The Politics of Happiness, Andy Blunden, April 2006

Submitted to Correspondence section of the “The Quarterly Essay,” in response to What’s Left? The Death of Social Democracy, Clive Hamilton. Quarterly Essay 21.

The issues Clive Hamilton raises in his Quarterly Essay are incredibly important, and I don’t believe that anyone could press these questions without generating animosity. So more’s the pity that Clive dilutes the controversial-but-true with the confused and contradictory. And yet in my opinion he actually doesn’t go far enough.

Much as Clive wants to say that economic progress is over-rated as a solution to social problems, he neglects the fact that the same logic has thoroughly infected the political system as well as the economy.

The entire system of political communication is controlled by money. The same highly-paid spin doctors who market fat and sugar as diet food, market politicians to voters; the same scoundrels who market toy poker machines to children, market real poker machines to governments. And so it must be, because the political field has been professionalised, with membership of the two major parties down to a four-figure number (other than those for whom membership is a job requirement). Winning government means having the best marketing campaign for exactly the same product. Local branches constitute a minuscule proportion of the electorate and in any case, have no say in policy development or campaign strategy.

But more importantly, political parties, as living expressions of a social movement, have died because the entire political system replicates the logic of the market. Images are manufactured by professionals who market them to isolated and powerless consumers who make an individualised purchase once every few years. The same way many trade unions are run nowadays. Meanwhile, the interests of the corporations determine what really happens in between elections.

The “10 reasons not to get involved in organised politics” which Mark Latham gave to students at the University of Melbourne made it clear, as I heard it, that he sees the current dysfunctional state of the Labor Party as a product of the social system, not its cause. And according to my notes, reason number 9 was “Social problems require social solutions,” for there is no place for any new politics inside a parliamentary system where governments are selected by individualised voters, informed of the issues by commercial television professionals pushing competing teams of careerists.

Like all genuine problems, this is a chicken-and-egg problem. Only a government can change the economic system and protect communities from manipulation by corporate power, but it is corporate power which is choosing the governments and their policies. Public opinion has to be changed by some kind of social movement before the ALP or any parliamentary party is going to take notice; some kind of social movement is going to have to rein in corporate power before any government dares to stand against it.

But such a social movement cannot be a “new politics of wellbeing.” “Wellbeing” is in effect a synonym for “happiness” or “utility.” A social movement that pursues happiness as a political end is exactly what we have already; it is what Clive calls “consumer capitalism.” This is what makes Clive’s essay so disappointing; his solution to rampant narcissism is to set up a political party of narcissism.

Clive sees nothing problematic in relying on surveys in which people self-report their “happiness” as an objective measure of wellbeing. Never mind millionaires who report that they are “still” unhappy, look at what serious students of poverty and wellbeing have been telling us for decades. Amartya Sen tells us that a starving Indian peasant who has just been given a pile of straw to sleep on instead of the concrete floor he usually uses, will report that he is happy; or we have the now-famous experiment which shows that finding a 10c piece on the photocopier raises happiness significantly, at least for a few minutes.

The only measures of wellbeing that matter are those that rely on objective criteria, such as imprisonment, life expectancy, psychiatric referrals, unemployment, literacy, infant mortality, etc., as measures of the “outcome” of social advantage or disadvantage used by researchers in this field, as well as those Clive mentions from the Household Expenditure Survey.

It is an insight that goes back to the ancients that happiness is something that can only be attained as an unintended by-product of pursuing other things, whether that be social justice, excellence in one of the professions, the happiness of one’s family or the good of the country. Clive’s “politics of wellbeing” is exactly what we have and exactly what we do not need more of. The cultivation of “higher needs” (which is I think what Clive means by “wellbeing”) presupposes the pursuit of something other than self-gratification, such as when people say that the happiest time of their life was during the war. Happiness will only arise as a by-product of a successful war against the atomisation of society, growing inequality, injustice and the anomie and pointlessness of modern life under capitalism. On the other hand, the idea that the ethos of consumerism could be overcome while leaving the economic base untouched is simply not believable.

Clive also seems to accept as good coin the dogma that wealth is synonymous with having more “stuff.” If we understand wealth in its broadest sense to be a measure of real command over a portion of social labour, whether in the form of tradable commodities and money or not, then powerless, misinformed and isolated people swamped with “stuff” are no more wealthy than an obese person can be described as “well-fed.” According to Amartya Sen – and surely he is right here – what people need to secure for themselves a good life is critical voice, not stuff.

It is true, and this is surely Clive’s central point, that Australian society is swamped with “stuff,” and despite Howard, we still have a great health service and an education service which is better than most. And it is also true that Labor ideology was founded on a conception of a majority suffering material deprivation, and that this is no longer the case in Australia. Inequality and deprivation is greater than ever before but it is not distributed in the same way and is no longer measurable by counting stuff. All the more important that we think a lot more clearly about concepts like wealth and wellbeing. Clive unfortunately, in the very act of highlighting this problem, actually compounds the confusion.

Within Australia, wealth is distributed more unequally than ever before. Perhaps it is true that someone has to get up at 4am to run the public transport system, someone has to do night shifts in the psychiatric wards of our hospitals, work in the sweat shops and factories, someone has to collect our garbage or teach in our ghetto schools – but if the people who do these tasks have a lot more stuff than before, this hardly what can be described as “affluence” even though none of the workers in these roles even show up on the welfare statistics at all.

Not only is wealth in its broadest sense more unequally distributed than ever within Australia, but the distribution of wealth on a global scale is unequal to the point of impending disaster. People living in the slums of Baghdad, Bogota or Port Moresby have no vote in the US or Australian elections, but US and Australian governments have a greater say over their future than do the governments they elect themselves, and the transnational corporations who operate outside of the control of any electorate have even more say. There is nothing just about this distribution of power and wealth. Concentrating all the wealth and power in a few privileged countries and then letting the voters of those few countries decide the fate of the world is neither just nor wise. Our children and grandchildren who do not yet have a vote will pay the price for this injustice.

Clive is right when he says that the new politics which is required has to respond to the consciousness and needs of a majority of Australians, irrespective of the interests of minorities, those outside Australia and those who are yet to be born. The injustices heaped upon the original owners of the land and the 15 to 20% of the population who are suffering real poverty must drive political solutions, but Clive is also right when he says that only a politics which resonates with the majority of the population of Australia can succeed in remedying these problems. And Clive is also right when he says that any appeal to a homogeneous communitarianism is bound to fail. But it is quite wrong to take the advertising industry at their word and treat people as nothing more than consumers and simply offer them a superior formula for “happiness.” People need social justice, and they expect a social democratic party to represent that need. But Clive is right that we must have a concept of social justice which resonates with our times.

Don’t we have something to say to the young woman whom Clive over heard ruminating on what she would do with her life? Isn’t it a fact that as things stand, the decisions which really matter to her will most likely be made for her by people she does not even know? Isn’t this expectation that a person has a right to map their own life plan and have a say in all the conditions vitally affecting them and their choices, a genuinely fair conception of what it means to be a citizen? And surely there is nothing in this view of life which is inconsistent with a public spirit.

Hamilton defines autonomy as “the capacity to act according to internalised values and norms.” Conformism may be preferable to tyranny but it is hardly autonomy. I think Amartya Sen is closer to what is needed with the idea of “critical voice.” Sen holds that it is critical voice that people need for a good life, and we should add – a critical voice “in the places where one’s life is determined.” This is of course a very challenging objective for any young person today, but one which has a far better chance of bringing happiness than a “politics of wellbeing” which continues the pursuit of happiness in the midst of injustice.

Andy Blunden.
Independent Social Research Network.