Roberto Mangabeira Unger on the Knowledge Economy

The philosopher and occasional politician on building an economy that would allow humans to flourish. 

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The key idea in Roberto Mangabeira Unger’s new book, The Knowledge Economy, is compellingly simple: the problem with the global economy isn’t that there’s too much disruption, but that there isn’t enough. The most advanced technologies remain confined to a small number of firms. This, writes the radical philosopher, is “the single most important cause of both economic stagnation and economic inequality”.

Cheap labour and low taxation have allowed traditional manufacturing industries across the world to prosper on borrowed time. Meanwhile, the knowledge economy, a new form of production that is as much about 3D printing and robotics as the social dimensions of work, has remained stubbornly isolated. Unleashing its power requires transformation of our economy, society and politics.

To his supporters, who include former Labour leader Ed Miliband, Unger is a heterodox visionary. The law professor once remarked that his “conversation is not very conversational”. The same could be said of his books – reading his abstract prose can often feel like wading through mud.

Unger first came to the US as a graduate student and imagined he would return to Brazil one year later. His plans were stalled by a military coup in 1964, and he remained at Harvard, winning tenure aged 29. What makes Unger distinctive is that, unlike many philosophers, his CV strays beyond academia; the Brazilian native served as minister of strategic affairs first under former Workers’ Party president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, and again under his successor, Dilma Rousseff.

When we meet in London at Nesta, an innovation charity, Unger is at the beginning of a week-long European tour promoting The Knowledge Economy and a report on the same subject. His white hair is cropped, and a pin of the Brazilian republic is fixed to his buttonhole – though he concedes that he is “out of the battlefield and back in the monastery”. Nonetheless, witnessing the Brazilian left’s attempts to bribe the electorate with payoffs from natural commodities informed his battle against political orthodoxy.

Brazil’s successive left-wing administrations fell for what progressives are “often attracted to”, Unger explains: softening, rather than confronting, economic reality. When commodity prices collapsed, Rousseff attempted to revive the stalling economy through “vulgar” Keynesian public spending. The current president Jair Bolsonaro is an “accident”, Unger adds – a product of mistakes made by previous administrations.  

Unger believes the progressive armoury of taxation and social spending is woefully inadequate. Instead, his book focuses on advanced forms of production. It echoes Marx – but Unger is keen to distinguish his project from Marxists who believe technological advances will usher in a post-work society. Unger would rather we focused on enjoying “freedom in the economy and not just freedom from the economy”.

Yet where the knowledge economy currently exists, in platform companies such as Google, it has created far fewer jobs than its industrial predecessor. And employment is not only scarcer, but more precarious. Labour protections accrued during the 20th century may prove an aberration, as the gig economy mirrors the system of subcontracting that dominated before the industrial revolution.

Unger reproaches those who want to revive old industries, and instead calls for “inclusive vanguardism”: extending productive technology beyond select firms to capture much of economic life. This programme would replace market rivalry with a “fluid mixture of cooperation and competition”. It would also change the nature of work itself.

“The vast majority of humanity is condemned to what is in effect belittling ‘make work,’” Unger observes. The knowledge economy is altogether different: workers do the imaginative, “visionary” jobs that machines can’t. To prepare people for this new fate, Unger proposes far-reaching educational reforms, nurturing experimentalism rather than vocational training.

Could China, where the state is aggressively investing in hi-tech industries, become the pre-eminent knowledge economy? Unger thinks not; to make matters worse, the Chinese state is “bent under the yolk of mental colonialism aggravated by the autocratic power of the Communist Party”.

Recounting a recent visit to the Central Party School in Beijing, Unger describes how state officials genuflect to “fossilised Marxism”. The knowledge economy isn’t just about investing in new technologies, then, but renewing democratic institutions and instigating a profound social shift, or what he calls “hot democracy” – a tropical spin on invigorated political participation.

If this all sounds idealistic, that’s because it is. Unger lists Dante, Blake and Virgil as his favourite poets. Critics have derided his romantic approach, but he remains unswayed. “I believe in the prophetic powers of ordinary humanity, and that these powers should be widely disseminated in the whole of the human race,” he says.

Unger’s focus is less on economic policy than philosophy. The Knowledge Economy has little to say on the specifics of how we might arrive at its programme, and its focus on hi-tech industries could be criticised for neglecting sectors including care work, which innovation is less likely to disrupt. Yet as a lucid vision for an economy that puts humans at its centre, the book’s influence could be profound.

Hettie O'Brien is the New Statesman’s online editor.