New World Order
Revision of the World Political and Economic Order Is Necessary – Roberto Unger
Prominent Brazilian politician, scientist and philosopher Dr. Roberto Mangabeira Unger answered the questions of VIGIL
VIGIL: Dr. Unger, what is your view of the perspectives of the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and the Republic of South Africa). What can be done by these countries to overcome the negative consequences of the world political-economic crisis?
R. Unger: Well, first I believe that the BRICS countries already have common themes and commitments. For example, our desire to reform the world trade regime so that this regime not impose on the trading countries in the name of world free trade, an acceptance of a particular version of the market economy that outlaws under the label subsidies, forms a strategic coordination between governments and firms that imposes the existing regime of intellectual property in the whole world and that in general inhibits the institutional experiments that we need.
We have a commitment to developing alternative monetary arrangements in the world to replace the dollar as the world’s reserve currency. And we could go down the list: there’s a whole set of converging commitments that are beginning to approach. In the second place I recognize that we are very far from having a program for the revision of the world’s political and economic order. We should have such a program, but we don’t.
The aim of such a program should be to form the world political and economic order that is hospitable to experiments, to heresies, to alternatives and deviations to finally overthrow the project that has been imposed to the world since the World War II.
The other point that I would make is that the fundamental reason that we don’t have a program for the revision of the world political and economic order is that we have not developed our own national programs adequately. What counts in the world today as an alternative to the arrangements that prevail in the rich North Atlantic countries is an inorganic mixture, an ad hoc combination of neoliberalism, state capitalism and compensatory social democracy. And that is not good enough. What we need in each of our countries is an institutional project that democratizes the market, radically transforms the character of education, provides a practical basis for social cohesion and creates the arrangements of a high energy democracy that does not need change, does not need crises as a condition of change. In other words, in each of these domains we would need to have strong institutional alternatives to the arrangements that now prevail in the rich North Atlantic countries. And we don’t have them yet.
VIGIL: Can you please specify your point in connection to our countries?
R. Unger: Let’s go domain by domain. In the economy the countries like ours – Brazil and Russia - need to develop and need to overcome their dependence on natural resources’ extraction, underproduction and export of commodities. But how can they do that? They can do that only by using the powers of the state to disseminate advanced practices and technologies, above all, in favor of the small and medium-size businesses that are responsible for the preponderant part of the export and import. Such a project cannot be successfully undertaken within the limits of the established forms of the market. It requires decentralized partnerships and strategic coordination between governments and networks of small and medium-size firms. It requires cooperative competition among them. In other words, a re-foundation and reshaping of the institutional content of the market is needed, not simply a regulation of the market.
In education we need to reconcile the local management of the schools with national standards of quality. And we need to create a form of that instead of being oriented to the information, to the encyclopedia, to memory is analytic, problematic, cooperative and dialectical.
With respect to the organization of the civil society we need to have a basis for social solidarity and cohesion that is more powerful than just money transfers organized by the state. The civil society should be organized by the state to participate in the experimental and competitive provision of public services. We should not need to choose between the bureaucratic provision of low-quality standardized public services and the privatization of public services in favor of the profit of the firms, there should be another alternative, which is that the state help organize the engagement of the civil society in the provision of public services.
And furthermore, every able body adult in addition to have the position in the system of production should share the responsibility to take care of other people outside the boundaries of his own family. The only adequate basis of social cohesion is direct responsibility, not simply money.
The fourth domain of the institutional reshaping is the organization democracies that do not need crises as a condition of change. High energy democracies should be democracies that favor a high level of popular engagement in political life. They should make it possible for particular parts of the federation or particular sectors of the economy to deviate from the general solutions and create counter-models of the future. They should enrich representative democracy with aspects of direct or participatory democracy. For example, through comprehensive programmatic plebiscites that engage the general electorate in the decision about the fundamental problems - that’s what I want in our societies.
We need strong states, but there are really ultimately only two ways to have a strong state – a bad way and a good way. The bad way is through authoritarian bureaucratic outfit, which is able to prevent a state from being captured by plutocratic interests. The good way is to radicalize the markets. That is the only way to prevent the state from being weakened and once we can capture by powerful influence is either through authoritarianism or through radical democracy. And it’s the latter rather than the former that we should desire. So what I want for my own country and what I would like to see eventually in other BRICS countries is a multitude of institutional initiatives and experiments in this direction.
VIGIL: Does the high energy democracy mean popular democracy or should it be imposed by the elites?
