There Is Always An Alternative
with Dave Beech
The idea that there is no alternative rests on an idea of inevitability or inescapability: on the maintenance of the status quo. Such a view does not preclude change, conflict and difference. On the contrary, change, conflict and difference are essential to the maintenance of hegemonic power. What we might call local conflicts are played out within a shared acceptance of the impossibility of a total, systemic revolution. What the idea that there is no alternative tries to rule out, is the very possibility of thinking (let alone enacting) a challenge to the limits of the social structure itself.
The idea that there is always an alternative needs to encompass something other than practical action against the results of injustice, exclusion, division and so forth. Slavoj Zizek coins the term interpassivity to denote changing things all the time in order to stop things from really changing. Zizek says:
If, today, we follow a direct call to act, this act will not be performed in an empty space – it will be an act within the hegemonic ideological co-ordinates: those who “really want to do something to help people” get involved in (undoubtedly honourable) exploits like Medecins sans frontieres, Greenpeace, feminist and anti-racist campaigns, which are all not only tolerated but even supported by the media, even if they seemingly encroach on economic territory (for example, denouncing and boycotting companies which do not respect ecological conditions, or use child labour) – they are tolerated and supported as long as they do not get too close to a certain limit.
That limit, of course, is the questioning of the hegemonic ideological co-ordinates: the questioning of “the capitalist system, in the way the political space and state apparatuses work.”
Zizek is concerned with action in the present. He says that we might still be in what he calls Adorno’s moment: that it might be, historically, impossible to act – to know what the right act might be in the face of the hegemonic dominance of contemporary capitalism. Adorno thought that sometimes more analysis, more understanding, is needed than action. But one of the things we need to analyse is history. It is, of course, an historical irony that alternatives become clearer in retrospect.
Thatcher wanted to erase the word socialism and with the word, the possibility. She wanted to make alternatives not only impractical but unthinkable. The fight for socialism, by definition, cannot be accommodated within capitalism. Identity politics, on the other hand, are readily accommodated by capitalism. The sectional needs of particular groups are compatible with the mechanisms of a market economy: the victims of discrimination can easily be rethought as unexploited markets. From the point of view of the victim of discrimination, the demand for equal rights is the demand to be seen and recognized. It is the demand to be valued and included within the present framework, whatever the changes within that framework that are imagined. The appeal of the victim cannot help but cast itself in relation to existing authority. In the demand for what is practical and achievable in the present, the future is lost. As Oscar Wilde said, the very point of socialism is that it is impractical. Socialism is the attempt to smash the hegemonic, ideological co-ordinates within which what is practical is defined.
The importance of class, is in the fact that class is always an exception. Within the familiar list of oppression (race, gender, sexual orientation, disability and class), class always stands out. With the others, you are oppressed because of what you are (black, gay, or etc.). But with class, you are oppressed first, so to speak: you are working class because you are oppressed in a particular way (forced to sell your labour). The idea of radical alternatives must begin from the point of exception: from that which cannot be included within the “hegemonic ideological co-ordinates” of any given situation. The point of exception encompasses those, structurally, without an investment in the continuance of the present state of affairs. To be exceptional is to have nothing. It is with nothing that an account of alternatives must begin.
One of the difficulties that has plagued leftwing politics has been the apparent unfeasibility of alternatives to the all too solid, deeply rooted social structure. Wilde addressed this directly, as you point out, admitting that Socialism goes against common sense and all practical thinking – and that this is exactly what recommends it! Alternatives, it has tended to seem, are either impossible or extremely rare. What we are suggesting with the title ‘There is Always an Alternative’, however, is that alternatives exist everywhere, everywhen – they grow on trees, almost. I wonder if this is more acceptable now than it was in Wilde’s day, or whether we will be met with the same sceptical common sense?
Why always? I can hear the protest now: if alternatives exist everywhere, everywhen, then why are we stuck with this system? You lay the groundwork for the answer to this very clearly, borrowing from Bhaskar’s argument that change is necessary for things to stay the same. That is to say, the countless acts of conservation, reaction, enforcement, control and repression that the system requires to prevent alternatives from blossoming are proof of the latent possibility of the preponderance of alternatives. Rightwingers have always understood the need to work continuously to keep alternatives at bay – including all the work needed to quash the very idea that alternatives are possible. Every statement that there is no alternative, therefore, is an example of the sort of act that Bhaskar refers to as the continual agency of change required to maintain the present system.
