I recently had the pleasure of diving deep into the thought and life of Albert O. Hirschman, an anti-communist anti-libertarian, wary of economism and scientism and steeped in old books, yet nevertheless resolutely liberal. I engaged with him as one of the most admirable modern intellectual opponents I could find for my less-liberal beliefs. Moreover, given the centrality of Exit and Voice to contemporary neoreactionary theory, he is an important precursor to that nascent tradition. He introduced these terms, and though words can be repurposed, they keep the stamp of their coiner.
Hirschman’s writing is elegant, focused, and interesting. He is also rare for having explicitly engaged with reaction 25 years ago with more subtlety than knee-jerk rejection in his mistitled book The Rhetoric of Reaction, which also criticizes progressive rhetoric equally incisively, if not at equal length. Hirschman states he preferred the book to be called The Rhetoric of Intransigence, that is, the rhetoric of refusing to consider alternatives, subtleties, and compromises.
The book had its merits, but missed its mark. The book did not live up to the high expectations set by his earlier work: it did not have the reception or effect that Hirschman wished. Reading it as a reactionary, I felt sympathy. The book’s weaknesses are apparent but seem inevitable given the lack of a healthy, living reactionary tradition to engage with. His targets, the neoconservatives, were no such thing.
Therefore, out of respect for the man and the others who rightfully respect him as one of the most creative and independent social scientists of the postwar era (or one of the few?—some readers will think this), my words will attempt to provide that missing reactionary engagement, however sadly posthumously. It will outline a response to The Rhetoric of Reaction that addresses his claims constructively, towards syntheses, without falling into the intransigent rhetoric he rightly or wrongly identifies as the heart of the reactionary analytical style.
First, I will skim the book’s critique of intransigent reactionary and progressive rhetoric, which is correct in the main. The rhetoric is typical of reaction and does conflict with subtle problem-solving discourse. However, my response will not aim at improving this discourse for democracy—at least as it is usually understood. I am no democratic idealist.
Hirschman’s mistaken idealization of democracy guaranteed the book would not have the effect he desired. He misjudged the role of intransigence in democracy and neglected its possibilities for organizing democratic cooperation. This undercut his call to abandon intransigence as a foe of reform. An approach that acknowledged the possibilities of synthesis via mixed or alternating strategies (so typical of Hirschman elsewhere) could have been more effective, though it departs from idealism.
Hirschman’s book centers around three theses attributed to reactionary rhetoric against reform. First, the perversity thesis: that attempts at reform will have the opposite of the intended, as when Burke argues the French revolution in the name of liberty merely established Robespierre’s tyranny. Second, the futility thesis: that attempts at reform will have no effect, as when Tocqueville demonstrates that what reform did follow the revolution was already present before the revolution regardless. Third, the jeopardy thesis: that attempts at reform will undercut other goods, as when Maine claims that universal suffrage will undermine technological innovation and scientifically grounded legislation.
In each case Hirschman acknowledges that the reactionaries may in fact be correct. Rather than claiming the theses are simply wrong because of their form, he criticizes over-reliance on the forms to the exclusion of nuance and compromise.
The progressive mirrors to these theses are said to be, respectively: desperation, the thesis that without reform everything will fall apart; inevitability, the thesis that resistance to reform is futile; and mutuality, the thesis that reforms must inherently support one another, never compete.
I trust my readers either already see how these are overused by the left to stifle creative compromise or are uninterested in hearing that critique, so I won’t spend more time discussing them.
The book illustrates the reactionary theses with a significant bibliography of sound and unsound reactionary arguments of the past two and a half centuries that any neoreactionary could do well to study. It is also worth checking our current rhetoric alongside these examples to confirm that we ourselves are not over reliant on these tropes to the point of blindness.
Of all the theses, neoreaction and the broader alt-right overuse the perversity thesis least. Some will certainly say that increases in minimum wage could lead to unemployment and socialist distribution to shortage, for instance, but these are attested by observation. What they do not do—and rather mock—is absurdities like “Democrats are the real racists.” We’ve learned to be wary of such sloppy inversions.
As Hirschman correctly points out, the perversity thesis too often concedes the opponent’s frame of reference and only reinforces their sense of power to achieve reform. Perversely, the perversity thesis encourages the opponent. So this, at least, has been transcended in large part—however funny it is to think of alt-right Twitter as evidence of transcending anything.
Neoreaction is also proving resistant to overuse of the futility thesis, and the alt-right may not be far behind with its recent furor over ‘the black pill.’ Factually, many things in life are futile. There is no general algebraic solution to all quintic polynomial equations. Nevertheless, while neoreaction may overemphasize the perceived futility of activism, for instance, this never blinds it to more humble avenues for reform: establishing healthy group norms, raising virtuous children, and founding strong institutions.
