Roberto Unger on the Coming Revolution

For over 200 years the world has been set on fire by a revolutionary message. The message is that every individual human being is divine. That all of us despite the constraints and humiliations that surround us can share in a greater life and share even in the attributes that we ascribe to God. Nevertheless the ordinary experience of human beings remains an experience of belittlement. This revolutionary message can only be made real through a series of transformations. Transformations in how we organize society, in how we live and in how we understand the world. It is not enough to innovate in our politics. We must also innovate in our basic ideas about who we are. Unless we innovate in these ideas as well as in the arrangements of society, we cannot turn the message of our divinity into a real experience. And thus the need today for a spiritual revolution as well as for a social transformation. The focus of my thinking expressed in this book, The Religion of the Future, lies precisely there. In the relation between the transformation of personal experience and the reorganization of social life. 

All the major religions and philosophies, that have exerted the greatest influence over the last 2,000 years, arose from a series of religious revolutions that took place around 2,000 years ago. And these religions took three main directions.

One direction one might call overcoming the world and an example is Buddhism and the philosophies that prevailed in ancient India. But it is a position also represented in modern Western thought, for example, by Schopenhauer. According to this view all the distinctions and changes that surround us are illusory. Our task, if we are to escape from suffering, is to communicate with the hidden and unified being and to escape this nightmare of the apparent world.

A second orientation, one might call the humanization of the world, and it teaches us that in a meaningless world we can create meaning. We can open a clearing space, a social order that bears the imprint of our humanity. And in particular we can do so by creating a society that conforms to a model of what we owe to one another by virtue of occupying certain roles.The most important example of this position in the history of religion and of philosophy has been Confucianism.

The third direction is the direction that I call in this book, The Religion of the Future, the struggle with the world. It tells us that there is a trajectory of ascent by which through changes in how we live and in how we organize society we can rise to a greater life and share in the attributes that we ascribe to God. And thus this ascent requires a struggle and so I call it the struggle with the world. Now this third direction has had two main faces in history. A sacred face and a profane face. The sacred face is represented in the Semitic Monotheisms – Judaism, Christianity and Islam. And the profane face in the political projects of liberalism, socialism and democracy and in the project of personal liberation that has been represented by romanticism, both the original romantic movement and the worldwide popular romantic culture.

The third direction teaches us that each of us is bigger than he seems to be. That each of us is called to share in the greater life and to participate in this divinity that we sometimes treat as a separate entity that created the world and that intervenes in history. It is this third direction that has exerted the greatest influence on humanity over the last couple of centuries in forming a series of revolutionary projects in politics and in culture that have set the whole world on fire.

But all of these religions in each of these three directions that I have just described – despite their immense differences share certain common characteristics. One of these characteristics is that they have represented as it were a kind of two sided ticket. One side of the ticket is a license to escape the world. A second side of the ticket is an invitation to change the world. And this ambivalence has never been fully resolved.

Another common characteristic of these religions is that each of them in some way denies or seeks to compensate for the incorrigible flaws in the human condition: our mortality, our groundlessness and our insatiability. Despite the fecundity of our experience, despite this fundamental aspect of our humanity which is that there is always more in us than there is in all of the social and conceptual worlds that we build and inhabit, we are all doomed to die. We cannot look into the beginning and end of time or understand the framework or our existence. Our presuppositions never reach rock bottom. The bottom is bottomless, that’s our groundlessness. And all of us, human beings, demand the unlimited from the limited and project this demand for the unlimited onto particular inappropriate objects, thus our insatiability. All of these religions have attempted to say that there is a solution, an antidote that we, in fact, will not die or at least that there is some compensation – some compensation for these enigmas and terrors of our existence. An entirely different moment in the history of religion would begin if we accepted these realities for what they are and no longer attempted to deny them.

Given the enormous impact of the third direction that I described, the struggle with the world of humanity over the last two centuries, one might ask what is the core of its message. And why has this message been so seductive. There are two ideas that stand at the center of this view of the world, both on its religious side, the Near Eastern religions of salvation, Judaism and Christianity and Islam, and on its profane side, the projects of political and personal liberation. One set of ideas has to do with the relation between the self and others. The dominant view in the history of world religion and philosophy, and indeed in modern academic moral philosophy, is that the fundamental problem of moral life is selfishness. And the solution to selfishness is a principle of altruism. And this principle of altruism is to be enforced by conformity to certain rules that define our obligations to one another. And these rules are to be determined by some conceptual method like Kant’s categorical imperative or Bentham’s calculus of the greatest happiness for the greatest number.

There is an attitude connected to those ideas. The attitude is that we should try to come to the end of our lives blameless, with clean hands, having discharged our obligations to one another on the green side of our book of moral accounts. But that is not the view that stands at the core of the moral beliefs of this third tradition. There the view is that the basic problem of our moral experience is not selfishness but rather a contradiction in the conditions of personality and in our relations to other people. We need the others. We make ourselves into human beings only through connection. But every connection is a threat. Every connection jeopardizes our freedom, our autonomy, our self-construction. And thus all of our relations to the others are shadowed by an inescapable ambivalence. Sartre says the others are hell describing aphoristically this one side of this ambivalence. So what is then the solution that lies at the center of this idea? The solution is radical love in the circle of intimacy and then some form of cooperation – of free and equal cooperation outside the circle of intimacy. But this practical solution, if one can call it that, depends on an imaginative capability, the capacity to imagine the others, to imagine their otherness. And that is then the teaching, the real teaching that lies at the center of this tradition.

