Boss Nova:Harvard Law’s Roberto Unger takes on the future of Brazil

by Dave

Think of Roberto Mangabeira Unger as Brazil’s answer to John Stuart Mill — a century and a half later and considerably nattier — with a pronounced Nietzschean bent that drives him to certain acts of excess.

Unger is not the first philosopher to snare, so to speak, a state office of his own, or a fancy car and driver. Plato advised Dionysius the Younger of Syracuse. Hume served as an undersecretary of state. Leibniz did a stint as an imperial privy councilor in Vienna. Nobody says philosophers can’t get their hands dirty in politics.

In the category of political appointments, Unger may rate the “political miracle” award. Three years ago, he criticized the first term of Lula’s administration as the “most corrupt in our national history.” Now he meets regularly with Lula. Is he a miracle worker himself?

His political involvement in Brazil dates to the late 1970s, when military dictatorship gave way to a “political opening.” Unger offered his services to the united opposition party. In 1978 he became that party’s chief of staff, took a leave from Harvard, and spent his first stint in Brasília, six months of intense work on a new party that would unite progressive liberals and the independent left.

At various times in his writings, he’s urged a government department of destabilization to shake up “every aspect” of social life, a push toward universal freedom of movement for the world’s people, “immunity rights” that protect people against undemocratic coercion, and a rotating capital fund from which society’s stakeholders can draw, linked to government power to break up excessive accumulation of wealth.

One clear idea he’s confronted in the previous generation’s vision of Brazil’s future is what he calls “tropical Sweden.” It holds that Brazil should adapt the institutional model of the North Atlantic countries and “humanize it through compensatory redistribution.” So, Unger complains, “the humanization of the inevitable” became the “leitmotif” of Brazilian politics.

At a ceremony at Lula’s Palácio do Planalto, the president designated Unger as chief minister among Brazil’s more than 20 to coordinate the government’s future Amazon policy. “It was a great day for me,” Unger agrees. Six days later, Brazil’s minister of the environment, feeling slighted, resigned.

Asked for an analysis of his effectiveness so far, Unger says everything has gone far better than expected. He recently signed a collaborative agreement with Russia. He’s pushing Brazil’s business and labor communities to do better by the country’s many “excluded” workers. He travels regularly to the Amazon as the government’s top strategist.

“I have the only position in the government that is about everything, except for the position of the president,” Unger exults. “He has all power, and I have none. But I have one advantage over him. I don’t have to manage daily crises. I’m therefore free — as he is not — to deal with the future and to deal with our direction. It’s been fantastic.”

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