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Immodest Proposals

Michael Bérubé itself but also subversive of all other aspects of

a program like the one advanced here. It de-
What Should the Left Propose? stroys the link between the accumulation of
by Roberto Mangabeira Unger wealth and the ability of the ordinary worker
Verso, 2006 112 pp $23 to enjoy the benefits of economic growth.
Moreover, it arouses an impatient anxiety that
is at least as likely to help the Right as it is
likely to serve the Left.

casual reader could be forgiven for Against flexibility, for labor: Unger’s positions
thinking that What Should the Left Pro- here are anything but surprising. He also ad-
pose? was written ten or twelve years vises us to “weaken the influence of money in
ago, in response to the collapse of the Soviet politics, for example by providing for the pub-
Union and the rise of “Third Way” leftism. For lic financing of political campaigns and by re-
Roberto Mangabeira Unger’s diagnoses of the stricting as much as possible the electoral use
left’s decline are both plausible and familiar, of private resources.” This is a fine suggestion
and they say nothing about left debates since in 2006, just as it was a fine suggestion in 1994
2001. He lodges the standard complaint about and 1988 and 1980. It seems almost ungener-
neoliberalism (though he refrains from using ous to ask Unger how, precisely, we are to go
the word): about weakening the influence of money in
Flexibility—the watchword of the orthodoxy of politics and reversing the decline of labor as a
markets and globalization—is rightly under- political and economic force. But it is not un-
stood to be a code word for the generalization reasonable that readers, when opening a book
of insecurity. The parties that claim an histori- titled What Should the Left Propose?, expect
cal connection with the Left are seen to oscil- to find answers to questions like this.
late between a shamefaced collaboration with Those readers are in for a bit of a shock.
this program of insecurity, in the hope that For Unger does not say very much about how
through growth it will generate resources that his left’s proposals might take root, and at times
can be redirected to social spending, and a half- it’s not entirely clear what the proposals them-
hearted, weakened defense of traditional so- selves might mean. Take for example the fol-
cial contracts. lowing passage, which begins quite sensibly by
This could be read as a reasonably fair de- rejecting the idea of inevitable social progress,
scription of Clinton and Kennedy Democrats, both in its Marxist and Whiggish versions:
respectively. And it is underscored later in the We can no longer assume, as the liberals and
book when Unger lodges the standard com- socialists of the nineteenth century supposed,
plaint about the decline of labor in the United under the spell of now unbelievable dogma,
States: that the institutional conditions of material
progress naturally and necessarily converge
In no democracy, rich or poor, has the position
with the institutional requirements for the
of labor—its share of national income, its de-
emancipation of individuals from well-estab-
gree of internal segmentation, its level of orga-
lished social division and hierarchy. However,
nized power, influence, and security—degen-
we would be equally mistaken to suppose that
erated more dramatically over the last forty
these two sets of conditions inevitably conflict.
years than in the United States. It is a circum-
The Left must strive to identify the zone in
stance not only unjust and disempowering in

DISSENT / Winter 2007 ■ 119


which the two sets of conditions can be made (This does not, however, prevent Unger from
to intersect, and it must try to move society proposing a confiscatory tax on inheritances—
forward in that zone. or, as he puts it, “the simple abolition of the
A feature of the zone of intersection is that right of inheritance”—so that “social inherit-
in it practices have the property of a height- ance for all would gradually replace family in-
ened susceptibility to revision: by laying them- heritance for the few.”)
selves more fully open to revision they become How do we root a bias to greater equality
less like natural objects. They become more and inclusion in the organized logic of eco-
like us. They make it easier to engage in the nomic growth and technological innovation?
recombinations of people and resources that Basically, by making market dynamics more
are vital to practical progress. They subject to
dynamic than even the most exuberant
heightened scrutiny and pressure the arrange-
cybercapitalist has yet imagined, in order “to
ments on which all stable hierarchies of ad-
vantage depend.
produce a series of repeated breakthroughs in
the constraints on economic growth.” At the
By the time you’ve reached the end of the same time, we will set about creating a form
second paragraph, it’s a fair bet that you have of “high-energy democratic politics” that “re-
no idea who “they” are. But you know that quires a sustained and organized heightening
they’ve become more like us, and that they of the level of civil engagement,” including
seem to do good things. It is something of a plebiscites and other instruments of direct de-
disappointment, then, to go back over the syn- mocracy that will override fusty old constitu-
tax of this passage and realize that “they” are tional strictures and the friction-generating ef-
practices that inhabit a zone into which the fects of that pesky Madisonian separation of
left has moved society forward, and that the powers. We will thereby “arouse a fever of pro-
zone itself is a kind of place in which the in- ductive activity, not by suppressing the mar-
stitutional conditions of material progress and ket but by broadening opportunities to partici-
the institutional requirements for the emanci- pate in it,” even as we “impose on the creations
pation of individuals neither converge nor con- of such feverish productive activity a rigorous
flict but intersect. As an answer to the peren- mechanism of competitive selection.” If this
nial question, What is to be done?, this has to sounds like a paradox, surely it is no less a para-
be about as diffuse as it gets. dox than the idea of creating a new branch of
government devoted to the creation of cease-

