Towards a Radical Theory of Happiness: A Personal Beginning

There, I’ve taken the first step. What would a Marxist say on the subject of happiness? Originally, Marxism is about understanding and overcoming capitalism. Then it became involved in just about everything else: from politics and philosophy to literature and cultural studies. On these it has had a lot to say, but what of happiness?

Certainly, the answer involves overturning the structures of inequality and creating a just social order, where everybody’s basic needs are met. A life without these couldn’t possibly be happy. But while I recognize the social and political dimension of happiness, I want to inquire, from a Marxist point of view, into its personal and psychological facets. We should all strive to create a just world for all, but in the interim and even when that world has come to being, how do we conduct ourselves on a day-to-day to basis? And how do we manage a wide range of emotions: fear, envy, anger, love, apathy, indifference, joy, laziness? 

I understand that Marxism does not traditionally deal with these matters, but a theory of human liberation which has little to say about human emotions and feelings is not a genuine theory of human liberation.

Oh don’t get me wrong. Many Marxists or radical philosophers—Erich Fromm, Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer, and Herbert Marcuse, just to name a few— have written much that bear on this question, as do the works of lifestyle activists who live out their beliefs in their day-to-day existence. But it’s either that I have to read these all or that they have to be synthesized, developed, refined, and hijacked to reach new frontiers of thought.

But a Marxist Theory of Happiness should not be limited to the works of Marxists and other thinkers and scholars of radical persuasion. Insights on religion and spirituality will prove to be useful, as will the pronouncements of the self-help and (positive) psychology movements, and even corporate human resource development resource speakers.

Despite the flaws and wackiness of self-help and positive psychology movements, and the capitalist-orientation of human resources development programs, we dismiss them at our peril. For doing so means abandoning an entire terrain of human life onto the hands of “the enemy,” as it were. Their ideas, for all their “reactionary” character, have to be engaged with, appropriated, refined, qualified, or discarded whatever the case may be, but definitely in order to develop more progressive thinking on happiness, productivity, motivation, self-fulfillment, engagement, teamwork, conflict resolution, leadership, and the like.

A radical, Leftist, Marxist or progressive has much to learn from “capitalist” writings on these topics. For instance, insights on advertising and marketing, while geared for capitalist profit, can be appropriated and refined to communicate radical ideas properly. Marketers and advertisers are said to be “persuaders,” so why not press this persuading know-how in the service of radical, more progressive ends, such as shaking people out of their political apathy or convincing them of the need for a broader, deep-seated transformation of society?

I believe that much of social life has been atomized. For many of us, we pursue our individual dreams—migrating abroad, getting a dream house, etc. —and have lost focus and the ability to act on a collective goal such as national development or justice for all of the world’s poor.  We know there are problems, and we want to help (and we do in our own way), but we are no longer…involved the way we can and should be.

This is by no means  a call to drop whatever we are doing and become full-time activists for the cause. It’s just to argue that part of the struggle for a better life will have to take place not just in and over socioeconomic policies but also in this individualized, atomized society, one that has been promoted by the capitalist powers-that-be. These are the rules of engagement, as it were, and radicals have little choice but to fight on such terms and in this terrain, which for now is inhospitable to the idea of solidarity and the collective action.

Today, this entails for me engaging with individualist philosophies of happiness, human subjectivity, theories of emotions, and the like. Radicals have to find a way to use whatever can be found in this unfriendly terrain to forge a new theory of the aforementioned, one that is conducive to and dovetails with the collective, political dimension of human life. And I have faith in the dialectic and in the notion of immanent critique for us to succeed. There is or has to be something within this atomized, individualist society that can be turned against it.

In the meantime, just keep reading, just keep reading.


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