The Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young theory of happiness

"And if you can’t be with the one you love" sang Stephen Stills, "Love the one you’re with."

As 2004 ended Andrew Norton and Mark Bahnisch wrote about desire. Andrew wrote about the link between happiness and the desire for consumer goods while Mark compared disappointed Labor and Democrat voters to heartbroken lovers.

escalatorWC.jpg

Many of those on the greener side of the left think people would be happier if they could adjust their desires. Richard Eckersley and Clive Hamilton argue that our culture encourages us to want things which cannot make us happy. They want to see the culture transformed – to see it steer away from consumerism and individualism.

Research shows a link between materialism and unhappiness. The more importance people place on having money to buy things the less happy they tend to be. In an opinion piece for The Age Marcus Godinho writes that "Survey after survey demonstrates that the desire for material goods, which has increased hand in hand with average income, is a happiness suppressant, with diseases of affluence ranging from obesity to depression."

Andrew isn’t sure about the connection. He observes that the happiness research tends to show that wealthy people are happier than poor people. In a review of the literature, Ed Diener and Robert Biswas-Diener (pdf) found that the association between materialism and unhappiness was far stronger for the poor than for the rich. It may be that the problem isn’t consumption itself, but unrequited desire.

Andrew also suggests another explanation – that people who are unhappy are more likely to want to consume. There is some research which supports this explanation. When people are feeling inadequate, powerless, and ignored they are more likely to want to consume.

According to Andrew arguments like Godinho’s are covert environmentalism. Consumerism is not what’s making people unhappy. Instead it’s the activists’ aversion to our modern industrial, capitalist society that’s the problem. Perhaps green leftists should just relax and learn to love consumerism. Or as Stephen Stills could have sung "Don’t be angry, don’t be sad, and don’t sit cryin’ over the old growth forests you once had. There’s a mall right next to you, and it’s just waitin’ for someone like you."

Mark says "we need to fall back in love with politics." Quoting from Carl Schmitt he says that politics is about passion – about dividing the world into friends and enemies. For Mark "The Left/Right distinction is perhaps best seen as a marker for a moving series of positions, differently inflected at different times, and as a proxy for polarisation, rather than some sort of essential concept that can [be] rigorously defined."

To be political is to desire victory for your friends and defeat for your enemies. And presumably it’s more about loyalty to a group of people than coherence of ideas or commitment to values or ideals. So for political leftists the defeat of the Kerry in America and Latham here at home was as painful as a lover’s funeral.

Perhaps Andrew might offer leftists some Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young style advice: "Don’t be angry, don’t be sad, and don’t sit cryin’ over the PM you might’ve had." If you can’t have the PM you want, then want the one you have. If happiness and contentment are what makes life worth living then why make yourself miserable struggling against consumerism, mass culture, and the war on terror? Why not learn to love the society and culture you already have? Why desire things that are so hard to achieve?

Why? Because most people who are passionate about politics would rather die than have the same desires as their enemies. What makes Orwell’s 1984 such an effective call to arms is that it tells activists what to fear most – the thing that finally happened to Winston when he looked up at Big Brother’s face:

Forty years it had taken him to learn what kind of smile was hidden beneath the dark moustache. O cruel, needless misunderstanding! O Stubborn, self-willed exile from the loving breast! Two gin-scented tears trickled down the sides of his nose. But it was all right, everything was all right, the struggle was finished. He had won the victory over himself. He loved Big Brother.

Some fundamentalist christians hope that they would endure torture and death rather than give up their faith. Some fundamentalist muslims hope the same. Neither can imagine life being worth living if it meant desiring what non-believers desire. Politics can be the same. The desire for a particular kind of better world can become part of a person’s identity. Loyalty to friends and hatred of enemies is part of what makes the political partisan who they are. To be forced to be someone different is the worst kind of oppression. For partisans it can be so close to dying that physical death is preferable.

While Mark argues that the essence of politics is about having friends and enemies, I think it is about how to live in a society where other people would rather die than want what I and my friends want or be who I am and who my friends are. People cannot be asked to be anything other than who they are. Everyone will have their own vision of what society is and what it should become. Frustration and conflict are unavoidable. In a multi-ethnic, multi-faith, multi-ideology society statecraft and good citizenship are not about stirring people to action against enemies. Instead, they are about creating, adapting, and sustaining institutions which manage conflict. We need rituals and practices which all groups of friends accept as fair and which foster deep civility. It is one thing to wish to die rather than accept the beliefs of your enemy. It is another to say that your enemy has no right to live.

This entry was posted in Society. Bookmark the permalink.
Subscribe
Notify of
guest
7 Comments
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Great post, Don.

I should clarify two things about the friend/enemy distinction Schmitt makes.

First, he himself observes that there’s a difference between public emnity (making the distinction) and private hostility. One can respect and even love one’s political enemy.

