Brazil’s premier public intellectual has an opinion about everything – from climate change, to the economics of redistribution, to the character of Barack Obama, his best-known former pupil at law school in the USA.
This February Roberto Mangabeira Unger, a left-wing philosopher with a formidable array of books published and tenure at the Harvard Law School, resurfaced in Brasilia as a key adviser to President Dilma Rousseff, and a “thinker-at-large” charged with bringing new coherence to a development model that has hit the buffers.
Now Unger is being lionised by the international media, with lengthy profiles in both the New York Times and the Financial Times. Certainly the “minister at large” appears to have a finger in every policy pie – from education policy to taxation to industrial productivity. And a sharp tongue: he told the Financial Times Brazil’s economic prospects have collapsed because of the intellectual poverty of its economists. “It turned out that counter-cyclical vulgar Keynesianism … was a blunt and largely ineffective instrument,” he said.
In the field of higher education, academics and intellectuals should be delighted that one of Brazil’s brainiest men has new influence in the corridors of power. But not all are, because Unger has done it all before, raising hackles as well as sparking bright ideas.
One of Unger’s first acts when he took over the Secretaria de Assuntos Estratégicos (SAE) and the research think-tank IPEA, was to fire two climate change scientists who had been preparing Brazil’s contribution to the end-2015 Paris climate change talks. Unger does not hide his view that both Amazonia and the climate are there to serve mankind’s development – and not vice versa.
Five years ago, Unger did almost exactly the same thing, when from 2007-2009 he occupied an almost identical post in the administration of Rousseff’s predecessor, President Luis Inacio Lula da Silva. Then, Unger was successful in engineering the transfer of management for the Plano Amazônia Sustentável (Sustainable Amazonia Plan) from the environment ministry to his own SAE (strategic affairs ministry). This contributed to the decision by Marina da Silva, Lula’s environment minister, to resign – so provoking a rift among left-wing intellectuals that almost cost the ruling PT Workers Party its hold on power in October 2014 elections.
Nonetheless, Unger’s return has been heralded by those who seem him focussing on the real barrier to Brazil’s economic and social development – the low quality of its educational system, which he describes as “abysmal.” Currently, Brazil’s devolved federal system makes it hard for federal agencies to intervene at state and municipal levels where most education is administered.
Federal agencies only administer the public universities at the top of the higher learning tree – whose hegemony is now being threatened by the emergence of commercial for-profit universities indirectly funded by the state through student grants.
Unger may have been charged with fostering long-term thinking about Brazil and with bringing some rigour to the now-discredited intellectual credentials of the PT’s power-base. But it’s not clear how much power the public philosopher really has. Unger denies he has any, and says his role that of a catalyst and irritant provoking tension and change within a too-rigid system.
Clearly, the role of influential “insider-outsider” is an attractive one for a public intellectual. Nevertheless, the legacy of his first term in office was the imposition of a system of more rigorous central planning in Amazonian development.
Unger has also raised eyebrows by calling for a revolution in the world of intellectual property and patent measures – a field where Brazil punches far below its economic weight, with an unimpressive haul of international patents. During his previous tenure (2007-2009) Unger called for an overhaul of the international IP regime, but enjoyed little success.
Just how Unger, who positions himself as an intellectual agent provocateur, will succeed in addressing Brazil’s currently low self-esteem, and forging a path through its short-term industrial and social problems to a more sustainable model of development, remains to be seen. At the moment his main activity is criss-crossing the country on fact-finding missions combined with seminars to spread his radical ideas.
But Unger, who achieved his tenure at Harvard Law School aged 29, pioneered Critical Legal Studies, and ended up teaching the young Barack Obama, is a high-calibre intellectual of international repute who must be a considerable asset to the lame-duck regime.
Academics, scientists and all those involved in teaching are watching his progress with qualified optimism.