Interview: The New Democrat
Bad Boss: The Ugly Australian
Unions: Free Spirits and Slaves
Industrial: National Focus
History: A Class Act
International: Across the Ditch
Economics: Home Truths
Review: No Time Like Tomorrow
Poetry: Silent Note
The Locker Room
Last Year’s Model
The Pursuit of Happiness Part II
Sigmund Freud used to complain that his American acolytes had interpreted his psychotherapeutic ideas as a technique for making people happy. Steeped in European philosophical tradition, Freud believed this to be a trivialization of a movement whose purpose was to understand the meaning of what people do and what their behaviour tells us about the human condition. The purpose of life is not to be happy; it is to understand ourselves so that we can achieve personal integration or reconciliation with our selves. It is a process rather than a final state.
The marketers have not only sought to persuade us that they can provide us with happy lives, consumer capitalism has redefined happiness itself. People have come to believe that happiness can be achieved by maximising the number of emotional and physical highs. The pursuit of short-term emotional highs swamps the longer-term and deeper need to fulfill one's potential and realize one's life purpose.
Twentieth-century consumer capitalism has seen a progressive substitution of activities and desires that result in immediate stimulation in place of the more challenging and potentially more fulfilling demands of realizing one's true potential. There is a trade-off that must be made between short-term gratification and attaining deeper goals of self-realisation.
Yet it is in the superficial form of happiness that we are told to invest our hopes. Today, the pursuit of happiness promotes a hedonistic, shallow approach to life. We don't need the psychological studies to confirm what our intuitive knowledge and folk wisdom tell us - that a worthwhile life is one of inner contentment marked by self-acceptance, the ability to maintain warm and trusting relationships, living in accord with personal standards, having a clear sense of direction in life and realizing one's potential.
This idea of happiness is hostile to the market because it cannot be provided by the market and recognises that the market constantly conspires to corrupt it. Yet it is the market's superficial idea of happiness that finds a theoretical rationale in the economics texts and that is reinforced every time a political leader offers us a fistful of dollars.
The market's definition of happiness changes our values and thus the way we behave. If I believe in the market's idea of life's goals then external rewards take precedence over intrinsic goals. In that case, I would go to the marriage market to pick out a mate who can best satisfy my own emotional and physical needs; I would never follow a passion to study Classical Greek; I would not understand why it's offensive to argue that Africa is vastly under-polluted and that it's cheaper to evacuate islands that will be inundated because we refuse to cut our greenhouse gases; I would genetically select perfect children and keep them happy by showering them with whatever goods they demand from me; I would walk over others to achieve my career goals; I would respond to life's vicissitudes with drugs; and, I would hire cosmetic surgeons to put on display the best body money could buy.
All of these forces coalesce in the idea of growth fetishism. Nothing more preoccupies the modern political process than economic growth. As never before, it is the touchstone of political success. Countries rate their progress against others by their income per person, which can rise only through faster growth. High growth is a cause of national pride; low growth attracts accusations of incompetence in the case of rich countries and pity in the case of poor countries. A country that experiences a period of low growth goes through an agony of national soul-searching, in which pundits of the left and right expostulate about 'where we went wrong' and whether there is some fault in the national character.
Throughout history national leaders have promised freedom, equality, mass education, moral invigoration and the restoration of national pride; now they promise more economic growth. Citizens once hoped for a more equal society, a classless society, a more compassionate society and a more democratic society; now they can hope for nothing more than higher incomes.
Growth has annexed the very idea of progress. While once powered by belief in technological advance, evolutionary biology or the ethical perfectibility of humankind, from the 1950s material expansion became the driving force of progress and the measure of success became growth of GDP. That is why we consult the quarterly national accounts so closely, to know how well we are doing. This is convenient, for capitalist firms became the central agency of progress and the entrepreneurs brought their own thinkers to explain their role - the neoclassical economists.
The belief in progress is the counterpart in society of personal hopes for a better life. As Charles Rycroft observed:
...all societies of any complexity seem to have a tendency to divide themselves into purveyors and recipients of hope, the purveyors being special people - shamans, gurus, priests, psychoanalysts - who receive an esoteric training and are endowed with some sort of 'mana' or charisma by the others ...
The economists are the modern purveyors of hope; they are the priests who hold the secret to attaining manna. The transformation of the idea of progress into the pursuit of a higher growth rate has meant the hijacking of hope itself. The neoliberal revolution of the last two decades has robbed us of hope because all it can promise is more growth and higher incomes. For those surrounded by abundance, more growth is nothing to look forward to; it cannot give us a better society and so the economists are the thieves of hope.
While economic growth is said to be the process whereby our wants are satisfied, in reality growth is sustained only so long as we remain discontented. Economic growth does not create happiness; unhappiness sustains economic growth. The vast financial and creative resources of the marketing industry are devoted to a single purpose, to manufacturing discontent and to persuading us to invest our hopes for the future in greater material consumption. That is its historical task. It is a wonderful scheme: persuade people to commit their hopes for a better life to higher incomes, but don't let on that achieving those goals cannot provide better lives, so that the only apparent response is to wish for even higher incomes.
Consumer capitalism has thus redefined what it means to live a successful life, and it has done so in a way that ensures the vast majority will fail. If success is judged by material reward then the success of the few is purchased by the failure of the many. 'Hence, of course, the pleasure many people take in the misfortunes, scandals and downfalls of the famous'.
