Click amount to donate direct to CounterPunch
  • $25
  • $50
  • $100
  • $500
  • $other
  • use PayPal
DOUBLE YOUR DONATION!
We don’t run corporate ads. We don’t shake our readers down for money every month or every quarter like some other sites out there. We provide our site for free to all, but the bandwidth we pay to do so doesn’t come cheap. A generous donor is matching all donations of $100 or more! So please donate now to double your punch!
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

The Unhappiness of Charlie Hebdo

Caracas.

Utilitarianism or “greatest-happiness morality” is a philosophy that almost no one takes any stock in these days. That itself should spark some interest, even if it were unaccompanied by the alarming reality that human happiness – which utilitarians such as Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill took to be the basis for moral judgments – claims so little attention today not only in the ivory tower but also in daily life.

Take the case of Charlie Hebdo. A score of people assassinated is no doubt a terrible thing, but what if we put it in the balance with the many deaths and vast suffering that will result from the anti-terrorist and anti-immigrant legislation that is soon to come in response to the attack? The strange conclusion of this utilitarian thought experiment is that it would be better, in terms of overall human happiness, to have the attacks censored in the news and forgotten about.

Before clamoring about the importance of the truth and the great dangers of trifling with it – a position that I agree with – it is worth considering what the widespread elimination of human happiness as a political value has done to us. In Público.es Boaventura de Sousa Santos wrote that what the Koachi brothers’ attack symbolizes is not so much a clash of civilizations but rather of fanaticisms. That is correct because (among other reasons) a civilization, in contrast to a fanatic society, would take more interest in human happiness than most Northern countries do today.

A recent study, admittedly using somewhat ambiguous criteria, shows that societal happiness poorly coincides with capitalist development and even less with free-market fundamentalism. This is the UN World Happiness Report of 2013, which indicates that nations with social-democratic traditions such as Sweden, Norway and Denmark do excellently in their Happiness Ranking, whereas some underdeveloped countries such as Venezuela and Costa Rica do relatively well compared to many more developed ones. The truth is that over the long run, capitalism’s course has been marked by the dialectic of its eternal promises of abundance and well-being that contrast with the harsh realities of its socially-produced scarcity and suffering.

In times of crisis, the scarcity and suffering come to the forefront, whereas happiness, the ideological counterpart of abundance, has to take the back seat. For those of us submitted to daily life under capitalism – in a structural crisis since the early 1970s – this means we are called upon to forget about post-war aspirations of sexual and spiritual emancipation and turn the page on enlightenment values (such as fraternity and equality) to make way for an array of fundamentalisms. Aesthetically, the openness and repose that emerged in Renaissance sculpture and painting and found its way into 1960s cinematic experiments, gives way to the hard bodied Arno Breker-style superheroes and cyborgs of post-1970s Hollywood.

In the case of Charlie Hebdo, if one brackets the incidental “tree” of its content (really of trifling cultural importance), one sees clearly the extensive “forest” of occidental fundamentalism. Marches of locked-arm western leaders, including Benjamin Netanyahu and Nicolas Sarkozy, are paralleled by fascistoid PEGIDA demonstrations, while ethnic difference – whether Basque, Catalan, or Arab – is forcibly sidelined in the public arena. Terrorists and black-uniformed police who are their spitting image steal the front page of every newspaper, and heretofore prudent governments seem willing to enter a new Holy Alliance (its implicit religion being “Occident is Great”).

The political convenience of the attacks? Of the multiple comparisons one can make with September 11th, it is worth pointing out that if George W. Bush needed the pretext of being a “War President” to consolidate his highly-questioned electoral victory in 2000, Francois Hollande desperately needs an excuse to assume part of the program of the ever more successful ultra-right National Front. Both terrorist attacks fit these political bills to a tee, for the near unanimous message they inspire is that the party is over: the Global North must renounce multiculturalism and all kinds of satisfaction and accept a future of asceticism and self-sacrifice.

