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on 20 May 2013
I only recently came across Roberto Unger - thanks to a BBC Radio 4 Analysis documentary entitled 'Vulgar Keynsianism' (3rd March 2013). It appears that he is having quite an impact on thinkers of the 'left of centre' which, of course, includes the Labour Party.

The book was first published in 2005, but this edition has been updated and revised; in part to take account of the current crisis of global capitalism. The original hope was to present left alternatives in the face of an all-conquering neoliberalism without the need for one of these regular crises. However, since 2008, the left seems determined to let this crisis go to waste, so to speak, and so Unger's ideas take on rather more urgency as neoliberalism seems still to hold sway, as Colin Crouch, amongst many others, has pointed out.

Unger suggests that, in Europe, the Left:

'...has retreated to the last ditch defence of a high level of social entitlements giving up one by one many of its most distinctive traits, both good and bad. The ideologists of this retreat have tried to disguise it as a synthesis between European-style social protection and American-style economic flexibility.' (P172)

The growing split between high- and low- or no-skill jobs has resulted in the Left relying on compensatory measures to soften the economic polarisation of society. And as we have seen, this 'compensatory culture', for want of a better term, is increasingly under severe attack, even as the gap between rich and poor continues to widen. We have what Unger refers to as 'the dictatorship of no alternatives' (P1), or, as Thatcher put it 'There Is No Alternative'.

Unger does not want to 'humanize society'. This, he suggests, is what 'compensatory measures' have tried and increasingly failed to do, simply trying to lessen the egregious extremes of capitalism. Unger's aim is:

'...less to humanize society than it is to divinize humanity: to bring us to ourselves by making ourselves more godlike." (P 153)

The aim is, then, to develop the individual, to diminish 'the contrast between the intensity of our longings and the paltriness in which we waste our lives' (P 153), and to remove the sense of alienation and disempowerment felt by the vast majority of people.

Unger is a Christian and clearly draws much inspiration from his beliefs. While extremely critical of consumer capitalism, he also rejects Marx and Marxism, on one page dismissing them as historicist, on another as shallowly structuralist and deterministic. This is, in my opinion, a pretty superficial view as even a quick read of, for example, David Harvey would show.

So - what does Unger see as 'the way forward'? Well, for a start, his desire to 'divinize the individual' inevitably leads to an emphasis on education. But more than that, Unger wants to: '...anchor social inclusion and individual empowerment in the institutions of political, economic and social life.' (P 20)

He wants to put in place mechanisms to allow a huge variety of experimentation to take place. He cannot predict which particular forms will be the most liberating and empowering for the individual, but he recognises that the individual is nothing outside of 'political, economic and social life' and thus for individuals to be able to develop to their fullest and most 'divine' extent, many alternatives must be given fertile soil in which to grow, develop and evolve. This is far more than simply regulating the existing capitalism, this is about trying to provide a multiplicity of opportunities where before there only appeared to be the dreaded T.I.N.A.:

'It means to radicalise the experimental logic of the market by radicalising the economic logic of free recombination of the factors of production within an unchallenged framework of market transactions. The goal is a deeper freedom to renew and recombine the arrangements that compose the institutional setting of production and exchange, allowing alternative regimes of property and contract to coexist experimentally within the same economy.' (P 21)

He goes on to consider this aim with reference to class ('...the working class, the small business class, and even the rank and file of the class of professionals...are safeguarded from destitution and excluded from power.' P 45), developing countries, Europe, America, the so-called BRICS and globalization. But at core, Unger's aim is always, as already stated, the 'divinization of the individual'.

It sounds inspirational, it sounds idealistic and when faced with a 'lost Left', it sounds hopeful. But it does not sound realistic. As Zizek points out:

'...the politics advocated by many a leftist today, that of countering the devastating world-dissolving effect of capitalist modernization by inventing new fictions, imagining "new worlds" (like the Porto Alegre slogan "Another world is possible!"), is inadequate or, at least, profoundly ambiguous; it all depends on how these fictions relate to the underlying Real of capitalism - do they just supplement it with the imaginary multitude, as the postmodern "local narratives" do, or do they disturb its functioning?' (In Defense of Lost Causes - Zizek, P 33).

I do not believe that Unger's ideas will truly 'disturb its functioning'. Capitalism has shown again and again its ability to co-opt, absorb and re-interpret oppositional elements, to even turn a profit from them. Like Skidelsky père et fils, Unger seems to look towards a religious impulse to transform economic relations. But, as Cyndi Lauper once pointed out, 'Money Changes Everything'.
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