You choose, you lose

Photo by Egor Myznik

A common criticism of the Soviet Union was that there was a lack of choice. How can you be happy in a country where you can buy only one type of butter, one kind of toilet paper, one brand of trousers? But maybe this criticism says more about our relationship to commodities than about communism. After all, if the one type of butter tastes fine, what would there be to complain about? If the one kind of toilet paper is all you’ve ever known, would you really hypothesize a possible different kind that would get the job done better? And if you want to express your individuality, aren’t there better ways to do that than selecting between different pairs of trousers?

In his Capitalism and Desire, Todd McGowan argues that capitalism is fueled by the search for a perfect commodity, one that would satisfy us fully. Since such a perfect satisfaction is impossible, we are necessarily disappointed by each commodity we buy. To deal with this disappointment and sustain our desire, we need a fantasy narrative to explain why the next commodity will surely be more satisfactory.

I would argue that choice in capitalism functions as such a fantasy narrative. Because if you had a choice, you can blame the disappointment of the commodity on simply having made the wrong choice. You can keep pretending that the perfect commodity is still out there somewhere, among the options not chosen. This is the fantasy you suffer from when you have to read the menu twice over before you can decide what to order, or when you spend hours reading amazon reviews before picking what shaver to get. Or when you are annoyed with your spouse and you wonder how much happier your life would have been if only you had pursued that other man or woman.

Psychoanalysis confronts us with the knowledge that we can never have the object of our desire that would make us completely happy and fulfilled. We tend to see this as tragic, and we might even prefer the lie of fantasy, which provides at least the possibility of having it if only we can overcome some obstacle. But what is crucial to realize about this fundamental lack, this emptiness deep inside us that makes us desire for something to fill the void, is that this lack constitutes our very subjectivity and our very freedom. If this lack could somehow be filled, it would essentially turn us into an object.

To see how, it is enough to think about the choice of a pregnant woman to have an abortion or not. In patriarchy a woman is either a whore or a mother, which should be read as the two answers to the traumatic question of a woman’s desire. What do women want? Surely to have and take care of a child. The opportunity to abort a pregnancy, even if it’s not taken, sustains a woman’s refusal to be reduced to an object of nature, of instinct.

So we should celebrate choice because it opens a space for desire to express itself. But this desire is not to be confused with mere preference: it’s a desire that makes every choice the wrong one because there is nothing that can fully satisfy us. Once we realize that, we can give up our search for the ultimate commodity, and enjoy what we don’t have.

Originally published at https://maarten.substack.com on June 29, 2022.

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