U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Error or Amnesia: Albert Hirschman’s Passions and the Interests

“As is true for many authors in the social sciences, and as I conceded in an extended interview not long ago, my books have often been written in order to prove someone else to be—or to have been—wrong… But matters worked out quite differently for The Passions and the Interests. This book was not written against anyone or against any intellectual tradition in particular. Neither espousing nor opposing any existing body of thought, it has the special quality of standing free and of evolving freely and independently,” wrote Albert Hirschman, rather coyly, in the preface to the twentieth anniversary edition of The Passions and the Interests.

I say “coy” because I think what he says is sincere but it is also incomplete. For where Hirschman ends his essay is in a blunt statement of doubled contradiction. However, before I can get there, for the benefit of readers who are unfamiliar with this charmingly brilliant essay’s argument, I’ll provide a brief synopsis. Then, back to Hirschman’s coyness.

Hirschman’s argument is, in essence, a sort of hypothesis about the motivating ideas behind, as the subtitle of the book runs, the “political arguments for capitalism before its triumph”—i.e., what reasons were advanced to promote or to envision the social goods which capitalism would (hypothetically) bring. Hirschman usefully distinguishes his argument from Weber’s and from that distinction we can get his theory in a thimble:

Weber claims that capitalistic behavior and activities were the indirect (and originally unintended) result of a desperate search for individual salvation. My claim is that the diffusion of capitalist forms owed much to an equally desperate search for a way of avoiding society’s ruin, permanently threatening at the time because of precarious arrangements for internal and external order. (130)

Advocates of capitalism—the two he foregrounds are Montesquieu and James Steuart, with helping hands from both Dr. Johnson and the Founders—looked out at their world and saw the ruins—the real ruins and the impending ruins—of a society that had devoted itself to an aristocratic ideal that held the pursuit of glory and honor as desirable above all else. That aristocratic ideal had been “demolished” in the prior century, yielding a new and deeply pessimistic valuation of the “passions” which drove these pursuits, but no perfect answer seemed forthcoming on how to contain or somehow neutralize these terrible, wild passions. Repression? Impossible. Replacement by reason? Dubious. The breakthrough, according to Hirschman, lay in rethinking “the passions” by virtue of an internal subdivision: some passions—like the lusts for power or for glory—were intrinsically destructive, while others, such as avarice, or what later theorist might more accurately call the profit motive, were far more innocuous and, if encouraged, might absorb all the personal energy that an individual might otherwise be employing in the violent pursuit of glory or power. One passion could be pitted against another; one passion could “tame” the others. Game of Thrones would become Monopoly (or perhaps, more accurately, Settlers of Catan).

Where we sit today it is no doubt almost impossible to imagine a serious argument for capitalism or the profit motive as something divorced from unpredictability and wild surges of passion, as something alien to a mentality attuned to glory and its reckless pursuit.[1] In particular, it is difficult to read Hirschman’s accounts of these seventeenth and eighteenth-century arguments about capitalism as a force for taming the passions and neutralizing the harsh violence of the aristocratic ideal not think of the work, from Eric Williams to Edward Baptist, denying the division of dull, “innocuous” capitalism from the aristocratically passionate owners of enslaved persons. From our vantage point, it is easy to forget that these arguments which celebrated capitalism for its tediousness and banality existed, and perhaps there is less for us to gain from remembering this strange episode in intellectual history.

Yet in many ways the argument of Hirschman’s book is that the fact that others—Hirschman’s contemporaries, more or less—also forgot or overlooked this history was very much a problem. And in seeing this amnesia as a problem, Hirschman is drawn to contradict—if not quite also to correct—those contemporaries. So here is the doubled contradiction. On the one hand, he argues, contemporary critiques of capitalism looked at its stultifying effect on the development of the “full human personality” as an inevitable but also inadvertent side-effect of the profit motive, whereas (to reprise the book’s argument) “capitalism was precisely expected and supposed to repress certain human drives and proclivities and to fashion a less multi-faceted, less unpredictable, and more ‘one-dimensional’ human personality” (132). The banishment of nobility, the disavowal of grandeur, mystery, sublimity, spontaneity, and passion that was decried by the Romantics—that was a feature and not a bug of capitalism, at least in the eyes of some of capitalism’s first advocates. Hirschman thus sees his own contemporaries who similarly raged at capitalism’s flattening of the “full human personality” as responding blindly and at a distance: their denunciations are “a bit unfair,” he writes. “Unfair”—a judgment that goes beyond a mere notation of irony. It is not enough for Hirschman to point out that these latter-day critics don’t know this earlier history of the aspirations of capitalism to creating a one-dimensional man; Hirschman implies that they ought to know it—a bit stronger critique than his preface would seem to suggest.

