March 1st, 1999
On January 13, Brazilian president Fernando Henrique Cardoso stunned the world’s financial markets — and his own people — when he announced the devaluation of his country’s currency, the real. The announcement seemed to mark the precipitous end of one of Latin America’s most successful economic experiments and a serious setback for one of the region’s political heroes.
Cardoso, a former Marxist sociology professor and a leading theorist of Latin American underdevelopment in the 1970s, had, by the 1990s, emerged as the brightest star in a new generation of market-oriented reformers. Elected president in 1994, he introduced a new currency that curbed the inflation that had paralyzed Brazil’s economy for decades. He also implemented a range of reforms that opened Brazil to unprecedented foreign trade and investment, buoying hopes that the world’s eighth largest economy was on its way to becoming a twenty-first-century economic powerhouse.
Now, however, as Brazil scrambles to cope with a financial crisis that has pushed it into severe recession — and sent the value of the real plummeting 35 percent since mid-January — Cardoso’s miracle is over and he seems certain to face renewed political challenges. One of these will likely come from Luís Inácio Lula da Silva, the rough-hewn, charismatic leader of Brazil’s Workers Party, which staunchly opposes the free-market policies Cardoso has embraced. But the most provocative challenge to Cardoso may, in the end, emerge from a less expected quarter — from a man who, like Cardoso, comes from an old, politically influential family and who, like Cardoso, entered Brazilian politics in the wake of a brilliant academic career.
Roberto Mangabeira Unger may not look like the savior of the Latin American left. But the slender, bespectacled law professor has positioned himself in the midst of an accelerating debate over the future of politics in the region. Unger is not an economist, and it remains to be seen whether his high-powered theorizing — which combines Christian romanticism with belief in a passionate, improvisational approach to political action he calls “context-smashing” — can yield concrete solutions to the problems of capital flight, income inequality, and social instability that continue to plague Latin America. But a lot of people — including a number of rising stars on the Latin American political scene — are willing to listen to what he has to say.
How did a scholar famous for both the ambition and the relentless abstraction of his theoretical projects, as well as for being one of the chief architects of the Critical Legal Studies movement in U.S. law schools, find his way into the rough-and-tumble of Brazilian politics? Unger’s philosophy has been labeled many things over the years — “the most powerful social theory of the second half of the century,” says the sociologist Geoffrey Hawthorn; “preposterous romanticism,” scoffs the political theorist Stephen Holmes. But one thing he has not been known for, until now, is having much of an eye for the practical workings of everyday politics. “The enormous edifice of Politics,” historian Perry Anderson has noted of Unger’s central theoretical work, first published in 1987, “undeniably possesses a dreamlike quality.” Indeed, Unger’s sprawling magnum opus, spanning four volumes and more than a thousand pages, delves into complex debates about everything from nineteenth-century textile production to the Chinese cultural revolution, yet barely touches on contemporary issues such as poverty and unemployment. Unger’s project, Anderson concludes, is largely “speculative,” lying “at a visible remove from the realities of history or politics,” a criticism that has been voiced frequently.
Intent on rebutting such charges, Unger, along with the Mexican political scientist Jorge Castañeda, has begun gathering an informal network of politicians and business leaders dedicated to redrawing the political map. Through this group, which he has dubbed the Latin American Alternative, Unger has been able to air his ideas before an audience of Latin American leaders from both the left and the right; and, last year, he left Harvard for São Paulo to serve as an adviser to Ciro Gomes, a former Brazilian finance minister who ran as a centrist candidate in the 1998 presidential election (which Cardoso, the currency crisis not yet upon him, won handily).
With his salt and pepper hair and his refined aristocratic manner, Unger hardly looks the part of the revolutionary. Yet Unger’s politics are built around a contempt for elites and an affection for chaos. For three decades, he has been trying to turn those impulses into a radical replacement for both liberalism and Marxism. Now he wants to see his ideas implemented — and, in the process, to refashion the Latin American left in his own iconoclastic image.
