What Should the Left Propose?

While in Italy I read a new book from Brazilian political theorist Roberto Mangabeira Unger called What Should the Left Propose? I don’t tend to identify with the label “left” these days (and certainly not “right”!) but I’m still interested in what different thinkers are coming up with as they try to grapple with this odd moment in history. So many friends and acquaintances are groping for something effective, something that will make a difference, and yet I can’t think of any current initiatives that overcome the dead-ends with which we are already all too familiar.

Unger, who I first saw cited by David Harvey in his stimulating Spaces of Hope, has been an advisor to the Brazilian Workers Party of Lula, currently in power, but I don’t know what the nature of his current relationship is. In this book he’s trying to offer an approach that can be adopted by the left in the global south and north, and in countries that are more or less democratic. His rhetoric falls rather short for me, as he tends to offer generalities about the kinds of social dynamics he wants to encourage, and the ways that current politics stunts us as individuals and as a society. At certain moments his ideas start to resonate, as when he says “political parties and social movements are insufficient instruments in this prophetic work,” indicating an idea that I too hold, that the political forms we’ve received are defunct and we must invent new ones. But later in the book he comes back around to his leftist roots and contradicts this insight by proposing that “To be fertile for the cause of democracy and for the program of the Left, high-temperature politics must be institutionalized rather than anti-institutional or extra-institutional. To this end, the political arrangements must favor whatever electoral regimes encourage the development of strong political parties, with well-defined programmatic profiles.”

To nurture his idea of “high-temperature politics” he makes a number of matter-of-fact proposals that in the U.S. context sound hopelessly naïve, e.g., the proposal that all private money should be removed from politics, and that all parties and movements have open and fair access to mass communications. I agree that such a reform would drastically bolster democratic tendencies within the U.S. body politic, but what kind of social power would be able to extract such an enormous leveling of the political field? It’s a bit of a Catch-22 proposal, to say the least, though he does at one point acknowledge that his program “addresses a constituency that does not yet exist: a working-class majority that is able to transcend its commitments to racial and religious divisions.”

I like some of what he says about democracy: “Democracy is about the permanent creation of the new.” He claims the kinds of reforms he is pushing would “turn democratic politics into a machine for the permanent invention of the future.” He makes a lot of lists and one of them describes five parts that would constitute a “high-energy democracy”” the fifth would combine elements of representative democracy with direct democracy (he thinks that in governments with “˜checks and balances’ any branch should be able to dissolve an impasse by calling an instant election that would allow citizens to vote directly either in plebiscites or for new representatives). “The goal is not only to melt structure without disorganizing politics; it is also to render commonplace in everyday life the experience of effective agency.” (p. 81)

At some moments he captures something important about what we’re trying to achieve, philosophically and psychologically. A fair amount of the book is spent debunking the common conceptions that underly European social democracy, or North Atlantic liberalism for that matter. He insists that the limited thinking that focuses on redistribution and amelioration of the worst oppressions is precisely wrong. He wants a Left politics that speaks to the broad population and incites their deep yearning to live big lives, to experience agency, to gain independence and at the same time to thrive in cooperative and competitive relationships.

“Self-construction depends on connection, and connection threatens to entangle us in toils of subjugation and to rob us of the very distinction that we can only develop thanks to it. There is a conflict between the enabling conditions of self-affirmation. To diminish that conflict is to become freer and greater, not by living apart but by living together while deepening the experience of self-possession.” (p. 102)

“No anxiety must be more central to democracy, and therefore to social democracy, than the fear that progress toward greater prosperity and equality may be unaccompanied by an advance in the capabilities and in the self-affirmation of ordinary humanity.” (p. 95)

The part of Unger’s work that I find most unpalatable (but I bet a lot of my less doctrinaire friends would find refreshing and creative) is his unabashed enthusiasm for market mechanisms. He is intelligently critical of the current ideological uses made of the idea of “free markets” but he rejects an anti-market position altogether.

“Leftists should not be the ones who seek to suppress the market, or even merely to regulate it or to moderate its inequalities by retrospective compensatory redistribution. They should be the people who propose to reinvent and to democratize the market by extending the range of its legal and institutional forms. They should turn the freedom to combine factors of production into a larger freedom to experiment with the arrangements that define the institutional setting of production and exchange.”

I really can’t figure out what this means if it isn’t a program that parallels the latest developments in capitalism. His concomitant proposals for lifelong education confirm that he is describing a program in which the logic of capital is encouraged to penetrate even further into the imaginations of everyone. Thinking in terms of markets, equity, capital and growth, while educating the broad population to be highly flexible and adaptable is almost exactly the cutting edge of capitalism these days. How odd that Unger’s program is so in tune with what we might call “googlism”: “Not only must the gateway to the existing advanced sectors be opened more widely but the methods of work and invention that flourish within these advanced sectors must be transplanted to many other parts of the economy and society.”

Of course his massive program of socially supported free education is a major investment; his primary practical suggestion for funding the huge reforms he favors is to impose a Value-Added Tax on consumption, which he acknowledges would be highly regressive at first. But he thinks if the state and new venture capitalist-like social entities that it helps fund with the greatly enlarged tax revenues produce tangible reforms in opportunity and education that people will come to support the short-term unfairness for the long-term gains.

This whole approach reminds me a bit of one of my first political experiences, the Tom Hayden campaign for U.S. Senate from California in 1976. At that time Hayden was espousing a doctrine he called “Economic Democracy” which by most accounts was a euphemism for socialism. But I found it quite inspiring when I was 19 years old. It felt like a way of breaking with the stodgy dogmatism of the left then. It probably still is. But breaking with the dead-end left can’t be achieved by embracing the real domination of capital, the complete subsumption of individual and social life under the logic of buying and selling. We have already lived through a radical expansion of that logic during this three-decade erosion of social rights, standards of living, and globalization.

I don’t think Unger is in any way in favor of reproducing and extending the society that is imposing itself on the planet today. And his book is an admirable attempt to describe some principles and even make practical proposals for radical reforms that would move the Left, or those of us who want humans to flourish in their full humanity, to a new self-conception. More importantly, Unger wants to describe social goals that might actually inspire most people to embrace a life of innovation and experimentation, trusting change and trusting each other, reaching new levels of self-actualization within a society based on high levels of social solidarity, flexibility and tolerance. That all sounds great! I just think the pernicious logic of the market, no matter how democratized, will keep pushing people into fetishized and alienated lives, a world where “Things are in the Saddle and Ride Mankind” as Ralph Waldo Emerson put it over 150 years ago.

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