Hirschman’s Rhetoric of Reaction

HirschmanOn the Ecological Economics weblog Dave Iverson reminds us of the great American economist Albert Hirschman‘s book The Rhetoric of Reaction: Perversity, Futility, Jeopardy.

Iverson writes on Hirschman’s thoughts on dialogue and democracy:

As I read it, I wondered, once again, “How many economic arguments are simply the stuff of reactionary rhetoric?” Too many, I fear.

In The Rhetoric of Reaction, Hirschman gives us three theses to ponder:

  • The Perversity Thesis: reform efforts will backfire, tending toward effects opposite those desired
  • The Futility Thesis: reform efforts are doomed to fail from the get-go
  • The Jeopardy Thesis: reform efforts will unravel earlier (better) reforms, or they will unravel the entirety of whatever system is in play…

Hirschman explains how easily both conservatives and progressives get drawn into the rhetorical standoffs, impasses really: “… To the dangers of action it is always possible to oppose the dangers of inaction. …” Here is how Hirschman frames a hypothetical point/counterpoint:

Reactionary: The contemplated action will bring disastrous consequences.

Progressive: Not to take the contemplated action will ring disastrous consequences.

Reactionary: The new reform will jeopardize the older one.

Progressive: The new and the old reforms will mutually reinforce each others.

Reactionary: The contemplated action attempts to change permanent structural characteristics ([natural] “laws”) of the social order; it is therefore bound to be wholly ineffective, futile.

Progressive; The contemplated action is backed up by powerful historical forces that are already “on the march”; opposing them would be utterly futile.

Hirschman concludes with:

Recent reflection on democracy have yielded two valuable insights …. Modern pluralistic regimes have typically come into being not because of some preexisting wide consensus on “basic values,” bur rather because various groups that had been at each others’ throats for a prolonged period had to recognize their mutual inability to achieve dominance. Tolerance and acceptance of pluralism resulted eventually from a standoff between bitterly hostile opposing groups.

This historical point of departure of democracy does not bode particularly well for the stability of these regimes. The point is immediately obvious, but it becomes even more so when it is brought into contact with the theoretical claim that a democratic regime achieves legitimacy to the extent that its decisions result from full and open deliberation among its principal groups, bodies, and representatives. Deliberation is here conceived, as an opinion-forming process: the participants should not have fully or definitively formed opinions at the outset; they are expected to engage in meaningful discussion, which means that they should be ready to modify initially held opinions in the light of arguments of other participants and also as a result of new information which becomes available in the course of the debate. …

If this is what it takes for the democratic process to become self-sustaining and to acquire long-run stability and legitimacy, then the gulf that separates such a state from democratic-pluralistic regimes as they emerge historically from strife and civil war is uncomfortably and perilously wide. A people that only yesterday was engaged in fratricidal struggles is not likely to settle down overnight to those constructive give-and-take deliberations. Far more likely , there will initially be agreement to disagree, but without any attempt at melding the opposing points of view—that is indeed the nature of religious tolerance. Or, if there is discussion, it will be a typical “dialogue of the deaf”—a dialogue that will in fact long function as a prolongation of, and a substitute for, civil war. Even in the most “advanced” democracies, many debates are, to paraphrase Clausewitz, a “continuation of civil war with other means.” Such debates, with each part on the lookout for arguments that kill, are only too familiar from democratic politics as usual.

There remains then a long and difficult road to be traveled from the traditional internecine, intransigent discourse to a more “democracy-friendly” kind of dialogue. …

One question lingers with me: How far have we, particularly here in the US, backpedaled in our quest for pluralistic reasoning?

When “values” of various stripes are trotted out before us on a daily basis, asking us to pledge allegiance to ‘values’ framed as ‘moral absolutes’ in-ever-more-strident urgings, why are we not in the streets screaming, Stop! We are losing the very platform on which democracy can flourish!

Or maybe I’m just being reactionary?

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