Can We Truly Be Free Agents in a Consumerist World?

I never actually completed one of those “Choose Your Own Adventure” books. I would read the setup, make the first obviously terrible choice, and invariably fall into some pit of crocodiles, snakes or punji sticks. (Why there were so many damn deadly pits in those books I’ll never know!). Now dead, I’d toss the book and defy of the whole fruitless exercise. As an already avid, at-home bookworm, I knew the value of reading. But that in-school quiet time — even when it was dressed up as page-skipping exploration — only took away from the truly creative play outside. The original author, Ed Packard structured a fine story. He allowed young readers to choose plenty of different paths, but no publishing house could ever replace a child’s agency in imagining and experiencing real fun out on the school yard. Think about the difference between putting a kid in a bumper car versus “setting them free” in Disneyland’s loose railed, Audiotopia.

Thirty years later, I’m a well-read but jaded and unnecessarily critical academic. I now realize, more than ever, that those books were less about teaching children to expand their own imaginative horizons and more about teaching children how to follow the limited options that authority figures had previously structured for them. They gave us the feeling of agency, even as they made it impossible to imagine a different path to the final chapter.

A different sort of choose-your-own-adventure author, once said, “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.” Karl Marx’s writing, which was at its height in the middle-1800’s, inspired as much scholarship as it did unwarranted anxiety and hatred (his very name remains pejorative in some circles); however, the basis of his work was simply a deep investigation and description of the capitalist economic system. He found that certain, basic operating procedures were part and parcel of capitalist economies: privatization, alienation, un-sustainability and inequality, for example.

This economic structure is our tradition. Our cultural, legal and political institutions were all built to serve and reproduce it.

Marx even hinted that as we’re born into this structure, our very consciousness becomes its reflection. We internalize competition, individualism and a blindness to class differences. Of course, we remain active world-makers. We construct our reality from the ground up via hard work, imagination and language. We can be generous, loving and empathetic to others, but for all the freedom of choice we enjoy, we’re also always limited by the basic social, economic and cultural forces at work in our lives. Therefore we must always counterpose our awareness of agency with questions of structure.

As for its etymology, the meaning of the word agent has remained surprisingly stable for the past 500 years. The word came into Middle English from the Latin root ag. It meant “to set in motion, to drive forward, to do, or to perform.” Being a noun based on a verb, the word agent came to define any active force producing a phenomenon. If you believe a language reflects a world-view (and I do), it is quite indicative that the word first defined individuals as causal agents. In fact, it wasn’t until 1861 (right about the time Marx was noticing the increasing, global dominance of industrial capitalist economies) that we began to attach agency to establishments where business was done on behalf of others. Before that, if a person needed something they had to do the job themselves. And if they wanted to get somewhere, they had to make it their job to get there. That shift in the word shows a shift in the lives of its speakers. Suddenly, we had an economy with surplus enough for middle-class peoples to themselves buy the labor of others.

The travel and tourism agencies had their heyday from the 50’s into the 90’s. PanAm jets began crisscrossing the skies, and Club Med unveiled it’s all-inclusive but terribly cloistered and exploitive gated vacations. With so many new options and no Internet to link them, only trained professionals could navigate planning travel.

About a year ago, I was walking down the street and passed a concrete box of a building. On its high and tiny windowsill was a newish looking sign advertising the office of a travel agent. I stopped in disbelief. Walking by, I couldn’t imagine why anyone would have any reason to visit a travel agent, much less one in a seedy alley. Travel agents had all but disappeared, much like the sound of a fax machine sending traveler’s checks. They were strangled out of existence by the Internet and a traveling lawn gnome. The industry had been democratized, and those agencies had collapsed away. Any computer savvy tourist can now choose his or her own adventure.

Obviously, when we use agencies we’re aiming to make something much easier for ourselves, and there is no crime in that. Then again, our entire legal system decides what is and isn’t a crime, and it was constructed to support those basic operating procedures in the first place.

Deeper questions of right or wrong are not always precursors to questions of profit and efficiency.

While your average travel agency for tourism has evaporated, another type has recently taken its place. There are now agencies that offer global reproductive assistance. In fact, it’s a multibillion-dollar industry that trades in eggs, fertilization, babies and surrogacy, and within that industry, a number of egregious human rights violations have occurred. Simplifying this industry by calling it “reproductive tourism” and reducing it as just another vulgar capitalist enterprise rudely moralizes the complex lives of parents and donors and callously ignores their agency; however, the existence of such profit-making corporate agencies does evince just how far the choose-your-own-adventure ethic has progressed. For better or worse, even reproduction has adapted to capitalist logics.

There was, by the by, a third shift in the etymology of agency. In 1916, we attached the word to secrecy and spycraft. Throughout the course of the first and second World Wars, secret agents, political intrigue and intelligence gathering became central concerns for all bellicose nations. In 1946, despite World War II ending and the supposed global peace that ending secured, President Truman permanently established the American Central Intelligence Agency. From the start, the CIA’s stated mission was to fight the threat of the powerful communist Soviet Union. Even without falling into fanciful conspiracies, it’s evident that throughout its history, the CIA has dedicated itself almost entirely to securing American business interests abroad, and usually at the expense of other sovereign governments and their people.

In June, The Fullest’s Michelle Lipper equated a wealth of options with stultifying imprisonment. Indeed, in our privilege, options can be overwhelming; however, we must admit that the privileges we enjoy and the very freedom of our choice are wholly secured by a system that aggressively limits the freedoms of a great majority of others in the global working class, the third world and even the imprisoned themselves. They are all exploited for their labor, and largely because of their race, gender or class. It’s our relationship to these populations — whose health and safety are far from secure — which mostly discomforts Barry Schwartz, not the less-than-quite-right cut of his new jeans.

My little etymology of agency was not meant to mark some terrible shift in American culture. Nor was it meant to berate us as morally depraved capitalists. I do hope, however, that readers pause and think about how their individual agency rests on structured consumption, and therefore on certain kinds of unsustainability and inequality. I also think that foregoing our own agency for the sake of ease and loose-railed Disneyland bliss, is simply boring.

And finally, giving in entirely to the traditions of our past and refusing to correct its injustices is certainly more dangerous than the neck injury of a bumper car. Agencies such as Club Med, international reproductive assistance, and the CIA indeed help us. They secure us in some way — our safety in foreign lands or our confidence as new parents. But they also secure our privilege in the global economy. They can blind us from the actual communities whose labor we consume. And in this way, they limit us as imaginative, engaged and empathetic humans. Perhaps I’m simplifying our lives or exaggerating the power of Chooseco’s book series, but at what point do we toss the book, defy the fruitless exercise and imagine a different final chapter? We each must struggle defiantly against those easier, predefined paths. I’m sure there will be no crocodile-filled pit to stop us.

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