Election Thoughts [2] | The Choice to Control our Own Lives?


In the previous post, I argued that the ‘choice’ agenda that all parties are keen to promote is actually something of a fallacy. Genuine choice of political representation in the kind of democracy we have is pretty much an illusion, and choice in delivery of services like health and education would actually require surplus capacity, which would have to mean wasted resources.

In other words, choice has become a fetish – pinned up in manifestos and speeches to mean anything real, but just to tempt us into thinking that these are the sort of people who are giving us power. What this means is that throughout this campaign, along with the fetishisation of choice, we are also going to see the fetishisation of rights.

CameronAll parties will be offering us new rights. Both Labour and Conservatives are keen to promote their ‘devolving power’ agenda, (indeed, the launch of the Conservative manifesto today is focusing exactly on that) but again, I think we need to be careful here. In First as Tragedy, Then as Farce, Zizek quotes Jean-Claude Milner:

“Those who hold power know very well the difference between a right and a permission… A right in the strict sense of the term gives access to the exercise of power, at the expense of another power. A permission doesn’t diminish the power of the one who gives it; it doesn’t augment the power of the one who gets it.”

What we must then ask when we are promised new rights in manifestos – rights to see our police forces improved, rights to hold the NHS to account, devolved power to local organisation – is whether these are rights or simply permissions.

Zizek is clear: new permissions are not nothing, they may make life easier. But the point of easing our lives is often to allow the powerful to remain in power. No actual change in the power structures occurs. This is why he is so critical of the ’68 uprising in Paris:

While May ’68 aimed at total (and totally politicized) activity, the “spirit of 68” transposed this into a depoliticized pseudo-activity (new lifestyles etc.), the very form of social passivity.

This connects with Marcuse’s critique in One Dimensional Man. Those in power, and the systems they oversee in order to stay there, use three methods to tempt those who might rise up to change things into thinking it’s not worth it:

  1. You are too small to make any significant difference. Yes, you have a vote, but only one vote, and probably not in a marginal seat.
  2. If you do act to try to change things, people will laugh at you. Fringe parties and independents are regularly laughed off and trivialised.
  3. If you do act, you have to realise that it will be very costly to you. Changing/Not Changing government will hit your pockets and your family will suffer.

Instead, new rights, like the idea of free choice, are strung up for us to gloat at and be transfixed by. Opposing any real critique of electoral reform, things are done to make our lives easier, and huge arrays of choices are apparently placed before us, even though this amounts to little genuine power-shift. In this way, in the words of John Gray: we are forced to live as if we are free.

It’s to this ‘incessant pressure to choose’ that I’ll turn to in the next post, but to conclude these thoughts: have a healthy skepticism when talk turns to ‘rights’. Are these new rights actually devolving power, or simply temporary permissions from those who retain all meaningful power?