This brings us back to Bentham and Mill. They may have been superficial in their social analyses (though Mill pointed to “wretched social arrangements” as inhibiting the happiness of the majority) and barking up the wrong tree when they proposed to quantify pleasure, but at least one element of their discourse – their boldly putting societal well-being at the center stage of public life – should not be laughed at in a moment in which the very neofeudal attitudes they criticized are having a field day in the Global North.

Chris Gilbert is professor of political science at the Universidad Bolivariana de Vene

More articles by:

Chris Gilbert is professor of political science in the Universidad Bolivariana de Venezuela.

Weekend Edition
October 19, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Jason Hirthler
The Pieties of the Liberal Class
Jeffrey St. Clair
A Day in My Life at CounterPunch
Paul Street
“Male Energy,” Authoritarian Whiteness and Creeping Fascism in the Age of Trump
Nick Pemberton
Reflections on Chomsky’s Voting Strategy: Why The Democratic Party Can’t Be Saved
John Davis
The Last History of the United States
Yigal Bronner
The Road to Khan al-Akhmar
Robert Hunziker
The Negan Syndrome
Andrew Levine
Democrats Ahead: Progressives Beware
Rannie Amiri
There is No “Proxy War” in Yemen
David Rosen
America’s Lost Souls: the 21st Century Lumpen-Proletariat?
Joseph Natoli
The Age of Misrepresentations
Ron Jacobs
History Is Not Kind
John Laforge
White House Radiation: Weakened Regulations Would Save Industry Billions
Ramzy Baroud
The UN ‘Sheriff’: Nikki Haley Elevated Israel, Damaged US Standing
Robert Fantina
Trump, Human Rights and the Middle East
Anthony Pahnke – Jim Goodman
NAFTA 2.0 Will Help Corporations More Than Farmers
Jill Richardson
Identity Crisis: Elizabeth Warren’s Claims Cherokee Heritage
Sam Husseini
The Most Strategic Midterm Race: Elder Challenges Hoyer
Maria Foscarinis – John Tharp
The Criminalization of Homelessness
Robert Fisk
The Story of the Armenian Legion: a Dark Tale of Anger and Revenge
Jacques R. Pauwels
Dinner With Marx in the House of the Swan
Dave Lindorff
US ‘Outrage’ over Slaying of US Residents Depends on the Nation Responsible
Ricardo Vaz
How Many Yemenis is a DC Pundit Worth?
Elliot Sperber
Build More Gardens, Phase out Cars
Chris Gilbert
In the Wake of Nepal’s Incomplete Revolution: Dispatch by a Far-Flung Bolivarian 
Muhammad Othman
Let Us Bray
Gerry Brown
Are Chinese Municipal $6 Trillion (40 Trillion Yuan) Hidden Debts Posing Titanic Risks?
Rev. William Alberts
Judge Kavanaugh’s Defenders Doth Protest Too Much
Ralph Nader
Unmasking Phony Values Campaigns by the Corporatists
Victor Grossman
A Big Rally and a Bavarian Vote
James Bovard
Groped at the Airport: Congress Must End TSA’s Sexual Assaults on Women
Jeff Roby
Florida After Hurricane Michael: the Sad State of the Unheeded Planner
Wim Laven
Intentional or Incompetence—Voter Suppression Where We Live
Bradley Kaye
The Policy of Policing
Wim Laven
The Catholic Church Fails Sexual Abuse Victims
Kevin Cashman
One Year After Hurricane Maria: Employment in Puerto Rico is Down by 26,000
Dr. Hakim Young
Nonviolent Afghans Bring a Breath of Fresh Air
Karl Grossman
Irving Like vs. Big Nuke
Dan Corjescu
The New Politics of Climate Change
John Carter
The Plight of the Pyrenees: the Abandoned Guard Dogs of the West
Ted Rall
Brett Kavanaugh and the Politics of Emotion-Shaming
Graham Peebles
Sharing is Key to a New Economic and Democratic Order
Ed Rampell
The Advocates
Louis Proyect
The Education Business
David Yearsley
Shock-and-Awe Inside Oracle Arena
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail