[SPECIAL INTERVIEWS WITH SCHOLARS ― (6) Roberto Unger on future politics]Human spirit in a straitjacket
The following is the final in a series of interviews with scholars on major issues of the 21st century. The interviews were arranged by the JoongAng Ilbo in collaboration with the Global Academy for Neo-Renaissance at Kyung Hee University. - Ed.
Roberto Unger’s political world starts from a deep, unknown abyss. To him, the origin of the grand epic of the universe, which looks so distant to us, represents the core of politics.
“I just came from a meeting with physicists and cosmologists in which the subject was the transformability of the laws of nature,” he said. According to standard cosmology, “the laws of nature only began to operate after the initial moment ― the so-called singularity ― and they have a history, and it is impossible to peer back beyond the singularity into an earlier moment in time.”
He continued, “The laws don’t completely shape reality. If you take the example of the biosphere when life arises, there are new phenomena, and together with the new phenomena there are new laws. These emergent laws and these emergent phenomena don’t completely shape or reshape the preexisting reality and thus the factual nature of the laws.”
These ideas have many implications for the effort to explain real life. Our notions of scientific thought and absolute truth, to which we have grown accustomed, have produced a general conception of cause and effect. The mechanical thinking that A causes B, and B produces another reality, forms the basis of human psychology of today.
According to Unger, this way of thinking should be abandoned. Scientific thought based on the concept of “false necessity” cannot explain the origin of life and cannot penetrate into the nature of human life. Especially when it comes to explaining politics, the driving force behind the history of life, it can only produce “frozen politics” internalized in various systemic prejudices.
“We should view ourselves as the infinite caught within the finite. We always live and think within particular settings ― institutional and conceptual presuppositions. But none of these settings, nor all of them together, exhausts our power,” he said. We have in ourselves “the capacity to criticize, resist, and transcend, which enables us to surpass these frameworks.”
This may sound simple, but it encompasses almost everything that Unger says. His notion is that “self cannot be formed outside of social frameworks, but even so, the social contexts do not contain all possibilities of self.” That may provide a basis for solving the left-right divide, a key agenda in our modern society and politics.
For example, modern leftist theory, represented by Marxism, discusses human consciousness as rooted in the objective construction of the capitalist system. One’s objective status associated with the mode of production determines one’s consciousness, self and mode of social behavior. Meanwhile, positivist and liberalist discourses explain the problem of consciousness and self via human psychology and the cultural setting. Historical flows and mainstreams, and institutions and their contexts, determine human minds and actions, which pursue the well-being of existence. Mr. Unger regards the necessitarian way of thinking of such social thoughts as a barrier to the achievement of “radical politics.”
“There are two great projects in the world today: the project of democracy and the project of self-construction. The project of democracy is the project of creating practical forms of social political and economic life that give greater opportunities to the common man and woman. The project of self-construction is to create forms of sensibility of consciousness of culture that allow everyone to become a real person, a radical individual with insights with subjectivity,” he explained. To put it in simple worlds, the major task of the 21st century is to achieve “a transformative structure which enables human creation with unbounded imagination.” This would mean “removing the tyranny of no alternatives, which derives from necessitarian thinking based on the structural prejudices of society.”
Addressed as such, Unger’s political project may sound very romantic to some people. The French philosopher Jean Paul Sartre once lamented the inhumane history and social structure and noted that a true moment of self-actualization would come if a destructured image of humans were manifest. Unger’s philosophical adventure appears to be in tune with such propositions. But when asked what he thinks of romanticism, he gave an unexpected answer.
“Romanticism maintains that a true moment of life can be achieved by leaving the frameworks of society. In contrast, I call for changing the social framework. I mean to create a social framework or structure that is familiar with our eternal experiments and revolutionary efforts. This position is quite different from that of romanticism, which argues that structure kills spirit and that the authenticity of life can be achieved by leaving the constraining structure. In this sense, I am an anti-romanticist, I must say. I do not see any hope in romanticism.”
Unger believes that the two “great projects” of 21st century politics are to manifest “human self-creation” and to realize “radical democracy,” and this depends on our intrinsic imagination and capacity to act. This immanent reality is the only path for moving beyond “normal politics” bound by a “false necessity,” and it is the foundation of a radical politics for creating a future reality, or “revolutionary politics.”
“We must surpass necessitarian thinking to realize the two great projects for the 21st century. The alternatives locked in the framework thinking are very limited. Necessitarian arguments force on us the necessity that the absence of a framework is the only true life. We must transcend this limit. In doing so, we should fulfill the project of divinization of humanity, of making humanity more godlike, lifting everyone else up to this circumstance in which we all have this quality of spirit. Romanticism would be the belief that all we can do is shake up the structures and then we have an interlude of authenticity. But I want to reshape the character of the structure; that’s anti-romantic.”
According to Unger, the creation of a framework is always a latent reality; divinization of humanity means depending on God who governs the fluctuation of nothing; and sugarcoating and shaking up mean the practice of, in his words, “tropical social democracy.” Is he then “a trans-realist” or “a neo-romanticist”? Whatever he is, he is leading the Latin American Alternative movement, dreaming of another reality for the future, or radical revolutionary politics, and going back and forth between the past, the present, and the future and calling himself “a man of passion for will, heroic intervention, resistance, and control.”
Roberto Unger is a professor at Harvard Law School and a scholar who dreams of a future political revolution. His work “Politics: A Work in Constructive Social Theory” was published in 1987 and hailed as a momentous achievement. The same year, while being acclaimed as “one of the most outstanding social theorists since Hegel,” he left Harvard to run in Brazil’s presidential election the following year.
by Choue In-won
The interviewer: Choue In-won, a rector at the Global Academy for Neo-Renaissance, Kyung Hee University, has a Ph.D from the University of Pennsylvania. He has written books and articles including “The State and Choice,” and “The Myth of the Universal: Beyond Causal Necessity.”