That is the first part of the contradiction; the other looks at things the other way round. “The opposite kind of forgetfulness is also in evidence: it consists of trotting out the identical ideas that had been put forward at an earlier period, without any reference to the encounter they had already had with reality, an encounter that is seldom wholly satisfactory” (133—also see footnote 1). He quotes Keynes making a crushingly similar conjecture as to the relative innocuousness of pecuniary motives: “It is better that a man should tyrannize over his bank balance than over his fellow-citizens; and whilst the former is sometimes denounced as being but a means to the latter, sometimes at least it is an alternative.” If Hirschman’s thought his neo-Romantic contemporaries were “unfair” in mounting a critique of capitalism that read like a charter of its original principles, he probably thinks even less of Keynes, for Keynes undeniably ought to have known better. (He brings in Schumpeter and Hayek for very similar treatment—an unexpected triumvirate.) If the point of the book is not, exactly, to demonstrate that Keynes was wrong—and crucially so—to defend capitalism in these very unoriginal terms, then Hirschman’s purpose was nevertheless surely to permit his reader to attain a position from which she could understand why arguments on behalf of capitalism’s ability to check or neutralize more dangerous passions were themselves dangerous when disconnected from this history.

So perhaps Hirschman was right to say that P&I was not written to prove that someone was wrong, but what that really means is that it is not a revisionist text. It does not discover error or bias but a sort of negligence, a preventable (and culpable) amnesia. It is this negligence that Hirschman contradicts, making this book a kind of contradiction without revision, a generalized critique.

This post is already long, but it is this generality that I think is most useful to intellectual historians, which can help us, as I wrote about previously, “raise the level of [our] debate[s].” To me, the idea of a contradiction without revision is itself a fascinating one, but where I really want to end is just with two marvelous chunks of Hirschman’s text that I think you will find do a nice job of unpacking themselves. Enjoy!

On Santayana’s famous maxim:

it may be remarked that Santayana’s maxim “those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it” is more likely to hold rigorously for the history of ideas than for the history of events. The latter, as we all know, never quite repeats itself; but vaguely similar circumstances at two different and perhaps distant points of time may very well give rise to identical and identically flawed thought-responses if the earlier intellectual episode has been forgotten. The reason is of course that thought abstracts from a number of circumstances which it holds to be nonessential but which constitute the uniqueness of every single historical situation. (133)

On the difference between unintended consequences and unrealized prospects, and why intellectual historians ought to pay more attention to the latter, with bonus Weber:

A further important difference exists between Weber’s thesis and the current of ideas that has been retraced here. Weber suggested that Calvin’s doctrine of predestination resulted, among his followers, not in fatalism, nor in a frantic search for earthly pleasures, but—curiously and counterintuitively—in methodical activity in- formed by purpose and self-denial. This thesis was more than a magnificent paradox; it spelled out one of those remarkable unintended effects of human actions (or, in this case, thoughts) whose discovery has become the peculiar province and highest ambition of the social scientist since Vico, Mandeville, and Adam Smith. Now I submit—on the basis of the story I have told here—that discoveries of the symmetrically opposite kind are both possible and valuable. On the one hand, there is no doubt that human actions and social decisions tend to have consequences that were entirely unintended at the outset. But, on the other hand, these actions and decisions are often taken because they are earnestly and fully expected to have certain effects that then wholly fail to materialize. The latter phenomenon, while being the structural obverse of the former, is also likely to be one of its causes; the illusory expectations that are associated with certain social decisions at the time of their adoption help keep their real future effects from view.

