Tuesday, December 26, 2006

The future's bright?

Will Hutton in Sunday's Observer had an optimistic list of the ideas that will reshape the future for the better. I would quibble with some of his points. The techno-enthusiasm certainly seems overblown. There is only one thing that projections of a technological future have in common - they all turn out to be wrong. His take on foreign affairs is decidedly alarming. I do not see how a forced necessity to do a deal with two of the worst regimes on earth, Iran and Syria, in order to escape the mess left behind after removing a third, ushers in a wonderful new world of interdependence. However, he is better when he picks up on Richard Layard's work on happiness.

Layard has opened up some interesting discussions on public policy, though his neo-Benthamism is hardly convincing. I really don't think that modern psychology can make the "felicific calculus" a practical reality. What I do like though is the way he uses happiness as a concept to pertinently question conventional wisdom. For instance, why should the interests of producers not matter as much as those of consumers? After all, we are both at different times of our life. Then there were the awful clichés that flooded the media about the "sclerotic" German economy needing a good "dose of reform" and of how Germans had to learn to live without their "generous" pensions and benefits. The big question that is begged is why? Why shouldn't German wealth be used for the comfort and security of Germans? As for the over-generosity, governments are frequently over-generous with my money (see Nick Cohen's latest piece) but rarely towards me.

However, I would take this further and suggest that the notion of happiness could usefully be used as a tool for the analysis of ideologies. We are cursed with a whole range of political beliefs that are designed to make us miserable. This is arguably a form of pathological thinking. There are soft versions, for instance, Margaret Thatcher wanting to make Britain less "cosy" and more "invigorating" and management-speak that goes on about "challenges" (how I do not want to be challenged). What seems more important at the moment are those beliefs that seek the general imposition of unhappiness on the world. This 'hard miserablism' takes two forms, those that would make others unhappy and those that would promote unhappiness as a universal condition of humankind.

Racism, anti-Semitism and other forms of mass persecution inflict misery and horror on others purely because of the fact that they are the other. However, some ideologies seek to impose unhappiness as the normal state of human existence through ubiquitous violence, the celebration of struggle or enforced asceticism. They urge self-sacrifice and deride comfort, ease and ordinary private lives as "decadent" or as examples of "false consciousness". Fascism and Islamism loom large in this respect.

In facing this ideological confrontation, perhaps it is not enough to counter with the liberal concepts of liberty, tolerance and economic security. Maybe we should become militant hedonists and in the relentless pursuit of a happy life for ourselves make others as happy as can be given the complexities of life and the universal tragedy of mortality. Is it now time to celebrate pleasure as a form of liberation?

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