Some 'heresies' of development

Print edition : September 01, 2001

Interview with Professor Roberto Mangabeira Unger.

Roberto Mangabeira Unger, Professor of Law at Harvard University, is the acknowledged founder and a leading practitioner of the critical legal studies movement. A Brazilian national, Unger went into exile in the United States in the early-1960s with his grandfather, a prominent socialist politician of the time. He was appointed to the Harvard Law School faculty immediately after obtaining his Masters degree, which was history of sorts for a university that sets much store by tradition. His publications include Democracy Realized: The Progressive Alternative Politics: Anti-Necessitarian Social Theory in the Service of Empowered Democracy and Knowledge and Politics.


Unger was for long considered a romantic, almost Utopian, thinker for his belief in a form of political action that could radically alter existing social institutions without the complications of mass upheaval. But when Democracy Realized was published in 1999, there was an acknowledgment by some of his critics that perhaps his time had come. It was not just the case that Unger had descended from the rarefied world of philosophical abstraction to the practical details of political organisation. More important, it seemed that the world had moved closer to him. The failure of the state model of economic organisation had been visibly demonstrated, and the neoliberal consensus that held undisputed sway since, had begun distinctly to fray. This combination of circumstances endowed Unger's long advocacy of a strategy that transcended the limitations of both the Statist and neoliberal models, with a new relevance.

Unger remains actively engaged in Brazilian politics. He has been a mayoral candidate in Sao Paulo and in recent presidential contests he has strongly endorsed and campaigned for the candidacy of Ciro Gomes, Governor of Ceara state. In India recently on an exploratory mission, Unger spoke to Sukumar Muralidharan on the assumptions and principles that have guided his continuing quest for alternatives. Excerpts:

You are visiting India in order partly to study the evolution of new models of thinking about politics. How fruitful has been this mission?

I have been engaged in the attempt to contribute to the emerging world debate about alternatives to the dominant project, now called neoliberalism. And the starting point of the debate is the realisation that the whole system of state control of the economy and isolation from the world doesn't work. Neither, however, does the neoliberal attempt to simply surrender to the forces of the globalised market and then moderate the social consequences through social assistance. In our country, Brazil, the basic problem is that the vast majority of people are excluded from all export-oriented activity and denied the basic tools of production. They can acquire those tools only through a new form of decentralised partnership with the government.

Would this require the government ceding some of its power to local bodies or to civil society organisations?

We will have to democratise the market economy. True productivist and democratising alternatives today, would have the following elements: first, the government should be able to count on the practical instruments with which to rebel against the worldwide orthodoxy and defy the financial markets. The most important of these conditions are a high level of domestic savings, a close connection of savings to production and a high tax structure. Second, there has to be a form of social policy which gives absolute priority to education, not only at the beginning of a life, but throughout a lifetime. We should build a form of social inheritance that guarantees every individual a package of basic resources on which he can draw. Third, we need to democratise the markets, not just regulate it and not just compensate for its inequalities, but organise a new form of access to credit, technology and markets. Fourth, we need to organise civil society at the grassroots level - to organise it across class lines and across ethnic lines - to develop a form of local civil society outside of local government and parallel to it, which would be a partner of the state in its effort to transform the local economy. Fifth, we need to create a "high-energy democratic politics" that encourages popular engagement with politics and rapidly resolves impasses among branches of government.

Could you elaborate on the notion of democratisation of markets, since there is a notion that the market as an institution rests on property rights, and in turn only encourages the centralisation of economic power...

The market economy has no inherent form. Contrary to what the conservatives think, the market does not have a natural and necessary form. The market can be reinvented, it can be redesigned - it can be either more concentrated or more participatory. We cannot solve the crucial problems of the informal economy by imitating the forms that the market now takes in the rich countries. We must have a different kind of market economy - one based on a decentralised alliance between the little guy and the government. Today, the world over the progressives generally have no programme - their programme is the programme of their conservative adversaries with a ten per cent discount. My main effort in debates throughout the world has been to demonstrate that there is a sequence of institutional changes that allow us to do something more than put a human face on the globalised market - that allow us to actually reorganise our societies.

How do you democratise the markets when there is a tremendous inequality in assets distribution? After all, markets function for you according to the assets that you bring into it...

This has to be resolved in three ways. First, by giving people educational equipment; second, by decentralising access to credit and technology and facilitating the formation of networks of cooperative competition, where small firms cooperate and compete at the same time and are able to achieve economies of scale through their cooperation. And third, by organising this intensified, energised, mass politics, without which the democratising of the market is not possible.

Is there an inherent potential for conflict in this programme that you are outlining?

The proposal that I make is by its very nature conflictual. However, there are two constituencies that can be mobilised in support of such a project. In the elites there is the constituency of the productive interests, or industry, as opposed to the constituency of finance. And second, and more important, there are at the base of society tens of millions of people who aspire to petit bourgeois status to the modest possibilities of independence, to the instruments of economic initiative and opportunity. This is the natural constituency for such a programme. The most fundamental doctrine of our society is this enormous quest for self-help and self-advancement. We now have the kind of government that is oriented towards the export ghetto of the economy on the false assumption that this can become the locomotive that will somehow drive the rest of society. For the rest of society it offers just a sort of charitable benevolence, the crumbs off the table.

There are obviously certain sections which have a strong interest in retaining this situation and could presumably resist any effort at change. When some groups begin asserting their political rights, for instance, they could face the possibility of repression. Latin America has gone through several of these cycles of repression. How would you safeguard against a recurrence?

