Sunday, November 10, 2013

How Much is Enough?

Jackson Lears has a long, interesting article in The Nation, reviewing a stack of books about happiness. He finds most of them silly, but is very interested in How Much is Enough? by the father and son team of Robert and Edward Skidelsky. The Skidelskys are critics of capitalist, consumer society and of our increasingly unequal distribution of wealth, and they think the happiness industry is just another part of the consumerist complex. Consider the oft-heard advice to spend your money buying memorable experiences, not things; what if you have no money for either? The Skidelskys believe, as does Lears, that instead of coaching people about how to rearrange their own lives we should be rearranging our society to promote well-being.
As the Skidelskys argue, “our continuing addiction to consumption and work is due, above all, to the disappearance from public discussion of any idea of the good life.” And discussion is what it takes, not “counting heads or going around with a questionnaire.” Elements of the good life include “health, respect, security, relationships of trust and love.” These are not simply means to the good life; they are the good life. Such basic goods are universal (“they belong to the good life as such, not just some particular, local conception of it”), absolute (“good in themselves, and not just as a means to some other good”), sui generis and indispensable. And they are all threatened by the corrosive impact of contemporary capitalism.
Toward this and all similar statements I feel a profound ambivalence. Yes, by all means, let us discuss how to make our society better. But is there any reason to think we will agree on what to do? And even if we should agree on some things -- as, for example, most Americans agree on wanting a middle-class society -- will we agree on how to achieve them? It seems to me that a good first step would be to guarantee decent health care to all Americans, as all the other rich counties in the world do. Even this is, however, somewhat controversial, and the broader measures called for by the Skidelskys would be very much more so.
Here as elsewhere, the authors reveal an uncommon sensitivity to the abrasive impact of capitalist culture on human relationships. They prefer to focus on friendship rather than community as a nodule of the good life (claiming persuasively that “community” is too easily reified into a collective ideal that somehow transcends the welfare of its individual members). And they note the difficulties of sustaining friendship in a culture obsessed with mobility, autonomy and utility, where the speed-up is a way of life. “You need to rid your life of Leeches and replace them with Energizers,” says American lifestyle coach Robert Pagliarini. It is one of those quotations that, in its very banality and predictability, encapsulates the depth of our moral predicament. Free-market fundamentalists, the Skidelskys argue, “get things precisely backwards. It is not human beings who need adapting to the market; it is the market that needs adapting to human beings.” You cannot find a more succinct and compelling indictment of neoliberalism than that.
But what does that mean in practice? It would certainly make my life better if I lived within easy socializing distance of my friends, who are spread around the world from California to Thailand. I have trouble, though, blaming this on capitalism. My friend in Thailand moved there by way of dropping out of American capitalist culture. Most of my friends who moved to take jobs are academics, and though it may be that in a less ambitious, less cutthroat world academic job markets would be more localized, I don't see this happening. I do have a friend whose employers moved him from Washington, where I saw him often, to Richmond, Virginia, but accepting this move was for him the easier, less ambitious alternative to making himself a self-branding free agent driver of his own success.

Our mobility is driven by much more than just consumerism or corporate climbing. We move, as they say, to pursue our dreams. I fled a small Missouri town for Yale, pursuing intellectual awakening and people who didn't think I was a weirdo; then I went to Williamsburg, Virginia in pursuit of love; then to Bloomington, Indiana and Minneapolis in pursuit of more education and the credentials to be a professor; then to London to do research and experience another part of the world; then to Baltimore to marry. What should I have given up to make my life slower and happier? Slowing down and staying put means, not just accepting less money, but accepting that your neighbors are just as good as any other friends you could have, and among them is a person who could be just as good a spouse to you as anyone in the world. It means that the landscape and lifestyle of your home town is as good any other, and thinking you would rather live in the mountains or by the sea is folly.

But the Skidelskys get even weirder than that:
Consider health, surely an item on anyone’s list of basic goods. In our neoliberal era, the Skidelskys argue, health has been redefined from a state of being in “tip-top condition” to a project of “perpetual improvement” that, in the absence of a larger purpose, becomes an end in itself. The cultural consequences are profound. “If every state of the body can be seen as defective relative to some other, preferred state, then we are all in a sense perpetually ill,” they observe. “The world becomes, as Goethe said it would, a vast hospital, in which everyone is nurse to everyone else.” The cultures of therapy and capitalism coincide. The promise of health is available for purchase, but health itself is a fluid and ever-receding goal, part of the universe of “personal growth” imagined by the positive psychologists. Demand for health is insatiable; there can never be enough to go around. The Skidelskys urge a return from this consumer-driven model to the older notion of health as a state of being rather than a self-improvement project.
Health? Surely if there is anything that justifies our frenetic mad-for-improvement way of life, it is the extraordinary gains we have made in health and longevity. Anybody who thinks that believing we are always sick is a recent innovation knows nothing about the 18th century, when a vast industry of quacks, some with medical degrees, bled, purged, poisoned, and otherwise bamboozled legions of people who thought they were ill. (As Goethe noticed.) This is straight out fantasy, a longing for good old days that never existed. At least today medicine has more to offer than mercury pills and laudanum.

The Skidelskys are self-consciously following in the footsteps of John Maynard Keynes, who was writing back in the 1930s about a world where people would have to work only a few hours a week. Keynes believed that his society had already created all of the consumer goods anyone could possibly need, so he thought future gains in productivity should be put toward increased leisure. But technological progress since 1930 has given us a long list of things that I would rather not go without, starting with proper heating and air conditioning, antibiotics, and clean air.

Even more fundamentally, I would say, is that people don't just work to make more money. They work to fill their hours with meaningful activity; doing work that feels important shows up in all the surveys as a big contributor to happiness. Presumably the Skidelskys also think so, or they wouldn't spend their time writing books. People also work to get better jobs. Given that most of us have to work, it is better to work at something you like than something you don't. This leads to savage competition for the best jobs -- scientist, novelist, actor, pilot, Congressman. Competition for many slots in the system used to be limited by class barriers, that is, only a tiny slice of the population could imagine being a Cambridge don, so a person from the right family could get such a job without writing three books in a decade. Do the Skidelskys favor encouraging happiness by limiting upward mobility? Do they want a return to the sort of medieval guild rules that limited how hard anyone could work?

No, they would probably say, we just want to make the lower slots nicer for the people who hold them, to reduce the impact of the competition. By all means -- I am very much in favor of universal health care, higher minimum wages, regulations that protect workers' safety, and so on. Since we are stuck with meritocracy, we should make the system more fair. But we really are stuck with our competitive system. There are just too many things in the world, from Nobel Prizes to apartments facing Central Park, that can't really be shared equally. And that means many people will always need advice on how to cultivate happiness within their own less-than-perfect little worlds.

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