Occupy’s challenge: Overcoming the ‘tyranny of choice’

Nikolas Kozloff discusses Occupy Wall Street with Renata Salecl, author of the book, ‘The Tyranny of Choice’.

Occupy DC Encampments Threatened With Eviction
"Given the American ideology that anyone can make it and it's all up to us, you'd have to say that on a certain level Occupy was a surprise," says Salecl [GALLO/GETTY]

New York, NY – When people think about the word “tyranny”, autocrats such as Bashar al-Assad may come to mind. But to Renata Salecl, who teaches law at the University of Ljubljana in Slovenia and Yeshiva University in New York, “tyranny” can also refer to the anxiety-producing array of choices faced by many in post-industrial capitalism.

In her latest book, The Tyranny of Choice, Salecl writes, “From the late seventeenth century on, the Enlightenment project promoted the idea of choice… And capitalism, of course, has encouraged not only the idea of consumer choice but also the ideology of the self-made man, which allowed the individual to start seeing his own life as a series of options and possible transformations.”

In theory it all sounded good, but according to Salecl, “The idea of choosing who we want to be and the imperative to ‘become yourself’ have begun to work against us, making us more anxious and more acquisitive rather than giving us more freedom.” Recently, Nikolas Kozloff, the founder of Revolutionary Handbook, sat down with Salecl to discuss her book and its relationship to the Occupy movement.

Nikolas Kozloff: How did you pick this particular topic, and was your interest related to your own personal experiences and background in Slovenia under Communism? 

Renata Salecl: To an extent, yes; I was able to write this book given my unique origins. In the former Yugoslavia, no one really believed in the ideology of communism. Even party apparatchiks failed to read Marx. So basically, the ideological system functioned without any fundamental belief. I began to wonder: Is something similar going on with the ideology of choice? To be sure there’s a belief, but it’s not entirely supported by an inner conviction. Nevertheless, the system functions and prevents disbelief and the ability to critique. When I started looking at the problem in this manner, I realised that the ideology of choice is a perfect pacifying mechanism for post-industrial capitalism in that it encourages this inward turn. People have the illusion that they can make it and are masters of their own destiny, and thus they feel guilty about disadvantages and experience anxiety and a constant feeling of inadequacy. In society, we have observed a shift from the notion of mere consumer choice to the idea of choosing oneself. I observed this shift in terms of the way we perceive the body, i.e., we can choose the way we look, whether we age or not, etc. Whether we have children, or even how our children will turn out, is also subject to choice. Meanwhile we are supposed to be responsible for all of our health issues. This creates a sense of being all-powerful, but also encourages enormous anxiety because we frequently fail and feel guilty. So, the underlying ideology perfectly pacifies the individual: Since we are spending so much time on self-improvement, there isn’t much time to reflect on society as such.

NK: And this all crystallised for you during the breakup of the former Yugoslavia?

RS: Yes – once the former Yugoslavia disintegrated, life quickly took on the contours of any other consumer society. Every city quickly became surrounded by shopping malls. It was interesting to see how rapidly people fell into debt, too. That was something that didn’t exist much in Soviet times. But now, people are really afraid of falling further into debt and feel a sense of guilt, even though consumer culture encouraged the public to get into debt in the first place. I’ve also observed a lot more anxiety in relation to children: The middle classes have this obsessive belief that they can predict or prevent anything bad from happening to their offspring. And in Slovenia, we have a very low birth rate so people are quite anxious about those one or two children. In addition, there’s been an enormous shift in the way that women perceive their bodies. Middle age folk who grew up under Communism don’t know how to make choices and believe that people in America are more capable of reaching decisions. I know the US well however and it’s clear to me at least that this is all an illusion. People in the former East Bloc believe that all they need to do is to learn how to make better choices and things will turn out alright. What I show in my book, however, is that most of the time, we make choices on an unconscious level, or our decisions are influenced by what others may do, or we choose based on what we think is socially acceptable or desirable. 

NK: Could you elaborate on the situation of Slovenian women in post-Communism?

RS: Well, they became much more anxious about dieting and exercise. Disorders such as bulimia and anorexia are on the rise. Huge amounts of money are spent on cosmetic surgery. 

NK: Your book might lend itself to a somewhat pessimistic interpretation. If we are all enmeshed in this ideology of choice, how easy will it be to psychologically change and what steps would you recommend to subvert the tyranny of choice? The organisation which originally put out the call to Occupy Wall Street, a Canadian magazine called Adbusters, constantly seeks to mock consumer culture by subverting images. Yet sometimes I feel like, what they are trying to achieve is a drop in the bucket and that arts and culture activists will have to think very creatively to bring about a change in the underlying mindset.

RS: Yeah, you’re right about this and frequently what happens is that a critique is ironically embraced by the advertising industry which may appropriate images of rage for its own advantage. In an ironic take, Levis sought to appropriate the image of a rebel wearing jeans facing off with the police. Underneath, the ad displayed a caption reading “Go Forth”. When the London riots erupted the company pulled the ad, but it shows just how opportunistic some companies can be. Moreover, a lot of gangster rappers who have had problems with the law have been used in advertising. Indeed, there’s been an effort now to develop a kind of “gangster chic” aesthetic. 

NK: We just went through the yearly ritual of the Academy Awards, along with noted celebrities such as Brad Pitt and George Clooney. You write that in post-industrial capitalism everyone is essentially narcissistic and believes that they too can become like Clooney or their favourite celebrity, and “this is a choice available to us all”. Yet, when we fail to live up to a notion of an ideal self, this produces a personal trauma. 

RS: Today’s society has been obsessed with new kinds of authorities, and very often we’re talking about celebrities. The idea that everyone can make it is promoted through Big Brother and various talent shows where “ordinary people” have the opportunity to demonstrate their skills. Such shows create the illusion that you can make it, but one doesn’t necessarily have to know anything. Big Brother, in particular, pushes the notion that one can become a celebrity and not be educated. In one episode, a woman who didn’t know where Cambridge was became one of the top celebrities. So, when you have a culture where stupidity is promoted as the ultimate sign of success, we can see that a shift has occurred. Nowadays, you don’t need to have special skills to get promoted to celebrity status. It’s not so much that we identify with Hollywood actors, but we have inculcated the notion that an ordinary person down the block can make it. And it is here that we can see that the ideology of choice still has a hold on people, even though very few individuals actually achieve such high degrees of success. In the domain of sports, too, people have developed a kind of obsession that their children may become the next big soccer or tennis champion. This drives a lot of folk down the path of self-destruction as they invest tonnes of money on their kids even though it’s clear that only a very tiny fraction actually wind up getting sports scholarships. But, the fact that some people wind up making it keeps the ideology of endless possibility very much alive.

NK: You write that “when choice is glorified as the ultimate tool by which people can shape their private lives, very little is left over for social critique”. Isn’t it slightly ironic then, in light of your argument about the “tyranny of choice” and how it mitigates against social change, that the Occupy movement emerged first in New York of all places?

RS: Given the American ideology that anyone can make it and it’s all up to us, then you’d have to say that on a certain level Occupy was a surprise. I’ve always been perplexed how people who don’t have health insurance would still be against universal health insurance. In essence, what they’re doing is following the idea of choice, even though this winds up being very detrimental to their own well-being. It’s clear that something shifted in people’s perceptions with the Occupy movement, however, particularly with the middle class and even upper middle class.

Nikolas Kozloff is the founder of Revolutionary Handbook. Renata Salecl is the author of The Tyranny of Choice.