“No human being should be condemned to do the work of a machine". Two interviews with Roberto Unger

In the early days of The Alternative UK, we had numerous inspirations and mentors. Uffe Elbaek, leader of our mother-ship, the Alternativet party in Denmark and founder of Kaos Pilots was the first.

However, when we were looking for a quote to put on a badge, nobody expressed the goal we were reaching for better than Roberto Unger. His notion that every one of us should live lives of constant stretch and full expression - only dying once, at the end of life - was captured in the phrase captured below and uttered again in these interviews..

In his latest book The Knowledge Economy he returns repeatedly to the visceral feel of what makes life worth living. The human being’s God like nature: the job of government and the economy to enable that.

If you have an hour, we recommend this video hosted by Art / Earth / Tech (embedded at the top of this post). His opening words are “One of the main themes of my thinking my whole life, has been the imagination of the Alternatives, in particular the elevation of human life to a higher lever”. That we share.

For those who only have 7 minutes,, we’ve reprinted an interview with Matthew Taylor, Chief Executive of the RSA below.

Matthew Taylor: When I heard you had a new book out I assumed it would be about the crisis in liberal democracy. While it is very much about where we are now, it does not advertise itself as being about this specific moment. What is your perspective on why so many people feel there is a particular crisis in liberal democracy?

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Roberto Mangabeira Unger: Let me say something about my attitude to the current historical situation. For over 200 years there has been a revolutionary project that has two sides. One side is the political side carried by the doctrines of democracy, liberalism and socialism, opposed to the entrenched systems of social division and hierarchy that have beset most societies.

The other is the personalist side carried especially by the worldwide popular romantic culture and its message that the ordinary person is not so ordinary after all; that we’re all becoming more human by becoming more godlike, by ascending to a higher form of life with more scope, intensity and capability.

And while this remains the most powerful revolutionary project in the world and continues to command the agenda, it has weaknesses because its advocates no longer know what its next steps should be when it comes to either the political agenda or the moral agenda of humanity.

One of the fundamental motivations of all my work is to find the ideas and means by which this revolution could go on.

Taylor: When you look at trends towards political polarisation, populism and pessimism, do you view these as things that are likely to lead us to crisis or as opportunities for a re-emergence of this project?

Unger: The last great moment of institutional and ideological refoundation in the rich North Atlantic world was the social democratic settlement of the mid-20th century.

The American equivalent of which was Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, where the state was allowed to acquire the power to regulate the economy more intensively, to compensate for the inequalities of the market through retrospective redistribution by tax and transfer, and to manage the economy counter-cyclically.

Institutionally conservative social democracy came to be the main dispensation. The North Atlantic world saw a variation of that settlement with an attempt by the governing elites to reconcile European-style social protection and American-style economic flexibility within the boundaries of a barely adjusted version of the older settlement. But none of these fundamental problems of contemporary societies can be solved or even addressed within those limits.

Take the hierarchical segmentation of the knowledge economy. The advanced practice of production, rather than deepening or spreading, is confined to insular vanguards that exclude the vast majority of businesses and workers. The result is both economic stagnation and the aggravation of economic inequality that compensatory redistribution is powerless to master.

Another example is the absence of an adequate basis of social cohesion. The European nations used to be tribes based on homogeneity of culture where states orchestrated money transfers as a complementary basis of social cohesion. But money is an inadequate social cement and this becomes manifest as cultural homogeneity is eroded by migratory flows.

The only adequate basis of social cohesion is direct engagement with others: forms of collective action outside the boundaries of family.

Or take the weakness of democracy. Low-energy democracies continue to make change depend on crisis. So the basic rhythm of European life in the 20th century was that the Europeans awoke when they were at war slaughtering one another and then when peace was re-established they fell asleep again and drowned their sorrows in consumption. They have not been able to find a way to be both at work and at peace.

These problems cannot be solved within the established boundaries. We need to rediscover the structural content of public life. The liberals and socialists of the 19th century understood the progressive cause as having as its goal the ascent of the life of the ordinary man and woman to a higher level.

The goal was not the humanisation of society, but the divinisation of humanity. Their vision of a shared greatness was too narrowly moulded on the aristocratic idea of self-possession and their method of structural change succumbed to a series of institutional dogmas or blueprints.

But we no longer believe in these dogmas and have a larger, more magnanimous and more contradictory view of what this greatness consists of.

We have the unprecedented task of reshaping the structural background of society in order to become bigger, to provide a larger life for all — without that we die slowly — and to achieve what should for all of us be our largest goal, which is to die only once.