The tall poppy syndrome is a legitimate and healthy defence mechanism in a world that consigns most people to failure.
One cannot have hope without a vision. For a poor person, a practical vision is to be free of the material constraints that poverty imposes and to live a comfortable existence. The Republican candidate in the 1928 Presidential election, Herbert Hoover, famously pledged 'A chicken in every pot and two cars in every garage ', a vision with appeal to a generation where, even before the Depression, deprivation was the lot of most. But in a post-scarcity society what can the vision be other than more of the same? George Bush knows, subliminally at least, that promising 'a nose job for everyone and two home theatres in every house' is unlikely to capture the public imagination, so he seizes on a war on terror - a dark but visionary project in the bleakness of American consumer society. Pity about the innocents.
The hope held out by growth fetishism and consumerism is a false hope. Under modern consumer capitalism, hope is dead, and in Mary Zournazi's words:
Without hope what is left is death - the death of the spirit, the death of life - where there is no longer any sense of regeneration and renewal.
We live in an era where the opportunities to live fulfilling lives have never been better and yet where the danger of disappointment has never been greater. When the market hijacks hope but cannot deliver what we need for fulfilled lives it no surprise that we see so much social and personal distress. In a world of abundance, this fact is inexplicable for those who are the prisoners of growth fetishism.
The epidemics of mental illness that have grown with affluence are a natur al response to the serial disappointments and dashed hopes of the market. According to one study, depression has increased tenfold among Americans born since the Second World War.
Young people, the principal beneficiaries of super-affluence, are most prone to clinical depression, evidenced in record rates of teenage suicide and other social pathologies such as self-destructive drug taking.
According to the World Health Organization and the World Bank, the burden of psychiatric conditions has been greatly underestimated. Of the ten leading causes of disability worldwide in 1990 (measured in years lived with a disability), five were psychiatric disorders - major depression (the number one cause), alcohol use (fourth), bipolar disorder (sixth), schizophrenia (ninth) and obsessive-compulsive disorders (tenth). Major depression is responsible for more than one in ten of all years lived with a disability.
While major depression is already the leading cause of disability worldwide, when measured in terms of disability-adjusted life-years it is expected to leap from being the fourth most burdensome disease in the world in 1990 to second place in 2020. Last year, The Australia Institute released a report showing that nearly a third of Australian adults depend on medications , alcohol or other substances for their mental wellbeing.
For decades now, the politicians and economists have told us that maximising economic growth will take us on the path to a better society, yet we are now in the grip of an epidemic of mental disorders and alienation.
What does this reflect if not an endemic sense of hopelessness? For if we can discern no light to draw us on, no way out of our despond, then what else do we do? Mental illness is a natural response to the hopelessness of modern consumer life.
The first step in the counselling process is to give the patient or client hope. To be cured one must believe that life can be better, that there is hope. To achieve this the counsellor helps the client to externalize the problem, to understand its causes, to enable some
objective understanding of it. In the parlance of the religious healers of old, we must name the beast. That is what Growth Fetish does; in that sense, it is a remedy for hopelessness.
In Growth Fetish I describe a post-growth society, one that is grounded in promoting the things that truly can provide for more fulfilling lives. A post- growth society will go beyond our obsession with growth and income and endless consumption. It will redefine progress in a way that puts at the centre the contentment of all of its citizens, in which everyone can become reconciled with themselves and find fulfillment in their vocations and their relationships.
We can imagine a society in which education is devoted to creating more rounded humans, where the purpose of jobs is first to provide fulfillment and meaningful activity, where we take poverty, unemployment and disadvantage seriously once again, and where we deal with the rest of the world on the basis of ethics rather than economics.
Radical as it might sound, the case for a transition to a post- growth society is by no means far-fetched or utopian. Many people in Western countries have already made a 16 decision to reduce their work, incomes and consumption, a phenomenon known as downshifting. Most downshifters are ordinary people who have decided it is in their interests to step off the materialist treadmill and take up a more balanced and rewarding life. A survey by The Australia Institute found that 23 per cent of 30-60 year olds have downshifted, citing as their reasons a desire for more balance and control in their lives, more time with their families and more personal fulfillment. The downshifters, often people with no more than average incomes, expressed a desire to do something more meaningful with their lives, and to achieve this aim they considered it was necessary to consume less, work less and slow down.
The downshifters are the standard bearers in the revolt against consumerism, but the social revolution required to make the transition to a post-growth society will not come about solely through the personal decisions of determined individuals. The forces devoted to buttressing the ideology of growth fetishism and obsessive consumption are difficult to resist, and they are boosted immeasurably by governments' obsession with growth at all costs.
Making the transition to the new dispensation demands a politics of downshifting. A politics of downshifting promises a return to human values to replace those of the market and provides a vision for a better world for, as Rycroft observes of us all:
... so long as they have some ideal, be it for wisdom, self-realization, understanding, acceptance or truth, they will be able to transcend and survive adversities and disappointments. We need a new politics, one that transcends growth fetishism, a politics that once again takes our wellbeing seriously rather than fobbing us off with promises of more money. We need a new politics that creates the circumstances in which we, individually and collectively, can pursue fulfillment in our lives in place of an endless and futile scramble for more material goods. We need a new politics that promotes a rich life in place of a life of riches; a politics that can allow us once more to hope.
This is the text of the 15th Maurice Blackburn Oration delivered at Coburg Town Hall on 25 th February 2004
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