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TINA!? And Getting There


We all know lots of people who think “there is no alternative” (TINA) to capitalism. And we all know that on the left it is now de rigour to emphasize the slogan “another world is possible.” Neither stance is an argument, however.

To be an argument, the anti-capitalist stance needs either the evidence of an alternative system, or, short of that, a description of an alternative with a compelling case that it would be worthy and viable. I often try to assist in countering TINA by advocating participatory economics. What I want to address here, however, is the logic behind TINA. What is the substance of TINA? Also, I’d like to address a key difference about attaining another world, once we believe we can do so.

TINA’s Logic

Some folks certainly proclaim that “There Is No Alternative” only to practice system maintenance. Margaret Thatcher didn’t have an argument. She had an assertion and a world-spanning megaphone. But a lot of other folks oppose injustice, yet doubt there is any alternative. Their fatalism prevents anti-capitalism. Their courageous work ignores a new system. Still more folks are entirely immobilized by TINA feelings. What logic does TINA have beyond mere propaganda?

The TINA argument that afflicts so many goes like this.

(1) Whether innately or due to systemic imprinting, people are greedy and determined about it.

(2) A proposed social system that ignores this greediness is like a proposed flying machine that ignores gravity. If it ever gets to the test stage, it will either utterly fail, or, if attained, devolve back into more or less what we already have.

(3) The sensible response is to refine the current system which channels greed to yield a degree of civilization and social progress.

In short, we should try to ameliorate capitalism’s horrific harm, even as we realize that capitalism will be with us forever.

The problem with this argument is that as most anti-capitalists read it, it isn’t an argument at all. Point (3), which is TINA, doesn’t follow from the rest, at least if we have the usual understanding of the claim that people are greedy.

What instead follows from the observations, it seems to me, is that any social system needs to recognize that human beings desire desirable living conditions and material well being and have energy and insight with which to pursue these, and that they will do so. To get positive social outcomes therefore – say, classlessness – a social system must provide means for people to advance their own life conditions and possibilities by their own energies and insights and must also ensure that when people inevitably pursue their well being the result will be increasing sociality and solidarity rather than increasing anti-sociality and division. In a preferred system doing well must require socially responsibility.

In other words, the argument offered on behalf of TINA actually implies not TINA, but that to propose an alternative economy (or other sphere of life) we need to conceive institutions which let people accomplish the functions of that area of life in ways that advance their well being but which also enhance social cohesion and produce equity and self-management rather than producing class division and domination of the many by a few.

The claim that people are greedy provides no reason to think this is impossible. It doesn’t put up a roadblock to revolution (which would be TINA), but it instead says, show me what you have to offer that let’s people improve their lives, but that also generates just outcomes.

However, most people who put forth or feel this type or argument, take it all the way to TINA. Sometimes they have not considered the reply above. But I think there is another more frequent possibility. If we reread the word “greedy” in their formulation to mean much more than merely seeking personal well being and development, then it can be that if their premises are true, TINA pretty much follows.

Suppose that if Noam Chomsky and Arundhati Roy undertake a joint project they will each arrive at a quality of life level of 10 (accounting for material well being, conditions, options, etc.). Suppose, also, that if they oppose one another and seek to one-up and trump one another, the one who gains dominance will attain an index of 8 and the loser will attain an index of 6.

I think the TINA advocate is saying that people so desire to dominate others that they quite willingly forego large amounts of all other desired outcomes to compete – so much so that Noam and Arundhati in our little example will both take the loss in living quotient to feed their insatiable appetites to dominate. More, it won’t be possible to channel this drive to one-upsmanship into areas such as being good or better at something, without, however, accruing extra wealth and power. The need to dominate will infect every part of life, especially trying to get more stuff and to have more say.

Okay, I think that that jaundiced picture of humanity per se (which is in considerable degree true of humanity competing under markets), gives the TINA case logic. For example, I advocate an economic system called participatory economics (or parecon) in place of capitalism. It is an alternative, and thus a rebuttal of TINA.

In a parecon there are new institutions that generate classlessness based on equity, solidarity, diversity, and self management. Old divisions of labor are gone, competitive allocation is gone, and so on. But, if humans, whether innately or just due to accumulated social imprinting, were as driven to dominate as the perverse picture outlined above conveys, then, yes, it is plausible that either we couldn’t attain a parecon or, if we did attain one by a few dominators manipulating everyone into it, in time its classlessness would unravel back into capitalistic relations or its functionality would crash and burn and we’d all starve.

So what’s my point? Obviously I don’t accept the picture of humanity behind TINA or accept TINA itself, so why bother exploring it? The point is, when we advocates of a better world encounter opponents, we should not immediately assume stunted brains or malignant values. It can be that they have an honest, reasoned difference about what is out there in the world and what can be plausibly put out there in any foreseeable future.

And even if the person arguing with us doesn’t have sincere motives, certainly a great many others do. It behoves us, therefore, to always make our case as best we can – and to only get aggressive if hostile motives are made profoundly evident and there is no other recourse. I have a lot of trouble abiding this advisory when encountering TINA pronouncements, so I think it is worth enunciating as an important antidote to being sectarian, a trap we can all easily fall into.

I have here been addressing, of course, the argumentative interface between libertarian leftists seeking a world without hierarchies of injustice and power and social democrats or depoliticized folks feeling that we have to admit the permanence of capitalism. But I want to explore another case of opposed views, as well.

How do we attain the new world?

Lenin or Anti-Lenin?

Perhaps the biggest current strategic debate among those seeking a new world is between Leninists and non-Leninists. I am on the latter side, and yes I do think that sometimes Leninists are Leninist not as a last resort, but because the structure and approach comes naturally to them due to background and proclivities, and even because the approach is consistent with sought-after political and economic hierarchy, albeit with an eye to eliminating corporate rule.

Similarly, I have to admit that sometimes we anti-Leninists hold our views out of personal antipathy to organization, social regulation, and social responsibility, drifting off into anti-institutional stances that are as bad as anything the Leninists accuse us of. And indeed, this is how the two sides often portray each other: as regimented robots versus air-headed irresponsibles. But, what if we look for the best variant of each side rather than the worst? Then what is the divide?

That best Leninist will say “I seek true classlessness, true participatory democracy, an end to patriarchy, and an end to racism including enriched cultural diversity.” The best anti-Leninist will say the same thing. Both – they are the best, after all – will mean it. So far, there is no difference.

The best Leninist will next say that “given the immense state power we face, we have to fight fire with fire.” The central issue isn’t violence, however, but top-down coordination, on the one hand, and what might be called manipulative mass/frontist politics, on the other hand.

The best Leninist will say “these are odious options, of course, by ideal standards, but regrettably they are made necessary by state power and in that respect quite like violent self defence when it is required.”

The best Leninist will continue, “Leninist methods can be grossly abused and engender horrible outcomes. We have seen that and can see how and why. But we have no choice. We must find a way to deploy these methods if we are to win, and we must find a way to constrain their tendencies to induce horrible results if victory is to be worthy.”

The best anti-Leninist, in contrast, will say almost exactly the opposite. “It isn’t only that democratic centralism and manipulative mass politics foster coordinator class rule, political authoritarianism, patriarchy, and cultural homogenization, it is that Leninist methods simply won’t galvanize a winning movement. They won’t attract support, gather and harmonize energy, empower constituencies, etc.”

The best anti-Leninist will continue, “Quite the contrary, these approaches will lead to such rhetorical and sectarian mindsets that they will induce only modest movement growth. Pragmatically, in the modern world, they are doomed to fail. If they could win something, they would win a new world we wouldn’t want, but luckily, they won’t win much. To be credible, inspiring, and empowering, what we need is movements that embody the values and to the extent possible the social relations and structures of the new world we seek.”

Neither side is despicable for holding their views. This is an honest disagreement – remember we are talking about the best strands of both worlds – about what is entailed of us by the vile practices of the super powerful opponents who we confront.

So in this dispute, like in the face-off between seeking revolution and accepting capitalism as permanent, while there can be stances on both sides with ill motivation, there can also be stances on both sides with comparably enlightened and humane motivation. To enter every exchange presupposing the worst in the other participant — even if in some contexts the cynical expectation would be right considerably more often than it would be wrong — is the breeding ground of sectarian habits that don’t go away easily.

One of the nicest attributes of the social forum process is that it is forcing people to respectfully address one another’s different positions. There is no need to water down our strong feelings and our hopefully well-formed and well-evidenced claims. But there is a need to communicate respectfully and present real arguments, not to just flail at one another.

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