An Alternative to "Alternatives"

by Larry Lohmann

first published 7 December 2014

The alternative to the demand “What's your alternative?” is to counter it with questions such as “alternative for whom?” “alternative to what?”, and to replace it wherever possible with the question “Whose side are you on?”

Many people who demand that political activists provide them with “alternatives” to the status quo are not really interested in alternatives. Or if they are, they are interested only in those “alternatives” that might benefit themselves, reinforce oppression, or fit with their own view of the world.

Imperious demands for “alternatives” from political elites tend to have two functions: first, to preserve the illusion that action is the implementation of ready-made plans by leaders; and second, to prevent attempts to build genuine, open-ended alternatives that might provide ordinary people with too much information about how the world works.

What is the alternative to “alternatives”? One step, argues this piece for the World Rainforest Movement Bulletin, would be to make the question “What's your alternative?” into a problem wherever it arises. To meet it with the counter-question, “Alternative for whom?” To refuse to address elite-biased questions such as “What's your alternative for meeting global demand for palm oil?”, instead working to make it possible for the public to be able to discuss questions like “How is the demand for palm oil being constructed and by whom, and at whose expense?”

A related move would be to replace the question “What's your alternative?”, wherever possible, with the question “Whose side are you on?” – as a reminder that alternatives are not just a matter for intellectuals and political leaders to decide on but are already and always being explored everywhere, and that the issue is which explorations you're going to commit yourself to.