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.

The originality of Unger’s enterprise lies in its combination of aims: ‘Politics presents an explanatory theory of society and a programme of social reconstruction. The theory works towards a radical alternative to Marxism. The programme advances a radical alternative to social democracy.’ footnote1 It is the surprise of this two-edged challenge that gives the work its peculiar force. The vehicle chosen for it, however, does not always serve this purpose best. Crisply defined at the outset, Unger’s project subsequently waylays and disperses itself through sheer multiplication of topics and repetition of themes. The huge spread-eagled text of Politics stretches over (so far) a thousand pages. The nominal organization of its three books by no means corresponds to its real architecture, whose foundation actually lies in a preceding work, Passion—An Essay on Personality, and whose lantern—as it were—will presumably be the ethics promised as ‘Part II’ of the whole in False Necessity. Intellectual ambition has won an expensive victory over political communication in such giganticism. In virtually any work of practical advocacy, there is some trade-off between length and effect. Here the impact of often striking programmatic proposals is inescapably reduced by the extravagant mass of unbound ideation surrounding them.

Unger’s prose, unusual in the intensity of its rhetorical pressure, does not really relieve this difficulty. It displays an unremitting stylistic energy in the quest for a vocabulary free from every theoretical jargon or political cliché, with many memorable and felicitous results. But it can also resort to a less fortunate, quasi-revivalist register: ‘Try to understand, reader, by an act of imaginative empathy, the bitterness a person might feel when he discovered that doctrines invented to emancipate and enlighten had now become instruments of confusion and surrender . . . It was an instance of illusion passing into prejudice. You wanted to write a book to set things right’—‘When the larger argument falls into confusion and obscurity, when I stagger and I stumble, help me. Refer to the purpose described in this book and revise what I say in the light of what I want.’ footnote2 Disdaining any conventional apparatus of references, Unger appends instead an omnibus reading-list to False Necessity, whose concluding recommendation for the study of cultural revolution (after Hegel and Kierkegaard) is: ‘See tv Guide’—an unwise flourish, liable to bring recent preachers of the screen too readily to mind. It would be wrong to make overmuch of this histrionic side of the work; but vibrato interpellations intended to heighten attention risk distracting it from the serious core of Unger’s argument.

The central premise of Politics is that ‘the present forms of decentralized economies and pluralistic democracies (markets based on absolute property rights, democracies predicated on the sceptical quiescence of the citizenry) are neither the necessary nor the best expressions of inherited ideals of liberty and equality. They frustrate the very goals for whose sake we uphold them.’ footnote3 The aim of the work is to develop a persuasive alternative beyond the limits of social-democracy to these congealed forms—‘a particular way of reorganizing governments and economies that promises to realize more effectively both aspects of the radical commitment: the subversion of social division and hierarchy and the assertion of will over custom and compulsion.’ Such institutional reconstruction is for Unger inseparable from cultural transvaluation, or a ‘radical politics of personal relations’ that will ‘allow us to connect leftism and modernism’. footnote4

These contemporary political purposes are set within a much vaster theory of history, from which they receive their warrant. Unger constructs this vision from a double rejection: principally of Marxism, for adhering to a vision of the past composed of a limited number of modes of production, conceived as integrated orders capable of replication in different epochs or environments—if also all other variants of ‘deep structure theory’; and secondarily of sociological or historiographic positivism, for tending to deny the existence of societal totalities or qualitative discontinuities at all. Against the latter Unger insists that distinct and decisive structures do indeed exist—what he calls ‘formative contexts’, as opposed to the ‘formed routines’ subject to them. Against the former he argues that each such structure is at once internally dissociable and historically unique—the elements that comprise it do not have to fit together, and the combination of them never recurs. Formative contexts, so understood, exercise a formidable constraint over all social practices, forcing them into a specific mould of predictable routines. But they also embody a fundamental contingency, since there is no intrinsic logic binding their constituent parts together. The conventional opposition in modern politics between reform and revolution, or piecemeal versus overall change—the one potentially ineffectual, the other hypothetically lethal—is therefore misguided. Formative contexts can be disassembled by bits, in partial moves that by the same token effect basic alterations. The real contrast is between ‘context-revising’ and ‘context-preserving’ conflicts. But there is no unbridgeable gulf between these. Rather they form a continuum, in which disputes over routines can always suddenly escalate into battles over structures.

Why is such escalation perpetually possible? Unger’s answer appeals to a transhistorical attribute of the species which he calls its ‘negative capability’. The meaning he attaches to this term is virtually the opposite of that intended by Keats. What it denotes is active will and restless imagination pitted against all circumstance or convention, a constitutive human capacity to transcend every given context by negating it in thought or deed. As such, Unger argues, its exercise has gradually expanded since the dawn of civilization, giving history what cumulative (though not irreversible) direction it appears to have. Today the goal of politics must be to increase the space of that negative capability, by creating institutional contexts permanently open to their own revision—so diminishing the gap between structures and routines, and ‘disentrenching’ social life as a whole.

Such disentrenchment represents both a pragmatic and a moral value. In the past, the economic and military success of states always depended on the degree to which they achieved what Unger terms ‘plasticity’, or the ability to promote a ‘pitiless recombination’ of the factors of production, communication or destruction to meet changing conditions or opportunities. But this kind of institutional flexibility typically consorted with predatory or despotic power—the rule of nomadic conquerors, agrarian bureaucracies, or mercantile oligarchies. Once modern popular sovereignty starts to emerge, however, it acquires normative force as a principle of social emancipation as well as material prosperity. For now the fixity of all traditional hierarchies and dependencies may be seen as a false necessity that can be undone by the general will. The advent of the Rechtsstaat, universal suffrage and social security are only the hesitant beginnings of this process. Unger looks beyond them towards a more radically ‘empowered democracy’, capable of freely remaking every dimension of its common life. His own programme for empowerment includes proposals for the reorganization of government, property, work, and personal relations alike, in a spirit intended to dispel the ‘received, superstitious contrast’ between liberalism and socialism.