The Conversation

Renata Salecl: The Tyranny of Choice

Renata Salecl is a neo-Lacanian psychoanalyst and philosopher who is interested in the subject of choice, specifically the social nature of choices. Salecl has spoken of the "tyranny of choice" to indicate that she believes choice presents a problem especially in modern capitalist societies. This recent interview with Der Spiegel gives a brief overview of her ideas:

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.

Has Salecl restricted her critique of choice to personal life. No, not really. Personal life is just where it begins. Her idea is that choice--which is the fundamental unit of capitalism--is ultimately a kind of self-defeating illusion. Here's how her recent TED talk was described on the TED blog:

In our post-industrial capitalist age, says Salecl, choice, freedom and self have been elevated into an ideal — the ideal. But the flip side are increased feelings of anxiety, guilt and inadequacy at facing the possibility of not “making it” — that is, not reaching the ideal...Ultimately this has made us unable to move toward social change; our abundance of choices has made us politically passive.

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.

The real problem with Salecl's critique is that it is impossible to diminish the value of choice in the marketplace without eroding it in the political sphere as well. If the freedom to choose your brand of beer is an anxiety-producing burden, why not your choice of president? Surely it can not have escaped Salecl's notice that Republican government and elections are based on the same foundation of individual choice. Why wouldn't here ideas apply and, more importantly, what is the alternative?


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