If Unger does manage to leave his personal imprint on the region, he will be carrying on an old family tradition. Born in Rio de Janeiro in 1947 to a middle-class family of educated, urban professionals, Unger grew up in a world steeped in politics. His mother, a poet and journalist, co-edited one of Brazil’s first feminist periodicals in the 1920s (her colleague on the staff, Leda Collor, was the mother of the future Brazilian president Fernando Collor de Mello). Unger’s great-uncle João founded the Brazilian Socialist Party.
But the biggest influence on Unger’s political development came from his grandfather Octavio Mangabeira, a former astronomer who, in 1910, delivered a famous address on Halley’s Comet in a public square in Bahia and was duly persuaded by the state’s governor to embark on a career in politics. (It was, Unger jokes, “a unique case in world history of someone coming into politics by virtue of his fascination with the stars.”) Octavio became Brazil’s foreign minister, but then, when Getúlio Vargas established a fascist dictatorship in the 1930s, fled the country. He returned only after World War II and went on to found the liberal opposition party, the National Democratic Union.
“He was a remarkable man,” Unger told me over lunch one day at a restaurant in Washington, D.C. “When I was a child, I would visit him every summer and we would take these long walks through the streets. I remember people would come up to us and literally kiss my grandfather’s hand. It gave me this sense of life played out on the grand historical stage.”
However much he wished to, young Roberto felt unable to follow in his grandfather’s footsteps. “My grandfather was, among other things, a brilliant orator,” Unger explains. “I, as a child, stuttered very badly. I was almost completely unable to speak, which was one of the obstacles to living out my identification with him.”
Still, when Unger enrolled at Harvard Law School in 1969, he did so under the assumption that he would soon be returning to Brazil to embark on a career in law and politics, not in academia. The year after he arrived in Cambridge, however, the Brazilian generals orchestrated a major military crackdown, arresting thousands of civilians, including several of Unger’s closest friends and his sister, Nancy Mangabeira Unger, who won her freedom only after a group of Brazilian radicals kidnapped the Swiss ambassador in Brazil and released him in exchange for a group of political prisoners. Unger sensed he might have to extend his stay in the United States. “I was unable and unwilling to return to that,” he says of his country’s descent into dictatorship. “I was stranded.”
And yet, if Unger sounds like a victim of circumstance, he was actually feeling more like a man of unusually good fortune. For the scholarly milieu of Harvard suited him nicely. “Despite this idea of myself as someone who would go out into the world and be a passionate man,” he confesses, “I had always had a strong bent toward isolation, toward theory. I was much more interested in European philosophy and in Max Weber and Karl Marx than in political activism. Student politics, which was a big thing at the time, never attracted me.
“And as it happened,” Unger adds, “I had gotten to know several members of the Harvard faculty who were very traditional in their outlook. They evidently thought they could afford to take a risk, so they invited me to start teaching classes.”
In this way, Unger developed into a striking anomaly: He was a Latin American from a distinguished political family who felt himself pulled, against his own instincts, into academe; and he was a leftist who felt not the least bit drawn to the radical politics that was exploding on the streets all around him, captivating an entire generation of students and intellectuals. While young Americans traveled to Havana for a firsthand glimpse of the revolution, and the bearded visage of Ernesto “Che” Guevara emerged as an international symbol of rebellion against the status quo, Unger retreated into the dusty stacks of Widener Library, where he buried himself in books.
Yet as his colleagues at Harvard Law School would soon discover, despite being decidedly out of step with the spirit of 1960s radicalism, Unger was philosophically predisposed to buck the establishment, if not as an activist then as a scholar.
In his first book, Knowledge and Politics, published in 1975, Unger mounted a sharp attack on liberal political philosophy, which he accused of reducing life to a series of false antinomies — rules versus values, reason versus desire. Knowledge and Politics, along with several subsequent works, would eventually distinguish Unger as one of the founders of Critical Legal Studies, a radical school of thought that held that the legal system in the United States rests not on neutral principles, as legal formalists claim, but on a particular set of power relations. Unger was, in effect, calling on legal scholars to make the values underpinning the rules explicit and to champion new values that could challenge the legal system’s support for secure property rights and other sources of social ossification.
