Comprehensive and illuminating. There have been advances in the field since its publication, but as an overview goes it pretty much is as good is it c...moreComprehensive and illuminating. There have been advances in the field since its publication, but as an overview goes it pretty much is as good is it can probably get for now.(less)
A rather peculiar work, but on the whole, brilliant. I hadn't known beforehand that this was a bundle of separately conceived essays written over a nu...moreA rather peculiar work, but on the whole, brilliant. I hadn't known beforehand that this was a bundle of separately conceived essays written over a number of years, rather than an integrated book. Parts of the structure could have been much more tightly edited, but on the whole the general argument - a call for *balance* between large and small enterprise, rather than a fetishisation of either option - is well made.
Schumacher, in this book, exhibited little understanding whatsoever of the primacy of oil in this book, treating it as interchangeable with coal. Regardless of the reasons behind this - a major error. Unclear whether correcting it would actually have reinforced rather than detracted from his arguments for smaller-scale activity, but I think it would have added to it.
A timeless book, and one that should be read for its explication of broad-ranging principles (and not its dated case studies, which in any case are not that important for the basic argument's strength).
I would recommend reading this together with Hirschman's Passions and Interests. The latter provides a useful introductory attempt at tracing the underlying ethical and philosophical assumptions that lie unexplored in Schumacher's material.(less)
Parts of this are genuinely brilliant, including the overall effort Hirschman made to marshall a diverse array of sources into a full argument about t...moreParts of this are genuinely brilliant, including the overall effort Hirschman made to marshall a diverse array of sources into a full argument about the cyclical nature of private-public engagement. There are some major problems with the argument's coherence. The cherry picking of examples is problematic (see for e.g. his discussion of the supposed absence of political passions once the secret vote was introduced, p. 117-118). There is significant confusion regarding the act of contemplation, as Hirschman cannot seem to decide whether it is a public act (p. 84, 129) or a private one (64). And he clings stubbornly til the very end to the assumption that work for the middle-classes is totalling alienating (133, and see below).
All in all, slightly disappointing, compared to Passions and Interests, at least for me.
19 Jan 2014 -
Not finished yet, but I can see where this is going - so just some thoughts along the way.
It is a good attempt at explaining social movements and political action in the West during the late twentieth century, and perhaps for a period prior to this as well. The arguments are admirably straightforward, accessible and clear. I would also liked to have added 'original' to this, but I suspect Hirschman was synthetising and mining a much larger canon of Western philosophy in order to get the American neo-classic economics profession (or at least its freshwater variant) out of its rational choice straightjacket.
Major gap: Hirschman makes clear only halfway through the text that he is seeking to account only for shifts in political engagement by the certain section society: the upper and middle classes (of the West), as opposed to those lower down on the social scale (from the point of view of social deprivation) (p. 76).
Fine - but within the smaller realm of his focus, there is a serious gap in the analysis. He seeks to make a clear distinction between public and private action - the idea that in public engagement the means and ends have no real distinction. Public action is a pleasurable, even consumable good in itself (and that it can be so pleasurable that the goal itself becomes a source of disappointment).
He claims, by way of constructing a contrast, no such distinction exists in private lives, ie. the middle and upper classes are assumed to be alienated from their labour, and only earn an income in order to spend it in a clearly defined realm of private pleasurable consumption - houses, cars, art, entertainment, food, drink etc:
'One of the major attractions of public action is the exact oppostie of the most fundamental characteristic of private pleasures under modern conditions: while the puruist of the latter through the production of income (work) is clearly marked off from the eventual enjoyment of these pleasures, there is no such clear distinction at all between the pursuit of the public happiness and the attainment of it.' (84-85).
'Even in the process of laboring away at our daily job we do on occasion "savor in advance" certain recurrent private delights that are going to be our reward once the monthly paycheck comes in.' (88)
This is oversimplistic. Work for middle and upper classes is by nature often thought of, and even experienced as a form of long-term comfort - ie. 'careers', 'self-development', a labour of love, a source of positive self-esteem and social status/identity. Of course alienation occurs for many, but it is not a static condition. People switch jobs *because* they seek a more fulfilling, meaningful form of work.
In this sense Hirschman, I think, is still a victim of modernist ideas of Western societies..(less)
As a commodity history this is somewhat dated, and as other GR reviewers have noted, in need of tighter editing, both stylistically and structurally....moreAs a commodity history this is somewhat dated, and as other GR reviewers have noted, in need of tighter editing, both stylistically and structurally. Remarkably uneven in quality. The last two chapters are problematic, IMO - far too much space has been devoted to theory, defending the earlier historical materialist approach against disciplinary battles with social anthropology, while the prior historical approach is ultimately jettisoned in favour of abstract speculation about contemporary food meanings. Very much a work of its time, in terms of the 'transition' in academic history from materialism to 'cultural studies'. History and anthropology in some ways are admittedly very difficult bedfellows to reconcile, and this book shows both the problems and some possible solutions to doing so, if one is one inclined.
The best bits were perhaps the detailed discussions in Chapters 2 & 3 on the details of production and consumption. If only more space had been devoted to these. The thesis about non-European aspects of industrialization and capital accumulation might have gained more depth and explanatory power that way.
Again this perhaps is indicative of the strengths and weaknesses inherent in commodity histories - too broad in some ways (in terms of disciplines, geographical coverage, topical material), too narrow in others. (less)