Roberto Mangabeira Unger

Social and Political Theory

The Hidden Difference (2003)

“The Hidden Difference” is a note on conjectures relating to a project on which Charles Sabel and I are now working. Why do some contemporary societies succeed at both market-oriented and “dirigiste” approaches to economic organization whereas other countries make a mess of market-oriented and “dirigiste” approaches alike? This question serves as the starting point for a reconsideration of certain dominant assumptions about the institutional and cultural bases of worldly success. The revision of these premises provides the programmatic imagination with a more secure basis.

The Boutwood Lectures: The Second Way

I gave the Boutwood Lectures in January 2002 at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge University. You can access below the recorded typescript of these two lectures.

The first lecture presents a criticism of European social democracy and offers a program for the reformation of the North Atlantic societies that would continue where contemporary social democracy has stopped. The second lecture explores the stakes in this undertaking, the obstacles it must confront, and the sources from it can derive energy and authority. This second lecture addresses the arrangements of a world order — a different globalization — friendly to the development of the powers of humanity in contrasting directions. It discusses the practice of a style of social, political, and analysis untainted by the rationalization of present reality. It proposes an ethic neither heroic nor antiheroic, recognizing and nurturing the frustrated intensity of ordinary men and women.

The opening up of the second way provides an occasion for us to reimagine and to remake ourselves, piece by piece and step by step. By advancing along this path we diminish the dependence of transformation on calamity. The direct appeal of the second way is the promise of moving forward in the zone in which the institutional conditions of material progress intersect the institutional requirements for the weakening of entrenched social divisions and hierarchies. The proximate aim of the program of the second way is the further cracking open of society to democracy and experimentalism. Its ulterior objective is the further divinization of humanity.

Politics: The Central Texts (Book, 1997)

Politics: The Central Texts (edited by Zhiyuan Cui, 1997) offers an organized selection of my social-theory writings. The passages are drawn from the three books of Politics — Social Theory: Its Situation and Its Task, False Necessity, and Plasticity into Power. The editor has organized them in a way faciltating study of this body of ideas. Zhiyuan Cui is a leader of the leftist intelligenstia in China.

Plasticity into Power (Book, 1987)

The complete text of “Plasticity into Power: Comparative Historical Studies in the Institutional Conditions of Economic and Military Success,” which forms part of the Politics series. The book was originally published in 1988 and is to be republished by Verso in the near future. It explores, in comparative historical detail, an idea that plays a major role in my social-theoretical writings: the idea of the practical as well as the moral advantages of institutional arrangements and discursive practices that facilitate their own revision.

“Plasticity into Power” was published by Verso in a new paperback edition in 2004 together with “False Necessity” and “Social Theory: Its Situation and Its Task.” To order this book go to the “my books” section of this website.

Theses on Religion and Politics (Appendix, 1994)

False Necessity (Book, 2002)

Here is the full text of the new edition of “False Necessity” (Verso 2002). A paperback version was published in 2004 together with “Social Theory: Its Situation and Its Task” and “Plasticity into Power.” “False Necessity” is the central work of my Politics books. It was preceded by “Social Theory: Its Situation and Its Task” and followed by “Plasticity into Power,” available in the part of this website called “the institutional conditions of practical progress.” “False Necessity” presents both a way of explaining society and a program for changing it. The explanation develops a radical alternative to Marxism, showing how we can account for established social arrangements without denying their contingency or our freedom. The program offers a progressive alternative to the now dominant ideological conceptions of neoliberalism and social democracy: a set of institutional innovations that would democratize markets, deepen democracies, and empower individuals.

The reader can master the gist of the argument of this long book by reading the introduction to the new edition, which presents the ideas of “False Necessity” as a subset of a larger family of intellectual and political possibilities; Chapter 1 (pp. 1-40), which outlines and connects the explanatory and programmatic themes; the first half of Chapter 4 (pp. 172-245), which presents an alternative, contingency-recognizing genealogy of contemporary institutions; the sections of the second half of Chapter 4 (pp. 277-331) that discuss the idea of negative capability and its relation to path dependency; the core of Chapter 5 (pp. 441-539), which advances a particular institutional program; and the concluding discussion in Chapter 5 of the spirit of this program (pp. 570-595).

Social Theory: Its Situation and Its Task (Book, 1987)

As the first volume in the Politics series, this book was followed by “False Necessity” and “Plasticity into Power” both of which are also available in full in this website. It has been published in a new paperback edition by Verso in 2004 together with “False Necessity” and “Plasticity into Power.”

Ample selections from all three of these books are included in the one-volume anthology of my social theory work, edited and introduced by Zhiyuan Cui, “Politics: the Central Texts” (Verso 1997). To order this anthology go to the “my books” section of this website.

“Social Theory: Its Situation and Its Task” lays the groundwork for the development of a way of thinking about society that can resist the identification of what happened with what must be. The argument of the book addresses this task in a manner that contests the authority of the contemporary social sciences and discounts the distinctions among them. A direct line leads from this book to the introduction to the new edition of “False Necessity,” the major work of the Politics series.

There are four themes in “Social Theory: Its Situation and Its Task” to which I draw the reader’s particular attention: the discussion of the transformative vocation (pp. 26-35), the criticism of both classic social theory and contemporary social science as inadequately radical in recognizing that “it’s all politics” (pp. 80-164), the contrast between two ways of realizing the intellectual program I propose, one embracing and the other eschewing comprehensive theories (pp. 165-169), and the analysis of the assumptions about necessity and contingency on which ny argument rests (pp. 170-199). Rather than antagonizing scientific method, I enlist natural science in the defense of these assumptions.

Lectures on Social Theory (Book, 1976)

These notes were prepared for a course on “classical social theory” I gave in Harvard College in the Spring of 1976. The course addressed mainly Marx, Durkheim, and Weber. The notes suggest how much of the project of social thought documented in this section of the website was inspired by a struggle with the ideas of these thinkers. To seize the transformative opportunities of the present moment, it seemed necessary to push forward in the direction they had taken, even at the cost of repudiating many of the assumptions, methods, and claims with which their work had come to be associated

Knowledge and Politics (Book, 1975)

“Knowledge and Politics”, the full text of which you can find below, was my first book, published in 1975. It presents an analysis and a criticism of what I took to be a set of political , moral, and epistemological assumptions underlying much of modern thought. Although “Knowledge and Politics” is distant, in form as well as in content, from my present work, it explores intellectual and political concerns that have continued to hold me in their grip. I suggest beginning with the Postscript of 1983; it anticipates many of the themes of my subsequent writings.