nd yet, there is a sense in which Unger less flux, a kind of Megadepartment for the
is at his best when he is at his most dif- Fomenting of Constant Change, “equipped
fuse, because some of his specific pro- with both the practical resources and the po-
posals are even more baffling than this. To un- litical legitimacy to undertake a task for which
derstand the nature of those proposals, one the traditional Legislature, Executive, and Ju-
needs to realize that when Unger speaks of the diciary are ill suited.” That task, Unger ex-
Dictatorship of No Alternatives and humanity’s plains, “is to intervene in particular social or-
desperate need to overthrow it, he is not just ganizations and practices that have become
talking about the narrow spectrum of politics little citadels of despotism, and to reconstruct
in the United States, where the center has them.”
shifted so far to the right that tepid Clintonian Fortunately, such an institution will not
triangulation has become the left wing of the become a citadel of despotism itself, be-
possible; he’s dissenting from the idea that the cause it will work in the service of high-en-
projects of egalitarian social justice should be ergy democracy, and, as Unger writes, a
funded by the redistribution of wealth. Instead, “deepened, high-energy democracy wants to
Unger’s project seeks “to root a bias to greater enhance our ordinary powers, enlarge the
equality and inclusion in the organized logic scope of our ordinary sympathies and am-
of economic growth and technological innova- bitions, and render more intense our ordi-
tion rather than making it rest on retrospec- nary experience.” But this is not all such a
tive redistribution through tax and transfer.” democracy wants—for there is no reason to

120 ■ DISSENT / Winter 2007


think a man’s reach should exceed his grasp: organizations that would have to do the first-
line work of preparation and support. On re-
The overriding goal to which this practice and
turning home, transformed by the experiences
this project are directed is to make us bigger,
of the whole world, these missionaries of con-
both individually and collectively, and to make
structive action would change the tenor of na-
us more equal, in circumstance as well as in
tional life. It is simply one example among
opportunity, only insofar as inequality dimin-
many of how a problem considered to lie be-
ishes and confines us. The aim is less to hu-
yond the reach of reform may in fact be
manize society than it is to divinize humanity:
brought within it.
to bring us to ourselves by making ourselves
more godlike. I am not sure what “problem” Unger is address-
Let no one fault such a proposal for lack of ing here, unless there is a shortage of Norwe-
ambition. Still, when Unger speaks of “the gian service missionaries of which I am un-
need to give people a better chance to live a aware. I will say, though, that this one example
big life, transfigured by ambition, surprise, and makes me curious to hear more in this vein. I
struggle,” I have to wonder whether the un- am particularly eager to learn what role will be
ambitious among us might decide to pass on assigned to Canadians.
the chance. For it doesn’t require too much Some of What Should the Left Propose?
imagination to suppose that some people, of- elaborates a kind of creative self-contradiction,
fered the opportunity to live a big life transfig- as when, not long after he excoriates liberal-
ured by ambition, surprise, and struggle, might ism for “the hope that through growth it will
prefer simply to have a decent, stable job, generate resources that can be redirected to
health care, a couple of weeks’ vacation to go social spending,” he proposes a value added tax
fishing, and a reliable pension fund that will whose regressive effects “may be more than
allow them to retire and spend some time with compensated not only by the redistributive so-
the grandkids. Boring, I know, but then, some cial spending it makes possible but also by the
of my best friends are boring. opportunity-creating potential of the larger pro-
gram it may help support.” For all its incoher-
n fairness to Unger, some of his specific ence, though, creative self-contradiction is fi-