Here lies one of the principal reasons for which the phenomenon is of interest: the expectation of large, if unrealistic, benefits obviously serves to facilitate certain social decisions. Exploration and discovery of such expectations therefore help render social change more intelligible.

Curiously, the intended but unrealized effects of social decisions stand in need of being discovered even more than those effects that were unintended but turn out to be all too real: the latter are at least there, whereas the intended but unrealized effects are only to be found in the expressed expectations of social actors at a certain, often fleeting, moment of time. Moreover, once these desired effects fail to happen and refuse to come into the world, the fact that they were originally counted on is likely to be not only forgotten but actively repressed. This is not just a matter of the original actors keeping their self-respect, but is essential if the succeeding power holders are to be assured of the legitimacy of the new order: what social order could long survive the dual awareness that it was adopted with the firm expectation that it would solve certain problems, and that it clearly and abysmally fails to do so? (130-131)

[1] A perspective which Hirschman acknowledges: “But the idea that men pursuing their interests would be forever harmless was decisively given up only when the reality of capitalist development was in full view. As economic growth in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries uprooted millions of people, impoverished numerous groups while enriching some, caused large-scale unemployment during cyclical depressions, and produced modern mass society, it became clear to a number of observers that those caught in these violent transformations would on occasion become passionate—passionately angry, fearful, resentful. There is no need to list here the names of those social scientists who recorded these developments and analyzed them under the terms of alienation, anomie, ressentiment, Vermassung, class struggle, and many others. It is precisely because we are under the influence of those analyses, and even more under the impact of cataclysmic events which we try to understand with their help, that the doctrine reviewed here has an air of unreality about it and, on superficial acquaintance, appears not to deserve to be taken seriously” (126-127).

6 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Andy,
    A very good post.

    It’s been quite a while since I read P&I. Without disagreeing with anything you’ve said, I’d like to offer some (perhaps somewhat disjointed) further considerations. (l suppose they won’t be as relevant to the practice of intellectual history but I’ll throw them out for discussion anyway.)

    Montesquieu and Steuart are, as Hirschman presents them, advocates of the view that commercial activity, engaged in by individuals mostly unshackled from the mercantilist state, will lead to, or help lead to, peace (both interstate peace and internal/domestic peace). Doux commerce will tame the wilder, violent passions. But without perhaps being so closely tied to the taming-the-passions argument, the notion that commerce leads to peace had other advocates in the 18th century (prophets of progress such as Condorcet and Chastellux) and then it is taken up by 19th-century pro-free-trade liberals (e.g. Richard Cobden).

    So aspects of the Montesquieu-Steuart position have long echoes and a long afterlife — not just in that quote from Keynes that you give in the post, but also in some late 20th-century theorists and proponents of ‘interdependence’ and ‘globalization’ (under capitalist/corporate auspices).

    Writing in the 1970s, Hirschman more or less ignores (at least as I recall) the rather brief (a few decades) post-WW2 ‘golden age of capitalism’ that was just coming to an end. The upheavals of the 1930s and ’40s and the previous “violent transformations” brought by industrialization and capitalist development seem to have been more on his mind. So he treats the Montesquieu-Steuart view (if I recall correctly) as something that didn’t really pan out, not as they envisioned it at any rate.

    But deciding the extent to which it did or didn’t pan out depends both on one’s politics and on one’s reading of history. If great-power war is obsolete, if war between ‘advanced’ capitalist countries seems unlikely or impossible, if the prospect of global nuclear war that was present during much of the Cold War is much less pressing or real, then despite all the violence, exploitation, and economic crises that mark the years since P&I was written, it is at least arguable that the Montesquieu/Steuart view (M/S for short) looks a bit less like a failed curiosity now than it did in 1977, when P&I was published. I think, however, one could also argue the question the other way round. The 19th and esp. the first half of the 20th centuries might reasonably be thought to have definitively invalidated the whole M/S thesis, irrespective of any subsequent developments.

    Btw, I esp. like the passage you quote at the end about “the intended but unrealized effects of social decisions”; in fact, I quoted it in a blog post on P&I that I wrote a few years ago, where I also raised, albeit cryptically, some of the issues mentioned above. (Link in next box.)

