Trapped in a capitalist headlock: the reality of so-called ‘choice’ in modern consumer culture

In today’s consumer culture, emphasis is placed on lifestyle and the utilisation of commodities to establish a meaningful identity, with the assumption that lifestyles are carried out through the exercise of free personal choice. You can scroll through fifty pages of jeans on ASOS, stick a couple in your basket with the view you made that choice. Considered a freely chosen game, modern identities are deemed aesthetic works of art, fashioned through styles of consumption in a world where commodities embody an inherent symbolic value, closely linked to degrees of freedom and choice. Perhaps if we open our eyes a little wider and dig a bit deeper into the overarching structure, however, we begin to see that this notion of free personal choice, which defines modern neoliberal capitalism, is more accurately an ‘illusion’ and paradoxical in nature.

Whilst participation in consumer culture may appear a liberating experience, choice is also emblematic of our market dependency and ability to be trapped into a capitalist headlock, demonstrating an antagonism between freedom and dependency. To some, this may seem seemingly obvious – of course in a capitalist world we are moulded to consume goods. The point I am trying to make, however, is the fact that perhaps we are fed the illusion of choice as opposed to ‘real’ choice and it’s exactly this that keeps the wheels of capitalism turning as we are coerced to consume more…and more…and more.

There’s no doubt that material objects have developed virtual characters symbolising one’s status in society and that styles of consumption distinguish us from, and correspondingly affiliate us to particular social groups. Perfume ads are the perfect example of being sold a particular identity of luxury and romance. This management of consumer choices assists in explaining the emergence of Fair Trade consumption where the individual constructs a certain identity – an identity of the ethical consumer who wishes to protect the world from the destructible forms of modern globalised life. Demonstrative of a particular travelling lifestyle, backpackers utilise their travelling experiences to mobilise an identity narrative – a lifestyle choice where one travels from place to place in order to build up meaningful experiences and do a bit of soul searching. Therefore, late-modernity’s playful character opens up multiple and diverse identities and lifestyles, making consumer choice appear a reality.

However, consumer culture is characteristic of a ‘permanent identity crisis’, solved primarily through the buying of Adidas trainers and Calvin Klein sweaters. We are routinely ambushed by powerful marketing campaigns and advertisements, depicting ideas of who we could be – targeting our deepest insecurities.

However, something more fundamental is rumbling under the surface, with choice beginning to reveal its true colours and paradoxical nature. Whilst liberated to choose lifestyles, consumers simultaneously simply have no choice but to choose. The act of choosing which particular ornaments I should have arranged across my hallway is obligatory in order to escape the anomic and isolating conditions of post-industrial life where building a sense of identity is fundamental. Thus, the so-called ‘free’ agent that we assume ourselves to be is increasingly dependent on capitalist market to appropriate commodities and hence, lifestyles – hence the need for me to walk round the shopping centre like a zombie, and it’s the only remaining skill in postmodern society. Avoiding alternative channels of identity construction, the skill is seeking, locating and acquiring the correct market solutions to social problems – a logic at the heart on neoliberal capitalism. Therefore, locating choice within the context of capitalist logic where surplus is fundamental, individuals are far from free agents exercising choice. Rather, individuals are constructed and locked into a capitalist structure where the compulsion to choose itself is not a choice. Carving out a more paradoxical understanding of lifestyle choice, individual freedom is dependent on the capitalist market, and the ability of us consumers to realise that sense of freedom is expressed through consumer choice.

Now the notion of free choice gets bleaker. Whilst our lifestyle choices are simultaneously liberating and dependent on the capitalist market to realise that freedom, some go as far to suggest that choice is a scam, masking the processes in which repressive power is exercised - our search and findings are pre-scripted, packaged to us through campaigns and leading our behaviours to fall into some circumscribed pattern.. Capitalism not only determines the mass produced products to be sold to us, but also the rules determining our preferences. Furthermore, there is the ’authority of numbers’ whereby the logic follows that if everyone else has a 3D television, it makes sense to purchase one. Together these codes constrain the framework through which choice operates. They persuade us to buy one running machine over another, by formulating exactly which gym equipment will assist in achieving our fitness goals – free personal choice, at this juncture, is perhaps a misconception.

We, as consumers, are obliged to be satisfied with the menu. In fact, lifestyle choices are pre-determined by manipulation, rather than freedom of the individual. Subject to the logic of capitalist accumulation, culture is commodified and packaged to us in a production-line mentality. Whilst Starbucks’ diverse merchandise allows us to tailor-make our beverages to satisfy personal tastes, with stores being universally located, everybody is offered the very same opportunity to express their individuality in this standardised form. The effect being, a state of ‘pseudo-individualization’, where efforts to distinguish ourselves through coffee choices and holiday destinations, are simply processes of imitation and reproduction of identities presented and packaged to us. Therefore, lifestyle choice as something free and personal is deemed an illusion created by those who market culture where everyone is given a choice so that nobody can escape, what I like to call ‘the mental headlock of capitalism’ – where we are trapped in having no choice but to choose. This is why capitalism is so smart – we could, but we don’t want to escape since the very ability to consume is what keeps us in it.

This illusion of choice is reified by the Marxist ideas of ‘falsified needs’ whipped up from outside and above the subject. With an ever-increasing oversupply of goods, luxury items, such as Mini Cooper automobiles, require reasons for accepting extortionate price tags, meaning increasingly contrived desires need to be created. Consequently, marketing strategies target the satisfaction of desires as opposed to needs, and dependent on the manipulation of signs and symbols. Advertising is the perfect example of a ‘hyperreality’ where technological processes blur the boundaries between what is real and what is fiction in order to blindly affiliate consumers with objects we do not need. Advertising has convinced consumers to purchase bottled water. What’s so unique about water and a resource which we have already in abundance? Brand culture has intensified such processes where marketing experts tap into our desires, intellect and deepest fears of who we wish to be. Consequently, logos representing brands become ‘fetishes’ and the Carhartt logo on my T-shirt symbolises inclusion to a particular group and marks distinctions from others, whilst our choice to display our Fair Trade purchases in our kitchen is the result of powerful branding techniques which promote ideas of an ethical consumer who cares about the plight of the developing world.

Now choice has been shown for what it truly is – an illusion, since needs have been manipulated to the extent that they can be satisfied by standardised and mass-produced goods imposed onto us, through advertising and branding strategies which create an aura and personality around the product for consumers to connect with, and fulfilling company’s raison d’etre – profit. Through processes of indoctrination and manipulation, we are locked into a capitalist structure where our only choice is to choose. Lifestyle ‘choices’ delude us into believing we are utterly free to choose, when in fact, we are inextricably woven into the market and its forces, underlining the constant antagonism between choice’s liberating and dependent, and therefore, paradoxical character in modern consumer society. So, if I make the choice to take out a mortgage but later down the line find myself unable to pay for it, I’ll get told “well it was your fault, your choice”. The bleak reality is that by being sold the illusion of choice, we are also held accountable for the actions we have been coerced to make.