Originally found in Freianlage

 

Choice Cuts

By Dave Beech

 

In the afterword to 'Inside the White Cube' Brian O'Doherty explains why he always preferred the 'free world' to communism. 'At least it understands,’ he says, 'that we are basically selfish.’

 

First, then, a question of provenance: is it as clear as O'Doherty assumes that capitalism is a response to our basic selfishness or is it possible that selfishness is an effect of the capitalist system? This is, in fact, how the ideology of the free market generally works. Human nature is acquisitive, competitive and workaholic, we're told. The idea that we're selfish prior to the historical emergence of an economic system based on private property and competition supposes a miraculous amount of genetic foresight. It's almost enough to convince you that there is a God - either that or in something more mundane and sinister: complicity is being pedalled as inevitable.

 

But who would want to deny us choice? Surely, to be given a choice is better than to have no choice? It's more a question of freedom than commerce, isn't it? You want to choose who you spend your time with and choose what you do as much as choose what to buy. Choice is at the heart of consumerism but it is also the core of our democratic politics, liberal ethics, legal responsibility, freedom of conscience and romantic love.

 

Our belief in the value of choice has been tested, however. When Margaret Thatcher applied her fanaticism for consumer choice to industries previously valued for consistency of service rather than diversity, something changed. Creating internal markets within hospitals and schools was, for many, simply unacceptable. Why? Because we want all patients and all children to have the best care possible without the kind of fluctuations that market forces bring.

 

Thatcher saw choice as an antidote to communism and, alongside direct attacks on the strength of unions. It was one of the main weapons in her battle to wipe out socialism from British politics. Problems arose, therefore, when the great popular successes of the welfare state were put under threat for purely ideological reasons. Choice, it seems, is more contentious than we usually imagine.

 

Choice is not just an ideological weapon, though - something to be increased or controlled in politically loaded ways. Choice is itself an ideological idea. I mean, choice would not make sense at all outside a liberal, individualist, acquisitive, modern bourgeois social world. That's why Oliver Cromwell didn't demand more choice from the King, and why the French Communards fought for liberté, egalité, fraternité not choice, choice, choice.

 

Choice might seem to provide for the modern individual but it is best understood as an effect of what modern society does to individuals. The collective demands that dominate the history of liberation are dropped by the modern individual. Why is this? The classic political answer is that modern individualism is alienating. And this is true. But there is more to it than that. Choice, which appears to the modern individual as a blessing, is in fact a constraint on what we can do and who we can be. It ties us to a world made up of isolated individuals whose signature relationship with the world (including each other) is based on the model of the consumer.

 

What, then, of collective activities or generosity? Is love, for instance, based on choice or - as poets and song writers tell us - on falling for someone against your will and better judgement? Kant asked the philosophical question 'what must the world be like for philosophy to be possible?' - we can ask what must have happened to the world for choice to be possible, for choice to be valued in the way it is? A world devoted to choice is a world of things and consumers of things. Choice, in other words, is the linchpin of the society of the spectacle, of how the spectacle recruits us into its economies.

 

Guy Debord followed Lukács and Adorno in pursuing capitalism's impact into its imperceptible effects on subjectivity itself. Commodification is not only something that happens outside of us, it transforms us to the very core. Choice, then, is not so much something each of us does, it is something that has been done to us all, collectively, by the social forces of late capitalism. More specifically, for Debord, consumerism and the mass media reconfigure subjectivity as spectatorship, as consumers of the spectacle. Politics, for instance, is converted by the spectacle from the practice of collective agency to the consumption of branded alternatives. Political choice is equivalent to buying an item of clothing. In fact, within the society of the spectacle our political desires are sold back to us in the form of Mao T-shirts and Che Guevara biopics.

 

On top of that, as Pierre Bourdieu points out, choice is essentially about social distinction: we want choice because we want to signal our social position. Our choices reflect back on us and we use them as such, knowing we will be judged by them and judging others accordingly. To have a choice, in such circumstances, is not to have a free choice, so to speak, it is to enter into an economy of choices.

 

Choice, seen as a social relation with things and other people - seen, that is to say, as a subjectivity produced by and tailored to the social relations of the late capitalist spectacle - is the 'iron cage' of a society explicitly devoted to freedom because freedom has been reduced to freedom of choice. Freedom in its fullest sense requires a lot more than a keen eye and a shopping basket. What freedom requires, among other things, is exactly the opposite of what is ingrained in choice. Adorno put it as well as anybody: the emancipation of the individual would not be the emancipation from society but rather 'the deliverance of society from atomization [the isolation of individuals from one another]'. The domain of personal freedom, of course, has to be an element of any broader freedom but it is neither the model for universal human flourishing nor a good substitute for genuine happiness.