The Enabling Boundary

Tom Nairn

  • What Should the Left Propose? by Roberto Mangabeira Unger
    Verso, 179 pp, £15.00, January 2006, ISBN 1 84467 048 1
  • The Self Awakened: Pragmatism Unbound by Roberto Mangabeira Unger
    Harvard, 277 pp, £19.95, February 2007, ISBN 978 0 674 02354 3
  • Une brève histoire de l’avenir by Jacques Attali
    Fayard, 432 pp, €20.00, October 2006, ISBN 2 213 63130 1

Dans mes bras, un cyclone imaginaire
flotte sur moi l’onde solitaire
Je suis la rivière qui penche
Le torrent qui s’élance
Je murmure sous la glace,
je connais les abîmes, les méandres irrésistibles,
Dans mes bras tourbillonne un cyclone
imperceptible, Sous mes pieds, des jardins imaginaires…

Anabase, ‘Le Bonheur flou’

These books don’t propose easy answers to the current dearth of centre-left initiative and hope. There are no quick third ways, rehabilitations and smart sideways leaps, and this makes them worth reading. The authors recognise the deep-seated errors of all the left-wing utopias that preceded the ascent of neoconservatism and insist that the latter’s victory wasn’t accidental, or avoidable. As a result, a much longer-range search is required for any change, which can no longer be a replacement, or a direct continuation. The recent French presidential election rubbed the point in painfully; as has the elevation of Gordon Brown on this side of the Channel.

Neither Roberto Unger nor Jacques Attali undervalues the achievements of social democracy, or indeed of state socialism. But both suggest that in either case any reprise or development now depends on finding a different framework of ideas, one different not merely from neoliberal capitalism but also from much that went before it. Unger bemoans the continuing absence of alternatives; his aim has consistently been to build up a substitute for Marxism. What Should the Left Propose?, published two years ago, was only one blow in a long guerrilla war. He has always held that a lot of earlier revolutionary dross should be discarded – and so should the assorted defeats and dead ends derived from it. This year’s The Self Awakened tries to help the left further down the road, and no doubt Free Trade Reimagined, due soon, will be another phase of his unstoppable campaign.

Unger speaks primarily about the left and what it should do, but the old right finds itself in a similar, and possibly worse, dilemma. The Cold War’s conclusion rerouted a whole world, not just some parts of it. ‘In history obedience rarely pays,’ Unger notes drily in his opening chapter. ‘What pays is defiance. To the question, however, about the directions defiance should take if it is to further the promises of democracy, there is not yet an answer.’ Here he is repeating an argument made in 1977 by Wittgenstein’s pupil and editor, Georg Henrik Von Wright, who pointed out in ‘What Is Humanism?’ that the real advances of humanism had always been marked by challenge and defiance. Only in forced retirement had humanism become associated with platitudes and wholesomeness. Advances had always depended on disturbers of the peace, proclaiming what most people didn’t want to hear (even when they were allowed to); that, he added bitterly, was why a new humanism stood so little chance in the gymnastic confrontation of the Cold War. With equally bitter hindsight, one can now say that it stood even less chance in the 1990s, after the great muscle-building contest had been won by Gym America, fostering the global chorus of what Attali, adopting a well-worn phrase, calls la pensée unique, neoliberalism.

Would it have been worse if the other side had won? More than likely, but we’ll never know, since the Soviet imperium collapsed from within. What we do know a lot more about today is the winner’s discomfiture. The US ‘hegemony’ that took over the wreckage is itself exhibiting symptoms of collapse, from without and within. Always raucous, the brass band of neoliberality has, as neoconservatism, become hilariously discordant. Encouraged by Francis Fukuyama, trombonists and drummers are deserting its ranks every day. Thus the ‘End of History’ has made way for the ‘New Wilsonianism’ prospected by Fukuyama last year in After the Neocons: America at the Crossroads, an acknowledgment that both history and nations are returning to bother everyone. The contrast between neoliberalism’s abstract visions and the weird reality of the 57+ varieties of managed capitalism actually engendered by globalisation has become too gross even for op-ed pedlars and ex-Trotskyists. One-party China, Putin’s Russia and Yudhoyono’s Indonesia account for about half the globe, and are founding (or refounding) themselves with myths more diverse than those that betrayed Marxism’s Internationale of souls.

