Ukraine, Europe and the Left

Transcript of the public lecture held by a world-known social theorist, economist and politician, professor of Harward Law School Roberto Unger (Brazil) at NaUKMA (December 2012)


Roberto Unger: My theme is the content of a progressive national alternative in Ukraine as an example of a progressive direction in the world. My thesis is that in our countries in Ukraine, in Brazil and in major emerging societies throughout the world. A progressive alternative today is possible and indeed necessary. But it requires ideas that in many significant respects contradict the dominant conceptions in the high-academic culture.  No profound transformation in society can be undertaken today without a reconstruction in thought.

Now let me state the perspective from which I will be speaking. I am obviously not a Ukrainian, nor a specialized student of Ukrainian history and society. But my belief is that the whole world today is locked into a chain of analogies, of analogous problems and analogous solutions. There is today in the world a universal orthodoxy, sometimes called Neo-liberalism. The heresies that emerge in the world to resist this orthodoxy are almost entirely local. The orthodoxy is universal, and the resistance to the orthodoxy is local. A universal orthodoxy can be successfully combated only by a universalizing heresy as liberalism and socialism in the 19th century.  I therefore speak from the standpoint of a belief in the world politics. There may be ways of interpreting the Ukrainian national interests that contradict the interest of humanity, and there may be ways of interpreting the interests of humanity that contradict the national interests of Ukraine. But there must be some zone of overlap, of intersection. Some way of interpreting the national interests of Ukraine that consults the interests of humanity, and of interpreting the interests of humanity that creates a space for a strong national project in Ukraine. It is on that basis that I develop my argument here. I propose to advance in three steps. In the first step I am going to enumerate certain points of departure for my argument – the premises, the assumptions of a programmatic vision. In the second step of my argument I will address the content of this programmatic vision, describing a series of projects that together would constitute the content of a progressive alternative. And in the third step of my argument I will speak to the major obstacles that such a progressive alternative would have to confront and overcome.


So first, the points of departure. A first point of departure has to do with a vision of a situation of the progressives in the world today. On the whole, in contemporary societies, the progressives – those who want to transform society, have no project. Their project typically is the project of their conservative adversaries with a humanizing discount. In the rich North-Atlantic world (Western Europe and the United States) the horizon of programmatic debate is the attempt to reconcile the social protection of the Europeans with economic flexibility of the Americas within the limits of the established economic and political institutions. There is no attempt to rethink the basic institutional framework of the economy and of the state. The last major institutional and ideological innovation in the world was the social-democratic compromise of the mid-20th century. The left, or the progressives, abandoned the attempt to reshape the state and to reorganize the economy. And in exchange for this renunciation of a fundamental challenge the State was allowed to acquire the power to regulate the economy, to diminish inequalities to compensatory redistribution, and to manage the economy counter-cyclically to a fiscal and monetary policy. If we look outside the rich North-Atlantic world, what we see instead of a strong alternative is some combination of neo-liberalism, state capitalism and this compensatory social democracy. There is not yet in the world a clear institutional alternative that could represent the progressive cause. My claim is that this institutional conservatism or skepticism, this failure to innovate into basic institutional arrangements, makes it impossible to give practical effect to the most widely-professed goal in the world today – the organization of socially-inclusive economic growth. For over 200 years, ideological controversy in the world has been dominated by a simple model: more state – less market, more market – less state, strike a balance between the market and the state. There now begins to emerge in the world an entirely different focus of ideological controversy – the reconstruction of the institutional form of the market, of democracy and of independent civil society. The problem is not to determine how much of a market, but what kind of a market, and what kind of a democracy, and what kind of an independent civil society. From this perspective, the institutional form of the market, of democracy and of independent civil society that now prevails in the rich North-Atlantic countries represents a subset, a segment of a much larger universe of institutional possibilities.