Secondly, I read him more as a sociological observer than a normative philosopher (in fact, he’s both and at times neither). Therefore, I’m not endorsing his call (to the degree that he does call for this) for the friend/enemy distinction to entail the negation of the way of life of the enemy, merely noting that hyper-politicisation in its pure state, war, does. Perhaps a little paradoxically, he prefers declared war to what we would now characterise as police actions or “humanitarian interventions” (a la Kosovo) precisely because it respects the humanity of the other. There’s a respectable critique that the masking of the West’s intentions under a humanitarian cover in Kosovo has actually contibuted to a deeply and continually unstable situation which has made things much worse for those “we” intended to “save”. There are some extremely interesting writings on this – from the perspective of Central European thinkers and often drawing on Schmitt’s work – but they have little circulation here in the “West”.

In recent scholarship on Schmitt (and I talk more about this in the paper which I link to) I also adopt the distinction that Chantal Mouffe makes between Smith’s antagonism and an agonism which respects the other’s right to differ within one public sphere.

Anyway, aside from all that, happy new year, Don!

Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

“People cannot be asked to be anything other than who they are. Everyone will have their own vision of what society is and what it should become. Frustration and conflict are unavoidable. In a multi-ethnic, multi-faith, multi-ideology society statecraft and good citizenship are not about stirring people to action against enemies.”

I agree. We’re not too far apart. What worries me though is when politics itself (which does need to make distinctions) disappears. That’s when the already powerful win – and they are always good at knowing who their firends are.

Nic White
2022 years ago

Again, brilliant. This topic is churning out some gems.

Scott Wickstein
2022 years ago

Actually I’ll be negative here and say its not quite up to the usual Arthur standard- you should have actually made two posts on the different topics.

harry
harry
2022 years ago

“Ed Diener and Robert Biswas-Diener (pdf) found that the association between materialism and unhappiness was far stronger for the poor than for the rich. ”
I’d venture it is becuase the poor have to go into debt to buy the things they crave whereas the rich have the spare dosh.
The initial rush of ownership is muted by the realisation of what will have to be passed over in the future to pay for the present.

I reckon it’s not possessions *per se* that bring happiness but the security of having truly spare money that brings the happiness.

I think it was that great economist Yoda who said “Debt leads to worry. Worry leads to Anger. Anger leads to fear. And fear leads to hate. That is the power of the Dark Side.”

harry
harry
2022 years ago

“We need rituals and practices which all groups of friends accept as fair and which foster deep civility.”

Hear, hear! You sound a bit like Peter Ransen of BackPages fame.
Or, if you prefer, Bill and Ted.
Keep it up – we need more optimism in general and who knows where that can end up?

David Tiley
2022 years ago

Coming back, nearly six months later, triggered by Quiggin..

..we are deep in another football season. Football is one of those rituals and passions that hold us together.

We are coming out of Corbymania. Beyond the passionate concern of a lot of good people, we are realising this has plugged into deranged racist nationalism.

“Every religious, moral, economic, ethical or other antithesis transforms into a political one if it is sufficiently strong to group human beings effectively according to friend and enemy…” says Carl Schmitt, and that is why he was a nazi, and why Corbymania touches on something so frightening.

Football remains the key analogy, so simply and so beautiful. People form tribes on the weekend, yell their lungs out, and go back to work to rib each other about the game.

Meanwhile, the tribunals convene, the AFL itself plans the future of the game, and the umpires enforce the rules. The game itself goes on, and we have a higher loyalty to the thing itself.

When we call the umpires maggots, we do something fundamentally destructive, seeking team victory at the expense of the game, dragging the whole thing down so that, paradoxically, there can be no team and no victory.

Just as we seek the victory through the ballot box which will make the whole system obsolete. Schmitt does raise an important issue – insofar as politics is a deeply dialectical approach to reality, what happens to the body politic if the conflict is abolished by turning the game into a sham?

How is victory achieved at the expense of the game of politics? By changing the rules, using a government majority in the Senate. By debasing political discourse with advertising, tabloid opinion, shockjocking, polling and so on. And simply by belting an enemy so hard it can’t recover for a very long time (for which Britain is currently an example).

Lest you think this is old fashioned capitalist-hating socialism, let me hasten to add that I think the collapse of Toryism in the UK is a salutary example. Howard and Bush should beware; we could be the natural party of government for a long time.

The Tories said “Are you thinking what we’re thinking?”.. and Blair allegedly replied by asking: “Are you remembering what we are remembering?”

Here’s the punchline for my football analogy. Politics is like football in which the goal itself is the rules of the game. The rules are set by the victor, and by the nature of the play.

As every victory speech says: “I yam going to govern for all Australians..” conservatives in particular never mean it, though the apparent left can be a problem too, especially when they sell out to the wrong end of town.

In my mind at least, the analogy helps to show why governing for the game and not the victor is so important in the great game of politics.