Esteemed social scientist Albert O. Hirschman died this week at 97, having lived a fascinating life shaped by war, migration, and an iconoclastic perspective on conventional wisdom. He’s best known for Exit, Voice, and Loyalty, a 1970 book that many consider one of the twentieth century’s most influential works of political economy. In his famous formulation, “exit” and “voice” represent two contrasting responses of consumers or members of organizations to what they sense as deterioration in the quality of the goods they buy or the services and benefits they receive. To exit is to simply leave, usually in favor of another firm or organization perceived to be better. Voice, on the other hand, is the act of agitating from within with the goal of recuperating the quality judged to have been lost. Exit is essentially a private decision, whereas voice is typically a public activity. A key theme of the book was that exit often works to undermine voice, as easy availability of exit will undercut any instinct to use one’s own voice or to organize a chorus of others. “The presence of the exit alternative,” he wrote, “can atrophy the development of the art of voice.”
Decades after the publication of Exit, Voice, and Loyalty, Hirschman revisited his famous framework in an essay for 1995’s A Propensity to Self-Subversion. He’d learned that it’d become common to use his thesis to explain the Eastern European uprisings of 1989, and he spent a year in Berlin considering its applicability. As evident in the passages excerpted below, Hirschman had both the confidence to assess the validity of his career-making insights, and the humility to accept the ways in which they were wanting.
The year 1989 was greeted with something of a yawn. Its first half would be marked by the elaborate, far-flung, and infinitely wordy bicentenary commemoration of the French Revolution. Everything was laid out well in advance, and the schedule of events was strictly followed up to the appointed climax, the celebrations of the Fourteenth of July in Paris. Thereafter, with the bulk of festivities, conferences, and speeches over, people would return to their usual pursuits. But then, as though the spirit of revolution, once invoked, assumed a life of its own, came the surprise, the “divine surprise” of that year: a series of totally unexpected political and popular movements broke out in rapid succession in Eastern Europe—from Poland, Hungary, East Germany, and Czechoslovakia to Bulgaria and Romania—overturning the hitherto uncontested power of the Communist parties and thereby altering fundamentally the seemingly stable bipolar world order of the preceding forty-five years.
The most radical of these changes took place in the German Democratic Republic, where the internal convulsion led in short order to the extinction of the political entity in which it occurred. The East German state was unable to survive the collapse of Communist power and was absorbed (geschluck, or “swallowed,” is the expressive term often used) by its outsize twin, the Federal Republic of Germany, within a year of the opening of the Berlin Wall.
Despite a considerable outpouring of articles and books—including some autobiographical accounts by key actors—a great deal about the events of 1989 remains poorly understood. The very fact that they came as a total surprise to both spectators and actors suggests that our capacity to comprehend large-scale political and social change remains utterly underdeveloped. Under the circumstances, any conceptual tool that holds out the promise of providing a handle on the enigmatic events is likely to be eagerly seized. This is what happened in Germany to the concepts of “exit” and “voice,” which I had proposed in a book published in 1970.
The German translation of that book was published in 1974, under a title that means, literally, “outmigration and contradicting.” This was a daringly free, though apt, translation of the terms exit and voice, and it may have been chosen by the translator because even then migration and would-be migration were characteristic alternatives to actual resistance in the German Democratic Republic. So the title, with its accent on migration as a primary form of exit, may have contributed to making the book appear particularly relevant to the commotion of 1989. In any event, only six days after the spectacular opening of the Berlin Wall on November 9, 1989, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Germany’s most respected daily newspaper, published an article by Henning Ritter, director of the social science and humanities section, with the title “Abwandern, Widersprechen: Zur aktuellen Bedeutung einer Theorie von A. O. Hirschman” (To exit, to voice: On the current relevance of a theory of A. O. Hirschman). According to Ritter, my 1970 thesis was being tested “experimentally on a large scale” by the upheaval in East Germany. Since then, several political scientists and sociologists have made extensive, if on occasion conflicting, uses of the concepts of exit, voice, and loyalty in interpreting the events of 1989, now generally called die Wende (the turn). Eventually the topic even received a degree of official sanction as the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (German Research Association), an agency of the Federal Republic, listed the exit-voice approach to the analysis of the Wende among the research projects eligible for its grants.
I became aware of this interest in my twenty-year-old book when I spent the academic year 1990-91 at the Wissenschaftskolleg (Institute for Advanced Study) in Berlin. At that time, I was also able, through reading and interviewing, to become more closely acquainted with the history of the GDR and, in particular, with the remarkable story of its demise. Perhaps not surprisingly, I came to feel that the exit-voice perspective could indeed be of help in seeing some of the events in a new light and that it could itself be enriched by its encounter with a complex historical testing ground. Moreover, the topic provided me with a point of reentry into German politics and history after an absence of over half a century from the country where I had spent my first eighteen years.
