Category: Roberto Unger

Roberto Unger: Utopia, Participatory Democracy, and Exemplary Action

I have now read two recent pieces by Roberto Unger: the essay “The Knowledge Economy: A Critique of the Dominant View” and the transcript of a session at the OECD in Paris, entitled “Inclusive Vanguardism: The Alternative Futures of the Knowledge Economy.”  (Both are available as PDFs on Unger’s website: http://www.robertounger.com/en/).

Here is a quick outline of his basic project: the knowledge economy names a significant shift in the mode of production.  Specifically, it changes the Fordist model of the mass production of exactly identical products into the machine-driven production of customized products.  Thus, the new automatons change the dynamics of scale—and have the potential to upset entirely the “law” of diminishing returns. (Each now copy of a digital product costs almost nothing to produce; so the millionth copy of Microsoft Word produces a larger profit than the first 10,000 copies.)

Interestingly, Unger (unlike so many others writing on this theme) does not think the human race is about to reach a condition of post-scarcity.  Perhaps this is because he comes from the global South.  Because he still believes scarcity is a problem, he is in favor of “perpetual innovation” and increasing the productive powers of our machines.  Utopia, in his view, is having humans only do the work that cannot be done by machines (which might be characterized as “care” work—teachers, health care providers, child and elderly care, environmental protection etc.) 

To unleash both the full productive and full utopian possibilities of the knowledge economy requires, in his view, the full-scale involvement of all in the work of innovation—hence his focus on “inclusive vanguardism.”  We need to structure our societies to encourage constant experimentation as we search for the technical solutions to our many needs and problems. 

In focusing on the mode of production and in what can only be called his technological optimism, Unger looks very much a disciple of Marx.  I think many readers would share my sense that the biggest lacuna in his work is any attention to environmental concerns.  He talks (in the OECD session) a lot about Brazil, yet never once mentions the subjection of Brazil’s land to extractive processes that are an environmental disaster.  The knowledge economy (this statement is me, not Unger), no less than Fordist production, is a vampire with a seemingly endless appetite for “natural resources.” 

“Perpetual innovation” in and of itself is no answer.  Innovation has to be in the service of ends that are not destructive and/or unjust.  Yes, we must experiment with and try to develop innovations that alleviate the severity and costs of climate change.  But to believe (and invest and pursue) only technological fixes to environmental degradation is to trust the very mind-set that got us into this mess. We need also to re-think the whole obsession with “productivity” and “growth.”  Unger appears utterly committed to the promotion of growth as the correct goal of our economics.

Having lodged that (fundamental) objection to his project, I want to dwell on what I found inspiring in these two pieces.  Unger is advocating for radical social changes, but he argues forcefully that change is always piecemeal.  You must begin where you are, experimenting with what is possible in this set of circumstances, even as you have an eye on the long-term, larger transformations your local action is aiming toward.  On the other hand, this focus on the local (which includes an endorsement of “radical devolution” in federalist arrangements that permit substantial regional divergences) does not neglect the considerable power of the state.  For starters, the state must permit those local experiments—and enable them through institutional/legal orders and with financial resources.  But there also has to be a national (at least) vision that enlists the state in the project of inclusion, of breaking down the hierarchies that establish the division between the “knowledge workers” and the drudges. 

When faced with an acknowledgement of all that is wrong with current arrangements, Unger insightfully tells us that any suggested remedial actions usually are felt to be “too trivial” (not substantial enough to effect the “real” change we want to see) or “utopian” (not remotely feasible under present conditions; just fantasies that we have no way of getting to from here).  This strikes me as completely accurate—and it has a chilling effect, is a formula for hopelessness, exhaustion, and apathy. 