For the ancients and for most of the world religions and philosophies the highest ideal was the ideal of an impersonal and detached benevolence from on high, from a distance implying no risk on the part of the altruist, of the benevolent person. But here now comes a different conception. That this impersonal altruism, this gift of benevolence from on high is, in fact, not the center of our moral experience. that the highest form of moral experience is reconciliation with the other on the basis of equality and at the price of a heightened vulnerability.

Now there’s a second set of ideas at the center of this tradition and the second set of ideas has to do with the relation between the structures of social life and the human spirit. Now what I mean by spirit is the aspect of our humanity that has to do with our excess over all the regimes that we create and inhabit. Now there are two distortions that have had a long career in the history of religious and philosophical thinking. One distortion might be called the Hegelian heresy. It’s the idea that there is a definitive structure towards which history is evolving and which will be the final home of the human spirit. And the other heresy one might call the Sartrean heresy or the romantic heresy or the existentialist heresy and it was prefigured by the mystics within Judaism, Christianity and Islam. According to this heresy every structure is death to the spirit. So the routines of marriage by contrast to romantic love or the bureaucratic apparatus of the state in opposition to the crowd in the streets. We can’t get rid of the structure definitively but we can momentarily rebel against them. And these interludes of rebellion are then the time when we become fully human. So it is a kind of despair. It is a failure of our hope of changing the relation of structure to spirit.

Now these two sets of ideas about the self and others and spirit and structure have never been adequately developed, much less fully realized in political and personal practice in the history of our civilizations. Both the political doctrines and the religious traditions have lived in compromise with the existing forms of social organization and with ethical attitudes that contradict their impulse. That is another reason for spiritual revolution now. If we were to take these ideas seriously, if we were to push them to the hilt, if we were to ask how we should live under the light of these ideas, we would come to a completely different conception. A completely different conception of our situation in the world and of the way to organize society.

We have, in fact, in the history of our culture, in the history of the culture that has been shaped by this third tradition, the tradition of a struggle with the world, only two completely developed images of how to live. One is the image of the sacrificial altruist who devotes himself to the others without experiencing any intimate risk or jeopardy. And the other is the image of the romantic adventurer who experiences life as a perpetual trial in the effort to deepen and affirm his subjectivity. Neither of these images is adequate as a conception of how to live. And the absence of an alternative view demonstrated once again the need for religious revolution now.

One should begin by understanding the points of departure, the provocations for such a spiritual change. So one provocation is the need no longer to deny the incurable defects in the human condition. Our mortality, our groundlessness and our insatiability. A second provocation is the importance of not confusing our belittlement with these inescapable defects in human life. We are belittled and humiliated, all of us in some way to some degree. But this belittlement has a cure unlike our mortality, our groundlessness and our insatiability. The cure is for us to make ourselves bigger, to ascend to a higher life and that cure requires a reorientation of the way we live and of the way in which we organize society. And a third provocation to this spiritual change is then the unwillingness to allow those ideas about self and others and spirituality and culture to be compromised and circumvented as they have been in the history of our religions and of our societies.

So what does this mean? What does this mean by way of a moral orientation and what does it mean by way of a political project? Let me illustrate what it means by way of a moral orientation by referring to how each of us is to respond to one of the characteristic incidents in every human life. As we grow older, each of us, a shell of compromise and routine begins to form around us. The self becomes rigidified in a character. The ancient Greeks said that character is fate. Character is the rigidified form of the self. And the marriage of character with a social circumstance to which we are resigned then becomes a proxy for the living self, a mummy that begins to form around each of us, within which each of us slowly dies many small deaths. What we must then do is to break the mummy apart, the better to live and to become more God-like so that we can live. We do not live to become more God-like, we become more God-like to live. And how are we to break the mummy apart? We cannot simply will ourselves transformed but the will can project us into situations in which we are unprotected, in which we lose our habitual protections, in which we are forced to become more vulnerable, and in this way awaken to a greater life. So the rebellion against mummification is one of the many telling consequences of such a reorientation to existence.

And what does it mean by way of a political project? For two centuries now ideological debate in the world has taken the form of a contrast between what you might call shallow equality and shallow freedom. The major political forces in the world accept the established institutions and then we think that the conservatives are those who within that institutional framework give priority to freedom and the progressives or leftists are those who give priority to equality. But it is shallow equality against shallow freedom because it’s based on this acceptance of the established framework. Now suppose we imagine that we can begin to change this framework, to innovate in the institutions that define the market economy and democratic politics. To democratize the market economy and to deepen democracy. The method is the cumulative institutional transformation of society. And what is the objective? The objective is not equality of outcome or circumstance. The objective is a greater life for the ordinary man or woman. Thus I would say deep freedom. Who then are the progressives or revolutionaries today? First they are those who refuse to take the established institutional structure for granted and second they are those who demand not simply to sugarcoat those structures with some compensatory redistribution but to bring the mass of ordinary men and women to a greater level of intensity, of capability and of scope so that they can live eyes wide awake and share in these attributes, in these attributes of transcendence that we ascribe to the divine. And that then projects us into a world of institutional proposals and institutional changes.

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