Escaping the Prison House of Liberalism
Knowledge and Politics By Roberto M. Unger MacMillan Publishing Co., $12.95, 295 pp.
THE PROJECT was ambitious for any young scholar: to write a first book that would be the definitive critique of liberal thought and lay the foundation for a new social theory that would replace Weber, Durkheim and Marx.
And if anyone alive will complete the task begun in Knowledge and Politics, it will be Roberto Unger. The stories about his brilliance and dedication to scholarship abound: that he went through law school in two years, that he spent almost all his time at Harvard in the libraries devouring difficult philosophical tracts, and that he is the youngest member of the Law School faculty. He is considered such a whiz-kid that senior professors reportedly flock to his lectures.
But the task was too great for anyone to master in his first work. Unger here is the great synthethizer rather than theoretical innovator. He stands on the shoulders of earlier giants, borrowing but rearranging their ideas to uncover the contradictions in liberal theory.
Unger promises at the outset to utilize, unlike Marx and Weber, a form of "total" rather than "partial" criticism that will "serve as the key that will allow us to escape from the prison house" of paradoxical liberalism, "whose rooms did not connect and whose passageways led nowhere."
He eventually concludes that the fundamental inconsistency in liberal theory is the conflict between what he calls the "universal" and the "particular." Everywhere one is confronted with an inability to apply theory to fact, creating contradictions within both our institutions and our consciousness.
At the simplest level, the problem manifests itself in language. Words are generalizations designed to describe ideal types. Liberal theory assumes that man can know the essence of every object, but words limit the degree to which he can describe a thing; he can never perfectly describe any particular object.
These limitations have led to the increasing simplification and division of societal problems. With the division of the social sciences into fields like government, economics, psychology, analysis has become specialized and at the same time limited. No extensive change is possible so long as each scientist looks at only one part of the problem. Thus, "the principle of analysis is the enemy of revolution."
IN SOME OF his sharpest analysis, Unger shows that the internal contradictions within liberalism lead to a breakdown of law and justice. If the Supreme Court is torn over conflicting interpretations of the Constitution, it is not because the document is poorly constructed, but because general theorems cannot be applied perfectly to specific cases.
The tension between reason and desire is another aspect of the division of the universal and the particular. Liberal theory spawns two views of human consciousness: man as an animal subject to his desires and man as a machine applying reason through knowledge to guide his action. The antinomy is that,
For the will, the moral commands of reason are despotic laws that sacrifice life to duty. Each part is condemned to war against the other.
The playing out of these conflicts can be seen in the gradual emergence of the welfare-corporate state. In this system, culture has triumphed over nature, the state over society and reason over passion. But the underlying tensions of liberal theory remain to make the society unstable.
It may develop into a fully corporate state, in which individuals would be forced to act only within their bureaucratically defined roles, eliminating the interaction of human beings as human beings. Unger finds another possible course of development, the emergence of a socialist regime, equally undesirable. Here the holding of power and the definition of ends would become arbitrary. Even if private property were abolished, the desire for power would not be, and the socialist bureaucracy would provide an effective means of enforcing greater control.
Leftists who read Knowledge and Politics will first criticize Unger for giving such cursory treatment to Marx, though they will probably applaud his critique of liberalism. But because of Unger's logical structure, they cannot accept too much of what he says. The arguments he uses against liberalism can be turned against Marxism with almost equal force.
UNGER, in a rather desultory manner, calls Marxism the best previous refutation of liberalism, but rejects it as a useful theory. He criticizes its historical determinism, its concern with the distribution of wealth and the emphasis on the means of production. He says it fails to resolve the antimony of theory and fact and "does not penetrate the realm of the consciousness." And yet he adopts one of Marx's more humanistic concepts, that of the species-being.
Man comes closest to "universal harmony" in two forms of human activity, work and love. Unger's views about the value of work seem adapted from Marx, but he avoids the concept of alienation and sees no need for the worker to be a jack-of-all-trades. Unger accepts the continued division of labor, though he says it is moderated and refined to prevent the worker from feeling apart from the larger product.
As work permits a reconciliation of man and nature, love is the catalyst to the growth of a genuine spirit of community. The welfare-corporate state promotes a perverse love, an admiration of certain physical or moral attributes that deny the lover recognition as an individual. The person who experiences personal love, breaks away from the rational principles of liberalism: he is willing to put the safety of a lamb above the welfare of the flock. The promotion of this kind of love and its extension to relationships throughout the community is a prerequisite to the emergence of a more coherent society.
In tones as strong as those of the Communist Manifesto, Unger implores us:
All men should work toward the day when the priority of the fight against domination to the development of community will be reversed. Then at last will the calling of modern politics have been answered.
Unger here is at the precipice of his analysis. Liberal thought and its revisions are in ruins below him--he looks out toward a new kind of society. But he has caught himself in his own trap: because the general can never accurately describe a particular, he can construct no clear vision of what should come about. The rudiments of his new theory, as formulated, is open to pretty much the same attacks he levels at Marxism. In attempting "total" criticism, Unger launched an attack not merely upon liberalism, but upon the concept of theory itself. And it is probably safe to say that he will spend the next 20 years trying to do what seems impossible: designing a new social theory that is not theory in any traditional logical sense.
AS A START on this project, Unger devotes the last chapter of Knowledge and Politics to a "theory of organic groups." He sketches a society of small, democratically-run communes. They are close-knit enough so that everyone knows the other members and has a form of "political love" for them, relating to them not in their work roles but as individuals. The inhabitants have lost all sense of pure self-interest and think only of the interests of the commune.
Each group might be defined by the occupations of its members, part of hierarchically-arranged system of communes. The task of the top commune would to insure peace and order throughout the system. Unger envisions in this system a harmony of the structure and the consciousness of its citizens.
But Unger fails to explore the characteristics of human nature or even whether it is innate. He has picked out elements of human activity like love and work and set out to make their refinement the good of society. But what if the will to dominate, an element present in society long before liberalism, persists? Here we meet the limits of knowledge against politics: the formation of a perfect world, like all man's "great endeavors on this earth, are condemned to incompleteness."
And if philosophy is limited by politics on one side, it is met on the other by metaphysical and religious issues. Is God separate from the world and above it, or is he present in every part of it? Religion's end, like that of politics, must be unity of the universal and the particular, through the adoption of entirely new kinds of theology. But Unger can offer no further insight into religion, because God, if he exists, has not revealed himself. The book ends eerily: "But our days pass and still we do not know you fully. Why then do you remain silent? Speak, God."