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It is easy to forget that there was a time in which the life of the mind was not so severed from engagement in the world. For much of Hirschman’s life, the making of an intellectual did not always imply the making of an academic. Indeed, by the time he got his first real position as an economist, Hirschman was not working for a university, but for the Federal Reserve Board in Washington on the Marshall Plan and European reconstruction. That is, until the reactionary paranoia of McCarthyite purging of the American civil service drove him once more to cross borders in search of safer settings – and if possible, adventure. In 1952, he moved to Colombia with his wife Sarah and two daughters.
Thus began Hirschman’s Latin Americanization and with it his reinvention. Some basic traits of his style were by then becoming clear. He was no orthodox thinker. He defied categorization. And when times were bleak, it was all the more important to think differently about the source of the problem and potential remedies. But it was the encounter with the challenges of capitalist development and democracy in Latin America that brought his imagination into relief. In Colombia he worked not in an ivory tower, but as a consultant helping tackle everyday problems of investment in irrigation schemes and housing projects. From his years working and observing in the field would come the publications that would remake career – and catapult him, at middle age, into the citadels of American higher education, to Yale, Columbia, Harvard, and finally to the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton.
Encounters in Latin America fueled a quarter century of ground-breaking work, from Strategy of Economic Development (1958) and Journeys Toward Progress (1963), to his overlooked but brilliant essay Getting Ahead Collectively (1983). Charting Hirschman’s work is like tracing the enchantments and disenchantments of how we think about development as voiced by the planners, World Bankers, engineers, and grassroots activists, practitioners of the art of making progress. It was up to the economist, he felt, to “sing the epic” of their labor. Not surprisingly, among the aphorisms he enjoyed most was Camus’ likening of the struggle to change by overcoming resistances as akin to “a long confrontation between man and a situation.” This was always a more appealing approach than the mindless overconfidence in the solvability of all problems or its twin, the fatalism that nothing can be changed willfully at all.
There is a seam worth noting in Hirschman’s narrative style: the delicate equilibrium between impassioned observation and critical involvement. Here was knowledge aimed at changing understandings of the world. The readerly experience of a Hirschman book or essay was intended to be one that destabilized the common sensical and the orthodox. Whether it was the gurus of “balanced growth” in the 1960s or the Milton Friedmanite zealots of the 1980s, Hirschman’s purpose was to challenge closed certainties. Nor did he spare his colleagues on the Left. He was a sympathetic skeptic of the hardened “dependency” theories or “structuralist” explanations for the troubles in Latin America. It is often forgotten that in his famous book exposing the wordplay of what we now call “neo-liberal” apostles in Rhetoric of Reaction (1991), one chapter was devoted to progressive forms of intransigence.
Hirschman was a master at turning familiar phrases and common coinages on their heads precisely to lull his reader into discovering that realities were not as fixed as they seemed. This was one of the reasons why Hirschman was an early trespasser into psychology and unbind social analysis. Belatedly, he is now being recognized as one of the founders of a more expanded behavioral social science and for this reason the subject of a revival after many years of disdain from disciplinary purists. I am often asked why he did not win a Nobel Prize for economics, which The Economist noted in its recent obituary he so richly deserved. Like Borges’ relationship to the literary canon, Hirschman defied the familiar ways in which the academy and its disciplines organized its intellectual fiefdoms. What made him so original was that he emerged from the margins of the university and so was never truly of the university. This freed him to cross boundaries with great abandon. But faculty meetings and the rituals of academic life bored him to tears.
And yet, paradoxically, it was for intellectuals that he above all wrote. One might say that they were both the subjects and audience of his work. In discovering that one of the major factors in development was the way in which intellectuals imagined the possibilities for progress, it became clear that how we understand the world informed how we might change it – and intellectuals had a critical role in the business of creating fields of meaning. In the 1960s he urged Latin American thinkers to get over their trenchant pessimism. He did the same for American social thought in the 1980s. In between, he would write a luminescent essay about the history of thinking about capitalism, The Passions and the Interests: Political Arguments for Capitalism before its Triumph (1977) insisting that there were alternative ways of thinking about markets and politics, ways that were more humane, more creative – and ultimately more liberating than the schema produced by the calloused defenders and critics of capitalism.
As he put it in the last line of that great book, it may be in the history of ideas that we can find clues to raise the level of the debate. Few left more clues behind him for precisely this purpose than Hirschman. It would be hard to imagine a better time to elevate the debate than now.
This article originally appeared in Spanish online in Clarín on January 21, 2013.