Roberto Mangabeira Unger
Roberto Mangabeira Unger, Philosopher and Brazilian Politician
March 24, 1947 |
Rio de Janeiro
|Residence||Cambridge MA and Brazil|
|Era||Late 20th Century, Early 21st Century|
|Main interests||Philosophy · Politics · Social theory · Legal theory · Economics · Political philosophy · Natural philosophy · Institutional alternatives|
|Notable ideas||False necessity · Formative context · Negative capability · Empowered democracy · Radical pragmatism · Transformative vocation|
|Website||The Work of Roberto Mangabeira Unger|
Roberto Mangabeira Unger (born March 24, 1947) is a philosopher, social theorist, and politician. His writings offer a comprehensive view of our humanity, and present a path by which humankind and each individual can hope to rise to a greater life. He has developed his views across many fields including social, political, legal, and economic theory in an effort to realize the modernist project of the world made and imagined. His theories of false necessity and empowered democracy offer one of the only comprehensive alternatives to neo-liberalism today, and out of Marxism he has rethought revolution and offered a biting critique of Keynesianism. He has further radicalized the thought of pragmatism, and his work in legal theory helped form the Critical Legal Studies movement and to disrupt the methodological consensus in law schools. His political activity helped bring about democracy in Brazil, and culminated with his appointment as the Brazilian Minister of Strategic Affairs.
Contrary to widespread belief, Unger was not educated at Harvard. He studied law at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro and was awarded a research doctorate by Harvard only after he had already been teaching there for several years.
At the root of Unger’s thought is the conviction that the world is made and imagined. His work begins from the premise that no natural social, political, or economic arrangements underlie individual or social behavior. Property rights, liberal democracy, wage labor—for Unger, these are all historical artifacts that have no necessary relation to the goals of free and prosperous human activity. His books have sought to explicate the ideals of human social, political, and economic activity, and to free them from their institutional chains. Doing so, he holds, will enable the realization of the full extent of human potential and, as he puts it, “make us more god-like.” For Unger, the market, the state, and human social organization should not be set in predetermined institutional arrangements, but need to be left open to experimentation and revision according to what works for the project of the empowerment of humanity.
Unger has long been active in Brazilian oppositional politics, where he has attempted to realize institutional alternatives. He was one of the founding members of the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party and drafted its manifesto. He directed the presidential campaigns of Leonel Brizola and Ciro Gomes, ran for the Chamber of Deputies, and twice launched exploratory bids for the Brazilian presidency. He served as the Minister of Strategic Affairs in the second Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva administration. He is currently working on social and developmental projects in the Brazilian state of Rondônia.
Unger's maternal grandfather, Octávio Mangabeira, was the last of eight children of Augusta Mangabeira and Francisco Cavalcanti Mangabeira, a poor pharmacist living in the Brazilian state of Bahia. Octávio's brother João Mangabeira founded the Brazilian Socialist Party. His sister Maria Mangabeira founded a religious order. Octávio became professor of astronomy at the Escola Politécnica in Bahia and gained popularity after delivering an inspired public lecture in 1910 on Halley's Comet, which propelled him into a career in politics. He served as Brazil's minister of foreign affairs in the late 1920s before the dictatorship of Getúlio Vargas subjected him to a series of imprisonments and exiles in Europe and the United States. After returning to Brazil in 1945, he co-founded a center-left party. He was elected as a representative in the Câmara Federal in 1946, governor of Bahia in 1947, and Senator in 1958.
Both of Unger's parents were accomplished intellectuals. His German-born father from Dresden, Artur Unger, arrived in the United States as a child and became a naturalized citizen. He had a successful career as a lawyer. His mother, Edyla Mangabeira, was a Brazilian poet and journalist. She published numerous books of poetry, and a memoir of her experiences in social activism in Brazil entitled Três exílios e uma guerra. Her journalism appeared in many of Brazil's major news publications. Artur and Edyla met at a party in the US during the exile of Octávio Mangabeira.
Early life 
Roberto Mangabeira Unger was born in Rio de Janeiro on March 24, 1947. Although his parents lived in the United States at the time, his father suffered a heart attack during a family visit to Brazil, which delayed their return to the United States and led to the birth of Roberto in Brazil. After the elder Unger's recovery, the family returned to New York. The young Unger spent his childhood on Manhattan's Upper East Side and attended the private Allen-Stevenson School. He went to Brazil during vacations, where he stayed with his grandfather, Octávio Mangabeira. Unger cites these summers with his grandfather as influencing his conception of political life.
When Unger was 7, his mother began reading to him Benjamin Jowett's translation of Plato's Republic an experience he cites as the origin of his interest in speculative thought. When he was 11, his father died and Unger and his mother moved back to Brazil. Unger attended Jesuit school where he learned to speak proper Portuguese, and went on to law school at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro. He was admitted to Harvard Law School in September 1969 in anticipation of the successful completion of his exams in Brazil. Having arrived too late for the summer orientation on American law for international students, Unger and the other late arrivals were given a weekly seminar to engage the faculty and their different specialties.
After the completion of his LLM the following year, Unger stayed at Harvard another year on a fellowship. During this time, activist tensions with the Brazilian military government intensified, and between his sister's arrest during protests and his own misgivings about the police state, he opted not to return. Harvard invited him to stay in the doctoral program and teach. At 23 years old, Unger began teaching jurisprudence, among other things, to first year students.
Academic career 
In 1976, at 29 years old, Unger became one of the youngest faculty members to receive tenure from the Harvard Law School. In that same year, he also won a coveted Guggenheim Fellowship. Although appointed to the faculty of law, Unger often taught courses in social theory and philosophy.
The beginning of Unger's successful and influential career in academia began with the books Knowledge and Politics and Law in Modern Society, published in 1975 and 1976 respectively. These works offer an analysis and criticism of the legal, political, moral, and epistemological assumptions that underlie much of modern thought. Knowledge and Politics took aim at liberal political philosophy, which he argued reduced the world to false antinomies—rules vs. values, reason vs. desire, etc. Law in Modern Society explored the origins of law in the modern West and argued that there is no relation between legal, political, and economic arrangements, as is often assumed.
These works led to the co-founding of Critical Legal Studies (CLS) with Duncan Kennedy and Morton Horwitz. The movement stirred up controversy in legal schools across America as it challenged standard legal scholarship and made radical proposals for legal education. By the early 1980s, the movement had hundreds of adherents and was holding annual events and conferences. A few years later, the CLS movement touched off a heated internal debate at Harvard, pitting the CLS scholars against the older, more traditional scholars. Despite later distancing himself from the movement when it took a turn in new directions, critics have said that Unger's social theory provides the only credible basis for CLS critique of ruling ideas of legal thought. Unger himself said that CLS's most significant legacy is to treat legal thought "as an inquiry into the possibilities of reconstruction," that is, a tool for devising better institutions.
Throughout much of the 1980s, Unger worked on his magnum opus, Politics: A Work in Constructive Social Theory, a three volume work that took an assessment of classical social theory and developed an alternative rivaling that of Marx. The series takes to the hilt the insight of society as an artifact, and smashes the idea of the necessity of certain institutional arrangements. The books are the natural outgrowth of his earlier work on law, extending the notion of the arbitrary social constructions of legal institutions to that of all of human activity. Published in 1987, Politics issues a devastating critique of contemporary social theory and politics, develops a profound and highly original theory of structural and ideological change, gives an alternative account of world history, and then works out the consequences in a vision for the future. By first tearing down the idea that there is a necessary progression from one set of institutional arrangements to another, e.g. feudalism to capitalism, and then building an anti-necessitarian theory of social change of how we get from one set of institutional arrangements to another, these works lay the basis for re-imagining the world and creating a viable alternative to the North Atlantic liberal democracies.
Unger has devoted much of the following decades to further elaborating on the insights developed in Politics through a working out of the political and social alternatives. What Should Legal Analysis Become? (Verso, 1996) developed tools to reimagine the organization of social life. Democracy Realized: The Progressive Alternative (Verso, 1998) and What Should the Left Propose? (Verso, 2005) put forth alternative institutional proposals.
In 2004, Unger was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
Intellectual influences 
Unger's model of philosophical practice is closest to those philosophers who sought to form a view of the whole of reality and to do so by using and resisting the specialized knowledge of their time. It can be read as a radicalized pragmatism, but also as an attempt to disengage ideas and experiences that developed in the West under the influence of Christianity from the categories of Greek philosophy. His thought also has affinities with the philosophy of Henri Bergson, especially his thinking on time. It engages almost always implicitly the philosophy of Hegel, who Unger cites as having added to the "ambition of world-wide understanding the principle of historical consciousness." However, Unger's thought, unlike Hegel's, repudiates the ideas of a predetermined evolution of the spirit and of a definitive resting place. It reflects the lineages of romanticism and existentialism as powerful voices of the struggle with the world, but rejects the romantic and existentialist idea that we can be fully human only by waging war against structure, routine, and repetition—a war that the romantic and the existentialist believes we are doomed to lose. His thought is in some senses the inverse of Schopenhauer's philosophy, affirming as it does the supreme value of life and the reality and depth of the self and eschewing fecklessness. It turns away from Nietzsche's beating of the drums in the presence of death, regarding this desperate triumphalism as a misdirection and a misunderstanding of who we are and of what we can become.
