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Yemelyan Rybakov
Yemelyan Rybakov

From Passions to Interests: Albert Hirschman's Analysis of the Origins of Capitalism


The Passions and the Interests: A Classic Book by Albert Hirschman




If you are interested in the history and theory of capitalism, you should definitely read The Passions and the Interests, a classic book by Albert Hirschman. In this book, Hirschman reconstructs the intellectual climate of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to illuminate the intricate ideological transformation that occurred, wherein the pursuit of material interests so long condemned as the deadly sin of avarice was assigned the role of containing the unruly and destructive passions of man. He offers a new interpretation for the rise of capitalism, one that emphasizes the continuities between old and new, in contrast to the assumption of a sharp break that is a common feature of both Marxian and Weberian thinking.




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In this article, I will give you an overview of the main argument, insights, and contributions of this brilliant book. I will also show you why it is still relevant and useful for understanding our modern society. By the end of this article, I hope you will be convinced to read The Passions and the Interests yourself.


The main argument of the book: How the passions were tamed by the interests




The central thesis of The Passions and the Interests is that capitalism emerged as a result of a long and complex ideological change that took place in Europe from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries. This change involved a reinterpretation of human nature and its motivations. Specifically, it involved a shift from viewing human beings as driven by passions to viewing them as driven by interests.


What are passions and interests? According to Hirschman, passions are strong emotions that can lead to violence, disorder, and tyranny. Examples of passions are love, hate, ambition, glory, envy, revenge, etc. Interests are rational calculations that can lead to peace, order, and liberty. Examples of interests are trade, commerce, industry, profit, etc.


For centuries, passions were seen as the main source of human action and social conflict. They were also seen as dangerous and sinful. The Christian tradition condemned them as manifestations of original sin. The classical tradition warned against them as threats to political stability. The moralists denounced them as causes of corruption and degeneration.


However, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, a new way of thinking emerged that challenged this negative view of passions. This new way of thinking argued that passions could be tamed by interests. That is, by encouraging people to pursue their material well-being through peaceful and productive activities such as trade, commerce, industry, etc., they would become less prone to engage in violent and destructive behaviors such as war, rebellion, crime, etc. In other words, interests would act as a moderating and civilizing force on passions.


This new way of thinking was influenced by several factors, such as the rise of mercantilism, the expansion of trade and colonization, the emergence of the nation-state, the development of science and technology, the spread of religious tolerance, etc. It was also supported by a number of thinkers, such as Montesquieu, Sir James Steuart, Adam Smith, and others. Hirschman traces the evolution of this new way of thinking in detail in his book.


The historical context of the book: The intellectual climate of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries




To understand the main argument of The Passions and the Interests, it is important to understand the historical context in which it was written. Hirschman wrote his book in the 1970s, when capitalism was facing a crisis of legitimacy and confidence. The post-war economic boom had given way to stagflation, unemployment, inequality, and social unrest. The Marxist critique of capitalism had gained popularity and influence, especially among the young and the intellectuals. The Weberian critique of capitalism had also resurfaced, highlighting its rationalizing and disenchanting effects on culture and values.


In this context, Hirschman wanted to offer a different perspective on capitalism and its origins. He wanted to show that capitalism was not a sudden and radical break from the past, but a gradual and complex transformation that involved both continuity and change. He wanted to show that capitalism was not a monolithic and deterministic system, but a diverse and dynamic process that involved both conflict and cooperation. He wanted to show that capitalism was not a purely economic phenomenon, but a political and moral one as well.


To do so, he turned to the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, when capitalism was still in its infancy and when its political arguments were still being formulated and debated. He focused on the period between the English Civil War (1642-1651) and the French Revolution (1789-1799), which he considered as the crucial turning point in the history of capitalism. He examined the writings of various thinkers who tried to justify or criticize capitalism before it became dominant and triumphant.


The key thinkers and sources that influenced Hirschman: Montesquieu, Steuart, Smith, and others




One of the strengths of The Passions and the Interests is that it draws on a wide range of thinkers and sources that are often overlooked or neglected by mainstream accounts of capitalism. Hirschman does not limit himself to the canonical figures of classical political economy, such as Adam Smith or David Ricardo. He also explores the works of lesser-known or forgotten authors, such as Sir James Steuart or Bernard Mandeville. He also goes beyond the Anglo-Saxon tradition and incorporates the contributions of French, German, Italian, Spanish, Dutch, Swedish, etc., thinkers.


Among the many thinkers that Hirschman discusses in his book, three stand out as particularly influential: Montesquieu, Steuart, and Smith. These three thinkers represent different stages and aspects of the ideological transformation that Hirschman analyzes.


Montesquieu (1689-1755) was a French philosopher who is best known for his theory of separation of powers and his comparative analysis of different forms of government. In his masterpiece The Spirit of Laws (1748), he also developed a theory of commerce as a source of peace and liberty. He argued that commerce softens manners, promotes communication, fosters mutual dependence, reduces prejudices, encourages moderation, etc. He also argued that commerce requires a certain type of government: a constitutional monarchy with limited powers and checks and balances.


Steuart (1712-1780) was a Scottish economist who is often considered as a precursor or rival of Adam Smith. In his magnum opus An Inquiry into the Principles of Political Economy (1767), he presented a comprehensive system of economic thought that combined mercantilism with physiocracy. He argued that commerce is not a natural or spontaneous phenomenon, but an artificial and complex one that requires careful regulation and management by the state. He also argued that commerce is not a benign or harmonious phenomenon, but a conflictual and competitive one that involves winners and losers.


ests is that he combines historical, philosophical, and economic perspectives in his analysis. He does not confine himself to one discipline or methodology, but rather draws on multiple sources and approaches to enrich his argument. He also does not adopt a dogmatic or ideological stance, but rather maintains a critical and open-minded attitude throughout his inquiry.