The only antidote to the defects of politics is more politics. What we do not want is an alternation between a narrowly institutionalised politics and outbursts of authoritarian populism. What we want instead is to create a form of institutionalised democratic politics that can support a broad-based popular engagement and transform constitutional democracy. The radicalisation of democratic experimentalism is what we propose.

Do you see the failure of representative politics as the key factor underlying the crisis of development?

Above all it is an outcome of the lack of ideas. It is not enough to rebel against the lack of justice, we should also rebel against the lack of imagination. There is still no strongly defined conception of an alternative model. Progressives have defined this weak discourse that all that can be done is to balance the market against the state - to have the market as it now exists but qualified or softened by the protective activities of the state. This is not enough. I propose to replace this project of humanising the market by another project, of democratising the market and energising democracy. But the essential element that is always missing here is the ideas element. You must have a conception before you start. No wind will help you if you do not know to which port you are sailing.

In specific terms, would you say that improving the system of political representation and providing every citizen with a stake in the apparatus of governance - these are the objectives that you are aiming at?

Political mobilisation is important but it is insufficient as long as it is not accompanied by the organisation of civil society and the decentralisation of economic opportunity. We must have a different kind of market, which allows the people and the small businesses of the informal economy to pool their resources, with the government being the agent opening up their access to credit, technology and markets.

What would be the kind institutions that could aid in such a transition?

I will give you an example. Where this model has worked in many countries of the world is with what is called agricultural extension. The government helps the family farmers who pool their resources and their knowledge in a regime of cooperative competition among themselves. And at the same time the economic and technological vanguard of the national economy would have to become more deeply linked to its rearguard partners. What we do not have in the world yet is an example of the generalisation of the mechanism of agricultural extension to the economy as a whole. Now the world economy is organised as a network of economic vanguards, of privileged insiders, separated from the economic rearguard. The crucial question is: are we condemned simply to moderate the consequences of the division between productive vanguards and rearguards, or can we challenge and eventually overcome this division? We can do so only by reinventing a decentralised partnership between the small-scale producer and the state. Instead, the tendency of the elites today is to look for salvation in surrender to the dictates of the market or in imitation of the policies of the rich countries.

But aren't the levers finally in the hands of the rich countries? Couldn't Wall Street choke off any autonomous attempt at development by simply cutting off finances? And couldn't a developing country be simply cut out of the world trading system by the denial of credit or by the raising of tariff barriers? Given the parameters of the world system, how much latitude is available to work out these new ideas?

No country rises to wealth and power by following orders. Yes, the present international trading system and the world economic order impose real constraints on these heresies of development. But the only way to change this world system is to first fight for the heresies at the national level. We have no hope of changing the rules of the world economic order, unless we first succeed in establishing the beginnings of a socially inclusive market economy, at least in some of the major continental economies - China, India, Russia, Indonesia and Brazil. So the first step is defiance and construction of an alternative at the national level. The second step is to start an alliance among these countries, all devoted to heresies in their own ways, to then demand a reform of the world system. The world trading system should be designed on the basis of a commitment to maximise the broadest range of opportunities for diverse trajectories of development. None of this is going to happen unless there is pressure from below from some of these major countries, which in turn can only arise if they break out of their neoliberal trajectories and develop a progressive, socially inclusive alternative.

How far has the thinking on these lines progressed in Latin America and what do you find in India?

I think that there is a paradox in India - this is one of the very strong impressions that I take away with me. Objectively, India has several of the conditions for successful defiance. It has a large scale, it has a large and substantially educated middle class, and it has a tradition of experimentation with the alliance between the state and the informal economy. But at the same time it now appears to lack some of the subjective conditions. The economic and political elites have fallen under the sway of this doctrine of surrender and the debate is only about going faster or slower or putting more or less of a human face on the same unchanged trajectory.

And in Latin America?

We in Brazil are searching for an escape. We see in Argentina next door the example of a country that has signed on the dotted line. They did everything that Washington and Wall Street wanted them to do. And then began a process of catastrophic decline and deindustrialisation. It is not just the straitjacket of (foreign) exchange regimes that is responsible, it is the abdication of any programme of national development. So that serves as a warning that in modern history, obedience does not help. What pays is defiance.

Argentina is now facing a serious financial crisis which people fear could soon spill over into the neighbouring countries...

It is not the financial crisis that is as important as what underlies it, which is the abandonment of an attempt to transform the real economy and to develop a strategy that would economically empower the majority of Argentines. The greatest risk from the comings and goings of the worldwide financial casinos, comes from inside ourselves. It is that we are still struggling to develop a productivist alternative, that would create conditions for the mobilisation of national savings and its transformation into productive investment, that would liberate us from the whims and interests of international finance. What is important is to put the needs of the real economy at the centre, and then to combine this mobilisation of national resources with the democratisation of economic opportunity.

The revival of democratic politics in Latin America over the last decade and a half - does it go some way towards the goal?

We have not yet developed the economic and political institutions of an alternative. Currently Brazil is rebelling against the dictatorship of the financial interests and retains - like India - a powerful, dynamic industrial system. What it lacks yet is a public strategy to give this industrial system what it needs to produce more and export more and at the same time give the majority of the people access to productive opportunity. We do not need a Utopian fantasy of total substitution of the present order by some imaginary alternative. The most important thing to remember when confronted by scepticism and the sense of despair is that hope is the consequence of action, not its cause. We should act in order to hope. By doing little things we acquire the life and energy to do bigger things.

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