Now I come to my second premise, my second point of departure about the economic transformation that is taking place throughout the world, and the emergence of a new form of production. We are seeing the birth in major economies throughout the world, of a new style of production. A style of production that follows the mass production, the so-called Fordist mass production that prevailed in the 20th century. It is not correct to understand this new form of production as simply high-technology and high-knowledge. It is characterized above all by a new set of methods and procedures. Production is increasingly transformed into a practice of permanent innovation and collective learning. The best businesses become more like the best schools. The distance between inventions and physical production diminishes. The production of goods and services is de-standardized and made flexible. Stark specializations and rigid divisions between jobs of supervision and jobs of execution are attenuated. And cooperation and competition are combined in the same productive practices. In other words, there emerges in the world an advanced experimentalist vanguardism in production. The problem is that these productive vanguards are typically only weakly linked to the rest of the national economy. The network of these productive vanguards in the world is increasingly the commanding force of the world economy, but most of the workers in richer countries as well as in poorer countries are excluded from these advanced sectors of production. There is then a hierarchical segmentation of the economy. The division between the advanced sectors and the backward sectors becomes the source of new forms of inequality and exclusion.  Now there are two traditional instruments, by which to moderate these economic inequalities. One instrument is redistribution through the tax system and through social programs, which is the traditional repertory of European social democracy. And the other instrument is defense of small business against big business. These two instruments are entirely inadequate to the task of mastering the consequences of these inequalities and exclusions. What would be necessary is radically to expand the gateways of access of economic and educational access to the new advanced sectors of production, and to propagate these practices of productive vanguardism through large parts of each national economy.


Now I come to my third premise, regarding the specific situation of Ukraine, and I think by analogy to my own country – Brazil. Suppose that no strong national project develops in Ukraine. Suppose that the political and intellectual leadership of the nation fails to produce a strong national program. What will then happen to the society? What is the path of least resistance? What is the inertial trajectory that would tend to prevail in the absence of a strong national project? What will prevail is some combination of the following elements. First, a predominance of primary production and natural resource extraction. Agriculture with relatively little value added, and production and export of commodities. Second, a continuous decline of the traditional heavy or mass-production industries, technologically regressive and unable to compete in the world economy. Third, the disintegration of the advanced technological capability in the defense and space industries, because those sectors are only weakly linked to the rest of the national economy. And fourth, as a consequence of these developments, an economic model that is based not simply on primary production, but also on cheap labor and on the export of labor to the other countries. Such an inertial trajectory would be a calamity for the nation. It would be a disaster. But it is the disaster that tends to prevail in the absence of a strong national program.


Now I come to my fourth point of departure, and my fourth point of departure has to do with Europe and with the relation of Ukraine to Europe and to the European Union. On this view, the interest of Ukraine is to join the European Union after, and not before it begins to establish a strong national strategy. If it joins the European Union before and not after it has an alternative to the inertial path that I’ve just described, it will tend to be entrenched in an unfavorable and peripheral position within the European space. Consider the nature of the European Union as it is developing. There is a whole series of restraints imposed by the European Union on the possibility of strong national projects, strong projects of economic and social reconstruction. It is not simply the imposition of a centralized monetary policy, but also the prohibition of all the forms of strategic coordination between governments and businesses that are necessary to a rebellious economic strategy, the incorporation of the regime of intellectual property that leaves the most important technological innovations in the control of a handful of multinational businesses – an economic model that imposes a subordinate position on the national economy.


Now, one could look at this development from another complimentary perspective. The European Union is developing according to the following principle. The rules governing social and economic organization are increasingly centralized in the government of the Union and its technocracy. And the authority to determine the social and educational rights of the citizens is decentralized and delegated to the local governments. What would be desirable is exactly the opposite. The vocation of the Union should be to ensure the endowments and the capabilities of all of its citizens, but to create the greatest possible latitude for institutional experimentation. What then is desired, what should be desired is for a country like Ukraine first to form a strong national strategy of its own, and then only to join the Union once it has begun to form such a strategy. And in the Union to ally itself with the other peripheral economies within Europe –  the Eastern European and Southern European economies, in order to change the character and in correction of the Union.


