Can we be happy?

What makes us unhappy? Are we even capable of being happy? These fundamental questions take second fiddle in an economy that seems to intrinsically know the ‘right’ answer. Happiness, apparently, is not even a metric. If all happiness comes from having money, then wealth generation is all that counts. Or so we should believe. Hence the size and growth of our GDP remains the only game in town. Most of us know instinctively that this assumption is wrong. Money may motivate some but not all, maybe not even a majority of us. If it did, our economy, our society, our civilisation would have ceased to function since so much economic activity earns not a penny in salary. There is more to life, they say, than money. But if this is self-evident to most of us why does the economics profession ignore the fact? We are in a mess – pursuing objectives that bring no satisfaction – only able to follow the all pervading dogma that serves the wishes of a minority. Why are we here? How did we get here? What the heck is going on?

In times such as these we turn to a guru who has guided us so well in the past. Someone who can supply a bed-rock of common sense in a time of great irrationality. George Monbiot has not steered us wrong in the past. Sure we don’t always agree with absolutely everything he says. His love affair with new nuclear barely lasted past the hard reality of the British Government’s absurd plans for Hinkley Point C. (It is a matter that we wrote about probably over ten years ago – how nuclear is great in theory but never delivers in practice.) Such matters betray a nagging romanticism in Monbiot’s writing. It is a factor in our reluctance to often read his Guardian column and blogs – despite writing eloquently to destroy, say, the government’s case for Private Finance Initiatives he sought sanctuary in making the case for rewilding the countryside… Or, in one case, the ethics of eating roadkill on holiday… It is a bit like watching Salvador Dali drawing stick men.

Monbiot has been a prolific writer. It is hard to imagine him sleeping much. In 2016 Verso released a collection of the writer’s essays called “How did we get into this mess? – Politics, Equality, Nature” [ISBN 9781784783624] that spans his work from 2007 to 2016. It covers some of his best known campaigning works. Monbiot is credited with popularising the idea of keeping fossil fuels and in the ground as well as first highlighting the threat of the TTIP Trade Agreement. His work is always at the bleeding edge of utter genius. The man is so often half a step ahead of the rest of us. If anyone can lay out the road map of what ails us it is George. Our favourite works of his are those where he lays bare the failings of neo-liberal hegemony. His writings always seem to be exactly what we were thinking. You wish that you had written it. He takes, what most of us know to be intuitively true, and puts it into word form.

“Freedom of the kind championed by neoliberal means freedom from [..] the demands of social justice, from environmental constraints, from collective bargaining and the taxation that funds public services.”

Monbiot is the unreconstructed leftie that it is OK to like. As with Chomsky he has a strong backbone of belief backed up with powerful citations to scientific studies. Not for him the thin veil of unsupported dogma. He backs up his beliefs with carefully selected evidence. He is passionate and as angry as hell. It frustrates him that society is apathetic when faced with the threat of neo-liberalism and the consequences of environmental destruction. Monbiot joins the dots between political ideology and the degradation of our biosphere. To him this all part of the same game-plan yet he criticises us all. Why did we let this happen?

The topics covered by Monbiot are diverse yet he stitches them all together into one narrative. For him the world all makes sense in some crazy kind of way. Even when he is writing about the damage boarding schools cause young children he manages to invoke the horrors of the World War One trenches as the consequence. Our elite do as they want whilst the underclass suffer terrible sanctions for making similar decisions. His take on the issue is often surprising even provocative. He takes a firm swipe at the over-population doom-mongers (including the near-saintly Sir David Attenborough) when he argues that it is wrong for the rich to blame the poor for consuming too many resources.

This is abrasive, in-your-face, shouty-polemic-stuff yet we find ourselves agreeing.

The author has got it in for a large part of life that we take for granted. That includes sheep. Yes, he hates bloody sheep. They are ruining his countryside. It seems barmy until you read why – then you will understand too. We think sheep grazing is natural and forget that it represents the industrialisation and destruction of the countryside no different from the planting any other mono-crop. Sheep are seemingly harmless, cute and fluffy. Thus we find it unnatural to target them. George simply sees things differently. The sheep are at the sharp pointy end of farming subsidies that distort our use of the countryside. Just because we normalised it doesn’t make it right or sustainable. Wealthy landowners command the political power that a poor inner-city benefit-claimant cannot. The wealthy get their subsidies from the public purse, and the poor must suffer as they must. Government policy is distorted around wealth and power. It produces incredible cognitive dissonance in an administration that requires action on Climate Change at the same time as maximising oil & gas extraction.

