Reflective Journal

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Happiness in a society of individuals
Zygmunt Bauman
Zygmunt Bauman looks at the ways in which ideologies of privatisation shape our
desires, and at the reasons they are unlikely to be fulfilled.
Nicolas Sarkozy, the newly elected president of France, declared in a June 2007
television interview: ‘I am not a theoretician. 1 am not an
ideologue. Oh, I am not an intellectual! I am someone concrete!” What possibly could
he mean by saying that?
Most certainly, he did not mean that he does not hold to certain beliefs unswervingly,
while equally resolutely rejecting others. He is, after all, on the
record as a man with strong views – firmly believing ‘in doing rather than musing’,
and campaigning for the French people ‘to work more and earn more’. In his
presidential campaign he told the electors repeatedly that it is good to work harder
and longer hours in order to get rich. (The electorate seem to have found this call
attractive while not necessarily believing it to be pragmatically sound: according to
a TBS-Sofres poll, while 40 per cent of the French believe one can get rich through
working, 39 per cent believe it to be possible through winning the lottery.) These
declarations by Sarkozy, as long as they are sincere, meet all the conditions of an
ideology, and perform the major function which ideologies are expected to perform:
tbey instruct people about what to do and reassure them that doing it will bring
beneficial results. They also manifest an agonistic, partisan stance towards alternative
convictions: a feature normally taken as a trade mark of ideologies.
Perhaps there is one feature of ideology as we currently understand it missing from
Nicolas Sarkozy’s life philosophy: a vision of a ‘social totality’ that, as Emile
Durkheim suggested, is ‘greater than the sum of its parts’; that (unlike, say, a sack of
potatoes) is not reducible to the sum total of the separate units it contains; a social
totality, that cannot be reduced to an aggregate, of individuals pursuing their own
private aims, guided by their own private desires and rules. On the contrary, the
repeated public statements of the French president suggest just such a reduction.
The predictions of the ‘end of ideology’ that were rife and widely accepted twenty to
thirty years ago do not seem to have come true. What we are witnessing, rather,
is a curious twist in the idea of ‘ideology’: in defiance of a long tradition, there is now
a widespread ideological belief that thinking about the ‘totality’, and composing
visions of a ‘good society’, is a waste of time, since it is irrelevant to individual
happiness and a successful life.
An ideology of privatisation
This new-type ideology is not a privatised ideology. Such a notion would be an
oxymoron, since the supply of security and self-confidence that is tbe tour deforce of
ideologies – and the prime condition of their seductiveness – would be unattainable
without massive public endorsement. This is, rather, an ideology of privatisation. The
call to ‘work more and earn more’, a call addressed to individuals, and fit only for
individual use, is chasing away and replacing past calls to ‘think of society’ and ‘care
for society’ (for a community, a nation, a church, a cause). Sarkozy is not the first
to try to trigger or accelerate this shift; priority here belongs to Margaret Thatcher’s
memorable announcement that ‘there is no such thing as “society”. There is only the
government and the families’.
This is a new ideology for a new individualised society: as Ulrich Beck has written,
individual men and women are now expected, pushed and pulled to seek and find
individual solutions to socially created problems, and to implement such solutions
individually, with the help of individual skills and resources. This ideology proclaims
the futility (indeed, counter-productivity) of solidarity: of joining forces and
subordinating individual actions to a ‘common cause’. It derides the principle of
communal responsibility for the wellbeing of its members, decrying it as a recipe for
a debilitating ‘nanny state’, and warning against care-for-the-other on the grounds that
it leads to abhorrent and detestable ‘dependency’.
This is also an ideology made to the measure of the new society of consumers.
It re-presents the world as a warehouse of potential objects of consumption, and
individual life as a perpetual search for bargains; its purpose is presented as maximal
consumer satisfaction, and life success as an increase in each individual’s own market
value. Widely accepted and firmly embraced, it dismisses competing life philosophies
with a curt TINA’ (‘There Is No Alternative’). Having degraded and silenced its
competitors, it becomes, in Pierre Bourdieu’s memorable expression, a veritable
‘pensée unique’.
Privatised society’s exclusions
Not for nothing are the remarkably popular Big Brother shows presented as ‘reality
TV’. That denomination suggests that off-screen life, ‘the real thing’, is just like the
on-screen saga of the Big Brother competitors. Here, as there, no one playing the
game of survival is guaranteed to survive, permission to stay in the game is but a
temporary reprieve, and team loyalty is only ‘until further notice’ – that is, it won’t
outlive its usefulness for the promotion of individual interest. That someone will
be excluded is beyond dispute; the only question is who it will be; and hence what
is at issue is not abolishing exclusions (a task that would favour joining forces and
solidarity of action) but shifting the threat of exclusion away from oneself and
towards the others (a task that prompts self-concern, while rendering solidarity
unreasonable if not suicidal). In Big Brother, someone must be excluded each week:
not because by some curious coincidence, regularly, every week, one person shows
themselves as being inadequate, but because it has been written into the rules of
‘reality’ as seen on TV Exclusion is in the nature of things, an un-detachable aspect of
being-in-in-the- world, a ‘law of nature’ – and so to rebel against it makes no sense.
