We've been in a state of slumber. After an awakening in the eighteenth and nineteenth century, we lost our nerve, settled down, comforted ourselves in the material, ceased to improve, and became progressively mummified. Politics became a trial of two orthodoxies – social democracy-lite and capitalism-lite. The terrors of the 20th century made deliberate and radical political change seem threatening. We kicked backed, picked up the remote and tucked into a bucket of fried chicken instead. While in this slumber, financial and corporate elites fled with our worldly goods and plaintively we try to get them to return them in part. We became smaller.
Professor Roberto Mangabeira Unger, sought to shove us out of our slumber in a virtuoso performance here at the RSA on Wednesday evening. My reading of the lecture above - which is one of many narratives that the lecture provides – is one of societal torpor rather than collapse. We’ve stopped wanting to be better. As a result we’ve just accepted what is there and left it unquestioned. We work within rather than beyond constraint. Rather than loving our freedom, we have surrendered it. Unger implores us to be ‘bigger’. Before we can be bigger, we need to be awake. The talk is embedded below:
Once we wake, we will realise that we have the power to remake our society in a way that frees our ability to create and experiment. That power is concentrated in the hands of the few and they use it to further their own goals and interests instead of our common interests. Unger argued for an economy of innovation and experimentation, an active civil society, and a hyper-energetic democracy. Leave the routine to the machines; save humanity for inspiration. We don’t have to accept institutions of the market and democracy that are basically hand-me-downs. We can innovate our own.
Unger’s smart enough to know that democracy and the market economy will remain core elements of this new society but it is a democracy and market that will be radically different – ownership, knowledge, capital, and market access will be shared and democracy will be brought closer to us to the extent that it would be placed directly in our hands. With a new range of empowering institutions, we will free ourselves to what we are good at – creatively rising ourselves up to expand the frontiers of human existence. This is not towards some philosophical ideal. Instead, it would be towards betterment, bending the plastic element of character into a different shape, stretching it further. We are talking deep democracy and deep freedom leading to new financial, educational, civic, innovation, mutual support, and community institutions.
This vision is as radical as anything we have seen in political and social theory for some time. It’s in the same category as the works of Amartya Sen. Anyone who has read Unger’s work in books such as ‘the Self Awakened’ or ‘The Left alternative’ have seen the all-encompassing nature of his vision. However, unlike Marxists or classical liberal thinkers, Unger doesn’t have a protagonist in mind. It is not a class or a human-type such as rational economic man who is going to save us. It is us, steeped in the complexities and paradoxes of humanity. The question then becomes ‘how’?
It’s a big task but it has to be started somewhere. Perhaps the first task is to acknowledge that we have far more democratic choice that we’ve led ourselves to believe. Having choice is not enough. We must then know how to use it. Bigger people do better things rather than just help themselves to the goodies – and our current business and political leaders have too often had a child-like reaction to power and freedom. Once we are aware of our agency then we can challenge orthodoxy. But all this needs a politics. It needs a language. It needs a programme that can demonstrate early success.
Previously, I have written about democratic and institutional innovation and its enormous potential. So there is hope and there is identifiable change. Ultimately, we are going to have to choose freedom. The consequences of this are bigger than we can imagine. There isn’t a revolutionary class our disposal. All we have is the human mind and spirit. That’s not a bad place to start. Our ancestors did and we can too. But real, transformative change is a long way off. Who’s up for the hard work of making ourselves bigger?