The Tyranny of Choice: An Interview with Slovenian Philosopher Renata Salecl

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Has your life ever felt like a multiple-choice exam, where everything hangs in the balance depending on which box you tick? Should you go to law school or study theatre? Should you take the internship that will look great on your CV, or the job that will pay your rent? Should you stay in a secure but loveless marriage or risk pain and regret in the pursuit of happiness? Are you sure you’ve ticked the right boxes? Will you pass or fail?

The omnipresent pressure of being right

In her book The Tyranny of Choicepublished by Profile Books in 2011, Renata Salecl argues that we have become oppressed by the idea of individual choice and the constant worry that we might make the wrong decisions. She argues that too much personal choice about who we want to be and what we should consume — and the ever-present pressure to make the “right” choices — not only makes us less happy, but also distracts us from more important social choices and playing a useful role within our communities.

Salecl is a modern intellectual whose interests range across divergent fields, thereby offering new ways of looking at the world. A leading philosopher from Ljubljana, she is also a sociologist with an interest in psychoanalysis, criminality and law. She has taught at the LSE and King’s College in London and the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in New York. She is currently a senior researcher in the Faculty of Law at the University of Ljubljana and a professor at Birkbeck College, University of London.

Salecl’s book, written in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis and all the anxieties and uncertainties that came in its wake, is more relevant than ever in our rapidly changing world where the old accepted norms are being continuously challenged.

What prompted her to write it? “I was thinking about the power of ideology and how ideology in a particular moment acts like a veil of obviousness, it obfuscates a certain perception of reality,” she explains over the phone from Ljubljana. “Since I’ve lived through Communism I’ve observed the power of an ideology where you don’t necessarily thoroughly identify with the proclaimed ideas but you nonetheless don’t act against them. Or you’re quietly but not openly oppositional.”

The mythology of the American self-made liberalism

Salecl became conscious that, in our neoliberal era, we live in a “fairly similar situation,” where there’s “a quite powerful ideology related to the perception of subjectivity — how everyone can make it, how your life is in your hands, how everything in your life depends on the choices you have made.” She traces this back to the early days of American capitalism, its rags-to-riches mythology and the celebration of the self-made man.

Salecl insists she’s not at all negating the power of choice; instead her intention is to “take layers away” from the idea of rational choice which has now begun to permeate all aspects of our self-perception. Granted, we can make important decisions, but we might not be as objective about them as we’d like to believe. Even then, circumstances entirely out of our control also affect how our lives pan out. “And that’s for me the horror of it,” says Salecl. “People started constantly blaming themselves for making presumably wrong choices. Yet when you look at the contexts in which they lived, their choices were fairly limited.”

Salecl noticed that, from the early 1970s onwards, “a change in the perception of choice” went hand in hand with a new sense of “cruelty as part of the capitalist discourse”. She notes this especially with regard to “ideas of success, of management”, with rhetorical concepts like killing the opposition or winner takes all starting to “permeate the ideology of capitalism”.

The regime of Yugoslavia’s Marshal Tito heralded participation rather than winning – photograph courtesy of the archives of Life Magazine

She uses the values of sport as an illustration, where “if you don’t get the gold medal you’re almost a failure.” The truth of this seems so logical it barely needs stating. But Salecl says that this is only one view. In the Communist ideology in which she grew up, the dominant view was all about participation: “What’s important is to create a group feeling.” Sport was seen as a sort of social glue that would bring together, “people from different strata of society, like intellectuals, workers or peasants”.

“It was even one of Tito’s slogans: it is only important to participate,” Salecl adds. She recalls her father having to take part in his company’s skiing competitions and always coming last. “It was wonderful to be the last,” she adds with a laugh, “because you got a salami as a present.”

Psychoanalysis of an ideology: the critique must persist

How much has living in a country that went from Communism to embracing capitalism influenced Salecl’s thinking? “I think it definitely influenced me hugely,” she says. “First we became fairly skilled in analysing ideology because we lived in a system that was so difficult to understand.” Yugoslavia disassociated itself very early on from Soviet Communism and experimented with a more liberal socialist ideology, where firms were worker-owned yet allowed to compete with each other, and where communication and trade with the West was encouraged. “The self-management system in Yugoslavia was different in that you didn’t have just the top-down control, but you also had a kind of system of delegates and the idea of that the power is already in the hands of the people. So it was very difficult to perceive how people are interpolated into a particular ideology.”

Psychoanalysis was also an important stream of thought in the philosophy department in Ljubljana where Salecl studied, influencing thinking on subjectivity and how, “ideology touches you in your inner core”. This habit of questioning the political culture around you and how it affects your thinking has helped Salecl, she says, to “look at capitalist ideology from the side and to start perceiving certain similarities in the way it grabs the individual”.

Given the dramatic changes in our politics, culture and society since 2008, have Salecl’s thoughts on the subject changed since she wrote her book?

Ironically, in an age in which we feel we’re bombarded with a surfeit of information and choice, Salecl believes that the big data algorithms, the domination of a couple of social media companies and search engines have in fact “limited our choices, or made them much more influenced by the commercial and also political interests that we are maybe consciously not aware of.”

The paradoxical reduction of choice in the era of information fluency

Talking in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica revelations, Salecl says that there is an “opacity” by those who harvest, use and manipulate our data and so, for academics, it’s hard to come close to understanding what is really taking place. “We’re pretty much learning in the last year or two about the new secret world of manipulation, which I think we will only be able to start understanding in the next years.”

How do we navigate all this? Salecl suggests that we start by “trying to understand how ideology is influencing your behaviour or others’; how news is made, how corporations are influencing our consumer decisions.” However, “there is a thin line between scepticism and total mistrust,” she warns. “How to navigate that thin line and not fall into total paranoia is very problematic.”

Ultimately, she believes we shouldn’t be “taking the ideas of personal choice too seriously.” No matter what decisions we take, we cannot predict their outcome. “Life in some ways is nothing but a series of risks.”

We might all be a bit happier if we had less belief that the “right choices” will bring “a certain satisfaction or enjoyment,” she says.

“From psychoanalysis we know that a certain amount of dissatisfaction is very much part of our subjectivity and it might be actually a good thing – an engine which makes us critical, which makes us productive. We wouldn’t do some things if we were not in a way dissatisfied.”

Discuss Salecl’s philosophy at a few of her favourite hide-aways in Ljubljana, Slovenia, including lunch at Most, a visit to the Central Market (a passion she shares with Alfredo Russo, the Chef of InterContinental Ljubljana) and some of the architectural highlights of the city, starting with MAO.

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