Two sets of intellectual influences combine with those of the history of Western philosophy. One is classical social theory, and especially the social theory of Karl Marx, taken as the most accomplished example of the insights and illusions of that theoretical tradition. The other is the European novel of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, viewed as a source of insight into our experience and self-understanding.
Much of Unger's theoretical work can be expressed in four related projects: social theory, programmatic alternatives, legal thought, and philosophy. The first project is the development of a radical, anti-determinsitic alternative to Marxism and, more generally, to what he has described as "deep-structure social theory." The second project is the formulation of institutional alternatives for contemporary societies--Unger believes that contemporary societies can solve their most basic problems only by innovating in the arrangements that now define political democracies, market economies, and independent civil societies.. The third project is the transformation of legal thought into a practice of re-imagining social, economic, and political institutions. The fourth project is the statement and defense of a general philosophical position, not only in political and moral philosophy but also in the philosophy of nature and of science.
Social theory 
Social Theory: Its Situation and its Task 
Social theory for Unger has failed to fully conceptualize and act on its own idea of society as an artifact. In Social Theory: Its Situation and its Task, Unger argues that classical social theory was born proclaiming that society is made and imagined and not the expression of an underlying natural order. At the same time, however, he argues, social theory was burdened by the equally prevalent ambition to create law-like explanations of history and social development. The human science that developed out of classical social theory claimed to identify a small number of possible types of social organization that coexisted or succeeded one another through inescapable developmental tendencies or deep-seated economic organization or psychological constraints. Marxism is the star example.
Unger argues that conventional social science and its theories fall into one of two types: deep-structure social theory or positive social science. The former make a distinction between routine practices and the underlying institutional contexts that shape those practices. At the same time, however, deep-structure social theory couples this distinction with indivisible types of organization and deep seated constraints and developmental laws, thus limiting the possibilities of human social development. The latter practice of positive social science, however, does not recognize a distinction between formative context and formed routines as the central practice of social and historical explanation, but rather sees society and history as an endless series of episodes of problem solving. What this has led to, according to Unger, is either the social sciences adhering to a script of history, or forsaking any attempt at explanation in favor of the of detailing conflict and resolution.
False Necessity 
Having made this critique of social theory, Unger's next task was to reconstruct it in a way that would resist the typologies and the necessitarian nature of conventional deep-structure social theory, and to avoid the failure of the positive social sciences to explain the world. His goal was to provide a theory of discontinuous change and to carry the idea of society as artifact to the hilt.
Unger began by formulating the theory of false necessity, which claims that social worlds are the artifact of human endeavors. There is no pre-set institutional arrangement that societies must adhere to, and there is no necessary historical mold of development that they will follow. Rather, we are free to choose and to create the forms and the paths that our societies will take. However, this does not give license to absolute contingency. Rather, Unger finds that there are groups of institutional arrangements that work together to bring about certain institutional forms—liberal democracy, for example. These forms are the basis of a social structure, which Unger calls formative context. In order to explain how we move from one formative context to another without the conventional social theory constraints of historical necessity (e.g. feudalism to capitalism), and to do so while remaining true to the key insight of individual human empowerment and anti-necessitarian social thought, Unger recognized that there are an infinite number of ways of resisting social and institutional constraints, which can lead to an infinite number of outcomes. This variety of forms of resistance and empowerment make change possible. Unger calls this empowerment negative capability. Unger is clear to add, however, that these outcomes are always reliant on the forms from which they spring. The new world is built upon the existing one.
Placticity into Power 
In the third volume of Politics, Placticity into Power: Comparative-historical studies on the institutional conditions of economic and military success, Unger provides the historical materials he drew on to formulate the theory developed in first two volumes. Three key puzzles in the history of human societies frame the discussion. The first puzzle is how some societies found solutions to avoid the constant plague of reversion from a monetary economy back to a natural economy, and how Europe was able to create the conditions that forever closed off this reversion. The second puzzle is the protection problem, or how societies created the means to use wealth to pay for violence, as well as how they employed violence to garner wealth. The third puzzle is how some societies were able to achieve military superiority.
Strung throughout the discussion of these three puzzles, and at the heart of the argument of the book, is that there is no singular or necessary path of social, economic, or military development. The means by which Western European societies garnered economic and military advantages over the rest of the world occurred through the haphazard and contingent organization and activities of some sectors of society, not through a given set of necessary and sufficient conditions.
Thus, in answer to the first puzzle, Unger shows that Western Europe broke through the reversion cycle because the elites were fragmented and an independent class of producers could flourish freely enabling industrial innovation and protodemocratic development. Key here was the lack of involvement of the state on behalf of the elite, thus allowing peasants and independent producers fight it out and avoid succumbing to the protection or subjugation of a landholding elite.
In discussion of the second problem on the relation between wealth and violence, Unger shows that the European innovation on traditional solutions to securing wealth against violence and using wealth to obtain violence was a combination of public financing and military entrepreneurship, which allowed states to mobilize wealth and manpower to secure borders and project economic imperatives. However, to achieve this states had to be strong and elites fragmented. Even then still not necessary that have such an outcome, as was the case of the seventeenth-century Dutch state, which was quite wealthy but did not invest in military development and subsequently was overcome by Britain.
Empowered democracy 
Empowered democracy is Unger's vision of a more open and more plastic set of social institutions through which individuals and groups can interact, propose change, and effectively empower themselves to transform social, economic, and political structures. The key strategy is to combine freedom of commerce and governance at the local level with the ability of political parties at the central government level to promote radical social experiments that would bring about decisive change in social and political institutions.
In practice, the theory would involve radical developments in politics at the center, as well as social innovation in localities. At the center, by bestowing wide ranging revisionary powers to those in office, it would give political parties the ability to try out concrete yet profound solutions and proposals. It would turn partisan conflicts over control and uses of governmental power into an opportunity to question and revise the basic arrangements of social life through a rapid resolution of political impasse. In local communities, empowered democracy would make capital and technology available through rotating capital funds, which would encourage entrepreneurship and innovation. Citizens rights include individual entitlements to economic and civic security, conditional and temporary group claims to portions of social capital, and destabilization rights, which would empower individuals or groups to disrupt organizations and practices marred by routines of subjugation that normal politics have failed to disrupt.
Social sciences and humanities today 
Unger thus sees that the state of the social sciences and humanities today have succumbed to the sway of three impulses that stagnate their development and curtail their transformative power. These are the rationalizing, humanizing, and escapist impulses.
- Rationalization: contemporary social scientists rationalize the present social order as a natural state of arrangements and see it as the victor of a competition with failed alternatives. In practice, social scientists merely explain why the current institutional landscape is the way it is, without recognizing that the social arrangements under exploration are the product of a particular historical time and place. The laws that they generate, therefore, cannot be universal laws for human societies, for once the institutional context changes these "laws" will no longer be valid.
- Humanization: political and legal thought today operates on the premise that we cannot change society fundamentally and thus should only strive to make humanely better an imperfect world. Rather than restructuring the foundations that cause inequality and insecurity, those that aim to humanize the world advocate compensatory transfers of wealth by governments to attenuate the inequalities and insecurities of the market economy. For Unger, those political and legal theorists that limit themselves to only humanizing the present order suffer from "the poverty of the imagination of structural change" and the false view that we must choose between humanization (reform at the edges) and revolution (the substitution of one whole system for another). In response, Unger argues that one need not choose between revolution and humanization because societies are not "indivisible systems, standing or falling together" and thus we can bring about their piecemeal reconstruction.
- Escapism merely describes and explores adventures in consciousness, which bear no relation to confronting the problems of and remaking the social order. Escapists focus on spiritual adventurism while giving up on the institutions and practices of society. In response, Unger argues that some structures are more inviting to change than others, and that one is mistaken to pessimistically believe in a universal maxim that all structures are unchangeable enemies to our transcendent spirits.
Transformative vocation 
Unger argues that there are three ideas about work in society: work as honorable calling, work as instrumental, and work as transformative vocation. Work as honorable calling is the idea that "labor enables the individual…to support the family that provides him with his most important sustaining relations." Your job provides you with dignity, proves you have proficiency and experience in some area of society, and indicates that you are neither shifting, dependent nor useless.
The instrumental conception of work is the idea that work "lacks any intrinsic authority" nor "any power of its own to confer dignity or direction on a human life."  Unger argues that to conceive of one's workaday activity in this manner is to "view the social world as utterly oppressive or alien." To Unger, those who see work this way are denied any sense of belonging to the world.
