[Marxism] Don’t join a union, pop a pill

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Wed Oct 14 16:26:17 MDT 2015

London Review of Books Vol. 37 No. 20 · 22 October 2015
Don’t join a union, pop a pill
by Katrina Forrester

Happiness Industry: How the Government and Big Business Sold Us 
Wellbeing by William Davies
Verso, 314 pp, £16.99, May, ISBN 978 1 78168 845 8

‘What’s on your mind?’ Each day, the 968 million people who log in to 
Facebook are asked to share their thoughts with its giant data bank. A 
dropdown menu of smilies invites you to update ‘how you’re feeling’. 
‘Excited’ is the first option, ‘happy’ is the second. If they don’t fit, 
you can scroll down and pick from 120 other moods, including ‘fed up’, 
‘anxious’ or ‘stuffed’. Facebook has made no secret of the fact that it 
passes our personal information and preferences to ad companies, 
branding agencies and governments. In 2014, we learned that it also 
gathers data about our moods, and ran experiments in manipulating them 
by tailoring users’ newsfeeds to be more happy or more sad. By 
translating subjective expressions of feeling into objective data, 
Facebook is in the business of making what goes on in our heads 
knowable, legible and marketable.

Facebook’s capacity for surveillance may be unparalleled, but its 
interest in measuring, monitoring and managing our feelings isn’t. 
Psychologists and behavioural economists gather data about feelings from 
a range of sources, online and off, in an effort to understand and 
better predict people’s decision-making. Their findings are used by 
companies to help them sell things and by governments to make policy. In 
2010, the Cabinet Office set up a Behavioural Insights Team (or ‘Nudge 
Unit’), which used behavioural research to ‘design policies or 
interventions that can encourage, support and enable people to make 
better choices for themselves and society’. Now a partly privatised 
company which sells its research to government departments, the Nudge 
Unit has been adopted as a model in the US and Australia. Behavioural 
scientists in such institutions are particularly interested in 
monitoring levels of ‘happiness’. The view that happiness can’t be 
quantified – that emotional life is not the stuff of politics, economics 
or science – is not shared by what William Davies calls the ‘happiness 
industry’, that constellation of psychologists and economists seeking to 
maximise happiness; neuroscientists developing increasingly 
sophisticated tools for measuring it; doctors and psychiatrists 
prescribing drugs to induce it; and publishers filling their lists with 
books telling you how to achieve it.

When governments today take an interest in happiness, Davies says, they 
continue a project that began 250 years ago with Jeremy Bentham’s 
conviction that political decision-making should be based not on empty 
philosophical notions – ‘rights’, ‘obligation’, ‘duty’ – but on ‘real 
entities’, specifically pains and pleasures, which can be apprehended 
directly. As Davies sees it, Bentham was the inventor of ‘evidence-based 
policy-making’. The 18th-century forebears of utilitarianism and 
classical political economy like Hume and Adam Smith had doubted that we 
could understand much about other people, but didn’t think that that 
mattered much. Common psychological characteristics could be assumed, 
and social conventions and rules of exchange would serve to co-ordinate 
human behaviour and improve citizens’ wellbeing. Bentham was more 
optimistic: he believed it was possible to get reliable knowledge about 
human psychology. Happiness in particular, unlike the intangible 
philosophical categories that he dismissed, had a largely physical 
basis, its quantity determined by the presence of pleasure and the 
absence of pain. He proposed a classification of 12 ‘pains’ and 14 
‘pleasures’, which could in principle be measured, compared and 
aggregated according to his ‘felicific calculus’, which was to be used 
by legislators to devise policy in accordance with his utility 
principle: that the ‘greatest happiness for the greatest number … is the 
measure of right and wrong.’ The reference to the ‘greatest number’ was 
the salient part of the principle: what benefited the majority mattered 
more than individual happiness (one thing he thought would increase the 
general happiness of London was a proper sewage system).