Like Chomsky, Monbiot never suggests that this is some kind of conspiracy. It is just the way things are in our political culture which has been conditioned to react in a certain way. That culture has been carefully cultivated through the outputs of well funded think tanks on the Rights and communicated to the public via a fiercely partisan media. This cultural hegemony is as deep as it is broad with the author tackling it from every angle – including the religious point of view. His conclusions are always eye-opening and truly delicious. Take for example his take on the religious Right and their promotion of “family values”. It seems that evangelicals may be unaware that what these “values” are largely more of a contemporary invention than having any basis on what the Bible says…

Yet here is the ‘thing’; George never proposes anything too frightening as a solution. His ideas are reasonable and clever. His proposal for a global auction in pollution permits is quite the free-market-styley kind-of solution that conservatives might endorse in order to keep carbon in the ground. Nothing here advocates a revolution requiring some elite to be put up against the wall and shot – even if they deserve it.

So you want to know about coal, the industrial revolution and economic growth? Monbiot has a perspective on that. Coal power versus nuclear power versus relative deaths caused per KwH? Monbiot wades in. How did Hitler and the Nazis copy the British Empire in their brutal rise to power? Monbiot will tell you. When he writes about the demonisation of the poor, and how it has done nothing to motivate people out of poverty, you find yourself nodding in endorsement. Maybe the reason so much of this feels so very acceptable is that we read these essays when originally published. It has been absorbed and assimilated into our own world view over the intervening years. We have adopted it as our own – so-much-so that the original source of inspiration is forgotten. Read it again now and we find ourselves liking Monbiot’s philosophy as if we are trying on a familiar pair of slippers.

It is all here complete with the unique Monbiot historical perspective. The system we created is insane. We reward under-performing kleptomaniac bosses with large salaries for destroying society. This is done whilst we grossly under-pay care workers who hold our communities together. The British establishment system is designed from the ground-up to reward rent-seekers whilst punishing entrepreneurs & hard-workers. The resulting society is more feudal than anything else. Neoliberalism is one massive instance of moral peril that destroys all the value in that which it touches.

“…if you have psychopathic tendencies and are born to a poor family you’re likely to go to prison. If you have psychopathic tendencies and are born to a rich family you’re likely to go to business school.”

This is a seriously challenging perspective. Even if it remains an opinion, the very idea of seeing the world this way gives us a fresh take on exactly what the mess is that we are in. Neoliberalism is rewarding all the wrong attributes yet it remains amazingly successful in our democracies. It found a way of expressing itself that found favour with the very people who would suffer the most under its yoke. Make no mistake Monbiot tells us, this is the power of the media at work. Neoliberalism is a coup. No less. The media is “trying to free the rich from the constraints of democracy. And at the moment they are winning.” (Words written four years before the disastrous EU Referendum in the UK.)

What is to be done? Sure, Monbiot hits the deep core of what is wrong, but what policies do we need? He suggests a few here and there but most of his work is dominated by what is wrong; the ‘mess’ and who is to blame. Danny Dorling’s “A Better Politics – How Government can make us happier” [ISBN 978-1-907994-53-1 London Publishing Partnership 2016] takes a very different starting point. This is derived from academic work and based upon Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. It started by surveying the British public about which life events made them happy or unhappy. The responses were ranked and deductions made about which Government policy would be appropriate for happiness maximisation. Maybe unsurprisingly the author reaches much the same conclusions as Monbiot. The deep malaise (this unhappy “mess”) that settled upon British society since the 1970’s correlated neatly with the advent of neoliberal economic dogma. It was not a coincidence.

It fits neatly, maybe too neatly. You have the slight suspicion that the author had a conclusion prepared and made the facts fit the narrative he wished to convey. This work is not a collection of heart-felt blogs from any deep historical or scientific perspective. Instead it takes each source of happiness and seeks to maximise them whilst minimising each source of unhappiness. Quite logical. As it turns out the author concludes that the source of British unhappiness is our divergence from the European and Scandinavian model of social democracy. The closer we attempted to model North American society the more unhappy we became. This dissatisfaction wells up from a bizarre misunderstanding from the Right-wing elite about what makes people happy. People with power assume that what makes them happy will be fulfilling for everyone else. Hence they project only those values upon the political economy for the rest of us. Yet we are all different. Most of us do not cherish the values of the uber-Capitalists.