I proposals are utopian in the best sense. He

would like, for example, to rebuild civil so-
ciety by compelling each of us to come face to
nally preferable to the tangles entailed in
Unger’s critiques of American liberals’ reliance
on the judiciary with regard to racial integra-
tion, affirmative action, and abortion. Sound-
face with the facts of our mutual dependence:
ing more like Antonin Scalia than Martin
Checks sent through the mail are not enough. Luther King, Jr., Unger decries “the attempt
The principle must be established that every by the progressives to use judicial politics to
able-bodied adult will have a position in both circumvent political politics” with regard to
the production system and the caring economy: racial justice; and with regard to abortion,
part of a working life or of a working year which he considers as part of a larger “mod-
should be devoted to participating in the pro- ernist agenda,” he writes, “the decision by the
vision of care for the young, the old, the in-
progressives not only to espouse the modern-
firm, the poor, and the desperate.
ist agenda, but to enforce it by federal power
But, for another example (only two pages later), and federal law was a practical calamity. To-
he would also like “the willing elements of the gether with the racial orthodoxy, it helped di-
Norwegian people to become an international minish the chances of winning the support of
service elite,” a supra-racial working-class majority for a pro-
taking the whole world as their horizon for a gressive national project.” Unger is scrupulous
broad range of entrepreneurial, professional, enough to admit that his alternative “addresses
and philanthropic activities. The government— a constituency that does not yet exist: a work-
by the terms of this Carthaginian solution— ing-class majority able to transcend in its com-
would act as a master venture capitalist and mitments racial and religious differences,” but
instigator, helping spawn the broad array of otherwise he seems unaware of the practical

DISSENT / Winter 2007 ■ 121


politics on the ground: he claims it was a “mis- American institution worship.” And it is strange
take” to support War on Poverty programs “that that anyone with a decent respect for justice
circumvented the machines of traditional work- or liberty would fail to see that a regime dedi-
ing-class politics in the large cities,” as if those cated to eroding or abolishing the separation
machines, prior to the 1960s, were not as ra- of powers might very well seek to circumvent
cially exclusive as any country club; and when the rule of law—even the principle of habeas
it comes to abortion, he sounds eerily like corpus—rather than to create a dynamic, ex-
Ralph Nader. citing, high-energy democracy. But then, part
The means by which to accomplish both the of the strangeness of What Should the Left Pro-
tactical and the programmatic goal is to return pose? is its untimeliness: neither global nor do-
to the states the decision concerning the is- mestic U.S. events over the past five years have
sues in contest. The almost certain result led Unger to reconsider his faith in the trans-
would be divergence among the states in the formative power of an unfettered executive
relative weight they would give to each agenda, capable of breaking through the gridlock of
and the consequent deepening of the national politics as usual.
debate. With respect to the star moral-agenda

issue of the day, poor women who would need he history of the twentieth century
to travel from states forbidding abortion to has led him to acknowledge that ap-
those permitting it would be the greatest vic- peals to our utopian potential have
tims. The burden, however, could be lifted by sometimes gone awry: “After the ideological
the simple expedient of organizing to transport and institutional adventures of the twentieth
them to the permitting states, and paying for century, with their terrible record of oppres-
their transport. It is a small price to pay for the sion in the name of redemption, much of hu-
cutting of the Gordian knots that now threat- manity may have reason to be wary of pro-
ens [sic] to strangle the progressive cause in posals to reorganize society. It may prefer to
America. resign itself to small victories in the defense
Leaving aside for now the condescension of old rights or in the achievement of new ad-
dripping from the phrase “the star moral- vantages.” But guess what? Unsurprisingly, the
agenda issue of the day,” I have to acknowl- advocate of surprise closes by reassuring
edge that I’m puzzled by what Unger consid- much of humanity that such resignation to in-
ers “simple.” Earlier he’d spoken of “the simple crementalism is “an illusion fueled by a lack
abolition of the right of inheritance,” and now of imagination,” and that “acts of defiance that
he speaks of “the simple expedient of organiz- seem impossible may, once practiced, seem
ing to transport [women needing abortions] to inevitable.” It’s the same old Utopia in the
the permitting states.” So let’s say that each of end, then, to be achieved the traditional
the states that voted for Bush in 2004 passes way—practice, practice, practice. And in this
a ban on abortion. That means that a woman Utopia, everything will be devoted to a con-
in Colorado or Texas need merely hop on the stant creation of the new, except the work of
shuttle to Illinois or California in order to ter- Roberto Mangabeira Unger, who, whatever
minate an unwanted pregnancy. A simple ex- else happens, will continue to make the same
pedient, this, and a small price to pay for the case he’s made for decades. •
deepening of democracy.
It is strange that anyone identifying with Michael Bérubé is the author of What’s Liberal
the left in the Constitution-shredding era of About the Liberal Arts? (Norton, 2006) and
Bush II would complain about “the cult of the Rhetorical Occasions (University of North Carolina
Constitution” as “the supreme example of Press, 2006).

122 ■ DISSENT / Winter 2007