In 1991, a decade after the Reagan-Thatcher revolution pushed politics decisively to the right, the economist and social scientist Albert O. Hirschman published a slim volume called The Rhetoric of Reaction. The book laid out a typology of right-wing arguments — the “major polemical postures and maneuvers likely to be engaged in by those who set out to debunk and overturn ‘progressive’ politics.”
Hirschman stressed that conservative thought was more than a series of tropes. Right-wing polemicists sometimes hit their mark. But in the grand sweep of conservative politics, there are certain argumentative strategies that pop up again and again. And by recognizing those rhetorical patterns, it becomes easier to rebut right-wing arguments no matter what guise they take.
Three Waves of Progress, Three Waves of Reaction
Albert O. Hirschman was born in 1915 in Berlin, Germany. After fighting against the Francoists in the Spanish Civil War, he worked with the Emergency Rescue Committee to help prominent anti-fascists flee Nazi persecution during World War II. He eventually escaped to the United States, where he worked for the army through the rest of the war and assumed a fellowship at the University of California, Berkeley. He would go on to hold a variety of academic appointments until his death in 2012. While never a radical, Hirschman was sharply critical of the rising tide of conservatism in the 1980s and produced The Rhetoric of Reaction as a response.
He begins the book by laying out three “reactionary waves” in Western politics. In each instance, progressives advanced egalitarian projects that sought to redistribute wealth and power — and the Right fought to repel those attempts with intellectual arguments and political organizing of their own.
The first reactionary wave, emerging in the early nineteenth century, opposed the liberal demands for equality before the law that were embodied most clearly in the French Revolution. The second wave, which stretched through the nineteenth century into the twentieth, opposed the left-wing drive for universal suffrage. As the historian Jacob Burckhardt put it at the time, lamenting the expansion of the franchise in Switzerland:
The word freedom sounds rich and beautiful, but no one should talk about it who has not seen and experience slavery under the loud-mouthed masses, called the “people,” seen it with his own eyes and endured civil unrest… I know too much history to expect anything from the despotism of the masses but a future tyranny, which will mean the end of history.
The third wave of reaction began in the late nineteenth century as labor and socialist parties gained power and influence. But it really kicked into gear in the mid-twentieth century as working-class parties won elections across Europe and democratized the economy by constructing the welfare state, institutionalizing the voice of labor unions, and, at times, socializing sectors of the economy.
This last reactionary wave — against economic democracy — has been far more successful than the earlier two. While conservatives have managed to partially constrain who gets to enjoy basic civil liberties and voting rights, the general movement has been in a progressive direction.
Not so for economic rights. Conservatives — aided by their centrist allies — have largely held the line on new welfare state provisions and frequently privatized the remaining portions. The political terrain has shifted so far to the right that it was Bill Clinton who proclaimed “the era of big government is over” and Tony Blair’s New Labour that Margaret Thatcher identified as her greatest achievement. Above all, the Thatchers and Reagans arrested and, when possible, crushed workers’ ability to reshape the economy.
One reason conservatives have been so successful on the economic democracy front is because they were able to sway a sufficient number of middle-class and even working-class voters. This testifies to the Left’s need to understand the arguments and rhetoric of the political right — the major topic of Hirschman’s book.
The Rhetoric of Reaction
According to Hirschman, conservatives use three rhetorical “theses” to make their case: the perversity thesis, the futility thesis, and the jeopardy thesis. He goes through each in turn, providing historical examples and deconstructing conservatives’ often stretched reasoning. Reading Hirschman, it becomes clear that — despite their claims to a hard-edged realism — conservative argumentation frequently involves self-aggrandizing appeals and disdain for those they consider unworthy.
The perversity thesis is probably the biggest culprit in this respect, since conservatives treat it as a profound insight despite its checkered track record. The perversity thesis holds that when the Left tries to produce some beneficial change, “the exact contrary” occurs; their aspirations backfire, done in by the law of unintended consequences. In his Considerations on France, Joseph de Maistre went so far as to argue that God would punish the French revolutionaries and bring about the “exaltation of Christianity and monarchy.”
This kind of self-serving rhetoric — God will not only vindicate but award victory to the reactionary through the perversion of progressive ends — is of course comforting to the Right, but not very convincing to anyone not taking the same bath salts. Similar outbursts accompanied aspirations for universal suffrage, where ostensibly clever people judged the “majority in any country” as “fools” who would only produce ruin. Apparently, reactionaries alone possessed the far-sightedness needed to see how that the efforts of the average person could only end in disaster.
But delusions of grandeur are not the same as careful analysis, and conservative predictions that the world would fall apart if the “lower orders” gained equal standing and access to the vote turned out to be flat wrong. Moreover, in one of his better objections, Hirschman points out that the “unintended effects” argument cuts both ways. Welfare programs designed to reduce poverty may also reduce crime rates — but no one would call that a perverse effect, even if it was “unintended.”
