‘Thoughtful wishing’ and seeing like an anarchist

Opinion: Food for thought: from Hirschman to Scott

‘Anyone attending  a conference– and many do as part of their professional careers – must select ruthlessly what to attend based on their specialisms, interests and curiosities, as well as finding time to network and explore wherever they are held. Presenter

‘Anyone attending a conference– and many do as part of their professional careers – must select ruthlessly what to attend based on their specialisms, interests and curiosities, as well as finding time to network and explore wherever they are held. Presenter

Sat, Aug 2, 2014, 00:01

Innovators, radicals and progressives are frequently portrayed by their conservative opponents as indulging in “wishful thinking” about change. Albert O Hirschman, noticing this in his study of perversity, futility and jeopardy in reactionary rhetoric, urged radicals instead to practise “thoughtful wishing”.

Hirschman, who died in 2012 aged 97, was best known as an economist dealing with development issues, in Latin America especially. He urged unbalanced growth based on maximising the role of firms with most linkages.

He was later part of a group of creative social scientists who compared democratisation there and in southern Europe in the 1980s, inspired by a thoughtful wish for such change and a “bias for hope”.

His achievements were highlighted last week by a panel discussion in his honour at the International Political Science Association’s biannual conference in Montreal.

A colossal affair with more than 3,000 participants from 80 countries, 51 research committees, hundreds of panels and thousands of papers presented, its programme ran to a heavy 400 pages. Anyone attending such events – and many do as part of their careers – must select ruthlessly what to attend based on their specialisms and curiosities, as well as finding time to network and explore wherever they are held.

It is quite an art, since panel topics often promise more than the research papers deliver. Preparing one’s own paper for delivery or responding to others’ takes time. All the more reason to leaven the necessary with the exploratory. Hence my attendance at panels on Hirschman and another dealing with peasants, barbarians and anarchists – alongside those on Europe and Asia I was involved in.

Hirschman was a refugee from Weimar Berlin who studied in London, Vienna and Paris before going to New York in 1939 as part of the German intellectual migration which so enriched US post-war culture. That background explains his range of interests and contributions.

Lost world survivor

He was a survivor of a lost world, according to Laurence Whitehead of Nuffield College Oxford, who worked with him on Latin American democracy. His training in Hegelian philosophy and experience of left-wing politics made him a contrarian, suspicious of dogmatic ideologies and disciplinary nostrums, especially those emerging from the new orthodoxies of neo-classical economics, as is made clear in Jeremy Adelman’s recent fine biography.

He preferred experimental and contextual approaches, crossing disciplinary boundaries to anthropology and politics. Hence his enduring appeal for Latin Americans, according to a Chilean teaching in Brazil, amplified by their enrichment from left-wing exiles of the Spanish civil war.

US economists on the panel pointed out that the IMF and the World Bank had recently made a remarkable transition towards Hirschman’s ways of thinking about middle-range “possibilism”, away from the universal models of the Washington Consensus.

Perversity, according to the conservative critique, means that any reform will exacerbate the condition remedied. Futility means it will not work. And jeopardy has it endangering more precious values. This is a supple armoury for understanding – and rebutting – conservative thought.

Even more so is Hirschman’s celebrated analysis of exit, voice and loyalty in analysing responses to decline in firms, organisations and states. Exit implies escape, voice participation, while loyalty increases the exit’s cost and stimulates voice to create identity, trust or solidarity. It is a remarkably fruitful trinity, as many subsequent studies show.

The art of anarchy

Peasants, barbarians and anarchists have had a bad academic and media press, condemned as backward and historically redundant.

James C Scott, another versatile scholar, still living and working at 78, was the focus of a stimulating panel on rescuing their reputation and understanding their perspectives on the possibilities of non-governance.

He is best known for his studies of highland peasants in southeast Asia who resisted centralising lowland states and ran their societies in a co-operative way without hierarchy for hundreds of years – “the art of not being governed”.

He has since extended his analysis to examine weapons of the weak in resisting states. A remarkably original book, Seeing like a State studies how the homogenisation we take for granted – like surnames – was created and destroyed local peasant knowledge.

His most recent book deals with how particularity and freedom from domination can be retrieved – by seeing like an anarchist. And his latest work is about the golden ages of barbarians for thousands of years before they too became subjected to state power – by seeing like a barbarian.

On this occasion thoughtful conferencing worked well.

pegillespie@gmail.com

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