“Whether one buys into his system, the Left needs more thinkers with Unger’s courage and intellectual ambition.”
“A deepened, high-energy democracy does not seek to replace the real world of interests and of interest-bearing individuals with the selfless citizen and with the all-consuming theater of public life. It is not a flight into republican purism and fantasy. It wants to enhance our ordinary powers, enlarge the scope of our ordinary sympathies and ambitions, and render more intense our ordinary experience. It seeks to do so by diminishing the distance between the ordinary moves we may within institutional and ideological contexts take for granted and the extraordinary initiatives by which we challenge and change pieces of those contexts. Its agent and its beneficiary are one and the same: the real thing—the frail, self-interested, longing individual in the flesh, the victim of circumstance whom no circumstance can ever completely or definitively confine.”
Roberto Unger, The Left Alternative.
To do genuinely interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary work is the goal of many scholars. Some achieve it better than others. But to engage in truly systematic and all-encompassing scholarship almost seems anachronistic, not to mention a trifle arrogant. Given the complexities involved in mastering even a single discipline, who could have the audacity to claim expertise across a great number of them? Few since Hegel have even tried, and this has often led to considerable disappointment.
Such ambition and systematicity, not to mention the borderline audacity that underlies it, is part of the thrill that comes from reading any book by Brazilian philosopher Roberto Unger. Where others might painstakingly tie themselves into knots justifying their right to engage in interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary work, Unger simply steamrolls over all objections to think and write about whatever he wishes. In many, this might simply be intellectual overreach. But Unger is the rare exception. His seemingly encyclopedic capacity for philosophical systematization has moved from impressive to genuinely inspiring in his recent work. Most importantly, I feel that Unger’s philosophy, or one rather like it, is what the left needs to lift itself out of the skepticism of what Alain Badiou helpfully calls the democratic materialism of postmodern theorizing. He provides a fascinating and genuinely inspiring call to arms for those keen to genuinely transform the world.
Who is Roberto Unger?
Unger began his career at Harvard Law in the 1970’s, as a founding member of the critical legal theory movement in American jurisprudence. His youthful manuscript, Knowledge and Politics, remains a minor classic in which he develops a reasonably novel criticism of liberal legalism. However, it was not until the 1980’s that Unger’s distinct philosophy was fully presented in his book on the human personality Passion—and in the seminal three volumes of Politics. Especially in the latter trilogy, Unger develops a novel set of philosophical ideas that he has continued to deepen until this day. In Politics, Unger condemns both liberals and Marxists for believing that the human personality (and anthropic history) can be understood through conceptualizing sets of eternally applicable “scientific” laws. This scientistic ideology reinforces belief in the false necessity of social institutions, which are the products of these laws, and results in a frozen politics defined by immutability. One might be tempted here to classify Unger as a postmodern critic. But he rejects this easy way out, claiming that postmodern skeptics are left to be either inert or to believe in the ultimate determinancy of history, while rejecting all theories which attempt to explain it comprehensively.
By contrast, Unger dares us to believe that a new type of politics is possible. In What Should the Left Propose, he asks us to reject the calcified politics of the false necessity of our calcified political institutions, while dreaming for more than just the modest reforms called for by many postmodern skeptics. Unger calls for citizens to play an active and direct role in reshaping the institutions that govern them and to subsequently be involved in lawmaking processes after the fact. But he also acknowledges that such a direct democracy would be unsustainable without redistributing economic resources to ensure that individuals are able to commit meaningfully to political activities, which cannot be commercialized in contemporary neoliberal contexts.
This vision for the future (quite literally) reaches an appropriate peak in his new book, co-written with Lee Smolin of the Perimeter Institute at the University of Waterloo: The Singular Universe and the Reality of Time published by Cambridge University Press. In this work, Unger finally drops any pretense of simply being a political philosopher who enjoys big ideas, and he presents a fully blown theory of the cosmos. Drawing on the insights he has developed over years as a pioneering social scientist and philosopher, Unger argues that science has been overly beholden to mathematics, which tempts us with visions of a timeless world defined by the operation of eternal laws. This “vulgar Platonism” has provided scientists with a rigid working paradigm, which, in turn, has impacted the social sciences, including economics and even Marxism. Unger and Smolin call on us to see the universe as a vital plurality of objects in which the new is constantly being created in real time. Here, they draw quite explicitly on biological sciences to argue that reality is path dependent. It does not emerge as a result of universal laws unspooling themselves—but, rather, because of dynamic processes. In much the same way, human history should not be seen as a deterministic process but one in which the new can and should constantly be created by engaged subjects. This book is a bevy of intellectual riches, which I can only gesture to here.
This latest book rounds off Unger’s oeuvre and gives him a strong claim to be called one of the great Leftists philosophers of our time. It also highlights problems with the Left which he has criticized for many years (arguably since the end of the 1980’s). A great deal of Left-wing scholarship today has essential uses in highlighting various forms of discrimination and marginalization. These are no doubt necessary efforts. But it also refrains from presenting a systematic or inspiring alternative to the status quo, for fear that this may lead to essentialism or other forms of malicious universalism. These are obviously not idle concerns, as I have pointed out in an earlier piece for Merion West. But it can also be uninspiring and lead to a sense of defeatism when it comes to structural issues. As Slavoj Zizek pointedly observes, for many decades Leftists have been closet Fukuyamists: they express unhappiness with the liberal status quo but often do not seem to believe it can be substantially changed. This lack of inspiration or sense for broader meaning has become a handicap in the postmodern age, ceding a lot of ground to postmodern conservatives.
By contrast, Unger presents a comprehensive, detailed, and ambitious philosophical system that can serve as a springboard for conversation and action. Whether or not it holds up over time is obviously something that cannot be predicted in advance (especially if Unger is right). But in an academic climate that too often favors piecemeal critical approaches, his work is a breath of fresh air that commands respect and should prompt admiration. Whether one buys into his system, the Left needs more thinkers with Unger’s courage and intellectual ambition.
Matt McManus is currently Professor of Politics and International Relations at TEC De Monterrey. His book Making Human Dignity Central to International Human Rights Law is forthcoming with the University of Wales Press. His books, The Rise of Post-modern Conservatism and What is Post-Modern Conservatism, will be published with Palgrave MacMillan and Zero Books, respectively. Matt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or added on Twitter via Matt McManus@MattPolProf