Immodest Proposals

Immodest Proposals

Roberto Mangabeira Unger’s What Should the Left Propose?

What Should the Left Propose?
by Roberto Mangabeira Unger
Verso, 2006 112 pp $23

A casual reader could be forgiven for thinking that What Should the Left Propose? was written ten or twelve years ago, in response to the collapse of the Soviet Union and the rise of “Third Way” leftism. For Roberto Mangabeira Unger’s diagnoses of the left’s decline are both plausible and familiar, and they say nothing about left debates since 2001. He lodges the standard complaint about neoliberalism (though he refrains from using the word):

Flexibility—the watchword of the orthodoxy of markets and globalization—is rightly understood to be a code word for the generalization of insecurity. The parties that claim an historical connection with the Left are seen to oscillate between a shamefaced collaboration with this program of insecurity, in the hope that through growth it will generate resources that can be redirected to social spending, and a half-hearted, weakened defense of traditional social contracts.

This could be read as a reasonably fair description of Clinton and Kennedy Democrats, respectively. And it is underscored later in the book when Unger lodges the standard complaint about the decline of labor in the United States:

In no democracy, rich or poor, has the position of labor—its share of national income, its degree of internal segmentation, its level of organized power, influence, and security—degenerated more dramatically over the last forty years than in the United States. It is a circumstance not only unjust and disempowering in itself but also subversive of all other aspects of a program like the one advanced here. It destroys the link between the accumulation of wealth and the ability of the ordinary worker to enjoy the benefits of economic growth. Moreover, it arouses an impatient anxiety that is at least as likely to help the Right as it is likely to serve the Left.

Against flexibility, for labor: Unger’s positions here are anything but surprising. He also advises us to “weaken the influence of money in politics, for example by providing for the public financing of political campaigns and by restricting as much as possible the electoral use of private resources.” This is a fine suggestion in 2006, just as it was a fine suggestion in 1994 and 1988 and 1980. It seems almost ungenerous to ask Unger how, precisely, we are to go about weakening the influence of money in politics and reversing the decline of labor as a political and economic force. But it i...


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