The Rhetoric of Reaction: Perversity, Futility, Jeopardy (Paperback)
  • The Rhetoric of Reaction: Perversity, Futility, Jeopardy (Paperback)

The Rhetoric of Reaction: Perversity, Futility, Jeopardy (Paperback)

Paperback 224 Pages
Published: 01/03/1991
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With engaging wit and subtle irony, Albert Hirschman maps the diffuse and treacherous world of reactionary rhetoric in which conservative public figures, thinkers, and polemicists have been arguing against progressive agendas and reforms for the past two hundred years.

Hirschman draws his examples from three successive waves of reactive thought that arose in response to the liberal ideas of the French Revolution and the Declaration of the Rights of Man, to democratization and the drive toward universal suffrage in the nineteenth century, and to the welfare state in our own century. In each case he identifies three principal arguments invariably used: (1) the perversity thesis, whereby any action to improve some feature of the political, social, or economic order is alleged to result in the exact opposite of what was intended; (2) the futility thesis, which predicts that attempts at social transformation will produce no effects whatever—will simply be incapable of making a dent in the status quo; (3) the jeopardy thesis, holding that the cost of the proposed reform is unacceptable because it will endanger previous hard-won accomplishments. He illustrates these propositions by citing writers across the centuries from Alexis de Tocqueville to George Stigler, Herbert Spencer to Jay Forrester, Edmund Burke to Charles Murray. Finally, in a lightning turnabout, he shows that progressives are frequently apt to employ closely related rhetorical postures, which are as biased as their reactionary counterparts. For those who aspire to the genuine dialogue that characterizes a truly democratic society, Hirschman points out that both types of rhetoric function, in effect, as contraptions designed to make debate impossible. In the process, his book makes an original contribution to democratic thought.

The Rhetoric of Reaction is a delightful handbook for all discussions of public affairs, the welfare state, and the history of social, economic, and political thought, whether conducted by ordinary citizens or academics.

Publisher: Harvard University Press
ISBN: 9780674768680
Number of pages: 224
Weight: 240 g
Dimensions: 210 x 140 mm


The Rhetoric of Reaction is a study of the reactionary’s tool kit, identifying the standard objections to any and all proposals for reform… Hirschman’s work changes how you see the world. It illuminates yesterday, today, and tomorrow… There can be no question about his most characteristic [book]: The Rhetoric of Reaction. The sustained attack on intransigence, the bias in favor of hope, the delight in paradox, the insistence on the creative power of doubt—all these prove a lot of people wrong. - Cass R. Sunstein, New York Review of Books

Albert Hirschman’s gift to intellectual history is his capacity to subsume complex ideas under simple—indeed smaller than bumper-sticker-size—labels. Mention the word exit at any gathering of social scientists, and everyone will free-associate with the idea that complex organizations and processes renew themselves because people will leave for opportunities elsewhere instead of remaining and fighting for change. Likewise not only with voice and loyalty but also with passions and interests. There is no contemporary social scientist anywhere in the world who has said more (profound) things in fewer (elegant) words than Albert Hirschman. New candidates for inclusion in the Hirschmanian lexicon are perversity, futility, and jeopardy… Hirschman is a master of our art. - Alan Wolfe, Contemporary Sociology

Events, and the example of a thinker like Hirschman, make it possible at least to hope that the finer side of the Enlightenment—that is, a skeptical but optimistic engagement with the world as it is, as distinct from blindingly overexcited visions of how it might be, if only progressives would stop interfering with it—could soon have its day. - Geoffrey Hawthorn, New Republic

Propelled by an ecumenical motive—to explain the ‘massive, stubborn, and exasperating otherness of others’, in this case conservative thinkers—and guided, as he himself muses, by ‘an inbred urge toward symmetry’, Albert Hirschman has written an enjoyable and profound book. He argues that a triplet of ‘rhetorical’ criticisms—perversity, futility, and jeopardy—‘has been unfailingly leveled’ by ‘reactionaries’ at each major progressive reform of the past 300 years—those T. H. Marshall identified with the advancement of civil, political and social rights of citizenship… Charmingly written, this book can benefit a diverse readership. - Diego Gambetta, Times Higher Education Supplement

It is a marvelously intelligent and original and provocative volume, marked by Hirschman’s usual qualities of intellectual playfulness and deep commitment to liberal values… The reader has a sense of being in the presence of a brilliant mind and of a writer at the top of his form. - Stanley Hoffmann, Harvard University

A brilliant and beautifully written book. It is breathtakingly simple, yet deep with implications… Hirschman provides a kind of Reader’s Guide to Reactionary Culture. - Stephen Holmes, University of Chicago

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