With the arrival at Harvard of Duncan Kennedy, Morton Horwitz, and numerous other left-leaning scholars, Critical Legal Studies mushroomed from a handful of academics into a full-fledged movement that, by the early 1980s, was attracting hundreds of adherents to annual events and conferences. A few years later, Critical Legal Studies touched off a fierce internal war at Harvard, pitting the “Crits” against a group of older, more traditional scholars.
To the traditionalists, Unger and his acolytes were nothing more than ideological upstarts peddling the latest fashionable ideas while conducting “a ritual slaying of their elders,” as Robert Clark, a professor of corporate law, complained at the time. By the mid-1980s, after Paul Bator, a former U.S. deputy solicitor general and a conservative constitutional expert, left Harvard for the University of Chicago, accusing the Crits of poisoning the atmosphere at the university, the upheaval had become the subject of articles in The New York Times, Boston Globe, and Time magazine. Harvard earned the sobriquet “the Beirut of legal education,” and Unger himself was attacked on the editorial page of The Wall Street Journal and by the dean of the Duke University Law School, Paul D. Carrington, who, in an article in the Journal of Legal Education, branded him a “nihilist” whose disregard for legal principle suggested he should “seek a place elsewhere in the academy.”
In fact, Carrington had gotten it exactly wrong. On numerous occasions, Unger has chided the postmodernists within the Critical Legal Studies movement for adopting an ideology of total skepticism. Indeed, as Richard Rorty has noted, the radical optimism and “hopefulness” underpinning Unger’s work cut squarely against the grain of postmodern skepticism. Unger was raised as a Roman Catholic and, though no longer practicing, remains heavily influenced by Christianity.
In retrospect, Unger admits that the attacks in The Wall Street Journal and elsewhere were hurtful. “The people who opened the gates for me felt they had been betrayed,” he says of his Harvard mentors. And yet, throughout the crisis, Unger maintained a low profile. He did not, for example, respond to Carrington’s attack, even when reporters asked for commentary — not, he insists, out of indifference, but simply because, at the time, he was completely immersed in what had become his life obsession: the manifesto that would soon emerge as Politics. What was truly agonizing, says Unger, was his feeling that despite all the commotion stirred by the debate over Critical Legal Studies, when the core of his grand theoretical project was finally complete, the response was…silence.
“My entire life had been devoted to this fanatical campaign of reading and writing,” Unger explains. “I had no family. I slept six hours a night. I literally lived like a monk, spending long nights reading about everything from Byzantine history to debates about slavery in the Roman republic. And then it dawned on me that all the energy I had poured into developing this radical theoretical project had produced not a murmur in the culture. People in the law schools knew my work, but in the general culture, it went entirely uncomprehended.”
Uncomprehended, maybe, but not, certainly, unnoticed. In 1987 the Northwestern University Law Review devoted an entire issue to Unger’s work, hailing the appearance of Politics as “an important intellectual event.” Michael J. Perry, a professor of law at Northwestern, commended Unger for producing a vast work of social theory that dared to combine law, history, politics, and philosophy within a single, sweeping narrative. In the years since, Cornel West, Perry Anderson, Richard Rorty, and numerous other prominent scholars have published detailed — and, very often, admiring — essays on Unger’s project, the kind of attention that would cause many of Unger’s colleagues to turn green with envy.
What gave Politics its unique appeal was the dual attack Unger mounted on two highly influential intellectual traditions. On the one hand, he raised a challenge to the central premise of eighteenth-century constitutionalism, which holds that, in a democracy, certain institutional arrangements, along with certain rights and privileges (such as private property), should be safeguarded from dramatic intrusions. Routine politics, in this view, should deal with narrow issues, while more fundamental questions are reserved for periods of crisis. Unger argues that this Madisonian philosophy, which undergirds the American system of checks and balances, has the effect not of enhancing democracy but of turning politics into a mundane contest for small advantages within moribund institutions. A good society, Unger counters in Politics, should obliterate the distinction between routine and revolutionary politics and put “everything…up for grabs,” even basic institutional arrangements. (A version of this philosophy was perhaps anticipated by Thomas Jefferson, who viewed revolution as the birthright of each new generation.)
