Column: Remembering Albert O. Hirschman

Updated September 01, 2013


In the autumn months of 1998 I started a year-long residency at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton. As a fellow of the Institute’s School of Social Sciences, I was among a cohort of scholars from diverse disciplines. The permanent faculty at the time constituted people like the feminist historian, Joan Scott, the anthropologist, Clifford Geertz and the political theorist, Michael Walzer, all giants in their field of study (Scott and Walzer have since retired, Geertz passed away a few years ago). The chair of economics had recently become empty and there was an international search to replace the previous occupant, Albert O. Hirschman one of the most respected names in the field of development economics in the latter half of the 20th century. A humble and unassuming presence on the grounds and in the halls of the institute, Hirschman, wearing his hallmark beret — cutting a dashing figure even in advanced age — was for years one of the sharpest minds around a campus full of exceptional talent.

Apart from Hirschman’s reputation as a scholar who had changed the field of development economics, there was also a mythical aura around him. There was a past that people would only speak about in hushed tones … no one among those who were new to the campus was quite sure about the chronology of events in his eventful life. Was he of German or French descent (he spoke both languages fluently)? Had he fought in the French resistance or had he fled Nazi Germany to settle in the US? When did he arrive in the US and why did he spend his early career in Latin America? In the ensuing year at the institute some of this history was discussed and slowly revealed to us piecemeal. But very few had the courage to speak to him directly; a quiet man who rarely spoke about himself or about matters that were not linked to the intellectual questions on the table, however, when he spoke, everyone listened. But now a new book, Worldly Philosopher (2013) by the Princeton historian Jeremy Adelman has made it possible for us to know the life history of this larger-than-life man.

Born in 1915, Hirschman was raised during the Weimar Republic within Berlin’s cosmopolitan culture. Adelman writes about how in 1933, when with the National Socialists ascending to power, Hirschman left Berlin to start a journey that would take him to many lands, make him participate in tumultuous events, force him to learn different languages, live in various cultures and through it all emerge as a pioneering figure in the social sciences. He travelled to London and Italy for his studies and then fought in the Spanish civil war against Franco’s regime (Adelman notes that Hirschman rarely spoke about the horrors of what he saw). He worked for the anti-fascist underground in Italy and also fought against the invading German army on the side of the French. After France’s defeat, stationed in Marseille, he used his many language skills (German, French, English, Spanish, Italian) and ability to move among the elite and the underworld to help rescue thousands of stateless people out of the country, including the likes of Marc Chagall, Hannah Arendt, Andre Breton, Max Ernst and others. Eventually he himself crossed the Pyrenees on foot into Spain (a treacherous and dangerous route that at another point in time made Walter Benjamin take his life rather than risk being caught). His onward journey was to the US. In his mid-20s by now he was already on his fourth or fifth emigration.

There is much to write about Hirschman’s life, career and accomplishments, but one thing that stands out in his works is his love for language and literature. While reviewing Worldly Philosopher in The New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell mentions that Hirschman was an economist, but in spirit he was a literary figure and in his formulations drew heavily on Brecht, Kafka, Freud, Flaubert, Montesquieu, Montaigne, Machiavelli and Homer’s Odyssey of which he had committed sections to memory (the émigré and exile that he was). Adelman also points out that words for Hirschman were like what equations are for economists.

Although well-versed in statistical method and mathematical modelling, Hirschman was a master of the narrative. He once quipped that mathematics had not yet caught up with language or with metaphor in explaining social phenomena. Hence he may not have been in step with the field of economics as it developed in the 20th century. Rather, his focus was to practice social science as literature. Playing with words, constructing sentences, using poetry and writing beautiful prose, in short producing literature; a literature that with its attention to small details and anomalies helps us appreciate the whole better. As he matured as a scholar, his poetic prose brought to us an appreciation of doubt and uncertainty and rendered a critique of the problems of over-specialisation and the confidence in one’s own technical prowess. In short, as Adelman argues, it exemplified a humanistic social science that is slowly being eroded.