The final conception of work – one that Unger argues is turning things inside out – connects self-fulfillment and transformation. In this conception, one's work is a struggle against the defects or the limits of existing society or available knowledge. Those with such ‘transformative vocations’ find that "self-fulfillment and service to society combine" and "resistance becomes the price of salvation." Unger argues that the idea of transformative vocation is an insurgent, growing ideas in the world, waging "a largely mute spiritual struggle against the other two notions of work."
Legal thought 
Unger's work on law is intimately connected to his thinking on social theory. In contrast to contemporary legal scholarship, which puts courts and jurists at the forefront of legal analysis, Unger takes law as the site of institutional imagination. In many ways, he attempts to recover the idea of the German historicists that law is the life of the people. He argues that each area of social life is organized according to certain practices—such as the market economy or property rights—and codified into law; but at the same time, these codes are sets of ideal projected onto social life and meant to be enacted.
There are four moments in Unger's work on law, all of which except the last are captured by his major publications on the topic. The first moment corresponds to his first book on law, Law in Modern Society, which places law in the realm of social theory to categorize the different types of legal systems in human history, and analyze their historical trajectory devoid of a necessary attachment to institutional structures. The next moment came at the height of the Critical Legal Studies movement, in which Unger laid out a constructive path forward for the movement with a proposal for an intellectual program. The third moment was the publication of What Should Legal Analysis Become? and the call to take law and legal analysis not as the rationalizing and preservation of our contemporary arrangements, but rather as the terrain for re-imagining our social, political, and economic institutions whereby we propose our social ideals. The most recent development in Unger's thinking about law is best captured in his public lectures, and shows how to mobilize law as a series of ideals about society.
Law in Modern Society: Towards a Criticism of Social Theory 
Unger's first book on law explored the connection between law codes and the arrangement of social institutions. In this work he asked why modern societies have legal system with distinctions between institutions, such as legislature and court, and have special caste of lawyers possessing a method of reasoning about social problems. He further broadened the inquiry with the question about why these practices first emerged in Western Europe. Theorists such as Marx and Weber had argued that such legal arrangements were a product of economic necessity to secure property rights and the autonomy of the individual—in other words, necessary for capitalism to emerge. Unger rejected such a determinist explanation and went on to argue in Law and Modern Society that this system of private rights is not based on necessity, effectiveness, or moral superiority, but rather the result of a particular and contingent political and cultural development. That is, it emerged in Europe as a result of the tradition of natural law and universality, and due to the indeterminate relations between monarchy, aristocracy, and bourgeoisie.
Unger's argument began by asserting that the liberal legal order holds all equal before the law and strips the ruler of any immunity, and shows the law as artifact rather than divine right. But rather than any necessary connection between this set of legal codes and economic order, Unger argued that this legal thought and arrangements arose in Europe as a result of the indeterminate relations between monarchy, aristocracy, and bourgeoisie. It took the particular generality of form that it did from the long tradition of natural law and universality.
Critical Legal Studies 
This early work in historical analysis of law and legal thought laid the basis for Unger's contribution to the Critical Legal Studies movement. The movement itself was born in the late 1970s among young legal scholars at the Harvard Law School who denounced the theoretical underpinnings of American jurisprudence, legal realism. The participants were committed to shaping society based on a vision of human personality without the hidden interests and class domination of legal institutions. Two tendencies of the movement developed, one, a radical indeterminacy that criticized law as meaning anything we want it to mean, and the other, a neo-Marxist critique that attacked legal thought as an institutional form of capitalism. Unger offered a third tendency, a constructive vision of rethinking rights based on individual emancipation and empowerment, and structural arrangements that would lend themselves to constant revision with the goal of creating more educational and economic opportunities for more people. He laid this out in his book The Critical Legal Studies Movement, which quickly earned him a following as the philosophical mentor and prophet of the movement.
What Should Legal Analysis Become? 
In his last book on law, What Should Legal Analysis Become?, Unger leveled a radical critique of the current legal profession and put forth a comprehensive program for how law and legal thought can function as "the place at which an ideal of civilization takes detailed institutional form." This work, along with the annual Chorley lecture that he delivered at the London School of Economics in 1995 and which was subsequently published in The Modern Law Review, is Unger's most explicit articulation of the idea of the contemporary lack of structural alternatives and the call for law to serve as the institutional imagination for remaking society, politics, and economy. Unger calls for law, in this third moment, to inform us of the society that we live in and to imagine alternative futures and argue about them.
Unger begins with an assessment of our contemporary institutional and intellectual arrangements, arguing that we are trapped in a static system that does not allow for innovation or experimentation in social or economic life, and that the intellectual tools that we have available to us are not up to the task of attempting to reinvent the possibilities. He then turns to a discussion of how law and legal analysis as conceived of in the nineteenth century as the site for shaping free and political order by combining rights of choice with rules designed to ensure the enjoyment of those rites has been perverted in the twentieth century with the dogmatic adherence to a certain system of rules and rights and its preservation through politics. Legal thought today, Unger argues, is but a rationalization of existing rules and doctrines that make up contemporary arrangements (he terms it "rationalizing legal analysis"). Bereft of its imaginative and innovative force, Unger argues this rationalizing legal analysis works to uncover what it sees as the latent principles existing in the law. It cannot rethink our social, economic, or political arrangements. Unger's final move is to offer a vision of what legal analysis can do towards such rethinking. By undertaking what he calls "mapping" and "criticism," the radical analyst will uncover the ideologies buried in the law by looking at particular cases to see how it adheres to an ideological position, and thus show how its professed importance of an issue actually masks other ideals and interests. Unlike rational legal analysis, it does not show the good face of the law but rather the disharmonies and how the ideals get truncated in order to fulfill an institutional form. For Unger, then, the positive work of legal analysis is institutional imagination; to run up against laws and circumvent institutional obstacles.
Economic thought 
At the center of Unger’s thought about the economy is the commitment to reimagining and remaking the institutional arrangements of how humans produce and exchange. For Unger, economic institutions have no inherent or natural forms. In the same manner of critique found in his work on social and legal theory, Unger’s work in economics rejects the necessecitarian tendencies of classical and neo-classical economists, and seeks alternatives to the arrangements and the assumptions of contemporary societies. In his writings, he has aimed to revise ideas on the importance of market economies and the division of labor in the workplace and national and global economies.
Critique of economics 
Unger’s critique of economics begins with the identification of a key moment in economic history when the analysis of production and exchange turned away from social theory and engaged in a quest for scientific objectivity. In Unger’s analysis, classical economics focused on the causal relations among social activities, which were connected with the production and distribution of wealth. Classical economists asked questions about the true basis of value, activities that contributed to national wealth, systems of rights, or about the forms of government under which people grow rich. In the late-nineteenth century, in response to attacks from socialist ideas and debates about how society works, and as a means to escape the conundrums of value theory and to answer how values could become prices, marginalist economics arose. This movement in economics disengaged economics from descriptive and normative commitments to withdraw the study of economies from debates about how society worked and what kind of society we wanted to live in. For Unger, this moment in the history of economics robbed it of any analytical or practical value.
Unger’s critique of Marginalism begins with Walras’ equilibrium theory, which attempted to achieve a certainty of economic analysis by putting aside normative controversies of social organization. Unger finds three weaknesses that crippled the theory: foremost, the theory claimed that equilibrium would be spontaneously generated in a market economy. In reality, a self-adjusting equilibrium fails to occur. Second, the theory puts forth a determinate image of the market. Historically, however, the market has been shown to be indeterminate with different market arrangements. Third, the polemical use of efficiency fails to account for the differences of distribution among individuals, classes, and generations.
The consequences of the marginalist movement were profound for the study of economics, Unger says. The most immediate problem is that under this generalizing tendency of economics, there is no means by which to incorporate empirical evidence and thus to reimagine the world and develop new theories and new directions. In this way, the discipline is always self-referential and theoretical. Furthermore, the lack of a normative view of the world curtails the ability to propose anything more than a policy prescription, which by definition always assumes a given context. The discipline can only rationalize the world and support a status quo. Lastly, Unger finds that this turn in economics ended up universalizing debates in macroeconomics and leaving the discipline without any historical perspective. A consequence, for example, was that Keynes’ solution to a particular historical crisis was turned into a general theory when it should only be understood as a response to a particular situation.
Reorientating economics 
Unger’s vision of economics is that it cannot be unhinged from ideas about the individual and social life. Human activity and political organization must be incorporated into any analysis of trade and economies. In remaking the discipline, Unger calls for a return to the normative practice of classical economics but stripped of its necessitarian assumptions and typological references. The development of explanatory claims and prescriptive ideas are necessary. The discipline must connect the transformation of nature with that of society—the making of things with the reorganization of people.
In ‘’Free Trade Reimagined’’, Unger put forth six ideas to begin thinking about economic activity.
- The problem of specialization and discovery. Competition comes to inhibit self transformation when trading partners are unequal but not radically unequal, for both are forced into cost cutting rather than innovating and increasing efficiency.
