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No Alternatives, One Imperative

I don’t think it’s controversial to say that the quest for alternatives—lifestyles, cultures, homeopathies, even economies—tracks the collapse of working-class power in America and Western Europe, with the failure of the revolts of the late 1960s unleashing a thousand miniature utopias through the sunburned ’70s. During much of the 20th century, the term “alternative” would have carried little weight in radical circles, since the battle lines were already clearly drawn. The workers embodied the Future, abetted by work-reducing technology and opposed by an obsolescent ruling class whose star had all but sunk. From the society of bourgeois control, to a society without work or domination: this formula described the system’s innermost logic, not an elective deviation.

Something had to slip, in other words, for the left to divest from its belief in capitalism’s self-obliteration/overcoming. And slip it did. The many hands that united in the protests, strikes, and occupations of the late 1960s failed to take the levers of power. The system struck back over the course of the next decades, and the rest is history. Since roughly 2008, however, things seem to have slipped again. In the midst of economic catastrophe, the mantle of invulnerability with which capitalism once shrouded itself now appears beyond tattered; looking through its holes, we can see that the alternatives we once eagerly celebrated (clean energy, fair trade commodities, frictionless media, etc.) were merely the flip side of the policies of Reagan and Thatcher. Alternativism was our reward for disarming, keeping our heads down, and our hands busy with virtuous commerce.

In place of alternatives, then, I’ll speak of a single imperative—that of communism. Just as fantasy bears the imprint of the normative, so do alternatives bear the imprint of the possible: they tell us exactly how much a small collective can hope to accomplish against overwhelming odds. Communism eschews the possible for the impossible, aiming at what manifestly cannot be done by individuals within capitalism: defying the laws of property and exchange, refusing the mold of the bourgeois family, expropriating the means of subsistence en masse and by force. I don’t mean to denigrate the work of radicals past and present, but I will insist against the grain that there is truly No Alternative—now more than ever. The hell of capital was built with only a single exit, its name marked in bright red letters. We all know what’s to be done. The question is not what or why but how, with what implements, and in what order.


Danny Marcus

DANNY MARCUS is a PhD candidate in the History of Art department at UC Berkeley.


The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2013

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