Re-reading Hirschman

Since I was a graduate student in the last millennium, I’ve been fascinated by the role of the cotton textile industry in recent economic history, beginning with that momentous event still being heard around the world, the First Industrial Revolution. It just caught fire in Bengladesh. There are books about cotton as a staple – a relatively recent and a reasonably good one is Stephen Yaffa’s Cotton: The Biography of a Revolutionary Fiber, published in 2006, which I am belatedly reading. Much of the book is actually about the cotton textile industry but it would be a stretch to see it as a linkage, namely, forward linkage, from cotton. Rather the real “staple” in the sense of a key or dominant commodity, is the cotton textile industry itself, with cotton it’s key backward linkage.

Which brings me to Albert Hirschman, whom I regularly re-read. In his 1977 essay “A generalized linkage approach to development, with special reference to staples” (reprinted in his Essays in Trespassing.) Hirschman writes:
“[I]t is possible to conjecture that the emergence of a new mode of production is more intimately tied to the availability, at the proper time, of a specific economic activity with a strong affinity for that mode than is realized later on when the mode has become ubiquitous and dominant and therefore appears to be and has in fact become independent from the activity. This sort of relationship, where a specific economic activity is, to paraphrase Marx, the midwife of a new mode of production, can probably be shown to have prevailed also between the textile industry and the Industrial Revolution. If our conjecture is correct, then the appearance of a new mode of production is primie evidence that an activity with the special intellectually suspect multiple affinity for the mode must have been around – the new mode could not have made it otherwise.”

This constitutes a powerful rationale for my hunch, and a way to re-tell a story that has been told so many times and researched ad infinitum. Following Hirschman’s insight, focus on a dialetical relationship, a shifting symbiosis, between an emerging mode of industrial capitalism and an emerging industry. Add, as it seems to me, that as the mode forms more fully, it then facilitates the emergence of other industries – the most powerful of linkages, the exemplary case of what some writers have come to call “lateral linkage.”

Hirscham liked to talk about how one thing led to another; it’s almost his motto for economic development or economic history. In this case, one thing leads to many others. The result is a spurt in economic growth, an industrial revolution, a take-off into sustained growth, a break with the past – a discontinuity from which there can be no looking back by Britain and, in due course, by the world.

A quarter century after Hirschman wrote, what he so powerfully suggested waits to be written. We have the title, namely, Cotton Textiles: The Midwife of Industrial Capitalism.


  • Quite interesting, in this age of information and the sub industries that have developed, there is this incessant jockeying by many companies with their technology, know how, and machisry, to locate and plough their product into the ubiquitous leading edge wave of innovattive fevour. For example, the algorithmic master piece called map reduce, that has enabled much of the push forward into heterogenous core computing, and allowed many such as google, Facebook, twitter etc, to perform the almost real time computational requisites of information processing.
    This has now spurred on many to believe that we could be entering a new age of smart computation and all that soothsayers believe will be wrought by such advances. However, such Initaitives as big data, smart machines, applied ai, are still a long way from transforming from their host ad still very much parasitic and determined.

    I am still unsure about the designers. Unlike the cotton industry, where much of the innovation in the production process was fashioned and designed by the individuals with some collaboration, These new emerging industries and technologies are seemingly tied to universities, as well as to many open source initiatives, that allow hundreds if not thousands of collaborators and designers to work and share information. Seemingly once a tech is swallowed privately and ownership issues arise through copyright, it closes the door for some parts of the development, which seems to either further commodity the tech.

    The networks that develop in usage of the various tech ad production processes almost becomes iconic within the industry. It is a spectacle, but I do wonder how much of this is merely for speculative purposes, and cheerleading by the orthodoxy looking for a third industrial revolution or at least holding out the prospects that things will be better soon we just need to wait for this economic development to take hold.

  • I just wanted to add, that the state does have a role in development. Take China for example, they have just issued a decree within the upper tiers of the decision asking process, that China will become one of the leaders in robotics, and has initiated a massive plan of action to achieve that goal. Oddly enough, many of the leading innovation theorists purport that the lead actors within innovation must be businessess with a minor secondary role allocated to the state. The mantra of market forces are held up as the trail blazers in the innovation speak. I guess we will see just how far the Chinese make it I their goal to become world leaders in robotics. I do realize they have some ways to catch up, and have mainly relied on foreign tech so far I many of their auto plants which they have reverse engineered and copied and adjusted.

    China, the fate of the world lay in its hands, 400 ppm co2 and climbing and a brand new massive economic machine being built. Have you see the size of the Chinese steel industry? I guess we had our period of economic growth, and the question is can we get ours to evolve to a green ubiquitousness and allow the Chinese to jump past the fossil fuel phase. Maybe they will pass us by with clean tech, the dimensions of local pollution may have entered new concentrations and thresholds.

  • Sorry Mel I kind of got a bit off subject somewhat with my comment- however, it is these parallels that you brought forth with the cotton industry in the first industrial revolution, that I have been studying in the 3rd revolution, that these linkages make light of and it is like a symbiotic relationship at first but eventually the host is left and no longer is guardian. Many thoughts on innovation that I have been trying to secure and form. I have done some historical research, on developments and technology, but never enough. David Harvey makes reference to Marx’s comments on technology and machinery quite a bit in capital chapter 15. It is here that I get into this space that from a global perspective is troubling. If it is indeed the driving force of technological change to shorten the working day and the input of labour power so that profits can be maximized, then I start questioning studies of innovation.

    As it is indeed, a whole lot more profitable to focus on the technology of products intended for consumers with more disposable income- and as we have seen with the growth of marketing and the conspicuous of consumption forces, merchandisers such as Wal-Mart, Nike, Ikea, etc, have usurped the flows of these profits from production capital to mechandizing capital. So it seems to me, a lot of innovation in the here and now of a developing 3rd industrial revolution has a far less egalitarian outcome than previous. That was my preliminary thinking, however, potentially it is mitigated somewhat with the notion that you mention- i.e. developments intended for one particular implementation, can indeed grow to take on new meanings and developments can usurp their host.

    This of course has happened with many previous technologies- applications into newly discovered and monetized areas- i.e. war time r&d served as a catalyst for many years forward for innovation after WW2 . I wonder however, when it comes to such advances- how much does profit maximization come into the fold- to actually materialize these innovations and developments. With the recent move by the tories to transform the NRC and basic scientific research it does bring to light where does motivation for research come from and to what areas will we see its outcomes advanced and hence how may we expect future advances in technology whether to be more or less egalitarian in nature.

  • Speaking of Hirschman, this biography just appeared the NYTimes Sunday book review:

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