The Tyranny of Choice

By Vincent Kelley / One Struggle

I recently saw an Aquafina® bottle sitting on a table at my workplace. Its label read: “New! ECO-FINA Bottle™, 50% less plastic (*on average vs. 2002 bottle).” To start, it is ridiculous that PepsiCo, the producer of the Aquafina® brand, would lay any claim to social consciousness by offering a “greener” choice than its competitors. Pepsi drains aquifers in India [1], knowingly includes carcinogenic coloring in its soft drinks [2], and adopts racist hiring practices [3], just to name a few of the corporation’s psychopathic behaviors. This psychopathology, of course, is not unique to Pepsi—it is the modus operandi of the corporation itself as a legal-economic entity. [4]

But there is something else illustrated by the ECO-FINA water bottle that is common not only to corporations in the monopoly stage of capitalism [5], but to industrial civilization as a whole. Namely, the fabrication of meaningless choices while meaningful choices are systematically eliminated. Furthermore, as meaningful choices are eliminated, the hegemonic elites craft a distorted narrative that frames the oppressed as the agents of choice who “chose” such elimination.

Some examples: When Western nations colonized the Americas, India, Africa, or any other exploited region of the globe, the colonized peoples “chose” to abandon their traditional cultures to be players in the arena of industrial capitalism; when a woman is prostituted by a man, she “chose” to be in the industry; when a homeless person is terrorized by police, he “chose” to slack off and be a burden to the rest of society and, therefore, deserves the terrorizing. Indeed, the oppressor is an expert at using his agency to create a false narrative of the agency of the oppressed in an effort to legitimize his oppressing.

This agency narrative, if you will, is inculcated into every civilized human being by means of the patriarchal household, the coercive school system, the hierarchical workplace, and the stupefying television, lest any oppressed class should name the objective disparity in agency between the colonizer and the colonized, the pimp and the prostitute, or the homeless person and the cop, and act accordingly to dismantle the relationship of domination.

In the economic sphere, in order to convince us that we truly do have agency, the ruling class inundates us with a barrage of products to choose from: Baskin-Robbins 31 flavors, at least 31 brands of toothpaste to mitigate the damage done to our teeth and gums by the Baskin-Robbins ice cream, new and increasingly violent pornography for men to watch, and thousands of cosmetic products to distract women from—while often contributing to—their objectification in a pornified culture. And for those who are more “socially conscious” there is the ECO-FINA Bottle™, which allows you to love the ecocidal profits system twice as much as you consume half the amount of plastic!

This deluge of consumptive choices is exceedingly wasteful—US companies spent $131 billon on advertising in 2010 alone. [6] Additionally, when supported by “socially conscious” individuals, the valorization of choice by “progressive” consumers is inherently liberal—i.e. not radical—in its fixation on personal lifestyleism, as opposed to systemic change. And, most importantly, this barrage of choices in an economy that values production for production’s sake is disorienting and, as we will see, paradoxically coercive.

Sociologist of religion Peter Berger argues that, in modernity, individuals are forced to choose their religion or worldview. In the words of fellow sociologist Keith A. Roberts, “Berger did not view this situation as one in which the individual is free to choose. . . Rather, each person must choose; that is, one is coerced into doing so.” [7]

With an overabundance of worldviews in the religio-spiritual marketplace, from the range of conservative institutional religions to the assortment of New Age spiritualities of abstraction, the individual is acculturated into a milieu of unease and confusion vis-à-vis how to live in the world. While a plurality of choices is ostensibly appealing and progressive, it is ultimately coercive in the disorientation it engenders and the meaninglessness it obscures. [8]

Similarly, many other “choices” in our lives appear free and meaningful on the surface but are, in reality, unfree and meaningless.

Individually we can choose to fill up with regular, plus, or premium at the gas station, but we cannot choose to live in a society free from the destruction wrought by fossil fuel extraction and use. Individually we can choose whether to apply for a job at Walmart or one at McDonald’s, but we cannot choose to live in a society free from wage slavery. Individual men can choose not to abuse women, but women will never be able to choose a life without the threat or enactment of male pattern violence in a culture that extols institutionalized misogyny. Individual colonized peoples—more accurately the native elite, not the immiserated masses—can choose to work their way up in the bureaucracies of colonial or colonially-controlled governments, but they can never choose to return to the governing structures of their traditional culture. Individual students can choose whether or not to turn in their homework, but they cannot choose to escape from the coercion of compulsory schooling.

