“Fyodorov used to say that the dead had to be resurrected,mankind should set impossible tasks for itself, and after its rebirth, mankind would exit earth as if from a waiting room, and leisurely take over the cosmos.” – From Victor Shklovsky’s Energy of Delusion
LI has not read Nikolai Fyodorov’s Common Task of Mankind, in which he envisions our collective human energies devoted to resurrecting the dead and such. However, I would not laugh too hard at the project of resurrecting dead as the impossible task that humanity has set for itself, since it is my contention that humanity has set itself an equally impossible task, with equally unthought of but horrendous consequences – the spread of happiness to all peoples at all times. To each his obsessions; mine, of course, is to find out how the norm of happiness came to be the heuristic upon which we all agree, the ultimate reference for the political.
David Leonardt’s column Wednesday took up some papers that dispute the Easterlin paradox. According to research by Richard Easterlin, over time, as societies grow richer (as, for instance, Japanese society), polls indicate that populations don’t necessarily grow happier. The shorthand for this is that more money doesn’t bring more happiness. This has a gladsome sound to the Lefty ear, for more money is connected with more monopoly capitalism, and who wants monopoly capitalism? But Easterlin’s conclusion and data base have been attacked by Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers of the Brookings Institute:
“In the paper, Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers argue that money indeed tends to bring happiness, even if it doesn’t guarantee it. They point out that in the 34 years since Mr. Easterlin published his paper, an explosion of public opinion surveys has allowed for a better look at the question. “The central message,” Ms. Stevenson said, “is that income does matter.”
To see what they mean, take a look at the map that accompanies this column. It’s based on Gallup polls done around the world, and it clearly shows that life satisfaction is highest in the richest countries. The residents of these countries seem to understand that they have it pretty good, whether or not they own an iPod Touch.
If anything, Ms. Stevenson and Mr. Wolfers say, absolute income seems to matter more than relative income. In the United States, about 90 percent of people in households making at least $250,000 a year called themselves “very happy” in a recent Gallup Poll. In households with income below $30,000, only 42 percent of people gave that answer. But the international polling data suggests that the under-$30,000 crowd might not be happier if they lived in a poorer country.”
At this point, the traditional move is to criticize the quality of the happiness of those very happy rich people. For instance, take this householder who wrote in to a Q and A at the Washington Post today about threats to his income:
“Arlington, Va.: Who is in this working class? I make $150,000 a year and my wife makes $100,000 a year. I work 50 hours a week and my wife works 45 hours a week. We have investments we have made, but we do not live off these investments. We are both first in our families to be college-educated and have worked hard to get where we are at 32 and 31. Why are we not considered working-class?
In addition, Obama and Clinton want to increase the Social Security, income and investment taxes. Where in the Constitution does it say that people like my wife and I have to support people who did not plan wisely (housing bailout, retirement and health care). I don't mind paying my fair share, but my family is not living off inheritance, and has worked hard to get where we are. Why are we not being viewed as working-class for having some self-made success? Will this class warfare work? It blew up on the Democrats in '00 and '04.”
I imagine one could say, we have to discourage that man and his wife from putting in 95 hours a week at 32 and 31 to make their 250 thou per year. One could say that this is a recipe for unhappiness. But I don’t think so. I think this is a recipe for a disastrous, total happiness. I think that that much money combined with that much work might well make happiness the cancer that eats up all other emotions, leaving the man and his wife liable only to the panic that someone might take away some of their pile. I think that year after year, the drunkenness of happiness will so fill their souls that the addiction will be too great to ever break.
Mankind’s common task, which, say, Malthus, in 1800 would have every right to look at as a crazy and impossible dream, is now a social reality. Within our society of artifice and technology, the structures of happiness rise, triumphant, on every hand. And the people that are born and bred into this structure even have many virtues. They are more peaceful. They are prey to fits of anger, but generally sober in their habits. They have lost any sense of public spirit, but, within the narrow confines of their private sphere, they are generous when they can be.
So what is there to bitch about? Well, I dream of a new impossible common task, in which finally emotion is separated from the moral norm – in which the range of emotions that the human beast can produce find a more ample and unashamed representation in the material relations that bind together our society. In which, in other words, ennui, melancholy, anger, dread, and the vast block of nameless, mixed moods that surround reflection are not viewed as opening acts for the happiness we all strive for – since we do not all strive for happiness. Since that striving makes little sense. Since it is founded on a very imprecise sense of what happiness is (a judgment about life? a passing mood?). Finally, I do not think there is any evidence whatsoever that we naturally strive for happiness except in certain circumstances, just as we strive for this or that feeling. It is one among many, not a thing to justify a social order or a life.
To talk about the dead is a waste of time.
I can’t think of a better subject