Many of the latter have retreated into an odd secular limbo, hoping that the globe has only temporarily run out of stocks of socialism. Inmates make regular return visits to the old dwelling, rather like the returning dead in Anthony Minghella’s film Truly, Madly, Deeply. The ghosts’ favourite video was Brief Encounter, which they watched so often that they all knew the dialogue by heart and couldn’t resist mouthing it ahead of the actors. Their shepherd from beyond (Alan Rickman) knew this wasn’t what was needed: his mission was to make sure the living world continued having encounters with the unexpected, even the unthinkable. But he found it difficult to herd the spirits back when their time was up.

Such returnees are responding to felt needs, but it would be wrong to conclude that their opium tinctures entail any real revivals of former spells and promises. ‘More and more people sense an inner void and are looking for something more to their lives,’ says Sister Scholastika, a former grammar school teacher quoted earlier this year in a report in Der Spiegel on German monasticism in the 21st century. ‘We don’t offer instant happiness,’ she continues, ‘but we do offer spiritual encounters.’ More and more people visit monasteries and convents, the article notes; yet ever fewer decide to become monks and nuns.

In this time of waiting, hymns and prayers have occupied the vacuum. Some of the sister’s faithful believe that victims of secularisation can still be redeemed; and they are of course spurred on by the element of finality in globalisation: if not now, then most likely never. Conventional religiosity was bound to benefit from such a challenge, and not only in the US Midwest and the Muslim Middle East. But isn’t there an opportunity here for humanism as well? If, that is, it can learn enough from both 1990s triumphalism and earlier attempts at quick-fix hearts for the ‘heartless world’? It badly needs to reacquire the power to annoy people and to propose a seriously new set of ideas. And in curious and different ways, we find both Unger and Attali returning to something like Von Wright’s angle of vision. They don’t claim to have a formula in their inside pockets, any more than he did. But they do share a recognisably common direction and common perspectives: the horizon of democratisation.

We’re all petit bourgeois now, Unger maintains – it is the destiny of all former clans and classes. This is a world fate close to what Durkheim called ‘anomie’: an insecure and unavoidable privatisation, with individuals forced into a life-or-death search for more tolerable and viable communities. Kinship alone cannot found such a society. We can object that it was never enough. Didn’t community always depend on the wider structure made possible by languages and boundaries? In her recent study After Kinship (2004), Janet Carsten considered the legacy of the thesis put forward by Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities, and addressed some of its unanswered questions. ‘Why is it that the nation exercises such an extraordinary emotional appeal over its citizens? Why … are people prepared to lay down their lives for their country?’

Some of the answers may lie in the enabling detachment of kinship emotion from its original sources. Such feelings can be strengthened, even as they are diffused or redeployed. Because this kind of siblinghood is ‘metaphorical’, it doesn’t follow that it’s weaker, or watered down. This was a mistake made by Pierre van den Berghe in The Ethnic Phenomenon (1981), which envisioned nations as concentric circles diluting the physical kinship essence. In fact, such widening ripples may clarify the origins of ‘human nature’. And that can only be because social or second nature has its own ‘essence’, in some ways undercutting kinship. Social nature’s triumph derived from a partial transcendence of biology. Its form of ‘belonging’ can be chosen and self-conscious, in a way the familial source itself rarely required. Hence individuals may come to feel more strongly – and less ambivalently – about their clan, football team or nation, than about the parents, siblings and cousins who directly helped to form them.

This isn’t necessarily irrational. The broader framework pr0vides enhanced meaning and status, as well as powers far greater than those of natural family groups (there are exceptions, admittedly, like the Bush, Castro, Windsor and other dynasties). Behind this enhancement lies a powerful, indeed fundamental force. One might call it the enabling boundary. The import of Chomsky’s ‘deep grammar’ of communication is societal: meaningful voice is the crucial ‘institution’ that allows the formation of extra-familial units extensive enough to construct and transmit a plurality of second natures. Once constituted, these natures depend on ‘imagined communities’ in Anderson’s celebrated sense. Such communities are a decisive survival tool, because they embody what Peter Richerson and Robert Boyd, in Not by Genes Alone (2004), have described as ‘ultra-sociality’.

Human ultra-sociality is quite different from the communal networks formed among so many other species. As Durkheim showed in The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, homo sapiens gains its distinctive powers from a systematic projection of social capacities: that is, by inventing a ‘sacred’ dimension, which in turn both allows and demands a greater than familial entity, a ‘congregation’ or church. Far from being ‘irrational’, this tendency, as Durkheim suggested, may be what makes possible the emergence of ‘reason’, abstract thought and comparison. Richard Dawkins’s despised ‘God delusion’ must always have sustained the amplified forces of extra-kinship society – a far greater co-operative force than any extended family nexus could supply.

