Can we become 'happy citizens' in a climate of insecurity?

We are told that a healthy happy citizen must enjoy "meaning, mastery and autonomy". Cameron's Big Society requires citizens to be innovative and not averse to risk. Yet can we become happy and playful in a climate of economic insecurity?
Pat Kane
6 April 2011

At the start of this debate series on the potential of happiness to shape political discourse, William Davies hoped that it would return our attention to production - or more specifically, how our experience of work in organisations is a crucial determinant of our wellbeing and life-satisfaction. A long history of economic thought in the 20th century had led up to a moment where the consumer was sovereign, and the producer his willing slave: workers' conditions were always ultimately malleable - flexible, just-in-timed - in the retail service of this whim-laden desiring machine.

Of course this machine, as Davies plaintively says, was often a worker too. Can't our politics encompass producer as well as consumer identities? Buttressed by the The Spirit Level and the happiness science of Richard Layard, Davies wonders if might there not be a new political appeal to the "workers" available to Ed Miliband's Labour Party. A health-oriented, moral-political rhetoric that could render bad employers (and the paltry labour market regulations binding them) "toxic" and "polluting" - perpetrating injuries upon the bodies and souls of their employees as mendaciously as cigarette vendors, or nuclear-powerplant owners. (And who knows, perhaps just as vulnerable to class-action litigation on the basis of prior knowledge of harm?)

I'm fascinated to observe the battle raging between the major UK parties for ownership of the new sciences of the "social animal" or "social brain". They're all struggling to realise their own political capital from the intellectual collapse of utility-maximising "economic man", in the face of consiliences between neuroscience, evolutionary psychology, epidemiology, network theory and more. And not forgetting a financial crash that caused its architects to doubt their own intellectual edifice.

Read Conservative MP Jesse Norman's ideas-tour of The Big Society, and then read some of the papers coming from the Compass group of the Labour Party. Both of them cite the same sources - particularly Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum's work on capabilities - to claim that a "social recession" has been occurring, regardless of economic recession. They share a figure of the healthy, happy citizen as needing "meaning, mastery and autonomy" - a purpose, goal or shared cause; an avidity for learning and new skills; the freedom to choose one's engagements in life.

In the midst of my own creative consulting practice, I did a double-take recently, when this trinity of capacities popped up in a discussion of what makes for a truly satisfying video-game. Yet surely it's all too obvious what the differences are between a PS3 "player" and a Big-Society "creative, active self". The former pursues meaning, mastery and autonomy (MMA) as a voluntary and joyful act, under conditions where there is a surplus of time, space and materials, essentially socially secure. The latter is being asked to become a "fizzing bundle of energy" (in Jesse Norman's words) under conditions of social insecurity, with extreme deficit-driven cuts slashing employment in public services. As far as my expertise in play tells me, these are not the most enabling conditions for MMA.

It's very easy to see The Big Society as an attempt to gull the aspirational and "creative" classes into supporting widescale privatisation, by talking their beloved language - specifically, appealing to their desire to achieve personal wellbeing through pro-social activities. But the Big Society falls down on its own terms, unravelled by the Oscar Wilde one-liner about the problem with socialism: "it will take too many evenings".

One might imagine that there could be a joyful, playful volunteerism to be pursued - if the Conservatives got tough with business and regulated for a shorter working week (say 30 hours), without a directly proportionate wage reduction. This would provide a rich systemic support to all that volunteering which, of course, has already been going on (one of the sharpest objections to the Big Society is that it's an opportunistic re-branding of what already exists). But a Conservative party that's brazen enough to preach democracy in Egypt, while hawking arms to Arab autocracies, is hardly going to take that kind of stand against squealing employers.

But while it's easy to critique a Tory philosophy on happiness which over-emphasizes voluntaristic "risk" and "creativity", and under-values the collective "security" and infrastructures which give a platform for the "active self" - you'd expect them to do that - I am doubtful that the Labour Party will find a better balance between these two in the modern workplace. How much of the sense of meaninglessness that pervades work in the commercial services sector, for example, comes from an awareness that much of what occurs there is the excitation, administration and sustenance of false needs, or delusory social-positioning? How much MMA can really be achieved by employees in hyper-consumerist industries based on the exploitation of guilt, shame, envy and anxiety?

At least the Green critique of current working practices, as exemplified by think-tanks like the New Economics Foundation and writers like Tim JacksonJuliet Schor and Jeremy Rifkin, has the urgency of carbon-reduction and global warming at their backs. "Meaningful work" - which could as easily be fully-engaged, hacker-like play, or absorbed, intrinsically-motivated care - is what they hope will substitute for the planet-crisping satisfactions of lifestyle consumerism.

In a low-carbon economy that takes itself seriously, "flourishing" in the form of participation, self-provision and conviviality will have to compensate for "growth", "wealth" and its mountains of stuff. But no party will be able to preach the benefits of plenitude-without-trinkets, the happiness that comes from relationships, mindfulness and autonomous labours (see the five virtues extolled by the NEF's Happy Planet Index), while the financial plutocracy cavorts freely and unemployment rolls burgeon.

Cameron's plan for happiness began in the blithe financial-bubble-bath of the mid 2000's: pursued in these brutal conditions, it seems more like an idee fixe than a thought-out component of political hegemony. For Labour to succeed with its own version, some guarantee of greater security has to be offered - but it'll be through bold proposals on labour-market regulation, new networks of public goods, visible restorations of income equality - and an honesty about how our indicators of progress and prosperity will have to change. And not, I'd suggest, through workplaces the majority of whose enterprises contributes toward the consumerist tumult that guarantees unhappiness.

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