Brazil's Roberto Unger

From "The Passion of Roberto Unger"

by Eyal Press

Lingua Franca, March 1999

On January 13, Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardoso stunned the world's financial markets--and his own people--when he announced the devaluation of his country's currency, the real. The announcement seemed to mark the precipitous end of one of Latin America's most successful economic experiments and a serious setback for one of the region's political heroes.

Cardoso, a former Marxist sociology professor and a leading theorist of Latin American underdevelopment in the 1970s, had, by the 1990s, emerged as the brightest star in a new generation of market-oriented reformers. Elected president in 1994, he introduced a new currency that curbed the inflation that had paralyzed Brazil's economy for decades. He also implemented a range of reforms that opened Brazil to unprecedented foreign trade and investment, buoying hopes that the world's eighth largest economy was on its way to becoming a twenty-first-century economic powerhouse.

Now, however, as Brazil scrambles to cope with a financial crisis that has pushed it into severe recession--and sent the value of the real plummeting 35 percent since mid-January---Cardoso's miracle is over and he seems certain to flice renewed political challenges. One of these will likely come from Luis Inácio Lula da Silva, the rough-hewn, charismatic leader of Brazil's Workers Party, which staunchly opposes the free-market policies Cardoso has embraced. But the most provocative challenge to Cardoso may, in the end, emerge from a less expected quarter--from a man who, like Cardoso, comes from an old, politically influential family and who, like Cardoso, entered Brazilian politics in the wake of a brilliant academic career...

The problem with Ungers's views, as overlooked by the reporter that made his profile-and as underlined by P.Andreson- Unger has no use to the category of _class_ in his writings, putting instead the idea of a power drive by means of which the state takes to itself the task of reordering society- a point stressed early in his work in *Law in Modern Society* (Free Press), where he says that the genesis of the Welfare State is connected to the State's necessity of coping with multifarious contingent situations by means of a body of legislation that goes far from the idea of general rules that would make possible the "Rule of Law". Unger's proposals, in fact, amount to a Welfare State that would mainly regulate economic activity by means of providing selective cheap credit to innovative sectors of private activity- something made, without theoretical explanations, by the US when the American government heavily financed basic and applied research in computing and biotechnology for reasons of, respectively, military and health policies.

However-and that's the empirical point that Unger overlooks- the Brazilian bourgeoisie, since the end of the military dictatorship, is increasingly divided against itself, because of tension about who-gets-what of the shrinking economic pie, and increasingly inclined to find a role as a mere comparador bourgeoisie; many businessman with import substitution ventures have sold them to multinational corporations and have become business consultants to foreign investors or mere export-import businessman. Therefore, Unger's political gambit has centered on the political adventurer Gomes, who was Itamar Franco's finance minister- an assignment given him in 1994 in order to act as Cardoso's deputy, FHC having left the Finance Ministry in order to run as presidential candidate, as required by the law. That assignment Gomes fulfilled whole-heartedly, by mean of efficient media-gimmicks, like calling businessmen who raised prices "cunts"(*babacas*). Afterwards, not being given the same ministry under Cardoso,he fell out with him, like Itamar. That Unger has decided to support Gomes is only a case history of the long traditions of petty-bourgeois intellectuals in oligarchical societies that think they can change society single-handed; intriguing, but, IMHO not bound to have consequences of any note. Unger intends to play Plato to his younger Dionysius of Syracuse, and that will probably lead to the same achievement of his predecessors -most probably none...

Carlos Rebello