- The problem of politics over economics. The making and implementation of policy is not one of discovery, but rather of top down implementation. Rigid state control will limit how a society can respond to tensions and crisis, and thus politics creates its own presuppositions and limits creativity and alternative solutions.
- Free trade should strengthen the capacity for self transformation by organizing the trading regime in a way that strengthens the capacity of trading partners to experiment and innovate. It becomes question not of how much free trade, but what kind. The best arrangements are those that impose the least amount of restraint.
- Alternative free trade. The market has no necessary and natural form. If the market economy can be organized in a different way then so can a universal order of free trade among market economies.
- The division of labor remade. The pin factory organization of labor describes the organization of work as if labor were a machine. But we can make machines to do this work. We should then innovate in those areas where we don't yet know how to make the machine to do the work. Production should be one of collective learning and permanent innovation.
- Mind against context. The mind is both a machine and an anti-machine; it is both formulaic and totalizing. Thus we never rest in any context, and we need to have arrangements that constantly lend themselves to reinvention.
Reconstructing economic institutions 
For Unger, the economy is not only a device for wealth but also permanent innovation and discovery. It should allow the greatest freedom of the recombination of people and resources, and allow people to innovate in institutional settings. The market economy should not be single dogmatic version of itself.
Unger has presented a number of general institutional proposals that aim to restructure the world trade regime and introduce new alternatives in the market economy. For international and global trade, Unger calls for the need to experiment with different property rights regimes, where multiple forms will coexist in the same market system and not be tied to individual property rights and contractual labor. Generally, rather than maximizing the free trade as the goal, Unger sees the need to build and open the world economy in way that reconciles global openness with national and regional diversification, deviation, heresy, and experiment, where the idea is to support alternatives by making the world safer for them. For national economies, Unger rejects the need to require the free flow of capital, for there are times when it may be necessary to restrict capital flows. Rather, he puts the emphasis on the free flow of people. Labor should be allowed to move freely throughout the world.
On the twenty-first-century economic stimulus 
Most recently, in a YouTube video titled "Beyond Stimulus" he laid out three key policies to address the current economy:
- Change the arrangements of finance in relation to production so that finance is in the service of production. Tax and regulate to discourage finance that does not contribute to production. Use public capital for venture capital funds.
- Broaden economic opportunity by supporting small and medium enterprise. Reject government regulation and state controlled models. Support cooperation between government and firms, and cooperation and competition among firms.
- Education. Need a system of schools to meet needs of vibrant and flexible economy. Vocational schools that teach general concepts and flexibility, not job-specific skills.
"Illusions of necessity in the economic order" 
Unger's first writing on economic theory was the article "Illusions of necessity in the economic order" in the May 1978 issue of American Economic Review. In the article he makes a case for the need of contemporary economic thought to imitate classical political economy in which theories of exchange should be incorporated into theories of power and perception.
The article articulates the problem of the American economy as one of the inability to realize democracy of production and community in the workplace. This failure, according to Unger, is the result of the lack of a comprehensive program that encompasses production, society, and state, so that immediate attempts to address inequality get swallowed up and appropriated by the status quo in the course of winning immediate gains for the organization or constituency, e.g. unions.
To realize a democracy in the workplace and the abolition of wealth and poverty, Unger argues for the need to relate the program of worker community and democracy with an enlargement of democracy at the national level—the goal cannot be only one of economic production and worker's rights, but must be accompanied by a national project at the structural level. He pushes this idea further by calling not just for a restructuring of the relationship between the firm and state based on private property, but that it also has to be replaced with a new set of rights encompassing access to jobs, markets, and capital. Only as private rights are phased out can rights of decentralized decision making and market exchange be extended to workers. This needs to be accompanied by limits on the size of enterprise and how profits are used to control others' labor.
Neoclassical economics is not up to this task because it begins with preconceived standards that it applies to explain empirical data, while leaving out that which is a theoretical anomaly; there is no causal basis of analysis, Unger says, rather everything is embedded in a timeless universal without any account for context. Furthermore, the ambiguity of concepts of maximization, efficiency, and rationalization pin the analysis to a certain notion of the behavior of the rationalizing individual, making the analysis either tautological or reduced to a set of power relations translated into the language of material exchange.
Programmatic thought 
Key in Unger's thinking is the need to re-imagine social institutions before attempting to revise them. This calls for a program, or programmatic thought. In building this program, however, we must not entertain complete revolutionary overhaul, lest we be plagued by three false assumptions:
- Typological Fallacy: the fallacy that there is closed list of institutional alternatives in history, such as ‘feudalism’ or ‘capitalism’. There is not a natural form of society, only the specific result of the piecemeal institutional changes, political movements, and cultural reforms (as well as the accidents and coincidences of history) that came before it.
- Indivisibility Fallacy: most subscribers to revolutionary Leftism wrongly believe that institutional structures must stand and fall together. However, structures can be reformed piecemeal.
- Determinism Fallacy: the fallacy that uncontrollable and little understood law-like forces drive the historical succession of institutional systems. However, there is no natural flow of history. We make ourselves and our world, and can do so in any way we choose.
To think about social transformation programmatically, one must first mark the direction one wants society to move in, and then identify the first steps with which we can move in that direction. In this way we can formulate proposals at points along the trajectory, be they relatively close to how things are now or relatively far away. This provides a third way between revolution and reform. It is revolutionary reform, where one has a revolutionary vision, but acts on that vision in a sequence of piecemeal reforms. As Unger puts it, transformative politics is "not about blueprints; it is about pathways. It is not architecture; it is music."
The Two Lefts 
Unger sees two main Lefts in the world today, a recalcitrant Left and a humanizing Left. The recalcitrant Left seeks to slow down the march of markets and globalization, and to return to a time of greater government involvement and stronger social programs. The humanizing (or ‘reformist’) Left accepts the world in its present form, taking the market economy and globalization as unavoidable, and attempts to humanize their effects through tax-and-transfer policies.
Unger finds the two major orientations of contemporary Leftism inadequate and calls for a ‘Reconstructive Left’ – one that would insist on redirecting the course of globalization by reorganizing the market economy. In his two books The Left Alternative and The Future of American Progressivism, Unger lays out a program to democratize the market economy and deepen democracy. This Reconstructive Left would look beyond debates on the appropriate size of government, and instead re-envision the relationship between government and firms in the market economy by experimenting with the coexistence of different regimes of private and social property. It would, like the recalcitrant and humanizing Left, be committed to social solidarity, but "would refuse to allow our moral interests in social cohesion [to] rest solely upon money transfers commanded by the state in the form of compensatory and retrospective redistribution," as is the case with federal entitlement programs. Instead, Unger's Reconstructive Left affirms "the principle that everyone should share, in some way and at some time, responsibility for taking care of other people."
The Left Alternative Program 
Unger has laid out concrete policy proposals in areas of economic development, education, civil society, and political democracy.
- On economic development, Unger has noted that there are only two models for a national economy available to us today: the US model of business control of government, and the northeast Asian model of top down bureaucratic control of the economy. Citing the need for greater imagination on the issue, he has offered a third model that is decentralized, pluralistic, participatory, and experimental. This would take the form of an economy encouraging small business development and innovation that would create large scale self-employment and cooperation. The emphasis is not on the protection of big business as the main sectors of the economy, but the highly mobile and innovative small firm.
- Unger links the development of such an economy to an education system that encourages creativity and empowers the mind, not one that he now sees geared for a reproduction of the family and to put the individual in service of the state. He proposes that such a system should be run locally but have standards enforced through national oversight, as well as a procedure in place to intervene in the case of the failing of local systems.
- Unger's critique of and alternative to social programs goes to the heart of civil society. The problem we are faced with now, he claims, is that we have a bureaucratic system of distribution that provides lower quality service and prohibits the involvement of civil society in the provision of public services. The alternative he lays out is to have the state act to equip civil society to partake in public services and care. This would entail empowering each individual to have two responsibilities, one in the productive economy and one in the caring economy.
- Unger's proposal for political democracy calls for a high energy system that diminishes the dependence of change upon crisis. This can be done, he claims, by breaking the constant threat of stasis and institutionalization of politics and parties through five institutional innovations. First, increase collective engagement through the public financing of campaigns and giving free access to media outlets. Second, hasten the pace of politics by breaking legislative deadlock through the enabling of the party in power to push through proposals and reforms, and for opposition parties to be able to dissolve the government and call for immediate elections. Third, the option of any segment of society to opt out of the political process and to propose alternative solutions for its own governance. Fourth, give the state the power to rescue oppressed groups that are unable to liberate themselves through collective action. Fifth, direct participatory democracy in which active engagement is not purely in terms of financial support and wealth distribution, but through which people are directly involved in their local and national affairs through proposal and action.
