‘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.
Grand projects such as Unger’s are always vulnerable to historical events. Appearing at a time when a third of the world was governed by Communist regimes, the Politics trilogy aimed to formulate a theory and programme of radical social change that would be an alternative both to mass-industrial capitalism and to state-socialist and social-democratic models. After the end of the Cold War, and with the neoliberal model now in crisis in his native Latin America, how has Unger’s thought weathered the upheavals of the past decades? Democracy Realized, published in 1998 and recently reissued, opens with a strikingly optimistic appeal for ‘alternative institutional forms of economic, social and political pluralism’—accompanied by a sober recognition that:
Everywhere in the world, there is today an experience of exhaustion and perplexity in the formulation of credible alternatives to the neoliberal programme and to its defining belief in convergence toward a single system of democratic and market institutions. Having abandoned statist commitments and witnessed the collapse of communist regimes, progressives look in vain for a direction more affirmative than the rearguard defence of social democracy.
Even in the United States, the world’s hegemonic power and richest nation, ‘ordinary working citizens are likely to feel themselves angry outsiders, part of a fragmented and marginalized majority, powerless to reshape the collective basis of the collective problems they face’. At the same time, the American political intelligentsia derides large-scale projects of institutional reform and popular political mobilization as romantic and impractical, insisting instead upon technical policy analysis and ‘problem-solving by experts’. Yet, Unger argues,
This programmatically empty and de-energized politics fails to solve the practical problems for whose sake it renounced larger ambitions. It . . . allows itself to degenerate into short-term and episodic factional deals, struck against a background of institutions and assumptions that remain unchallenged and even unseen.
Instead, the most apparent grounds for hope lie in the ‘vigorous underground experimentalism’ that is making itself felt in new working practices and educational methods, where ‘co-operation and competition combine’ and ‘permanent innovation becomes the touchstone of success’. At present, this imaginative boundary-pushing within the miniaturized worlds of firm or school ends up hitting the ‘limits imposed by the untransformed public world’. Nevertheless, for Unger such processes are the seedbed for a new political practice: ‘democratic experimentalism’, the core idea of Democracy Realized, and defined here as a ‘motivated, sustained and cumulative tinkering with the arrangements of society’.
The book’s structure is as ambitious and unconventional as Unger’s earlier works, if on a smaller (300-page) scale. Proposals for the transformation of the productive process in the advanced capitalist economies are followed by strategic agendas for three major countries in the developing and post-Communist world (Russia, China, Brazil); a thorough-going programmatic ‘alternative to neoliberalism’, ranging from tax and pension reforms and emancipatory schooling to new kinds of investment and productive practice; and finally, a Manifesto, summarizing these proposals in thirteen major theses. Responding in part to criticisms—some made in the pages of this journal: see Perry Anderson’s 1989 essay, ‘Roberto Unger and the Politics of Empowerment’, nlr i/173—of the abstractness, or ‘dream-like’ quality of his work, Unger here makes a sustained and vigorous attempt to give his ideas direct political effect. The concept of democratic experimentalism is posited upon an overlap between the conditions necessary for ‘practical progress’—that is, for the economic growth which ‘lifts from human life the burden of drudgery and infirmity. We cannot be free when we are weak’—and those necessary for individual emancipation. Both material and subjective forms of progress, it is argued, depend on the capacity to transform social effort into a process of ‘collective learning’, undeterred by deference towards any pre-established social divisions or roles; a Freire-esque formulation which draws on themes that have long been central to Unger’s work.