On False Necessity

“We can establish universally an education that recognizes in every child a tongue-tied prophet, and in the school the voice of the future, and that equips the mind to think beyond and against the established context of thought and of life as well as to move within it. We can develop a democratic politics that renders the structure of society open in fact to challenge and reconstruction, weakening the dependence of change on crisis and the power of the dead over the living. We can make the radical democratization of access to the resources and opportunities of production the touchstone of the institutional reorganization of the market economy, and prevent the market from remaining fastened to a single version of itself. We can create policies and arrangements favorable to the gradual supersession of economically dependent wage work as the predominant form of free labor, in favor of the combination of cooperation and self-employment. We can so arrange the relation between workers and machines that machines are used to save our time for the activities that we have not yet learned how to repeat and consequently to express in formulas. We can reshape the world political and economic order so that it ceases to make the global public goods of political security and economic openness depend upon submission to an enforced convergence to institutions and practices hostile to the experiments required to move, by many different paths, in such a direction”

Roberto Mangabeira Unger is a Brazilian philosopher and politician. He has developed his views and positions across many fields including legal theory, philosophy and religion, social and political theory, progressive alternatives, and economics.

Unger’s social theory is premised on the idea of classical social theory that society is an artifact and can be created and recreated. Whereas previous thinkers such as Hegel or Marx backslid at some point and held onto the notion that there was a necessary institutional or historical social development, Unger, in the words of one critic, seeks to “take the idea to the hilt and produce a theory of emancipation that will escape the limitations of liberal and Marxist theories.” That limitation is the search for an ideal structure of society that can be foreseen and centrally planned; whereas the emancipation leads to societies with greater institutional flexibility and variation.

For Unger, society emerges not through compromise or the winnowing down of best options, but rather through conflict and struggle for control of political and material resources. The victors of this struggle come to set the terms of social interaction and transaction, which is then institutionalized through law. This emergent order Unger calls formative context. Under a particular formative context, routines are established and people come to believe and act as if their social words were coherent wholes that are perfectly intelligible and defensible. They come to see the existing arrangements as necessary. Unger calls this false necessity. In reality, these arrangements are arbitrary and hold together rather tenuously, which leaves them open to resistance and change. This opposition Unger calls negative capability.

This leads Unger to the conclusion that change happens piecemeal through struggle and vision, rather than suddenly in revolutionary upheaval with the replacement of one set of institutional arrangements with another. Unger theorizes that cumulative change can alter formative contexts, and he goes on to propose a number of such changes as institutional alternatives to be implemented, which he calls Empowered democracy.

Empowered democracy is Unger’s vision of a more open and more plastic set of social institutions through which individuals and groups can interact, propose change, and effectively empower themselves to transform social, economic, and political structures. Unger’s strategy in its realization is to combine freedom of commerce and governance at the local level with the ability of political parties at the central government level to promote radical social experiments that would bring about decisive change in social and political institutions.

In practice, the theory would involve radical developments in politics at the center, as well as social innovation in localities. At the center, by bestowing wide ranging revising powers to those in office, it would give political parties the ability to try out concrete yet profound solutions and proposals. It would turn partisan conflicts over control and uses of governmental power into an opportunity to question and revise the basic arrangements of social life through a rapid resolution of political impasse. In local communities, empowered democracy would make capital and technology available through rotating capital funds, which would encourage entrepreneurship and innovation. Citizens’ rights include individual entitlements to economic and civic security, conditional and temporary group claims to portions of social capital, and destabilization rights, which would empower individuals or groups to disrupt organizations and practices marred by routines of subjugation that normal politics have failed to disrupt.

Unger’s ideas developed in a context where young intellectuals and radicals attempted to reconcile the conventional theories of society and law being taught in university classrooms with the reality of social protest and revolution of the 1960s and 70s. Disillusioned with Marxism, they turned to thinkers like Levi-Strauss, Gramsci, Habermas, and Foucault in attempt to situate understandings of law and society as a benign science of technocratic policy within a broader system of beliefs that legitimized the prevailing social order. Unlike Habermas, however, who formulates procedures for attaining rational consensus, Unger locates resolution in institutions and their arrangements that remain perpetually open to revision and reconstruction. And, unlike Foucault, who also emphasizes the constructed character of social life, Unger takes this as an opportunity to reimagine institutions and social conditions that will unleash human creativity and enable liberation.