We have been here before many, many times. It was best expressed by the 2009 work “The Spirit Level” by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett. Essentially neo-liberalism made us more and more unequal.

“…growing inequality can make it harder to enact the policies that could most improve our happiness.”

Material wealth is not enough. Countries with

“…higher levels of well-organised collective spending produces a happier population.”

Social insurance and employment protection reduce insecurity and anxiety. The neoliberal assumption is that insecurity is motivating. This represents a fundamental clash of cultures – two entirely different ways of understanding humanity. This book ditches simple dogma and reveals what the research says. It is not just that higher tax and spend equate to better happiness; it is quality that matters. Such societies have to be “better-organised”. It is better organisation that enables us to spend more time with our families and doing the things we value the most. Higher levels of taxation are tolerated if they deliver true value to a community. This may well sacrifice some small measure of “freedom” but it delivers much greater value of happiness. The problem is that neoliberals can not price happiness. They see only money as the source of all happiness. For them, anything that stops you accumulating money, will lead to unhappiness. How can we square this circle? After-all neoliberals thought they had reams of evidence to suggest that their approach would maximise public utility. It turns out they chose the wrong metric.

What is interesting here is that none of the usual suspects are in the happiness equation. There is no mention of terrorism, economic policy or immigration. These are abstract distractions invented to make us forget what is in our hearts. The constant attentions of the media and advertisers cause us to over-estimate how much happiness can be derived from consumption and underestimate the harm of working too much, commuting and spending work time away from family. We work hard to earn extra money to spend on mitigating the resulting “bads” that we are forced to purchase. We live insecure lives full of fear that arise from distrust of other people. Our social relations have been boiled down to a series of competitions. Putting it simply the Darwinist economics pits everyone against everyone in a race to the bottom…

“An unhappy, unequal, segregated and dysfunctional society is also a society that has more rioting, insurrection and theft.”

Without trust we require more and more experts to define our business relationships. Britain has possibly the highest number of Accountants per capita of any country on the planet. The author puts this down to luck of trust. The more Accountants you have the less Nurses your economy can recruit. Financialisation is crowding out the caring sectors of our economy whilst not paying enough in taxes to pay for the caring sector anyway. Likewise with Lawyers.

The downside of the book is that some of Dorling’s logic is a tad tortuous. Since having a holiday is good and waiting around is bad you would think that building more airports for holiday makers would be good. Not so concludes Dorling who tells us airports are bad because flying isn’t good for us. We would not disagree but he portrays the politics of happiness as very flexible; it can be bent to whatever conclusion we wish to reach. It doesn’t always seem objective. Witness Dorling tell us that “car ownership is valued too highly”  – an opinion resulting from Dorling attempting to equate the fact that we like buying cars with the fact that cars are bad.

It is a small point. Some conclusions are less subjective. For example, simple reductions in the working week and increase leisure time has proven to enhance productivity and efficiency. Throw in some basic income and you have a melting pot of policy that deserves real attention.

The bottomline is that we need to change our priorities, we must spend much more on health and education. These are human-centric values. Health and education are activities that are most efficiently supplied when done in large scale. Privatising them is ineffective in the delivery of these essential services. Neoliberalism has undervalued these hence our happiness suffers. More than that; the compromise we settle for delivers an inequality of outcome that perpetuates the very inequality that causes us unhappiness. This requires quite a fundamental change in British culture. For Dorling this requires “unravelling mistakes” yet some of those mistakes extend back way beyond the neoliberal revolution of Thatcher and Reagan.

Whatever the challenge, there is a fundamental point here worth making: public funds are spent inefficiently. Nuclear weapons being the obvious example. Yet Dorling quickly strays into the territory of private spending. For example “conspicuous consumption”, ie, the purchase of second or third homes. By what manner can our society control individual spending choices – no matter how inefficient? If we are to overcome the false “freedoms” doctrine of the Right, then the Left &/or Centre ground of politics must find a better language that, perhaps, should not start with the premise that we must limit freedoms. Better arguments are required. We leave it to Monbiot to tackle that deeper philosophical problem. Dorling can only point at us at the metrics. For all his talk of “better politics” his better policies are a wish list to Santa in the absence of a new politics of understanding. For that to happen the current certainties have to fall apart.

Are we ready for this? Really? Government can’t make us happier unless we enjoy a fundamental shift in values. The neoliberal experiment must end. We must find what works and stick to it.


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