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Roberto Unger: Free Classical Social Theory from Illusions of False Necessity

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Don't miss new Big Think videos! Subscribe by clicking here: Roberto Unger outlines the problem with illusion of false : The central idea of classical European social theory is the idea that society is made and imagined. The structures of social life are our creation. Vico said we can understand society because we made it. So we shouldn't think of these structures in the way in which we think of the atomic structure of a natural object. They are artifacts, our artifacts rather than natural phenomena. This was the central idea of the tradition of classical European social theory. The most consummate example of which is the social theory of Karl Marx. But this idea when taken to the hilt would lead us to the notion that all the arrangements of society are a kind of frozen politics. So these structures arise to the extent that conflict, practical and visionary conflict over the terms of social life, is interrupted or contained. Or to change the metaphor it's like a game of musical chairs. The music stops, the music being the conflict, and then the chairs on which we sit are the structures. This revolutionary insight in social theory was circumscribed by a series of illusions that compromised its force. These are the illusions of false necessity. The first of these illusions is the idea that there is in history a closed list of such structures. For example, feudalism, capitalism and socialism in Marx, the modes of production. There is no such closed list. The second illusion of false necessity is the illusion of indivisibility that each of these structures is an indivisible system which to be replaced must be replaced all at once by another system. For example, feudalism by capitalism or capitalism by socialism. And this second illusion, the illusion of indivisibility has an enormous practical consequence. The practical consequence is to mislead us into the view that there are basically only two kinds of politics. There is the revolutionary substitution of one indivisible system by another or there is the reformist management or humanization of a today for example you can ask what's the project of the progressives? And the answer is for the most part they have no project. Their project is the humanization of the project of their conservative adversaries. And they justify this abdication by appealing to the notion of revolution. The real change, the structural change, would be the substitution of one system for another. It's not in the cards and if it were it would be too dangerous. So let's make the best of the situation and humanize the system that we have, especially through compensatory redistribution by tax and transfer. What the illusion of indivisibility disregards is that change can be structural and nevertheless piecemeal, fragmentary, gradual and experimental. We should not associate radical change with wholesale change and gradual change with inconsequential change. The third illusion is the illusion that there are laws governing the succession of indivisible systems in history. And if there are laws then there's no role for the programmatic imagination, for the imagination of alternatives. So think of what happens today. If I propose something that's very distant from present reality you say that's interesting but it's utopia. If I propose something close to what exists you answer that's feasible but it's trivial. And thus everything that is proposed can be derided as either utopian or trivial. This false dilemma arises from a misunderstanding of the nature of the programmatic imagination. It's not about blueprints. It's about succession. It's not architecture, it's the confusion is aggravated by our inability now to believe in any of the master narratives of historical change that we have inherited from the tradition of classical social theory. And because we cannot rely on these narratives we fall back on a bastardized conception of political realism which is that a proposal is realistic to the extent that it approaches what already exists. What then is the task? The task is to recover the central revolutionary insight of classical social theory and to liberate this insight from the illusions of false necessity. And if we were to take that task seriously we would then have to contest the orthodoxies that now prevail across the whole field of social sciences and humanities. In the positive social sciences, the hard social sciences, economics first among them what we find are rationalizing tendencies that explain the established arrangements in a way that vindicates their necessity and their authority.[Transcript Truncated]Directed/Produced by Jonathan Fowler and Dillon Fitton



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