Alternatives, oddly enough, are inevitable. Agency is not required. Stop maintaining things, and everything will change. Unfortunately, of course, if you fail to act, then the alternative you get is unlikely to be the one you desire. Christopher Hill, E.P. Thompson and C.B. Macpherson are good on this sort of thing, tracing how the historical moment of the emergence of capitalism, for instance, contained a range of alternatives that were suppressed and then retrospectively ruled out and ridiculed. There is always an alternative and there are always rival alternatives. And it is the existence of rivalry that necessitates agency. And agency in turn requires theory: the first condition of changing things is the perception that things can change.
We seem to have come full circle. We are back with Wilde and the widespread perception that there is no alternative, or none of any practicable value. Except, virtue of Bhaskar, we have arrived at the question of the need for a theory of change after proposing that change exists everywhere, everywhen. So, we don’t need a theory of change in the abstract, as it were; we need theory, as Eagleton argues, because theory is the opposite of dogma. Theory is unavoidable. If theory is the way we get a handle on things, then the anti-theorist (e.g. the aesthete) simply has a theory (e.g. of art) which involves the illusion that no such theory is required. What Roy Bhaskar says about ontology rings true for theory in general: everyone has a theory but for some it is a hidden assumption rather than an explicit commitment. Anti-theorists are therefore always dogmatists. And the slogan of the dogmatist is always: there is no alternative. Theory, by contrast, insists – transgressively, emancipatorily – there is always an alternative. And we really have come full circle when we link this understanding of theory to Christopher Norris’ reclamation of theory: “theory can offer grounds – reasoned and principled grounds – for rejecting much of what presently passes as commonsense”.
Rejecting much of what presently passes as commonsense is indeed an urgent and continual political task. One of the difficulties for even thinking of alternatives is finding the words. That is, hegemonic structures impress themselves on vocabularies. Discourses contain ideological and arbitrary closures. As Art & Language point out in their analogy between the artworld and Trobriand Island, the internal reasons of agents in a community are usually limited by their shared discourse and way of life. That is, certain types of explanation are rendered unthinkable within the internal terms of the discourse of a particular way of life. It is only a second order account that can render first order reasons corrigible. From a political point of view, we are always trying to think of alternatives from within a particular way of life: to think a second order discourse whilst being within a first order one. If there is no archimedean point from which to dislodge the political hegemony, then we are always standing on shifting ground: we must even be suspicious of the words we use to voice our suspicions.
In his book Did Somebody Mention Totalitarianism, Zizek explores the ways in which the idea of totalitarianism is used to render alternatives to contemporary capitalism unthinkable. The idea of totalitarianism brings off a neat conflation. On the one hand, it is set up as a synonym for oppressive, murderous regimes. On the other, it is presented as the inevitable end point of all alternatives to the free market. All enemies of the free market are painted as inevitably, in the last instance, as enemies of freedom itself. It is an ideological trick of the trade to present all alternatives as mere variants of a single alternative, despite their manifest rivalries, diversity and so on. Thus, the hidden thought in “there is no alternative” is that there is, in fact, one alternative but only one alternative: that all alternatives are in fact the same (they turn out the same) and that they are so horrendous as to be unmentionable.
One of the tasks for those of us seeking alternatives is to shift the debate on to our own linguistic territory. As you say, we need theory. The Tory slogan from the current election campaign – “It’s not racist to talk about immigration’ – is racist precisely not because of its explicit meaning but because of the implicit link between immigration and racism it forges. Only a racist would have the need to make this denial. The Tories know this, of course. Since overt racism has become intolerable because of victories for the left, the Tories have to stir up racial hatred through allusion and innuendo. Hence the other nudge-nudge-wink-wink sinister slogan, “are you thinking what we’re thinking,” which acknowledges that what they are thinking is unmentionable. The purpose of all this is to reassure racists that what they are thinking is legitimate even if unsayable. The real message is that it is alright to be racist as long as you don’t claim to be racist. The public acceptability of such slogans, their failure to raise indignation, is a political defeat.
