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If you haven’t already caught sight of the RSA animate of Renata Salecl’s talk last year, it’s well worth a watch. In it Salecl draws upon the insights of psychoanalysis to describe the “paradox of choice”, arguing that the seemingly endless array of options and possibilities now open to people throughout their daily lives, rather than being a representation of capitalism at its best – the notion that more choice, means more autonomy, means happier lives – actually presents us with a continuous stream of mentally trying dilemmas.

If you haven’t already caught sight of the RSA animate of Renata Salecl’s talk last year, it’s well worth a watch. In it Salecl draws upon the insights of psychoanalysis to describe the “paradox of choice”, arguing that the seemingly endless array of options and possibilities now open to people throughout their daily lives, rather than being a representation of capitalism at its best – the notion that more choice, means more autonomy, means happier lives – actually presents us with a continuous stream of mentally trying dilemmas.

More specifically, Salecl says the burden of too much choice can be damaging in two main ways:

The first is the anxiety that it can often provoke in people. We care about what others think of us, and that in turn means we care about how others view our choices. Thus, the more choices we are presented with the greater the opportunity to embarrass ourselves by choosing the wrong option, whether that’s the cheap bottle of wine or the pretentious holiday in the Alps. What's more, we also worry about missing out on something if we choose one option over the myriad others available; the more choices there are, the more we feel there is to miss out on.

But it is her second concern that is arguably the most prescient. According to Salecl, the burden of choice can actually end up pacifying society at large, encouraging people to feel that the sky-limit is the limit and then leaving them to turn in on themselves when they don’t manage to reach the high expectations that we, and the dominant culture, have set as the norm. The notion of the ‘self-made man’ and our constant urge to compare ourselves to this image typifies the new era of subjectivity which Salecl describes so thoughtfully.

This is not just damaging to our mental health (e.g. through low self-esteem and workaholism), but also to our collective capacity to achieve social change more broadly. We criticise ourselves and in doing so fail to critique external forces, particularly structural ones (perhaps this is one answer to John Harris’s confusion as to why people just aren’t protesting like they used to).

While I certainly agree with Salecl’s arguments and her critique of choice and consumption, it struck me that her thoughts may actually open up more challenging questions for community development and empowerment initiatives.

The idea that we should give people more freedom to shape public services and the lives of their communities certainly isn’t a new one, but it is an agenda that has seen something of a revival as a central pillar of the Big Society programme. Just take Cameron’s exhortations for everybody to ‘get up and go’:

“So that great project in your community – go and lead it. The waste in government – go and find it. The new school in your neighbourhood – go and demand it. The beat meeting on your street – sign up. The neighbourhood group – join up. The business you’ve always dreamed of – start up. When we say ‘we are all in this together’ that is not a cry for help, but a call to arms. Society is not a spectator sport.”

One of the major criticisms of the Big Society, and something addressed in a new Citizen Power paper published today, is that although new policy initiatives may ‘empower’ people (e.g. to decide on local development plans or to set up a free school), it is only likely to be those with the loudest voices and the most extensive resources that will be able to grasp them. The obvious concern is that these initiatives are then simply unfair; if not everyone can play a part, then how can the outcomes reflect the wishes and aspirations of the many, and not simply the few?

But were we to go deeper, we might see that the problem is not just the possibility of an inequality of outcomes in terms of the shape of public services and local areas, but also the mental drain that all of this places upon people. With Big Society ‘empowerment’ often comes the implicit expectation that people will use that extended freedom for some positive end. But what if they don’t?

To return to Salecl, empowerment is effectively and theoretically opening up a whole lot more choice for people to run things the way they want them to be run. But if people don’t choose well, or in many cases if they can’t effectively choose at all, they are the ones who will be held responsible. They had the power and the opportunities, why didn’t they use it?

We need to recognise that the image Cameron portrays of lots of pro-active citizens working all the hours god sends to improve their community is mostly an allusion, backed up by selective anecdotes (something which Matthew Taylor has criticised in the past). 8% of people contribute nearly half the volunteering hours in the UK. The ‘self-made estate’ is just as about as likely as the ‘self-made man’. We can’t and shouldn’t forget the structural forces that shape our neighbourhoods. Unemployment, levels of education, the going wage; these are the things which ultimately dictate the success or failure of the places in which we live. Yes, participation in volunteering and the running of public services can be transformative, but it is obviously a supplement to statutory services rather than a replacement for them.

The concern is that, just as choice in our daily lives has made us turn in on ourselves, ‘choice’ through current empty-gestured empowerment initiatives like the Big Society may prompt us to do the same thing, causing not just skewed services but also identity crises and long-term damage to the confidence of our communities when it turns out we can’t actually make the change expected from us, but which we falsely perceive others can and are doing.

The ultimate irony is that the belief in the Big Society may in fact paralyse communities through introspection rather than propel them into action through a ‘call to arms’.

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