Hey! So, I recently had an assignment to write an essay on Marx and I chose ‘choice’ as my topic. I was quite proud of the final result… I found the subject very intriguing and applicable to my reality. Here it is:
Society has a positive outlook on choice, because we are taught to believe that more choice equals more freedom. In today’s western capitalist societies, in order to maximize welfare, it is thought that individual freedom must be maximized, which can be achieved through maximizing choice. Marx, however, argues against this. The Marxist view dictates that choice is only an illusion – one which allows capitalism to prosper, imprisoning us in the capitalist ideology. Marxism rejects the idea that choice creates freedom and welfare, and presents the negative impact it can have on the citizens of a capitalist society.
Ludwig Feuerbach was a German philosopher of the nineteenth century. He was famous for his critique of Christianity (The Essence of Christianity) which greatly influenced Marx’s and Engels’ thoughts. Feuerbach is considered to be the bridge between Hegel and Marx. Marx discovers in Hegel the concept of the idealistic dialectic which helps him understand historical change but he uses Feuerbach’s materialism as a tool to fathom it correctly. This is why Marx’s philosophy is referred to as dialectical materialism.
Feuerbach held the opinion that religion “poisons, nay destroys, the most divine feeling of man, the sense of truth.” He believed that all forms of religious expressions are projections of the strongest desires of humanity. According to Feuerbach, the appeal of Christianity lies mainly in its promise of immortality. Humanity, amongst many other things, fear death. Christianity promises us eternal life. Karl Marx agreed with this idea that “man makes religion, religion does not make man.” He called religion “the opium of the people” as it anaesthetizes the masses. For example, religion promises justice in the afterlife, thus suspending it until then. Influenced by Feuerbach’s ideas, Marx believed that religion was a device used by the ruling classes to give the working classes false hope. For Marx, religion is wholly determined by material and economic realities. Marx views choice as similar to religion and as the new ideology: choice is the opium of the people.
Choice desensitizes us to the realities of capitalist ideology. There is an excessive amount of choices in today’s society which connote individual freedom and social change. The capitalist ideology is promoted in this way: capitalism promises freedom, which is presented as choice. The same could be said for religion in the past in that it promises justice in the afterlife. This creates a false hope for the proletariat, implying that they are free to make choices and be in control of their own fate, preventing them from rebelling against the system.
Thus, choice awards us with the feeling that each individual is in control of their own life. The working class believes that they are free to make their own choices in life, rather than identifying themselves as proletarian slaves, trapped in a capitalist system. Consequently, each individual believes to bear all responsibility to succeed, and blames only themselves for their failures. For example, if an individual is unemployed, they do not question the education system that locked them out of getting qualifications with high fees, or the welfare system that does not support them, but immediately blame themselves for being inadequate. As a result, the self becomes very critical of their own actions.
This kind of anxiety extends to what can be called our belief in the belief of others. Through fear of offending another individual’s belief nobody opposes it. As previously stated, the ideology of choice forces the individual to accept themselves as culpable for their failures. One specific example of a realm in which we consider ourselves to be freer is sexuality. In recent decades, the media has created a fantastical perception of sexuality and we have come to believe that we need to live up to this. Exercising sexual freedom and enjoying all our perverse desires is now perceived as routine and mundane thus, if we are unsuccessful in engaging in these types of activities we feel embarrassed.
Contrary to the belief that choice benefits social change, this type of self-criticism prevents it. This belief places all of the responsibility to be a successful member of society on the individual and can lead to obsessions and addictions such as bulimia, anorexia, workaholism etc. But as we are directed to believe that everyone is a maker of his or her own life, we become pacified and never move together to make a critique of capitalist society.
Therefore, not only does choice prevent social change but choice and choice making accommodates anxieties. This is the main paradox of choice. An overwhelming explosion of choice creates the feeling of anxiety as well as pacifying people.
In the past we had little to no choice in most areas of life. Throughout the past centuries, people usually inherited their identities and the course of the individual’s life was more or less set in stone. However, this pattern changed during the 20th century as capitalism flourished. Choice is now the foundation of capitalism. We have the choice to study, the choice to pursue a career, the choice to have a family – we have the choice to invent and even reinvent ourselves. This excess of choice has various negative and anxiety provoking consequences.
Firstly, in today’s society, the choices we make are often not our own. When making a choice we are conscious and aware of how it will be perceived by other members of society. An obvious example of this is clothing. Clothing sends a message about who we are, and invokes the need to be recognized by others in a positive light. Appearances play a part in the way that we are perceived, and no individual wants to be judged or frowned upon for what they wear. We fear looking too cheap, or overly expensive. We try to ease our anxiety and guilt by making immense efforts to look like we’ve not made an effort. We also have a tendency to be influenced by what others around us are choosing, so as not to have our own choices frowned upon.
Furthermore, the burden of being responsible for our choices puts pressure on us to make the ideal choice. Consequently, we find ourselves in a state of indecisiveness and we are constantly trying to upgrade ourselves materially. Whether it’s buying the newest iPhone or changing washing detergent brands. Most often, there is such a variety to choose from it becomes too difficult and we find ourselves in paralysis. Subsequently, we end up less satisfied with the choices we make. Essentially, the more choice you have, the greater your expectations are and therefore the greater the chance of disappointment. By this token, the real answer to happiness is low expectations ergo less choice. If you are only given a single option, its dissatisfaction is not your fault.
Another anxiety created by choice involves loss. By choosing one thing, you inevitably lose the other. This creates distress for the individual, fearing making the wrong choice.
Through these examples, choice proves to be a lot less attractive than it seems. It appears to appeal to misery rather than freedom and happiness.
Choice also promotes the idea that anyone can “make it big” through simply making the right choices. Young boys and girls grow up thinking that fame is desirable, and entirely within their reach. The same can be said for adults who have a below average income. Television shows give people the opportunity to become famous overnight, creating an impression of freedom, possibility and choice, while in fact creating a society of individuals who want to be famous for the sole purpose of being famous.
Overall, the ideology of choice is a lot less optimistic than it appears to be at first glance. The ideology of choice is promoted as one which encourages freedom and social change. However, it’s quite a deceptive concept. It deludes us into a false feeling of liberty. Through choice we are lead to believe that each individual is a maker of their own life. Instead of liberating us, it burdens us with anxiety and paralyzes us. Moreover, it conceals the negative aspects of a capitalist society in a similar way to religion. We become myopic, focusing on fighting our own fights and failing to realize the ideological, institutional roots of choice and what it signifies for society at large. Thus, there is no rebellion against capitalism. Perhaps it is true that some choice is better than none, but this does not mean that more choice is better than some.