The Civil Economy of Albert Hirschman

Albert Hirschman was one of the most creative and audacious economists of the twentieth century and was able to give to economic and social reflections strongly innovative contributions.  Here is an in-depth look.

By Luca Crivelli

Published in: Città Nuova on 13/12/2012

Albert_Hirschman_ridDecember 11, at the age of 97, Albert Hirschman passed away in the US, one of the most creative and audacious economists of the twentieth century (he taught at Yale, Columbia, Harvard and Princeton).  A Hebrew from Berlin, exiled in France in 1933 (after the rising of Hitler to power), becoming an American citizen in 1943, Hirschman has offered to economic and social reflection strong innovative contributions, putting himself in dialectic relationship concerning mainstream theory.

Although Hirschman belonged to the militant-progressive front under a political profile, his thought presents several points of contact with the Italian tradition of civil economy.  First of all, he distinguished himself for an anti-reductionist approach, and for the tension to overcome the anthropological parsimony of the neoclassic paradigm.  Words with wide anticipation are found in his articles, which have in the meantime, become of great current interest within contemporary debate on civil economy: Happiness, trust, preferences and values, love and civic spirit, displacement of intrinsic motivations, instrumental actions versus activities sustaining affection and expression.

His analysis of capitalism was praiseworthy, in the volume Passions and Interests  from 1977;  modernity founded on market relationships represent the attempt to found social ties on interests, with the aim to neutralize passions considered much more sad and harmful.  In private and public Happiness, a paper from 1982 becoming current again during the Arab spring and in recent manifestations by indignados in Spain and on Wall-Street, the theme of cyclic displacement of interests is addressed with great depth:  from an exclusive concentration on private consumerism, to the successive displacement of attention on the public sphere and on common good, to a return of a flame of aspiration to a major material wellbeing.

His most famous work was without a doubt Exit, Voice and Loyalty, a book which analyzes the nexus that is all but taken for granted, between the mechanism of defection (‘exit’) and that of protest (‘voice’).  While the first one is a tool ‘par excellence’ to which one makes recourse in markets, the second finds major application in the sphere of politics and in civil society, or rather, in contexts in which exiting often represents a very costly or even traumatic choice.

The intuition of 1970 was that the presence of both instruments, one beside the other, could bring about nothing good for a cause, above all when quality is the dimension in which the competition game is played.  Therefore, as the opportunity of exiting ‘cheaply’ from a tie (economic or social) can take away strength from the protest, the suffocation of a protest in an organization can make defection inevitable. The fact of having made divorce easy in western societies (determining an ever less traumatic exit from matrimonial relationships) could, for example, have caused a reduction in the profuse efforts by spouses to ameliorate communication between the couple and to find a way towards reconciliation.  But in other situations the two instruments could become precious allies.  In the days of the fall of the communist regime, in the German Federal Republic, defection and protest mutually reinforced each other.   The mass exodus of young people towards West Berlin had the effect of horrifying and saddening other more loyal citizens, who would never have thought of leaving the country.  When their preoccupations became strong enough, they decided to talk with frankness and to overthrow the communist government.

The life and thought of Hirschman were marked by a deep vocation to interdisciplinary dialogue: Hirschman the economist never stopped crossing the border of other disciplines, now wearing the clothes of a ‘political scientist’ then, of other social sciences (such as sociology, history, anthropology or philosophy).  Hirschman did not feel attracted by a simple understanding of the facts or of reality.  He was aware of the desire within himself to transform the world, to make it better, and for this reason, in his life and in his thought he tried to “combine political activism with an uninterrupted search for the truth.”

The will with which he forced himself to overcome any form of authoritarianism, of narcissism, even intellectually, was extraordinary.  In his more mature years Hirschman dedicated himself systematically to the deconstruction of his own points of view, criticizing and finding weak points in his own theories.  In recognizing the limits of his own thoughts, he was able to take the opportunity to identify areas in the social world in which relationships originally postulated, were not totally valid, pleased with the new complexities brought into light.

An emblematic example of auto-subversion was the pamphlet The rhetoric of reaction, written with warring impetus to stigmatize the rhetoric and the socio-political economic positions of the neo-conservative American right.  Having arrived at the final chapter in the book, Hirschman could not keep himself from moving his own attention on the rhetorical arguments which the progressive forces usually fell into.   From an attack towards the neo-conservative positions, the book became a general denouncement of all intransigent rhetoric.  Some years later, Hirschman confessed having felt a categorical imperative to proceed with the writing of the book, without auto-censuring himself, with the intent to encourage anyone to avoid that dialogue between the deaf which impedes genuine communication between rival groups, in other words, the price of every democracy.

A great teacher passed away, but his intuitions remain more alive than ever and his intellectual honesty leaves us a precious legacy: the certainty that an author is truly great when his life is able to be at the height of his writings.

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