Hirschman spent many years studying development work around the world, a major portion of his life being spent in Latin America (speculation is that he left the United States in the mid-1950s for Colombia due to increasing McCarthyism), but he also worked in Africa and Asia. Among his major contributions to the field of study is his essay, ‘The Principle of the Hiding Hand’, (Development Process Observed, 1967) in which he puts forward his argument on problem-solving in development projects. An example he gives for his Hiding Hand principle is from one of the largest industrial projects set up by the Pakistan Industrial Development Corporation (PIDC, formed in 1952) that has its own unwritten history of the Karnaphuli pulp and paper mill. The mill started its production in 1953 and was geographically located to take advantage of the vast bamboo forests in the Chittagong Hill Tract area in the former East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). By the late 1950s despite teething problems it was making progress. However, soon thereafter the bamboo in the region on which the mill relied upon started to flower and the product was unsuitable for paper production. The mill would have closed down if other sources of raw material could not be found. Initially the costly importation of pulp kept the operation running, but then schemes for using bamboo from other parts of East Pakistan were put in place and growth of other species of the plant was encouraged. The crisscrossing of the region by natural waterways made it easier to transport this kind of bulk cargo. The crisis due to the flowering bamboo was circumvented by creating a broader base for the raw material and linking it to the production process. What Hirschman argues, in this case, is that it is not mere luck that an overestimation of the availability of resources by planners resulted in a disastrous situation that was offset by the diversification of the supply chain. Rather, he argues, this process needs to be understood in light of how even careful planning and technical know-how cannot always guarantee the outcomes of development projects. Further, there is always a creative response in the face of adversity which at times makes the project succeed.

So, if planners already know the problems the investment would never take place in implementing the project itself. It is only when difficulties arise that a search for a solution ensues, creating novel results. This is the hiding hand behind many successes where people have stumbled into solutions that would not have come about if the technocratic expertise knew about the problems beforehand. Even while describing this accidental success there is a critique by Hirschman of the story of social and economic progress which complements itself by arguing for careful planning and rational behaviour. He argues that even language does not help us here; we descend into folly, stumble into destructive activities like war, we fall into error, but not into truth (the unexpected success).

This is the counterintuitive mastery of Hirschman’s work that brings forward uncertainty and non-rational behaviour yet a praise of human creativity and a promise of the possibility for a better future. These insights from his research in the 1960s led Hirschman to his most famous writings that came out in the volume Exit, Voice and Loyalty (1970). In the text he shows how various sections of the population use the exit strategy to create social politics. This is akin to the elite leaving (exit) the government school system to opt for private schooling, a phenomena that has devastated the public school system in many parts of the world. Rather than struggle (voice) for the betterment of a subsidised high-achieving educational system, people have abandoned the public good in droves where possible, ncluding in Pakistan. Similar examples can be given for the use of road networks that have supplanted the railways in many developing economies as the major form of transport. If we take an example from Pakistan, the once thriving railway system has been “exited” by those who move cargo (through the systematic introduction of monopolistic companies like the NLC in the 1980s and the concessions given to particular transporting groups) or humans across the country. There has been very little “voice” given to the sustainability of a railway service that had served the general public with distinction for years and can still be revived, if there is increased voice and loyalty to the cause. This is where Hirschman’s politics lies, his argument being that exit is passive, people should stay within the system and have the courage to fight, give voice to their grievances and change it for the better. Again, taking a page from literature he would insist on proving Hamlet wrong. Hirschman suggested that doubt (the kind Hamlet possessed) should not lead to paralysis (or death), but should be a source of energy, creativity and renewal (life).

Of course there can be disagreements with Hirschman’s arguments and many have critiqued his work. But he remains an original, self-critical and humble practitioner of his craft, always calling us to a practice of social sciences that, as Adelman puts it, “finds hope in disappointment, solutions in tensions, and liberty in uncertainty”. It is a world of doubt and yet of possibilities that he summons us toward.

Albert O. Hirschman passed away on December 10, 2012.