The second argument Hirschman analyzes is more sobering. It is the futility thesis, or the claim that “any alleged [progressive] change is, was, or will be largely surface, façade, cosmetic, hence illusory, as the deep structures of society remain wholly untouched.” In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, critics of democratic expansion like Alexis de Tocqueville and Vilfredo Pareto tried to show that leftist triumphs merely exchanged one plutocratic order for another. Modern-day conservatives like George F. Will castigate the welfare state for erecting a vast, inefficient bureaucracy that allows the rich to demand the government grant them further entitlements.
As Corey Robin has observed, the futility thesis is the most effective against the Left because it bears more than a passing similarity to the structural analysis that radicals favor. If the ambition is to fundamentally reshape the institutions and power dynamics of society, and the best progressives can do is make superficial alterations, conservatives will be on hand to declare: “I told you so.” The result is a sense of powerlessness and, well, futility, on the part of the Left.
And that’s intentional. As Hirschman notes, the futility thesis is not just a description of the world, but an effort to bring about the very outcomes it predicts. By proclaiming the futility of left politics, the conservative critic hopes to dissuade the progressive from even entering the ring. The best thing leftists can do is wean themselves off defeatist and futilitarian dispositions — and recognize that in the long run melancholia benefits the other side.
After all, the Left has often achieved exactly the transformations that conservatives insisted were impossible. Early critics of universal suffrage warned that democracy would inevitably descend into demagoguery or civil strife, destabilized by the vulgarities of what Burke called the “swinish multitude.” In reality, not only are established democracies the most stable and best governed polities in the world, but the metrics of freedom and well-being are highest in places where the role of the “lower orders” is most institutionalized: social democracies.
Likewise, critics of public health care warn that any deviation from capitalist health markets will yield dreadful outcomes. But they do so in the face of decades of overwhelming evidence that public health care produces better outcomes, more equitable coverage, and lower costs. It is no coincidence that the National Health Service (NHS) — the most socialistic institution in the United Kingdom — is the most overwhelmingly popular. In each of these cases (and others like it) leftists chose to ignore the naysayers and doubters and push ahead — and they were right.
(Sometime conservative commentators, notably Thomas Sowell, link the perversity and futility theses together by claiming that progressives policies are both ineffective and harmful to those they intend to benefit. But as Hirschman points out, these basic claims are very nearly contradictory, since the perversity thesis holds that it is possible for progressives to dramatically change the world — only for the negative — while the futility thesis is far more cynical in its belief that nothing fundamentally changes.)
The last reactionary trope is the jeopardy thesis. While the perversity and futility theses are “remarkably simple and bald,” the jeopardy thesis takes a more elliptical approach to combating left politics by asserting that a “proposed change, though perhaps desirable in itself, involves unacceptable costs or consequences of one sort or another.” In other words, our desire to have it all jeopardizes what we’ve already achieved.
Though Hirschman is focusing on the Right, the “jeopardy” thesis isn’t just the purview of reactionaries. Contemporary center-left politicians from Tony Blair to Hilary Clinton express sympathy for egalitarian goals, while opining that any radical efforts to achieve them would result in economic malaise.
It also has deep roots in liberal political theory: de Tocqueville’s arguments about the tensions between liberty and equality, and Isaiah Berlin’s separation of “negative” and “positive” liberty immediately come to mind. The appeal of the jeopardy thesis springs from the supposition that we cannot have too much of a good thing, or too many good things, without jeopardizing something else. This leads to a defeatism similar to the futility thesis, but one that is more melancholic than cynical in its yearning for optimism that can never be realized without danger.
The jeopardy thesis derives its rhetorical power through the insistence that a prized reform or institution is under threat. For instance Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France claims the revolutionaries traded a modest monarch for violence and chaos.
But this is less convincing than reactionaries think on two grounds. First, as Hirschman points out, if human artifice and wisdom brought about some improvement in society through a previous reform or institutions, there is no reason we could not do so again. Second — and here Hirschman could have put his point more firmly — the risk of jeopardizing a cherished achievement only resonates if we are satisfied with it.
Many contemporary classical liberals moan about how progressives desacralize the heroic Founding Fathers of the United States and their sacred Constitution, and worry that in the zeal for change the Left will undermine a long-functioning constitutional order. But the American Constitution was a deeply flawed document to begin with — brimming with antidemocratic features that prolonged slavery’s existence — and it continues to bear rotten fruit to this day. If the consequence of questioning an aristocratic constitution is that we jeopardize the idolatrous qualities associated with it, I think we should jeopardize away.
The Right Is Wrong
Like any schema or typology, Hirschman’s “rhetorics of reaction” is necessarily simplified. The more impressive and creative conservative thinkers have developed more complex spins and fusions of these theses.
Still, when reaching into their rhetorical quivers, conservatives have most often seized the arrows of perversity, jeopardy, and futility to lend a veneer of profundity and aesthetic appeal to social arrangements that many people would otherwise reject. Many of these arrangements are now so indefensible that you see conservatives running around claiming they were critics from the very beginning, as with the recent attempt to rebrand conservatism as a defense of liberal rights against woke tyrants and democracy against fraudulent hucksters.
This should give the Left confidence that, even if the arc of history doesn’t inevitably bend our way, our ideas will convince more people in the long run. And that’s because they are the right ideas.