Thatcher said that we have no alternatives. Progress requires that we prove her wrong.

Summary:  The people in Europe’s periphery suffer from a lack of alternatives. This locks them into two ugly choices: suffer years of austerity (with no end in sight), or futile (perhaps nihilistic) protests. In fact, the West as a whole has a lack of alternatives. Here we discuss that problem, and possible solutions.

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images



  1. The importance of alternatives
  2. We yearn from change. And we get…
  3. What comes next?
  4. For More Information


(1)  The importance of alternatives

There is no alternative.
Either society has laws, or it has not. If it has not, there can be no order, no certainty, no system in its phenomena. If it has, then are they like the other laws of the universe-sure, inflexible, ever active, and having no exceptions.”
— Herbert Spencer’s Social Statics (1851) — He laid the foundations for modern conservatism. He also coined the phrase “survival of the fittest” in 1864.

“Because there really is no alternative.”
— Catch phrase of the late UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, about the necessity to adopt conservative and neoliberal economic measures for the maintenance of capitalism.

Social evolution runs far faster than Darwinian evolution because its teleological. When people have  a vision of a better society, sometimes they are willing to risk large rapid changes to achieve it. But this requires an alternative that looks better than what they have, attainable, and practical. Otherwise political progress either runs slowly, or stagnates entirely. For example, monarchies worked poorly Europe during the millennium in which they were the dominant political form. There were alternatives (eg, the Republic of Venice, the Swiss Confederacy), but these were not considered realistic by a sufficiently large combination of the elites and masses.  Various belief structures precluded experimentation with other forms of politics.

  • A belief that society was an organic whole like the body, with differentiated organs (as described in Shakespeare’s Coriolanus 1. 95-156).
  • The commandment in Romans 13 to unconditionally obey rulers.
  • The divine right of Kings

The potential for overthrow of these regimes came with the long strain of philosophical work beginning with Machiavelli’s The Prince and Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan (see Wikipedia) in 1651. Once the first regime fell in 1783, the evolutionary process accelerated with fantastic speed — with most monarchies replaced in the following 140 years.

The development of Marxism (and its successors) accelerated the pace of social evolution again, so that the conflict among different social forms bathed the 20 century in blood on a scale  seldom seen in history. The result gave a clear winner: various combinations of free-market capitalism and representative democracy (each having a wide range of forms). Various rear-guard retreats are still fought with some intensity, such as by evangelical Christians and Salafist Moslems — but their difficulty coping with modernity gives them low odds of gaining power.

But what happens as the contradictions and flaws accumulate in free market republics? In what direction does the arrow of evolution point? What political model motivates and directs social reform?

(2)  We yearn from change. And we get…


“What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.”
— “The End of History?”, Francis Fukuyama, The National Interest, Summer 1989

“Think about the strangeness of today’s situation. Forty years ago we were debating what the future will be: communist, fascist, capitalist, whatever. Today nobody debates these issues. We silently accept global capitalism is here to stay. On the other hand, we are obsessed with cosmic catastrophes: the whole life on earth disintegrating because of some virus, an asteroid hitting the earth, and so on. So the paradox is that it’s much easier to imagine the end of life on earth than a much more modest radical change in capitalism.”
— Slavoj Žižek in Žižek! (2005 film documentary)

We wish our political and social systems would run better, more honestly and efficiently. We wish for them to run better than they have run in the past; better than they probably can run in the real world. But how to make such reforms?

  • Some people hope for reform through religious reformation (eg, libertarians, looking for the day when people can live in peace and prosperity without government).
  • Some seek simple, near-magical political transformations (eg, a Constitutional Convention at which right-thinking folks will implement what they cannot through conventional politics).
  • Some seek a leader to achieve changes that we cannot envision, using his (or her) charisma to overcome problems to which we — who do not play 12-dimensional chess — cannot see the solution.  This state of mind leads to delusions and then disappointment. The Left is in the midst of this process with Obama, as his second term reveals his true politics (as the GOP foretold, but predicting the result 100% wrong).
  • Others despair, and default on their political responsibilities as citizens (participating only by complaining).

(3)  What comes next?

