Lately, it’s common to see critique—even smart, detailed critique—answered with a crass dismissal: “Well, what’s your solution then?” As if the very idea of raising a concern is invalid on its own. Among boosters, no critique is deemed valid without a complete alternative program.

This David Graeber article is about much more than just critique, but I enjoyed it for the following response to demands for programmatic solution:

Normally, when you challenge the conventional wisdom–that the current economic and political system is the only possible one–the first reaction you are likely to get is a demand for a detailed architectural blueprint of how an alternative system would work, down to the nature of its financial instruments, energy supplies, and policies of sewer maintenance. Next, you are likely to be asked for a detailed program of how this system will be brought into existence. Historically, this is ridiculous. When has social change ever happened according to someone’s blueprint? It’s not as if a small circle of visionaries in Renaissance Florence conceived of something they called “capitalism,” figured out the details of how the stock exchange and factories would someday work, and then put in place a program to bring their visions into reality. In fact, the idea is so absurd we might well ask ourselves how it ever occurred to us to imagine this is how change happens to begin.

published April 14, 2013



    I should have added – then, even if you do both, they’d say “well, the history of people coming up with models like that and then trying to impose them on society is terrible! Look at the Soviet Union or Mao’s China!”

    As for the Renaissance Florence example, if I’d had more space I’d also have noted, “as that example shows, even if you tried this, most of the questions you’d be asked would be completely irrelevant. If a group of visionaries had proposed a capitalist system in Renaissance Florence, the first question they’d have been asked would have been, ‘yes, but how would this ‘capitalist’ system resolve the problem of the relation between Papal and Monarchical power?'”

  2. Jonas Maaløe

    While I agree that raising concerns should not in turn require fully laid out solutions, I do try to adhere by LCD Soundsystem’s Jame Murphy’s take on the matter:

  3. mummifiedstalin

    All too true.

    But the underlying intuition is “Something must be done.” The intensity or urgency of the counter-criticism is its content.

    You’re right about the logic. But there’s a rhetoric-logic at work there, too.

  4. Jim Creel

    That “Something must be done,” attitude is where I feel the problem lies. Sometimes the best action is inaction. The fetishization of action seems like it stems from our desire to validate our persuasion with an observable response.

  5. Ian Bogost

    In fact, Jim, the ideology of action has become near-total. Today, one is measured by “impact,” whether or not that impact is positive. It’s become better to be impactful while destroying things than to be a quiet, “unimpactful” steward of them.