‘The real objective is a greater life.’ Notes from Roberto Unger: The Progressive Agenda Now

Solidarity mural
Hands in Solidarity, Hands of Freedom mural on the side of the United Electrical Workers trade union building on West Monroe Street at Ashland Avenue in Chicago, Illinois. (BY-NC-ND 2.0 Terence Fairclough)

Roberto Unger is a Professor of Law at Harvard. He taught Barack Obama back in the day, and apparently urged Americans to reject Obama’s bid for a second-term. Ouch.

He’s also advised progressive movements and parties around the world – and he served in President Lula’s government in Brazil. Great lefty credentials. Huge Wikipedia bio here.

He spoke at LSE last week and was in the UK to lecture, sell books and talk with Ed Miliband (more on whom later).

I’ve seen Unger’s name mentioned often, but never actually read his work. So this was an enlightening evening: a brilliant speaker, with challenging things to say. The BBC presenter suggested Unger was adopting the views of John Stuart Mill, which was true on the ‘experiments in living’ front, but to me he seemed to be channeling Aristotelian ideas of human flourishing and a greater life.

Highlights in bold, but it’s worth reading it all.

Unger’s thesis is that the left’s project has failed. It needs complete renewal.

“The progressives have no project – it’s the right’s, but with a humanising quality.”

Instead, we must redefine the object of progressive politics. Not as ‘rigid equality of outcome – no one wants to live in Sparta’, but as ‘greater life’.

The real objective is a greater life. In terms of capability, scope, quality for ordinary men and women. The struggle for equality is subsidiary to that larger goal. The aim is the expansion of humanity by the transformation of the structure of society. The left has abandoned structural ambitions and settled for humanising the establishment. Especially through compensatory redistribution though tax and transfer. This is not good enough – none of the problems of contemporary society can be settled through this approach.”

“It’s not good enough to regulate the market or reduce inequalities – it’s necessary to transform  them. More people, more markets, more access, more ways. To give a larger part of society access to advanced forms of production and learning.

“We cannot settle for the low-energy democracies that exist today. They inhibit transformation, they rely on crisis to lead to change. We need institutional innovations that raise the temperature of politics, and greater organised popular engagement in public life.”

How do we do that?

“Demonstrate the power of politics to transform pieces of structure. The only antidote to the experience of the impotence of politics is persistence in the use of politics. Innovations that hasten the pace of politics; that allow for localities to experiment; that establish in the state the power to rescue groups from exclusion.

So was Russell Brand right to urge people not to vote?

“No. This is wrong. If we abandon attempts for collective solutions and withdraw into private life, we establish a self-fulfilling prophecy in politics.

“There is a solution: small initiatives that prefigure big changes. Use little things to break big things. Each individual can do something according to his circumstance. His power to exercise this potential increases immensely in collective action.”

Sounding surprisingly like Nesta / the Design Council / IDEO, Unger also talked about new methods of production (was he talking about 3D printers? Not sure). And permanent innovation. Right now, this is ‘confined to advanced sectors of the economy, and weakly linked to the rest.’ But ‘SMEs should cooperate to change the character of the market economy.’

We must develop a vast array of experiments. We must make mistakes as quickly as possible. Create a system in which we don’t require crisis in order to change. Europe required two world wars to create a peaceful system. Then they went back to sleep…and now Europeans are drowning their sorrows in consumption.” [I love this.]

The one issue Unger did talk specifically about was education in the UK. Perhaps a special message for Michael Gove:

“Education needs to be analytical, not informational; needs to prefer selective deepening to encyclopaedic artificiality; needs to work by teaching and sharing, not by individualism in the classroom. What we have now in Britain is a retrograde national curriculum conforming to backward-looking international tests. We need a strong presence of the state to move the goalposts, to redefine the objective of education, to create state schools better than any private schools. Then give great latitude to local authorities in experimentation. If we create space for innovation without changing the framework [i.e. free schools], nothing will transform.”

And on devolution (only one year away from the Scottish referendum, which seems to have gone a bit quiet):

“Another British problem is that you set up devolution as a battle against central power. But the impulse to devolve will persist and become more radical. It doesn’t have to mean withdrawal. It can mean the creation of counter-models of the national future. This can partner a central power. A unitary state can become the ally of radical devolution at the roots.” [Scotland – especially in care, education and health – seems to be doing a good job of providing a counter model.]

And the Labour party – and his meetings with Miliband?

“I do believe that Labour is searching for an alternative. New Labour’s idea was to accept the financialisation of the British economy, accept humanised neoliberalism, accept engagement of Britain within the global economic order and to seek to achieve some benefits to spread around through social programmes. Now there seems to be a conviction that that path is not good enough. Two examples: it’s not good enough to raise the nominal wage, we have to address the structural problem (by including part of the labour force that finds itself outside long-term employment). And on finance and the real economy: it’s not good enough to regulate finance when we need to enlist finance for the productive agenda in society.

“In UK, there’s a dichotomy set up between bureaucratic state delivery or private sector delivery. But there is a third option: the state should operate at the floor, guaranteeing a universal minimum, and at the ceiling, developing the costliest and complex services. In the middle, the state should engage non-profits in experimental provision of public services. This will enhance quality and provoke independent self-organisation.”

What’s stopping us?

“In the UK, only cosmopolitan finance would be irreconcilable to my ideas.”

Meanwhile, across the Atlantic:

“The Democratic party has failed to come up with the sequel to FDR’s New Deal. It’s relinquished its structural ambitions and resigned itself to humanising the project of Republicanism. As a result, power in the US has been wielded as a simple formula: material concessions to the moneyed, immaterial to the moneyless (in defence of their moral anxieties and commitments). Would-be progressive democrats have no project. They’ve surrendered.”

Zooming out again, to international affairs:

“It is intolerable that we embrace a form of globalisation in which money and goods acquire ability to move around, but people are imprisoned in nation-states. The inadequacy of money transfers as social cement becomes more apparent. This is not a  sufficient basis for social solidarity. Solidarity isn’t cheques. Solidarity is transcending the bounds of selfishness. Every able-bodied adult in a solidaristic society has two positions: in the productive/learning system, and in their responsibility to take care of others for part of their life or working year. As an aspect of their membership of society. Without this, how can there be solidarity?”

Aren’t we all a bit busy?

“Time expands. The supreme good is life. This is the good that we waste. We waste it in providential futures of divine intervention. All we have is now. Life in the present. Our highest objective, both personal and political, must be to awaken and come into fuller possession of life, and to rearrange society so that it discourages us from squandering this supreme growth.” [Wow.]

“We can’t radically change what we are like now. We’re not replacing ourselves with another being – a being that is selfless, solidaristic and heroic. It’s rather that we currently undertake activities that ordinarily accept the current framework and then we come to challenge it only in extreme moments. Instead, our ordinary activities must gradually expand: the piecemeal rearrangement becomes part of the ordinary business of life.”

“During the two world wars, Western suicide/depression rates were at the lowest point of the century. In circumstances of crisis, people were drawn into something that was larger than themselves. We shouldn’t need a world war, we should do that in ordinary activity.”

“We take a risk, we democrats and experimentalists. We subject our conjecture to the test of historical experience. Humanity may reject it. But that’s the gamble.”



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