Salecl: Capitalism promotes individualism by establishing the illusion of choice
Ramallah – (A.M. Qattan Foundation):
“Contemporary Capitalism has created the concept of freedom of choice, which is a purely individualistic value that motivates people to consume, and distorts the concepts of happiness and success, all in one goal; the accumulation of wealth for capitalism.” Renata Salecl, philosopher and psychoanalysis professor said during a lecture entitled “Tyranny of Choice” organized by the A.M. Qattan Foundation on Saturday 14 September at the Foundation’s building in Ramallah.
Salecl elaborated on the concept of freedom offered by the ideology of late-capitalism and the space within which it is carried out. This ideology presents success and competitiveness as a result of this freedom. The idea of the “self-made” man has been the cornerstone of capitalism which necessates making the right choices to reach happiness, and happiness means collecting and exhibiting money. Making decisions is then linked to the amount of individual consumption of money.
Salecl says that the “Be happy” motto has become a social imperative that determines the meaning of our lives in capitalist societies. If you are not happy, you have failed.
Salecl explained that the freedom of choice is a cause of anxiety. Choosing one of the available options must guarantee the success and happiness of the individual according to the prevailing system, otherwise it is the wrong choice. Therefore, the individual needs a certain authority to ease his anxiety and help him decide. Salecl describes this authority as the “Big Other”, which is the product of our surroundings (society, institutions, etc.) which give the individual temporary stability.
Salecl believes that individuals worry about failure, losing happiness -if found- in addition to loss. Individuals believe that success is found in coincidences and lotteries, an idea contrary to rational thought, which sees that getting something necessitates losing something else. Dealing with loss is a source of great concern today. Salecl says, “The loss that we all have to deal with eventually is death; where there is no other option. Nevertheless, when we try to control it, what we do is prolong the attempt to control death.”
The individual’s decision is linked to all these determinants. He is constrained by the choices and successes of those around him and is expected to make the right decisions. According to Salecl, the individual tries to identify with his surrounding environment, in the sense that the individual imitates successful people around him to reach happiness. Therefore, Salecl defines the freedom of choice as the “Tyranny of Choice”, because choosing is based on decisions or competition of others, it is not a rational choice, since the limits of choosing is narrowed by options imposed by the “Big Other”.
Salecl also argues that capitalist society uses the ideology of choice to safeguard its existence; it is a society that is geared towards the individual and dominated by consumerism, individuals are constantly encouraged to choose better lives for themselves.
Salecl shows that 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, she says: “We are propelled by the ideology of the self-made man: we work more and consume more and in the end we consumer ourselves and burnout.”
Salecl concluded her talk saying that the individual only has the freedom to “shape his symptoms”. “What determines us is our traumatic experiences, each culture shapes people in its own way, which is how the individual understands culture and himself.” She said.
Renata Salecl is a Slovene philosopher and sociologist. She is a senior researcher at the Institute of Criminology, and holds a professorship at Birkbeck College, University of London. Salecl teaches courses on neuroscience and law. Her book “Tyranny of Choice” has been translated into fifteen languages. In 2017, she was elected as a member of the Slovene Academy of Science. Salecl collaborated with the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) to produce an animation entitled “The Paradox of Choice” which was exhibited in the “Subcontracted Nations” exhibition at the A.M. Qattan Foundation in 2018.