At the core of Unger's philosophy are two key conceptions: the infinity of the individual, and singularity of the world and reality of time. The premise behind the infinity of the individual is that we exist within social contexts but we are more than the roles that these contexts may define for us—we can overcome them. In Unger's terms, we are both "context-bound and context-transcending;" we appear as "the embodied spirit;" as "the infinite imprisoned within the finite." For Unger, there is no natural state of the individual and his social being. Rather, we are infinite in spirit and unbound in what we can become. As such, no social institution or convention can contain us. While institutions do exist and shape our beings and our interactions, we can change both their structure and the extent to which they imprison us.
The philosophy of the singularity of the world and reality of time establishes history as the site of decisive action through the propositions that there is only one real world, not multiple or simultaneous universes, and that time really exists in the world, not as a simulacrum through which we must experience the world. These ideas put Kant and his legacy on trial, and reaffirm the openness of the future through insight into "the actual and imagination into the possible."
These two concepts of infinity and reality lie at the heart of Unger's program calling for metaphysical and institutional revolutions. To insist on the embodiment of spirit in the world means that the routines that it cannot penetrate or transform must be broken, which can only be done by changing our social institutions in wholly new ways that leave open all possibilities and allow experimentalism in life and social structures. To see the individual as context transcending means that we must be able to recreate our context, which can only be done in a singular world within which time is real.
The self and human nature 
In Passion: An Essay on Personality, Unger explores the individual and his relation to society from the perspective of the root human predicament of the need to establish oneself as a unique individual in the world but at the same time to find commonality and solidarity with others. This exploration is grounded in what Unger calls a modernist image of the human being as one who lives in context but is not bound by context.
Unger's aim is twofold. First, to level a critique, expansion, and defense of modern thinking about the human and society "so that this practice can better withstand the criticisms that philosophy since Hume and Kant has leveled against it." And second, to develop a prescriptive theory of human identity centered around what Unger calls the passions—our raw responses to the world that are ambivalent towards reasons but also act in the service of reason. He outlines nine passions that organize and are organized by our dealings with others: lust, despair, hatred, vanity, jealousy, envy, faith, hope, and love. While these emotional states may be seen as raw emotion, their expression is always conditioned by the context within which the individual mobilizes or learns to mobilize them.
Religion and the human condition 
Unger has written and spoken extensively on religion and the human condition. Religion, Unger argues, is a vision of the world within which we anchor our orientation to life. It is within this orientation that we deal with our greatest terrors and highest hopes. Because we are doomed to die, we hope for eternal life; because we are unable to grasp to totality of existence or of the universe, we try to dispel the mystery and provide a comprehensible explanation; because we have an insatiable desire, we cry for an object that is worthy of this desire, one that is infinite. Humans initially invested religious discourse in nature and the human susceptibility to nature. But as societies evolved and people developed ways to cope with the unpredictability of nature, the emphasis of religion shifted to social existence and its defects. A new moment in religion will begin, Unger argues, when we stop telling ourselves that all will be fine and we begin to face the incorrigible flaws in human existence. The future of religion lies in embracing our mortality and our groundlessness.
Unger sees four flaws in the human condition. They are, our mortality and the facing of imminent death; our groundlessness in that we are unable to grasp the solution to the enigma of existence, see the beginning or end of time, nor put off the discovery of the meaning of life; our insatiability in that we always want more, and demand the infinite from the finite; and our susceptibility to belittlement which places us in a position to constantly confront petty routine forcing us to die many little deaths.
- The overcoming of the world denies the phenomenal world and its distinctions, including the individual. It proclaims a benevolence towards others and an indifference to suffering and change. One achieves serenity by becoming invulnerable to suffering and change. The religion of Buddhism and philosophical thought of Plato and Schopenhauer best represent this orientation.
- The humanization of the world creates meaning out of social interactions in a meaningless world by placing all emphasis on our reciprocal responsibility to one another. Confucianism and contemporary liberalism represent this strand of thought, both of which aim to soften the cruelties of the world.
- The struggle with the world is framed by the idea that series of personal and social transformations can increase our share of attributes associated with the divine and give us a larger life. It emphasizes love over altruism, rejecting the moral of the mastery of self-interest to enhance solidarity, and emphasizing the humility of individual love. This orientation has been articulated in two different voices: the sacred voice of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, and the profane voice of the secular projects of liberation.
The religion of the future 
The spiritual orientation of the struggle with the world has given rise to the secular movements of emancipation in the modern world, and it is here that Unger sees the religion of the future. The problem Unger sees, however, is that as an established religion, this orientation has betrayed its ideological underpinnings and has made peace with existing order. It has accepted the hierarchies of class structure in society, accepted the transfer of money as serving as the basis of solidarity, and reaffirmed the basis of existing political, economic, and social institutions by investing in a conservative position of their preservation. Thus, "to be faithful to what made this orientation persuasive and powerful in the first place, we must radicalize it against both established institutions and dominant beliefs."
Unger's call is for a revolution in our religious beliefs that encompasses both individual transformation and institutional reorganization; to create change in the life of the individual as well as in the organization of society. The first part of the program of individual transformation means waking from the dazed state in which we live our lives, and recognizing our mortality and groundlessness without turning to the feel good theologies and philosophies. The second part of the program of social transformation means supplementing the metaphysical revolution with institutional practices by creating social institutions that allow us to constantly overthrow our constraints and our context, and to make this overthrow not a one time event but a continuing process. This is the program of empowered democracy that calls for reforms in the market economy, education, politics, and civil society. "The goal is not to humanize society but to divinize humanity." It is "to raise ordinary life to a higher level of intensity and capability." 
Natural Philosophy 
Unger's philosophy of space and time argues for the singularity of the world and the reality of time. His arguments are grounded in the tradition of natural philosophy. He takes on the Newtonian idea of the independent observer standing outside of time and space, addresses the skepticism of David Hume, rejects the position of Kant, and attacks speculations about parallel universes of contemporary cosmology. At stake is the laying of the foundations for a view of the world and causality that is open to all possibilities; that is not a closed system of options in which our future is governed by deterministic laws and typologies. It is an understanding of society that rejects the naturalness and necessity of current social arrangements; "a form of understanding of society and history that refuses to explain the present arrangements in a manner that vindicates their naturalness and necessity."
The thesis of the singularity of the world states that there is one real world. Such a thesis stands in stark contrast to contemporary theoretical physics and cosmology, which speculate about multiple universes out of the dilemma of how to have law like explanations if the universe is unique—laws will be universal because they don't just apply to this unique universe but to all universes. However, there is no empirical evidence for multiple worlds. Unger's singularity thesis can better address our empirical observations and set the conceptual platform to address the four main puzzles in cosmology today: big bang, initial conditions, horizon problem, and the precise value of constants, such as gravity, speed of light, and Planck's constant.
The thesis that time is real states that time "really is real" and everything is subject to history. This move is to historicize everything, even the laws of nature, and to challenge our acting as if time were real but not too real—we act as if it is somewhat real otherwise there would be no causal relations, but not so real that laws change. Unger holds that time is so real that laws of nature are also subject to its force and they too must change. There are no eternal laws upon which change occurs, rather time precedes structure. This position gives the universe a history and makes time non-emergent, global, irreversible, and continuous.
Bringing these two thesis together, Unger theorizes that laws of nature develop together with the phenomenon they explain. Laws and initial conditions co-evolve, in the same that they do in how cells reproduce and mutate in different levels of complexity of organisms. In cosmological terms Unger explains the passing from one structure to another at the origins of the universe when the state of energy was high but not infinite, and the freedom of movement was greater than when operating under a known set of laws. The conditions of the early universe is compatible with the universe that preceded it. The new universe may be different in structure, but has been made with what existed in the old one, e.g. masses of elementary particles, strength of different forces, and cosmologigcal constants. As the universe cools the phenomena and laws work together with materials produced by sequence; they are path dependent materials. They are also constrained by the family of resemblances of the effective laws against the background of the conceptions of alternative states the universe and succession of universes.
Mathematics and the one real, time-drenched world 
One consequence of these positions that Unger points to is the revision of the concept and function of mathematics. If there is only one world drenched in time through and through, then mathematics cannot be a timeless expression of multiple universes that captures reality. Rather, Unger argues that mathematics is a means of analyzing the world removed of time and phenomenal distinction. By emptying the world of time and space it is able to better focus on one aspect of reality: the recurrence of certain ways in which pieces of the world relate to other pieces. Its subject matter are the structured wholes and bundles of relations, which we see outside mathematics only as embodied in the time-bound particulars of the manifest world. In this way, mathematics extends our problem solving powers as an extension of human insight, but it is not a part of the world.
Political Engagement 
Unger has a long history of political activity in Brazil. He worked in early opposition parties in the 1970s and 80s against the Brazilian military dictatorship, and drafted the founding manifesto for the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (PMDB) in 1980. He served as an intimate adviser to two presidential candidates, and launched exploratory bids himself in 2000 and 2006. He was the Secretary for Strategic Affairs in the Lula administration from 2007–2009, and is currently working on a number of social and developmental projects in the state of Rondônia.
