The Fear of Radical Change

Roberto Unger, Harvard Law professor and radical of the radical, is concerned by the patterns of reform and retrenchment he sees repeated throughout history. People may rise up and demand reform, but once their revolution has succeeded, their changes are ultimately quite modest.

These movements may start as demands for radical reform, but end as quibbling over specifics, selecting options from a short menu of narrow, pre-existing options.

Historically, people seem unable, or unwilling, to think more radically. To imagine new options – and to dare to implement them.

“People treat a plan as realistic when it approximates what already exists and utopian when it departs from current arrangements,” Unger writes in False Necessity. “Only proposals that are hardly worth fighting for – reformist tinkering – seem practicable,”

Thus, he sees a long line of failed hopes – of compromises which have done nothing to generate optimal solutions, of humanity-wide self-doubt that prevents us from taking bold steps to confront our challenges.

Unger’s suggestions are quite radical. Mandatory unionization. Cessation of family inheritance. A branch of government that can step in and shake things up when systems become too entrenched.

It’s hard to read Unger without thinking he’s a little bit crazy. A little bit too radical.

But even as I scoff at his suggestions, moved by a gut feeling that you can’t do that. I can’t help but think that Unger has a point.

Perhaps we are too timid in seeking out change. Perhaps fighting over an $8 minimum wage or a $10 minimum wage is merely reformist tinkering – insufficient to tackle the real problems of social inequity we face.

Perhaps we should be thinking more radically, convinced that any and all changes are under our jurisdiction and refusing to be held back by fears that something is impossible or impractical.

Perhaps we should dare to dream. To think big, to think bold, and, of course, to smash the contexts that confine our thinking.

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