Thursday, March 9, 2017

Our Political Discord: Albert O. Hirschman and the Rhetoric of Reaction

It is natural to assume that the degree of political strife we are experiencing is uniquely troubling and leading us to some sort of catastrophe.  Troubling it is, and disaster may be just over the horizon, but unique it is not.  Wildly disparate colonies had to be united to win a revolutionary war and form a nation; we fought the Civil War to resolve issues related to slavery and reunite the nation; we had to send troops to the South to enforce the legal findings demanding the dismantlement of the Jim Crow regime.  One can argue that our current predicament is a continuation of a series of confrontations derived from our original sin of accepting slavery as a viable economic and social construct.  Firmly imprinted racial and social attitudes have become inflamed as internationalism and multiculturalism test our ability to accept change.

We survived and moved on from the previous disputes; can we expect the same to happen again?  Perhaps it is possible to gain insight by sampling the wisdom of people who have lived long lives and survived even greater conflicts than we can anticipate for ourselves.

Albert O. Hirschman (1915-2012) lived a remarkable life that spanned some of humanity’s darkest moments.  He survived and had a long and productive career as a working economist, yet he was also one of our most insightful political commentators.  Malcolm Gladwell produced an excellent review of his life for an article in The New Yorker: The Gift of Doubt: Albert O. Hirschman and the power of failure.  Hirschman’s short books on economics and politics, Exit, Voice, and Loyalty: Responses to Decline in Firms, Organizations, and States  (1970) and The Rhetoric of Reaction: Perversity, Futility, Jeopardy (1991), are brief but powerful expositions.  The former has been discussed here.  The latter is the present topic.

Hirschman was driven to understand the phenomenon associated with the rise of neoliberal economics and the associated conservative threats to what might be described as the “postwar welfare state” during the Reagan years.  Political polarization might not have progressed as far as it has today, but the seeds had already been planted.

“The unsettling experience of being shut off, not just from the opinions, but from the entire life experience of large numbers of one’s contemporaries is actually typical of modern democratic societies.  In these days of universal celebration of the democratic model, it may seem churlish to dwell on deficiencies in the functioning of the Western democracies….Among them there is one that can frequently be found in the more advanced democracies: the systematic lack of communication between groups of citizens, such as liberals and conservatives, progressives and reactionaries.  The resulting separateness of these large groups from one another seems more worrisome to me than the isolation of anomic individuals in ‘mass society’ of which sociologists have made so much.”

Hirschman’s interest in this divide was aroused by studies he was asked to participate in that questioned where all this might lead in the context of the existing “welfare state.”  With pressure coming from the liberal side, there was the temptation to view illiberal thinkers as somehow lacking in proper cognitive capabilities.

“But this sort of head-on and allegedly in-depth attack seemed unpromising to me: it would widen the rift and lead, moreover, to an undue fascination with a demonized adversary.  Hence my decision to attempt a ‘cool’ examination of surface phenomena: discourse, arguments, rhetoric, historically and analytically considered.”

He organized his study around a framework provided by the English sociologist T. H. Marshall that categorized the progress of society as having successively overcome resistance to the attainment of individual rights, the right to vote, and the right to some minimal level of economic support.

“According to Marshall’s scheme, which conveniently allocated about a century to each of the three tasks, the eighteenth century witnessed the major battles for the institution of civil citizenship—from freedom of speech, thought, and religion to the right to even-handed justice and other aspects of individual freedom….In the course of the nineteenth century, it was the political aspect of citizenship, that is, the right of citizens to participate in the exercise of political power, that made major strides as the right to vote was extended to ever larger groups.  Finally, the rise of the Welfare State in the twentieth century extended the concept of citizenship to the social and economic sphere, by recognizing that minimal conditions of education, health, economic well-being, and security are basic to the life of a civilized being as well as to meaningful exercise of the civil and political attributes of citizenship.”