My own sense (derived from Arendt) of how to combat this dilemma is to say that any kind of political or social activism must combine immediate rewards with “eyes on the prize.” Change is slow, uneven, prone to set-backs, never matches the full utopian vision, and a source of painful conflicts and compromises.  Plus it is very hard to see the effectiveness of any single action in bringing change about.  For all those reasons, the participation in any social movement must involve the excitement of working creatively with a set of people toward a common end.  It is that experience of immersion in a collective project that sustains long-term political movements.

Unger is an advocate of what used to get called (I guess still is, although this theme has retreated from much recent work in democratic theory) “participatory democracy.”  He calls for “a high-energy democracy that makes change less dependent on crisis because it increases the level of organized popular engagement in political life . . . and combines the possibility for decisive action on the part of central government with opportunities for radical devolution to states and towns—the creations, in different parts of a country, of countermodels of the national future” (68-69 in the Knowledge essay).

Unger has some sharp critiques of social democracy along these lines—basically arguing that it turns citizens into passive recipients of benefits handed out by the central government instead of active shapers of their civic life.  He doesn’t want to see citizens as “consumers” that the government must serve.  Unlike the conservative critique of the “nanny state” (even as Unger’s worries about passivity chime with some conservative views), the idea here is to have citizens actively engaged in the provision of those services.  Unger favors mandatory national service; along with paying taxes to see that children and the elderly are cared for (to take one example), citizens would be expected to provide that care for some portion of their working life (either as a two year service period or as a periodic—one month a year—seconding.) This service would increase trust and empathy, both of which are in short supply in today’s world, even as it would also increase a sense that we are collectively responsible for the welfare of all our fellow citizens and actively engaged in both thinking about and participating in the best ways to insure that welfare.

Multiple ways to promote citizen interaction, as well as citizen involvement in the shaping of policy, would also be needed.  Most crucially, perhaps, is the need from workplace democracy.  The whole notion of an “inclusive vanguard” is built upon breaking down the hierarchies in the workplace that reserve expertise to a small minority.  Everyone should be invited to participate in developing innovative ideas and experimental projects—and everyone should be provided with the education that makes such a democratization of expertise possible.

Unger understands that experimentation cannot take place where people have no economic security.  Necessity, it turns out, is not the mother of invention.  The absence of fear, the knowledge that one’s daily bread is secure, plus immersion in high-energy, collaborative (yet also somewhat competitive; Unger is fond of the phrase “cooperative competition”) environments is what stimulates the imagination and makes it possible to take risks.  Make the cost of failure too high—and very few will take any risks.  So, far from those conservative cowboys who adopt the macho line of letting the fittest survive in the jungle of the “free market,” Unger describes a political/economic regime that underwrites innovation and experimentation by providing the resources that make sure such experiments are not matters of life and death. 

Why the focus on experiments?  Three reasons, I think, all of which resonate with the project of “social choreography.” First, we don’t know in advance (through some kind of theoretical thought) what actually works.  There are always unanticipated and unexpected consequences of any course of action—just as there are always unanticipated obstacles and (if we are lucky) serendipitous successes. 

Second, experiments undertaken collectively are a site (and a very non-trivial one) of happiness.  Participation can be—and often is—a joy.  And it is the energy of that joy that carries the project forward even as it encounters difficulties and even as its contribution to a larger social transformation is not clear.  Participation (and this is the Arendt piece) can be an experience (in miniature but in the real time of the present) of the kind of society we are aiming to produce. In short, participatory democracy in action, here and now.

Third, if we accept that change is piecemeal, then our experiments are “exemplary actions” (the phrase is Unger’s), demonstration projects that show what is possible.  We don’t have to—and should not—wait upon total transformation to begin living the lives we desire to live.  We can find the others who are willing to experiment with us—and begin to dance.

Roberto Mangabeira Unger

Roberto Mangabeira Unger is a funny case.  He is a prolific writer, has been based for much of his career at Harvard’s Law School, and has twice served as Brazil’s Minister of Strategic Affairs—and, yet, his work is not read in the political theory and political activist circles that I frequent.  I don’t know why Unger’s work is not required reading for academics working in these fields.  He is not unknown, but he is not read.  Which is a pity. 

