Happiness and Economism
Let’s be more specific about the sources of our unhappiness. Since I identify the American economic obsession as the central (but not sole) factor leading to societal unhappiness and pathology, I begin with it. I will make it clear that I accept the large truth contained in James Baldwin’s assertion that Americans are “afflicted by the world’s highest standard of living and what is probably the world’s most bewilderingly empty way of life.” (Cited in Pankaj Mishra, “America, From Exceptionalism to Nihilism,” NY Times, April 28, 2017.)
In the U.S., national wealth, GDP, is supposed to foster and confirm national success and happiness. If we could weigh the words, balderdash and all, that pour oleaginously from the mouths of this country’s political and economic ruling class the scale would lean heavily in the direction of economic growth—measuring it (the Consumer Confidence Index may be the most revealing of all measures, lacking as it does an equally availed counterpart for national happiness or well-being [a Citizen Happiness Index] and suggesting itself as the key measure) and then obsessing, lamenting or rejoicing about it; and monomaniacally promoting it—tweaking variables, adding stimulants, aiming ever larger. The “American Dream” has always been a material dream with foundational principles such as freedom and opportunity existing chiefly to serve it. But principles are only words and here they refer to instrumental values; the crux is measurable prosperity. Richer than ever in toto, we should be happier than ever. The Happiness Report, however, lifts the mask and reveals reality underneath, as does the list of symptoms enumerated above. The time has come to awaken from the Dream.
Part of the problem is surely the oft noted extreme (and increasing) inequality of economic distribution. The Walton Family, for example, (six people with the ingenuity and initiative to have become heirs of the Walmart founder) owns as much wealth as the bottom 42% of American families and the ratio worsens every year. The three richest Americans (Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, Jeff Bezos) have as much wealth as the bottom 160 million Americans, which is half the nation’s total population. Wealth generates wealth while labor barely makes a living. The wealthy, such as Mitt Romney during the 2012 presidential election, and acolytes such as Congressman Paul Ryan at every opportunity, assert that the difference between wealth and poverty is simply ambition and effort, but that’s an obvious lie as the data and merely being awake and aware make clear. It also depends on a simplistic notion of free will, a will that exists only in the realm of ruling class rationalization. The person running a race with weights locked to his ankles may move in the same direction as those without weights but mysteriously can rarely maintain the pace necessary to win, or often even finish. The Dream propagated turns out delusory and the losers in this race are intended to feel responsible for their fate in lieu of holding the system and its upholders accountable for their share of responsibility.
Gross economic inequality is arbitrary, pernicious, and immoral and so long as the Dream message remains exclusively economic it conceals additional delusion—that materialism can ever compose a good life in the Aristotelian sense of envisioning and pursuing truegoods. Its innate eudemonic emptiness reveals itself in communities, forests, mountaintops, and oceans, air, water, and landscapes… each of these and more exploited and sacrificed for profit. And modern profit-takers increasingly secede from common responsibilities for the common good, such as paying their fair share of taxes. This would be bad enough if we contained it within our national boundaries, but of course we don’t. We are missionaries for the gospel of turning all resources everywhere into profit, the definition of resource being anything that can be turned into a profit and definitely not including traditions, practices, mores, and relationships that may define who certain human groupings are but which are expendable when they interfere with resource exploitation. And I propose that the export of this dogma globally, by all the means that we have chosen, has not only further debased the currency of American values but contributed to hostility, some of whose expressions are terrorist attacks against Western targets. Consider the path from the first war in Iraq in 1991 to the 9/11 attacks in the U.S. ten years later to the second Iraq war beginning in 2003 and still not concluded; add to it that American war-making is capacious enough to have included a variety of other Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African countries over the past sixteen years. Millions of casualties, tens of millions of refugees: the mad pursuit of power projection and commercial ambition forced upon people who have other aspirations. Unhappiness engendering unhappiness.
The mirage of materialist fulfillment takes many forms. If the urge toward material improvements were conceived as a project of social fulfillment, an endeavor aimed at the good of all, it would incorporate generosity, kindness, proportion, and mutual support rather than merely individualist advancement and so have a very different ethical compass and occupy a smaller space within world views that would aim to include other human needs and values. The individualism that roots and flourishes in the garden of community solidarity is clearly something different from the individualism that conceals self-centeredness. National solidarity seems a lost possibility today, appearing only when we begin a new war (and soon wearing thin as reality sets in) and after disasters such as hurricanes. The bonds of community are not only instrumentally valuable as communities go about their business but those who experience these bonds know their innate satisfactions and that they offer meaning not often found as they serve larger ends than themselves. Which of course explains why so many veterans consider their wartime experiences, violent and tragic though they were, the high point of their lives.
Economism, the commodity fetish, distorts and diminishes the human and natural environments that it has come to dominate like a loose cannon on a foundering ship. To make matters worse it has managed to convince some that it is intrinsic to the preservation of freedom, that action to protect valued places and relationships from unbridled economic exploitation, to protect ethical values themselves, imposes grievous risks of sliding into tyranny. Neoliberals, libertarians, and their right-wing fellow travelers along the highway-to-nowhere have propounded this doctrine, which to some eyes looks self-defeating since big unfettered business has been as oppressive in its own way as tyrannical governments, minus only boots on throats except when necessary in certain deep jungles where mineral wealth is discovered but whose indigenes resent intrusion and disruption of their lives and home. The freedom of some to chase wealth carries with it the lost freedom of others to live happier lives than what work, debt, and consumerism allow.
Individualism without direction, community, and larger purpose…economic enterprise without soul and the innate commitments of ethically ensouled humans…freedom without responsibility…what are they for?