Cats and Theories
a blog by coticheque
a blog by coticheque

Capitalism and happiness

Capitalism is not bad. Free-market economy is obviously not perfect, but we can work with it. What we know for sure is that capitalism provides the most prosperity and freedom to societies that adopt it, and seems to be on track of making the production so efficient that soon we’ll witness the very death of work and the workplace.

Even though the slogan ‘Arbeit macht frei’ is discredited by Nazis, it bears truth: labor indeed has an emancipatory value. Despite the claims of Rousseau, the natural state is far from pleasant: it comes with natural cataclysms, famine, and disease. Through the creative transformation of nature and the centuries of hard work, the humankind has luckily eliminated most of that misery. The mandatory labor is obviously unpleasant. Perhaps only the Protestant ethics managed to present it in positive light. Unfortunately, we don’t live in the century where the full freedom from labor is achieved yet, but I’m sure it’s inevitable. Even Marx envisaged it (assigning it to the wrong methods), saying that a future man would ‘hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, and criticize after dinner’.

How to use this freedom is another question though. Under the current state of capitalism, humans essentially find some of their desires unsatisfied, and start criticizing the system itself for not providing the ultimate happiness (once again, that’s the genesis of communism). Other people embrace capitalism to the fullest, and assume it can satisfy all their wants. Some use corporate career as an outlet for thymotic pursuits (the desire for recognition). The modern version of Calvinist work ethics has replaced God with the Self, portraying work as something to fulfill that Self: though professional development, personal growth, and self-realization through career. Some find it satisfactory to be a VP in a multinational corporation (mainly those who love competitiveness and don’t have many outside interests). Others feel that something is lacking. Depending on who they blame for not feeling happy, themselves or others, antidepressants and communism are the most common remedies.

My suggestion is that the system is great, and its existing flaws are explained by the fact that we’re not quite there yet. Moreover, I argue that it’s never actually been a part of the system design to address all human needs in the first place. Their fulfillment has to be sought elsewhere. At least at the current stage.

But let’s start with the flaws.

Obviously, Marx criticized capitalism for the sense of alienation that it creates. Due to the labor specialization, workers don’t feel any meaningful connection with the products of their work. He proposed communism as a remedy. Alas, in practice communism didn’t solve the original problem (while creating dozens of new ones): the issue of alienation lied not in the type of economic system, but in the very fact of its economic efficiency: if you want a worker to be responsible for the entire chain of product manufacturing, you have to return to the primitive economy with craftsmanship and workshops at its core, while abolishing factories and corporations. Which is not anyone would wish for, apart from perhaps regressive conservatives, traditionalists, and fanboys of Rene Guenon.

In my view, the most meaningful criticism of the modern world was formulated by Hannah Arendt. She doesn’t criticize capitalism per se, but all modern political and economic systems in general: for subjugating all human activities in public sphere to the mere pursuit of economic efficiency (which essentially equals to preoccupation with life maintenance). Whether capitalism or communism, the public domain is practically free of creative activity, meaningful work or public political action, but is fully serving economic life, the purpose of which is to mainly take care of biological needs of the population and preserve the physical world for the future generations. It’s assumed that a worker can take care of the rest at home. But can he? Traditionally, home has always been a private domain, a place where an individual takes care of his profane trivial needs. This shouldn’t be treated as end, but as means, for something more virtuous, more noble. However, in the modern society individuals exchange their labor for this. So Hannah Arendt argues that what we get in the end is sort of a vicious, pointless circle: a modern man works to sustain the economy of life maintenance, and spends free time to take care of his biological needs and regenerate energy for yet another day of work.

How to address this problem? Arendt drew inspiration from Ancient Greece, where the public sphere was mostly dedicated to intellectual life: political debates, democratic deliberations, philosophizing about abstract matters. Great solution, but not entirely compatible with the modern-day capitalism. Is there any remedy that fits into the current regime? Arendt developed a concept of natality, the unique human capacity to start a new beginning and introduce novelty in the world. ‘The beginning that each of us represents by virtue of being born is actualized every time we act, that is, every time we begin something new.‘ I would call it creativity.

Nature is meaningless. Only human activity creates meaning. Therefore, to fight alienation, one has to create something that he’s entirely responsible for, from the beginning to an end. Creative activity is the only virtuous way of living. I have argued about it many times before: for example, here and here. And no, childbearing is not a meaningful activity.