The only issue worthy of being thought about – and intensely – is staving off the
prospect of myself being excluded in the next round of exclusions.
At least in the affluent part of the planet, the stake in this cut-throat individual
competition is no longer physical survival – or the satisfaction of the primary
biological needs that the survival instinct demands. Neither is it the right to selfassert,
to set one’s own objectives and to decide what kind of life one would prefer to
live; to exercise such rights is, on the contrary, assumed to be every individual’s duty
Moreover, it is assumed that whatever happens to the individual is the consequence of
exercising such rights, or of an abominable failure – or sinful refusal – to exercise
them. Whatever happens to an individual can be retrospectively interpreted as a
further confirmation of their sole and inalienable responsibility for their individual
plight – and for adversities as much as successes. What is at stake, rather, is social
recognition – exclusion or inclusion – based on the choices we have made.
Once cast as individuals, we are encouraged to actively seek social recognition for
what has been pre-interpreted as our individual choices: namely the forms of life
which we, the individual, (whether by choice or by default) are practising. Social
recognition means acceptance that an individual, in practising a particular form of
life, is leading a worthy and decent life, and, on this ground, deserves the respect that
is owed and offered to other worthy and decent people.
The alternative to social recognition is denial of dignity: humiliation. As Dennis
Smith has recently defined it, an act is humiliating ‘if it forcefully overrides or
contradicts the claim that particular individuals ,,. are making about who they are and
where and how they fit in’,^ An individual is humiliated when s/he, whether explicitly
or implicitly, is denied the recognition s/he expected for the person s/he is, and/or the
kind of life s/he lives; and when s/he is refused the entitlements
that would have been made available following such recognition, ‘A person feels
humiliated when s/he is brutally shown, by words, actions or events, that they cannot
be what they think they are .., Humiliation is the experience of being unfairly,
unreasonably and unwillingly pushed down, held down, held back or pushed
out’ (Smith, p37).
This feeling of humiliation breeds resentment. And in a society of individuals such as
ours, this is perhaps the most venomous and implacable variety of resentment a
person may feel – and the most common cause of conflict, dissent, rebellion and thirst
for revenge. Denial of recognition, refusal of respect and the threat of exclusion have
replaced exploitation and discrimination as the reasons most commonly put forward
to explain and justify the grudges individuals feel towards society – or towards the
sections or aspects of society to which they are directly exposed (personally or
through the media).
This does not mean that humiliation is a novel phenomenon, specific to the present
stage in the history of modem society On the contrary, it is as old as human
sociability and togetherness. What has changed, however, is that, in the individualised
society of consumers, the most common and ‘most telling’ definitions and
explanations of pain and grievance are moving away from group- or category- related
features, and towards personal referents. And rather than being ascribed to injustice
or the malfunctioning of the social whole (and remedy thus being sought in the
reform of society), individual suffering increasingly tends to be perceived as the
outcome of a personal offence or as an assault on personal dignity and self-esteem,
thus calling for a personal response or personal revenge.
Individuals are called upon to invent and deploy individual solutions to socially
produced discomforts, and they tend to respond in kind. Thus any turn of events that
plays havoc with the expectations suggested by a person-focused ideology is
perceived and ‘made sense of, in the same ideology of privatisation, as a personal
snub, a personally aimed (even if randomly targeted) humiliation; self-respect, as
well as feelings of security and self-confidence, are its first casualties. The affected
individuals feel debased, and since the ideology of privatisation assumes the presence
of a culprit behind every case of suffering or discomfort, there ensues a feverish
search for the persons guilty of debasing them; the conflict and enmity
that arises is deemed personal. The guilty ones must be located, exposed, publicly
condemned and punished. ‘Them’ are as individualised as ‘us’ in the ideology of
privatisation.
The kind of ideology we are discussing is wrapped around the issue of identity. Who
am I? What is my place among the others – the ones 1 know, or know of, or perhaps
have never heard of thus far? What are the threats that make this place of mine
insecure? Who stands behind those threats? What kinds of countermeasures should I
undertake in order to disable those people and so stave off such threats? This is how
questions are being rephrased for members of the individualised society – and these
are the kinds of questions to which ideologies were (and still are) believed to supply
an answer, in a resolute and authoritative manner.