Now, on the basis of these four points of departure that I have just described, I proceed to the second part of my argument – an outline of the content of a progressive alternative applied to the national reality. The central theme is the theme of institutional experimentation. It is impossible to address and to solve the national problems on the basis of institutionally conservative social democracy, that is to say imitating the economical and political institutions of the Western Europeans and the North Americans. It is impossible to solve the national problems simply through some combination of neo-liberalism, state capitalism and compensatory redistribution. It is necessary to innovate in the institutional arrangements that define the market economy, civil society and democracy. That is the central theme of such a progressive alternative. And only through such institutional innovation can the goal of socially inclusive economic growth be affected. I then describe such a project as the convergent outcome of five sets of initiatives.


The first set of initiatives one might call the financing project – a strong basis for the funding, for the financing of national development; a strong mobilization of the physical, economic and human resources of the country, so that the country not be on its knees, so that it not depend on the interests and the whims of world financial capital. Now, what that means as a practical matter is that three tasks must be accomplished. First, a very high tax take so that the state is adequately funded for its productive initiatives as well as for its social initiatives. Second, a very high level of national saving – both private saving and public saving; mandatory saving, proportional to the income of the citizens, so that the country be able to resist, to rebel, to open up an innovative path of its own. And third, a set of institutional arrangements designed to channel long-term private and public saving into long-term productive investment. In all the major Western economies the production system today is largely self-financed on the basis of the retained and re-invested earnings of private firms. The vast amount of capital in the banks and in the stock markets has only an oblique, an episodic relation to the productive agenda of society. It need not be that way. We can develop arrangements that enlist finance in the service of the real economy, inhibiting financial activity that makes no contribution to the expansion of production or the enhancement of productivity and favoring financial activity that serves production. Finance must be a good servant rather than a bad master.


The second major project is the productivist project. It’s the alternative to that path of the least resistance that I described before as the calamitous outcome for Ukraine. There must be a vanguard, a productive vanguard, a sector of advanced technology and science, but not isolated as an enclave, organically connected to other sectors of the national economy. And this technological and scientific vanguard, established a partnership between the state and the academic institutions, would have two main vocations. One vocation would be the transformation of agriculture. Agriculture need not be primitive primary production. Agriculture can begin to ascend the ladder of value added. And the second vocation of the high-technology sector is to create in the country a new style of manufacture, not the traditional heavy industry or mass production, but a form of idea-rich, flexible, de-standardized production, intimately connected with services. The advanced forms of manufacturing are in effect a crystallization of services, and their products are sold together with services. This triangle of a technological and scientific vanguarding, transformed agriculture and a new style of manufacturing connected with services is the beginning of the economic salvation of the country.


Now, such an economic strategy cannot be advanced without a series of institutional innovations. I could describe those innovations along two axes: a vertical axis of relations between the state and the private businesses and a horizontal axis of relations among the private businesses. On the vertical axis one cannot develop such a strategy within the limits of the two main models of relations between business and government that exist in the world today. There is, on the one hand, the American model of the arm’s length regulation of business by government, and on the other hand, the North-Asian model, as in Japan, Taiwan, Korea – a formulation of a unitary trade and industrial policy imposed top-down by the bureaucratic apparatus of the state. What would be necessary is a form of strategic coordination between governments and businesses that is decentralized, pluralistic, participatory and experimental. And on the horizontal axis of relations between firms the most important task is to begin to develop regimes of cooperative competition among small and medium-sized firms. In other words, a regime that allows these firms to compete against one another in agriculture, in manufacturing and in services, but at the same time to cooperate; pulling certain resources, combining certain resources – financial, technological and commercial, to achieve economies of schedule. Now, these institutional innovations are not simply the regulation of the market economy. They are not simply the attenuation of the inequalities generated in the market through compensatory redistribution promoted by the state. They are a reshaping of the institutional and legal content of the market economy; they are a reinvention or a re-foundation of the market economy in the service of broader opportunity.