It is remarkable that so primitive a model [as exit-voice] was able to account for as many diverse situations and experiences as have been marshaled by myself and others. But it could not be expected to be universally valid, and indeed the events of 1989 in the GDR traced out a very different relationship. As was pointed out by an East German sociologist, here exit (outmigration) and voice (protest demonstrations against the regime) worked in tandem and reinforced each other, achieving jointly the collapse of the regime.
Even before this spectacular case of collaboration of exit and voice, I had become aware of some complications affecting the seesaw or hydraulic model. For example, I noted that since exit and voice are “two basic, complementary ingredients of democratic freedom, [they] have on the whole been enlarged or restricted jointly.” Also, in reconsidering the question of school vouchers, I speculated that the opening up of previously unavailable opportunities of choice or exit may generate feelings of empowerment in parents, who as a result may be more ready than before to participate in school affairs and to speak out. Such a positive relationship between increased availability of exit and increased willingness to voice rests on a structure that is more complex than the one underlying the seesaw pattern. What happens here is that the newly won right to exit actually changes the human agents involved. Being allowed more choice, they become more aware of and more willing to explore the whole range of choices at their disposal. Once men and women have won the right to move about as they please, they may well start behaving in general as adult and hence as vocal members of their community.
The details of the story [of the demise of the GDR] are its essence, but two general observations provide a conclusion. First, the 1989 upheaval in the GDR represents a reversal of a movement that has been held to be characteristic—disastrously characteristic—of German history. A great deal has been written about the propensity of Germans in various historical circumstances to retreat from the public domain to the strictly private—to the famous (or infamous) Innerlichkeit. This movement is supposed to have come all too easily to Germans, particularly when they were confronted with distasteful and repugnant events in the public domain. The idea, often traced to Luther, that the inner, private sphere is something infinitely precious, pristine, and inviolable may indeed have undercut the emergence of the public citizen who assumes responsibility for the political life of his or her community. From this point of view, the story [of the GDR] provides a welcome counterpoint: it essentially chronicles how many East Germans found the road back from exit and apathy to voice, from withdrawal and purely private reaction to public action. However unintended this movement was initially, it became nevertheless a powerful and successful citizen movement. Thus it stands in contrast to the many failed revolutions as well as failures to resist tyranny that have marked German history since the Reformation. It is therefore perhaps to be regretted that language downgraded the movement from “peaceful revolution” to Wende (turn) soon after it was over. Strangely, once Germans had finally succeeded in toppling, at considerable risk but without major bloodshed, an oppressive and ruinous regime, they designated the event with a term that almost deliberately understated it. In this they resemble people who, on the basis of past missteps, have a poor self-image—when confronted by success in some new endeavor, they will strain to reinterpret that unfamiliar experience as yet another failure or, at best, as “nothing to write home about.” By contrast, Richard von Weizsaclcer, Germany’s Federal President, showed a better appreciation of the 1989 events when he said in a recent speech: “With their nonviolent actions, the revolutionaries of the year 1989 have given all Germans a new awareness of liberty. The past is not extinguished in consequence. But a decisive new chapter has been added to our history.”
My second point reflects on method. I have attempted to give some shape to the story of the short-lived German Democratic Republic by retelling it in terms of the contrasting categories of private exit and public voice. Such an enterprise runs the risk of making too much of theoretical construct. In 1909 the French anthropologist Robert Hertz published an article about the extravagant extrapolation of the right hand-left hand dichotomy by language and culture to encompass ever more basic contrasts, such as right-wrong, good-evil, divine-profane, and so forth. For quite some time, then, we have known about the strange proclivity of the human (or Western?) mind to exaggerate differences, to blow up what Hertz called an “almost insignificant asymmetry” into unbridgeable binary oppositions—in short, to make socially constructed mountains out of natural molehills. I, too, may have engaged in this pastime as I collected conclusive evidence for the existence in many realms of a fundamental antagonism between private exit and public voice. Here the German story of 1989 stands as a reminder of Sportin’ Life’s maxim, “It ain’t necessarily so”—a principle in theoretical modesty that social scientists disregard at their peril. In some momentous constellations, so we have learned, exit can cooperate with voice, voice can emerge from exit, and exit can reinforce voice.
I noted a number of specific ways where the role of exit turned around in this fashion. The German language has a peculiar gift for compact verbs, such as umschlagen and the famous Hegelian aufheben, which endow such turnabouts with seeming reality. I deliberately avoided these terms, as they evoke the famous dialectic, the “negation of the negation,” and similar mysterious, if preordained, processes that dissolve all contrasts and reconcile all opposites. The longing for such reconciliation is of course the exact counterpart of the inordinate fondness for building up dichotomies that was noted by Hertz.
The events of 1989 were not experienced as stemming from an enigmatic turnabout in the functioning of social processes. Those who lived through them were not troubled at all by the fact that exit and voice now worked hand in glove after having undermined each other for four decades. A problem arises only for the social scientist who seeks a deeper understanding and who, in the course of this attempt, fashions a conceptual framework that initially makes it easier, but subsequently can make it more complicated, to understand what is going on. In that case, of course, our analyst may still come out on top by showing how instructive it is that events should have diverged from the original scheme!