Sic et Non

Uncertainty, perplexity, ambivalence. I'm pretty sure this is where it's at.

Deconstructing TINA

Ideologies often recruit believers by putting forth the argument that There Is No Alternative to their programme. For Marxism it was the inevitable Revolution and victory of the Proletariat; for Liberalism it was Progress, Scientism, the natural laws of market economy and individualism. In recent decades, proponents of Neoliberalism insist that the only way to prosperity is a return to free trade, deregulation, freeing up socioeconomic recourses that protectionism, interventionism and the welfare state had rendered dormant, in order to create growth and wealth to benefit all. The widespread adoption of such policies globally across the political board shows, perhaps, that the argument is powerful enough to garner support even where one would not have expected it to. (Or else, we would need to subscribe to a conspiracy theory, which I find much less tenable). Economic realities seemed to dictate the turn, and those who did turn skillfully seemed (for a time, at least) to be doing better than those who insisted on alternatives.

Very often, when the elites tell you there’s no alternative, they have made sure of that beforehand. Or they have made sure it looks that way. They have configured the system in such a way as to privilege certain choices over others, so that the scope of action is effectively restricted. You may not like the new rules and you may want to refuse to play by them, but there may be little choice if you want to remain in the game; you ought to have done something when they were paving the one way street. Now you may indeed have no alternative, or, to be more accurate, the alternatives are seriously constrained.

So, at any given time, antagonistic forces shape and reshape reality; you can never start with a clean slate. You never start with page one. You always carry on a story whose composition was begun by others, and what has been written in the previous chapters necessarily limits how you carry on. Even if you decide to rip off a half-written page and start a new chapter, you can never really start an altogether new narrative. “Men make their own history” wrote Marx, “but not … under conditions they have chosen for themselves; rather on terms immediately existing, given and handed down to them”. (Eighteenth Brumaire, I) This can be frustrating, but so are many things in life.

But, you will say, I don’t want to play the game then; I refuse to play the game. If the game is that of global capitalism, you really have no choice but to play, though. This is a case in point for TINA. There is no other game played in our world. As Immanuel Wallerstein, an important scholar of historical capitalism, aptly points out, capitalism “is that social system in which those who have operated by such rules have had such great impact on the whole as to create conditions wherein the others have been forced to conform to the patterns or to suffer the consequences.” Even the former communist bloc was effectively part of the capitalist world-system (Immanuel Wallerstein, Historical Capitalism, pp. 18, 65-69). Only North Korea is perhaps out of the game, but this only proves my point, I should think.  So, your options are really about how well you’re going to play. This is, of course, not entirely up to you, because the playing field is never level; countries of the periphery start with a disadvantage and need a lot more effort to catch up than more developed countries need to maintain their dominant position. Still, skillful players have managed to gain advantages and improve their position. If you are an influential player, you can also try to modify some of the rules of the game; you can make it more or less hierarchical, more or less exploitative, more or less reciprocal. After World War II, for example, the US set up a surplus redistribution mechanism that allowed large parts of the world to prosper; in recent decades, on the other hand, it has pioneered a version of capitalism that has dramatically skewed the playing field in favour of those at the top of the social pyramid. Only when the endgame is played out, when a system has reached the limits of its adaptive capacities, can new games be contemplated and fundamentally new directions pursued. (Wallerstein, by the way, is one of those who believe we are at, or are approaching, this stage right now).

The point is, how do you know if you really are in a situation where there is, indeed, no alternative? More often than not, things are not so straightforward and neat as to allow an easy answer. In a world that is more pluralistic than ever, perhaps, power is a coordinate of a multiplicity of social, economic, political, etc., forces. How to make sense of this mesh of power relations, contingencies and necessities, continuity and disruption that constitutes our mode of being? The only meaningful response I have found to this is a relentless critique of the order of things, informed by an open-ended inquiry into the perplexing, tangled, fascinating chaos of “this small world the great” (Odysseus Elytes, The Axion Esti).

And here are the two guiding principles that, for me, ought to frame this inquiry:

“So many things can be changed, being as fragile as they are, tied more to contingencies than to necessities, more to what is arbitrary than to what is rationally established, more to complex but transitory historical contingencies than to inevitable anthropological constants”. (Michel Foucault, Libération, 30-31 May 1981)

“Mankind always sets itself only such tasks as it can solve”. (Karl Marx, Preface to the Critique of Political Economy)


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5 thoughts on “Deconstructing TINA

  1. “…you can never start with a clean slate.” Perhaps it is a mistake to want to start with a clean slate. Are the Eurocrats not insisting on wiping the Greek slate clean? Everything that doesn’t accord with the model of the market economy must be swept away, and the Greeks must become hard-nose atomised producers with individual contracts, and perpetually dissatisfied atomised consumers mesmerised by the billboards.

    The only real alternative now would involve a fundamentally different stance towards what is – no longer trying to replace it by what theoretically ought to be. Paradoxically, something rather conservative is what now would be the most revolutionary.

    Two key issues must be: nature and community. With the latter, surely our being together (sustaining the most meaningful forms of social life) must matter more than the achievement of any larger goals (the simple idea that keeping the team together and enjoying it is more important than winning the race). Again, the contrast with what is happening in Greece is stark: It is acceptable to destroy Greek society completely in order to keep it in the race to attract capital.

    So the laternative is to start from the ground up – from the minutiae – from the thousands of little things that can mean so much. And as for Grand Politics, we limit that to confronting the steamrolling forces that want to stop us working from the ground up.

    When? I was thinking that last night as I was walking up and down the seafront of Volos looking for signs of unease on the faces of the Voliotes – signs of a conviction that things must change. I saw none. 2008 clearly wasn’t a sufficient wake-up call, so my guess is that something massive – like the oil running out – will be needed to bring people to their senses.

