The ideas interview: Roberto Unger
He wants to be president of Brazil, and he believes in the human right to live anywhere. By John Sutherland
Tuesday February 28, 2006
That elusiveness means it is not always easy to grasp his thinking. He prescribes a moral and spiritual revival in socialism, something that will enable it, as a force, to escape its current "dictatorship of no alternatives". Unger is labelled a "preposterous romantic" by his critics. The term is turned around by admirers such as the philosopher Michael Rorty, who writes that Unger "may someday make possible a new national romance".
One of the ways in which this new national romance will be achieved is a radical revision of what is implied by the term "immigration". Unger sees current immigration controls as deeply and offensively paradoxical.
"One of the striking features of the form of globalisation that has now been established," he argues, "is that it is based on the premise that goods and even capital should be free to roam but labour must remain imprisoned within the nation state. The truth is that one has every reason to suppose that the more freedom for movement of all the factors of production including labour that we have, the better things will be."
How, though, would Unger deal with the xenophobia that such a programme as his would engender?
"It's obvious that it will be impossible instantaneously to establish universal freedom of movement for people," he concedes. "But let's begin with the reasons it should be favoured. The first reason is economic. The more freedom to combine resources and people there is, the greater will be our chance to accelerate the logic of economic growth and innovation - the logic that promises to lift the incubus of poverty, infirmity and drudgery that weighs on human existence.
"The second reason," he goes on, in his anything but conversational fashion, "is social. No initiative would have a greater effect in diminishing human poverty than expansion of the freedom to move. It would dwarf all other policies that might be proposed to diminish inequality in the world."
And the third? "The third reason is moral and spiritual." These are not categories often found at the forefront of radical argument. What precisely does Unger mean?
"In a world of democracies, the most deserving basis of national differences is that the different states of the world should represent a form of moral specialisation within humanity. Humanity can develop its powers and possibilities only by developing them in different directions. But if this pluralism is to be compatible with the deepening of human freedom, it must have as one of its premises that a person born into one of these human worlds, but antipathetic to its special character, should be able to escape it. So for all these reasons, one should look to a world in which the freedom of movement is continuously but cautiously expanded."
Caution, it would seem, is the key. Unger is no utopian or blind enthusiast. "Pragmatism" is a recurrent term in his discourse, and his approach to national identity is reflected in his career. He is Brazilian by nationality, was educated in New York, is currently a Harvard professor, and has his sights on the presidency of his native country. He has already served as an adviser to Mexico's president, Vicente Fox. Given that background, his thinking on immigration is not all talk of moral and spiritual freedom, though it remains clear-cut in its radicalism.
As he says, "There are many objections and difficulties to be overcome. There are practical difficulties and there are objections in principle. The practical difficulties have to do with the idea that the expansion of this population movement would endanger the position of labour in the rich countries receiving the flows of people. But all these practical objections and others of the same nature invite the same kind of response - the generic name of that response is 'dosage'. That is, we cannot establish this freedom of movement instantaneously and universally but we can establish it in small cumulative steps."
An ideological reform is also required along with Unger's reforming dose: "Instead of having the idea that capital should be free to move and labour should be arrested within the nation state we should have the contrary idea that capital and labour acquire the freedom to move together in small steps in such a way, for example, that labour doesn't acquire full political and social rights straight off. It begins with work permits and it proceeds to a position of partial social rights and then only later to full entitlement. And in the sending countries the reverse would happen, a claim to some compensation for the investment in the education of the labour that they're losing."
So much for the practical difficulties. "Then there are," Unger continues, "objections in principle. All these objections of principle come down in the end to a quasi-tribal idea of the nation as a family writ large, based on a biological succession. In the end it boils down to the idea: 'We built this, it's ours. Who are you to come here and take it from us?' The answer to this objection of principle is the assertion of a counter-principle. In a world of democracies, in a world where the great projects that have set humanity on fire are the projects of the emancipation of individuals from entrenched social division and hierarchy; in such a world individuals must never be puppets or prisoners of the societies or cultures into which they have been born."
Nevertheless, Unger accepts the notion of unconstricted flows of population across national borders would be electoral poison for any party that espoused it. "I myself would never propose a programmatic discourse that centres on a single theme such as immigration. In my view, a political vision is not a grab-bag of discrete problems and solutions. It is the visionary anticipation of a direction. It makes no sense at all to favour an expansion of the right of people's movement in isolation. It makes sense to put forward such a proposal only in the context of a project that is focused on a generalisation of opportunities for empowerment, the enhancement of capabilities, unfettered access to the advanced sectors of production and learning, and a heightening of democracy, the creation of a kind of high-energy democracy".
· Roberto Mangabeira Unger's What Should the Left Propose? is published by Verso Books, price £15. A selection of his writing, and commentary on it, is available at www.robertounger.com