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)