Doing something

John Dunn

  • Politics: A Work of Constructive Social Theory by Roberto Mangabeira Unger
    Cambridge, 256 pp, £25.00, January 1988, ISBN 0 521 32974 4
  • The Critical Legal Studies Movement by Roberto Mangabeira Unger
    Harvard, 128 pp, £15.25, October 1986, ISBN 0 674 17735 5
  • W.A. Mozart: ‘Le Nozze di Figaro’ by Tim Carter
    Cambridge, 180 pp, £27.50, February 1988, ISBN 0 521 30267 6

In the opening act of The Marriage of Figaro the music master Don Basilio twits Susanna with the absurdity of her sexual tastes. How odd not to prefer, as anyone else would do, the favours of a signor liberal, prudente e saggio to those of a giovinastro and a paggio (a callow adolescent and a mere page). The page Cherubino, despite his giddy youth and relatively menial role, is of course a lad of good family. The post in the Count’s regiment to which he is so unavailingly despatched carries the rank of an officer; and both Mozart’s music and Beaumarchais’s own commentary on his character make it evident that he is intended to be exceedingly attractive. (He is ‘what every mother, in her innermost heart, would wish her own son to be even though he might give her much cause for suffering’.) Don Basilio, moreover, is scarcely an engaging character. But in his sleazy way he captures compellingly enough a prominent feature of the erotic power structure of the Ancien Régime. With only the most modest assistance from nature, any nobleman who was generous as well as worldly could be confident of finding attractive women in plenty who could be relied upon to fall for his charms.

It is difficult for us today to hear the long duel of wits between the Count and his spirited servants without a sense of the prodigious upheavals which followed so closely upon the opera’s Vienna premiere. In fact, however, the Ancien Régime, especially in Vienna, long outlasted the revolutionary armies; and the regimes that have followed it across the globe have all, unsurprisingly, proved to possess erotic power structures of their own. To see any social milieu as sharply as Beaumarchais, Da Ponte and Mozart contrived between them to portray the Almaviva house-hold is to see it in many different ways at once – Tim Carter’s useful Cambridge Handbook focuses, in its closing pages, on this aspect of the work’s achievement. Above all, it is to see clearly both the flimsy arbitrariness and the tense patterns of force that enable it for the most part to retain its shape over lengthy periods of time.

To understand the work of Roberto Unger – to see clearly both its flimsy arbitrariness and the patterns of force which enable it for the most part to retain a shape that is genuinely its own – it would be charitable to begin with the insinuating melodies, the subtlety and the unsurpassable vitality of Figaro. Partly this is simply a matter of political perspective. The key historical experience that lies behind the tradition of political action to which Unger belongs is not the Terror and the guillotine, the forging of the brutal instruments of Jacobin state power. Rather, it is the sudden, decisive and almost wholly unanticipated collapse in the plausibility of a social order centred on nobility and its privileges. Two and a half years after Figaro’s premiere, in the midst of the political ferment that preceded the meeting of the Estates General, the avocats of Nuits-St-Georges (in part, lackeys of feudalism but also a prime source of the Third Estate’s revolutionary leadership) were still assuring their noble counterparts of their loyalty to the status pieties of the old regime: ‘The privileges of the nobility are truly their property. We will respect them all the more because we are not excluded from them and because we can acquire them ... Why, then, suppose that we might think of destroying the source of emulation which guides our labours?’ A mere three years later, in France itself, this genuflection before the pretensions of a parasitic caste had become absurd, and was to remain so throughout the Napoleonic Empire and the Bourbon restoration. In 1789, by any reckoning, the privileges of a landed aristocracy had been at the core of the European social order for well over half a millennium. But by 1789 – and despite the prominence of individual aristocrats in French industry, science and letters, to say nothing of the civil or military spheres of public life – this centrality had long outlived any apparent rationale. When challenged frontally, as it was in France, it wilted under the weight of its own crushing implausibility.

