Thursday, August 4, 2016

Terry Eagleton's Pursuit of Happiness

For notable British academic Terry Eagleton, the fault always lies with capitalism. Well, perhaps not always, but, being a good Marxist Eagleton always seems to attribute social pathologies and even social quirks to what he calls advanced capitalism.

Eagleton does not bother to mention that Marxist governments, the kind that he would presumably favor, have been an unmitigated disaster. One recalls the body count compiled by the authors of The Black Book of Communism, which is at 100,000,000 and counting. Not only has Communism killed a massive number of people, it caused even more people to starve to death.

When it comes to the production of human misery, Marx’s ideas are up there with the bubonic plague.

Without bothering to look very much more deeply into Eagleton’s relationship with these Marxist political experiments, I am confident that he would renounce them. When you are an ideologue no evidence can disprove your ideas. It’s the whole reason for being an ideologue. I suspect that he would take the standard recourse and suggest the Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Castro and Chavez did not understand Marx well enough and that they would have done better if they had read him.

So, when Eagleton takes out after the current Western pursuit of happiness we need to keep in mind that blaming it on capitalism is an intellectual cop out. If you do not have anything better to offer you should shut up about capitalism. Or better, if the alternatives have been so utterly catastrophic you do best not to blame the world’s ills on capitalism.

It is true enough, as Eagleton notes in his review to a book on The Happiness Industry by one William Davies, that some American corporations are hired happiness officers. It is also true that America is awash in medications that try to engineer happiness. And it is also true, as Eagleton notes, that the current debates over happiness and its sidekick, flourishing, have been muddled almost beyond recognition.

Of course, when Eagleton lumps pragmatic and rational thinkers like Aristotle and Aquinas, the two most consequential philosophers of happiness, with Hegel and Marx, two idealistic ideologues who saw happiness as the consequence of the movement of the World Spirit and the unfolding of some imaginary dialectic, he is muddling the issue even more.

Eagleton’s concern—and it is his primary concern—for issuing a bill of indictment against capitalism blinds him to the more salient point, namely that the cultural movement that has created the mess he identifies is not capitalistic and is not driven by the marketplace. It derives from what I have called the therapy culture, a cultural force that has taken over much of our national conversation, that dictates rules and laws that have nothing to do with capitalism or free enterprise or liberal thought.

Therapy used to be concerned with something called mental health. Since it has not been about to fulfill very many of its promises in that context, and since it has been beaten in the marketplace by drugs, and especially by aerobic conditioning, it has sought out a new market, by selling happiness.

And yet, since it is working to alter the culture, it cannot merely sit back and let invisible hand of the market do its work. It prefers, as we see in political correctness and in multicultural diversity, to monopolize the market, to have total control over the market, to deprive people of their right to free expression and free choice, the better to force everyone to think as they think and to feel as they feel. And maybe even to do as they do.

After all, Marxism, at root, seeks state monopoly control over markets. It refuses to trust the judgment of free individuals. Great Marxist thinkers believe that they can do better than the marketplace or than the collective verdict of the individual decisions of free market participants.

The happiness industry, such as it is, and such as it manifests itself in the media and the academy, seeks to have monopolistic control over the culture. It seeks to prevent people from thinking hateful thoughts and from saying words that might discomfort the citizenry, thus depriving them of happiness. It asks us to sacrifice our freedom in the interest of ensuring everyone’s happiness, but especially the happiness of the disadvantaged. It has been trying to turn cultural life into therapy.

The happiness industry is grounded in ideology. It represents an anti-capitalist cultural movement designed to deprive you of your freedom. As one sees on a daily basis, it certainly aims at depriving you of the will to defend your country and your culture.

One may question whether American corporations are all rushing out to hire happiness offers—I think the point is grossly exaggerated-- but, those that are might feel a need to indulge the mind warp of the delicate snowflakes who have been produced by America’s academic indoctrination mills.

As for selling medications, not as anti-depressants but as happy pills, the psychiatric establishment has always found new and clever ways to market itself.

If one were to be especially honest here one might note that the advent of the new SSRIs seems to have put an end to one of the twentieth century’s greatest con games—psychoanalysis.

When people like Martin Seligman and Aaron Beck invented and promoted cognitive psychology they placed an emphasis on positive psychology. Beck, for example, began using cognitive techniques to treat depression because he understood well that Freudian treatments—with their echt tragic worldview—were producing more depression than they were curing.

And Freudian psychoanalysis, for those who have an idea of what it is really about, aims to subvert the values associated with Anglo-American civilization. Most serious psychoanalytic thinkers have always been on the radical left. They have never been champions of free enterprise. Anyone who thinks that Freudian free association can be correlated with a right to free speech knows nothing about Freud. As Lacan famously noted, the whole point of free association is to persuade you that your associations are not free. Freud did not believe in free will, any more than Marx did.

Of course, Eagleton finds much to like in the current cultural ethos, especially the one that demeans the value of competition. He seems to side with those who believe that everyone should receive a trophy, that there are no winners and losers, and thus that no one has any reason to try to improve his performance. Thus, he supports the narcissistic self-esteem movement, as he seems not to think very highly of it.

If you are a Marxist you certainly do not want to think that Marxist states have lost out in competition to their capitalistic competitors. And, the competition was not even close.

Eagleton uses a classical scientistic ploy: he says that a competitive ethos makes people sick. Of course, the Marxist cultures where people were not supposed to be competing over anything—since private property was verboten—produced mass starvation and misery on a scale that we had not seen for millennia.

