The Dictatorship of No Alternative

‘The dictatorship of no alternative’ is a phrase used by Brazilian social and political commentator (and politician) Roberto Mangabeira Unger. He argues that, too often, those who offer alternatives to the status quo are dismissed either as utopian or trivial. Ideas will be rejected as utopian if they are too distant from the established order; ideas will be shrugged off as trivial if they are just so close to the existing state of affairs that they can be characterized as banal or insignificant.

The dictatorship of no alternative is a tool of conservatism, essentially, a means to sustain the tyranny of whatever orthodoxy holds sway. It is an instrument of power. When combined with the abiding certainties of the hidebound – those whose lifelong certitudes permit them to decry any alien ideas as dangerous or destructive – it can be extremely difficult, in any discrete context, for new ideas to find a fingerhold and to cling on long enough to begin to make themselves heard above the deadening clamour of the conventional or the scornful rejection of the entrenched.

(Interestingly, the ‘trivial’ argument might also be used by those who would seek to replace the existing orthodoxy with a new one. Those who espouse some radical shifts in the current orthodoxy (which could themselves be typified as ‘utopian’ by detractors) might deploy the ‘trivial’ argument against those who are happy to promote piecemeal change, because this would slow down the shift to the new orthodoxy. Equally, those who are happy to accept piecemeal change will themselves throw accusations of utopianism at more radical proposals.)

In education, we can see examples of this particular tyranny all around us. There are those who believe that the school exists to disseminate ‘knowledge’. There are those who believe that the printed word is, always has been, and always will be, the only truly significant repository of, and medium for the reproduction of, ‘knowledge’. There are those who believe that the role of the teacher is, simply and self-evidently, to teach, and who see teaching as primarily a process of transferring ‘knowledge’ to the learner. There are even those who believe that scholarship in the humanities and the arts is synonymous with scientific research, especially when such scholarship is accompanied by banks of definitive statistics (and before the massed ranks of researchers in the arts and humanities descend upon my head, I will defend as strongly as anyone the equal worth of such research to the future of humanity – I merely make the point that such scholarship is not, despite the wishful thinking of many who toil in these particular fields, the same as scientific research, applied or otherwise).

The very many bien pensants in education, at all levels, from the classroom to the government minister, are wont to take advantage of the dictatorship of no alternative. Their presumptive tyranny might reveal itself as the arrogant dismissal of the highly qualified or experienced, as the passive aggression of the complacent, as the defensive bombast of the vacuous sloganiser or unthinking ideologue, or as the dread-laden pronouncements of the perennially timid.

I would contend that there isn’t an educator out there who has not had to endure the dictatorship of no alternative. Of course, we have to ask ourselves how often we too have used the tactic to obstruct a change we did not like or want. When we decide to oppose change in education, we had better have a more effective argument than the oppresive TINA.