Albert Hirschman on liberalism and nationalism

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Albert Hirschman wrote Exit, Voice and Loyalty at the very dawn of neoliberalism and you can think of it as a warning before its time. His story is about what happens to a liberalism based on choice and nothing more.

Suppose that your brand of cornflakes isn’t good enough. The flakes are too soggy and flavourless. You have two remedies, says Hirschman: exit to a different brand, or exercise voice by writing a letter of complaint. The obvious choice here is exit, and indeed there are many brands of cornflakes, and no obvious market failure. But now suppose we extend this idea, to the market for train transport, say — or for political services. Then there might be a tension. Maybe train companies, or politicians, will only know how to improve their services if someone tells them. If so, and if everyone relies too much on exit, then we might end up in a world where everyone is always shuffling between different mediocre services. In particular, says Hirschman, “the presence of the exit alternative… can atrophy the development of the art of voice”. Exercising voice, by writing letters of complaint, or by taking part in democracy, is difficult and takes time to get good at. It is also often best done together. It’s hard to get a protest movement going if each member worries that everyone else is planning to exit.

And so even before neoliberalism and the sovereign consumer and a whole bunch of libertarians dreaming of the market in jurisdictions, Hirschman was — if you squint quite a bit — the world’s least likely post-liberal. Too much choice and you will become weak and selfish! Decadent! You won’t be able to act together!

Hirschman interpreting for the German general Anton Dostler at a 1945 war crimes trial. Hirschman was Jewish by background and had fought for the republicans in Spain, later helping to organize escape routes from occupied Europe to the US.

I visited Czernowitz (Ukrainian: Chernivtsi, Romanian: Cernăuți) in 2018. It’s in Tim Snyder’s Bloodlands, where Stalin starved the kulaks — though Czernowitz was spared that, being in Romania until 1940 — and then Hitler exported the Jews for slaughter. The birthplace of the 20th century’s greatest poet and the centre of an extraordinary culture, a Vienna of the East. That efflorescence was long gone, but there was still a beautiful red-brick university building, and an art museum, and expensive shops and coffee. I checked into a hotel that I think wanted to be a place where footballers might stay, and took a selfie in the impressive loos.

Not sure why they let me in TBH

Czernowitz seemed to embody the urge to exit, to confine the horrors of history to the historic centre, to escape to that realm of cappucinos and shopping, that realm where “the age of spheres of influence is over” and there is no power except maybe soft power… out of history… into Europe!

Aber der Haldengott
rührt seine dumpfeste Trommel

But the god of rubble
Rolls his most deadened drum

… and it turns out that there is a mad prison-keeper, who will not let them out.

In 1993, Hirschman reconsiders. (If you haven’t read the article, quick, exit to it!) He looks at the 1989 revolution in East Germany, what they call die Wende, the turn, and the behaviour of the crowds in Leipzig, where people waiting for a pass to travel out have gathered outside the Nikolaikirche. “Wir wollen raus”, the Ausreiser or “leavers” chant. We want out!

After a brief summer recess the Monday church meetings resume in Leipzig, and on September 4 a single shout of “Ich bleibe hier” (I’m staying here) is heard for the first time, in response to the chant (“we want out”) of the Ausreiser. This turns into the collective “Wir bleiben hier” (we’re staying here) on September 11 and becomes a rival rallying cry….

For a while the Ausreiser, the partisans of exit, and the Bleiber, the
partisans of voice, form separate, even somewhat antagonistic, groups.
Eventually they merge under the slogan “Wir sind das Volk” (we are the

It turns out that exit and voice sometimes work together:

In September [Dresden] fills up with many people from points west and north in the GDR — people who are planning to leave the country…. The police are alerted and brutally clear the station area. This, in turn, leads to resistance, rioting, considerable damage to the station, and further demonstrations during which, once again, shouts of both “Wir wollen raus” and “Wir bleiben hier” are heard…. on October 8 a large group of protesters stages a sit-down in a square in the vicinity of the station, and a young priest manages to obtain approval from a police official for the crowd to appoint representatives…. Thus is born the Dresden “group of twenty,”…. In the short span of five days, the Dresden crowd will have traveled all the way from a desperate push for exit to organized voice, complete with representation and delegation.

Then the Ukrainians too said Wir bleiben hier and Wir sind das Volk.

Even to escape from history, you might need to act together. You might even need to coerce each other. Westerners, quite rightly, feel a bit awkward when we hear that military-age men aren’t allowed to cross the border into Poland. (And what about transsexuals?) That doesn’t sound very liberal. But self-defence is a public good, or a coordination game. It’s hard to get a war effort going if everyone worries that everyone else is rushing for the exit. Your leaving hurts others! (Wait — isn’t that what they said in the DDR?)

We pride ourselves on being beyond nationalism, and we view it as a primitive emotion which can be manipulated. But that view falls silent now. Nobody thinks Ukrainian patriotism is stupid; we all understand why they have to do what they are doing. It is close to common sense. Where does that leave arguments like this one?

So there’s Albert Hirschman, the first post-liberal in 1970, and the first post-post-liberal in 1993.

There is a coda, which it would be disingenuous to conceal.

Distinguishing “good” and “bad” nationalism is an intellectual game that some academics like to play. In my view, it’s driven by the urge to cast out evil, to compartmentalize bad things and prevent them from mixing with good things in our intellectual pigeonhole system. To “other” them, you might even say. But Doctor Jekyll is Mr Hyde.

1989 is not the last time that Leipzig hears shouts of “Wir sind das Volk”. I think the DDR experience has helped make modern Germany surprisingly liberal, rights- and privacy-focused, even libertarian. But it can also support an ideology where nothing official can be trusted, where you have to do your own research, or as they say, be a Querdenker (“contrarian”), where you represent the people against a treacherous official class. The former East is the base of Pegida and AFD. In 2016, far right wingers rioted in Leipzig, burning down shops and attacking immigrants. In 2020, the city saw anti-lockdown protests.

Who could not be moved by Zelenskyy’s heroism? But he has not always been the wisest leader, and there have been rulers before who outlived their heroic period and metamorphosed into much less attractive forms. If Ukraine survives and wins, then we don’t yet know how the newly forged identity will be used. Zelenskyy wants Ukraine to be Great:

I hope not just that he and his country survive, but also that they are wise, to use their newfound strength and unity in the best way, and never the worst, so that they live up to the heroic image we have of them now. Maybe then they will find a true escape, Ukraine will be truly great, and the shops will be open again on Kobylyans’koi Street, Czernowitz aka Chernivtsi aka Cernăuți, and beautiful women will stroll along it, carelessly sipping cappucinos.

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