Unger’s argument was not without its eccentric sides: He proposed, for example, that a special “destabilization” branch of government be formed to smash apart entrenched hierarchies and even argued that citizens be endowed with “destabilization rights.” If, for instance, a number of private enterprises succeeded in destroying their competitors and hiring workers only for temporary, low-paying jobs — common enough, as many Americans can attest — Unger’s destabilization branch would “order the enterprises in question to moderate their internal hierarchy and relinquish some of the devices by which they exclude new workers,” regardless of whether the corporation’s behavior had been within the law.
To some, Unger’s romanticization of instability, as well as his apparent indifference to the rule of law, were disquieting. In a scathing 1987 essay in The New Republic, published under the title “The Professor of Smashing,” the political theorist Stephen Holmes argued that Unger’s buoyant call for citizens to engage in context-smashing could as easily foster tyranny and injustice as freedom and democracy. The legal scholar Cass Sunstein, in his contribution to the Northwestern symposium, echoed this point. And yet, as Sunstein conceded, even if one viewed context-smashing as potentially dangerous, Politics could still be appreciated as a bold attempt to respond to concerns about the constriction of human possibilities in advanced societies dominated by large corporations and bureaucracies.
In addition to taking on the main traditions of Anglo-American liberalism, Unger used Politics to advance a powerful critique of Marxism. The determinism built into Marx’s philosophy of history, he argued, thwarted its transformative aspirations. The point was familiar, but more novel was Unger’s critique of Marxism on economic grounds. According to Unger, the notion that equality can best be achieved through state control of the means of production — or, in social democratic conceptions, vigorous state regulation of economic activity — should be discarded. Instead of concentrating undemocratic power in the hands of the state, he argued, leftists should promote the gradual formation of small-scale, decentralized institutions within the market. Unger has suggested, for example, a national network of alternative lending institutions that could democratize access to credit and production while dispersing power. If this meant letting free-market institutions work for the benefit of the disadvantaged, so be it.
In another break with Marxism, Unger wrote rhapsodically about the emotions. Invoking a “gospel of plasticity,” Unger called on citizens to “raise a storm” against all forms of rank and hierarchy, to “turn subversion into a way of life” by pursuing “unfulfilled longings” in all realms of experience, from the workplace (where individuals should engage in “role jumbling”) to the personal arena (where social conventions should not constrain expressions of passionate love). In a passage deleted from the final text, Unger recommended for social life “what the Marquis de Sade recommended for sex: the strenuous enlargement of enacted possibilities.” Unger, Holmes concluded, “hopes to do for the daylight what Sade did for the night.”
Here, then, was a work of radical social theory that pointedly departed from some of the core tenets espoused by leftists throughout the world. Unfortunately, Politics had little chance of emerging as a successor to the Communist Manifesto. And even his admirers recognized this. “Unger pays little attention to the burning cultural and political issues in the everyday lives of ordinary people,” wrote Cornel West in his book The American Evasion of Philosophy. “Unger invokes a politics of personal relations and everyday life, yet he remains rather vague regarding its content.”
If academic writing can’t change the world, Unger hopes that political punditry can. Last year he began writing a regular column in Folha de São Paulo (one of Brazil’s largest daily newspapers), appearing frequently on television, and writing articles on current events for a host of popular magazines. He also has come forward with a new book, The Future of American Progressivism (Beacon), that is co-written with none other than Cornel West. When I first met Unger, he had flown to Washington, D.C., from Brazil to appear with West at a series of speaking engagements to publicize the book and was, he frankly conceded, banking on West’s celebrity to boost sales and readership.
In fact, Unger has reached outside the academy in the past. In 1979, when the military dictatorship began to loosen its hold on Brazil, he traveled to São Paulo and drafted the founding manifesto of the newly formed Party of the Brazilian Democratic Movement (PMDB) — a party with which Cardoso was also briefly associated. A few years later, Unger returned to Brazil to direct a foundation that assisted needy children in the country’s burgeoning urban slums (the infamous favelas) and even ran an eight-week lightning campaign for a seat in the Chamber of Deputies, which he lost by a narrow margin.
