Policy Debating, Rhetorically Speaking

by Ken Gibb

A few weeks back I read a post by Alex Marsh, which adopted the ‘rhetoric of reaction’ argument originally developed by Albert Hirschman. This involves the development of the thesis that reactionary political thought as rhetoric can be understood from three perspectives: perversity, futility and jeopardy. I was so taken by this that I went back and read the original book published in 1991. It speaks also to our contemporary policy debates

Hirschman is most famous probably for his ‘exit, voice, loyalty’ framework but this little book is also a tour de force. He sets out his three theses of reactionary argument set against three paradigmatic progressive-reactionary debates: the meaning and effects of the French revolution, the struggle to extend the franchise to universal suffrage and the more contemporary debate about the impact of the welfare state in western economies. It also helps to recognise that his book was developed at a time of the ‘end of history’, the collapse of the Iron Curtain and the triumph of neo-conservatism under Reagan and Thatcher.

An argument that helps us deconstruct the nature of reactionary rhetoric is not just useful as an academic exercise – perhaps it can also instruct in terms of contemporary politics, both in the current stalemate of the US Congress but in a couple of major cases closer to home.

Let’s set out the argument. Hirschman says (p.7, original emphasis) ‘According to the perversity thesis, any purposive action to improve some feature of the political, social or economic order only serves to exacerbate the conditions 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.’

Thus, a combination of rhetorical arguments are used to rebut progressive proposals on the basis that they will either make the things they wish to improve worse in some sense, or that in fact these efforts will make no difference (often because of immutable laws of nature or society). Third, it is considered that the reform would threaten prior, valued achievements. These are clearly not mutually consistent – but this is the cut and thrust of political debate after all.

Do note that Hirschman is quick to recognise that these three devices are not the monopoly of reactionaries but may be used by the very progressives hitherto attacked, again for rhetorical effect. But they are characteristic of the kinds of arguments used by reactionaries in the face of calls for social reform.

An interesting facet of the book is that as Hirschman develops his argument he in fact comes to the conclusion that reactionaries and progressives can all too easily inhabit a world of political extremes where their arguments rule out any accommodation with the other side – what he calls the ‘rhetorics of intransigence’. He sets this up nicely by counter posing three sets of arguments (p.167):

“Reactionary: the contemplated action will bring disastrous consequences.

Progressive: Not to take the contemplated action will bring disastrous consequences.

Reactionary: The new reform will jeopardize the older one. 

Progressive: The new and old reforms will mutually reinforce each other.

Reactionary: The contemplated action attempts to change permanent structural characteristics (‘laws’) of the social order; it is therefore bound to be wholly ineffective, futile.

Progressive: The contemplated action is backed up by powerful historical forces that are already ‘on the march’, opposing them would be utterly futile.”

Initial views, values and the fundamental way in which different groups recognise data as legitimate and what that evidence actually means – completely sets the two parties apart and never the twain can meet. The final example above is particularly striking. In response to the fundamental worldviews of the reactionaries (e.g. the Pareto principle or Burke’s desire to conserve long-established institutions) the opposition put forward contrary explanations of how the world is – Marxism being an obvious example.

Hirschman concludes by seeking to move us beyond these intransigent postures to a more democracy-friendly debate. He astutely recognises that it is a likely to be a ‘long and difficult road’ (p.170). Nonetheless, this engaging text ends by reflecting on the fact that what started off as a critique of reactionary thinking and how it espouses its argument ended up a ‘more even-handed contribution – one that could ultimately serve a more ambitious purpose’ (ibid).

Sadly, since at least the mid 1990s and particularly since 2010, the breakdown in the middle ground in American politics, the more extreme political discourse and the disavowal of evidence in political debate – all suggest that Congressional and presidential politics have slipped much more into the mire of the ‘rhetorics of intransigence’, as the recent brinkmanship around the budget and the debt ceiling showed so alarmingly.

But this shift is also, I think, apparent in the UK debate on welfare reform, on incentives and the ‘fairness’ of benefit cuts. The Government and the wider advocates of the policies inhabit a different world and sense of what constitutes legitimate evidence compared to those who oppose the policy reform. This is undoubtedly also true of several other aspects of Coalition policy.

However, the conclusions of the Hirschman rhetoric of reaction model are also I think a useful way of thinking about the two poles in the Scottish independence referendum. Increasingly one feels that the two sides cannot really enter into any meaningful debate at all because they have completely opposing conceptions of what would be the reality of an independent Scotland or a continuing Union. This colours how they interpret almost any new piece of evidence lobbed into the debate. Of course, there is a locked-in rhetoric especially on the part of the no campaign, who do not feel the need to make much of a positive case at all. At the same time the yes campaign increasingly present a case, which is to them wholly self-evident, such that it is hard to see how one has any real kind of debate at all. Would Hirschman recognise the Scottish debate as a democratic-friendly one or as one of intransigence?

Albert O Hirschman (1991) The Rhetoric of Reaction: Perversity, Futility, Jeopardy. The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press: Cambridge, Mass.