Delusions of Choice: 3 questions with Lynne Segal

Is freedom of choice an illusion?

Born in Australia, but now living in London, Lynne Segal is a socialist feminist academic, activist and author. Since 1999 she has been the Anniversary Professor of Psychology and Gender Studies at Birkbeck, University of London, and she has written and edited a number of books, including New Sexual Agendas (1997) and Slow Motion: changing masculinities, changing men (2007).

We spoke to her about the neoliberalism, gender and the delusions of choice.

What’s the basis for the current ideology of choice?

Actual “choice” is one thing, the current ideology of choice quite another. There is in reality simply far too little choice, often no choice at all, for many of us, much of the time. Indeed, the more important the issue, the less the choice exists around how to live our lives. For young people jobs are hard to find, for older people they are increasingly insecure. Finding anywhere satisfactory to live, especially in London where I reside, is impossible for anyone who does not already own property.

So where has the ideology of choice, or the foolish notion that we have “too much” of it come from? I know the answer. It returns us to the ideology associated with the rise of the Right, with Margaret Thatcher, and grip of neo-liberalism. It is all about equating the private and the privatised with so-called “freedom and choice”; the public, the collective, the community, the nationalised, with “constraint and imposition”.

It is frightening how successful Thatcher, and all those trailing her legacy, have been in selling us the delusion that today we have more choice over our lives. The truth, as I’ve said, is that recent years have seen a lack of security and falling living standards for all but the wealthiest of people, with fewer safety nets and welfare resources to enhance the lives of those in any sort of need. It is therefore simply a further cruelty to extol freedom of choice, pretending we are really free to choose the best school for our children, the most nurturing care-homes for those we love, let alone find the jobs or the sort of housing we want.

On any meaningful question of choice, as the economist Colin Crouch argued in his recent book, The Strange Non-Death of Neoliberalism, this fiscal policy would also hugely strengthen the oligopolisation of corporate capital, which in the end has served to undermine even any meaningful notion of the free market itself, as huge corporations gain control of governments and can indulge in price fixing (or lowering), thereby hollowing out both any form of accountable democratic structures and any genuinely competitive market itself: neoliberalism in a nutshell. As Crouch argues, in reality we no longer even have a free market any more. So much for choice.

How has the proliferation of choice affected the lives and opportunities for women?

On many critical issues, there has been little proliferation of choice in the lives and opportunities of women, except for professional women or the partners of the wealthy. There has indeed been one key change over the last forty years: in many places women have gained much more control than ever before over reproductive choices. However, this victory has not been without constant battles, especially in the USA, to roll it back.

Moreover, most women’s need for paid jobs and the insecurities they face once in them, and especially the typically low wages and long hours of the many women working in the care industry, has also constrained women’s (and men’s) ability to take time off work for having and raising children. Over the last forty years there has also been far more choice for successful school leavers, especially middle-class women, to choose to enter the professions, even though when graduating their subsequent rise (and their wages) still remain significantly lower than that of men. Again, women who do reach the top of their professions have done so, for the most part, by curtailing what might be their own desire for children. The lack of change in relation to which sex shoulders the main responsibility for care in the home, leaves many married women overworked, and single women (whether from “choice”, abandonment, or as victims of violence) in poverty. Thus the world we live in increasingly seems to offer women more choice with one hand, while removing it with the other.

Is the belief in unbounded options of choice and individual freedom illusory?

Such belief is not just deluded, it spreads a very cruel ideology of self-blame. It wants people to think it’s all there own fault if when they are not able to lead lives anything like those they might like to, or make things better for others they love and care about.



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