For thousands of years, people have been writing about happiness. The ancient Greek philosopher Aristippus concluded that happiness lies in the pursuit of external pleasure. Others, from Antisthenes to Buddha, have stressed that looking inwards and leading an ascetic life based on virtue, simplicity and inner peace is the route to happiness. And then there are those like Schopenhauer who seem to think that we can only be occasionally happy in what is essentially a miserable world: life only oscillates like a pendulum, back and forth between pain and boredom.
Happiness is, according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, “a state of well-being and contentment: a pleasurable or satisfying experience.”
For some, happiness runs much deeper than merely being content. Aristotle held that being virtuous was only one aspect of happiness. In the absence of say wealth and intelligence, virtue could only bring about a form of contentment.
But sometimes that’s not enough. Certain people strive to achieve an ongoing state of bliss, of feeling at one with the universe and everything in it. Through years of meditation, self-reflective practice or consciousness development, they can learn to transcend the illusion of existence and live life on a higher reality. A case of ignoring reality while striving to live out an illusion?
However, let’s not get too caught up in cynicism here. Illusion is all around us – both on a personal level and on a wider political level. The type of society we live in has a huge bearing on happiness or well-being.
From Bernays to Albright: ‘their’ happiness, our misery
Virtually every government in the world creates an illusion for its people. Take economic policy. Government policies might hurt us in the short term, but we are all on a one way route to the ‘promised land’ of happiness, or so we are told by the politicians, the corporate media and spokespersons for the ones who make us suffer to ensure they never have to – the privileged elite, the ruling class.
Western governments set out to con ordinary working folk by bringing us war in the name of peace, austerity in order to achieve prosperity and suffering to eventually make us happy. Is there any room for truth? Politicians never like to tell the public the truth. The feel-bad factor is never a vote winner. Best to keep the public in the dark and rely on positive spin. If people knew the truth, they just wouldn’t be happy.
And selling the feel-good factor is all pervasive. In this age of irretrievable materialism, the route to happiness is more goods, better goods, newer goods. A never-ending smorgasbord of commodities to be craved for. In league with private corporations, governments have learnt to play on our desires to create a one-dimensional type of happiness based on consumerism.
In part, Edward Bernays is responsible for this. The father of modern public relations and propaganda, he was expert in manipulating human perceptions of pain and pleasure, misery and happiness. Tap into or shape people’s desires in a certain way, and you can sell virtually any notion of happiness (or reality), regardless of how bogus it may be.
Whether it was whipping up mass fear in the US about the bogeyman of communism or selling the ‘American Dream’ of happiness through consuming goods, Bernays and the advertising industry, which took its cue from him, were able to marry misery and happiness together – if you do not buy into consumer capitalism, the alternative will be misery; if you do not buy this or that product, life will be terrible; if you do not join in the celebration of capitalism, those awful Soviets will take over and impose a fundamentally unhappy system of equality on each and every one of us.
Under US capitalism, the lie was that everyone would all live happily ever after because of, not in spite of, gross inequality, massive privileges and disadvantages and exploitation of labour, which all went under the notion of meritocracy and a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay.
Bernays’ propaganda techniques set the stage for con-trick of ‘liberal democracy’.
The US government quickly learned that angels and demons could be manufactured out of thin air and, from Guatemala, Congo and Vietnam to Iraq wars and destabilisations could be built on packs of lies – lies about evil-doers about to kick down the door, lies about the impending misery they would inflict on the US and on far away countries and lies about the government delivering us from impending doom.
Of course, it is best to arm ourselves to the teeth with nuclear weapons to ensure no one imposes their miserable regimes or awful ways of life on us. And to prevent us all shuddering with the fear of the threat of nuclear Armageddon on a daily basis, it’s a case of don’t worry, be happy, forget about it and watch TV. Even the very real danger of near-instant annihilation of the species is shoved to one side for the sake of a feel-good culture.
And the best way to instill that feeling is to have us endlessly treading around a wheel in a cage. Millions are locked into the pursuit of the Bernay’s model of happiness. They are locked into addiction. Addicted to the pursuit of acquisition, of hedonism, of chasing the dream. Addicted to the belief that there is a point to it all, where happiness is achieved by acquisitive materialism.
But, to paraphrase a sentiment from Buddhism: someone, somewhere, may well be suffering on our behalf for this happiness, this hedonism. There is no ‘may be’ about it.