“Mark this well, you proud men of action: You are nothing but the unwitting agents of the men of thought who often, in quiet self-effacement, mark out most exactly all your doings in advance.”
— Heinrich Heine’s History of Religion and Philosophy in Germany  (1834)

“The world revolves around the inventors of new values; invisibly it revolves. But around the actors revolve the people and fame: that is the way of the world.”
— Nietzsche’s Thus spake Zarathustra  , #12 (1885). See the full excerpt here.

“Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back. I am sure that the power of vested interests is vastly exaggerated compared with the gradual encroachment of ideas.”
– John Maynard Keynes, chapter 24 of the General Theory, pg. 383 (1936)

“Trouble rather the Tiger in his Lair than the sage among his books. For to you Kingdoms and their armies are things mighty and enduring, but to him they are but the things of the Moment, to be overturned with the turning of a page.”
— From Gordon R. Dickson’s Tactics of Mistake (1971)

This is a familiar problem for humanity, a commonplace in history. Eventually creative individuals will imagine new solutions. Or leaders under pressure will break through the walls of conventional thinking, taking bold steps that incrementally force new solutions, as Octavius did for Rome. Or both will occur on separate tracks, as happened in the Great Depression. Although running on a conservative platform — attacking Hoover’s budget deficits — FDR ran larger deficits to finance counter-cyclical fiscal stimulus programs. He took the US off the gold standard to allow monetary stimulus. In 1936 Keynes published his General Theory explaining why these were the correct steps to take, allowing economics to help build the great post-WWII global prosperity.

Perhaps we have reached the limits of our current political and economic systems. They might have lost their vitality, their ability to inspire citizens, retain their loyalty, and control the wilder vices of greed and dominance. There might be no effective marginal reforms that make a difference. If so, history will run in circles until new forms of organization are discovered or imagined. That will happen, eventually.

On another day we will discuss how this happens. See Max Weber’s Theory of Social and Economic Organization (1922). Or Nietzsche. It’s not always a pretty process.

“Therefore, mankind always sets itself only such tasks as it can solve; since, looking at the matter more closely, we will always find that the task itself arises only when the material conditions necessary for its solution already exist or are at least in the process of formation.”
–- Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy by Karl Marx (1859)

(4)  For More Information

(a) About alternatives

  1. The CIA’s forecast about the Iranian Revolution – and the revolution prediction tool, 6 January 2010
  2. Hear the cattle bellowing in the chutes. Will they revolt?, 8 September 2011
  3. Music to accompany a Revolution, 28 November 2012
  4. Social unrest coming to Europe? If not, why not?, 21 March 2013

(b)  To see all posts about reforming America go the FM Reference Page: America – how can we stop the quiet coup now in progress?

(c)  Some posts about reforming America:

  1. Let’s look at America in the mirror, the 1st step to reform, August 2008
  2. Fixing America: shall we choose elections, revolt, or passivity?, 16 August 2008 — Part 1.
  3. Fixing American: taking responsibility is the first step, 17 August 2008 — Part 2.
  4. Fixing America: the choices are elections, revolt, or passivity, 18 August 2008 — Part 3.
  5. How to stage effective protests in the 21st century, 21 April 2009
  6. The first step to reforming America (the final version), 7 December 2009
  7. The project to reform America: a matter for science, or a matter of will?, 16 March 2010
  8. Should we despair, giving up on America?, 5 May 2012
  9. We are alone in the defense of the Republic, 5 July 2012
  10. Attention Americans: the Revolution has begun. You must choose a side., 23 November 2012
  11. Do America’s leaders say “Apres moi, le deluge”?, 10 January 2013
  12. Realism about the prospects for reform in America, 3 March 2013

(d)  About today’s reform movements:

  1. The Tea Party Movement disproves my recommendation for the path to reforming America, 20 April 2010
  2. About the Oath Keepers: boon or bane for the Republic?, 12 June 2010
  3. Occupy Wall Street, another futile peasants’ protest, 5 October 2011
  4. How do protests like the TP and OWS differ from effective political action?, 26 October 201
  5. Civil disobedience by the “Occupy” movement is a challenge to our rulers, 21 November 2011



21 thoughts on “Thatcher said that we have no alternatives. Progress requires that we prove her wrong.”

  1. “Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist.

    Well said Maynard. Pity so many of your acolytes missed the memo.

  2. I think the link which you provided to the full excerpt of the Nietzsche quote is dead — I got a GoDaddy page when I clicked on it.

