Globalization. Photo: iStock
Globalization. Photo: iStock

Perversity, futility and jeopardy: These three words mark the historical roots of the current geopolitical turbulence surrounding the international liberal order in decline.

In 1991 the late political economist Albert O Hirschman published The Rhetoric of Reaction to map the three waves of anti-liberal ideas that have shaped both conservative and progressive politics of intransigence in the West for the past two centuries.

Today, the economic globalization backlash rising from alternative right and radical left politics is biting hard at the foundations of Western liberal democracies. Using Hirschman’s terminology, this trend is the fourth wave of reactive thought. However, as the 21st-century anti-liberal wave revolves around free trade more than civil rights, the reactionary epicenter has moved from Europe to the Asia-Pacific region.

Hirschman described the first wave of reaction as the movement of ideas following (and opposing) the assertion of equality before the law and of civil rights in general, as a result of the reaction of the aristocratic class against the French Revolution.

In the course of the 19th and 20th centuries, the second reaction opposed universal suffrage and the advances of popular participation in politics, for example by increasing the power of lower houses of parliament.

At the end of the 20th century, Hirschman saw the coming of the third reactionary wave in the form of the neoliberal critique of the welfare state and the attempts to roll back or reform some of its provisions.

Hirschman debunked the argumentative tools of reactionaries by describing the three reactive theses that conservative groups invoke to oppose and criticize new policy proposals or socio-economic dynamics. According to Hirschman, these three reactive-reactionary theses, called perversity, futility and jeopardy, act in historical succession and close proximity to socio-economic and political advances.

With the perversity thesis, reactionaries argue that any purposive action to improve some feature of the political, social or economic order only serves to exacerbate the condition one wishes to remedy.

Second, the futility thesis holds that attempts at social transformation will be unavailing, that they will simply fail to make a dent.

Finally, the jeopardy thesis argues that the cost of the proposed change or reform is too high, as it endangers some previous accomplishment.

By any means, Hirschman added that conservatives have no monopoly on simplistic, peremptory and intransigent rhetoric, as these are the attributes that commonly define reactionary thought. Indeed, Hirschman saw that their progressive counterparts were likely to do just as well in this regard, and that a good deal of the repertoire of progressive or liberal rhetoric could be generated from turning around the three reactionary thesis. Hirschman called these progressive arguments the Synergy Illusion and the Imminent Danger Thesis.

The Synergy Illusion means that progressives have a propensity to argue in favor of positive interaction, or mutual support of new and older reforms, as they are eternally convinced that all good things go together, in contrast to the zero-sum mentality of the conservatives. In other words, conservatives exaggerate the harm to the older reform that will come from any new action or intervention, whereas progressives are excessively confident that all reforms are mutually supportive through synergy.

Even in illiberal systems, hardliners usually promote countermeasures to globalizing forces, whereas moderates advocate for economic openness and geopolitical integration

Similarly, the Imminent Danger thesis uses the threats of social dissolution or of radicalization of certain communities as compelling arguments for expanding redistributive policies. Accordingly, progressives do not merely advocate for “social justice” provisions on the ground that it is right to do so, but also play the rhetorical card of urging that their favored policy is necessary to avoid some impending danger.

Interestingly, both reactionary and progressive rhetorics argue that the harm that will come from either action (jeopardy thesis) or inaction (imminent-danger thesis) is entirely certain and inescapable.

These theses of reaction and their progressive counterparts squarely fit into the current debate on the socio-economic benefits of free trade and globalization – what we may indeed call the fourth wave of reactionary rhetoric.

The point of difference with the original three waves is the lopsided political positioning of free traders and protectionists. In other words, anti-globalization reactionaries split at the two ends of the political spectrum, on both the far right and left. On the other end, globalizing progressives tend to sit in the political center, regardless of their denomination, be it social or liberal democratic. Even in illiberal systems, hardliners usually promote countermeasures to globalizing forces, whereas moderates advocate for economic openness and geopolitical integration.

Thus, in regards to free trade and globalization, it is possible to map the rhetorics of intransigence as they are being practiced by both nativist reactionaries and globalist progressives. For instance:

Perversity / imminent-danger thesis
Reactionary – Further liberalization of trade in goods, services, capital and labour will bring disastrous consequences.
Progressive – Failure to liberalize trade, investment and human mobility further will bring disastrous consequences.

Futility thesis
Reactionary – Free trade and globalization policies attempt to change permanent structural characteristics of the social order; they are therefore bound to be wholly ineffective, futile.
Progressive – Globalization is backed up by powerful historical forces (“history is on our side”); opposing them would be utterly futile.

Jeopardy thesis / synergy illusion
Reactionary – New globalizing policies will jeopardize the established economic order.
Progressive – New and old economic policies will mutually reinforce each other.

In conclusion, these rhetorical pairs expose both reactionary and progressive arguments as extreme statements in a series of imaginary, highly polarized debates. However, the silver lining in this reasoning is that modern pluralistic regimes have typically come into being not because of some pre-existing wide consensus on basic values, but rather as a result of a standoff between polarized world views.

Such a historical lens gives some hope that the current cycle of intransigent rhetoric on both free trade and socio-economic globalization could eventually give way to a more considered and deliberative type of geopolitical discourse in the years to come.

Giovanni Di Lieto

Dr Giovanni Di Lieto teaches international trade law in the International Business program at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia, and engages in expert analysis on the geopolitics of trade and investment for media, industry and government outlets. His professional career developed as a commercial law practitioner in Italy, and then as a global value chain specialist across the US, Europe and China.

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