The fundamental problems of society remain unaddressed and as a result there’s a vacuum. In many countries, rightwing populism has arisen in this vacuum and is promising what it can’t deliver. It has no real project and its political economy is pretty negative: to buy a few more years for declining mass production and put constraints on migration.

Taylor: You think big, have big visions, but that never stops you being fascinated by where we start and what we do next. You don’t want to make vision the enemy of the institutional tinkering.

Unger: I don’t believe that we can separate the reshaping of political life from the redirection of the economic world. No country reforms its politics and its state in order to later decide what to do with the reformed state or reformed politics. That’s not how it happens.

The reformation of politics and the state occur only when they need to occur, in the midst of a struggle to change the direction, including the economic direction of the country.

That was one of the provocations behind my work on the knowledge economy; we have a revolutionary practice of production. Adam Smith and Karl Marx, the two greatest economic thinkers in history, both of them philosophers, thought that the best way to understand the workings and prospects of the economy was to study the most advanced practice of production in their time. Now its different, now it’s the knowledge economy.

It’s not just a bunch of gadgets, it’s a different way of doing things. But it is confined, it is under quarantine, it is arrested within these insular vanguards, and the consequence is economic stagnation, formidable boundaries to economic growth, and at the same time the deepening of inequality.

We then can ask what forms of governance of political life can respond. That is how change in the character of political life arises; because we need to do something but don’t have the instruments to do so, and we create these in the midst of the struggle.

Taylor: Is it possible to even start to envisage things being different unless we address the legitimacy deficit that our democratic institutions now suffer?

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Unger: The fundamental problems of society remain unaddressed and as a result there’s a vacuum.

In many countries, right-wing populism has arisen in this vacuum and is promising what it can’t deliver. It has no real project and its political economy is pretty negative: to buy a few more years for declining mass production and put constraints on migration.

It doesn’t even have a constitutional programme other than the strengthening of executive authority. So it is a kind of liquefaction and, by nature, is temporary, as power depends on having an institutional legacy, which it lacks.

There is a huge opportunity for the would-be agents of transformation, if they had a project! The problem is that they don’t.

Taylor: Let’s turn to the project. I did a piece of work for the Prime Minister over two years ago that was ostensibly to look at the ways in which we regulate and tax the newly emerging economy, gig work in particular.

With your phrase “the larger life for all” ringing in my ears, one of the decisions I made early on was to say that we should focus on what constitutes good work. Although the government has implemented most of the recommendations, for me the most important thing is that the notion of good work has had traction.

What I really found thrilling about your book was the vision of everybody’s work being fulfilling, decent and fair and offering them scope to grow and to express themselves. That might be a revolutionary idea we need?

No human being should be condemned to do the work that can be done by machines. Our objective must be to become more human by becoming more godlike, and we have the machine to do the routines that we can then preserve ourselves from.

Unger: So, Karl Marx and Keynes had two bad ideas, among many other bad ideas of theirs.

One is that the reign of scarcity was about to be overcome and as soon as scarcity was overcome we could devote ourselves to private sublimities.

The other idea is that it was very good that scarcity would be overcome because practical work is a hateful burden preventing us from doing the real thing.

Both of these ideas were mistaken. We’re not about to overcome scarcity, which is endlessly reproduced in new forms, but also work doesn’t have to be a hateful burden. We can aspire to a non-instrumental relation to work.

We change ourselves by trying to change the world, and we can hope not just for freedom from the economy but for freedom in the economy.

One of the promises of a radicalised and disseminated knowledge economy — which we are very distant from achieving — has to do with the relation between the worker and the machine.

In Henry Ford’s assembly line or Adam Smith’s pin factory, workers worked as if they were one of the machines, through repetitious movements. Now we understand that the machine can mean something else. Everything that we’ve learnt how to repeat we express in a formula. Everything we can express algorithmically we can embody in a physical device.

That means we can devote our supreme resource, our time, to the not yet repeatable. The combination of the machine and the human being can be immensely more powerful than either of them separately. No human being should be condemned to do the work that can be done by machine.

Our objective must be to become more human by becoming more godlike, and we have the machine to do the routines that we can then preserve ourselves from.

That cannot happen under the present economic order; it requires that work be free. There are three forms of free labour: wage work, self-employment and cooperation.

It was only in the late 19th century that the ascendancy of wage labour as the predominant form of free work became naturalised. The universal conviction of both the liberals and the socialists was that wage labour was a deficient form of free labour, retaining many of the characteristics of slavery and serfdom.

So what we want is an economic future in which the higher forms of free labour, self-employment and cooperation, come to prevail. For this to happen, we have to invent new mechanisms for decentralised access to productive resources and opportunities.

