Albert O. Hirschman

Exit vs. voice: reacting to decline in 2017

So you are worried, restless, outraged. In a little over a year, you have watched cynical, myopic politicians manipulate electorates into making disastrous choices. Meanwhile, precious attention is being diverted from issues that really matter, like climate change, privacy, inequality and regulating AI. You know you will personally have to bear some of these costs, even though you had no part in those choices. You are seeing your rights reduced (Brexit), your national prestige sinking (Trump), the effectiveness of your government curtailed (German elections), your non-white or wrong-surname friends and family members being humiliated and made feel unwelcome (all of the above). Now what?

One of the heroes of my youth, Albert Hirschman, has an answer to that. You can do one of three things:

  1. Exit. Refuse to touch the problem, and leave your nation or community behind to deal with it. They made the mess, let them clean up.
  2. Voice. Engage with the status quo. State your concern and grievance, and try to change it through applying some kind of pressure.
  3. Loyalty. Suck it up, and live with it. It’s not that bad after all, at least not for you personally.

Loyalty is, of course, far and away the most popular method. This is because most things in human affairs work reasonably well. With your attention absorbed by corporate greed, climate change and the refugee crisis it is easy to overlook that traffic laws and the drinking water infrastructure work quite well, at least in my corner of the world. Most people will simply stay loyal and move on. But what if you can’t live with it? Do you exit or voice? and how?

In 2017, as I pondered these questions in relations to my own life and work, I stumbled onto two new books that argued different corners of the question. 

The first one is Lobbying for change, by my countryman and co-conspirator Alberto Alemanno. Alberto, a legal scholar, makes a resounding case for voice. His experience as an activist and campaigner taught him that decision makers are often much more open to take on board ideas and suggestions than you might think. This, he argues, is especially true when ideas and suggestions come from citizens, because a citizen’s economic interests are thought to align with that of society as a whole, or at least of large groups within society.

Alberto’s main intuition is this: citizen lobbying is fuelled by discontent, but it ends up producing greater societal cohesion. This is because lobbyists are by definition not themselves decision makers. So, nothing they do will work if it does not channel that discontent into a proposal that benefits them, and that the other interested parties can at least live with. In order to protect her interest or argue her cause, the citizen lobbyist cannot but help the common good. The book then proceeds to plot a course for anybody willing to be a citizen lobbyist to become an effective one. In a way, it’s a user’s manual for Hirschmanian voice.

An aside is in order. Of course, in the lobbying game “interested parties” are only those who sit at the table and argue for themselves. Those who don’t (because they are politically weak, like the Roma in Europe, or because they are not human, like the climate) are fair game, and they have generally not fared well even under advanced democracies. This is, however, a problem with voice in general, not with Alberto’s contribution. In fact, citizen lobbying is meant to be cheap enough that weaker and even non-human parties can find at least some voice.

The second book is Walkaway, by science fiction author and Boing Boing editor Cory Doctorow. It is firmly in the exit camp – even in its title. Doctorow is an interesting author, one of a small milieu of SF writers who write honest-to-God philosophical fiction. It’s a bit like reading Gulliver’s Travels: characters spend a lot of time explaining each other the economic, philosophical and technological foundation of the imaginary societies they live in. Doctorow stands apart from other authors in this group in that he is by far the most concerned with economics : in fact he himself claims that Walkaway is really about the Coase Theorem.

Walkaway imagines a near future society where open source technology is advanced enough that people can drop out of mainstream societies in a relatively order manner, and live off the land and dirt-cheap open tech. And they do: the combined effect of automation and mounting income and wealth inequalities make it so that meaningful employment is almost impossible (unless one enjoys serving the only healthy market, that of really rich people). People are knee deep in student debt. Most of humanity has simply nothing to offer to “the economy” and the society it supports. So they walk away, and provide to their needs with the same logic that Wikipedians build Wikipedia. Initially this gives rise to a sort of dual economy, with a large fringe (maybe 5% of the population?) living in Walkaway. Later on, the mainstream economy kind of eats itself, so that the share of humans in Walkaway rises significantly. Walkaway itself becomes a sort of mainstream, with super-rich people and their minions continuing to run places like London and Singapore, but not much else.

Walkaway argues for exit because it lays out a political strategy that leads people to winning by refusing to engage. Cannot get a decent job and pay your student loan? Walk away. The police evacuates the open source compound where you live? Walk away, rebuild it 50 kilometers down the road. They take that down too? Walk away. In the book, walkaway “wins”, but that’s not even the point. The point is that you can make a better life for yourself by not engaging with the system.