Driving Unger's political engagement is the idea that society can be made and remade. Unlike Mill or Marx, who posited a particular class as the agent of history, Unger does not see a single vehicle for transformative politics. He advocates world-wide revolution, but does not see this happening as a single cataclysmic event or undertaken by a class agent, like the Communist movement. Rather, Unger sees the possibility of piecemeal change, where institutions can be replaced one at a time, and permanent placticity can be built into the institutional infrastructure.
This position has made Unger's engagements episodic. He has been involved at the national and local levels in Brazil by supporting candidates who promised change and himself running for office, and by serving in the central government and partaking in political and social projects around the country.
Early political activity, 1970s and 1980s 
Unger's engagement in Brazilian politics began in the late 1970s as Brazil started to democratize. In 1979, he presented himself to the main opposition party, the Brazilian Democratic Movement (MDB), and was appointed chief of staff by party leader Ulysses Guimaraes. His inial work was to develop the positions of the party and draft policy proposals for their party's congressional representatives. When the military regime dissolved the two-party system and established a multi-party system later that year, Unger worked to unite progressive liberals and the independent, non-communist left into the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (PMDB). As a co-founder of the party, he authored its first manifesto. Unger left the party after the rise of a conservative faction, which was a part of the MDB but had been excluded from the initial formation of the PMDB.
After departing the PMDB in the early 1980s, Unger began looking for political agents who would serve as vehicles for his national alternative. In 1981, he jointed the Democratic Labour Party of Brazil (PDT) led by Leonel Brizola, a former governor of Rio de Janeiro and a figure of the left prior to the dictatorship. Brizola had founded the PDT and Unger saw it as the authentic opposition to the military regime. Throughout the 1980s he worked with Brizola to travel the country recruiting members, and developing policy positions and a political language.
In 1983, Brizola, then serving his second of three terms as governor of Rio de Janeiro, appointed Unger to head the State Foundation for the Education of Minors (FEEM), a state-run foundation for homeless children. During his year long tenure, he began a process of radical reforms of the institutions, such as opening the door to international adoption and reintegrating children with their families. He also set up community organizations in the slums to help support families in order to prevent the abandonment of children.
Political campaigns, 1990s and 2000s 
In 1990, Unger ran a symbolic campaign for a seat in the national chamber of deputies. He had no money, no structure, and only campaigned for eight weeks. He ran on a platform of reforming the slums, and went around the slum neighborhoods giving lectures. He received 9,000 votes, just 1,000 votes short of winning the seat. None of the votes came from the slums, however. All his votes had come from the middle class, even though he had never campaigned in those neighborhoods or to that constituency.
Recalling the experience, Unger says "it was kind of absurd... I had no money, no staff, and I would go into these slums, alone, to hand out pamphlets, often to the local drug pushers." It is an experience that Unger cites as leading to his belief that the system and possibilities were much more open than he had previously imagined.
Unger served as Brizola's campaign organizer and primary political advisor in his bids for the Brazilian Presidency in 1989 and 1994. In 1989, Brizola finished in third place, losing the second position, which would have qualified him for a runoff against Fernando Collor de Mello, by a very narrow margin to Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. Brizola and Unger both supported Lula in the second round of the election, but Collor would go on to beat Lula and win the Presidency.
Unger also helped organized the presidential bids of former finance minister and governor of Ceará, Ciro Gomes, in 1998 and 2002. In 1998, Gomes came in third place with 11% of the vote, and in 2002 he came in fourth place with 12% of the vote. Unger had written The Next Step: An Alternative to Neoliberalism with Gomes in 1996. Again, in the second round of the election, Unger supported Lula, who would defeat José Serra to win the Presidency.
With the experience of supporting others who imploded politically, Unger discovered that, as he put it, he was committing "the classic mistake of the philosophers in politics, which is to try to find someone else to to do the work." In 2000, he ran in the primaries for the mayor of Sao Paulo, but the PPS party leader suspended the primaries when it became clear that Unger would win the nomination and challenge party control. He also launched an exploratory bid for the 2006 presidential election on the PRB ticket, but the party decided not to put forth its own candidate for the presidency and to support Lula of the PT.
As Minister of Strategic Affairs in the Lula administration 
Unger found President Lula's first term to be conservative and riddled with scandal. He wrote articles calling Lula's administration "the most corrupt of Brazil's history" and called for his impeachment. Despite the criticism, many advisors to Lula insisted that he should invite Unger to join his administration. In June 2007, after winning his second term, Lula appointed Unger as head of the newly established Long-term Planning Secretariat (a post which would eventually be called The Minister of Strategic Affairs).
Unger's work in office was an attempt to enact his program. Seeing the future in small enterprises and advocating a rotating capital fund that would function like a government run venture capital fund, he pushed for a rapid expansion of credit to smaller producers and a decentralized network of technical support centers that would help broaden the middle class from below. He further called for political solutions that would broaden access to production forces such as information technology, and for states to focus on equipping and monitoring civil society rather than trying to provide social services. Unger's specific projects while in office were focused on giving "ordinary men and women the instruments with which to render this vitality fertile and productive." He aimed to use state powers and resources to allow the majority of poor workers to "follow the path of the emergent vanguard." He developed a series of sectoral and regional initiatives that would prefigure the model of development based on the broadening of economic and educational opportunity by democratizing the market economy and restructuring civil society.
Sectorally, Unger revamped the educational structure and rewrote labor laws. In education, he implemented a model of secondary education, where analytical problem-solving education was paired with technical education that focused on conceptual capabilities rather than job-specific skills. There are several hundred of these institutions today. He further drafted legislation to associate national, state and local jurisdictions into common bodies that could intervene when a local school system fell below the minimum acceptable threshold of quality and "fix it the way an independent administrator would fix a failing business under Chapter 11 bankruptcy." In labor, Unger worked with unions to write new labor laws designed to protect and organize temporary workers, subcontractors, and those working in the informal economy.
Regionally, some of Unger's most influential work was the implementation of a developmental strategy for the Amazon that would be sustainable environmentally by making it socially inclusive. He drafted and passed legislation to regularize small-scale squatters on untitled land by giving them clear legal titles, which would create self-interest in preservation while granting them economic opportunity. Included in this law were protections against large scale land grabbers. Such legislation aimed to empower locals living on Amazonian land by giving them ownership rights and linking their interest in preserving it, rather than pillaging it as quickly as possible in the face of ambiguous ownership rights. This legislation passed and was put into law.
Unger served in the administration for two years. On June 26, 2009, President Lula announced Unger would be leaving the government and returning to Harvard.
Engagement outside Brazil 
Unger's attempts to develop global social, political, and economic alternatives have led him in episodic engagements in national debates around the world. His approach in these engagements recognizes that the problems facing contemporary societies are not distinct from nation to nation, and that general structural arrangements can first be implemented, which will allow for local innovation, flexibility, and development in social, economic, and political arenas. There is no institutional blueprint for Unger, however, only a direction that can be pointed to and general proposals that can be implemented to allow further institutional innovation and experimentation. Unger's guiding principle is that institutional flexibility needs to be built into the implemented system, and in this way a diversity of local experiments would take hold the world over.
One of Unger's more promising engagements was the "Latin American Alternative" in the late 1990s. Unger and Mexican politician and political scientist Jorge Castañeda Gutman assembled an informal network of politicians and business leaders dedicated to redrawing the political map. The aim of the group was to provide a critique of neoliberalism coupled with a way forward in a distinct strategy and institutional model of development. They floated proposals such as guaranteeing every citizen "social rights" (e.g. education and a job), breaking up media oligopolies, and holding town meetings to help citizens supervise municipal spending. The group held a number of meetings over the years, which included Brazilian finance minister Ciro Gomes, Chilean senator Carlos Ominami, Argentinian politicians Dante Caputo and Rodolfo Terragno, and Mexican politician and future president Vicente Fox. The meetings resulted in a document entitled the "Buenos Aires Consensus" in 1997, which Castaneda called "the end of neoliberalism; of the Washington Consensus." This consensus was formally signed in 2003 by Argentinian President Néstor Kirchner and Brazilian President Lula da Silva. Other Latin American leaders who signed it included Fox, future president of Chile Ricardo Lagos, Mexican politician Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, former vice president of Nicaragua Sergio Ramirez, future president of Argentina Fernando de la Rua, and former Brazilian president Itamar Franco.
During the 2008 US presidential campaign, Unger was in frequent contact with candidate Barack Obama via email and Blackberry. He has since become critical of the Obama administration, and has called for the defeat of Obama in the 2012 election as a first step to remaking the Democratic party.
Current engagement 
Unger's recent political work has focused on the north-western Brazilian state of Rondônia. He sees the human and natural resources of the state meeting all the conditions to serve as the vanguard of a new model of development for Brazil. Speaking to News Rondônia he said, "Rondônia is a state formed by a multitude of small and medium entrepreneurs together with the Brazilian government, and that is something truly unique in our country."
