Roberto Unger and the Politics of Empowerment
The largest industrial power of the Southern hemisphere has recently completed one of the most protracted and divisive processes of constitution-making in modern history. The fruits of nineteen months of labour by the Constituent Assembly of Brazil have already aroused violent reactions. ‘Clauses on employment worthy of Cuba, on foreign enterprise reminiscent of Romania, on freedom of property fit for Guinea–Bissau. Not the faintest odour of civilization’—so Roberto Campos from the right, Minister of Planning and Ambassador in London for the generals, today Senator of the cattlebarons of Mato Grosso, on the practical shape of the new charter. By coincidence, the same months have seen the publication in the Northern hemisphere of a uniquely ambitious exercise in constitutional theory by a Brazilian-American, which seeks to lay out the design not only of a polity but of a concomitant economy and society. Its author, Roberto Mangabeira Unger, comes from one of the most famous political families of Bahia. His grandfather Otavio was Foreign Minister under the Old Republic, an oligarch of legendary eloquence who oscillated between fascism and liberalism in opposition to Vargas, while his grand-uncle João founded and led the small Brazilian Socialist Party. Roberto, a by-product of his grandfather’s exile in the usa under the Estado Novo, had a mixed upbringing in the two countries. For the past decade he has taught critical legal theory at Harvard Law School, with recurrent forays into his native land—where he has been an acute critic of the new constitution from the left, for multiplying fictive welfare rights while legalizing further military fiats: Unger to his us audience, Mangabeira to his Brazilian. Like Edward Said or Salman Rushdie, he forms part of that constellation of Third World intellectuals, active and eminent in the First World without being assimilated by it, whose number and influence are destined to grow.
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