The third project that would define the content of such a strong national program is an educational project. An economic model like the one I have just described cannot be implemented, unless there is simultaneously a formation of the needed resources of human capital, the human capability. Now, there are two educational priorities. The first priority has to do with the design of the educational system in a country that is large, unequal and federal in structure. We must seek to reconcile the local management of the schools with national standards of investment in quality.  And therefore, in addition to mechanism to redistribute resources from richer places to poorer places, there must be a procedure for corrective intervention in local failing school systems. And the second priority is a radical transformation of the methods of teaching and of learning. What we should not want is a style of education that is informational and encyclopedic in its orientation, and that rigidly separates general book learning from vocational practical training. The attributes of such a form of education are these. First of all, it must be analytical in its pedagogic orientation, focusing on verbal and numerical analysis, on the mastery of analytical capabilities. Second, it must use information selectively and deeply, as an instrument for the acquisition of these analytical capabilities, preferring depth, selective dept, to the encyclopedic superficiality. Third, it must privilege cooperation in teaching and in learning, as opposed to the combination of individualism and authoritarianism that characterizes the classroom.  And fourth, it must be dialectical in its approach to the received body of knowledge. Every discipline, every subject should in principal be taught from at least two contrasting points of view. Now, this revolution in the character of education must take place at every level of the educational system. But a natural place to begin in many countries is secondary education, because the secondary education is often the greatest obstacle, the bottleneck in the formation of human resources. A secondary school that combines theoretical teaching with practical teaching rather than separating them. We do not want to have an elite of generalists and a mass of people who are specialists. We want a form of general education that is analytical in its direction and a form of practical training that instead of emphasizing job-specific and machine-specific skills, rigid professions, gives priority to generic and flexible practical and conceptual capability. You don’t teach a worker to use a numerical machine tool, a computerized machine, in the same way that you teach a worker to manipulate a traditional lay. A continuum between conceptual and practical education rather than a rigid contrast between them.


The fourth project that would define such a strong national alternative is the social project. It is not enough to reshape the market and to form the people who are capable of operating this alternative economic model. It is also necessary to ensure the cohesion, the solidarity of social life, and to create outside the state and even against the state a strong vibrant civil society.  Conventional compensatory social democracy as it exists in Western Europe today offers no practical basis for social solidarity other than transfers of money organized by the state. And money is too weak as social cement. The first requirement of a stronger form of social cohesion is that every adult has some social responsibility. Every able-bodied person in the society, in addition to having a position in the system of production, should also have a responsibility at some point in his life to take care of other people outside the boundaries of his own family. Direct responsibility in caring for other people is the only adequate basis of social cohesion. And therefore, for example, there should be a system of social service, even mandatory social service as an alternative to the military service. A second direction for the institutional shaping of social cohesion and solidarity is that civil society be able to participate actively in the provision of the crucial public services, including the services of health and education. The main form of provision of public services that exists in the world today is the bureaucratic provision of low-quality standardized public services; and the only apparent alternative to this bureaucratic provision of these low-quality services is the privatization of public services in favor of profit-driven firms. But there is, in fact, an alternative which will become increasingly important. And this alternative is that the state help organize, finance, equip and coordinate independent civil society so that it can participate in the experimental and competitive provision of the services. That is the best way to enhance their quality and at the same time one of the most promising ways to turn civil society into an agent rather than simply a passive beneficiary of the provisions of the state.


The fifth project is the democratizing project – the project of deepening democracy by changing the institutional content of democratic politics. The democracies that now exist in the rich North-Atlantic world could be described as low-energy democracies. They are democracies organized in a form that continues to make change depend upon crisis. The dominant political institutions in these democracies inhibit the development of strong structural alternatives. And the consequence is that when there is no crisis, there is no change. It is in our interest to create high-energy democracies that do not depend on trauma as the condition of transformation. Now, one dimension, one aspect of these high-energy democracies is that they promote a high level of engagement in political life; for example, by the public financing of political campaigns and the prohibition of private financing, by the break-up of media and the guarantee of free access to the means of mass communication in favor of the organized social movements as well as the political parties. A second aspect of such a high-energy democracy is that it allows particular parts of the country, particular states, or sectors, to opt out of some of the general solutions and to create alternative models, counter-models of the national future, so as the country proceeds down a certain path, it is able to hedge its backs and to create an alternative vision of its future and give that alternative vision a tangible expression. A federal system ought to be a machine for experimentation.  And the third aspect of such a high-energy democracy is that increasingly it adds to the institutions of representative democracy,aspects of direct or participatory democracy. For example, by giving different powers in the state, the prerogative, the constitutional right of calling early elections when there is an impass; or allowing the citizens to call for comprehensive programmatic plebiscites about questions that are central to the national future. All these institutional innovations in the organization of democratic life begin in the attempt to sever the link between politics and money; to take democratic politics out of the corrupting shadow of money.


