non-leftists such as Fox and Gomes asked to take part in the meetings, with Castañeda and Unger arguing that they were more likely to bring real change than traditional leftists such as Brazil’s President Lula da Silva.

But Unger feels the meetings were “a rhetorical success and a practical failure. The ideas we developed have become the predominant political discourse of Latin America. But the reality has been one of surrender to the ideas we wished to oppose. It has been a sobering experience.”

You might argue that it was naive ever to think that Fox, whose career and fortune were built at Coca-Cola, would threaten the neoliberal hegemony. But Unger’s fiercest challenge is to the accepted nostrums and prescriptions of the Left. To some, Nestor Kirchner, Argentina’s new President, with his rejection of International Monetary Fund proscriptions, appears to offer a successful Left alternative. Unger does not agree: “He expresses the ideology of resistance, but has no project or strategy for national development or programme of institutional reconstruction.” Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, he argues, “combines authoritarian populism with a mishmash of concessions to business interests”.

These limitations are symptomatic, he argues, of a “vacuum of ideas” in Latin America and on the global Left in general. He dismisses Marxism as a “mummified remnant” and argues that the European social democratic model offers only “consolation prizes” for those who acquiesce to exclusion from power structures. He sees Third Way theories as no better than “the First Way with sugar”. In this context, the Latin American Left’s ideal of a “tropical Sweden” is no solution.

Unger’s prescriptions have a touch of the mystical, referring to the need for ordinary people to “live big lives” and “to make ourselves more godlike”. The philosopher Richard Rorty says of Unger: “He doesn’t make moves in a game we know how to play.” Less friendly critics have dismissed him as utopian.

His critique of traditional leftism rejects both Labourism — “the Left should be based upon the working class, but we have to reinterpret what is the working class, which is everybody excluded from power and symbolic manipulation” — and statist dirigism. Markets are accepted, with the proviso that “the existing form of the market” is challenged with governments taking on the role of venture capitalist to fund social and economic experiments.

He argues that “capability” rather than “equality” should be the overriding purpose of the Left and argues for a model of social responsibility in which everybody spends part of their lives working for others.

Perhaps most challenging for the Left is his rejection of traditional progressive income taxation. He argues instead that upping the rate of taxes on consumption such as VAT is a far more effective way of getting the rich to contribute — and advocates compulsory saving. This should be underpinned by continuous experimentation with political institutions aimed at encouraging far greater participation.

Whether Brazil is ready for such radicalism is, he accepts, far from clear. He says: “Whether anywhere is ready in that sense can be debated.” But this philosopher’s attempt to turn ideas into action might offer one of the more intriguing spectacles of the political year.

What Should the Left Propose? Is published by Verso, £15.00.

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