So much blood has been spilled by those unfortunate enough to have been born in certain parts of the world on behalf of people in other parts of the world who deem the need to possess resources to be more worthy than the lives destroyed in order to grab them. Recall Madelaine Albright saying the deaths of 500,000 Iraqi children was a price worth paying for furthering the geo-political interests of US corporations. And yes, a drone attack here, some ‘collateral damage’ there, and those boys in the US control centres are happy with a hard days killing.
In the US Declaration of Independence, there is the phrase “Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Freedom and happiness (or the pursuit of it) is central, albeit built on the misery of others.
‘Life’, ‘liberty’ and ‘happiness’ have become debased. Fed to the masses, happiness has been confused with excessive individualism and the never-ending pursuit of material goods. It became hijacked by the likes of Bernays. With his knowledge of psycho-analysis (Sigmund Freud was his uncle), he knew it was relatively easy to manipulate desires and get people hooked on indulging in certain behaviour, even if ultimately they don’t really want or need those consumer products, those ‘false needs’, they strive to acquire. Getting them hooked is what really counts.
You have no time to think about the disillusionment because you are all too busy buying the next quick-fix for happiness product. It’s called retail ‘therapy’ for good reason. A therapy that has no long-term benefit. It’s a feel-bad, feel-good then feel bad again spiral.
But who needs this form of ‘happiness’, this type of ‘liberty’, ultimately underpinned by an Albright-esque view of life and death? No one. Yet the masses are encouraged to swallow the lies. The propaganda is pervasive.
Look no further than all those feel-good Hollywood trash films, passed off as ‘blockbusters’, that gloss over or usually ignore all the mundane, miserable aspects of life in working class ‘America’. Little wonder half the world seems to want to live in the US. The need to portray a bogus notion of happiness has served to kick reality into touch. The Hollywood propaganda machine has seen to that.
The ‘wealth creators’ and their crimes against humanity
The great ‘American Dream’ was built on craving and propaganda. It was built on stripping the environment bare, on the unsustainable raping of nature to fuel profits, perpetual war and misery and suffering. The sociologist C.Wright Mills noted the existence of a post-war power elite in the US back in 1956. An integrated power elite of big corporations, the military and the political establishment. Fast forward 57 years and it is responsible for a body count of ten million dead and counting, a statistic, a dirty secret that Hollywood will never tell. Ten million slaughtered in US-backed wars and by death squads, covert ops and destabilisations (see this). Drug-running and the exporting of terror and murder, glorified by countless Hollywood icons, commentators and politicians under the banner of championing freedom and democracy.
The system in place exists to benefit not the majority, but small a minority of just 6,000 to 7,000 people, according to David Rothkopf. These are the extremely wealthy of the world who have cemented their position on the back of their ancestors and hundreds of years of capitalism. These are the people setting the globalisation and war agendas at the G8, G20, NATO, the World Bank, and the WTO. They are from the highest levels of finance capital and transnational corporations. These billionaires, this transnational capitalist class, dictate global economic policies and decide on who lives and who dies and which wars are fought and inflicted on which people. Although they are having a bit of difficulty in kick-starting it right now, with their see-through lies and hypocrisy, Syria is a case in point.
Their crimes against humanity are never mentioned as such. Instead, these people are called ‘wealth creators’. They are the self-anointed role models and captains of industry. The high flyers who have stolen ordinary people’s wealth, who have stashed it away in tax havens, who have bankrupted economies because of their reckless gambling and greed and who have imposed a form of globalisation that results in devastating destruction and war for those who attempt to remain independent from them, or structurally adjusted violence via privatisation and economic neo-liberalism for millions in countries that have acquiesced.
Little wonder then that attempts to redress the balance, to snatch control away from this criminal class, have been brutally suppressed over the decades. From democratic leftist organisations to any government pursuing a socialist alternative, this class has used intelligence agencies or military might to attempt to subvert or annihilate any opposition.
From El Salvador and Chile to Egypt and India’s tribal belt, ordinary folk across the world have been subjected to policies that have resulted in oppression, poverty and conflict. But this is all passed off by politicians and the corrupt mainstream media as the way things must be. And anyone who stands up to this lie is ridiculed at best or spied upon, tortured and killed at worst in order to prevent the truth from emerging. And that truth is that many of us know what ‘happiness’ really is, the type of society necessary to establish it – based on communality and economic equality – and that the immensely wealthy people who stand in its way do all things necessary to prevent us from having it. Socialism is not a dirty word.
