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New Left Review 26, March-April 2004


Michael Rustin on Roberto Unger, Democracy Realized. A Brazilian alternative to both free-market and social-democratic orthodoxies—experimentalism as transformative political practice.

MICHAEL RUSTIN

A PRACTICAL UTOPIANISM?

‘A Work in Constructive Theory’ was the subtitle of Roberto Mangabeira Unger’s massive three-volume treatise, Politics, first published in 1987. It offered not only a theory of social organization in the first volume, Social Theory: Its Situation and Task, and a sweeping historical panorama that embraced agrarian empires from the Han to the Mughals, in the third, Plasticity into Power. It also proposed—in the 680-page centrepiece, False Necessity—an alternative account of the rise of the main institutional features of mass society, a theory of subjectivity and a programme for radical political, economic and micro-cultural change. This was, by any standards, a substantial body of work. The scion of a famous political family from Brazil’s northeastern state of Bahia, Unger has taught critical legal theory at Harvard Law School since 1979. His contributions in this field are closely connected to his social theory and political prognostications. His 1986 The Critical Legal Studies Movement—a succinct text of only 128 pages—anticipates to a striking extent many of the themes and arguments of Politics.

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