He has been traveling the state giving public lectures and encouraging political discourse and engagement in localities. Working with governor João Aparecido Cahulla on development projects, Unger has outlined a series of important areas of focus. The first is to change the agricultural model from one of intensive farming to an industrialization of produces through the recuperation of degraded pastures, supply fertilizers and lime, and diversifying crops and livestock farming. The second key project is transforming education from rote learning to creative thinking and engagement. He helped open the School Teixeira in Porto Velho. Another ongoing project is the construction of a new educational center in accordance with his theory of pedagogical reform, where delinquents would be reintegrated into municipal life.
Circumstance and Influence 
Unger's philosophical work has been critically hailed as successfully grappling with some of the most fundamental and enduring problems of human existence. It has been put into direct dialogue with Kant's moral law, and said to have provided one answer to Hume's Guillotine. Unger's analysis of liberalism and the philosophical program he builds around rethinking the individual has also inspired new thinking and approaches to psychiatry.
In 1987 the Northwestern University Law Review devoted an entire issue to Unger's work, hailing the appearance of his three volume magnus opus Politics: A Work in Constructive Social Theory as "an important intellectual event." Michael J. Perry, a professor of law at Northwestern, commended Unger for producing a vast work of social theory that dared to combine law, history, politics, and philosophy within a single, sweeping narrative. In the years since, Cornel West, Perry Anderson, Richard Rorty, and numerous other prominent scholars have published detailed—and, very often, admiring—essays on Unger's project.
Early reviewers of Politics questioned Unger's seeming predicament of criticizing a system of thought and its historical tradition without subjecting himself to the same critical gaze. "There is little acknowledgment that he himself is writing in a particular socio-historical context", wrote one reviewer, and another asked, "in what context Unger himself is situated and why that context itself is not offered up to the sledgehammer." Such criticism has largely been answered by Unger in subsequent works.
Critics also balked at the lack of example or concrete vision of his social and political proposals. As one critic wrote, "it is difficult to imagine what Unger's argument would mean in practice", and that "he does not tell us what to make." Others have pointed out that the lack of imagination of such readers is precisely what is at stake, while Unger has since answered such criticism with works on social, political, and economic alternatives.
See also 
- False necessity
- Formative context
- Negative capability
- Empowered democracy
- Structure and agency
- Knowledge and Politics, Free Press, 1975.
- Law in Modern Society, Free Press, 1976.
- Passion: An Essay on Personality, Free Press, 1986.
- The Critical Legal Studies Movement, Harvard University Press, 1986.
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- Vol 1 - False Necessity: Anti-Necessitarian Social Theory in the Service of Radical Democracy.
- Vol 2 - Social Theory: Its Situation and Its Task - A Critical Introduction to Politics: A Work in Constructive Social Theory.
- Vol 3 - Plasticity Into Power: Comparative-Historical Studies on the Institutional Conditions of Economic and Military Success.
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- Unger, Roberto Mangabeira (1987). Plasticity into power: comparative-historical studies of the institutional conditions of economic and military success. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Unger, Roberto Mangabeira (1987). Plasticity into power: comparative-historical studies of the institutional conditions of economic and military success. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp. chapter 1.
- Unger, Roberto Mangabeira (1987). Plasticity into power: comparative-historical studies of the institutional conditions of economic and military success. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp. chapter 2.
- Unger, Roberto Mangabeira (1987). False Necessity: Anti-necessitarian social theory in the service of radical democracy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp. see esp. ch. 5.
- This summary is drawn from Unger, Roberto Mangabeira (1987). Plasticity into Power: Comparative-historical studies on the institutional conditions of economic and military success. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp. 87–88.
- Unger, Roberto Mangabeira (2006). The Self Awakened: Pragmatism Unbound. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press. pp. 112–114. ISBN 978-0-674-02354-3.
- Unger, Roberto Mangabeira (2006). The Self Awakened: Pragmatism Unbound. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press. p. 118. ISBN 978-0-674-02354-3.
- Unger, Roberto Mangabeira (2006). The Self Awakened: Pragmatism Unbound. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press. p. 119. ISBN 978-0-674-02354-3.
- Unger, Roberto Mangabeira (2006). The Self Awakened: Pragmatism Unbound. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press. pp. 123–124. ISBN 978-0-674-02354-3.
- Unger, Roberto. "Social Theory: Its Situation and Its Task". Retrieved 15 May 2011.
- On the explicit connection between law and social theory especially see Unger, Roberto Mangabeira. 1976. Law in Modern Society: Toward a Criticism of Social Theory. New York: Free Press.
- Unger, Roberto Mangabeira. 1976. Law in Modern Society: Toward a Criticism of Social Theory. New York: Free Press.
- Unger, Roberto Mangabeira. 1986. The Critical Legal Studies Movement. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.
- Unger, Roberto Mangabeira. 1996. What Should Legal Analysis Become? London ; New York: Verso.
- Especially see Unger, Roberto Mangabeira (March 24, 2012). "The Next Revolution in Legal Education". Retrieved 1 October 2012.
- For a good discussion of Unger's early work on law see Collins, Hugh (1987). "Roberto Unger and the Critical Legal Studies Movement". Journal of Law and Society 14.
- Unger, Roberto Mangabeira (1976). Law in modern society: toward a criticism of social theory. New York: Free Press. See also, Collins, Hugh (1987). "Roberto Unger and the Critical Legal Studies Movement". Journal of Law and Society 14.
- Collins, Hugh (1987). "Roberto Unger and the Critical Legal Studies Movement". Journal of Law and Society 14.
- Hutchinson, Allan C, and Patrick J Monahan. 1984. “The Rights Stuff: Roberto Unger and Beyond.” Texas Law Review 62: 1477–1539.
- Bartholomew, Amy, and Alan Hunt. 1990. “What’s Wrong with Rights.” Law and Inequality: A Journal of Theory and Practice 9:1.
- Unger, Roberto Mangabeira. 1996. What Should Legal Analysis Become? London ; New York: Verso. p. 1.
- Unger, Roberto Mangabeira. 1996. “Legal Analysis as Institutional Imagination.” The Modern Law Review 59 (1): 1–23.
- Unger, Roberto Mangabeira. 1996. What Should Legal Analysis Become? London ; New York: Verso. see especially p. 26
- For a good discussion of these ideas see Waldron, Jeremy. 1998. “Review: Dirty Little Secret.” Columbia Law Review 98 (2) (March 1): 510–530.
- Unger, Roberto Mangabeira. 2007. ‘’Free Trade Reimagined: The World Division of Labor and the Method of Economics’’. Princeton: Princeton University Press, p. 2-8.
- Unger, Roberto Mangabeira. 1987. Social Theory: Its Situation and Its Task. New York: Verso, p. 120-122.
- Unger, Roberto Mangabeira. 1987. Social Theory: Its Situation and Its Task. New York: Verso, p. 123-125.
- Unger, Roberto Mangabeira. 1987. Social Theory: Its Situation and Its Task. New York: Verso, p. 127-128.
- Unger, Roberto Mangabeira. 2007. ‘’Free Trade Reimagined: The World Division of Labor and the Method of Economics’’. Princeton: Princeton University Press, p. 214-222.
- Unger, Roberto Mangabeira. 2007. ‘’Free Trade Reimagined: The World Division of Labor and the Method of Economics’’. Princeton: Princeton University Press, p. 77-94.
- Unger, Roberto. February 8, 2012. “Political economy after the crisis,” lecture 3.
- Unger, Roberto Mangabeira. 2007. ‘’Free Trade Reimagined: The World Division of Labor and the Method of Economics’’. Princeton: Princeton University Press, p. ch. 5.
- Unger, Roberto Mangabeira. 1978. “Illusions of Necessity in the Economic Order.” American Economic Review (May): 373.
- Unger, Roberto Mangabeira. 1978. “Illusions of Necessity in the Economic Order.” American Economic Review (May): 369–371.
- Unger, Roberto Mangabeira. 1978. “Illusions of Necessity in the Economic Order.” American Economic Review (May): 372.
- Unger, Roberto (2005). The Left Alternative. Verso. pp. xi.
- Unger, Roberto (2005). The Left Alternative. Verso. pp. xxi. ISBN 978-1-84467-370-4.
- Unger, Roberto (2005). The Left Alternative. Verso. pp. vii. ISBN 978-1-84467-370-4.
- Unger, Roberto (2005). The Left Alternative. Verso. pp. ix. ISBN 978-1-84467-370-4.
- These policy points are taken from Unger, Roberto Mangabeira, The self awakened: pragmatism unbound (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2007), and Unger, Roberto Mangabeira, What Progressives Should Propose. September 2011.
- Unger, Roberto Mangabeira (2009). "The future of religion". Tanner Lectures.
- Unger, Roberto Mangabeira (2007). The Self Awakened: Pragmatism Unbound. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. pp. 40, ch. 4.
- Unger, Roberto Mangabeira (2007). The Self Awakened: Pragmatism Unbound. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. pp. ch. 4, appendix 1.
- Unger, Roberto Mangabeira (1986). Passion: An Essay on Personality. New York: Free Press.