False necessity, or anti-necessitarian social theory, is a contemporary social theory that argues for the plasticity of social organizations and their potential to be shaped in new ways. The theory rejects the assumption that laws of change govern the history of human societies and limit human freedom. It is a critique of “necessitarian” thought in conventional social theories (like liberalism or Marxism) which hold that parts of the social order are necessary or the result of the natural flow of history. The theory rejects the idea that human societies must be organized in a certain way (for example, liberal democracy) and that human activity will adhere to certain forms (for example if people were only motivated by rational self-interest).

False necessity uses structural analysis to understand socio-political arrangements, but discards the tendency to assemble indivisible categories and to create law-like explanations. It aims to liberate human activity from necessary arrangements and limitations, and to open up a world without constraints where the possible becomes actual.

The theory of false necessity develops the idea that the organization of society is made and can be remade—we can rebel against the worlds we have built; we can interrupt our rebellions and establish ourselves in any of those worlds. By emphasizing the disembodiment of institutional and social structures, the theory provides a basis to explain ourselves and our world without using necessitarian thought or predetermined institutional arrangements.

At the extreme, the theory of false necessity criticizes and thus unifies strands of the radical tradition. It frees leftist and liberal ideals from institutional fetishism, and emancipates modernist ideals from structural fetishism. The theory further detaches the radical commitment from utopian claims and provides a theoretical basis for transformative action. That transformative action, Unger believes, does not have to be a complete overhaul or total revolution, but rather is “a piecemeal but cumulative change in the organization of society”. The key to the project, in the words of one critic, “is to complete the rebellion against the naturalistic fallacy (that is, the confusion of accident with essence and contingency with necessity) and to effect an irrevocable emancipation from false necessity”.

The problem of false necessity arises due to the failure of transformative practice to realize its stated aim. This can take form in three different scenarios:

  1. the ideals fought for (democracy, decentralization, technical coordination, etc.) result in the development of rigid institutions
  2. an oligarchy effect in which groups and rulers clash at the summit of power and drum up popular support
  3. the survival effect in which there is a fear of disturbance of contemporary arrangements.

Unger points to mass politics as a means to counter oligarchy and group identity. However, if these forms are only disturbed and not destroyed, democracy is limited and becomes a quarrel about forms of power and seizing advantage. Likewise, enlarged economic rationality provides another source of emancipation by shifting economic and social relations in the ability to constantly innovate and renew.

The radical project

The theory of false necessity develops the idea that the organization of society is made and can be remade—we can rebel against the worlds we have built; we can interrupt our rebellions and establish ourselves in any of those worlds. By emphasizing the disembodiment of institutional and social structures, the theory provides a basis to explain ourselves and our world without using necessitarian thought or predetermined institutional arrangements.

Fundamental Principles of False Necessitarian Theory:

  1. All superstructure, i.e. culture, religion, politics, economic modes are human created “artifacts”. 
  2. All existing human practical and visionary conflict which is then frozen or contained incorrectly informs us that only a liberal, conservative or socialist program exists.
  3. There is no “closed list of structures and systems”, there has never been one homogenous pure system.
  4. An “illusion of indivisibility” which states one whole system has to be fully replaced as a whole, has been historically disproven.
  5. There are no proven “historical rules” for transition between systems, but it has been bloody and disastrous when this occurs.
  6. Radical projects can be visionary and piecemeal without being “reformist or trivial”. System hybrids can and should exist.
  7. Humanization via “compensatory redistrabation via tax and transfer” is the liberal project, the Socialist project is to revise and humanize the disasters of Socialism as it existed in the 20th and 21st century. The Conservative project is to preserve the current order.
  8. This leaves no role for “programmatic imagination”. All solutions are thus derided as “utopian, or trivial.”
  9. A Radical Project for “Empowered Democracy” would seek legislative capture to initiate piecemeal radical projects thus proving them without major loss of life or state expense.
  10.  The most dangerous of the conservative impulses are facism, a total freeze or theocracy, a religiously imposed order.

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