Hirschman went back over the history of these three periods and tallied the arguments used in reaction to these progressive initiatives.  He discovered that there was a definite pattern that emerged.

“In canvassing for the principle ways of criticizing, assaulting, and ridiculing the three successive ‘progressive’ thrusts of Marshall’s story, I have come up with another triad: that is, with three principle reactive-reactionary theses, which I call the perversity thesis or thesis of the perverse effect, the futility thesis, and the jeopardy thesis.  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.”

In the course of his study, Hirschman discovers, somewhat to his surprise, that liberals or progressives also have a standard set of arguments that they use to promote their ideas and counter reactionary arguments.  He provides the reader with this tabulation of typical arguments and counterarguments.

“The contemplated action will bring disastrous consequences.”

“Not to take the contemplated action will bring disastrous consequences.”

“The new reform will jeopardize the older one.”

“The new and old reforms will mutually reinforce each other.”

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

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

Hirschman warns us that arguments that are used over and over again should be viewed with suspicion.

“Once the existence of these pairs of arguments is demonstrated, the reactionary theses are downgraded, as it were: they, along with their progressive counterparts, become simply extreme statements in a series of imaginary, highly polarized debates.  In this manner they stand exposed as limiting cases, badly in need, under most circumstances, of being qualified, mitigated, or otherwise amended.”

One is tempted to think of democracy as a place where citizens come together and debate their ideas on how to move forward.  Ensuing from this debate emerges a compromise that all can live with.  Hirschman warns us that that is not how actual democracies work.  He must have been well aware of the “confirmation bias” that affects all human deliberation: the tendency to believe what supports an existing viewpoint, and the tendency to discount anything that is counter to an existing viewpoint.  This is something that we know intuitively from our own personal experiences, but which we often forget. 

People don’t debate political issues to gain understanding; they debate in order to win the argument.

“In the process it would emerge that discourse is shaped, not so much by fundamental personality traits, but simply by the imperatives of argument, almost regardless of the desires, character, or convictions of the participants.”

And what does history tell us about nations as divided as ours?  Have we become an outlier among democracies?

“Modern pluralistic regimes have typically come into being, it is increasingly recognized, not because of some preexisting wide consensus on ‘basic values,’ but rather because various groups that had been at each other’s 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.”

“Even in the most ‘advanced’ democracies, many debates are, to paraphrase Clausewitz, a ‘continuation of civil war with other means.’  Such debates, with each party on the lookout for arguments that kill, are only too familiar from democratic politics as usual.”

Hirschman’s final message to us is a warning that democracy is not a very stable construct.  The ideal of citizen groups having common goals but different means to attain them who debate and compromise is seldom attained.  What we refer to as democracy and its social advancements can be acquired, but they can also be lost.

“Is it not true that not just the last but each and every one of Marshall’s three progressive thrusts has been followed by ideological counterthrusts of extraordinary force?  And have not these counterthrusts been at the origin of convulsive social and political struggles often leading to setbacks for the intended progressive programs as well as to much human suffering and misery?”

“Once we contemplate this protracted and perilous seesawing of action and reaction, we come to appreciate more than ever the profound wisdom of Whitehead’s well-known observation, ‘The major advances in civilization are processes which all but wreck the societies in which they occur’.”

The lesson to be learned from Hirschman’s study is that in a country like ours, where ‘civil war is continued by other means,’ it is dangerous for one side of the battle to attain too much power.  Both contentious political parties have recognized this peril and, inadvertently or not, established a mechanism by which the minority party can exercise greater influence than pure numbers would allow.  Both parties have used this mechanism when they were in the minority and viewed it as a necessary means of controlling excessive ambitions on the part of the majority.

We are approaching a state where we are little better than savages assembling on a battlefield.  It is disconcerting that the only thing that might keep us from open warfare is the much-maligned filibuster rule in the Senate.  Beware the day when that rule is fully rescinded.

The interested reader might find the following articles informative:

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