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.

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: