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Review: Albert O. Hirschman's 'The Reaction of Rhetoric: Perversity, Futility, Jeopardy'

Updated on March 2, 2017
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Michael has been an online freelancer and writer for many years and loves discovering and sharing about new experiences and opportunities.

There was recently a presidential candidacy debate in the United States. Across 90 minutes, there was around 5-15 minutes of discussion on actual policy proposals and reforms. The rest of the time contained divisive, personal attacks and rhetoric that was, as Albert Hirschman refers to as, polemic arguing; the candidates concentrated on blaming, lying, and ignoring the realities of the changes and progress that have been made.

Indeed, as well as opening our eyes to this form of egregious arguing and its insufficiencies in debate and discussion, Hirschman’s book evaluates the framework with which arguments have been made, particularly by conservatives, across the last 200 years. His objective is to guide society to discuss rather than fight, and he informs us of three theses that explain the structure of distraction that has been employed across time and place. These are the Perversity, Futility, and Jeopardy theses.

Hirschman combines a year of intensive research into right-wing and left-wing thinkers and a lifetime of knowledge to break down these concepts. Initially, he uses the Perversity thesis to explain how the argument of ‘if we try to change this, it will only make the problem worse’ has been used throughout time. He gives apt examples of how Welfare States have been perceived by anti-progressives as having led to more dependence on government agencies for financial support and to making poorer individuals intentionally idle. Here, the intended safety net has effectively added to the incentive of relying on the safety net itself, at least this is the argument made by conservatives.

Another viewpoint that is often expressed to counter the appearance of progress is that of the Futility thesis: If we make efforts to change the problem, whatever changes we make will only scratch the surface of the problem, achieving “nothing but the illusion of change” (48). Hirschman demonstrates a great example of this in how Latin American governments built housing for low income families, but due to governments’ misunderstandings on what poorer families could actually afford, these houses were ultimately to be used by middle-class families. The argument here is that attempts can be futile, especially when “they ignore the basic structures of society” (72).

Hirschman also guides us to one of the less intuitive aspects of polemic arguments: That of ‘If we do this, the side effects could be undesirable’. Sometimes, these side effects will include the appetite for more action or change at the behest of the people, as was the case with voting rights and political participation in the past. Indeed, Hirschman references England’s 1832 and 1867 voting Reform Bills as evidence of how conservatives argued against the inclusion of the wider public in parliamentary institutions because of their fears of losing “stability” and/or the “maintenance of civil liberties” (95). Although these were “proven unfounded during the subsequent decades” (95), there was fear of unfavorable consequences, and there was a major preference amongst conservatives for inaction. They were working under the Jeopardy thesis.

Although Hirschman’s objective is to demonstrate how conservatives have used these theses to relentlessly oppose progress and to maintain the status quo that works for their outlook of society, he also takes aim at progressives for perhaps being overly optimistic. Ultimately, he lays forth his case on why policy debates need to be adjusted in the way they are carried out. They are flawed, and recent policy debates amongst presidential candidates are proof of how these theses are still alive and unwell in today’s society.

Rhetoric of Reaction is thus a great example of how politics fail. But more than that, it is Hirschman’s plea to see changes in a system that has been so repetitive and so counterproductive for so many years. Should we still be defending how misogynistic a presidential candidate is in the future, instead of debating tax, military, and social concerns? I hope not, and I'm pretty sure the people they represent hope not as well.

Have you read Albert O. Hirschman's 'The Rhetoric of Reaction'?

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