This new ideology is as conservative as Mannheim believed all ideologies (as
opposed to Utopias) to be. It calls upon us to see the daily experiences of the world
we currently inhabit as the indomitable laws of the universe; and the viewpoint
of ‘individuals-by-decree’ as the only perspective from which to ascertain the state of
the world. Those among us who, thanks to their resourcefulness and skills, feel in that
world as a fish in the water, may not notice the yawning gap between the expectations
aroused by the ideology of privatisation in all individuals-by-decree and the realistic
chances of those ‘individuals-de-jure’ who lack the necessary resources and skills to
rise to the status of the individuals-de-facto. Failed individuals are doomed to suffer
the humiliation of inadequacy, of falling below the standards that others evidently
have no difficulty in meeting, as viiell as the humiliation of being vilified for sloth
and indolence, if not for an inborn inferiority; such individuals can hardly avoid
noticing the gap when falling into it and fathoming its abysmal depth.
This ideology, like all other known ideologies, divides humanity. But it also divides
its own believers, enabling some and disabling the rest, thus exacerbating the
conflict-ridden character of individualised/privatised society It constantly defuses the
energies, and disables the forces, that have the potential to undercut its foundations,
thereby conserving that society and dimming any prospects of its overhaul.
The pursuit of happiness
So, if we work harder and get richer, what are the pleasures that the individualised
society offers? What kind of recognition can we expect to receive?
The Financial Times – obligatory daily reading of the high and mighty, as well as the
more numerous also-rans who dream of joining them – publishes once a month a
glossy supplement called ‘How to spend it’, ‘It’ means money, (Or, rather, the cash left
over after all the investments promising yet more cash have been taken care of, and
debts paid on enormous house-and-garden and household bills, bespoke tailors’
invoices, ex-partners’ alimony dues and the Bentley) In other words, ‘it’ refers to
that margin of free choice at the far end of all the necessities of the high and mighty
lifestyle. ‘It’ is the hoped-for reward for all those days filled with nerve-wrecking
and hazardous choices, and the sleepless nights haunted by the horror of bets going
wrong, ‘It’ is that joy which makes the pain worth suffering, ‘It’ stands for happiness.
Or, rather, for that hope for happiness that is happiness.
Ann Rippin made the effort to browse through successive issues of the ‘How
to spend it’ magazine, to find out what ‘a modern young man in the ascendant’ is
offered as the material source/token/evidence of happiness achieved.^ As expected,
all the suggested roads to happiness lead through shops, restaurants, massage parlours
and other sites where money can be spent. And this is big money indeed: £30,000
pounds for a bottle of brandy, or a wine room at £75,000, in which to store it, in the
company of other bottles, for the enchantment of friends invited to visit it and admire.
But on the top of the prices that are sure to keep out almost the entire human race,
some shops and restaurants have something extra to offer, something that will prevent
even more of the race from showing up anywhere near their doors: a secret address,
excruciatingly difficult to obtain, and bestowing on the very, very few who are let in
on it the heavenly feeling of ‘having been chosen’ – having been lifted to heights
beyond the dreams of ordinary mortals. This is the kind of feeling once experienced
by mystics as they listened to angelic messengers announcing divine grace, but in our
down-to-earth, ‘happiness-now!’ era it is seldom available through shortcuts that
bypass the shops.
One of the permanent contributors to ‘How to spend it’ explains that what makes
some exorbitantly costly perfumes ‘so beguiling’ is the fact that they ‘have been kept
under wraps for loyal clients’. As well as an unusual fragrance, they offer an olfactory
emblem of magnificence, and of belonging to the company of the magnificent. As
Ann Rippin suggests, this and similar kinds of bliss offer the combination of
belonging to an exclusive category and the badge of supreme taste and
connoisseurship – the knowledge of being among the selected few. Delights of the
palate, eye, ear, nose and fingers are multiplied by the knowledge that so few others
savour them. Is it the sense of privilege that makes the high and mighty happy? Is
progress towards happiness to be measured by thinning out the bevy of fellow
travellers?
Rippin finds such ways of reaching the state of happiness to be at best only half
successful: the momentary joys they bring dissolve, vanishing quickly into long- term
anxiety. The fantasy world spun by the editors of ‘How to spend it’ is marked by
fragility and impermanence: ‘the struggle for legitimacy through magnificence and
excess implies instability and vulnerability’. The occupants of the fantasy world are
aware that they can never have enough, or be good enough, to be safe. ‘Consumption
leads not to surety and satiety but to escalating anxiety. Enough can never be enough’.
As one of the ‘How to spend it’ contributors warns, in a world in which ‘everyone’ can
afford a luxury car, those who really aim high ‘have no option but to go one better’.
This is what strikes you on taking a closer look at this way of pursuing happiness. But
not everyone takes such a look: the price of seats with good visibility is far beyond
the means of most of us. And the occasional glimpses we have of it, courtesy of Hello
and other celebrity-courting magazines, invite us to follow suit rather than warn us
against trying it. The message seems straightforward: the way to happiness is through
the shops, and the more exclusive the shops the greater the happiness reached.
