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Albert O. Hirschman: The Rhetoric of Reaction

Albert Hirschman was an amazing writer and his three slim books written for a general readership make their points with incredible efficiency. Exit, Voice, and Loyalty is incisive about the individual’s relationship and loyalty to a provider or employer. The Passions and the Interests is an excellent history of why capitalism seemed like such a savior when Adam Smith and others were promoting it, and how those arguments have persisted and mutated.

The Rhetoric of Reaction is a bit more diffuse and abstract than those books. It is at its best when most concrete. Hirschman, an admitted progressive, examines reactionary and conservative arguments of three types:

  • According to the perversity thesis, any purposive action to improve some feature of the political, social, or economic order only serves to exacerbate the condition one wishes to remedy.
  • The futility thesis holds that attempts at social transformation will be unavailing, that they will simply fail to “make a dent.”
  • Finally, the jeopardy thesis argues that the cost of the proposed change or reform is too high as it endangers some previous, precious accomplishment.

(These do map uncannily onto my own Three Versions of Conservatism. The mapping is Elitist Conservative : futility :: Sentimental Conservative : jeopardy :: Cynical Conservative : perversity.)

I think the three theses do not in fact cleave as cleanly as Hirschman wants them to. Futility is something of a lesser version of the other two, as any action that is useless can then easily be portrayed as wasteful or dangerous. Futility often exists as a fallback position: “Well, if welfare won’t make people more poor, and if it isn’t in fact a huge waste of money…it still won’t do any good!” Hirschman points out that switching rhetorical strategies, no matter how incoherent, is extremely common.

Hirschman pronounces the Perversity thesis “the single most popular and effective weapon in the annals of reactionary rhetoric.” I agree, and it dominates the book as well. I think Hirschman misses one significant reason why it is more successful than jeopardy. (Futility is less hyperbolic and scary than the other two and so easily loses out.) Jeopardy is multidimensional, while perversity is monodimensional. Jeopardy requires one to think about trade-offs between two or more separate but interdependent axes of goods and values, while perversity simply argues that we will go the wrong way along a single axis.

Perversity’s simplicity is its strength. Far more efficient to argue that welfare will make people poor, that affirmative action will disenfranchise minorities, that antitrust will destroy competition. Simple, elegant, and utterly specious.

Consequently, the Jeopardy thesis is more intellectually interesting, even if it’s been less ubiquitous. Hirschman has some great quotes from the 19th and 18th centuries arguing that giving people the right to vote would endanger people’s liberty. The same neocons who tell us how we should be aping Athenian democracy today are reversing the same pattern used by Fustel de Coulanges in 1864, who said that the democracy of Athens was only possible through a complete absence of what we call liberty.  Now, according to Kagan and Smith and Hanson, democracy is only possible through an increasing absence of liberty. For Fustel, Greece was a scary bogeyman; now it’s an unreachable ideal. Same rhetoric.

And through this handy chart that Hirschman gives, we see that some of the neocons and racial “scientists” of today are the same people who were arguing against welfare decades ago, using the same rhetoric:

Hirschman also critiques progressive rhetoric for having too sunny a view, but despite his claims of even-handedness, he seems to be a lot harder on the reactionaries. Maybe this is just my own bias: optimism about bringing liberty, suffrage, and welfare to those lacking it seems far less offensive than attempts to prevent those efforts.

Still, while Hirschman treats Tocqueville and Scheler with some respect, the others come in for well-deserved contempt. It is always good to be reminded of what a horrible person Pareto was (Mussolini supporter, anti-democratic, draconian Social Darwinist); isn’t Pareto-optimality just another statement of the Jeopardy thesis?

Hirschman seems to agree, but he does point out the danger of the progressive/radical “desperate predicament” strategy, which rhetorically argues that things are so bad that any cost is justifiable as long as it brings about change. The more conservatives argue the danger, the more they argue that there are never legitimate grounds for change, the more it pushes radicals to say that the danger is necessary and justified.

Hirschman concludes that Burkean arguments actually radicalized progressives in the 19th century, inducing them to portray current conditions as more hopeless and more desperate than they would have otherwise. I don’t know if the link is quite so direct. I think that the French Revolution itself did force progressives to look at the potential costs of revolution more closely, and that itself may have helped to radicalize the rhetoric.