The Almaviva household, despite its different geographical provenance, offers an apt microcosm for this faltering world. But it also provides an exemplary instance of Unger’s central conception: the formative context. Everyone in the household reacts incessantly to the power, ill-temper, appropriativeness and spoilt charm of the Count himself. The more robust, to be sure, scheme with some success to outwit and thwart him. But to do so requires all the energy, intelligence and luck they can summon up. All their resources and opportunities come from and are bounded by their roles within the household. All the characters of any consequence take it as the frame of their lives. None considers any clear alternative to it; and all consequently bend their wills and sensibilities and powers of accommodation to make the best of the opportunities which it affords. Whatever their previous experiences (or their parts in earlier plays or subsequent operas), all accept and develop their identities in relation to it. They are who they are, as well as what they are, because this is where they have come to belong. However, each could equally well be – and many of them might still become – someone very different. No modern work of political interpretation (and a fortiori no work of would-be social science) has even come close to capturing this weird balance, lying at the heart of every human society as it lies at the heart of every individual life, between the ludicrous humiliations of the actual and the dignity and even brilliance of at least some among the myriad possibilities which it always and necessarily excludes. What Roberto Unger sets himself to try to do is to capture for his own political purposes, and on behalf of the victim/beneficiaries of modern higher education, a sense of how our lives are shaped and what they really mean which does as much justice to them as Mozart’s Figaro so triumphantly achieves. This is an ambition which could scarcely hope to elude a degree of frustration. Politics is an intemperate and sometimes bombastic work. It gives a lengthy procession of hostages to academic fortune and is in the end more of a failure than it is a triumph. But in the face of the spiteful scorn of the more self-consciously temperate members of the academy, it is in many ways a magnificent – even an enviable – failure.

Like Rousseau, Unger thinks well of the potentialities of virtually every human being (at least at some stage in their lives), but poorly of every instance of a human civilisation. Unlike Rousseau, however, he also thinks well of the progress of the arts and sciences: the extension of human powers. Indeed, he appears even to think favourably (and thus, among radicals, unfashionably) of the increase in human powers of aggression and destruction. This last taste, an especially blatant hostage to academic fortune, consorts awkwardly with Unger’s vigorous emphasis on the significance of human vulnerability and is particularly surprising in the light of the role of organised destructive power in his own country of origin, Brazil. The third volume of Politics, Plasticity into Power, suggests that it is principally the contribution of military competition to destabilising the most protracted structures of economic, political and social repression, especially over the last few centuries of world history, that has led Unger to regard it with such incontinent enthusiasm. The contribution of organised coercive power to securing or disrupting existing social orders is an intricate and vexed enough issue to render any confident system of political accountancy heavily suspect, but it is hard to believe that Unger’s assessment here is wholly coherent – let alone prudent or wise.

Like Bakunin, he remains intractably convinced that the lust for destruction is an essentially creative lust. The ‘principle of pitiless recombination’, which for him is both the lesson of history and a political slogan, requires the ‘smashing’ of existing human institutions or practices in the quest for less arbitrarily constrained and emotionally dismaying human habitats. But it offers no guarantee whatever that such habitats will in fact appear. To anyone less sanguine in their sense of historical momentum than Unger himself, therefore, this zest for destruction is apt to appear more an unenticing quirk of temperament than a rational conclusion, and the courses of action which it recommends are likely to seem as frivolous and discreditable as they are alarming. Juxtaposed with the blend of ardour and gentleness which he commends elsewhere – ‘the chance to be both great and sweet’ – this zest for destruction suggests a certain lack of self – knowledge. When complemented by the venomous ingenuity of his attacks on virtually every school of social, political or economic understanding among his academic peers, this rather evident vulnerability makes it less than surprising that Unger should have amassed a considerable array of academic enemies.

These critics are not simply wrong to judge his writings capable of doing a great deal of harm. For one thing, every form of social understanding of the slightest cognitive power (along with plenty which have no cognitive power whatever) is capable of doing a great deal of harm; and Unger himself acknowledges that any major project of social transformation may well turn out to be massively and brutally unsuccessful in practice. But it certainly does not follow that there is nothing important to be learnt from his urgent and idiosyncratic voice.

Like most radical social thinkers (perhaps like all social thinkers), Unger is decidedly more compelling in negation than he is in affirmation. What marks him off from his radical contemporaries and 20th-century predecessors is the integrity and ambition of his historical vision and his relative immunity, at least at the level of institutional allegiance, to the accumulated political superstitions of the last two centuries.