Various well-being surveys indicate that happier societies invest heavily in health, welfare and education, are more equal and live within the limits imposed by the environment. Many less wealthy countries (and wealthy) do well in such surveys because cultural priority is placed on family and friends, on social capital rather than financial capital, on social equity rather than corporate power. It’s no coincidence that people in places like Britain and the US appear to be less happy than they were 40 years ago.
Karl Marx knew that self-actualisation was to be truly achieved in a society that makes it possible for someone to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as he has a mind. Being ‘happy’ is state of being, a state of worthwhile endeavour freely chosen and not imposed. It is not achieved through the pursuit of an ultimate unattainable elusive goal on a never ending treadmill of drudgery, a never ending treadmill of control. Not a fixed end point to be achieved by possessing a hundred latest, cutting edge consumer gadgets and indulging in the individualised competition of conspicuous consumption that proclaims ‘look at me, I’m better than you, I’m elevated from the crowd’. And by elevating oneself in such a way, the gregarious human animal is cut off from the wider group and may ultimately become rather unhappy.
And yet it is ordinary working class men (and women) who sign up to join the military and support this system on behalf of these immensely wealthy people. Such people have however always been adept in manipulating the masses to rally around flag and nation, evoking an emotive misplaced sense of patriotism to pursue their militarism or justify their exploitation.
In his book ‘A People’s History of England’, The Marxist academic AL Morton documented how ordinary people, over many hundreds of years, set out to challenge these rulers and often paid with their lives. Nothing ever came for free and ordinary working people fought tooth and nail for any rights that they managed to obtain
Such a travesty then, that today, ordinary people are denied economic opportunities because this class has sold their jobs to the lowest bidder in India, China or elsewhere. This class and its ‘think tanks’ were determined to shatter the post-war Keynesian consensus based on a robust welfare state and government intervention in the economy to help secure full employment. Any notions of ‘fairness’ and the benefits to be derived from the welfare state were to be substituted for positive notions about the free market and individual responsibility in order to justify the real intention of shifting the balance of power towards elite interests.
With workers’ wages having been depressed over a period of decades, demand having thus been propped up by debt and bankers demanding to be bailed out, how convenient that the lie of ‘austerity’ is being used as a battering ram to finish off what the likes of Reagan and Thatcher did in the 80s with their pro-big business, pro-privatisation, anti-union, anti-welfare policies.
And we are supposed to thank ‘them’ for this? To vote for ‘their’ politicians, to join in a media circus to celebrate the birth of another royal parasite, to support their killing in Syria, in Libya, in Afghanistan, in Iraq and elsewhere?
Yes, we are supposed to back them and take in the poisonous lie that ‘we are all in it together’. And ordinary young men (and women) are supposed to sign up to fight their wars.
The working classes, the great, great grandchildren of the cannon-fodder ‘heroes’ sacrificed en masse on the blood-soaked battlefields of countless other wars that have gone before can now join up to fight again. For what? Austerity, powerlessness, imperialism, propping up the US dollar. For whom? Monsanto, Occidental Petroleum, BP, JP Morgan, Black Rock, Boeing and the rest.
The US economy has been hollowed out. Much of manufacturing has been shipped abroad. For those who benefitted, the US can go to hell in a handbasket, and it has. Meanwhile, for them, record profits ensue. It’s the ability to maximise profit by shifting capital around the world that matters to them, whether on the back of distorted free trade agreements which open the gates for plunder, or through coercion and militarism which merely tear them down.
In places like India, it cuts both ways. ‘Free’ trade and a state enforced militarism that both result in countless deaths and the forced removals of hundreds of thousands of the nation’s poorest folk from their lands and villages for the benefit of powerful corporations and a bogus notion of development. “I love my India” well-off ordinary urban dwellers often say. Patriotism has always been a distraction, a tool to be ignited by the oppressors at will among the masses.
As societies become hollowed out, with empty echoes of patriotism ringing out, they increasingly resemble boxes. The only thing inside however is a giant, brutal mechanical hand. There is nothing else apart from it. And it’s only function is to pull the lid shut if anyone ever dares to tear it open and shed light into the box. If successful, they will see the immorality, the lies, the hypocrisies. The social control based on the subversion of life, liberty and happiness.
Colin Todhunter is an extensively published independent writer and former social policy researcher based in the UK and India.