New Zealand has just announced that they will cease to pursue economic growth, and instead focus on ensuring the well-being of their citizens. Policies designed to tackle family violence and mental health issues abound, with half a billion for those with mild to moderate depression and anxiety and a further 320 million for domestic violence treatment also pledged. Many of the chattering classes wedded to GDP as a measure of wellbeing were up in arms, while many on the left saw merit in the budget – both as a means of packaging redistribution and on its own virtues. For those of us in the UK, however, what this statement of intent by Jacinda Ardern’s government does is lay bare one of the key questions presented by post-crash dogma, namely: who gets to be happy?
One of the best examples of this comes from 2011, during the Occupy London protests. Then-Tory-MP Louise Mensch was on HIGNFY, criticising the protesters for having tents and coffee if they hated capitalism so much, until Paul Merton chimes in with ‘…you keep saying everything! They had a cup of coffee!’ What’s interesting is the lexis utilised by Mensch. She goes beyond the usual response of ‘you can’t critique capitalism if you participate in it’ – an argument best distilled by Neil Bors in his semi-notorious ‘Mister Gotcha’ webcomic.
Mensch is appealing to this sort of argument, of course, but the language she uses is the language of pleasure, specifically gratuitous pleasure: that these people ‘revel in it, [capitalism] and relish it’. It’s the language of enjoyment – here, we see this direct appeal to the supposed perverse jouissance, or excessive enjoyment, of the Other – how dare They have a nice time? It works well; under capitalist realism, the question ‘How dare They be happy when I am so miserable’ is one that the system invites, because it is, at its core, nihilistic, unable to conceive of a world where both I and They are happy, as well as allowing for the hatred of this social or economic Other to fester.
It’s this which philosopher Slavoj Žižek identifies as a key element of the function of contemporary ideology: the Other always has to have a perverse enjoyment. It’s indicative of a politics in which the concept of happiness has no place. Mensch actively works to separate what she considers to be ‘serious’ politics from the Occupy movement specifically on these grounds; when told they’ll be establishing an outreach group and a visitor’s centre – to audience laughs – Mensch dismisses the notion with ‘…right. I’m sure that’ll be effective’. Austerity meant the restriction of public spending, certainly, but it also meant the ideological restriction of happiness. Enjoyment and pleasure have been repackaged as things that need to be earned, rather than a goal of a functioning society.
Mark Fisher identifies this as a fundamentally depressive mode of being in society: ‘First of all, we come to expect very little: nothing will ever happen again. Then we think that maybe the things that once happened weren’t actually so great. Finally, we accept that nothing has ever happened, nor could ever happen. The more that depression is normalised, the harder it is to even identify it. Radically lowered expectations become habituated.’ Here, it’s important to remove the idea of ‘things happening’, which for Fisher means political movement, and replace it with ‘being happy’. First, we no longer expect to be happy – believing such a thing is like believing in utopia, which always leads to violence. Then, we are constantly reminded that we never really were happy. Then, finally, we accept that no one has ever really been happy, that we will never be happy, and that our current condition of depression and low-level anxiety, of precarity and isolation, is in fact what it is to be human.
Consider an article that the Manchester Evening News ran about ‘millennial spending’. The article is clearly written to argue millennials should spend less, as it initially ran with the lead: MILLENIALS SPENDING £3,000 A YEAR ON COFFEE AND SOCIALISING’. Just for a minute, consider what 3 grand’s worth of ‘luxury’ spending buys you, with a bit of back-of-a-cigarette-packet maths. Let’s say a pint costs about £5, as it does in a lot of major UK cities. Let’s say you have 5 pints across the week – two on a Friday night after work, three in the pub with your mates on a Saturday, and you drop £15 on a takeaway once a week. You get a daily Tesco Meal Deal for lunch at work. That’s £2800.
Let’s say you live in Manchester. You make your own sandwiches, never buy coffee, and don’t ever go to the pub. The gym is your main source of post-work entertainment. You have a long-term partner, and once a week have a date at a cheap-ish restaurant. While there, you always order a drink, main, and starter. You always skip dessert. You go and see a film afterwards, where you get some popcorn. Well, that’s a total of £45. Do that once a week, and between that and the gym membership, you’re already at £2700, you wastrel. The question must be asked: how miserable do we have to be before we are worthy?
The truly galling part, as in so many of these articles, is the chummy relationship between the piece and a major bank. Helpfully, Barclays are here to give millennials advice, like: ‘Work out what triggers your discretionary spending so you can avoid the situation. This could be by changing your daily route so you do not go past a cafe that always tempts you to splurge.’ – that’s right. By changing your route to work to remove a small pleasure from your life, you too could live a less joyful existence in service of potentially, one day, maybe getting a mortgage. Go without things like date nights, convenient lunches, coffee, the pub. Have you found a café you really like? Avoid it. Take a different route on your walk to work and don’t think about the fact that the people denying you a coffee just reached a $2 billion agreement to settle charges of defrauding investors with toxic bonds prior to the 2008 crash.