  3. Coment by Mike posted at Facebook

    Comment posted by Mike at Facebook:

    “Definitely the worst article I’ve read on FM: An incredibly cryptic post written in some sort of shorthand inaccessible to those not of the true faith. A coin-toss whether it’s a realistic analysis of the situation or an incoherent rant. Perhaps there should be some sort of peer review by the 7 authors before articles are put up on the website. This is nowhere near the standard I have come to expect from FM.”

    1. Was the summary to long to read? I will summaries it for you: The West lacks alternatives. Here we discuss that problem, and possible solutions.

      And here is a summary of the article:

      The problem: The West has stopped thinking about alternatives.
      Possible solutions: Start thinking of alternatives, because thought precedes action.

      I think Fabius has about 30 articles revolving around the same idea, if you had read half of them you would have found this one very similar. Bloggers can NOT produce self-contained fully argued monographs, because NO ONE would read them, their posts are always part of an on-going discussion.

  4. I think the question should have some basis on what is exactly our is system and what parts work and what parts might have revo or evo- lution coming. FM is loaded with examples of this, but sadly they do not make an appearance here. This is a good topic, and one of my pet peeves about the site is that no stance is really taken by FM. Does the site ‘lean’ in any particular direction? Ask yourself this question dear reader. Ask FM to appreciate and show gratitude for our eyeball time by picking some areas to take a stand.

    FM is so clever to REPORT on issues, but not TRANSLATE them into position. I do not need more NEWS, I need so know what smart, often published and often read bloggers think about which actions to take. My ongoing empty feeling while reading is anecdotal to meeting FM at a cocktail party, having him state some of the abovementioned facts and then walk off to refresh his martini. Thanks for nothing.

    If you want to start a conversation, have a position. I like to start with “The post war American hoax of the existence of the middle class is the biggest lie perpetrated on free people since Hitler’s Beer Hall Putsch (sp?). Keeping a big group of yammering sheeple between the oligarchs and the poverty stricken is a great plan to keep the rich getting richer and the streets empty of rioters. Now right or wrong, that is a conversation starter. Above is simple a detail look at a booger on a tissue.

    1. Mr West, let me introduce you to the real world. Unlike TV, in the real world sometimes there are no visible solutions. Sometimes a period of analysis is necessary in order to invent solutions.

      Sometimes there are no solutions.

      Now you may return to your regular programming, in which every human drama is solved neatly in 53 minutes. Sometimes with a cliff-hanger, then resolved in the next episode.

  5. Octavius did not introduce a major change in Rome. People realise that the Empire could not be run by a constiturion created for an small city state, it required strong government. What Octavius does is sell them a dream that they have the old constitution while bringing in strong central government. HE does not proclaim himself King or Dictator for Life. Rather he assumes the title of Princeps (first head). Thus the old traditional course of honour canbe followed even leading up to the post of consul with Augustus.

    1. Dominic,

      I think what you mean is that Octavius made major changes, but cloaked them in traditional terms. This is a common practice in history. To drive his reforms, Hilkiah pretends to find an early version Deuteronomy in the temple. When 16th English legal experts reformed their laws, they cloaked it as restoration of ancient principles (Magna Carta, etc).

  6. I can see why you turned off comments.

    If you turn off comments again, know that you will have at least one grateful reader.

    1. First, please have the person forcing you to read these comments put the gun away.

      The discussions are much better at other websites. For example, such as SkepticalScience, RealClimate, and Tamino’s Open Mind — where they either delete challenging comments — or edit them so that you appear brain-dead. Some others on the Left are more straightforward, like Brad DeLong’s, and just delete anything that looks ideologically challenging.

      Many conservative and liberal websites maintain a climate clean of heterodox thought through swarming, mass vicious attacks on any who date to challenge the house view.

      It’s a dark world out there. My guess is that it will grow darker still. Here we have a little fire in which we hope to burn away the lies, myths, and cant that obscure our vision. Everyone gets to speak their mind. You and me.

      So if some strong discussion offends your sensibilities, then this is not the place for you. Perhaps you should stick to places more comfortable to your views. Or low key.

    2. I disagree. I am glad that FM has opened the site up for comments. Websites can have excellent comment threads (see Pat. Long’s blog for an example), but building such a community takes time. Responses like this do not help.