However, such power continues to depend on defining boundaries, even while it transcends them. As Fredrik Barth indicated in his classic Ethnic Groups and Boundaries, these borders are both given and made. And it is this making process that constitutes ‘identities’, whose common rules alone make possible a cross-generational engineering of the given. The emergence of ‘second nature’ from natural selection has always rested on ‘them and us’: it is the only effective form that ultra-sociality can assume. Tribalism may not be of the essence; tribalisms in the plural certainly are. From clan or tribe to contemporary nations, diversity in that sense has been the lever of survival and advance, and a necessary condition of societal (as distinct from biological) selection.

The French group Anabase presumably took its name from the rough up-country route of furthest antiquity: Xenophon’s story of Greek squaddies forced to quit Persia for home as best they could, via the unknown terrain of Black Sea Asia. On the way, they encounter the same sacred mystery as Herodotus: humanity’s preposterous variousness, the substance and the salt of being. This global route away from common or species universality has been a non-stop up-country trek in that sense: away from what Marx called ‘species-being’ towards diverse societal existences. Humans are at home only in Babel, the common matrix of individuality, religion, spirituality and philosophy. The genuine human essence remains one of forced makeshift, of improvisation made natural by a magic of collective will, the ever unexpected sometimes favouring the founding of new civilisations rather than the perpetuation of familiar ones.

In The Age of Extremes Eric Hobsbawm sketched an overview of the new terrain: a capitalism disoriented by its own victory, because deprived of serious alternatives. The barbarian hinterland and most pre-capitalist social traditions had only one way to go. ‘Non-economic group bonds and solidarities were now being undermined,’ along with the moral systems and faiths that had propped them up. Left alone in its victory, the world bourgeoisie would soon be without the alibi of aristocracies, vengeful reactionaries, wild-eyed utopians and myopic peasantries. Thatcher’s famous quip about there being ‘no such thing’ as society was a polemical gesture; but it turned out to have a profound resonance in a post-1989 culture in which politicians came to identify free trade with freedom, meaning primarily the liberty of individuals and consumer choice. As the whole rural globe made for the cities – their own if possible, but someone else’s would do – the old wind from paradise was in effect blowing itself out. Only debris remained, a ‘drama of collapsed traditions and values’ stretching to the edge of the world: the ultimate up-country route, without milestones or signposts, where even ‘the air we breathe’ can no longer be taken for granted.

Unger and Attali try to look unflinchingly at this horizon, and to suggest signposts and route-maps. Attali’s Fraternités (1999) is a valiant attempt to imagine new solidarities, social bonds deeper than those of class or ethnicity alone. In his 2005 biography of Marx, Attali identified the borderland origins of Marxism, as a would-be transnational ideology certain to be distorted by the emerging frontiers of 19th-century industrialisation and empire.[*] Now he tries to indicate an alternative by reappraising fraternity – the third revolutionary slogan so consistently sidelined by liberty and equality. Right and left commandeered the last two glibly enough; but there is something more resilient and earthy about brotherhood, a bodily resonance that challenges cut-and-run abstractions.

This particular signpost has additional merits: it points to a recent turn in theoretical speculation about family structure, away from the Freudian interest in parent-child relations and the pathology derived from them. And that turn has itself become indissociable from a much vaster rescanning of families in history. Göran Therborn’s Between Sex and Power: Family in the World, 1900-2000 (2004) sought a new fusion of anthropology and social history, arguing that the influence of familial structures should never have been taken for granted. Juliet Mitchell’s Siblings (2003) presented a revision of psychoanalytic theory, in which siblinghood receives greater attention: it has always been far more than a secondary complication, or an adjunct to gender and dependence. It stands to reason that membership of and identification with national imaginaries tends to be closer to active siblinghood than merely to childhood or emotional obedience. The ‘family’ of a country at war must be an entity of something like equals, sharers of a heart and will. Even if mythicised parents are invoked, it can only be presumed as the joint responsibility of true sibling-inheritors.

‘Siblings’ has to denote brothers and sisters. It can’t stand for Attali’s fraternité alone. Attali concedes this, admitting that the perils of fratricide and parricide have always darkened fraternity, and yet are largely absent from sorority. He skips over the point that the decline and fall of fraternal/paternal socialism have been accompanied by the rise of women’s movements. Sorority, rather than fraternity, has imposed itself as an irrecusable element for any new up-country navigation. Nobody claims that women’s equality has been realised; but denunciations of this failure now normally presume a growing affirmation of half the species, arrestable only temporarily by prejudice and religious counterclaims.

