"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.
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.