Now, these five projects that I’ve just outlined: the financing project, the productivist project, the educational project, the social project and the democratizing project would supply the content of a strong national alternative. This alternative can be advanced piecemeal, in small gradual steps. It does not require a sudden systemic transformation, but a change that is gradualist in its method can nevertheless be radical in its outcome if it persists in a particular direction, informed by a vision.


I now come to the final part of my argument: the obstacles to such a project in countries like ours. There are three sets of obstacles, and I am going to deal with them now in the direct order of their apparent importance, but in the inverse order of their real importance. So the first obstacle is that any such project seems to confront a formidable and indeed overwhelming coalition of powerful interests. But I am certain that a program like this one that I have just outlined can be supported and developed by a majoritarian coalition in the society, by an alliance of workers and farmers, of small and medium-sized businesses and technical cadres against plutocrats, parasites and profiteers. There is no reason why such a project cannot seek and win the support of a national majority. It appeals to the interests of economic reality, of production – to the real social forces that are suppressed and sacrificed by the present economic model.


The second set of obstacles has to do with the absence of the necessary ideas. Now, the truth is that in the whole field of social and historical studies in the Western world, thought is now dominated by intellectual tendencies that are hostile to any project of transformation; and the hostility to transformation is intimately related to a mystification of social life. When the left lost faith in the large transformative narratives like Marxism, it then surrenders to these dominant tendencies in contemporary thought. In the hard positive social sciences like economics what prevails is a rationalizing tendency – the attempt to represent and explain the dominant institutions as the outcome of an objective evolutionary process that vindicates their superiority or even their necessity. In the normative disciplines of political philosophy and legal theory what prevails is a humanizing tendency, a pseudo-philosophical justification of the ameliorative practices of institutionally conservative social democracy through the idealization of the body of principals, and through philosophical justification of compensatory redistribution designed to attenuate inequalities without changing the structure. And in the humanities what prevails is an escapist tendency. The humanities embark on a rollercoaster of subjectivist adventurism, disconnected from the practical re-imagination of society. The defenders of these rationalizing, humanizing and escapist tendencies pretend to be enemies, but they are in fact allies in the disarmament of the transformative imagination. The common theme is the cutting of the link between insight into actual, the existent and the imagination of the possible, of the adjacent possible. To understand a phenomenon, a state of affairs in any branch of science, is to grasp what it might become. If we have no transformative insight, we have no insight. The dominant spirit of this high academic culture is what in the history of philosophy we would call a right wing Hegelianism – the belief that the real is rational, and it therefore produces a mystification rather than an understanding of social life. The task of the intelligentsia in our countries is therefore to develop another set of ideas to contest the dominant orthodoxies in every branch of social science; and to produce a set of ideas that is capable of informing the imagination of alternatives.