  2. Thanks, Louis! And thanks for introducing me to your blog! I also really enjoyed that passage that you cite about the rabbi of Krakow.

    My first thoughts in writing about this book were about the way that Hirschman’s assessment of the M/S view depended on a specificity of argument that was (at least to me) historically dubious. What I mean by that is that Hirschman’s point about both the invalidation of the M/S system and its having been completely forgotten hang on a very strict separation of that view from, as you say, other quite similar invocations of doux commerce. His comments about that line of thinking are independently brilliant, but he is quite emphatic about cordoning off the M/S view–which is all about pitting passion against passion–from Adam Smith and the broader train of thought emerging from him. Smith, he argues, is related but crucially distinct: rather than countervailing passions acting against one another, Smith felt that all the dangerous passions could be channeled through the one passion of self-betterment, especially through improvement of one’s material condition.

    I am by no means a Smith scholar, but that seems like a useful distinction to me. However, I think that in terms of how these ideas were deployed, Hirschman’s marked dissociation of Smith from M/S is possibly a little too strong; to see their legacy as so truncated is, I think, supportable only by viewing their differences from Smith (or any of the others whom you cite) as so definitive that they could have no part in any later iterations of Smithian ideas or arguments.

    Which, I think, is a very long way of saying that I fully agree with the first part of your comment. I think my response to the second part is that we might look at how he responds to Schumpeter, who is hauled before the bar right after Hirschman rolls his eyes at Keynes. Schumpeter is wrong, he says, in believing that imperial competition was “not the inevitable consequence of the capitalist system… [but rather] resulted from residual, precapitalist mentalities that unfortunately were strongly embedded among the ruling groups of the major European powers” (134-135). Of course, as you note, Hirschman is a little coy in evading the question of whether things did not look different after the Second World War or even after the First, but he is clearly siding with Lenin over Schumpeter here, and that he does so suggests to me that he would not credit capitalism with a cessation of wars among the Great Powers but would instead look toward alternative explanations for what peace there has been–but not the softening hand of capitalism. I think.

    • Andy,
      Thanks for this reply. I have a further brief thought or two but will have to put it off till later today — more likely tonight (still dealing with snow etc where I am).

  3. After writing my comment, I looked a bit at the book to refresh my memory and was reminded of Hirschman’s argument about Smith. I’m also no Smith scholar, but I agree that Hirschman probably separates M/S too strongly or sharply from Smith and some other Enlightenment thinkers.

    On the question of war and capitalism etc., I agree that Hirschman’s brief remarks at the end about Schumpeter show that he’s not buying Schumpeter’s view that capitalism “could not possibly make [or have made] for conquest and war” and imperialist expansion (p.135). I don’t know if Hirschman addressed the issue again in more recent years, but it’s probably true that he would have seen — to take one rather notorious example of a contemporary descendant of the M/S view — Tom Friedman’s ‘golden arches theory’ of peace (i.e., no two countries with McDonald’s have ever fought a war with each other) — as simplistic and largely bogus, if not outright rubbish.

    However, beyond the hints at the end of P&I, I don’t know what Hirschman’s views on the whole question of the determinants of peace and war were or even if he had any worked-out views on the issue, or if he thought it was not even sensible to aim at general theories about this. He once wrote an article called “The Search for Paradigms as a Hindrance to Understanding,” which I don’t think I ever read but which suggests in its title a suspicion about all-encompassing worldviews and probably a suspicion about sweeping theories as well.

    In any case, the question whether great-power war was obsolescent — and if so, why — wasn’t on many people’s radar screens in the 1970s, for fairly understandable reasons. John Mueller’s Retreat from Doomsday, which was I think the first major book in English to make the argument that great-power war was becoming obsolete, did not appear until 1989. Mueller’s explanation there was not a capitalism-causes-peace thesis, though in some later work he did veer a bit in that direction.

    Anyway, I enjoyed your post and the prod it furnished to glance at The Passions and the Interests again, and am looking forward to the next entries in this series.

    • p.s. Just looking now at the opening of Part III, the discussion of Ferguson and Tocqueville as critics of the M/S view, and then the remarks about Proudhon. The range of writers Hirschman can discuss lucidly and draw connections among in a relatively few pages is pretty dazzling.

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