In memoriam: Paul Hirst 1946-2003

Jonathan Zeitlin
18 December 2003

This text will be published in a special issue of Industry & Innovation [Volume 11, nos. 1-2 (2004)] on “Supply Chain Governance and Regional Development in the Global Economy”, which the journal’s editor and Jonathan Zeitlin dedicate to Paul’s memory. It appears here by kind permission of the editor-in-chief, John Mathews.

On 16 June 2003, Paul Hirst died suddenly of a massive cerebral haemorrhage. He was just 57 years old. Paul was professor of social theory at Birkbeck College in the University of London, a public intellectual of global stature, and a founding member of the international advisory board of the journal Industry & Innovation. He was also my close colleague, collaborator, and personal friend for nearly twenty years.

In the collective outpouring of grief over Paul’s tragically early death – including the powerful and moving collection of tributes on openDemocracy.net, of which Paul was a founding contributor – it has become a commonplace to call him a polymath. Indeed, no other term will do. Paul will be best remembered, in my judgment, as a social and political theorist of exceptional rigour and imagination, as a tireless campaigner for democratic reform in Britain and the wider world, and as an influential and inspiring teacher to generations of students at Birkbeck and beyond.

But Paul also wrote with acute insight and immense learning about national politics, international affairs, and military technology, along with a host of other subjects including architecture, law, and philosophy. His last book, War and Power in the 21st Century (2001), was a characteristically brilliant and terrifying overview of the interplay between the state, military conflict, and the international system – past, present, and future. Paul’s next book, Governing Space: architecture, politics and war, which I hope will see the light of day, is equally ambitious and wide ranging in scope and conceptualisation.

Amongst his many interests, Paul was always deeply concerned with the economy and industry, as objects of theoretical analysis, empirical investigation, and policy intervention.

Three bright threads run through his writings in this area: a critique of totalising and deterministic theoretical approaches, especially those which claimed to identify unilinear tendencies of development; a commitment to enhancing the possibilities for democratic governance of the economy at all levels from the firm and region to the nation and the world; and a concern with the prospects for improving Britain’s economic performance (which was never parochial or nationalistic) through social cooperation and institutional reform.

A deconstruction of Marxism

Perhaps the best place to start in discussing Paul’s contributions as an analyst of the economy is with the two-volume treatise on

Marx’s ‘Capital’ and Capitalism Today (1977-8) that he co-authored with Anthony Cutler, Barry Hindess, and Athar Hussain. This work courageously carried to its logical and self-destructive conclusions the Althusserian reconstruction of Marxism initiated by Hindess and Hirst in their Pre-capitalist Modes of Production (1975).

Marx’s ‘Capital’ and Capitalism Today remains one of the clearest and most powerful deconstructions of Marxist economic and social theory ever written; its critique of fundamental concepts such as “laws of tendency”, “determination in the last instance”, classes as collective actors, and the “relative autonomy” of the state are still eminently worth reading.

Particularly valuable, in my view, is the authors’ account of the unbridgeable conceptual disjunction between theorisations of the “capitalist economy in general” and empirical analyses of specific national economies. This problem is by no means confined to Marxism, moreover, as Paul and his collaborators went on to demonstrate in their critique of neoclassical economics’ reliance on the concepts of the enterprise as a universal calculating subject and the market as a mechanism of natural selection.

Insisting on the centrality of specific institutional arrangements and forms of calculation in shaping the behavior of individual firms and whole national economies, their analysis also anticipated much subsequent work in fields like critical accounting, evolutionary economics, and comparative political economy.

The dynamics of industrial change

Soon after I arrived at London’s Birkbeck College in the mid-1980s, Paul and I began to work together on contemporary transformations in economic organisation, building on the analysis of flexible specialization and industrial districts developed by Michael Piore and Charles Sabel in The Second Industrial Divide (1984), as well as my own joint research with Sabel on historical alternatives to mass production.

Paul was attracted to flexible specialisation and industrial districts as the basis for a more decentralised and democratic form of economic organisation that could promote productive efficiency and technological innovation by balancing competition and cooperation. He was characteristically attentive both to the wider theoretical issues raised by this approach and to its practical consequences for British politics and policy.

Thus Paul was highly critical of “post-Fordist” theorisations of a shift from one unitary phase of capitalism to another (especially the “New Times” analysis of the British journal Marxism Today, which presented Thatcherism as the social and political correlate of the transformed economy). This led us to co-author a “mega-paper” (“Flexible Specialization versus Post-Fordism: Theory, Evidence and Policy Implications”, Economy and Society, 1991) contrasting flexible specialisation and post-Fordism as competing approaches to industrial change, and drawing out the differences in their theoretical architecture, handling of evidence, and policy implications.

The sophisticated analysis Paul contributed to this paper of flexible specialisation as a positive and negative heuristic remains for me a model of the normative and empirical uses of social scientific concepts.

But Paul also sought to mobilise the evidence we gathered that British firms were not succeeding well at the new forms of flexibly specialised manufacturing as a means of underlining the need for reform of the UK’s centralised political institutions and neoliberal policies in order to provide more effective support for cooperation and coordination among economic actors, especially at a local and regional level.

He elaborated these arguments in other joint articles, the co-edited volume Reversing Industrial Decline? (1989), and in his own bold and influential book After Thatcher (1989), which called for a social pact between the opposition parties and the major organised interests to foster local economic strategies for the renewal of British manufacturing. After a decade of relative neglect, Tony Blair’s New Labour government is once again discussing how to improve the UK’s weak manufacturing performance by developing new regional institutions to promote collaboration among interconnected groups of companies – now rebranded as “clusters”.

Democracy and globalisation

Much of Paul’s work in the 1990s was devoted to developing the concept of “associative democracy” as a vital supplement to representative government and market regulation in advanced economies. Paul envisaged associative democracy not only as a solution to the limited accountability of elected governments to their citizens, but also as the basis for new participatory forms of economic and social governance. The most original element of this project, rooted in Paul’s own disgruntled experiences as a consumer of British state services as well as in his earlier writings on English pluralism, was the proposed transfer of publicly funded social welfare provision to self-governing but politically accountable associations of citizens.

No less important, however, was Paul’s rejection of conventional doctrines of economic governance – dirigiste, Keynesian, and liberal – in favour of a redefined role for the state as an orchestrator of social consensus and facilitator of regional economic regulation through partnerships between public authorities and associations of small and medium-sized enterprises.

Paul also recognised that an associative reform of the economy could not ignore the concentrated power of large firms, and he continued to work right up until his death on a variety of proposals for democratising corporate governance and decentralising industrial finance.

Paul is probably best known to readers of this journal for his hugely influential book Globalization in Question, co-authored with Grahame Thompson. This book – with its penetrating critique of overblown theoretical claims about the inexorable advance of globalisation, its perceptive exploration of historical parallels between past and present periods of economic internationalisation, and its passionate concern for the possibilities of governance under conditions of increased international openness and interdependence – embodied all Paul’s best qualities as a publicly engaged scholar.

Among the book’s many valuable contributions is its conceptual distinction between an inter-national and a fully globalised economy, its powerful demonstration of the national roots of multinational corporations, and its persuasive insistence on the continuing centrality of nation-states in economic governance, as well as on the need to redefine their role both upwards and downwards in order to “suture” together different levels of governance into a relatively integrated system.

Scarcely a day goes by when I do not think of Paul, and ask myself what he might have said about some current issue – intellectual, political, or personal. His death is an enormous loss to us all. We shall not look upon his like again.

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