You can ‘Start by making one or two spending changes and slowly add to them as they become a habit.’ The phrase ‘spending changes’ does a lot of heavy lifting here, as what it actually means is ‘things that you enjoy’. Start by cutting out one or two things you enjoy, then gradually cut out more, as self-denial becomes a habit. And hey, if you do manage to save money, why not ‘Make the most of accounts which could boost your savings goals’, presumably at Barclays? There is no mention of the housing crisis, or the stagnation of wages, or that the average deposit is £45,000, and up to £92,000 in London (which would mean that even if you saved all of that £3,000 you’d take 31 years to get a home in London, during which you cannot spend anything on entertainment).
The subtext of ‘millennials spend whatever amount on small pleasures’ is implicitly to argue that this is an extravagance, that if only they’d spend it on something better, they wouldn’t be so sad. It is the product of an ideology that cannot conceive of a common good beyond the market, and one that keeps us perpetually anxious, for what else can you actually do in your spare time? Public space is rapidly being privatised, as seen in the Guardian’s 2017 report on ‘pseudo-public’ space. There are few venues outside of your home where you can gather with friends and not spend money, but if you do, people like you will be lambasted in the press. This, by the way, is the same press that will remind you that being lonely is worse than smoking a pack a day. The fact that we can no longer conceive of a future wherein people might be able – even entitled – to an existence that does not merely consist of subsistence but rather is actively pleasurable is depressing beyond belief, and marks one of the crueller turns in capitalist ideology post-crash.
We need to absolutely reject this thinking wherever we find it. It must be torn out, root and stem, from our discourse. It is a mode of thinking that is fundamentally inhuman, rejecting the notion of the inherent dignity of personhood. Every time we see things like ‘the minimum wage is liveable if you just cut out luxuries’ we need to read the subtext: ‘I don’t think happiness is something the poor should be allowed to have.’ We need to reclaim the old slogan ‘Bread and Roses’, but this time with an emphasis on the roses.
At last year’s Labour Conference in Liverpool, the RSA and Carnegie UK, alongside the TUC, ran an event on the concept of ‘good work’. It is not enough to simply focus on getting people into work – though that remains important. What we ought to be looking at, the panel argued, is how to get people into ‘good work’; work they find rewarding and valuable, work that goes beyond drudgery. The DWP currently tries to force as many people into jobs as possible, whereas one of the suggestions of the good work report was that a national set of standards must be set, and the CBI’s model of ‘patrician capitalism’ must be rejected. It is no longer enough to merely ask employers to make work a bit better, and hope they do so out of some sense of societal duty. Companies adapt to the framework they’re in – and given that studies show that workers are happier where the prevailing framework is one of union power, the lesson to take is simple: you need to create the conditions for people to be happy from an aggressive legislative standpoint. One of the suggestions that came out of this element of the panel was that a Labour government needs to create good jobs where none exist.
Turning back to Fisher, one of the arguments made in k-punk is that whereas Paul Mason’s analysis of the fact it’s all ‘kicking off’ represents a break in capitalist realism, the lack of a viable alternative means that the prevailing psychic mode of capitalist realism: ‘resignation, defeatism, and depression’ will ultimately win through – that ‘kicking off’ could dissipate into depression. His solution was ‘a narrative about the decline of solidarity and the decline of security’. Though solidarity may not be addressed per se, the fact remains that many young people are now starting to coalesce around a new narrative linked to the decline in security – that this is unfair, that people should be allowed to feel happy. Hearteningly, this isn’t just reserved to the ‘luxury communism’ extolled by Bastani et al, but is also now present in the extraneous elements of what I will loosely term ‘the Corbyn project’. Gone is the addiction to means testing and incremental reform of the Blair years.
After all, a truly universal programme has been successfully achieved before in the UK, even during the Blair era. In Wales, the Welsh Assembly used its devolved powers to enact a system of ‘Progressive Universalism’. This led to policies like free swimming for all young people, free breakfasts for all in schools, and free prescriptions. These served as the baseline, with extra help for the neediest on top.
Mark Drakeford observed the benefit of universal programmes over means testing: ‘Universal services are preferred, where possible, in Wales because, as has been so long known, services which are reserved for poor people very quickly become poor services… Universal services help provide the glue which binds together a complex modern society and gives everybody a stake.’ The psychological underpinnings of universalism are fundamentally affirmatory; ‘give everybody good services, with more for those who need it’ is underpinned by the idea that everyone should have a good life, rather than the bleaker notion that we should simply try and alleviate the worst suffering.
This is the direction that Labour ought to travel, and indeed is currently travelling. The movement towards a politics that now insists that life for many ought to be enjoyable is seen not just in the policy pronouncements of the party, and in the desire for change of activists; it’s in the genuine enthusiasm for Labour’s left project, it’s in the lads at Glastonbury with the ‘BIG BAGS OF CANS WITH THE LADS’ sign.
Perhaps it’s odd to ascribe any meaning to such a sign. But one of the ways in which capitalist realism is so brutally effective is that it tells you at all points that thinking about things is very hard, and politics is all about intricate wonkery over big ideas. The belief that a Labour government is going to help you get in big bags of cans with the lads – no matter how ironically held – is exemplary of what Althusser identified as the ‘fundamental thesis’ of Marxism: the primacy of Being over Thought. It’s belief that life under a Labour government is going to make things better. Not just in terms of infrastructure (though that’s obviously important!) but also in an emotional sense. Things will, in fact, only get better. You’ll be drinking big bags of cans.