|Vivienne's masterpiece salmon|
And I am not swayed by the righteousness of some folk who, having failed to persuade us - the consumers - that consuming is a bad thing - have shifted the attack. The problem, they tell us, is choice - there's too much of it, it is making us anxious, stressed and meaning that we are no longer "organising ourselves and making a critique of society".
This little animation from RSA (entitled "Choice") peddled all this stuff - including the quote in the above paragraph. We have here all the regular left-wing anti-choice arguments including jolly little stories about how some bearded professor was uptight about which wine to buy in a restaurant or how some self-indulgent journalist wrote that sex life wasn't like the sex lives described in the pages of Cosmopolitan. Plus the usual rubbish about the stress we get from being over faced by the range on offer in the supermarket.
I feel so sorry for all these sensitive folk living in their convenient little anecdotes. But the argument - so typical of pop psychology - is founded in story and prejudice rather than in the reality of consumer behaviour. Yes, consumers will tell you they don't like choice. But consumers also use heuristics to mange and moderate choices - mostly they're called brands although they may also be choices about shopping location or, today, the use of comparison web-sites. There is an entire academic discipline - consumer behaviour - that studies such stuff.
More substantially, however, the argument against choice presented here tiptoes towards anti-capitalism - not just through an ignorance of what, precisely, we might mean by capitalism (it is presented as the creator of our consumer society) but through the contention that choice is used by "capitalism" to prevent us from achieving "social change". I have to smile at the manner in which "capitalism" is anthropomorphised - made to have an existence as master of an "ideology of choice".
But what is the alternative to this "ideology of choice"? Logic tells us that the only alternative must be an "ideology of choice denial". Our choices - whether of wine with dinner, of places to live or of clothes to wear would be constrained, limited and even stopped entirely (bit like healthcare really). And one presumes - although this isn't stated - the limitation of choice would require mandation. Somebody will have to set out the choices we can have - assuming that "somebody" actually thinks we should have any choice at all.
So the argument presented - for all its wit and literacy - is profoundly illiberal, requires a mechanism for limiting choice (so we are not stressed or otherwise pained by our choices) and represents the continuation of the Nancy Klein attack on that choice. Or rather on the "wrong sort of choice" (as we can characterise Ms Klein's argument) - the idea that the brand "McDonalds" is essentially different from "Liberal " or indeed from "Chateau Lafitte Rothschild". All are those pesky heuristics - short-cuts to decision-making - that enable a complex consumer society to work.
Although the RSA do not present any alternative - "organising to achieve social change" is as far as it goes - the vision, characterised by the use of bees as a metaphor, owes more to Aldous Huxley than to a happy vision of the future. Indeed it could be this:
"Our world is not the same as Othello's world. You can't make flivvers without steel-and you can't make tragedies without social instability. The world's stable now. People are happy; they get what they want, and they never want what they can't get."
Please let it not be so. Let us be free. Stop speaking of some idea of social change as if "social change" is absolutely desirable. And stop offering excuses that permit governments to control our lives, to remove our choices. And stop already with this angst, this post-millennial ennui, this pseudo-guilt trip - choice is good, it makes us happier, healthier, wealthier and, each day, the chance to do it differently means that innovation, change - even social change - takes place.
However, the sad little assault on choice will continue, partly because some folk makes choices that people who do cute animations for the RSA disapprove of (you know getting drunk, smoking and eating the wrong food) but mostly because the social change that is driven by choice isn't the "social change" such people want. Rather than the controlling hand of the benevolent masters directing the ignorant towards enlightenment, we get a messy, exciting, chaotic mish-mash of changes - some fantastic, some problematic but all of them driven by the individual actions, initiatives and, yes, choices of men and women doing stuff they like doing.
Choice is good. And don't ever forget it!