Besides the three volumes of Politics (itself presumably an incomplete work), he has published two further books in the course of the present decade: Passion: An Essay on Personality and The Critical Legal Studies Movement. The last of these is the briefest and in some ways the most accessible of his works. A manifesto for the academic tendance named in its title, it explains how the ‘modernist’ ideal of the most aspiring of American law students today, self-affirmation in the attempt to transform the society to which they belong, could be secured against the conformist corruptions of ‘a world of broken dreams and paper-pushing’ by the students being brought to share their radical teachers’ ‘sense of living in history’. The movement’s impact upon some of the major American law schools is celebrated without undue modesty in a closing valediction to its more worldly (and numerous) opponents: ‘When we came, they were like a priesthood that had lost their faith and kept their jobs. They stood in tedious embarrassment before cold altars. But we turned away from those altars and found the mind’s opportunity in the heart’s revenge.’ Unger himself is a professor at Harvard Law School.

This domestic drama is plainly of some importance in assessing the prospective impact of Unger’s new work. But it is less than revealing about either its intention or its significance. For all the intensity, even virulence, of its political motivation, Politics is unmistakably an academic work. But it has no special affinity with the law schools of North America and is on the whole best understood in terms of the two, very different political experiences which stand behind it. One of these is the turbulent polities of Brazil, the vast, disorganised and economically dynamic Third World power which he still aspires to play a major political role. The second is the student radicalism and political disruptions of the summer of 1968. In one sense, Politics is an attempt to work out a systematic way of assessing what to hope for and what to fear in the politics of Brazil over the next few decades. In another, more accessible and immediate sense, it is an intellectual effort to rescue from the by now pretty stolid condescension of posterity the vivid hopes of 1968.

In Politics Unger sets himself to show – on the whole with remarkable success – that the exotic farrago of intellectual fads and sly practical insights into the fragility of modern academic or political institutions that went into the making of that extraordinary year were in fact elaborately and interestingly related. To set the experiences of 1968 in the grandest possible historical context (a context in which their participants were themselves much inclined to set them) does nothing to diminish the preference most university teachers might have for cold altars, but it does suggest that the teachers’ natural (and widely shared) relief at the transitoriness of its upheavals is unlikely to prove permanent. The one clear practical lesson of 1968 no doubt remains that the disruption of universities is intensely disagreeable for most of their full-time employees. But as to why exactly it all happened and what it all meant we are scarcely much wiser now than we were in advance of the experience, twenty years ago. The academic component of Unger’s work (by far the largest proportion) helps both to clarify what did in fact take place, especially in France, in the early summer of that year and to explain why we have made so little subsequent progress in understanding this.

At the centre of what occurred in 1968 was a sudden lapse in the credibility, in the face of active and mocking challenge, of a range of prominent social institutions: universities especially, but also mass media, industrial plants, even legislatures. In retrospect, the practical consequences of this loss in credibility were brief. But what restored the viability of the institutions in question was seldom or never a comprehensive restoration of their credibility. For Unger himself, this transitory faltering in the practical authority of a variety of modern institutions was not just a passing echo of earlier and far more momentous debacles like those of 1789 and 1917. Rather, it was then and remains now an instance of the thrilling secret that lies at the core of human existence. To his more conservative critics, by contrast, it was merely an index of how foolishly and destructively human beings can still behave in even the best-arranged of social orders, and, for the more reflective perhaps, a harsh reminder of how ineradicable these follies are likely to prove. The force of this latter point of view is not hard to capture. But it has taken a great deal of intellectual effort and independence of mind on Unger’s part to lend any real cogency to his drastically different appraisal.

Three main elements go into this obstinately alternative point of view. One is Unger’s conception of the nature of human personality and the particular structures of undelusive reward and self-exposing engagement that make a human life a good life. This conception is set out at length in his earlier work Passion. For all its intriguing blend of scepticism and ardour, however, Passion is very vaguely and abstractly written and presents the most exposed and least convincing element in his thinking. The ‘modernist’ conception of personality which he affirms privileges fluidity and the itch to revise oneself and scorns the lives of those who ‘fail to participate in the idyll of moral success’ as ‘an oscillation between routine reflected in boredom and routine denied but re-affirmed in diversion’. Boredom he sees as ‘the weight of unused capacity’, while diversion is ‘the search for novelty without peril’. The resulting vision of the lives of others (those deaf to the idyll of moral success) is remarkably snobbish.

