Metaphors of the Revolution: Architecture vs. Composition

By Joseph Orosco (November 6, 2019)

We are entering into the thick of presidential electoral politics as the Democratic party narrows its contenders to take on Trump.  There are pundits looking to see what can be learned about the mid-term elections of 2018 for creating a “Blue Wave,” and others wondering if the impeachment proceedings will lead to electoral turmoil before November 2020.

One of the argument strains going on on center-left circles is, of course, the old binary of reform vs. revolution, and whether the pronouncements of Bernie and AOC amount to “real” socialism, or whether Elizabeth Warren represents a more “measured” reform path compared to Bernie, etc.

A few weeks ago I found this video of Roberto Unger, the social theorist and philosopher at Harvard Law, and former advisor to Lula in Brazil.  What was interesting for me was a metaphor that he uses at about 5:30 into the video.

He says one the barriers to radical social change is a legacy of movements that claim that a “revolution” is like the practice of architecture.  By this, I think he means that make radical social change you need to first begin with a deep understanding of the conditions and materials you have at hand and build a blueprint for action.  Your blueprint determines your endpoint and the strategy to achieve it.

Unger wants to substitute the idea of revolution as something like musical composition.  Instead of knowing exactly where you want to go, you move forward by thinking of the progression of notes and how they follow.  This doesn’t mean that the same notes need to follow from what has come before, but you ought to see each note as building forward from what came just before it.  This doesn’t mean you can’t take radically new directions, but you see that such things happen as following from a progression of steps.

I take it this means that that radical social change can happen incrementally, like notes in a song; and that we shouldn’t get overwhelmed because we can’t imagine what the endpoint should be and don’t have a grand theory to explain how to start the revolution right now.

Is Unger’s music metaphor helpful in thinking about how we might move ahead to think about revolutionary change?


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