Our public speech is more prone to this futility trope than our private action. Because we are persecuted and private, we do not make our most compelling hopes public. I ask a charitable reader to have patience.
The jeopardy thesis, on the other hand, is one I would admit as a particular weakness. Reactionary ideology does not minimize the differences between distinct ends, or their conflicts, which leads our movement to have a certain fragmentary character.
However, this vice is not so vicious, and in a move Hirschman might respect we laud this fragmentation and formalize it as patchwork. These conflicts strengthen our intellectual ferment, a mechanism reminiscent of Mandeville’s Fable of the Bees (or Heraclitus, to be less presentist—and yes, citing 300-year-old writing can be presentism in this milieu: one of its charms). This counters jeopardy theses with the theory of mutual support, exactly Hirschman’s suggested cure.
Therefore, though we maintain a predilection for many of these rhetorical forms, they do not seem so crippling as Hirschman alleges. We use them contingently and are frequently conscious of their drawbacks. It is certainly true that we still use this rhetoric even when it does not convince our interlocutors, but before I recommend changing that rhetoric to be more convincing rather than simply intransigent, let me change tacks.
If the book had been more successful in its author’s eyes, the argument would appear more compelling. Nothing Hirschman says about intransigent reactionary and progressive rhetoric is necessarily incorrect, and it’s often good advice for us to avoid using these tropes too often. Yet evidently something about the book missed the point for its intended audience; the book is mistargeted from the beginning.
Hirschman’s beginnings lie in his conclusions:
[M]y purpose is not to cast “a plague on both your houses.” Rather, it is to move public discourse beyond extreme, intransigent postures of either kind, with the hope that in the process our debates will become more “democracy friendly.” (Albert Hirschman, The Rhetoric of Reaction, p. 168)
This is where a lively reactionary correspondent might have contributed to his thinking. In fact, I am surprised that his supporter Thomas Schelling’s influence was not sufficient.
Democracy is friendly to intransigence.
Democracy is exactly a way for intransigent mass factions to pursue “civil war with other means,” as Hirschman paraphrases Clausewitz (The Rhetoric of Reaction, p. 169), as has been a conscious obsession of European political philosophy since at least the English Civil Wars of 1642-1651, Hobbes, and Locke. Hirschman claims that democratic legitimacy arises “to the extent that its decisions result from full and open deliberation among it principal groups, bodies, and representatives,” but it seems more likely that the legitimacy of democratic cooperation arises from full and open contention among those principal groups, bodies, and representatives—deliberation is often beside the point.
The problem of effective cooperation is not simply a matter of good will and open deliberation, a point few have made as well as Schelling in his The Strategy of Conflict:
What is there about pure collaboration that relates it to game theory or to bargaining? A partial answer, just to establish that this game is not trivial, is that it may contain problems of perception and communication of a kind that quite generally occur in nonzero-sum games. Whenever the communication structure does not permit players to divide the task ahead of time according to an explicit plan, it may not be easy to coordinate behavior in the course of the game. Players have to understand each other, to discover patterns of individual behavior that make each player’s actions predictable to each other; they have to test each other for a shared sense of pattern or regularity and to exploit cliches, conventions, and impromptu codes for signaling their intentions and responding to each other’s signals. They must communicate by hint and by suggestive behavior. Two vehicles trying to avoid collision, two people dancing together to unfamiliar music, or members of a guerrilla force that have become separated in combat have to concert their intentions in this fashion… (Thomas Schelling, The Strategy of Conflict, p. 85)
Are most citizens expected to be elegant waltzers of opinion, subtly anticipating one another’s responses to complex political melodies without stepping on one another’s toes? Being honest about their education and motivation, we might be grateful they choose intransigent martial tunes instead–a march is a better fit; it flatters their virtues where a more subtle dance would mock them.
