by Adam Heidebrink-Bruno
Two years ago, I entered the Literature and Social Justice Masters program at Lehigh University anxious to study the relationship between narrative and political action. Having just left the digital publishing and advertising industry, I knew too well how popular media narratives structure contemporary U.S. values, often in ways that trouble me. Yet, as a humanities student, I recognize that we cannot avoid cultural productions nor should we want to. But that doesn’t mean we have to accept the narratives that produce harm or foreclose political possibilities.
Instead, I believe we need to study the fictions that shape our lives in order to understand where our fears, desires, anxieties, and prejudices come from. Only when we understand the stories that shape us, can we begin to create the counter-narratives necessary to build the future we want. This is why I organized Tackling T.I.N.A., a literature-based economic justice discussion series that imagines a world beyond capitalism and founded on the belief that fiction deeply impacts the way we engage in politics.
At the heart of this project lies one of the most prominent myths about our contemporary economic system: “There Is No Alternative” (T.I.N.A.). Since the 1980s, this powerful controlling narrative has been the de facto justification for the global expansion of neoliberal capitalism. Admittedly, the collapse of socialist and communist parties around the world (including a very strong socialist movement in the U.S.) makes it difficult to imagine alternative economic systems. Yet, my concern here is how the very claim, “There Is No Alternative,” stifles the horizon of possibility which leaves us revising capitalism time and again rather than discussing how to replace it. As a result, efforts to restructure the economy systemically are diminished. Instead, the public imagination is directed away from alternative models of management, organization, and distribution in favor of market-friendly reform.
Tackling T.I.N.A. challenges the myth that “There Is No Alternative.” By recognizing the complex and hybrid structure of modern economies, we work to change the dominant economic narrative. Not only are viable alternatives to capitalism possible, they are already a crucial part of our daily lives. After all, public services as commonplace as libraries, national parks, and state-owned utility companies remind us that the U.S. economy is far from the “pure” capitalism model that many economists and politician regard as ideal.
I believe that identifying the complexity of our already-existing economy opens up possibilities for productive dialogue about economic justice. It calls into question many of the assumptions that the public holds about our modern economy. Reframing the economic narrative enables us to explore the underlying myths that give it power and chart its future development.
Staying true to the English Department’s focus on literature and social justice, Tackling T.I.N.A uses literature and storytelling to critique economic and political myths. Through a series of readings and community discussions, we work together to envision the social change we hope to see in the world around us and then develop practical strategies to enact those changes.
For instance, at our first Spring 2018 public discussion, we read excerpts from Re: imagining Change: How to Use Story-based Strategy to Win Campaigns, Build Movements, and Change the World by Doyle Canning and Patrick Reinsborough alongside a short story by Karl Schroeder, “Degrees of Freedom.” Together, these two texts gave our February participants a common language to discuss the political power of storytelling as well as an example of what it might look like to truly dedicate ourselves to reimagining democratic debate.
In “Degrees of Freedom” Schroeder explores how open-source communication technologies could help indigenous communities reclaim their land. By foregrounding how storytelling and narrative help make sense of the complex issues surrounding land rights, Schroeder models a form of political dialogue radically different than those we see today. Then, using strategies from Re:Imagining Change, we considered how the democratic model presented in “Degrees of Freedom” could become a reality. Focusing specifically on the political power of narratives, Canning and Reinsborough identify the controlling images and narrative frames that influence how individuals perceive their political reality. The authors then outline a process through which concerned citizens and activists can destabilize restrictive narratives and introduce liberatory ones. Read together, these two texts reveal that there is no singular democratic process, and that the one Schroeder imagines in his short story is no less possible than the one we use today.
Through this strategic combination of fiction and political theory, Tackling T.I.N.A. aims to create a safe, public space to consider viable economic and political alternatives, especially those that are overlooked by mainstream media. Those who participate in our events will be introduced to a variety of alternative economic structures that already exist in the here-and-now. At the same time, we challenge participants to envision new systems of economic organization as a source of hope and inspiration for a more equitable future.
Moving forward, Tackling T.I.N.A. is developing a planning committee responsible for leading events year-round. If you are inspired by our group’s mission and want to volunteer for a leadership position, let us know. In the meantime, keep an eye on the Tackling T.I.N.A. website (wordpress.lehigh.edu/tacklingtina) for upcoming events, discussion notes, and reading suggestions. And, most importantly, remember that there is always an alternative.
Adam Heidebrink-Bruno is pursuing a Masters degree in Literature and Social Justice at Lehigh University. He is also a local activist and a founder of Tackling TINA.
“Margaret Thatcher’s fancy funeral will be held this coming Wednesday. Along with the deceased prime minister, can we bury TINA, too?”