Attali tries to account for this growth with his concept of ‘hyper-democracy’. Globalisation of markets will be counterbalanced, and made tolerable, by an equivalent globalisation of democracy and the formation of a social or ‘relational’ economy in which profitability is only a necessary condition of development. Such ideas have become quite common: they resurface in both the Unger tracts, as well as in such books as Richard Sennett’s The Culture of the New Capitalism (2006). ‘Managed’ capitalism may be inevitable, but it is not fated to remain Reaganite, or Brownite.

In What Should the Left Propose? Unger sets out the following key idea: ‘The larger goal is a fuller mobilisation of national resources: a war economy without a war’, fostering ‘the institutions of a high-energy democracy’. Small nations can mean big, even universal lives and ideas; but they will go on requiring ‘a shield over national heresy’, a fostering of it, a mobilisation of resources ‘that allows petitioners to become rebels’. Traditional free trade functioned tolerably only via forms of protection – and globalisation will be no different.

Unger’s Brazilian background must be relevant here. In A Zone of Engagement (1992), Perry Anderson wrote of Ungerism as ‘a philosophical mind out of the Third World turning the tables, to become a synoptist and seer of the First’, though one exhibiting a ‘dream-like quality’ removed from most actual national torments and imperial threats. Though sometimes mistaken for a Third World patrician – his family has been prominent in Brazilian politics – Unger has lower-middle-class origins as good as anyone else’s, even if they were transposed to Harvard University. But some recognisably Brazilian attitudes may also have been transposed. One of the biggest developing nation-states of the 20th century, Brazil has also been amazingly detached from its typically warlike nationalism. Neutral in both great conflicts, Brazilians have been subjected to military rule but not to the mobilisation of popular mass passions, invasions and bombardment. The greatness of Brazil’s social innovations has been well described in Anthony Marx’s comparative account of Brazil, South Africa and the US, Making Race and Nation (1998). Ingenious, state-fostered institutions put the country far ahead of others by encouraging an active integration of post-slavery race and class: undoubtedly the reason Brazilian ‘chauvinism’ is today associated more closely with the soccer field than with colonisation or anti-colonial nationalism. This remarkable exemption from 20th-century norms may account for the ‘dream-like’ cadences of Unger’s legal-political prose. His arguments are overwhelmingly prescriptive lists of institutional changes that few will find undesirable and fewer still could imagine being implemented in, say, Wales, Finland, Kurdistan, Taiwan or Basra.

Think-tank manifestos normally address a specific population in a specific tongue, before being translated (with appropriate changes) for others. But Unger’s are written in a synthetic fusion of legal American and Brazilian that seems to belong everywhere and nowhere. The Self Awakened follows up on what was earlier proposed for ‘the left’ in all globalising continents; but it isn’t a policy directive so much as a repetition of a creed summed up, curiously, as follows: ‘The aim is less to humanise society than it is to divinise humanity: to bring us to ourselves by making ourselves more godlike … To divinise humanity is the effort to equip our constructive energy, diminishing the contrast between the intensity of our longings and the paltriness in which we waste our lives.’ Secular sociologists will hear echoes of Durkheim’s suggestion in The Elementary Forms of Religious Life that invocations of the divine are in fact evocations of society – the force that makes human nature effective in the first place. Hence becoming more godlike just means something like plural socialism, or the ‘altruism’ of the newer market economies. Gordon Brown was probably reared on this sort of thing. But perhaps he didn’t take it seriously enough. Instead, it seems to have prepared him for what Unger dismisses as ‘the vaunted synthesis of European-style social flexibility with American-style economic flexibility… a surrender disguised as a synthesis – a “third way”’.

While Unger dwells on this weirdly anational plane, Attali stays resolutely in France. His history of the future ends with a critical account of and recommendations for French input to the world of fraternity and hyper-democracy. Though published last year, the last section of Une brève histoire, ‘Et la France?’, could have been formulated for Sarkozy. Put to the test, voters definitely preferred centre-right realism to the old left comforts of Ségolène Royal. Loving their country as much as ever, they want a new one as well: a nation abreast of the new times in which managed capitalism has become the only feasible story, a nation probably best run by post-third-way cadres who take business and Baltic Europe seriously and are relatively indifferent to the American style of economics, diplomacy or anything else. I suspect this sounds out more strongly in the cadences of Anabase than in recent Parisian politics. In defence of Attali’s position, his credentials as a serious player in capitalist management should also be stressed: both his role at the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, and more recently with PlaNet Finance, a non-profit company devoted to the international promotion of micro-finance. In a sense not true of too many French and other intellos, he knows what he’s talking about.

