Saturday, July 22, 2006

Albert O. Hirschman II--The Rhetoric of Reaction

One of the disappointing things about the progressive blogs' reactions and responses to the other (dark) side over these few years of contest has been the virginal nature of the perspective. The sense of history and of how similar contests have played out that would allow us to see and move several steps ahead has been severely lacking, and far too often too many of us have gotten caught back on our heels by Bushnev and his Politburo, the Pravda media, and the Repub cast of indictable characters. We've gotten so fixed on particular trees that we not only don't see the forest, we don't even know how well it's all been mapped out for us by others who have studied and spelled out the repeating patterns and consequences. Only Digby has ever referred, to my knowledge and I've been a blog reader since back when Ted Barlow had his own, to Robert Reich's four archetypal tales at the heart of all our political stories and motivations, spelled out in his should-be-a-classic- and-standard-reading Tales of a New America (1987). Virtually every narrative put out by us or them in American politics can be fitted to and understood as one of these four frameworks--The Mob at the Gates, The Triumphant Individual, The Benevolent Community, and The Rot at the Top. They're pretty self-explanatory, and all our anguish and debate over "framing" and how to connect disparate groups together into a winning coalition would never have occurred if we had just listened to him and incorporated his ideas into campaign and policy planning and implementation . . . almost 20 years ago.

I've started this series of short reviews of Albert O. Hirschman's books for precisely the reason that the material that we need to fight back effectively does not have to be invented, is not waiting for some genius to explain it all to us in the nick of time. It's already there, in works like Reich's, Eric Hoffer (who will likely be my next author focus), and George Lakoff, who laid it all out years and years before Don't Think of an Elephant. Clearly, the folks pressing our case just have not been aware of the wealth out there, much of it in the form of Hirschman's writings. In my first two posts on him, I went through his best-known work, Exit, Voice and Loyalty, and its understanding of and implications for much that ails us today. At the end of both posts, I promised to turn to his detailing of the predictable and therefore defeatable responses of the dark side to the arguments we put forth in defense of our values and the courses by which we wish to pursue them. So let's do it.

In 1991 (yes, 15 years ago) he published a short book (all his books are short, as are Hoffer's) titled The Rhetoric of Reaction: Perversity, Futility, and Jeopardy. His basic point is that, as progressives/liberals/believers in human betterment since at least our and the French Revolutions have put forward their agendas for social action, their opponents (and we know who they are) have shot back with three common stories to derail us, to undermine our logic and support. You can tell what they are from his subtitle, as he spells them out.

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.

Sound familiar? We've all probably used them ourselves when resisting some change, but they are especially prominent historically in the rhetoric and analysis of conservatives and reactionaries. Hirschman does a really nice job relating each story to particular periods and writers (if you don't have time to read Isaiah Berlin's essays on these guys, Hirschman can be your Reader's Digest versions). For the most part, the technologies, players, and specific contexts have changed, but the framework of progressive proposal/conservative reaction has gone unchanged, making application of historical analogy much easier and useful. He helpfully throws in a table that links time periods and rhetorics, and you may note a kind of time sequence to their use, with "perversity" coming early in debates, "futility" coming on as proposals gain ground, and "jeopardy" more last ditch, although this sequence is certainly not absolute. He then describes how the three reaction stories can interact in elaborate and impressive sounding counter-arguments. But, again, the point is that we already know what three basic arguments our opponents will make to anything we propose (notwithstanding the always fun and anywhere/anytime/anyplace/anyone applicable Swiftboating) and therefore should go into the fray much better prepared for the coming battle. It would almost be worth it just to hire someone to sit around responding to anything we propose, using Reich, Lakoff, and Hirschman, to test us in advance, our own Devil's Advocate, before dealing with the Devil and his acolytes on the Right.

What's also interesting about The Rhetoric of Reaction is that Hirschman spells out in his penultimate chapter the three predictable stories we use in our rhetoric, counterbalances to the reaction side. Ours are The Synergy Illusion (all reforms mutually support each other), The Imminent Danger (policy is needed to fend off a coming disaster), and History Is on Our Side (history is on our side). He concludes that a "mature" view of reality would bring the two competing sets of knee-jerks together:

(1) There are dangers and risks in both action and inaction. The risks of both should be canvassed, assessed, and guarded against to the extent possible.
(2) The baneful consequences of either action or inaction can never be known with the certainty affected by the two types of alarm-sounding Cassandras with whom we have become acquainted.

If you prefer to think of this as Reinhold Niebuhr's "Serenity Prayer," I don't think Hirschman would hold it against you. He holds that both sides need to back away from their "rhetorics of intransigence" and toward a more "democracy friendly" process (note that this was written in 1991, as your response to people who think this all started with Bushnev or maybe the Clinton Presidency). According to Hirschman's reading of history, democracies like ours haven't been based on the famous "shared values" but on a recognition by parties with power that they were not going to win and thus had to work out compromises and accommodations (think all the early churches competing in colonial America and the eventual move to separation of government from churches and vice versa). In other words, it's not a commitment to democracy and its values that makes it work; it's having no shot at permanent reins. All this "bipartisanship" and "kumbaya" we get from the Broders and Liebermans are based on a completely false view of our foundations, one formed in the aftermath of our greatest common cause together as a nation, WWII. Hirschman made the point more to talk about our need for patience and understanding of other nations then trying on the garb of democracy for the first time after decades and centuries of being at each others' throats. But the point for the US at this particular time should also be clear. To the extent that we are indeed grouped into the different camps that these stories outline, then our system will be maintained not by "finding common ground" but by battling to the finish for the maintenance of our Constitution and its separation of powers. "Democracy" does depend on people holding certain values about the relationship between freedom, equality, and how individuals and their communities interact. But those values really are found in the few who keep them alive. The rest are busy fighting their rhetorical battles (Kos and Hindraker, anyone?), reveling in their abilities, their attacks and counterattacks. Hirschman shows that it's already been done, over and over, even if today's warriors are so conspicuously clueless about the forest around them, or even that there is a forest.

If only our side had a map or a key to the code that the dark side is using so that we could plan our actions accordingly . . . .