Happiness means acquisition of things other people have no hope of acquiring.
Happiness needs one-upmanship …
High-street stores would not thrive were it not for the secret mews boutiques.
Exclusive boutiques sell different products, but send the same message/promise.
What the boutiques have done for the chosen few will surely lend authority and
credibility to the promises of their high-street copiers. And their promises are
strikingly alike: a promise make you ‘better than …’ – to enable you to overwhelm,
humiliate, demean and diminish the others, who dream of doing what you’ve done but
have failed. The promise of the universal one-upmanship rule working/or 3/ou …
Another high-end newspaper regularly reviews novelties from the computer games
market: and many of these computer games owe their popularity to the fun they offer
– safe and freely chosen rehearsals of the practice of one-upmanship, which in the real
world is as risky and dangerous as it is obligatory and unavoidable. Those games
allow you to do what you have been nudged towards or wished to do but haven’t –
because of your fear of getting wounded, or your conscientious objections to
wounding others. One such game, recommended as ‘ultimate carnage’ and a ‘last man
standing’ ‘demolition derby’, was enthusiastically reviewed as follows:
The most fun … are the events that demand you crash with the timing and precision to
hurl your rag doll of a driver through the windscreen and high into the air in one of
many arena events. From firing your hapless protagonist down enormous bowling
alleys to skimming him like a smooth pebble across vast expanses of water, each is in
equal measure ridiculous, violent and hilarious to play
Your dexterity against your protagonist’s ‘haplessness’ is what makes one-upmanship
such fun and so ‘hilarious’. Your ego-boosting has been obtained at the expense
of the protagonist’s humiliation. Your dexterity would be only half as gratifying,
and much less fun, without the rag-doll protagonist being hurled through the
windscreen while you stay safely in the driver seat.
Happiness in a society of individuals
Max Scheler noted as early as 1912 that the average person only appreciates value ‘in
the course of, and through comparison with’ the possessions, condition, plight
or quality of other people.** The snag here is that a side effect of such comparison
quite often involves a discovery of our non-possession of some value that we then
come to appreciate. That discovery – and even more the awareness that acquisition
and enjoyment of this value is beyond our capacity – arouses strong sentiments. It
triggers two opposite but equally vigorous reactions: an overwhelming desire for the
unattainable object; and ressentiment – rancour, and derision of the value in question,
together with its possessors, as a means of warding off feelings of self-depreciation
and self-contempt. We may note that the experience of humiliation, composed as it is
of contradictory sentiments, begets a highly ambivalent attitude – a prototypical
‘cognitive dissonance’. Experiencing these contradictory feelings fuels a hotbed of
irrational behaviour, and helps construct an impenetrable fortress against the
arguments of reason; they are also a source of perpetual anxiety and spiritual
discomfort.
As Max Scheler anticipated, a great number of our contemporaries are afflicted
in this way The ailment is contagious, and few denizens of the liquid modern
society of consumers are fully immune. Our vulnerability is unavoidable (and
probably incurable) in a society in which relative equality of political and other rights
and formally acknowledged social equality go hand in hand with enormous
differentiations in genuine power, possessions and education – a society in which
everyone ‘has the right’ to consider themselves equal to everybody else, but without in
fact possessing the ability to be equal (see Scheler, p41). In such a society,
vulnerability is (at least potentially) universal And this universal vulnerability,
together with the universal temptation of one-upmanship, vidth which it is intimately
related, reflects the unresolvable inner contradiction of a society that sets a standard
of happiness for all its members which most are unable to match.
Epictetus, a Roman slave self-transformed into a founder of the school of Stoical
philosophy put forward some advice that could had been addressed to individuals in
our society of consumers (since it is couched in a language they would easily
understand, and resorts to metaphors uniquely resonant with their own worldview,
even if it is not particularly in tune with their inclinations and preferences);
Think of your life as if it were a banquet where you would behave graciously. When
dishes are passed to you, extend your hand and help Soundings
yourself to a moderate portion. If a dish should pass you by, enjoy what is already on
your plate. Or if the dish hasn’t been passed to you yet, patiently wait for your turn.
Carry over the same attitude of polite restraint and gratitude to your children, spouse,
career and finances. There is no need to yearn, envy, and grab. You will get your
rightful portion when it is your time.
The trouble is that our society of consumers does everything imaginable to
undermine any belief in Epictetus’s reassuring promise, and for that reason his advice
– to be reticent, abstemious and cautious – is very difficult to accept. And our society
of consumers also does everything imaginable to make the practising of Epictetus’s
advice a daunting task.
It is not, however, impossible. Society can (and does) render certain choices less
likely to be taken by humans than others. But no society can completely deprive
humans of choice.

 

 

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