    • Perhaps you’re right that a massive shock is what it will take to make people – worldwide – conscious of the urgent need for a different model. Right now, I think a majority in Greece don’t think there is an alternative. From the point of view of what ought to be done here and now, I’m one of them. If you can subscribe to the conservatism of sustaining meaningful forms of social life, surely you’ll have to accept the conservatism of sustaining some form of social life at all. The way things stand, I don’t think we can radically oppose the status quo without risking massive catastrophe. As I say in my post, I find this frustrating, but resenting realities doesn’t make them vanish.

      In the medium term, though, I think that it’s imperative that we work to modify the rules of the game, press for more egalitarian configurations of the system, try to figure out what a new conception of progressive politics might look like. Conservatism, such as the one you talk about, has its place, but as a guiding principle I think it tends to miss the point (the point being, how do you know what altervatives are actually open to you?) For any value to be meaningful, you need to find a way of integrating it into sociohistorical actuality (I’m referring to relative values, not absolute ones, such as “nature”) hence the need for pragmatic, progressive politics (as a way of trying to distinguish between “contigencies and necessities” and exploring possibilities for challenging the outrages of the present order of things).

      • “Massive catastrophe” 1. The massive catastrophe is unfolding now. 2. It is a massive catastrophe if your neighbours set fire to your house. It is not a massive catastrophe if (like the καυσοκαλύβες ) you set fire to your debt-ridden villa yourself. (I am not advocating that we burn our houses; just emphasising that now that the money has run out and the factories have closed we in the West need to affirm our relative poverty; and, in any case, poverty is not the catastrophe).

        “Sustaining some form of social life at all” – but this is not what is happening now. Are we not sustaining a dysfunctional banking system, and what was of value in Greece (nice things like sovereignty) are sacrificed for the sake of international finance (which, in a sensible world, would merely be fuel for the economy, not its τέλος).

        “relative values, not absolute ones, such as “nature”” – but nature is relative – it attains its voice, in part, because of the cacophony of contemporary society. On the other hand, it does have something of the flavour of an absolute insofar as it challenges the nasty pragmatic circle that would perpetuate the cacophony. It appears to come from outside (when seen from the cold-hearted pragmatic standpoint), but within the sphere of personal experience, nothing could be more interior (it is the nature that we are).

        “For any value to be meaningful, you need to find a way of integrating it into sociohistorical actuality.” That sounds very sensible. But my experience is completely the opposite. The things that strike me as meaningful are those that cannot be integrated in the the current order of sociohistorical actuality.

        “…modify the rules of the game.” I am happy to leave that to Varoufakis et al. For me, limiting yourself to tweaking the rules entails losing sight of the fact that at root the problem is cultural. What must happen at some point is a seismic cultural shift, on a par with the emergence of Christianity – a re-evaluation of values, as Nietzsche put it. On purely practical grounds it must happen, because what currently appears to be pragmatic is not sustainable in the long term (and when I think of the long term I have in mind something like 135 million years, because it would be a sad reflection on civilisation if it could not outlive the dinosaurs).

  2. I quite like this long-term perspective you’ve introduced into our debate.
    Let me make clear that I don’t agree with the way the crisis has been handled; it may, indeed, lead to a catastrophe itself. All I’m saying is we don’t have the choice of RADICAL dissent. What’s happening to Greece now is what typically happens to debt-ridden countries in a capitalist world-economy. You can’t make this system work for the masses; it’s called capitalism for a reason. But within this given framework there can be alternatives. My view is, it’s not pointless to strive to identify viable alternatives that are less “nasty”. This doesn’t necessarily mean “losing sight of the fact that at the root the problem is cultural”. But while recognising that this cultural shift “must happen”, one should at the same time not lose sight of the fact that imperatives often have little concern for the transient, and meanwhile people’s lives cannot be suspended – they are being lived, under realtively better or worse circumstances.

    But “tweaking the rules” need not be an end in itself nor need it exhaust the rationale of progressive politics. The imperative of a new ethos can and should be part of it, and “affirming our realtive poverty” will have to be perhaps one of the central premises of this new ethos.

    • Manos, I agree with everything there except this: “… we don’t have the choice of RADICAL dissent.” Now, looking around me, I can see that no real dissent is going to happen anytime soon. I also accept that radical dissent would come at a huge price, and persuading people that that is a price worth paying would not be easy at this point in history (and would probably be impossible).

      When we argue with the liberals about the effects of TV, they tell us that people are free not to watch it. And on that point at least, they are right. And the fact that I have never yet seen anyone throw their TV out of their flat window and watch delightedly as it smashes into a thousand pieces on the asphalt below does not prove that they do not have the choice to do just that. Does the same not apply to the radical dissent you refer to?

      I also suspect the following: One of the variables in the technocratic algorithmn is the tolerance of the people – how much of the stick they can take (now that the supply of carrots has ended). The technocrats expect the people to kick up a fuss at some point (which probably eases their conscience about annulling democracy in Greece). The question is not whether or not the people have a choice, but at what stage in the process they kick up a fuss and how much of a fuss they then kick up.

      At some point people need to bite the bullet and accept that the fact that something is lawful does not make it right. And I can’t help thinking about the new law (did I hear right?) allowing supermarkets to sell food that previously they were legally obliged to throw away. So, as one of the Greek-saving measures, people doing what the Americans call dumpster diving will now have to pay. I don’t understand why a hundred neighbourhood groups don’t spring up overnight and organise the “theft” of the expired food and distribute it to the needy for free – groups who are prepared to pay the price (possible imprisonment).

      But let’s not waste time. It is all academic. You are right. There will be no radical dissent in the foreseeable future. Perhaps when Thessaloniki and Volos are half submerged and petrol is 45 euros a litre.

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