“It was kind of absurd,” says Unger, laughing at the memory. “I had no money, no staff, and I would go into these slums, alone, to hand out pamphlets, often to the local drug pushers.” Unger was, quite literally, taking a page out of his philosophy: In a 1984 book, Passion: An Essay on Personality, Unger championed the Christian-romantic notion that, for individuals, the highest form of redemption comes through feats of self-transformation and “social iconoclasm” — acts in which the individual experiences “the primacy of personal encounter and of love” by bonding with people outside his immediate social sphere. Context-smashing, in other words, should be carried out not only in the political arena but in each individual’s personal and professional life.
Might Unger be planning another run for political office? At the very least, his latest foray into Latin American politics seems to represent something far more serious than any of his previous excursions. “I was in the characteristic situation of arriving at middle age,” he says of his decision to leave Harvard, “and feeling increasingly constrained by the limitations of the garden in which I lived. My transition to the seething cauldron of Brazil puts me in a situation where I’m not in control, where all the time I experience a full range of emotions — disappointment, humiliation, ridicule, setback. In my view, this is necessary, this is life, and it produces a burst of energy, the possibility of self-transformation.”
Thus far, the main vehicle for this transformation has been the Latin American Alternative, which Unger hopes will lay the groundwork for a break with the status quo. For several years now, a chorus of critics has denounced neoliberalism as the latest form of Western imperialism: a set of policy prescriptions that have been forced on the region by Washington-based institutions like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund and are designed to placate foreign investors at the expense of workers, consumers, and the poor. (Interestingly, with the world’s financial crisis, attacks on the IMF’s austerity policies have begun appearing in publications like Business Week, and are even voiced by Joseph Stiglitz, the current head of the World Bank.)
What inspired Unger and Castañeda to launch the Latin American Alternative, however, was a shared belief that the left, while correct in its criticisms of neoliberalism, remains stuck in old habits of thinking. In a new document, After Neoliberalism: A New Path, they acknowledge that “the market must be the principal designator of resources.” Free trade and privatization, they argue, are not necessarily bad things — as long as they are accompanied by far-reaching reforms. Unger and Castañeda propose guaranteeing every citizen a “social right” to schooling and a job; breaking up media oligopolies; and holding town meetings to help citizens supervise municipal spending. Although Unger and Castañeda agree with others on the left who insist that the state must preserve a social safety net, they argue that money should be raised not through progressive taxes on income (which the rich in Latin America have long been adept at avoiding) but through a value-added tax on consumption; this tax may increase the cost of living for some poor people, but it has the advantage of forcing the rich to actually pay it.
There is, of course, a significant irony in all of this. Unger, the theorist whose work has often been dismissed as blithely indifferent to political realities — and overly apocalyptic in its radicalism — appears to be moving in a decidedly more pragmatic, and even centrist, direction. “The first thing one notices about this document,” wrote Marc Falcoff, a resident scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, in a review of Unger and Castañeda’s founding manifesto, “is its conservatism compared with manifestos of the Latin American Left — even the moderate Left — as recently as twenty years ago…. [P]rivate property…is embraced as an ideal. National saving is seen as the key to economic development, and privatization is accepted as a (sometimes) useful tool, as is market economics in general.” The Economist has praised Unger and Castañeda for “pragmatically supporting privatization and free trade.” Is Unger’s romantic vision, once translated into concrete proposals, really all that different from the free market with a human face espoused by Bill Clinton, Tony Blair — and Unger’s own doppelgänger, Henrique Cardoso, a man he describes as “the opposite of everything I like”?
In part, the confusion lies in the fact that Unger has always opposed the idea of laying out a detailed blueprint for what society should look like. His philosophy is, after all, predicated on the notion that everything should constantly be changing, and his latest manifesto concludes with calls for injecting “a blast of liberty” into Latin American politics, a series of “shock waves” that will permanently rattle the established order. Another source of confusion stems from his unconventional view of who the agents of social transformation will be. Last December, at a Latin American Alternative meeting in Berkeley, California, Unger lashed out at the icons of the leftist opposition in Latin America — Mexico City mayor Cuauhtemoc Cardenas and the Brazilian Workers Party’s Lula. These leaders, Unger charged, are more interested in “defending the vested rights of organized workers” in the “relatively privileged” sectors of the economy than in addressing the needs of the “unorganized majority.” Unger went on to declare that the best hope lies with “political mavericks” who possess the daring and imagination to advance bold new ideas — politicians like Ciro Gomes in Brazil and Vicente Fox in Mexico, both of whom have been attending the meetings of the Latin American Alternative, and neither of whom remotely fits the conventional image of a leftist.
