Philosopher Renata Salecl argues that the ideology of consumer choice is a damaging illusion that prevents us from changing the world.
How do you choose what to eat in a restaurant? Do you ask your friends or the waiter? Do you branch out or stick with the usual? However you decide, the result is often the same: when the food arrives you end up casting envious glances at your companions’ dishes, secretly regretting the choice you’ve just made. In fact, the anxiety of choice is now so serious that one London restaurant is doing a roaring trade by offering a single dish on its menu. Is this evidence that people today are overwhelmed by the choices they face?
Of course, we consider ourselves fortunate to face the paralysis of choice, but there are darker consequences, too. The ideology of choice is all-pervasive in today’s society, and has contributed to growing feelings of anxiety and inadequacy among consumers. This anxiety has, in turn, affected our ability to make choices that lead to social change.
Choice has always been linked to anxiety – Jean-Paul Sartre wrote that when we stand in front of the abyss, we’re not afraid that we’ll fall, only that we might throw ourselves in. Today, that anxiety has been multiplied, as we’re led to believe that life itself is a consumer choice.
We’re told that we can choose the type of life we live, the type of body we have, even the way our kids will turn out. But while we bask in the false promise of mastery, we forget that the choices we make are often irrational – either linked to other people’s choices (what is socially acceptable), or our own unconscious motives. And we forget – or refuse to remember – that with choice comes loss. After all, when I choose one direction in life, I lose the possibility of another.
And so the ideology of choice encourages people to turn inwards. We’re told that the choices we make after careful planning will bring us our desired results – happiness, security, contentment – and that with better choices, the traumatic feelings we have when facing loss, risk and uncertainty will be eliminated. But today, psychoanalysts see many patients who can’t understand why they feel empty. They ask themselves, ‘Why am I not happy when I have been choosing so carefully all my life?’
It is precisely the anxiety and guilt that we feel over our choices – and the inadequacy we experience in our lives – that powers today’s consumer ideology and prevents social change. We have grown so introspective that we fail to make choices that contribute to social transformation.
Since the Enlightenment, society and democracy have been linked to the idea of freedom and choice. Today, however, we find it almost impossible to imagine that we have a choice over how society could be better organised in the future. Even in the midst of an economic crisis, we’re only able to see the future as a continuation of the present. Where are the alternative theories about new social structures? When did we lose the appetite to make political choices?
“The ideology of choice is all-pervasive in today’s society, and has contributed to growing feelings of anxiety and inadequacy among consumers.”
So now we have less power and fewer real (non-material) choices than ever, and yet we’ve been taught to blame ourselves for the state of our lives. The danger is that if we become sufficiently anxious, we might very quickly give the few choices left to us away, identifying with an authority that tells us what to do. We might hire a coach, follow a guru or turn to an autocratic leader whose confidence seems soothing in an era of uncertainty.
The solution is to accept that life is defined by uncertainty, risk and unpredictability. And that although choices have a wonderful potential to affect change, we cannot predict the nature of the change they will bring nor avoid the losses that come with them. Unless we learn to live with those consequences, we’re destined to eat the same dish day after day.