March 12, 2024   6 mins

In the depths of the Sixties, Charles de Gaulle, perhaps apocryphally, was quoted as stating that “Brazil is the country of the future, and always will be”. This backhanded compliment from the then French president was supposed to illustrate the divergent political and economic trajectories of the New World. In effect, the USA was the future, while the vast resource-rich Latin American states to Washington’s south, especially Brazil, held an unfilled promise.

No figure embodies this symbiosis better than Roberto Mangabeira Unger, the American-Brazilian philosopher, politician and Harvard Law School professor. Now 76, Unger’s star has risen, fallen and risen again in importance as both a global and specifically “New World” thinker. Today, he is more influential than ever: if De Gaulle once located Brazil’s promise in a constantly deferred future, Unger, in contrast, is a philosopher who argues the moment for innovation is now.

Often described as “Brazil’s answer to John Stuart Mill”, Unger shares both Mill’s youthful precocity (reading Plato’s Republic as a bedtime story) and a record of serving in government. At the heart of his work, however, there is a rejection of Mill and much of the Anglophone world’s liberal faith in progress.

Indeed, through a 49-year career spanning politics, law, social and political theory and philosophy, Unger has put forward a collection of searching inquiries meant to pierce the liberal mythos of necessary progress. Across dozens of books, including the recently published metaphysical tome The World and Us (2024), the Brazilian philosopher has tried to think beyond 20th-century categories through a series of questions.

To what extent can our politics be understood as an ongoing experiment rather than a set of negotiated solutions? How far are human beings free to transform themselves? What can be rescued from the lost thought of marginalised social groups, such as the peasants, petite-bourgeoisie shopkeepers and artisans crushed between the development of big capital and the working class? Can we think beyond the boundaries of capitalism and socialism, liberalism and bureaucracy, anarchy and the state? How can the nation retain political meaning and reinvent itself in a globalising world?

These lofty questions have played out across Unger’s life. Generationally, Unger is part of, and partly characterised by, the distinctly positivist Baby Boomer generation. This was a cohort that experienced a great opening up of cultural and economic possibility while contesting social norms, Left and Right-wing dictatorships and, ultimately, the Cold War itself before declaring the End of History. Admittedly, Unger’s thought tends to mistake the contingent positivity of his generation, expressed half-heartedly in the third-way Clinton, Blair and Obama administrations, for a natural phenomenon, despite his ongoing critique of necessity.

Yet Unger would also rebel against the closure of the unipolar American moment and his generation’s refrain of “there is no alternative”. Instead, he retained his early faith in the possibility of immediate change and reform outside the iron laws of history put forward by figures like Marx. In this way, his philosophy is stuck between an elderly liberal group broadly committed to the finalisation of Western progress and the closure of political change, and a despondent younger cohort critical of inevitable progress and cynically detached from reform.

Consequently, Unger, in his radical openness and rejection of determinism, has much to teach both generations. As he argues in Beyond the Small Life: A Letter to Young People: “We settle into a way of living and doing. A mummy begins to form around each of us, diminishing our reach and vision by accommodating them to circumstance.” In response to these deadening political and social routines, from cycles of political election to routinised work, Unger proposes we practise “negative capability”, a term borrowed from John Keats that suggests a rejection of the present as normal or inevitable.

Unger’s own distrust of political inevitably is partly explained by his background. He was born to a liberal American-Brazilian family of recent elite status in Rio de Janeiro. His father, Artur, was a German-American lawyer, while his mother, the journalist Edyla Mangabeira, was the scion of a left-liberal Brazilian dynasty. The family included Octávio Mangabeira (1886-1960), the liberal governor of Bahia, and João Mangabeira (1880-1964), the founder of the moderate Brazilian Socialist Party. Both men were opposed to the early Estado Novo dictatorship (1937-1945) and were frequently jailed before being exiled to the USA.

Unger was born in New York just after this family exile. His education was split between formal private schooling on the Upper East Side and forays back to Brazil, where he shadowed his senator grandfather Octávio as a miniature political neophyte. It was in the halls of the Brazilian senate in the Fifties that Unger would reconcile the pragmatism of a political life with the idealism of his family.