Unger defines his overall project as a philosophy for escaping from ‘the dictatorship of no alternatives’ that globalisation has imposed. When it comes down to imagining where the escape might take shape, however, he falls back on big places: ‘The societies with the greatest potential to be seats of resistance may be the continental developing countries – China, India, Russia and Brazil,’ nations with ‘the practical and spiritual resources to imagine themselves as different worlds’. Yet even there, he suspects that Ungerite institutions and policies may need help from Europe and ‘internationally minded Americans’. Slovenia, Ireland, East Timor, Finland and other tiddlers don’t count. The scale has to be big, and tending to get bigger. For his part, Attali perceives France as just big enough to count, at least with some help from European evolution.

What if, on the contrary, it were just small enough to count, in the sense of being capable of making the kind of experimental innovation both thinkers want to see? Their common purpose, ‘high-energy democracy’, surely requires rather dramatic, multifunctional shifts in civil society itself: mutations of ethics and personal relations, affecting both nuclear and extended kinship; in short, something like the changes in gender and familial structures. These may happen in small or large societies, of course; but are they not more likely to be institutionalised – the utopian wish – within more flexible or open communities, those that are being forcibly transformed and (therefore) exposed to the kind of trial-and-error Unger seeks? It is a metropolitan myth to believe that larger scale itself favours openness, democracy or societal initiative. China? The UK? The former Soviet Union and its dependencies? This is a common idée fixe of intelligentsias, both clerical and secular. As Ernest Gellner indicated (in a 1973 essay on ‘Scale and Nation’), the contemporary obsession with larger scale derives almost entirely from industrialisation and 19th-century urbanisation: that is, from a reading of economics that simply contradicts the human nature studied by anthropologists.

One of the more amusing chapters in What Should the Left Propose?, entitled ‘The United States: Hope for the Little Guy’, admits that smaller communities can’t help being downtrodden by the march of Mr Big, but tells them not to despair because better times may be on the way. Patient perusal of these books has made me agree with him. Reading Unger and Attali makes it even clearer what a 1990s flash in the pan ‘the end of history’ was. Instead, the greatest of the up-country roads is acknowledged: harsh, hidden and, as Attali underlines, full of divisive conflicts that have led to spreading war.

Yet if the biosphere itself is preserved, the great ‘breaking wave’ of cumulative globalisation need not be disastrous, as William McNeill and J.R. McNeill show in The Human Web (2003). Surfers of the wave will, however, have to hold to ‘face-to-face, primary communities for long-range survival: communities, like those our predecessors belonged to, within which shared meanings … made life worth living for everyone, even the humblest and least fortunate.’ In other words, Gellner’s concern about scale returns, but with a new dimension added: ‘The most critical question for the human future is how cell-like primary communities can survive and flourish within the global cosmopolitan flows that sustain our present numbers, wealth and power … we need a new symbiosis all over again.’

A requirement for industrialisation, or becoming ‘modern’, was the increase in scale, generating the large or mid-range nation-state, but it is unlikely that those pressures will continue. Cosmopolitan flows and worldwide movements of urbanisation have bypassed the former constraints of size and merger, though without either removing or compensating for their effects. Quietly, scale has shifted its real meaning; yet politics and international relations remain tied to an earlier modernity, in which bigger was on the whole better – and better still in good military shape.

Does it follow that the circumstances of globalisation make smaller better? The McNeills argue that ‘we must change our ways by learning to live simultaneously in a cosmopolitan web and in various and diverse primary communities. How to reconcile such opposites is the capital question … probably for a long time to come.’ In this vice, there are evident advantages in being at least somewhat smaller. The experimental reforms linked to identity adaptation and more pervasive democracy will surely be more practicable within sovereignties less constrained by expansion and belligerence. Part of that route has already been tried out in northern Europe, among populations less afflicted by warfare, status and the need for self-sufficiency. Small Brazils, as it were, which have taken to the giant wave of globalisation with decisive success, losing little of their identity but gaining in many other ways.

Parts of Unger-land and Attali’s sibling-country may be realisable under such conditions, though probably not by think tanks and intellectual mobilisation alone. It’s not a question of being for or against globalisation. Doing well out of it and being against the mainstream both call for new structures and notions of the kind hinted at in these books. Any list of current trouble spots suggests that later this century the United Nations will have well over two hundred members: still not Gellner’s inherited ‘anthropological equipment’ of ethnic thousands but more inclined in that direction. The coat will not just be of many colours, but will exhibit a societal variety – and potential – that seems certain far to exceed monotones of what used to be modernity. Will that not provide the vehicles that experimentation with ‘high-energy democracy’ will need to keep going?

[*] Tom Nairn reviewed Karl Marx ou l’esprit du monde in the LRB of 26 January 2006.