Worldly Philosopher: The Odyssey of Albert O. Hirschman by Jeremy Adelman

Andreas Hess discusses the incredible life of an artist of ‘possibilism’

March 14, 2013

Exit Albert O. Hirschman”, ran the headline to a commentary in The Economist on the death of the maverick economist in 2012. In its nod to Hirschman’s landmark 1970 study Exit, Voice, and Loyalty, the line attested to how oblivious we have become to the social and political constellations in which individual preferences were the focus of what was then called “political economy”. Instead, we have only the reductionist snippets of truth that modern economics offers.

Jeremy Adelman’s biography could have taken the easy route of applying those three concepts of exit, voice and loyalty to the economist’s life. To be sure, there were plenty of exits in Hirschman’s odyssey, and there was also a lot of voice and loyalty - or, as Hirschman would have put it, a lot of attempts “to prove Hamlet wrong”. After leaving Berlin in 1933, the radical German Jewish exile’s first stop was Paris, followed by a short stint at the London School of Economics. From there he went to Trieste, where he finished his PhD and became part of the liberal left opposition to Mussolini. When Italy introduced racist laws in 1938, he went to Spain to fight on the Aragon front. Traumatised by the Stalinist purges during the Spanish Civil War, he joined the French forces in their attempt to stop the German invasion - only to find himself again on the losing side against the Nazis. He discovered that in a topsy-turvy world in which rules changed rapidly, one had to play the cards that one was dealt in imaginative ways.

Equipped with false papers, Hirschman went to Marseilles where he teamed up with Varian Fry and his Emergency Rescue Committee, one of the more successful schemes to smuggle trapped academics, artists, politicians and intellectuals out of Vichy France. Hirschman managed to escape in 1940 when the Vichy authorities and the Gestapo discovered that he was equipped with not too few but too many good cover stories and papers. He fled, he tells his biographer, with only a spare pair of socks and a volume of Montaigne, taking the route over the Pyrenees that he had advised many of his “customers” take, and then headed to the US.

He would return to Europe with the US Army, on the winning side at last. After the war he joined the Federal Reserve Board as an economist to help in “exporting Keynesianism from the US” and then became an adviser to the Colombian government. This and other experiences in Latin America would turn him into one of the pioneers of modern development economics, over an academic career that included appointments at Yale, Columbia and Harvard universities and lastly at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study.

Hirschman’s life was indeed marked by exit, voice and loyalty, but Adelman also acknowledges that these terms don’t fully capture all the messiness of a man’s life. Despite hindrances and complications, there was always Hirschman’s conviction that one had to remain true to oneself and that there were no “safe” paths. “Possibilism”, “nibbling” and “trespassing” were helpful psychological concepts, tools against the numbing sense of fatalism or defeatism that often seemed to prevail in developing societies.

Like Robert Skidelsky, who led readers through Keynesian economics and the intellectual world of its chief architect, Adelman is an able guide. Perhaps the 21st century no longer needs heroes: however, in difficult times such as these, we are desperately in need of possibilists and worldly philosophers such as Hirschman.

Worldly Philosopher: The Odyssey of Albert O. Hirschman

By Jeremy Adelman
Princeton University Press, 758pp, £.95
ISBN 9780691155678
Published 22 April 2013

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