Indeed, Fox, the tall, strapping governor of the Mexican state of Guanajuato, is a former Coca-Cola executive and the likely future presidential candidate of the PAN, Mexico’s pro-business, conservative party. Gomes, the former finance minister, holds orthodox views on matters such as fiscal discipline and privatizing state industries, both of which he favors. Strolling through the Berkeley campus after the conference, I asked Unger if he seriously believed these men could serve as catalysts for drastic social change.
“Absolutely,” he replied. “Ciro and Vicente are both temperamentally much more capable of radicalism in political action, radicalism in the sense of taking big risks, than, say, Cuauhtemoc Cardenas or Lula.” As we continued walking, Unger turned to me and said, “Look, knowing these characters, there’s no question who would be more likely to knife the Mexican plutocracy in the back. Fox or Cardenas? The answer is Fox. And the same is true of Gomes over Lula.”
In one sense, Unger’s choice of allies is not the least bit surprising. His view of politics has, after all, always stressed the importance of the individual over the group and of experimentation over ideology. And both Fox and Gomes, despite their party affiliations, have distinguished themselves as innovators willing to try the unexpected: Fox by establishing lending institutions for the poorer inhabitants of the Mexican state he governs; Gomes by launching a highly successful campaign to combat infant mortality in the impoverished Brazilian state of Ceará, where he formerly served as governor.
Still, for all of this, one has to wonder why Unger views these men as context-smashers when, in many ways, they are as traditional as some of the leftist politicians he loathes. “Unger has this belief that these independent candidates, some of them with conservative parties, will be the vehicle for a progressive agenda,” says Harley Shaiken, director of Berkeley’s Center on Latin American Studies, which hosted the conference in December. “That’s one thing they most certainly are not. I think he’s taking parts of individuals he likes and extrapolating far too much from that.” Certainly in Latin America, of all places, viewing politics through the prism of personality is potentially dangerous: The region has, after all, seen its share of charismatic individuals (Juan Perón, Alberto Fujimori) who have used their charm to build up personality cults.
Then again, Unger does seem to recognize that, in the long term, it will take more than a few maverick leaders — much more — to shake up the Latin American political system. “My next goal is to connect myself to some larger social movement,” he says hopefully. “I have an ally in the person of the current financial crisis, but I feel that I’ve reached the limits of my work as an intellectual agitator. This work represented an advance for me, but I still feel like I’m wearing white gloves, that I’m separate from the action. For me, the next step will be to find out who my allies are, form a group, and eventually associate this group with a party.”
Before doing so, however, Unger, at least for a moment, is slipping the white gloves back on and taking a temporary breather. This semester he’s spending his time not on the streets of São Paulo but as a visiting scholar at Yale University. Evidently, the appeal of the academic life has not entirely faded.
Unger does, however, plan to continue making a stir while in New Haven. Indeed, his ultimate dream, he says, is for the work he has been doing in Brazil to reverberate in the United States, which, in his view, is equally in need of a fresh alternative to the status quo. To this end, he has been meeting with editors at The New York Times and elsewhere and giving copies of his latest books to any politician he happens to cross paths with. At Berkeley this past December, Unger bumped into David Bonior — the influential Democratic representative from Michigan — in the hallway of his hotel. Earlier in the day, Unger had delivered a fiery speech denouncing progressives for lacking the courage to experiment with bold new ideas. Now, however, he struck a more conciliatory tone. Handing two copies of each of his most recent books to the congressman, he told Bonior he hoped he would enjoy reading them.
“And could you,” he added, “pass along these extra copies to Mr. Gore for me?”
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