Like most people reading this, I am very dissatisfied with some of the things that are going on in the world right now. I can not live with them. Which one is it going to be, voice or exit? I have been a voice guy all my life, but now I wonder. I can see a game – theoretical argument for exit: if you commit to voice, the powers that be can stall you forever, while you exhaust your energy for change in endless negotiations. Exit – walkaway – has a key advantage: if you execute well, its results do not depend on your opponent. If you believe Doctorow’s intuition, if enough people exit your opponent are going to be badly hit. That gives you potentially significant clout as you walk away.

So, I guess, at a minimum, voice should not be taken for granted. Engagement and participation should be economised, and always be underpinned by an ever present, credible, threat of exit. “Credibility” in this sense means building as much autonomy as you can. This is what we are looking into at Edgeryders And you? Are you closer to the voice or to the exit camp?

5 thoughts on “Exit vs. voice: reacting to decline in 2017

  1. Matt

    I like this high-level view on alternatives. Activists usually don’t consider that there *are* alternatives.

    In this trichotomy, there’s a danger to see exiting as anti-social behavior, though. It is not. In my view as an “Exit” promoter, exiting is just another word for raising your voice for a particular solution. That of building a resilient, DIY, open source society, made from independent small units. And I raise my voice for it by trying to build it in practice – because this solution just can’t win in elections or mainstream discourse before somebody demonstrates it’s even feasible and comes with enough comfort.

  2. Graham Leicester

    Hirschmann’s book is an inspiration to me too. He sees them also as systemic: it is only the possibility of exit, he argues, that makes voice effective. I personally have been thinking about the range of options that follow exit. Is there a menu? Shall we work on one together?

    Also I recommend Hirschmann’s book on the core reasons for rejecting progressive proposals (another three words): perversity (it will have the opposite effect to those intended), futility (it will have no effect), jeopardy (it will put progress to date at risk). I always prepare for all three responses.

    1. Alberto Post author

      Graham: thanks for reminding me of the core reasons for rejecting progressive proposals! High time to re-read Hirschman.

      Not sure about the menu. Matt, the commentator above, does have a plan. I see it as a kind of “soft exit”, low key and non-conflictual. It rests on using non-market channels to provision more goods and services; not refuse to pay taxes (costly, time-consuming), but staying below the taxable bracket; make or scavenge instead or buy as much as possible. Like in the book, really.

      A few people can do this relatively undisturbed. Problems might arise if their number grows to be significant.

  3. Tito

    Great Alberto, I haven’t read the two books you refer to, but I found your thoughts stimulating.
    In Hirschman’s work, at the end of the day, the voice option comes out as necessary, be it in combination with exit. You seem to suggest that society may be evolving in ways that make a coordinated but independent exit of individuals more powerful. I am not entirely sure this world is really materializing, but I perceive very well the risk that organized voice is institutionalized, patronized by power structures, and ultimately becomes ineffective. Somehow I am still inclined to imagine that the exit into self sufficiency by the many should be accompanied by some form of communication to the centers of power about the reasons and aims of such a choice. And certainly it is a result of continuous horizontal sharing of information between those who decide to make this choice: especially about shared values and practices.
    I may a be a prisoner of an old view of the world. I’ll look up Doctorow’s book to seeif that makes my view evolve

    1. Alberto Post author

      Tito: I am not sure I am suggesting anything. I guess I am _hoping_ that exit is (a) continuous rather than binary and (b) multidimensional rather than all-or-nothing. Means: you can participate more or less in the global economy, and you can choose dimensions in which to participate more, and dimensions in which to participate less. An example are the Amish: they grow their own food, they build their own houses, but they do not make their own diesel engines. There are Amish sawmills, but but no Amish steel mills. Some stuff from the non-Amish world goes into the Amish world, which means that some stuff comes back out, and the ledgers are balanced. And yet, a 90% Amish – 10% scale intensive materials production world would be very different from the world we live in now. Entire industries would become unviable. Partial exit can still be momentous.

      Conclusion: when faced with issues you cannot live with, consider if you can make a partial exit. If you can, consider making it, or at least making a credible threat. Bring your taxable income down to the threshold when you are not paying taxes (by resorting to make rather than buy, and bartering). Refuse to take loans – no participation in the debt world. Refuse to pay attention to fashion – down goes the fashion industry. Even if you are the only one doing it, and these industries do not notice, you will have solved a problem.


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