Now I come to the third obstacle, which is the least tangible but the most significant. And this third obstacle is in the realm of intangible emotions, experiences, sentiments. This correction that I have outlined and defended here directly contradicts the spirit of disillusionment with history and with politics. Now, our countries are not like Switzerland or like Norway. We cannot afford the luxury of abandoning political thought and political life. In our countries everything continues to depend on the development of collective solutions to collective problems. And therefore we desperately need political engagement and programmatic imagination. We must therefore pass through disillusionment with disillusionment. And we can find in this task two great sources of inspiration. The first source of inspiration is the democratic idea. The essential faith of democracy is belief in the constructive genius of ordinary men and women. The greatest value is not equality, but the attempt to carry the life of ordinary men and women to a higher plane of capability, of scope and of intensity. And the second source of inspiration is the national idea that the role of the nation in the world of democracies is to experiment with a different way of being human, a different form of life, informed by a different type of consciousness and translated into a distinct set of institutions. But none of this can happen – this disillusionment with disillusionment, unless a small number of individuals, of men and women are able to do something magical, to accept sacrifice, renunciation and risk, and to make the necessary possible. Then hope appears. Hope is the consequence of intellectual and political action rather than its condition. Hope is a necessary requirement, but not a sufficient one, for the development of such a national alternative. Hope needs an ally. The ally of hope is the imagination. Imagination. Imagination to the rescue.



Pavlo Viknyanskyy: You have a unique chance to ask a question professor Unger. Please raise your hands who wants.

Volodymyr Panchenko, master of economics: Thank you very much for your speech. I have two questions. One, in fact you proposed more or less nationalist government to be the point here, as far as I am concerned, because you put something between left and between neo-liberalism. So could you specify that, because in fact you claimed a strong say, and you claimed neo-liberalism, but then you gave us national idea. And second question: how in this situation in Ukraine would you explain to be like in Brazil, which I don’t agree. As Ukraine in worse situation, the idea of national liberty and democracy at the same moment without economic component.


Roberto Unger: So the premise of my argument is that there is a contrast of directions now. So the basic direction, the prevailing direction in the world today, especially in the rich north-Atlantic world, is to accept the present institutional form of a market economy, and then to regulate it and to humanize it through social programs. That’s what exists. And my basic argument is that if a country like Ukraine does that, it will not be able to escape from what I’ve described as the path of least resistance, which is a disaster. It can only develop a strong alternative by innovating in the institutional arrangements of the market, of civil society and of democratic politics. That’s my central argument. So the so-called conservative partners and the traditional social democrats in the Western Europe are all on one side. They are on the side of this dominant scheme that I described. The other side is largely empty, and it is not correct to understand it as an assertion of the state against the market or of the state against civil society. It is an attempt to reshape the institutional form of the market, and of civil society, and of democracy. To say yes, we want a market economy, but not this kind of market economy, because this kind of market economy, in effect, excludes, denies economic opportunities to the majority of the people. We want another kind of market economy. We don’t believe that the vigor of the market economy contradicts the strengthening of independent civil society. We believe that such an alternative can only flourish if there is a high level of social cohesion and solidarity.


And I then propose the practical instruments with which to advance such solidarity and cohesion. And we cannot accept the kind of low-energy democracy that exists in the North-Atlantic world, because its political institutions are designed to inhibit the political transformation of society; to make it harder rather than easier to formulate strong structural programs. That’s the essence of the contrast that I am proposing. So it is not the contrast that can be described along this traditional spectrum of statist or anti-statist. I don’t see the state as a rival to the market. I see the state as an instrument for the creation of a different kind of market economy.


Oleksandr Kopyl: Thank you, professor, for your speech, for your input. It’s a great honor to meet you here, in Ukraine. You said that Ukraine’s not unique in its social and economical problems. And you gave some steps that should be done. So could you give some positive examples. Is there are any state that has already started?


Roberto Unger:  No, I don’t think that there is any one country in the world today that we contain as the wave of the future, as the model to imitate. So, there is now in the world a vast array of micro-institutional experimentalism, of institutional experimentation at the local level. For example, in a country like China there are all sorts of novel forms of association between government and private producer or among private producers within the constraints of an authoritarian political system, and without any doctrinal formulation. So there is vast material of experimentation in the world, but there is not a doctrine, there is not a formulation of a set of strongly defined alternatives. Unless we in our countries develop an alternative conception, it will be very hard to resist a gravitational force of the conventional dogmas. Going back to my argument about Ukraine. If there is no strategy for institutional transformation in the country, if the intelligentsia simply surrenders to the dominant ideas in the social sciences in the North-Atlantic world, and if the country then joins the European Union before having formulated a strong national strategy – the combination of all of these elements makes it impossible to escape that inertial path that I’ve described. And that’s a disaster, that’s a national disaster. So I’m arguing here that there’s an affinity between the national interest, the interest to escape from that trajectory and the vocation of the intelligentsia of affirming its intellectual originality, of understanding the character of social life, of reconnecting insight into the actual with imagination of the impossible. So intellectual life in our countries should not be simply a reproduction of the dominant tendencies in thought of Western Europe and the United States. We cannot fulfill our intellectual vocation if we surrender, as we typically do, to mental colonialism.