      Also – Without the threads the only other option for response would be personal e-mail (which FM is great at responding to) or spouting off at your own place, which is unlikely to be read. My ideas and analysis have improved because of challenges or additional insights offered by commentators – why should we deny FM the chance?

    3. I feel I should respond.

      Very occasionally there is a comment that will correct a factual mistake in a Fabius post, which Fabius will acknowledge with thanks. Those are valuable contributions to the blog.

      The problem as I see it is that Fabiusmaximus posts are mostly option pieces designed to raise awareness of certain trends in American society that Fabius feels we should be responding to.
      Commenters therefore react emotionally most of the time, as Fabius has challenged their worldview. What generally develops is a long back and forward which will normally become acrimonious and result in the original poster playing the man not the ball. He rarely seems to make an impact on there convictions, right or wrong, in the comments

      On a personal level Fabius has affected my view of the world, but that has been over the course of years. I’m a liberal, but reading Fabius increased my appreciation of certain conservative thinkers, and ideas, and has shifted my thinking on some of the bigger issues facing the west. This wasn’t achieved by a quick back and forward in the comments, but by a slow and logical exposition of political thought over a number of years.

      On a blog, say, about civil engineering, a comment section is valuable, nobody is going to lose there cool over fluid dynamics, commenters with special expertise in that area will be able to add value to the blog post by clarifying or correcting. Very occasionally a Fabius commenter will make an enlightening observation, this is the exception rather than the rule. Most of the time I read comments its for Fabius’s amusingly acerbic put downs, rather than any expectation that a commenter will post anything interesting.

      Anyway I’ve been reading Fabiusmaximus for years, comments on or off it hasn’t affected my enjoyment of the output.
      Keep up the good work, strong discussion is always welcome.

      1. “Fabiusmaximus posts are mostly option pieces designed to raise awareness of certain trends in American society t”

        Quite right, many are. Not all, of course. The posts abut 4GW are analytical and theoretical, about emerging trends. THe posts about climate and peak oil are review articles of the relevant expert literature.

        All of these, however, challenge people’s views. That’s their intent. Most produce strong reactions. Such as the strong push-back for daring to report in Feb 2012 that scientists see a pause in global warming. I got some really over-the-top emails! Nust recently the pause (now roughly 10-15 years long) has become accepted even by most (not all) die-hard “warmistas”. Note that the responses are as strong to the fact-based posts as the opinion pieces.

        Merocaine refers to a change announced in December 2009, moving political commentary into full-scale advocacy to arouse Americans about the danger to the Republic: Re-envisioning the FM website, becoming soldiers in the war for American’s future. The years since have provided grim information: the Republic dies because we’re no longer willing to make it worth. We values comfort and security more than liberty and self-government. The Founders warned of this, and we will probably prove the validity of their fears.

        So what remains to do? I can continue to make forecasts. The Past Predictions page lists many successes, some quite remarkable. I can record the slow death of the Republic and decay of the American people, as a low-grade but contemporaneous Gibbon. But lying outside the group-structure of American society — Left, Right, Warmistas, War-mongers, etc — precludes influence.

        More importantly, only slowly have I come to realize the falsity of the “Army of Davids” (great title of Glenn Reynolds’ book). While the internet consists of individual voices, they gain influence from their institutional affiliations. That’s the key. Lone voices are writing diaries, unless they join one of these communities and their institutional backers (there are, as always, exceptions).

        “Very occasionally a Fabius commenter will make an enlightening observation, this is the exception rather than the rule.”

        It took me a long long time to recognize this fact, and give up hope of useful discussion. I tried many methods of responding to comments, all with the same outcomes.

        “Most of the time I read comments its for Fabius’s amusingly acerbic put downs, rather than any expectation that a commenter will post anything interesting.”

        Many others have said this. But providing entertainment is IMO not sufficient reason to respond to comments.

        “On a blog, say, about civil engineering, a comment section is valuable, nobody is going to lose there cool over fluid dynamics, commenters with special expertise in that area will be able to add value to the blog post by clarifying or correcting.”

        The global warming – climate change (or whatever they’re calling it today) websites tend to suggest otherwise. Unless heavily moderated to screen out emotional verbage, they quickly degenerate. Climate Audit does this very well, perhaps the best I’ve even seen — and does so without screening out opposing viewpoints (quite rare for moderated websites).