The two remaining elements in his strategy are altogether more robust. They are also more intimately and stably related to one another. The first is essentially (and very powerfully) negative: an assault on the social obtuseness and inadvertent superstition of the leading modern academic styles of social understanding. It is not the sort of attack that is likely to impress the more assured and sophisticated practitioners of these styles, since they will inevitably feel that it fails to register the delicacy and intellectual poise of their own proceedings. But anyone who has spent a few decades in the academy attempting to understand modern societies and their politics, and who does not feel himself the fortunate possessor of a clear and dependable intellectual method for the purpose, will have no difficulty in grasping what Unger is rejecting, and a fair number will have little difficulty in judging that he is basically right in his negations. His case is set out at length in the introductory volume to Politics, Social Theory: Its Situation and its Task. The modern academic social sciences, for the most part, conceive social, political and economic causality in terms of one or other structure of necessity. But Unger insists, in the spirit of 1968, that what causes human societies to retain or change their shape as they do is never appropriately seen as a process of rigid determination or necessitation. Rather, it is always a product of the volatile and elusive motions of the imagination: of accident, sequence, and the ways in which these lead human beings to see and feel about the settings in which they live. The idea of the ‘formative context’, the third element in his strategy of understanding, combines an acknowledgment of the deep impress of milieu on the individual, and its often protracted fixity, with the insistence that there never are deep structural reasons or sets of closed and potentially discoverable causes why any human milieu is just as it is, and therefore that there never is the slightest guarantee that it cannot and will not at any point be rendered decisively different.

This does not mean, of course, that if it is indeed altered, it will necessarily be changed, by any standard, for the better. It merely establishes, analytically and unsuperstitiously, the potential openness to history and human agency of any set of human social arrangements. Unger himself is deeply disturbed by passivity and clearly has no time at all for the view that human beings are seldom so innocently employed as when they are doing virtually nothing. The ‘radical project’, the spiritual presence which hovers over his more analytic views and inspires his crusade for social and economic equality, political autonomy, solidarity and the infinite entitlement to recompose one’s identity, has been a pretty equivocal presence in modern history. The Ancien Régime, for all its handsome contributions to the douceur de vivre, has few open defenders in the cosmopolitan politics of today, but the circumstances of its ending have cast a long shadow. The radical project in Unger’s rendering may no longer promise anything definite at all. But it hints urgently and highly selectively that less absurd, more generous and more fulfilling ways of life lie well within our grasp. This may be so: and we certainly cannot know it not to be so. But for all the ingenuity and energy of his institutional explorations, Unger himself gives no compelling reason for supposing that the rewards of acting as though it were so will in any general way outweigh the costs.

Unger himself is an acute observer of the politics of the Left and a powerful and accurate critic of many of its more hallowed political nostrums. But the least convincing aspect of his work is the strictly political judgment that lies behind it: the sense of how to think and write and speak and act in order to nudge history in the direction in which one would wish it to go. Himself a spell-binding lecturer and a singularly compelling presence in (as he might put it) ‘personal encounter’, he does nothing to dissipate the suspicion that radical intellectuals may still prove a major menace to their fellow citizens. (‘A central question for liberal political doctrines is. What should sensible people do to protect themselves from the zealots in their midst?’) The less securely passé the year 1968, the more unnerving the suspicion.

The fondest audience for Politics is likely to come from the ranks of radical intellectuals themselves, now at last presented with an intellectually coherent (or almost coherent) recuperation of their animosities and aspirations. The most hostile will no doubt come from those who most resent its author playing the Pied Piper of Hamelin to the great law schools of North America (so many rungs up from the avocats of Nuits-St-Georges). But the audience it best deserves would be broader and rather different from either of these. Above all, it would be an audience genuinely interested in the question of what (if anything beyond the replication of endangered academic employment) human beings might need social theories for. Politics is an uneven and undisciplined work as well as one of great intellectual vigour. But it is also the boldest attempt for many decades to show how closely understandings of the character of our own lives and of their social and political settings depend upon one another.