A transformative politics

Crisis, say the Chinese, is both danger and opportunity.  One must accurately read the danger, and seize the opportunity to do something extraordinary.  In the last few months, many thoughtful Filipinos have asked whether the present national situation is a time of  crisis.  I am one of those who believe that a crisis is upon us, and that it is not just a currency crisis that will soon pass.

The crisis is the right moment to debate whether the economic problems we face require nothing more than a fine-tuning of our existing institutional framework, or whether it is necessary to reexamine the framework itself and the assumptions on which it is founded.  Moreover, it is a good time to think in transformative terms. We face a national election in May, and, in June, the centennial of our declaration of independence as a people.

An election and a celebration of a national milestone in the midst of an economic crisis present a perfect occasion not just to argue over the wisdom of specific policy regimes, but to question the very “institutional and imaginative ordering of social life”.  When undertaken with collective will and passion, such a debate can lead to the formulation of a comprehensive program for social reconstruction.

My views on the possibilities of a transformative politics for our time are taken from the work on politics of the Brazilian social theorist, Roberto Mangabeira Unger.  Unger refuses to accept that the historical context we live in in the so-called Third World countries is a matter of fate, or nothing but the necessary consequence of the operation of blind social laws.  He believes that we have the “freedom to remake the social worlds we construct and inhabit.”

The aim, Unger makes clear, “is not to show that we are free in any ultimate sense and somehow unrestrained by causal influences upon our conduct.  It is to break loose from a style of social understanding that allows us to explain ourselves and our societies only to the extent we imagine ourselves helpless puppets of the social worlds we build and inhabit, or of the lawlike forces that have supposedly brought these worlds into being.”

The key to his concept of politics is the distinction between the “formative contexts” of our social life and the “formed routines” by which we deal with one another in society.  Formed routines or arrangements are the residues of past accommodations and compromises among competing groups in society.  When they ossify, they acquire the appearance of necessary institutions obeying sociological laws.  In fact they are nothing but conventions that have outlived their time.  Many aspects of our present economic and political practice are like these.   Our tedious electoral process and the constant gridlock that characterizes our lawmaking system are good examples of such routines.

Formative contexts or frameworks, on the other hand, “comprise all the institutional arrangements and imaginative preconceptions that shape routine conflicts over the mastery and use of key resources.” Such resources include “economic capital, governmental power, technical expertise, and even prestigious ideals.”  The legitimate use and proper disposition of these resources is what formative frameworks define.

So much political debate centers on the routines rather than on framework, says Unger.  The institutional and cultural framework of social life is mostly left untouched, taken for granted, and accorded undeserved necessity and authority.  The result of this is the failure to “imagine alternative possibilities of social organization”, or to transform the context itself.

By “institutional and imaginative context”, Unger means, for example, laws on property rights, constitutional provisions on representation and limits of political activity, ideas on the role of government and of political parties; styles of business organization, ideals of private community, family life and friendship; models of private contract, and of work.  In short, structure and culture.

The tendency of much radical politics, he says, has been to think of these formative contexts as organic wholes, whose various components have a natural affinity with one another, and that can only be changed through a total system-transforming revolution. But in fact, he argues, the components of a social order are “only loosely and unevenly connected; they can be replaced piece by piece rather than only as an inseparable whole.”

He believes that existing theories and ideologies have produced “a willful closure to the surprises of politics”.  Unger is convinced that our institutional frameworks can be reimagined “in the midst of ordinary social activity,” and to the extent that we can do so, we can succeed in undermining “rigid social roles and hierarchies.”

Unger comes from a radical tradition, and he shares with Marxists the basic idea that society is an artifact, made by human beings, rather than a natural entity following a necessary script.  But he differs with those who would constrain political intervention by the notion of society as being governed by some “deep structure” with determinable laws or tendencies.

There is fire and urgency in Unger’s criticisms and prescriptions for a transformative politics.  He speaks especially to those whose political passions have been stilled by the defeats of collective struggles and experiments, but whose spirits continue to seek a battleground broader than that of personal relations and private perfection, one where struggles are waged simultaneously “through contrasting visions of society and secret movements of the heart.”


Reference: Roberto Mangabeira Unger, Politics: The Central Texts, London: Verso, 1997.