The Tyranny of Choice

I read about this interview with Slovenian philosopher Renata Salecl in an article by John Sexton at The interview itself can be found at Der Spiegel. Ms Salecl believes that all of the choices we must make in modern life, under the capitalist system, causes us all too much stress which results in a “tyranny of choice”.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Ms. Salecl, at the fast food chain Subway we have to make half a dozen decisions before we can finally enjoy our sandwich. Is that what you mean when you speak in your lectures about the “tyranny of choice?”

Salecl: I try to avoid places like Subway, and if I end up there I always order the same thing. When I speak about the “tyranny of choice,” I mean an ideology that originates in the era of post-industrial capitalism. It began with the American Dream — the idea of the self-made man, who works his way up from rags to riches. By and by, this career concept developed into a universal life philosophy. Today we believe we should be able to choose everything: the way we live, the way we look, even when it comes to the coffee we buy, we constantly need to weigh our decision. That is extremely unhealthy.SPIEGEL ONLINE: Why?

Salecl: Because we constantly feel stressed, overwhelmed and guilty. Because, according to this ideology, it’s our own fault if we’re unhappy. It means we made a bad decision.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: And if we make the right choice?

Salecl: In that case, we constantly feel that there’s something even better hiding behind the next corner. So we are never truly content and are reluctant to settle on anything.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: “Don’t let the common man decide. He’s not smart enough.” That argument has been used by autocrats for centuries. Do you mean to say they are right?

Salecl: No. I don’t criticize political or electoral freedom, but capitalism’s perversion of the concept: the illusion that I hold the power over my own life.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: But I do have that power. I can decide for myself what I want, even if the thought stresses me out.

Salecl: Not at all. A friend, who’s a psychologist, told me about a patient once: a woman who was well educated, had a good job, a house and a loving husband. “I did everything right in my life,” said the woman. “But I’m still not happy.” She never did what she herself wanted, but what she believed society expected from her.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: So we need to be better at pursuing our personal happiness?

Salecl: Even that is an illusion. Happiness has become a bar we measure ourselves against. The world is full of women’s magazines that strive to tell us what will make us happy. It’s filled with Facebook status updates, telling us how much other people are making of their lives. There are even indexes evaluating how happy certain nations are. “Be happy” has become a societal imperative. If you aren’t, you have failed.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: But the motto also tells everyone that they can make their own choices. That gives people greater control over their lives.

Salecl: Yes, but that’s only partially true. We still can’t control the consequences our choices will bring. That’s the next step. Not only do we want freedom of choice, but we also want a guarantee that whatever we choose will be exactly as we envisioned it.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Why are we so afraid to just go with the flow?

Salecl: Because every time we decide for something, we lose something else. Buying a car is a great example. A lot of people not only read ratings before they buy their car but they continue afterwards — to make sure they really made the right choice.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: If I have no choice, because I can’t afford anything, will that make me happier?

Salecl: Paradoxically, no. One of the greatest gains of capitalism is that even the proletarian slave feels like a master. He believes he has the power to change his life. We are propelled by the ideology of the self-made man: we work more, we consume more and in the end we consume ourselves. The consequences are burnout, bulimia and other lifestyle diseases.

SPIEGEL ONLINE. Why do we treat ourselves so poorly?

Salecl: Sigmund Freud already discovered that suffering gives us pleasure — in a strange masochistic way. The tyranny of choice exploits that weakness. Consumer culture exhausts us. We suffer. We destroy ourselves. And we just can’t stop.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: But we aren’t really the victims. After all, we created this system ourselves and as long as we keep consuming, it will continue to exist. Ultimately, capitalism only mirrors human nature.

Salecl: That’s true. Freud also said we choose our own neuroses. Capitalism is the neurosis of humanity.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: There are other ways. There’s a restaurant in London that only serves one dish and people are lining up outside to try it. And a company in Berlin sells T-Shirts without showing them to customers first.

Salecl: That’s a clever marketing strategy. With children you can see the same thing. If you ask them at a movie theater what they want to see, they will likely be overwhelmed. On the other hand, if you say shortly before, “let’s go see James Bond,” they will probably say, “No, mommy, anything else, but not that.” If there are no boundaries, we make our own.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Will we ever be truly free?

Salecl: No. But we can live a more relaxed life. We can accept that our decisions aren’t rational, that we are always conditioned by society; that we lose something every time we choose something else, and that we can’t truly control the consequences of our decisions.

If Ms. Saleci does not like the all of the choices that modern consumer based capitalism offers us perhaps she would like to return to a simpler system, like Soviet Communism.

They didn’t have many choices to make in the Soviet Union, just as the people in North Korea don’t get many choices on how to live their lives. Somehow they don’t seem to be any happier than people in free countries.

At the end of his article John Sexton observes,

In another talk, Salecl argues that choice offered in a capitalist society “also sort of in some way pacifies people.” She went on to say that capitalism leads to delusion when “at some point this subject starts believing that he is not simply a proletarian slave, but that he is a master, that he is in charge of his life.” She sums up by saying that “the ideology of choice is not so optimistic and it actually prevents social change.” [Lee Doren did a nice job responding to these statements back in 2011.]

Salecl’s critique of choice sounds remarkably like a communist apology for the failure of the proletariat to be sufficiently immiserated under capitalism. If only we weren’t distracted by all these pacifying choices, we would change society, i.e. rebel against the established order.

Another possible interpretation of the same data is that people don’t want massive social change because they are generally, albeit imperfectly as is always the case, happy at having the freedom to pursue life on their own terms. Most people like having a choice of beers. But to Salecl this is mostly a problem, an obstacle to be overcome in pursuit of a new order.

Basically this is the same attitude shared by many on the Left. Most people don’t want fundamental change because they are so befuddled by the prosperity and choices that capitalism brings that they don’t know what is really good for them. Luckily, we have people like Renata Salecl to tell us how awful it is that we have choices to make.

Personally, I like being able to choose my toppings at Subway.

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