In other words, we have ample, but usually meaningless, choices within the confines of a culture that strives to obliterate the choices that are truly meaningful. As Noam Chomsky insightfully notes, “[t]he smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum. . .” [9]

Analogously, we have numerous choices within the spectrum of civilization, but these choices are rendered meaningless in the face of what is excluded from the realm of choice. [10]

To drink clean water, to be free from the threat of violence, to have healthy biotic communities, to have a respite from the incessant war on the health and diversity of our emotional experience—none of these things were ever on the table for us to choose. Instead, we’re stuck with 31 flavors of ice cream and an ECO-FINA™ water bottle.

But there is something meaningful you can choose. You can choose to resist. If you are reading this article, you possess the social and cultural capital to resist industrial civilization in at least some way, be it by material support to radical movements, grassroots organizing, or decisive actions against the central loci of industrial civilization itself. Instead of falling into the trap of the oppressors’ agency narrative, the promise of gratification in a plethora of consumer goods, or the lighter conscience of “environmentally-friendly” personal lifestyle choices, strike at the nodes of power, and strike now. The impoverished colonial subject, the tortured prostituted woman, the terrorized homeless man, the nearly exterminated Cross River gorilla, the toxified oceans, and the ravaged forests—they can’t wait any longer. Now is the time to fight.

[1] India Resource Center and Community Resource Centre, “Deception with Purpose: Pepsico’s Water Claims in India,” India Resource Center (Nov. 30, 2011), at http://www.indiaresource.org/news/2011/pepsipositivewater.html.

[2] April M. Short, “Despite Claims to the Contrary, Pepsi Is Still Using Caramel Coloring Linked to Cancer,” AlterNet (July 4, 2013), at http://www.alternet.org/food/pepsis-caramel-coloring-probably-causes-cancer. , and adopts racist hiring practices3

[3] Sam Hananel, “Pepsi Beverages Pays $3.1M In Racial Bias Case,” The Huffington Post (Jan. 11, 2012).

[4] See, for example, Joel Bakan, The Corporation: The Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power (New York: Free Press, 2004), 79, 135.

[5] See, for example, John Bellamy Foster, “The Epochal Crisis,” *Monthly Review *(2013, Volume 65, Issue 05, October)*, *at http://monthlyreview.org/2013/10/01/epochal-crisis

[6] Kim Bhasin, “The 12 Companies That Spend The Most on Advertising,” Business Insider (Jun. 22, 2011), at http://www.businessinsider.com/companies-that-spend-the-most-on-advertising-2011-6?op=1.

[7] Keith A. Roberts, Religion in Sociological Perspective (United States: SAGE Publications, 2011), 307.

[8] I am not arguing that someone born into a household with repressive religious doctrines and practices should, in an ideal world, stick with her original religion. I am simply contending that a religion can be good in itself in the absence of other choices for its adherents to compare it with. Indeed, a member of a sustainable and compassionate indigenous culture does not need a profusion of worldviews to compare to her own in order to know that she is living ethically.

[9] Noam Chomsky, The Common Good, (Odonian Press, 1998), 43.

[10] Those of us who are relatively privileged in the rich, Western capitalist countries, of course, have more meaningful choices than those in poor countries. That said, even our meaningful choices are drastically reduced the longer civilization exists.

"But there is something else illustrated by the ECO-FINA water bottle
that is common not only to corporations in the monopoly stage of
capitalism, but to industrial civilization as a whole."

2 thoughts on “The Tyranny of Choice”

  1. very good article-struck a cord with me in relation to the theological ? of “freewill” let alone the tyrany of cor poorations, and movements.
    whilst i am increasingly aware education and expnasion of awareness do not change a thing this story may actually assist a STRUCTURAL shift in power and now need more direct action by committed groups-e.g. the artic 30,

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *