Publication Details

Martin, B, The difficulty with alternatives, Social Alternatives, 2002, 21(3), 6-10. The original journal is located here.


Criticising the existing system seems pretty easy. Lots of people do it. Why is it so difficult, in comparison, to promote alternatives? Whether the topic is the military, the nuclear family, the market or the prison system, there is little attention to alternatives compared to criticism of the current system. For example, Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman (1979) in their classic book The Political Economy of Human Rights document US government sponsorship of repressive regimes. But they don’t discuss how to promote change in these policies. In his book The Credential Society, Randall Collins (1979) offers a devastating critique of the role of education systems in maintaining social inequality. Although he outlines several political positions regarding the market in educational qualifications, he gives no serious attention to how to create alternatives. Benjamin Ginsberg (1984) in his penetrating book The Consequences of Consent argues that the system of elections increases the power of the state and reduces the prospects for greater democratisation. However, he doesn’t discuss alternatives to electoral politics or how to achieve them. I am tremendously impressed by each of these books. They offer eye-opening critiques. But, like many other such works, they say little about taking action. Alternatives often aren’t mentioned at all. I think authors such as these do a tremendous service through their critiques. Many readers are outraged and energised and become more active. The problem is not too much critique, but rather that there isn’t nearly enough discussion of alternatives to go along with the critique. Without alternatives, there is a risk that critique becomes a form of loyal opposition. Here I discuss several explanations for why promoting alternatives is so difficult.