And in these situations, intransigence and seeming weaknesses can even become strengths:
When a person—or a country—has lost the power to help himself, or the power to avert mutual damage, the other interested party has no choice but to assume the cost or responsibility. “Coercive deficiency” is the term Arthur Smithies uses to describe the tactic of deliberately exhausting one’s annual budgetary allowance so early in the year that the need for more funds is irresistibly urgent. (Thomas Schelling, The Strategy of Conflict, p. 37)
Or, best read in context but striking regardless:
[I]f one player can make an offer and destroy communication, he may thereby win the ensuing tacit game by having provided the only extant offer that both players can converge on when they badly need to concert their choices later during the final tacit stage. (Thomas Schelling, The Strategy of Conflict, p. 277)
Hirschman speaks as if the reactionaries he indicts were speaking dialectically in deliberation rather than rhetorically in contention, as if propositional truth and technocratic reform were the name of the democratic game rather than posture and maintaining Schelling points. As explained by de Maistre:
One can even note an affectation (may I be permitted to use this expression) of Providence: the efforts people make to attain a certain objective are precisely the means employed by Providence to keep it out of reach…
All those who have written or meditated about history have admired this secret force which mocks human intentions. (Joseph de Maistre, trans. Albert Hirschman, The Rhetoric of Reaction, p. 18)
He is speaking passionately to passionate men who decide by radical conversion and personal experience because they are rightly wary of slippery slope sophistry. Recall Schelling on threats and promises again, and is it any wonder that rhetoric in a democracy does not look particularly subtle? Subtlety is too often a liability if the other side will not reciprocate. De Maistre writes to signal intransigent opposition to an intransigent mob.
Both progressives and reactionaries are drawn into intransigence by democratic politics, not in spite of it. It would be foolish to recommend those speaking to general audiences to soften their rhetoric in order to find better solutions in many cases; that would mean unilateral concession to the other.
In order to make reform possible, it is more important to provide face-saving ways to make changes while respecting intransigence. An American solution is to delegate legislation to an elite Congress and judgment to an even more rarefied Supreme Court.
In elite institutions, the structure of bargaining processes is different. When communication is more reliable among the educated and sophisticated, cooperation is more practical. Collusion and logrolling, while often derided, are effective coordination mechanisms. An old boys network in which reputation is everything provides an excellent framework for making credible threats and promises and also for ensuring that false threats and promises rarely confuse matters. Strict but nuanced ownership rights provide a multitude of enforceable contracts, lessening concerns about slippery slopes and the need for intransigence to establish bright lines. Elite discourse is where subtlety functions.
Separation between governor and governed is often castigated as invitation to abuse, but the mismatch also makes for rich bargaining opportunities. If a leader makes one deal while his people fulminate against it, the precedent does not oblige him to make a similar deal again. The subjects’ credible irrationality grounds the sovereign’s bargaining position: “you know I’m a reasonable man, but my army wants blood…” This is evident in analyses of diplomacy from the Cold War to barbarian siege. The threat of provoking obdurate reactionary, progressive, or simply bloodthirsty anger in followers can ensure that elite negotiations are more sophisticatedly cooperative. Such threats even ensure more mutually beneficial outcomes in the right cases, which do not seem unusual enough to be called merely special cases. In Hobbes, the threat of unrestricted war is the basis of all government.
In his essay Political Economics and Possibilism, Hirschman advocates identifying even the most unexpected ways to accomplish desired development. To take this seriously, one must seek to understand even how intransigence can enable mutually beneficial cooperation despite its more apparent role in preventing it. Sometimes, democratic idealism is blinding when mixed high/low strategy should not be overlooked.
Hirschman, however, persisted in his calls for a new rhetoric after the book’s disappointing reception. He did not look for ways to use the current state of rhetoric as a frame in which to seek levers; he looked to achieve an ideal inspired by a problem rather than a possibility. Despite his effort, it would be hard to argue that contemporary society is not still shot through with intransigence at every level, from the Tea Party’s government shutdowns to Black Lives Matter’s burning neighborhoods to Chinese posturing in the South China Sea to Salafist extremism worldwide.
So in the end, I’m left with a too-neat little slogan: one should not inveigh too intransigently against intransigence. Perhaps it’s inevitable that I’d end up playing a joke like that in memory of Hirschman’s own playfulness. But seriously, one must respect intransigence’s place in negotiation no matter how frustrating. Your frustration is the point: that is the feeling of the other side extracting concessions.
Hirschman was not an ally of ours, but he was a brave man worth respecting. He fought in the streets of Weimar Berlin and the Spanish Civil War. He worked as a fixer and human trafficker to save his allies’ lives. He advised heads of state and captains of industry. He was always a proponent of civilization in his own eyes, and was far more open than most to creative ways to encourage development that did not reduce to dry paradigms, prediction-based positivism, or universal theories of human good.
If there are budding Hirschmans out in the world now, I hope we can earn their respect and convince them we’re worth a conversation or two. Lord knows there’s a lot of dross written on both the left and the right, but let’s not take it as an excuse to ignore one another’s better thinking. Gentlemanly discourse among a diversely opinionated elite is one of the most precious traditions of Western civilization, and it would be a shame to lose.
The alternative may be universal intransigence, with none of the redeeming features of our current mixture.