Albert Hirschman’s ‘tunnel effect’ offers some compelling insight into the relative peace and stability which South Africa has enjoyed over the past quarter century – and also hints at where, (in the spirit of Hirschman’s ongoing commitment to a ‘passion for the possible’, hope might be found going forward. The tunnel effect is an especially evocative way of exploring the interaction between economics and psychology — how development policy and practice interact with a society’s narratives about itself.
Of special salience for South Africa’s current moment are the insights in his article on “the changing tolerance for income inequality”. Though written in 1973, and part of an effort to understand Latin America’s disillusion of that time, his insights speak in a fresh and visceral way to South Africa’s contemporary reality. (You can find a more comprehensive discussion of Hirschman’s ideas in this related post.) Here are three themes that seem especially relevant:
Tolerance for disparity. “It can happen that society’s tolerance for increasing disparities may initially [=post-1994…..] be substantial. An individual’s welfare depends on his present state of contentment, as well as on his expected future contentment. Advances of others supply information about a more benign external environment; receipt of this information produces gratification; and this gratification overcomes, or at least suspends, envy. As long as this tunnel effect lasts, everybody feels better off, both those who have become richer and those who have not. But this tolerance is like a credit that falls due at a certain date. It is extended in the expectation that eventually the disparities will narrow again. If this does not occur, there is bound to be trouble and, perhaps, disaster. Non-realization of the expectation that my turn will soon come will at some point result in my ‘becoming furious’ that is, in my turning into an enemy of the established order. No particular outward event sets off this dramatic turnaround.”
Contested upward mobility: “The upwardly mobile do not necessarily turn into pillars of society all at once, but may on the contrary be disaffected and subversive for a considerable time. The principal reason for this surprising development is the phenomenon of partial and truncated mobility…. The upwardly mobile who may have risen along one of the dimensions of social status, such as wealth, find that a number of obstacles, rigidities and discriminatory practices still block their continued ascent, particularly along other dimensions, as well as their all-round acceptance by the traditional elites, and consequently they feel that in spite of all their efforts and achievements, they are not really ‘making it’. Only as social mobility continues for a long period, and the tradition system of stratification is substantially eroded as a result, will the upwardly mobile become fully integrated – or ‘co-opted’.”
Reversals. “In a second phase there may take place a symmetrical switch: the upwardly mobile become integrated, whereas the nonmobile lose their earlier hope of joining the upward surge and turn into enemies of the existing order….It is quite unlikely however that the beginning of the second phase will coincide for the two groups….The nonmobile may experience the turnaround from hopefulness to disenchantment, while the mobile are still disaffected. This last situation clearly contains much potential for social upheaval.”
Superficially, the implications of the above might seem gloomy, but there’s also the possibility of a hopeful interpretation. The ‘tunnel effect’ framework suggests that society’s problems don’t have to be ‘solved’ to provide a platform for progress. Rather, what is needed is a credible narrative that can kindle hope. For two decades, South Africa’s democratic ‘miracle’ and the African National Congress’s promise of ‘a better life for all’ provided the requisite platform. But the weakness of that platform’s foundations have become all too evident. Anger or hope, which is it to be? How can a new sense of possibility be rekindled?