From the audience:  Professor Unger [my name is] Denis, Journal of Social Criticism. I’d like to ask you about experience of Latin America. As we know, there were a lot of left-wing politicians in Brazil. How would you assess the losses and gains in Latin America in general? The first question, and the second one is how do you evaluate the rise, the revival of social activity in Chile and Quebec? So is it a sign of this hope that you were going through?


Roberto Unger: So, just to speak about Brazil for a moment. Under the recent government in Brazil, especially the government of President Lula, in which I had the honor to participate, there is a great advance in democratizing access to consumption through a rise in the nominal wage, conditional cast chancellor programs and the popularization of consumption. But we have not advanced to the next and much more difficult stage, which is democratizing opportunity on the supply side rather than the demand side. That is access to the opportunities and resources of production and education. That’s the task that remains unfulfilled in our country as in yours, or in almost any economy in the world. The vast majority of the people do not work in big businesses, they work in small. And the vast majority of these small businesses are pushed back to a technological and organizational rearguard. They are backward; they have no access to credit, to technology, to advanced practices of production. The greatest economic revolution would come from giving this vast productive rearguard access to the instruments of the vanguard. And it is for that that we would have to redesign the market economy. So my observation, not just in Latin America, but in much of the world, is that the civic agitation that exists in many of our societies is bereft, is lacking in the programmatic vision of the alternatives. It has a critical impulse, but the critical impulse is not served by the clear conception of another direction. And that is our responsibility; it is the responsibility of thought to intervene in historical life by enlarging the sense of the possible. That is the essence of the argument that I’ve just made here.


From the audience:  Koroliova, Kyiv National University. Professor Unger, you don’t see real alternative to civil society and democracy? No alternatives? So you are talking about the most of democracy, the most civil society, but you are not discussing the ideas in general. Aren’t you supporting the status quo? this is the first question. And the second one is: don’t you think that the main mistake is the social inertia? For instance, bureaucracy that reproduces itself and it makes these ideas utopian in a way. Thank you.


Roberto Unger: My belief is that the central problem in thought and in politics is dealing with the structure, dealing with the structure of society. And either we have a vision and a form of action that can confront the structure, or we don’t. So that’s the essential point. So the dominant ideas that influenced the left for the last time in fifty years like Marxism, generated the belief that the structure is an indivisible system. So there’s something called capitalism, and all of its pieces fit together. And on that view either we maintain the system and humanize it, or we replace it by a revolution, putting something else, a whole system in the place of this system. So politics is either revolutionary or reformist in the conservative set. Now, I deny that. I deny that there are these indivisible systems, and I say that the characteristic form of transformation in historical life is the piecemeal revision of the structure. The structure can be changed step-by-step and piece-by-piece; the method can be fragmentary or gradual, but the result can nevertheless be revolutionary, if the transformation persists in a certain direction. That’s the essence of the argument. And we can’t resolve an argument like that simply by discussing philosophical abstractions about civil society or the market. The meaning of these abstractions is given by their institutional content. Today the so-called progressives in the world on the whole have no institutional program. All they do is to provide a sugar of humanization through social policy. And we don’t want sugar, we want alternatives. We used to think that in order to have alternatives, we would have to have revolution in the old systemic set. And now we should understand that we can have revolution in another sense – through the cumulative transformation of these dominant structures. And that’s what I try to illustrate in my argument.