The enemies of freedom and the flourishing of all have long known the imperative of the unity of theory and practice in practice. Racist thoughts and racist deeds go together, for example. But there are limits. In his essay on the colonisation of utopia, Steve Edwards explores how contemporary capitalism, in the West, at least, has colonised ideas of utopia. The three themes of utopia he draws out of utopian tradition are abundance, sexual freedom and idleness. Capitalism can colonise all three, to some extent and in its own ways. In the Western post-war settlement, it can claim to provide an abundance of things; to promote sexual indulgence (Zizek has characterised the contemporary Superego injunction to be the order “Enjoy!”, rather than any prohibition, with all the contradiction that that entails) and provide ample idleness through the leisure industry. All of these are perversions of utopian dreams, of course. But what Edwards points out, is that work is the one thing that capitalism cannot colonise. Work is a point of exception because capital rests upon the exploitation of labour. For Edwards, what utopian thought needs to maintain, is the idea of work, or praxis, as self-determined flourishing. The thing is, this alternative to meaningless toil can be found everywhere and everywhen.
What I like about Steve Edward’s conception of Utopia is its reintroduction of ontology to the question of desire. Judith Butler and Ernesto Laclau, by contrast, treat ontology as repressive – a limiting condition on critical thinking. Butler, for instance, talks about ontological presuppositions at work in gender constructions and conflates ontology with ‘received notions of reality’. She is concerned primarily by “who and what is considered real and true” and the way that “power dissimulates as ontology”. Ontology is always a dissimulation for Butler. It is never a question of what constitutes the real; only how different realities are constructed through discourse and action. This, of course, is not ontology at all. The occlusion of ontology reconfigures ontology as a peculiarly constraining kind of epistemology. In terms of gender, then, ontology is figured as an illegitimate closure. Laclau has rejected ontology for the same reason. Butler, like Laclau and others, seeks to subvert ontology as a critical act, pulling the rug decisively from under the feet of those who regard gender identities as natural, eternal, fixed or given. This means that Butler has an actualised, monist ontology – reducing the stratified, differentiated, multivalent reality to ungiving, unquestionable, inflexible states or facts. It is for this reason that Butler looks at ontology as contemptible, as a force of conservatism.
By reclassifying gender as discourse rather than ontology, Butler hopes to imply that gender is subject to change rather than restricted by nature. A differentiated, stratified, absenting, divided ontology, however, could not be discarded in this way. In fact, such an ontology is implied in Butler, despite her protests – without it, how would performativity function? Language must be real and have real effects, for instance, and histories must be present (real absences), while the social fabric has to be split, divided and in contradiction with universal human flourishing. In reducing ontology to epistemology, however, Butler constrains our ability to change the ontological conditions under which these conceptual changes can take place. Ontology, then, does not undermine Butler’s critique of gender’s naturalisation; if it is a fully dialectical ontology then it underlines, grounds, realises and exceeds that critique. If the ontology of gender, not only our perception of gender, can change then we have two tasks of transformation, or two integrated aspects of that transformation. And if Butler hopes to free one side from the other then the ontology of gender will be neglected and ultimately retained. What’s more, to leave the ontological conditions of gender division intact means to permit ontology to act as a break on our perceptions.
Ontology cannot be left out of our conception of politics and the alternatives that politics calls up. Steve Edwards’ conception of Utopia is, accordingly, not a liberation from the real. On the contrary, it is a very bodily alternative. As such, it inverts the formula preferred by Butler and Laclau: rather than treat ontology as the given object of critique, Edwards deploys ontology as a critique of capitalism’s ideological and actual distortions and constraints on activity and potential. Maybe this is a good starting point for thinking about the rival claims ‘there is no alternative’ and ‘there is always an alternative’? For one, a fixed ontology (‘human nature’, ‘the way things are’ and so on) predetermines the limits on freedom, whereas for the other, the radical alternative, the illicit constraints on freedom imposed by a distorting ideology are the obstacles to a Utopian alternative always already present but unrealised in the world. The reason that it is always false to say that there is no alternative is that Utopia is lodged in ontology. The reason there is always an alternative is because there are so many obstacles to Utopia.