After returning to Brazil and receiving a Jesuit education characteristic of Rio’s elite, Unger became an unusually young Harvard Law professor at the age of 29. Re-engaging with his native Brazil, Unger would find the country once again under military dictatorship in the Sixties after the brief Fourth Republic (1946-1964). Indeed, the reforms his family had pursued were forever in contest with cycles of repression and democracy characteristic of Latin America in the 20th century.

Consequently, Unger grew increasingly sceptical of normal political cycles. After the fall of the Brazilian dictatorship in 1985, Unger, through intensive collaboration with the official opposition party (Brazilian Democratic Movement), wanted to prevent Brazil from falling back into Cold War binaries or adopting old-fashioned forms of social democracy. Instead, Brazilian politics was to be shaped by peasants, slum dwellers, small businesspeople, artisans, farmers and tribes rather than the dominant large industrial working, professional and capitalist classes. In this way, the revolutionary subjects of both liberalism and Marxism, the worker and the large capitalist, were to be replaced by “the losers” who wanted to “reverse the verdict of economic defeat”. As Tom Nairn wrote, perhaps slightly mockingly, in a review of Unger’s books: “We’re all petit-bourgeois now.”

On the surface, Unger’s politics — centred around disrupting both organised capital and labour, as well as partnerships between the state and the market — has much in common with the Third Way politics of Blair, Clinton, and Obama (the latter to whom he was, briefly, a mentor and confidant). Yet, Unger would ultimately reject Obama and the Third Way as a deeply conformist mixture of Eighties capitalism and New Deal social policies, calling it “a surrender disguised as a synthesis”.

“Unger would ultimately reject Obama and the Third Way.”

Instead, Unger’s politics have always been distinctively weird, defined, for instance, by political campaigns deep in the gang-run favelas of Rio where the professor, “alone” and dressed in his customary tailored suits, handed out “pamphlets to local drug pushers”. Indeed, many were surprised when Unger assumed a prominent role in the trade unionist, statist and social democratic administration of Brazilian president Lula da Silva.

This was a government which achieved a pronounced uptick in living standards while pursuing humdrum and prosaic technocratic solutions, never quite reaching the conceptual and romantic heights of “negative capability” or “anti-necessitarianism” that Unger espoused as Brazilian Minister of Strategic Affairs from 2007. During Lula’s first presidency, beginning in 2003, Unger was said to have found the socialist government’s style formally conservative and unimaginative, describing it as “the most corrupt in Brazil’s history”.

Yet only a few years later, Unger would be invited into the Lula government as a minister in charge of “long-term” planning. In this role, Unger tried to quietly move beyond the constraints of old-school, 20th-century social democracy, proposing state-run micro venture capital funds, radical disaggregations of monopolies and an extension of participatory democracy to the level of the street and slum. But Unger’s personal mission to reinvent politics was overwhelmed by a popular welfarist Lula government, high on the 2000s commodities boom and flush with surplus cash.

After returning to Harvard in 2009, Unger wrote The Left Alternative (2009), in which he attempted to set out why and how the Latin American “Pink Tide” progressive governments had gone wrong. For Unger, leaders such as Lula were attempting to set up “tropical Sweden[s]” while ignoring the potentialities of place, culture, and geography inherent to politics. In a similar vein, Unger describes Left-wing Brazilian, if not global, politics as stuck between a “recalcitrant” Left, obsessed with slowing down markets and protecting industrial workers, and a “humanising” Left, concerned with supercharging markets and globalisation while distributing the proceeds to those left behind.

On the eve of the Great Recession, Unger would propose a new third Left-wing “reconstructive” solution, characterised by a mass distribution of political power. Programmatically, Unger’s policy proposals for a New Left remain more vague than his definite rejection of both traditional social democracy and the Third Way. He even admits in The Left Alternative that “the programmatic imagination require[s]… a theory that does not yet exist”.

In tone, too, much of his philosophy instinctively seems ephemeral, located in a vanished time when Lula and Obama could meet on friendly terms and look forward to an era of mutual progressive experimentation. But it would be a mistake to discount his prophetic power entirely. After all, his subjects — the dispossessed slum dweller, the rural peasant, the bankrupt small businessman — continue, across the world, to drive the most surprising of political changes.

Samuel McIlhagga is a British writer and journalist. He works on political thought and theory, culture and foreign affairs.