After rocky but influential tenure, Brazil’s “Minister of Ideas” returns to HLS


Professor Roberto Mangabeira Unger LL.M. ’70’s 2007 appointment as Brazilian President Luiz Ignacio da Silva’s “Minister for Strategic Affairs” – a position that has been described as “Minister of Ideas” – piqued curiosity around the globe. Unger’s task, remarked the New York Times, was no more expansive than to plot a long-term strategy for the country as a whole. The Economist, which ran a profile on the longtime member of the Harvard Law School faculty, seemed intrigued by the appointment’s novelty.

Unger was, after all, considered a consummate academic. After completing the written requirements of his LL.M. degree within days of his arrival, he was named one of the youngest professors in Harvard Law School history. His subsequent scholarship was broad enough to be termed philosophical. Yet none of this, alone, made Unger’s appointment surprising – he has been directly or indirectly involved with Brazilian politics, in some way, since the 70s. What made the announcement more astonishing was that Unger had been one of the President’s sharpest critics, calling his one of the most corrupt governments in the world.

Now, nearing the expiration of his paid leave – which, he said, Harvard had refused to extend – Unger has returned to his teaching post, and a much more modest office in Areeda Hall. His former position will not be disbanded – despite political and legal challenges to it that dogged him since the day of his appointment – and one of his students, who is still earning an S.J.D., has provisionally replaced him.

Given his vague portfolio, and his barbed words about the President, who is often referred to as Lula, it was probably not surprising that Unger’s time in government caused a stir. Beyond foreign trade and food security, Unger advised Lula on energy and the environment, clashing repeatedly with Brazil’s former environment minister, Marina Silva, over development in the Amazon rain forest.

Unger argued that the country could expand its agricultural output without clearing more land in the forest – but then advocated energy projects and other forms of development in the Amazon. He also said that Brazil’s military outlay needed to be expanded to protect offshore oil reserves. His pro-development push appeared to clash with his responsibility to chair the President’s “Sustainable Amazon” project, and contributed to Silva’s resignation in September 2008. She is now being touted as a potential challenger to Lula in the 2010 Brazilian elections.

Earlier in his tenure, Unger also faced uncertainty about the direction he would take the country’s Institute of Applied Economic Research. Many feared it would be politicized. Whatever the direction in which the institute moved, Unger certainly left a mark – 5 of its 6 directors were replaced since Unger’s appointee for its head took office. The institute now faces allegations that its research is more “in line” with the government line than previously.

Unger’s return from political practice hardly signals his retreat from the field – he is the author of a multivolume work that takes the expansive title Politics as its name. If that sounds Aristotelian, so, too, do Unger’s ideas. In his first major lecture since returning to Harvard this fall, Unger lambasted the “dictatorship of no alternatives” prevalent in the culture of legal thought, and called instead for a principle of social organization that would “divinize humanity”.

Specifically, Unger called for political solutions that would broaden access to elite, “post-Fordist modes of production,” such as information technology, and for states that focused on “equipping and monitoring” civil society rather than trying to provide social services itself. He also advocated the weakening of strong executives by making branches of government mutually accountable to one another – the reduction in executive power, he said, would desirably “heighten the temperature of politics”.

Unger portrayed his address as a means to move beyond tired clichés that have dominated law and politics for half a century, particularly what he called “the social democratic compromise,” which is popular in much of the world beyond the United States. Several in the audience who had long studied Unger’s ideas, however, said that they thought the themes in his speech were a rehash of ideas the scholar was already well-known for.

Nevertheless, Unger’s thoughts have always prompted spirited debate, in both practice and theory. Former students recall vocal disagreements between him and President Barack Obama ’91, when the latter was studying at the law school and when Unger, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education, was at the high point in his career, with many of his most influential books hot off the presses.

Despite the one time disagreements between Unger and his one time student, the professor says that the two still stay in touch. What’s more, Unger’s influence may have rubbed off on other parts of the Obama administration. The new regulatory czar, Cass Sunstein ’78 – who himself engaged with Unger’s ideas in the late 80s – is now known for ideas that similarly bridge the ideological chasm between left and right by proposing state support for the conditions that lead to self-expression.

And in further evidence he has won influence, Unger’s provisional replacement in the Secretariat for Strategic Affairs, Daniel Barcelos Vargas – a current Harvard S.J.D. student – will likely fill his mentor’s shoes capably. He calls the professor “the best I had” and worked as his chief of staff in Brasilia. More importantly, the obstacle that brought his former boss back to Cambridge has been cleared – HLS’ graduate program will allow Vargas to remain at the post, without having to worry about abandoning his progress toward a doctoral degree.

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