Yet ultimately it is the bad faith of the reactionaries that dominates, and Hirschman quotes Charles de Rémusat’s devastating critique of Burke’s blind worship of tradition to show just how empty such rhetoric is:

If the events, in their fatality, have been such that a people does not find, or does not know how to find, its own entitlements in its annals, if no epoch of its history has left behind a good national memory, then all the morals and all the archeology one can mobilize will not be able to endow that people with the faith it lacks nor with the attitudes this faith might have forged . . . If to be free a people must have been so in the past, if it must have had a good government to be able to aspire to one today or if at least it must be able to imagine having had these two things, then such a people is immobilized by its own past, its future is foreclosed; and there are nations that are condemned to dwell forever in despair.

9 Tired and Wrong Received Ideas

Flaubert's Bouvard and Pécuchet, by Guy Davenport

Flaubert's Bouvard and Pécuchet, by Guy Davenport

These nine ideas are all wrong. (I believed many of these, whether explicitly or as an unstated assumption, at some point or another, so this post is directed at my past self as much as anyone.)

  1. The Greeks (Athens specifically) had a free direct democracy with open discussion, free of tyranny.
  2. Descartes formulated the fundamental concepts of rational subjectivity and selfhood under which we all still operate today, thus originating modernity.
  3. Enlightenment thinkers shared a rationalist, Panglossian optimism about controlling humanity and the state.
  4. The French Revolution was a seminal, epochal event that drastically and uniquely changed attitudes toward humanity, history, and politics.
  5. American religious fanaticism originates with the Puritans and associated peoples in the 17th and 18th centuries.
  6. Hegel’s dialectic is of the form “thesis-antithesis-synthesis.”
  7. Prior to the 20th century (or prior to Schleiermacher, Saussure, Wittgenstein, Derrida, etc.), language was taken to have determinate, definite meaning that directly referred to reality.
  8. Universal laws of Chomsky’s Universal Grammar, hard-wired into the brain, have been discovered, which apply to all known languages.
  9. A two part slippage of political terms (note how one term appears in both lists):
    1. Capitalism = libetarianism = free markets = laissez-faire = trickle-down = globalization = free trade = neoliberalism = liberalism = supply-side = mercantilism = etc.
    2. Communism = Marxism = Leninism = socialism = regulated market = welfare state = liberalism = Keynesianism = Great Society = etc.

These are some of the ones that I think about most often, ones that are taken seriously by some people I respect. (I’m not going to list “Barack Obama wasn’t born in the United States” or “Edward Said was a Muslim fundamentalist,” because I’m lucky enough not to deal with people who believe these things, and I’m trying to list these in order to change people’s minds, which would be impossible with anyone who believes those two.)

These ideas are frequently debunked or contested, but still I frequently hear them stated with blithe certainty. Even when the case is debatable, as with the French Revolution, there is such exaggeration of its singular importance that no event short of the Second Coming could fulfill the importance assigned to it.

Oversimplification is the main sin here. Two forms of it present here are origination and conflation. Origination states that a certain idea, concept, or practice began with a certain person or people at a certain time and place, and simply did not exist before that. Conflation simply packages together terms like “subjectivity” and “selfhood” and “rationalism,” so that an attack on one serves as an attack on all of them. And with both of these these goes Inflation, where the key idea/event/person is elevated to such singular importance that it becomes an excuse not to search for any lesser-known ideas/events/people that might serve to complicate matters.

While discussing Derrida’s critique of Husserl, I criticized Derrida for invoking a simplistic, received view of language, and then tarring huge swaths of the linguistic and philosophical tradition with it. I’m far from the first to make that critique, and he’s far from the first to make that move. It’s a variation on the straw man argument. Via conflation, the straw man is used against many opponents, not just one. (It’s far more efficient.) By finding the same straw man in thinker after thinker, entire traditions can be invalidated and subverted, so much the better to make the critique appear more sweeping, profound, and revolutionary. Derrida was taking after Heidegger here, who was the absolute master of this technique. (Presence is always present.)