        So what to do? I am unwilling to moderate. So after considerable research I’ve found a model: Judity Curry at Climate Etc. She doesn’t moderate, and rarely responds. The comment discussions run on their own. And that’s what I’m doing.

    1. So you cannot take a stand? Is that your offering to the digital world FM? You are certainly educated enough, smart enough and published enough to say what you think are some of the opportunities for change. But you just do not do it. An arms length pundit? A bookworm? A wallflower? Which are you. Please turn off the comments again so I am forced not to expect an intelligent answer from you. Your answer to my post seems copy/pasted from your spreadsheet-o-one thousand retorts. Sure, this is your site and presumably most posters are your fans/compadres. Come on people – dont you want some positioning from FM? Do you avoid suggesting, hinting, inferring, dare say – whispering some kind of angle on what you think? Why do you do that? To cut the critics off at the pass? That is my guess. Oh and banning comments – the weakest form of trying to control your blog.

      1. Let’s try again. Since you are not satisfied with the obvious, clear, and simple — let’s step further into Oz for explanations. Anything to keep the audience happy.

        (1) I do have a simple formula to save America. But why give it away? It’s issued only to people who have hit the tip jar with sufficiently large sums. So many others are profiting from the decay of America, why shouldn’t I?

        (2) I do have a formula to save America, but unfortunately have insufficient time to explain it now. Perhaps in a future note — or several — I’ll sketch it out. Gibbon took 12 years to write six large volumes, and he was just sketching out the history of Rome. Saving a nation is more complex (ie, social engineering, not just history), requiring a larger work.

        (3) It is too complex for description in this medium. To hold my full plan requires a Prime Radiant. I have ordered one from Amizon, and will advise when its received.

        (4) I cannot make heads or tales of what you are attempting to say. Your comment seems to have no relation to what I said.

  7. Rome was used to being ruled by strong individuals or groups by the time Octavius came to power.
    (Marius, Sulla, Caesar Pompey and Crassus) All of them ruled by decree over-riding the Senate.
    All Octavius did was create an illusion that he wasn’t the tyrant, a dream that they could buy into.

  8. Maggie Maggie Maggie Dead Dead Dead also said that in 1987 that there was no such thing as society, which was something so supremely selfish that my first guess is she cribbed it from Ayn Rand, the high priestess of selfishness and Rugged Individualism.

    Even as she was saying that there was no alternative to her favored form of capitalist elitism, the projects of people like Fr. José María Arizmendiarrieta, who had died in 1976 before Thatcher hit her high-water mark, were proving her wrong. The Cleveland Model, developed from Arizmendiarrieta’s Mondragon Corporation, also shows that there are alternatives.

    Aside from the questions of cultural differences (people used to top-down authoritarianism have a hard time allowing themselves to get educated and speak out sufficiently to become effective influencers of their own fates), the biggest questions among those working out the various alternatives seem to revolve around what sort of role government should have in them. Richard Wolff, perhaps influenced by the desire to get rich Silicon Valley whiz kids on board with the concept of economic democracy and by the fact that the right-wing talk show hosts had him on the air and treated him more honestly than neoliberals like Charlie Rose, downplays the role of government, whereas Gar Alperovitz, former advisor to Senator Gaylord Nelson (D-WI), states that government is needed to organize and regulate because even worker-owned and worker-run enterprises cannot be relied upon to consistently put the general welfare above that of the enterprise.(he points to the behavior of worker-owned/run lumber companies in the Pacific Northwest as an example of worker-run outfits being uncaring about the effects on others of their actions).

    1. Phoenix women points to one of the most radical statements by a Western leader, one that undercuts the foundations of republican thought:

      “They’re casting their problem on society. And, you know, there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look to themselves first. It’s our duty to look after ourselves and then, also to look after our neighbour. People have got the entitlements too much in mind, without the obligations, because there is no such thing as an entitlement unless someone has first met an obligation”

      — Interview with Thatcher on 23 September 1987, as quoted in by Douglas Keay, Woman’s Own, 31 October 1987, pp. 8–10. A transcript of the interview at the Margaret Thatcher Foundation website differs in several particulars, but not in substance. The magazine transposed the statement in bold, often quoted out of context, from a later portion of Thatcher’s remarks.

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