Switching Philosophical Tracks

While browsing a recently published biography of the development economist Albert Hirschman by Jeremy Adelman, I was reminded of Hirschman’s preoccupation with conflict between organised interests, which Adelman says had “Marxist antecedents”. In later life Hirschman was certainly not waging class war. He also claimed not to believe that behaviour could be reduced to interests. Even so, he definitely downplayed the possibility that ideas exert power over the interests.

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Hirschman’s book The Passions and the Interests was a study of seventeenth and eighteenth century European endeavours to tame the barbaric passions of warmongering feudal societies by pursuing a common interest in commerce and stable institutions. He concluded that the ideology of doux commerce -- on which he says these efforts were founded -- failed in its purpose. The leading intellectual opinion of the day was that regulated commerce would civilise and soften the world. It was an example, says Hirschman, of an ideology giving rise to ‘actions and decisions’ by ‘the intellectual, managerial, and administrative elite’ that are ‘fully expected to have certain effects that then wholly fail to materialise’. His evidence for this claim was that the untrammelled pursuit of self-interest in the industrialising societies of the nineteenth century threatened to destroy the moral values that were necessary for the cohesion of market society. In response there arose the contra-capitalist ideology of Marxism.

In fact, Hirschman seems unintentionally to provide ample evidence that ideological innovations, such as the idea of doux commerce, can change political and economic behaviour. Once the nineteenth and early twentieth century industrial hothouse conditions moderated, and once government action had reduced the injustices, the bourgeoise expectation of doux commerce proved to be quite correct. There was an intimate connection between market expansion and the pressure to construct ethics and institutions that would reasonably regulate the market and society. The outcomes, at least in the more advanced countries, show that on balance and in the long run the early ideologists of capitalism were right. They succeeded in their mission.

The battle for people’s minds does have to take account of people’s interests. Since ideology and interest are strong agencies of social change, we should at least ask which of the two may be stronger in determining outcomes in modern market society. How do ideas and interests impact on each other? The sociologist Max Weber wrote a famously tricky passage on the relationship between interests and ideologies:

“Not ideas, but material and ideal interests, directly govern men’s conduct. Yet very frequently the ‘world images’ that have been created by ‘ideas’ have, like switchmen, determined the tracks along which action has been pushed by the dynamic of interest.”

Some sociologists interpret Weber as meaning that interest is the main motivator of change. Richard Swedberg has written: 'It is not only people’s opinions that matter -- that is, their ideals of how the economy should be organised. You primarily have to connect to the interests of people if you want them to change themselves and the world they live in'.

A different reading of the passage would lay stress on the ideas as switchmen. Weber seems to take for granted the influence of the ‘interests’. The novelty of the formulation, I would argue, lies in ideas that shape how we perceive our interest and which determine what we do in pursuit of that interest. The passage appears in an essay where Weber describes the ideological rationalisations of religious intellectuals. The implied order of causality applies even more strongly to ideological rationalisations of economic action. Weber could be saying that if you want to change the world you must tailor your ideas about policy in such a way that those ideas will expand people’s knowledge of where their interest lies. 

Gerth and Mills argued that Weber studied the roles of ‘many particular ideologies, which he saw as notions that justify and motivate materially interested strata’. Talcott Parsons similarly said that Weber ‘refused to accept the common dilemma that a given act is motivated either by interests or by ideas. The influence of ideas is rather to be found in their function of defining the situations in which interests are pursued’.

The effects of ideology may be transitory, but their magnitude in the short-run can be significant if they help to unveil people’s motivation and interest, i.e. if they reveal 'interest' to themselves or to others.

It is unclear whether an interest can ever exist unless it has been disclosed by the expression of a want, a preference, an intention, or an ideological belief. A perception of subjective interest does not necessarily coincide with objective interest. Political groups often presume to know what is best for others, and elected governments have a legitimate representational authority to interpret the interests of citizens. 

In politics, as in academe, we often find one person saying that another person’s expressed want is not really in their ‘best’ or ‘objective’ interest. The first person might try to persuade the second person to change their mind about their subjective want. In fact, the first person might have a subjective interest in holding their supposedly objective opinion about the other’s ‘true’ interest.

Stephen Lukes offers a glimpse of the complexity of interests:

“How do interests relate to desires and beliefs? It seems odd for someone to believe that he or she has an interest in something but not want it. On the other hand one can fail to want something that is in one’s interest, either because one does not know it is in one’s interest(s), or because one does not know it is causally related to what is in one’s interest(s), or because one may have other overriding wants, principles, or passions.”

It is as well to acknowledge that it may be in the intellectual’s self interest to claim that ideas have greater causal weight than interests in determining a political or economic outcome. The power of ideas glorifies the intellectual’s role in society. Yet the intellectual might be right. It was David Hume who said 'though men be much governed by interest, even interest itself, and all human affairs, are entirely governed by opinion'.