But such straw man arguments aren’t necessarily used for critiques. The ideas above are used both positively and negatively. They are pieces of conceptual history that seem so widely accepted that in a hundred years, people may have trouble figuring out that these assumptions underlay so much contemporary writing. People often no longer bother to explain them or even to state them. As an analogy, Frederick Beiser has spent the last 20 years attempting to explain the impact of Jacobi and Lessing’s “Pantheism controversy” on the philosophy of Kant and most everyone else in that period. It was a huge imbroglio at the time, but people like me read Kant with no knowledge of it.

I’ll close with some wise words about conceptual generalization and simplification  from Albert O. Hirschman, who inspired this post. Here he is remarking on Marx’s famous “history repeats, first as tragedy, then as farce” remark:

This is the second time I find a well-known generalization or aphorism about the history of events to be more nearly correct when applied to the history of ideas. The first time was with regard to Santayana’s famous dictum that those who do not learn from history are condemned to repeat it. Generalizing on the firm basis of this sample of two, I am tempted to formulate a “metalaw”: historical “laws” that are supposed to provide insights into the history of events come truly into their own in the history of ideas.

Does anyone else have particular favorite received ideas they’d like to give?

Albert O. Hirschman: Exit, Voice, and Loyalty

Genealogically speaking, this book isn’t as captivating as Hirschman’s The Passions and the Interests, because it’s not a survey of past rationales, but an analysis of contemporary behaviors in response to this phenomenon:

Firms and other organizations are conceived to be permanently and randomly subject to decline and decay, that is, to a gradual loss of rationality, efficiency, and surplus-producing energy, no matter how well the institutional framework within which they function is designed.

Free of the meta-analysis, Hirschman doesn’t manage the ideological sweep of the other book, but there’s enough here that should interest even the most impractical humanities scholar. (Like the other book, this one is very short.) Hirschman’s structure is simple: when employees or consumers of an institution are faced with decline of how that institution serves and services them, they either vocalize their grievances (“voice”) or they vote with their feet (that would be “exit”). Various constraints make one option more attractive than the other, and sometimes exit isn’t available, or voice is minimized. There are two scenarios in particular, one conceptual and one historical.

The first is Hirschman’s free-market apostasy in saying that competition can work against voice, since the more vocal and less vocal can be separated into equally impotent factions. The easily dissatisfied ping-pong between equally bad options while the more inertial sorts stick around and don’t complain, giving no incentive for the institution to improve. (Think cell-phone companies.) This plays itself out in a more class-stratified way if there is a better but more expensive option for the privileged class to exit towards, leaving the less empowered stuck with a system that again has fewer incentives to change. (Think public and private schools.) Under orthodox conceptions, this is no prisoner’s dilemma, as the free-marketer would expect any exit to motivate the institution to improvement. In actuality, the institution will often be glad to be rid of these complainers. Sometimes it’s because they weren’t worth the trouble, but often it reinforces existing resistance to the troublesome process of reversing decline. One look at the sociologically fascinating Mini-Microsoft reveals a handful of salutary problems facing Microsoft in decline:

  1. Many of the most creative and most vocal leaders and employees have already left.
  2. Those remaining are miserable.
  3. Because of the first factor, the company has less incentive to address the second.
  4. The company’s attempts to stem the damage are perceived as cosmetic, and because of the above reasons, probably are.
  5. Remaining executives are perceived as not being accountable in the slightest and cashing in.
  6. If the increasingly livid tenor of the comments is any indication, things are getting worse, not better.

Mini-Microsoft is a particularly interesting case because even though the remaining employees are an extremely vocal and articulate bunch, the exit behavior appears to have caused a backlash demoralizing both executives and low-level employees. Hirschman’s optimistic suggestion that voice be recognized before things decay to this point seems unrealistic, however, since it requires a foresight that no institution can be expected to have: why listen to people gripe when everything is fine? I fear that only the absence of exit makes voice truly viable, and that is only because the possibility for organized, open revolt exists when those first exiters aren’t able to leave.

Point two: the United States was founded on exit, grew through exit, and exit is ingrained in its psyche. Founded by those who voted with their feet, grown on cheap immigrant labor, expanded through pioneer expeditions, and granted the luxury of isolationism through geographical position, the country has been notably reticent to address complainers, and the massive backlash against civil rights and entitlement programs is only one of the more distasteful examples. Complaint is frowned upon precisely because of the “If you don’t like it, go to Russia” ethos:

Why raise your voice in contradiction and get yourself into trouble as long as you can always remove yourself entirely from any given environment should it become too unpleasant?