Then we can imagine a progressive political economy that has three main themes:

  • First is this relationship between the backward parts of the production system and the advanced parts.

  • Second is the relationship between capital and labour

  • and third is the relationship between finance and the real economy.

The immediate problem we have is the condemnation of an increasing part of the labour force to conditions of precarious employment.

There are new realities of production: they require flexibility, and flexibility has been turned into a pretext for the imposition of radical economic insecurity.

So we need a new set of rules that prevent flexibility from becoming an excuse for the depression of wages and the abandonment of work to radical precariousness.

There are practical ways to do this: for example, a principle of price neutrality that says temporary work has to be remunerated at least at the level of the equivalent form of work done under conditions of stable employment.

The goal further ahead is the ascent of these higher forms of free labour gradually replacing the deficient and inferior form, which is wage labour. That can only happen in a world in which the most advanced practice of production ceases to be an island.

It can also only happen in a world in which finance is no longer allowed to serve itself but is enlisted in the productive agenda of society, given that finance can be a good servant but is always a bad master.

Taylor: The RSA is steadfastly for a universal basic income (UBI) that is actually part of a welfare system that incentivises and supports work; we are not for UBI as an abolition of work. We support a UBI approach that is much more practical, much more modest, as a more appropriate form of welfare.

Unger: Two things are required in the social order that we should desire: one is that the individual agent should be and feel protected in the haven of safeguards and capability-enhancing endowments. But the reason why he needs to be protected is so that he can thrive and act in the midst of a storm.

It’s like the parent says to the child: I love you, now go out and raise a storm in the world. What we want is for the individual to be guaranteed protection — that’s half of the task. But the other half is to organise the storm, the extended plasticity in social life, so that the individual can then be like the Seraph Abdiel in Paradise Lost, unshaken, unseduced, unterrified.

This requires us to organise this form of radicalised experimentalism in economic and social life. Those two projects are the complements to one another. And this whole argument about the knowledge economy, about labour, about finance, is a set of variations on that theme.

Taylor: The book reminded me of the themes of your past work.

For example, encouraging progressives not to focus on symptoms but to focus on underlying systems, a focus on the importance of institutions and institutional renewal and institutional invention.

The importance of, on the one hand, having a mobilising vision of an alternative society, but on the other hand a willingness to be agile, experimental and pragmatic about how it is we embark upon that road.

To what extent do you think those methodological insights that you’ve been arguing for are coming to be?

Unger: We have a fundamental confusion in thinking about change.

If I propose something that is distant from what exists today, people say that’s very interesting but it’s utopian.

But if I propose something that’s close to something that exists, they say it’s feasible but it’s trivial.

That results from a misunderstanding of the nature of transformation and of a programmatic argument. It’s not about blueprints, it’s about successions, it’s not architecture, it’s music.

That false dilemma between the utopian and the trivial is aggravated by a feature of the history of ideas. Contemporary social sciences are, for the most part, each in their different ways rationalisations of the existing arrangements. They have no structural imagination.

We did have an old form of structural imagination, classical European social theory such as Marxism, which, however, misrepresented the nature of structural change because it compromised with a series of fatalistic illusions.

One of those illusions is the idea that there are these systems like feudalism, socialism, capitalism, each of them is an indivisible package, and then we get this idea that politics is either the reformist management of a system or the revolutionary substitution of one by the other.

Then the unavailability of the revolutionary substitution becomes an alibi for its opposite, which is the management of the existing order, its humanisation.

That’s the characteristic position of the contemporary progressives, the humanisers of the inevitable. That’s not how structural change is. It is fragmentary, but it can nevertheless become radical in its outcome if it persists in a certain direction.

If we think in the bad old way about structural change we can’t understand it, and not understanding structural change we then embrace a bastardised criterion of political realism, which is proximity to the existent, which is absurd, and that then brings us back to this false dilemma.

So here’s a problem that we have: the high culture of the academy is hostile to the structural vision that we need. Much of the time, the social sciences are rationalisations of the existing order; the pseudophilosophical disciplines of political theory and legal thought are wedded to humanisation of the existing order, not the reimagination and remaking of society.

They pretend to be enemies of the status quo but are allies in the disarmament of the transformative will and imagination. So we don’t have the ideas that we need. And we have to produce them along the way, in the midst of this storm. We need this imagination and we don’t have it.

The task of this programmatic rethinking is the immediate provocation to the development of a different way of thinking about society.

Taylor: Roberto, your new book, The Knowledge Economy, certainly does provide exactly the food for thought to enable us to reimagine, but also to start to think about some of the material steps to start on this journey, so thank you.

This article first appeared in the RSA Journal — Issue 1 2019