From the audience:  Professor, this is Kiril. And two questions to you: first is related to education, the second is related to pension system. Question one: last year our students got s chance to study at progressive universities, so last year was started the program of state grants for studying abroad. And were only maybe 10% of grants are for social sciences and all the rest for technical sciences. What do you think of these? Should the state send specialists of social sciences, first of all or it should send engineers, biologists, specialists in medicine and something like it. And my second question is the question about pension reform because now in Ukraine there is transition from old pension system to system of private. So what are your ideas about pension reform?  Thank you.


Roberto Unger:  So first of all, it makes no sense at all for the state to be choosing which sectors of thought should be promoted. It has to be an impersonal procedure that provides support for all fields, and the schools, the academic elite has to design this system; it’s not for a group of politicians to decide that one form of thought is more important than another form of thought.

Now, with respect to pensions, I stated my view that a requirement of a rebellious national strategy is that there be a high mandatory level of saving in the society. Everyone should be required to save. And obviously, the requirement should be progressively proportional to the level of income. And part of this vast pool of capital that exists in the pension system should be made available for investment in emergent and innovative enterprise in the form of decentralized funds under competitive and professional management. The important thing is to understand that a strong national project like the project that I require means that the country has to have its own resources. It has to have a mobilization of the national resources so that it doesn’t have to go begging to the financiers and the international institution. It can say “no” to them; in effect, to present the discourse in its most extreme form. What I’m advocating is a kind of war economy without a war, in which you have a forced mobilization of national resources to create the practical possibility for national heresy, for national rebellion, for national deviation from this blueprint that the dominant powers are attempting to impose upon the world.


Hlib Kozak: Hello, thank you for your time. My name is Hlib Kozak, I did my homework so I have my thoughts over here. There is a list of lessons that a nation should pass. We broke the Soviet Union and we had the Orange revolution. The second lesson which we passed was the lesson of justice. So my question is: did Brazil was passing these lessons of justice in economical, social and political life? And how was it?


Roberto Unger: I’ve already said that I don’t regard Brazil as a model. We have problems that are analogous to the problems that you have here… But the problems that were discussed here are problems that occurred in the whole world. So look at our economy. We have suffered in recent years an involution in the profile of our production and exports. So less manufacture – more primary production, production and export of commodities. And the significance of this involution, of this going backwards, has been masked by the boom in commodity process. Now, we have the economy which in many respects is like in the United States. Brazil is the country in the world that is most like the United States. And there is vast dynamism; there are millions of small and medium-sized businesses, millions of people who are struggling to open and to maintain small production. But they have no access to the resources, necessary for the production. They don’t have credit, they don’t have technology, they don’t massively advance practices of production. So this vast pool of human energy is to a large extent wasted. That is the tragedy of the contemporary society; and the whole institutional program that I described could be seen as an instrument to equip this vast human energy, so that its productive potential can be realized. In the absence of such an institutional program, these countries persist on their inertial path. They persist on the path of dependence, of low value added production and of exclusion of the majority of the people from the advanced sectors. And then they try to attenuate the consequences of this structure with compensatory social programs.

So it’s a very simple question which is before us: will we accept that future or not? In order not to accept that future, we need institutional alternatives, not simply reallocation of resources or compensatory social methods.

From the audience:  Student. Thank you for your brilliant speech. My question is: you put a great emphasis to economy. So what’s the risk, The threat of creating a violated consumer society? Thank you.

Roberto Unger:  Creating?.. Excuse me, I don’t understand.


From the audience: You are putting emphasis on economical reestablishment, a new national strategy. Okay and what’s the risk of creating the consumer society in its violated meaning?


Roberto Unger:  I didn’t understand the last part. I’m sorry; I didn’t describe a consumer society.  The project that I described is a project of democratization on the solid production of supply. It is not simply the popularization of purchasing pattern.  So the weak progressive position in the world is vulgar popularization of consumption and popularization of consumer credit, without any structural transformation in the national economy. That’s not what I described. I defended an alternative to that; I defended a structure that would create opportunity on the side of production and of supply. It’s not a consumption society. It’s a society that favors agents, production, enterprise. The progressives should not be the people who bring the sugar. The progressives should stand from the side of energy, of creation, of production. 


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