R. Unger: That means participation of everyone. With respect to democracy, what do we want? We can use a series of physical metaphors, we want to raise the temperature and raising the temperature means a high level of political mobilization. Now, the political mobilization can be either extra-institutional as in the form of populism, or institutionalized. We should want an organized institutional form of high mobilization. Then we should want to hasten the paste not just raise the temperature. We should want constitutional arrangements that rapidly resolve the impasse through comprehensive plebiscite or through reelections. We should want to make it possible for different parts of the society of the federation to create our common future. The society goes down a certain road, where at the edges it acts by allowing particular parts of the nation to generate alternative examples of the national future. Finally we should not allow representative democracy to be a substitute for direct democracy. Representative democracy has to be combined with instruments of direct participation. Only such politics can provide the conditions for rapid and recurrent structural change without requiring crisis to be the condition of change.
VIGIL: Speaking of the Western Hemisphere, what are the perspectives of the integration process in South America?
R. Unger: We have advanced through UNASUR, MERCOSUR towards integration of South America. But I have to say that I think that MERCOSUR is still a machine without a heart. It is lacking the essential spirit; this impulse would be a strong model of development, alternative model of development. We don’t have it yet, we only have the initial elements of that. For example, in Brazil in recent governments – including the government of President Lula, in which I had the honor to serve – we democratized consumption. We broadened the economy on the demand side, but not on the supply side. The most important social phenomenon in our country and in much of Latin America in recent decades is the emergence of second middle class that comes from below, and is a mixture of millions of small emerging enterprises and that has the culture of self-help in itself. There is no institutional model that is able to secure economic opportunity and educational capability for this emerging population. This is the task that we have not accomplished yet. Democratization of the market economy, the sustained organized broadening of economic and educational horizons – this is what we need. Until we do that, South American integration would be lacking its essential aspects. It cannot flourish on simply commercial arrangements. It must be a political-economic idea.
VIGIL: What problems do our countries experience now?
R. Unger: The problem is that the nature of commercial relations in the world has to some extent served as an evasion of the structural tendency. China instead of accomplishing the major redistribution among classes, sectors and regions where there would be required to deepen its internal market, imports raw materials from Brazil and exports it to the richer countries. In Brazil rather than organizing a strategy of production that broadens opportunity and assures capability to this multitude of emerging enterprises we have increasingly specialized in the production and export of commodities and natural recourses. The fragility of this strategy has been concealed by the booming world commodity prices sustained in the first place by China. That is why I am saying that the trade flows which in principle could be an instrument of internal structural transformation to a very large extent have served as a substitute for internal structural transformation.
VIGIL: Taking into account tremendous economic potentials of Russia and Brazil, what can the governments of our countries do to interact more effectively in the international arena?
R. Unger: I think that there are two tasks. And one of them is much more important than the other. The less important task is to develop a common agenda for the revision of the world political and economic order. We should not be simply fighting for relative places within the established order. We should not be divided by the struggle for relative positions within the existing order. We should be struggling for an order that is unrestrictive of the institutional experiments that we need.
The more important task is the task of creating our own strong national strategies, our own projects with the institutional content than I have just outlined. Until we have something better than this combination of neoliberalism, state capitalism and compensatory social democracy, we cannot advance. The fundamental reason why we are unable to have a project of the world is that we do not have projects for ourselves. And therefore the creation of such projects is the first-order business.
VIGIL: Is the national project-making problem typical of every country of the BRICS?
R. Unger: Yes, this problem is characteristic for every single country of the BRICS Group. Each of them has certain fragments certain elements of such an initiative, such a project, but none of them can be taken as a model that approaches what I described at the beginning of our conversation. Our whole tendency is to accept the general blueprint of the market economy imported from the North Atlantic world and then to compromise it or qualify it with elements of state capitalism, political authoritarianism and compensatory social democracy – that is what we do. It is a set of compromises, qualifications and evasions, rather than strong national projects. We lack these projects. Not only we have political and plutocratic elites that subordinate national interests to the self-serving objectives, but in the midst of all our bluster about national self-searching we are all tainted by mental colonialism. What is shocking to see in these countries is that the intelligentsia and the political elites are to a very large extent servile, they are submissive to the intellectual fashions and alternatives that are imported from the Academy of the North Atlantic countries. And in that Academy – I speak with internal knowledge – what prevails in every branch of social and historical study is some very anti-right wing Hegelianism, belief, that the real is rational. This mystification stands in the place of insight.
VIGIL: Does it mean that it is necessary to reset the whole system of international mechanisms?
R. Unger: Yes. But there is a sequence: first, we have to change ourselves, then we have to change our countries, and only then we have to change the world.
VIGIL: Thank you, Mr. Unger!
R.Unger: Thank you, it has been a pleasure.