- Unger, Roberto Mangbareira (2010). "Laws and Time in Cosmology". Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics. Retrieved 30 November 2011.
- Unger, Roberto Mangabeira (2012). The singularity of the world and the reality of time: an essay in natural philosophy.
- Unger, Roberto Mangabeira (2009). "The religion of the future". Tanner Lectures.
- Unger, Roberto Mangabeira (1986). Passion: An Essay on Personality. New York: Free Press. pp. vii. ISBN 0-02-933180-3.
- Unger, Roberto Mangabeira. "Nihilism, part 2". Retrieved 29 November 2011.
- Unger, Roberto Mangabeira. "Nihilism parts 3-6". Retrieved 29 November 2011.
- Frank, Adam (April 2012). "Is the search for immutable laws of nature a wild-goose chase?". Discover Magazine.
- Unger, Roberto Mangabeira (2012). The singularity of the world and the reality of time: an essay in natural philosophy. pp. ch.1, 2.
- Unger, Roberto Mangabeira (2012). The singularity of the world and the reality of time: an essay in natural philosophy. pp. ch.1, 3.
- Unger, Roberto Mangabeira (2012). The singularity of the world and the reality of time: an essay in natural philosophy. pp. ch. 3.
- Unger, Roberto Mangabeira (2012). The singularity of the world and the reality of time: an essay in natural philosophy. pp. ch. 4.
- "Mangabeira Unger lança Rondônia como modelo de desenvolvimento". Rondonia Agora. June 14, 2011. Retrieved 27 April 2012.
- Unger, Roberto Mangabeira. "Introduction," in A Alternativa Transformadora: Como Democratizar o Brasil ed. Guanabara Koogan. (São Paulo, 2009).
- Unger, Roberto Mangabeira (1990). A Alternativa Transformadora – Como Democratizar o Brasil. Rio de Janeiro: Editora Guanabara. pp. 65–67.
- Unger, Roberto Mangabeira (1990). A Alternativa Transformadora – Como Democratizar o Brasil. Rio de Janeiro: Editora Guanabara.
- Unger, Roberto Mangabeira (1990). A Alternativa Transformadora – Como Democratizar o Brasil. Rio de Janeiro: Editora Guanabara. pp. 68–69.
- Unger, Roberto Mangabeira (1990). A Alternativa Transformadora – Como Democratizar o Brasil. Rio de Janeiro: Editora Guanabara. pp. 67–71.
- Carta Capital, pg. 26-33. August 14, 2002.
- Revista Playboy. 6/2008.
- Unger, Roberto Mangabeira (April 24, 2000). "Por que sou candidato a Prefeito de São Paulo?". Diário Popular.
- Folha de São Paulo. January 10, 2005. p. A3.
- Marra, Ana Paula. Mangabeira Unger assume secretaria e diz que Lula foi magnânimo ao convidá-lo para o cargo. Agência Brasil. June 19, 2007. Retrieved on September 8, 2007.(Portuguese)
- Romana, Carlin (June 6, 2008). "Boss Nova". Chronicle of High Education: Chronicle Review.
- Barrionuevo, Alexei (February 2, 2008). "‘Minister of Ideas’ Tries to Put Brazil's Future in Focus". New York Times.
- Szabla, Chris (October 4, 2009). "After rocky but influential tenure, Brazil's "Minister of Ideas" returns to HLS". Harvard Law Record.
- Souza, Jesse (2010). Os Batalhadores Brasileiros. Belo Horizonte: Editora da UFMG. pp. Preface.
- Haddad, Fernando; Roberto Mangabeira Unger (February 18, 2008). Folha de São Paulo.
- Camarena, Rodrigo. "The Rousseff Presidency and Beyond: Interview with Roberto Mangabeira Unger". Foreign Policy Association. Retrieved 31 March 2012.
- Valor Econômico. April 29, 2008.
- Leal, Claudio (August 29, 2008). "Mangabeira Unger: "Amazônia é um caos fundiário"". Terra Magazine. Retrieved 5 June 2012.
- Nery, Natusa (June 29, 2009). "Mangabeira Unger deixa governo Lila e retoma Harvard". Estado de São Paulo.
- For example see Unger, Roberto Mangabeira, and Zhiyuan Cui. 1994. “China in the Russian Mirror.” New Left Review 208 (December); Unger, Roberto Mangabeira. 2009. The Left Alternative. London: Verso, pp. 171-188; Unger, Roberto Mangabeira, 2009. España y su futuro ¿un país en transformación? EDICIONES SEQUITUR.
- Unger, Roberto Mangabeira. "The Left Alternatives in Particular Contexts". Retrieved 26 September 2012.
- Castaneda, Jorge. “Mexico: Permuting Power.” New Left Review 7 (January–February 2001)
- Herrera, Ernesto (fevrier 1998). "Consensus de Buenos Aires: Alternatives au néolibéralisme ou simple toilettage?". La gauche. Retrieved 22 May 2012.
- Valente, Marcela (December 2, 1997). "Centre-Left Seals Buenos Aires Consensus". Inter Press Service. Retrieved 22 May 2012.
- Massaldi, Julian, "Buenos Aires Consensus: Lula and Kirchner's agreement 'Against Neoliberalism'", Znet, November 20, 2003
- Sader, Emir (February 2003). "Latin America: critical year for the left". Le Monde diplomatique. Retrieved 22 May 2012.
- Remnick, David (2010). The Bridge. Picador. p. 185.
- Unger, Roberto Mangabeira. "Beyond Obama". Beyond Series. Youtube. Retrieved 1 June 2012.
- "DESENVOLVIMENTO: GOVERNO OUVE PROPOSTAS DO SETOR PRODUTIVO". News Rondonia. March 15, 2012. Retrieved 27 April 2012.
- "Mangabeira Unger visita complexo prisional de Porto Velho". Olho Vivo Rondonia. September 14, 2011. Retrieved 27 April 2012.
- "Review". Michigan Law Review 83 (4): 768–771. February 1985.
- Weirib, Ernest J. (June 1985). "Enduring Passion". Yale Law Journal 94 (7): 1825–1841.
- Boyle, James (March 1985). "Modernist Social Theory: Roberto Unger's "Passion"". Harvard Law Review 98 (5): 1066–`083.
- Hobson, J. Allan (1987). "Psychiatry As Scientific Humanism: A Program Inspired by Roberto Unger's Passion". Northwestern University Law Review 81 (4): 791–816.
- Hutchinson, Allan C. "Review: A Poetic Champion Composes: Unger (Not) on Ecology and Women." The University of Toronto Law Journal 40, no. 2 (April 1, 1990): 279.
- Wilder, Joseph C. "Review." The American Political Science Review 83, no. 2 (June 1, 1989): 623.
- See also Yack, Bernard. "Review: Toward a Free Marketplace of Social Institutions: Roberto Unger's ‘Super-Liberal’ Theory of Emancipation." Harvard Law Review 101, no. 8 (June 1, 1988): 1970.
- Unger, Roberto Mangabeira. What Should Legal Analysis Become? London ; New York: Verso, 1996.
- Unger, Roberto Mangabeira. The self awakened: pragmatism unbound. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2007.
- Yack, Bernard. "Review: Toward a Free Marketplace of Social Institutions: Roberto Unger's ‘Super-Liberal’ Theory of Emancipation." Harvard Law Review 101, no. 8 (June 1, 1988): 1969.
- Shapiro, Ian. "Review: Constructing Politics." Political Theory 17, no. 3 (1989): 481, 482.
- Rorty, Richard. "Unger, Castoriadis, and the Romance of a National Future." Northwestern University Law Review 82 (1988 1987).
- Unger, Roberto Mangabeira. Democracy realized: the progressive alternative. London: Verso, 1998
- Unger, Roberto Mangabeira. Free trade reimagined: the world division of labor and the method of economics. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007
- Unger, Roberto Mangabeira. The future of American progressivism: an initiative for political and economic reform. Boston: Beacon Press, 1998
- Unger, Roberto Mangabeira. The left alternative. London: Verso, 2009.
- Roberto Unger's Harvard Homepage
- Links to Unger's works via his homepage
- An interview with Unger on the American Left
Biographical Articles about Roberto Unger:
- Guggenheim Gives Fellowships for '76: Unger Gets Tenure, Too (The Harvard Crimson April 5, 1976)
- Guggenheim Fellows for 1976 (Guggenheim Foundation Website)
- "The Passion of Roberto Unger" , Eyal Press, (Lingua Franca, March 1999)
- Carlos Castilho, "Brazil's Consigliere: Unger Leaves Lectern to Stand Behind the Throne." (World Paper, April 2000)
- Simon Romero, "Destination: São Paulo" (Metropolis, October 2000) This article is about São Paulo, Brazil, but it has a lengthy discussion of Unger's political activism there and many quotes from Unger.
- Meltzer Elected to American Academy of Arts and Sciences (HLS News May 13, 2004)