Ironically, this book was written in 1970, so Hirschman cites the black power movement as a notable exception to this trend. Forty years later, a singular, failed exception it remains.

I have not spent enough time with other cultures to have a sense of how distinctively American this trait is, but people from Tocqueville to Veblen to Richard Hofstadter have remarked on it, so I’ll assume it’s at least more extreme here. It makes me wonder if the comparative absence of politically-engaged novels and works of philosophy in U.S. history (note that I am talking about political engagement rather than agitation and muckraking, so I don’t count Dreiser, Upton Sinclair, and Sinclair Lewis, nor the disenfranchised voices of Baldwin, Ellison et al.; Dewey is a notable exception, however) can be traced not only to individualism, but also to the disparagement of voice in our culture. Do we teach our writers to stay the hell out of politics? Is that why our supposed politically-engaged writers (Mailer, DeLillo, Franzen) are such a joke?

Albert O. Hirschman: The Passions and the Interests

Subtitled Political Arguments for Capitalism before Its Triumph, this is one of those econ books, like Polanyi and Schumpeter, that grabbed me by taking a historiographical approach to thinkers past. It’s a short book and its arguments are narrowly drawn and keenly observed: namely, how the long-condemened sin of avarice (or people’s “interests”) came to be seen as a utopian savior of people from their own worst instincts (i.e., “passions”). Hirschman sums it up with a quote of Montesquieu’s:

And it is fortunate for men to be in a situation in which, though their passions may prompt them to be wicked, they have nevertheless an interest in not being so.

Hirschman traces this line of argument through Steuart, Smith, Quesnay, and so forth. The unifying strand is that economic efficiency and rationality, in the form of Smith’s “invisible hand” or somesuch free market, will act as a stabilizing force for society to counteract the whims and crazes of the sovereign. For some (Montesquieu, Smith), these forces are embodied in capitalists and capitalist institutions; for others (the Physiocrats), they are embodied in the rulers themselves.

Ironically, it is in Tocqueville that Hirschman sees a viable counterargument. Tocqueville worries that by sublimating themselves to their interests, people come to ignore all but law and order, and will all too willingly subjugate themselves to a ruler who promises them pursuit of their private interests. Says Tocqueville:

These people think they follow the doctrine of interest, but they have only a crude idea of what it is, and, to watch the better over what they call their business, they neglect the principal part of it which is to remain their own masters.

And this sounds to me like a prescient prediction of the death of the American Dream, later described in graphic detail by C. Wright Mills. Hirschman bemoans the fact that the polar positions have not progressed; that rather, we still see people arguing from the naive points of view for or against the “interests.” He singles out Keynes and Schumpeter in particular for having offered the same rationalistic defense of capitalism as Montesquieu, hundreds of years earlier, without bothering to address Tocqueville’s criticisms.

Aside from the fact that the left-right political distinction seems not to apply cleanly to the thinkers Hirschman considers, it’s worth noting what a desiccated tradition has been left us by modern psychology in considering economic issues. Today it is little more than greed that is considered as a “passion” itself, aside from the religious fervor of much of the country, which does not qualify as an emotional passion per se. Hirschman points out the concerns that an exclusive focus on economic gain as a core value of society could lead (pace Weber) to the decaying emotional life of the country. The lack of focus on the true passions leads to the fabled “nation of no imagination.” Yet it’s not Marxism that suggests an antidote, as Marx remains firmly focused on “interests” in simply other forms. I think that you must go back to Greece and Rome to find thinkers who attempted to find a successful integrated societal model of the “passions.”

I wonder, however, if the study of the passions are making a slight return now in the form of evolutionary psychology, in the repeated articulation of the naturalistic fallacy. (I should say, however, that economists like Amartya Sen, who wrote the introduction to the edition of the Hirschman book that I have, have probably made the most impressive integrative approach in working out models of irrational behavior.) As with Social Darwinism, evolutionary psychology makes it tempting to explain away irrational behavior and its consequences as hopelessly endemic, only to be tempered by appealing to other innate drives. One of these is greed, and from that we return to the free market arguments Hirschman considers. We seem to live in more fatalistic times when our options are to ignore the passions or to surrender to them as robots.

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