Friday, August 18, 2006

Albert O. Hirschman IV

In my last post in this series on the works of Albert O. Hirshman, I talked about his analysis of the intellectual and cultural evolution that led the West from a hostility toward the behaviors necessary for capitalism to succeed to the embrace of those behaviors to such an extent that we now consider them part of our natural explanation for reality. The basic point was that the unruly "passions" that had governed human activity could be channeled into "interests" that would allow those passions to have positive releases for the community as well as for the individual. These interests could be pursued personally through business or political enterprises. But which? And why?

Hirshman followed publication of The Passions and the Interests pretty quickly with the book I probably like best after Exit, Voice and Loyalty--Shifting Involvements: Private Interest and Public Action. The thesis is deceptively simple: people will focus on either private consumption or public action to satisfy needs until the predictable disappointments with the choice become too great, at which point they will use "voice" or "exit" to move into the other arena. No surprise, the predictable disappointments in the new arena will also build, forcing a swing back to the original. External factors (strength of economy, group pressure, etc.) will tend to move groups of people in the same direction in the same contexts, creating the ebbs and flows of our investments in our private time versus public time that we see throughout US history. As he states,

"The world I am trying to understand in this essay is one in which men think they want one thing and then upon getting it, find out to their dismay that they don't want it nearly as much as they thought or don't want it at all and that something else, of which they were hardly aware, is what they really want."

This "cycles of history" concept won't be profound to students formal or informal of history, but along the way Hirschman gives us tours through the intellectual history of econ and psychology and views of terms like "rebounding" (you rebound from the disappointment of a sweetie the same way you do from a lost cause or oversaturated consumption), "durable" and "nondurable" goods, "voting," and "collective action" (ripping the highly overrated Mancur Olson a nice one as he goes). Neither private consumption nor public service is free from those inevitable failures to live up to expectations, and failure to understand that is the constant human condition in these modern times.

Again, as with all his books, Hirschman is particularly prescient for today's times, although he was writing in part to explain how all the social energy from that amazing year 1968 had dissipated by 1978 when he was writing this book. The theme may be common, but I don't think we see its application at work as much as we should. The deflation of the civil rights movement, started by King's assassination through constant disappointment in the courts and legislatures, fits perfectly. The religiously inclined can see Christianity, I think, as the result of Jesus' turn to internal salvation and away from political action ("Give unto Caesar") after John had been killed for confronting the powers-that-were. (I promise I won't make religious references in the future if you promise not to rip me on this.)

The point for us today is to look at all the "activity" by individuals and groups in the political process--the "religious" right's shock troops, our new imperialism in foreign policy, Ned Lamont's ground forces in CT--and predict that the pendulum will swing again as the disappointments mount through the corruption, compromises, and hypocrisies that Hirschman says end up afflicting all these movements. Most of all, I think the predictable denouement is likely for bloggers. The rightists up in arms about the Hezbullah giveaway, if not already disappointment by other recent failures, may cave in on themselves. On our side, some of us have already moved away from the constant political emphasis (read the wonderful Mannion lately? where do Demosthenes and Charles Dodgson go for such long periods?). I realize my own negligible contributions after the disappointment in the outing of the Armstrong fraud and Kos coverup attempt, abetted well by the progressive blogosphere despite its claims to the contrary, haven't rippled much, but readership stats for our blogs clearly dropped in that period. Imagine what will happen if Lamont or Tester loses, both real possibilities, or votes that were widely expected to go one way magically(!!!) go the other because, drat, those darn exit polls and opinion polls just can't be trusted to match uncontrolled voting machines, or, worst of all in the views of many, neither house of Congress is captured by Dems. The A-listers will be there to assure us to all stand firm. Many of us will go see what Tivo's recorded for us while we were away.

Hirschman will be nodding.