Kristofer Jäntti blogs about Roberto Unger’s suggestions for an alternative programme for British Labour
Professor Roberto Unger, the social theorist, the philosopher and politician, gave a lecture entitled ‘The Labour Party and the British Alternative’ at the IPPR offices in London last week. His ideas suggests a new framework for Centre-left Politics in which the narrow call for egalitarian redistribution within the post war institutional arrangement is jettisoned for what he calls ‘deep freedom’ in which ‘societies possess both the institutional and the conceptual means to create novel varieties of political, economic and social pluralism’ (Unger 2013: 97).
A key idea underpinning Professor Unger’s work is the notion that the form that society takes is a result of human artifice. Therefore, in his lecture, he forcefully argues against what he calls the ‘false view of political realism’ which posits that credible policy alternatives are those which are close to what we already have. As a result, he suggests a comprehensive programme for the Left to orientate their Politics.
His programme calls for sweeping changes to how society operates. In terms of Economic policy he wants Finance to be the servant and not the master of the real economy, and sees small and mid-sized firms as the engines of economic growth. In particular, he would like create an institutional framework that allows these firms to access the knowledge and financial resources they need. One of his suggestion is to create decentralized government-funded financial institutions that act like venture-capitalists, providing much-needed capital to firms.
His economic reforms are accompanied with new legislation to increase the protection of worker’s rights. Above all, instead of the humanization of the current system through the transfer of wealth, he wants to extend the means of the good life to all citizens. He hopes that this measure would help people escape the drudgery of daily life and reach new heights of human existence.
In some respects his suggestions addresses issues as the knowledge gap and the concomitant political apathy. In particular, he wants to reinvigorate democracy with greater devolution of policy-making and institutional arrangement that favours constant experimentation. As a result, he argues that political parties and social movement should have better access to the means of mass communication. Underpinning these ideas is his attempt re-imagine democratic Politics in such a way whereby major change is not contingent on a precipitating crisis, but is an ongoing process. He proclaims that ‘the aim of Politics should be what Popper aimed in science; to make mistakes as fast as possible’ .
In terms of education policy, he sees that the state should ensure that education is less about ‘encyclopedic learning’ but more about teaching children analytical problem solving in which subjects are explored from different view-points. After this, he argues, the state should abandon current attempts to constantly test and rank schools in the UK. During the Q&A session he offered the Finnish educational system as an exemplar of a ‘decentralized’ education system in which highly capable teachers are given a lot of freedom to experiment with different ways of teaching.
The feasibility of some of his economic-policy suggestions are outside the sphere of competence of the author of this blog post. His suggestions for educational reform is sensible, though probably needs to be tested on a smaller scale before it will be unleashed nation-wide. Though, recent research from the UK suggests that focusing on the early years of education is one of the best ways to improve education outcome in the worst off.
Professor Unger, the guru of the Left, may contribute to the ideological renewal of the Labour Party. It is evident that his suggestions are the product of an erudite philosopher with an idealised view of human potential. Therefore, it needs to be seen whether this will translate to concrete measures if Labour wins the next election.