As Eagleton and Davies see it, capitalism has co-opted the therapy culture and is using it for its own ends. Thereby they are indulging an ideational relic of 1960s countercultural thinking. It might just as well be the case that that capitalism, in embracing the values of the therapy culture, has allowed a Trojan Horse into its midst.

Eagleton has not missed the point entirely. If you strip away his obsession with provoking an overthrow of capitalism—which makes his thinking sound like a sore-loser’s lament—he grasps an important point about where the therapy culture has gone wrong:

What matters in the narcissistic world of late capitalism is not what you think or do but how you feel. And since how you feel can’t be argued against, it is conveniently insulated from all debate. Men and women can now stroll around in continuous self-monitoring mode, using apps to track their changes of mood. The brutal, domineering ego of an older style of capitalism has given way to the tender self-obsession of the new. 

If, in place of the drivel about “the narcissistic world of late capitalism” you substitute the therapy culture and its avatars, you would have a sound and sensible observation.

The truth, however, is that these products of our current therapy culture are not likely to make employees more competitive. Having grown up on this culture, people become less able to compete effectively against their peers in advance capitalistic cultures like Singapore and China. By the by, these countries did not enhance their prosperity and feed their people by listening to the Marxist laments of a Terry Eagleton.

We gain happiness, Eagleton correctly tells us, when we act in the world. Happiness is not a state of mind or a condition of human feeling. And yet, how do we measure success or failure in our activities if we cannot compete against others?

Happiness is bound up with our activity, rather than being a private mental state. We are practical agents, not walking states of consciousness. …. happiness is not an entirely subjective affair. You can believe that you are happy but be the victim of self-deception. Neither, however, is it objective in the sense of being a patch of stuff in the brain, as some neuroscientists seem to imagine. What they forget, as Davies asserts, is that “mental processes” are bound up with the actions of human beings embedded in social relations, guided by purposes and intentions which need to be interpreted.

It would correct to say that by participating in the free market, even in the everyday exchanges that constitute our social relations, we gain a s sense of belonging to a community and a sense of achievement. These, put us on the royal road to happiness.


AesopFan said...

"Happiness is bound up with our activity, rather than being a private mental state. We are practical agents, not walking states of consciousness. …. happiness is not an entirely subjective affair. You can believe that you are happy but be the victim of self-deception."

Well, if you can always accuse a happy person of not really being happy, but just thinking he is, then anything goes as an explanation for happiness, doesn't it?

Happy is as happy does.

Anonymous said...

Ares Olympus said...

The U.S. declaration of independence offers its own ideology with this conviction: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.",_Liberty_and_the_pursuit_of_Happiness

At the time apparently "men" were defined as male land-owners, but it was a radical stepping away from the authority of a divine sovereign kings who had by birthright alone, power over all other men. And modern individualism and capitalism would seem to be the offspring of this radical step forward, even if both of these are dependent upon agreed upon limits to individual freedom, and required state power of law to rule upon private contracts between individuals.

Happiness is certainly a subjective experience. Some might say that Happiness is freedom from suffering, while suffering may be necessary to encourage action to change an oppressive situation. So then you could say Liberty is about having the power to avoid suffering, but your avoidance of suffering may yet cause suffering to others.

And so there's a predicament of individualism when there is an unequal power and liberty to change circumstances, and so those who have the power to isolate from the suffering of others can excuse their avoidance on the merit principle that all men are created equal, so if others are not in good situations, its their problem to get out, nothing to do with you.

It is certainly hard to argue against individual agency, since it is essential to life, and certainly brings happiness, while having laws that limit your agency could be said to bring suffering, at least in the short term, even if this authoritarianism enables greater liberty later, like mandatory education. And all governmental authority over individual freedom could be said to be paternal, acting over the individual at times until rules of conduct are internalized.

Finally in regards to the "evils" of therapy and the apparent tyranny of feelings, I saw this article recently, about dissociation, as a helpful defense mechanism for the short term, including allowing us the power to manage our emotions long enough to compete and stand up for ourselves, but also self and other alienating when it dominates.
Dissociation is a way people, to varying degrees, disconnect from their thoughts and feelings in order to avoid pain or traumatic memories. It is a refuge of sorts into an altered state of mind that is often characterized by obsessive thoughts, fantasies, or even non-thinking states. It can be employed consciously or unconsciously as a defense mechanism and can range in intensity from mild daydreams to feeling separate from one’s body.

Although dissociation can be an effective short-term strategy for pain management, it often wreaks havoc on relationships.

So you could say disassociation is a strategy in our "Pursuit of happiness", but if it is simply an avoidance of our problems, then you're actually putting yourself in a passive state, one where problems are not addressed, and "triggers" that remind you of this bring you regularly back to unhappiness, and push for new levels of distraction.

So I accept that simplistic ideals of individual freedom and capitalism/consumerism reward the lowest levels of happiness, encouraging the most base pleasures, and fail to encourage maturity needed to Life and finding true liberty that isn't dependent upon avoiding things that threaten your self-identity.

sestamibi said...

Ares, the key word in that passage from the Declaration of Independence is PURSUIT of happiness. And all the relationship between capitalism and our therapeutic culture was addressed over forty years ago by Daniel Bell in "The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism."

All this, of course, has been exacerbated by the ascendancy of cunt to power in our economic, government, and academic institutions. When we are on the verge of electing the first cunt president, one who say we have to empathize with our enemies, it is hard to see how the US will be able to maintain any kind of disciplined economy or remain a serious world power.