Easy, you may say. But easier said than done. Capitalism has obviously sprung countless creative spheres, from art and literature to design and entrepreneurship. Yet, these spheres seem far and unreachable from the perspective of an ordinary life. An average man of the 21st century doesn’t ‘criticize after dinner’ or create art after lunch.

I think what aggravates the problem is yet another inherent human trait, which capitalism unfortunately amplifies to a concerning extent. As Aldous Huxley described it, ‘humans have an infinite appetite for distractions’. So the thing that replaces meaningful creative activity in the modern society is an endless entertainment provided by numerous industries: from TV and Netflix to social media. One of the largest sectors in modern economy is tech, with companies the sole business model of which depends on attracting human attention: for the sake of selling ads through maximizing clicks and page views. Huxley envisaged Soma. We got antidepressants and social media instead.

As we already started to speak about Aldous Huxley, I’ve always found amusing the comparison of utopian future depicted by George Orwell in 1984 and by Huxley in the Brave New World – originally written by Neal Postman and later illustrated by Stuart McMillen. As properly noted, Huxley’s representation of the future is far more similar to the world of the 21st century: the reality of which is not totalitarian, but merely shallow and alienated. In the Brave New World, there was no reason to ban a book, because there’s ‘no one who would want to read it’. The truth doesn’t need to be concealed, it will be ‘drowned in the sea of irrelevance’. We will become a ‘trivial culture’ because of man’s ‘infinite appetite for distractions’. Ultimately, not what we hate but ‘what we love will ruin us’.

I think one of the reasons why neverending entertainment is so normative and mainstream, and why creative activity is so rarely conducted is that it’s shoved away into the realm of private, under the personal responsibility of everyone without any given support or guidelines. But not everyone is skilled in the philosophy of Hannah Arendt. So what we really need are public institutions that would incentivize people to reroute their energy into more productive streams.

If I was a dictator in the perfect society of the future, I would establish the following laws. In order to avoid the destiny of Huxlean society of the Brave New World, there will be a limit on consumption of information for entertainment. Life is not for endless fun, there’re unresolved questions out there that won’t figure themselves out. People therefore will be encouraged to produce content rather than to consume it. Of course, it would be a bit too authoritarian to have policies like in modern China that put a limit on the use of video games through governmental API and tracking of screen time. What needs to be done instead is to occupy people with better things.

Under capitalism, ‘the public sphere dissolves into the private’, so the process needs to be reverted. The freedom of associations should become not just an option, but a requirement. Everyone will be forced to associate with at least 2 or 3 circles the main purposes of which would be to conduct creative or intellectual activity. The focus of it should not be some dumb crufts, but art and rhetoric. Let’s re-enchant the world, as it’s still full of beauty and mystery – this time not with religion, but through art and philosophy, through fascination with science and space, and the world that they open. Nietzsche predicted that the history will end with the Last Men, slaves without any desire or ability to create their own values: ‘Men with hollow chests’. We cannot let this prophecy come true.

So I would establish a mandatory participation in the book clubs and clubs of political debates, philosophy courses and film schools. For a year, one can study the art of Luchino Visconti or Michelangelo Antonioni and learn film criticism. Another year could be spent studying the philosophy of mind and its application to practical life and science. Researching the art of Francis Bacon or the architecture of modernism. Like in Ancient Greece, discord and confrontation should be normalized. Public debates need to become mandatory. We can argue about the virtue of justice or about urbanism, trying to figure out how perfect urban habitats would look life. Let’s strive for writing novels. Creating kinetic sculptures, continuing the pursuits of Jean Tinguely. Watching documentaries of Werner Herzog, and obtain budget and equipment to travel to some unknown corner of the world and capture what’s going on there. Debating over ethics and aesthetics. Or starting with something small: like researching the industrial design of Bauhaus and reinventing shapes of kettles.

The public life should once again become dedicated to intellectual and creative pursuits. Without a backbone, everything becomes an endless unfulfilling entertainment. Instead of consuming content, people should seek to create it. I already see it as the main divisor in society of the future, where the division by economic class will be replaced by division of people by what they do: either consume content or create it. The latter should therefore be addressed already now and hopefully institutionalized. If not done today, I envisage that it would become an even greater problem in society of the future, when the humankind will find itself in less and less need of labor. The burden of free time will become heavier. If we don’t want future generations to become ‘deadheaded’ by consuming even more entertaining content, we should create institutions that would redirect human energy to more meaningful action and provide people with outlets for expressing their most human aspirations. Only this can fight alienation of the modern world – through the pursuit of ‘eudaemonia’, healthiness of the soul, and utilization of the most noble and virtuous capacities that we humans are born with.

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