Unger’s concept of “false necessity” (from his 1980s trilogy Politics: A Work in Constructive Social Theory) has been foundational for me.  That concept is also not a bad entry point into Unger’s work.  He is best described as a visionary.  He refuses to accept that current social, legal, and political arrangements are dictated by some facts about human nature or irrefutable “realities” that make alternatives implausible, perhaps even impossible.  At the same time, he is unimpressed by global categorizations of any set of arrangements.  Terms like “capitalism,” “liberalism,” and “socialism” are, in his view, impediments to thinking and to action.  We need, instead, granular imaginative visions of what is possible—and specific interventions at the institutional sites (workplaces, schools, markets, law courts, legislative and regulatory bodies) of social interaction. 

The first requirement for making something happen, as Woody Allen famously remarked, is showing up.  How unsexy is that!!  Unger’s focus on specific sites of engagement is all about showing up, about transforming conditions on the ground not through the magic of some overarching theory that explains everything, but through working out and then sustaining alternative relations among the actors (human and non-human) involved in that specific undertaking. 

The focus (deriving, ultimately, I think from Marx’s emphasis on the “social relations” that accompany any mode of production) in Unger is always based firmly on relations.  Who gets to do what?  Where does authority reside?  Who sets the agenda?  Who gets the deciding vote when conflicts arise? Most crucially: how does any group establish relations that unleash the imaginative and creative potentials each of us possess?  That’s Unger’s visionary, utopian moment: his firm belief that a meaningful and satisfying life is based on conditions that allow (nay encourage) each individual to discover and express his or her creativity.  Current arrangements stifle us—and unnecessarily so.  We need to fight our way toward unleashing what is currently bottled up—and we need to wage that fight at the multiple sites where we are engaged with others in the variety of enterprises that interest us. 

In short: imagine new forms of collectivity, of being together, that exchange frustrating us for fulfilling our potential. And then put those imagined forms into action.

I have returned to Unger’s work (since my first encounter with it in the 1980s) periodically over the years, having read at least six of his books.  (You can access just about everything he has written in pdf format on his web page: http://www.robertounger.com/en/)

Right now, I have picked him up again at the behest of Steve Valk, who heads up the Institute of Social Choreography (based in Frankfurt; https://www.facebook.com/InstitutFuerSozialeChoreographie).  In particular, Steve is interested in Unger’s recent work on the “knowledge economy,” in which he argues (among other things) that the imaginative innovations we associate with the knowledge economy have been restricted to an “insular vanguard.” That small group retains possession of its ideas through patents, copyright laws, and intellectual property statutes while also limiting access to the imaginative processes of creating ideas by limiting educational opportunity and by strictly enforcing workplace hierarchies that segregate the “idea work” from the grunt work performed by the underlings who form the vast majority of workers.  Unger calls for an “inclusive vanguard” which would entail new ideas arising out of practices on the workshop floor (or the equivalent concrete interactions at other social sites) instead of the current procedure of helicoptering new ideas in from outside of those interactions.  Think of your latest report from McKinsey as the paradigm of outsourcing creativity to “consultants” instead of calling on the people actually doing the work to consider better and innovative ways to do it.

Unger’s vision—with its focus on concrete interactions—is inspiring for the Institute for Social Choreography because, in the words of Andrew Hewitt (author of the book, Social Choreography, Duke UP, 2005):  “We might think of choreography in terms of ‘rehearsal’; that is, as the working out and working through of utopian, nevertheless ‘real’, social relations.” Dance is, par excellence, a collective art form—and thus a fruitful site for imagining and then enacting new forms of social togetherness. In addition, dance reminds us that social relations are lived in and through the body, are instantiated in bodily habits as much as in received, unquestioned ways of thinking.

In subsequent posts, I will consider Unger’s take on the “knowledge economy” in more detail.