Exit is Always Partial

“Exit can be similarly blunted. As was shown, organizations and firms that are ostensibly competing and are normally sensitive to exit can learn to play a cooperative, collusive game in the course of which they take in each other’s disgruntled customers or members. To the extent that the game is played successfully by competing organizations or firms, exit, compensated as it is by entry, ceases to be a serious threat to the deteriorating organizations”[1].

Hirschman shows that exit as a variable of action can only be partial and/or minimal in the face of scalable structures. Both barriers to entry and exit are constructed as incentives and are skewed towards loyalty as the overriding vector for organisational participation. This is not a proclamation of ideological/structural totality though, but a recognition to the significant costs involved when exiting prevailing systems. Along with voice, the partiality of these variables oscillates depending on existing conditions.

“For these reasons, conditions are seldom favorable for the emergence of any stable and optimally effective mix of exit and voice. Tendencies toward exclusive reliance on one mode and toward a decline in its effectiveness are likely to develop and only when the dominant mode plainly reveals its inadequacy will the other mode eventually be injected once again”[2].

In terms of political or cultural exits, this means that a full exit from established structures is an impossible pipedream. The concept of self-sufficiency as a by-product of exit always remains particular. Whether at the individual or collective level, exit is interstitial, working through the cracks and failures of organisational loci. As Hirschman noted, the tendency toward one mode of action over another precipitates the injection of the other (thus revolving around variables of voice, exit and loyalty) to move beyond ossification. The constancy of exit would mean the impossibility of collective action but the dominance of voice equally would implement an unquestionable narrative that defined the organisation, limiting extraneous individuality.

At the individual level, this applies to historical and modern variations of the homesteading movements. The Western expansion is the imprint of the onto-political American dream, exiting the cloying strictures of American bureaucracy and industrialism, founding new ways of life on the frontier and expressing the desire for a Jeffersonian yeomanry free of sovereign tyranny. Of course, the underlying reality was of Native clearances conducted by the US Army and the expansion of the telegraph and the railroad alongside the wagons and frontiersmen. Industrialisation quickly followed on the heals of its exit. From there, the tendency of monopolisation (“a cooperative, collusive game”) develops through expansive corporate ranches and their cooperation with policing and governmental authorities. The Wyoming Stock Growers Association illustrates such coercive expansion, as they nominally tackled cattle rustlers and organised the trade and licensing of cattle while also intimidating smallholders and buying up land for established ranchers, being both a police force and a racket.

Homesteading’s modern incarnations are similarly hamstrung by this concept of self-sufficiency. The necessary inputs for rotational farming and small-scale ranching are produced outside of the individual purview, from seeds and equipment to organic fertilisers and pesticides. Unless one is gifted with an iron ore mine, a smelter or any other form of complex manufactory, exit remains partial to the supply chains and networks one must live within. At an even more basic level, all modern properties are connected to electricity grids, gas lines, sewage works and other utilities.

However, this caricatures self-sufficiency unnecessarily, with it instead relating to networks of actors that can source inputs together, forming trading relations and cooperative governance structures that allow for exit from wider, centralised organisations. But even here, the limitations I mention aren’t escapable. The foundations of modern battery technology found within many devices (from tractors and cars to computers and interfaces) are reliant on lithium and nickel deposits. Even if lives are simplified away from these inputs, similar problems arise when sourcing building materials (with specialised skills and facilities required for woodworking, smithing and/or brick production), medical supplies (i.e. vaccines/remedies for combatting animal viruses) and trade networks (to supply crops in cases of localised or regional failures/droughts).

Toscano shows the conflict of exit vs. voice in the struggle of movements for taking control of existing modes of production against those involved in spontaneous insurrection. “Materialism and strategy are obviated by an anti-programmatic assertion of the ethical, which appears to repudiate the pressing critical and realist question of how the structures and flows that separate us from our capacities for collective action could be turned to different ends, rather than merely brought to a halt”.

“The electrical grid provides an apt transition to reflecting on the relationship between the logistics of capital and the spatial politics of anti-capitalism in a manner that does not merely involve the bare negation or mere sabotage of the former by the latter. The power grid (contrasted with the railway network) was in fact a system whose capabilities for coordinated decentralisation were emphasised by Mumford as a necessary model for a shift out of an aimlessly urbanising capitalism”[3].

The contrast between insurrection and transitional reconfiguration however appears unnecessary and limited. The dichotomy is not between voice and exit but between ossification and experimentation. In this sense, both insurrection through sabotage and criminality (thus questioning and displacing centralised forms of law and government) and interstitial transition through controlling sections of existing infrastructures, reappropriating them for alternative ends. However, within this reappropriation remains the links with supply chains and resource inputs that limit exit and emphasise voice as the vector for political/social action. Exit then exists between the methods of sabotage and appropriation, both unsettling the infrastructure of capital and opening up alternative modes of action, while turning these same infrastructures away from their ideological direction.

Brexit is an interesting (and flawed) expression of these contradictory dynamics. Brexit as an expression of democratic power and national sovereignty contrasted with the economic landscape of international supply chains linked through the regulatory union of the European Union and complex network relations that fragment the centrality of sovereignty in a globalised world. It raises uncomfortable questions between these two dynamics, as the problems that Brexit has incurred, from supply and driver shortages to huge regulatory costs for companies trading outside UK borders, push the imperatives of business against the capacity for self-determination. If the incurrence of these problems suggests that democratic decision-making should be curtailed for the sake of business efficiency, this is a profound turn away from democracy as the organising principle of a polity, instead ceding ground to regulatory agencies and technocracy. In ways, Brexit itself presents a quasi-insurrectionary way of questioning those business efficiencies, showing the coddled nature of modern life (that temporary shortages to petrol and plastics bring greater political derision than the conditions that allowed Brexit to fester in the first place) and demonstrating the potential for democratic decision-making to decentre supply chains and company policies as the organising principles of the economy. However, the existing ideologies surrounding British government and economic orthodoxy then limit these very potentials, turning them into incompetencies as the neoliberal imperatives of business efficiency still predominate governmental thinking.

The partiality of exit is both its limiting factor and the potential pathway toward both insurrectionary action and transitional alternatives that redirect infrastructures and economies away from their underlying ideology toward new modalities. Escape/exodus exist in perpetual conflict with forces of organisational centrality and control, limiting exit while presenting interstitial cracks through which organisational weaknesses can be exploited.


[1] Albert O. Hirschman, Exit, Voice, and Loyalty

[2] Albert O. Hirschman, Exit, Voice, and Loyalty

[3] https://www.metamute.org/editorial/articles/logistics-and-opposition

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