This originality makes Hirschman's book a rare and valuable contribution to the literature on capitalism and its origins. It shows that he was not only a scholar, but also a thinker. It shows that he was not only an economist, but also a historian and a philosopher. It shows that he was not only an observer, but also a participant in the intellectual debates of his time.


The relevance of Hirschman's ideas: How they can help us address contemporary issues such as inequality, democracy, and development




A final contribution of The Passions and the Interests is that it provides a relevant and useful framework for addressing contemporary issues such as inequality, democracy, and development. These issues are among the most pressing and challenging ones that we face today in our globalized and interconnected world. They are also among the most complex and controversial ones that require careful and nuanced analysis and evaluation.


Hirschman's ideas can help us address these issues in several ways. First, they can help us understand the historical roots and ideological foundations of these issues, as well as their evolution and transformation over time. Second, they can help us identify the main actors and factors that shape these issues, as well as their interactions and influences on each other. Third, they can help us evaluate the costs and benefits of these issues, as well as their trade-offs and dilemmas.


For example, Hirschman's ideas can help us understand how inequality emerged and changed as a result of capitalism and its ideological transformation. They can help us identify who are the winners and losers of capitalism, and how they affect and are affected by capitalism. They can help us evaluate whether inequality is a necessary or desirable outcome of capitalism, or whether it can be reduced or eliminated by alternative arrangements.


Similarly, Hirschman's ideas can help us understand how democracy emerged and changed as a result of capitalism and its ideological transformation. They can help us identify who are the supporters and opponents of democracy, and how they affect and are affected by democracy. They can help us evaluate whether democracy is a compatible or incompatible system with capitalism, or whether it can be improved or reformed by different models.


Finally, Hirschman's ideas can help us understand how development emerged and changed as a result of capitalism and its ideological transformation. They can help us identify who are the agents and beneficiaries of development, and how they affect and are affected by development. They can help us evaluate whether development is a positive or negative process for human well-being, or whether it can be achieved or enhanced by different strategies.


Conclusion: A summary of the main points and a recommendation to read the book




In conclusion, The Passions and the Interests is a classic book by Albert Hirschman that offers a new and original perspective on capitalism and its origins. It shows how capitalism emerged as a result of a long and complex ideological transformation that involved a reinterpretation of human nature from passions to interests. It also shows how capitalism did not live up to its original promise of taming the passions by the interests, but rather created new passions out of the interests, and revived old passions under new guises. It also shows how capitalism challenges and enriches our understanding of human nature and society.


This book is not only a historical and theoretical work, but also a critical and constructive one. It is not only a scholarly and academic work, but also a public and political one. It is not only a classic and timeless work, but also a contemporary and timely one. It is a book that deserves to be read by anyone who is interested in the history and theory of capitalism, as well as anyone who is concerned about the challenges and opportunities of modern society.


Therefore, I highly recommend you to read The Passions and the Interests yourself. You will not regret it.


FAQs: Five common questions and answers about the book




Q: Who is Albert Hirschman and why is he important?A: Albert Hirschman (1915-2012) was a German-born American economist and social scientist who made significant contributions to the fields of development, political economy, and social theory. He is widely regarded as one of the most original and influential thinkers of the twentieth century. He is also known for his involvement in various political and social movements, such as the anti-fascist resistance in Europe, the Marshall Plan in America, and the democratic transitions in Latin America.


Q: What is the main message of The Passions and the Interests?A: The main message of The Passions and the Interests is that capitalism emerged as a result of a long and complex ideological transformation that involved a reinterpretation of human nature from passions to interests. It also shows how capitalism did not live up to its original promise of taming the passions by the interests, but rather created new passions out of the interests, and revived old passions under new guises. It also shows how capitalism challenges and enriches our understanding of human nature and society.


Q: What are some of the key concepts and terms used in the book?A: Some of the key concepts and terms used in the book are:


  • Passions: strong emotions that can lead to violence, disorder, and tyranny.



  • Interests: rational calculations that can lead to peace, order, and liberty.



  • Doux commerce: gentle or sweet commerce, a term coined by Montesquieu to describe the civilizing effects of commerce on manners, morals, and politics.



  • Invisible hand: a term popularized by Adam Smith to describe the unintended social benefits of individual self-interest in a free market.



  • Ideological transformation: a change in the dominant ideas and values that justify or criticize a social system or phenomenon.



Q: What are some of the strengths and weaknesses of the book?A: Some of the strengths and weaknesses of the book are:


  • Strengths: It is original, insightful, provocative, interdisciplinary, historical, critical, constructive, etc.



  • Weaknesses: It is abstract, dense, complex, selective, speculative, controversial, etc.



Q: How can I learn more about the book and its author?A: You can learn more about the book and its author by:


  • Reading the book itself, which is available in various formats and editions.



  • Reading the foreword by Amartya Sen and the afterword by Jeremy Adelman, which provide additional context and commentary on the book and its author.



  • Reading other works by Albert Hirschman, such as Exit, Voice, and Loyalty, The Strategy of Economic Development, The Rhetoric of Reaction, etc.



  • Reading other works about Albert Hirschman, such as Worldly Philosopher: The Odyssey of Albert O. Hirschman by Jeremy Adelman, The Essential Hirschman edited by Jeremy Adelman, The Passions and the Interests Revisited edited by Helen Margetts et al., etc.



  • Visiting online resources such as The Passions and the Interests Princeton University Press, Worldly Philosopher Jeremy Adelman Harvard University Press, Albert O. Hirschman - YouTube, etc.



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