Partly because he was as interested in social reform as in individual 
psychology, Bentham paid more attention to the classification of 
pleasures than their measurement. But, according to Davies, the 
solutions proposed by Bentham and his more mathematically minded heirs 
to the problem of how to measure our inner thoughts ‘set the stage for 
the entangling of psychological research and capitalism’. They came up 
with two possibilities: ‘Money or the body,’ as Davies puts it, 
‘economics or physiology. Payment or diagnosis.’ Money could be used to 
attribute value: when you put a price on something, you assume it has 
the same value, or utility, as something else with the same price. The 
body could yield ‘measurable symptoms of what the mind was 
experiencing’: when a physical diagnosis is attached to a psychological 
experience, what appears to be unique to one person can be compared with 
the experience of others. Both methods provide an objective, impersonal 
measure of subjective, personal experience.

In the late 19th century, economists started to formulate increasingly 
technical models of consumer choice and exchange. For these early 
‘neoclassical’ economists, the question of what it was possible to know 
about individual wants and desires was central. Francis Edgeworth 
thought the new science of experimental psychology would give us access 
to people’s minds as well as information about particular psychological 
qualities. He proposed a tool – a ‘hedonometer’ – that would measure 
utility in the mind and body; the results would be fed into equations 
and used to decide social policy. Another influential economist, William 
Stanley Jevons, wasn’t convinced: ‘Every mind’, he wrote, is 
‘inscrutable to every other mind, and no common denominator of feeling 
seems to be possible’. So far as Jevons was concerned, if you couldn’t 
do it scientifically, you shouldn’t do it at all. Inner thoughts were 
relevant only to the extent that they explained the value of external 
objects – of goods to be consumed.

Economists after Jevons distanced themselves from psychology, starting 
instead from the idea that man is defined by his preferences. If his 
choices are consistent, we can take him to be rational: what is required 
isn’t access to the mind, merely observation of behaviour. 
Utilitarianism in its classical, psychological, Benthamite form hadn’t 
lasted long. Instead, the foundation of economics became the much 
simpler picture of man as a blank slate and rational decision-maker: 
homo economicus. New ‘maximising’ theories gained currency: individuals, 
according to economists, sought to maximise their utility; governments, 
according to political philosophers, sought to maximise the general 
welfare of their citizens. The state, here, wasn’t concerned with 
citizens’ happiness: how they felt wasn’t any of its business.

Such psychological scepticism didn’t stop governments and businesses 
trying to find out as much about people as they could. One of the major 
ideological divides in 20th-century politics was over what kinds of 
knowledge were possible, how they could be gathered and used, and who 
should do the gathering – experts or the market. On one side were those, 
like Hayek, who brought the scepticism of economic theory to bear on 
politics, arguing that since we couldn’t know much about what 
individuals want, it was best to leave decisions to them. Individual 
knowledge couldn’t be collected and co-ordinated by a central authority; 
instead, the price mechanism would dictate the allocation of resources. 
Systems of exchange – above all, the market – universalised individual 
subjective experiences: there was no need for a cadre of experts to 
manage them. On the other side were those who thought that states, 
corporations and businesses had the means to acquire knowledge about 
what made individuals tick. The psychology of workers, the desires of 
consumers, the habits of housewives, the wellbeing of citizens: all 
could be measured through surveys, polling and other data-gathering 
instruments. The popularisation of psychoanalysis made the workings of 
the mind seem more accessible, and amenable to manipulation by the 
‘hidden persuaders’ of the advertising industry. Over the course of the 
century, experimental psychologists came to treat individuals like 
animals, tracking people’s behaviour as if they were rats in a lab. The 
task of experts was to amass and use knowledge about what people were 
like and how they could be improved – allowing businesses to be made 
more efficient, production optimised, economies planned.

According to Davies, the old faultlines have now dissolved. Psychology 
and economics were reunited forty years ago with the emergence of 
behavioural economics, which acknowledges that humans are not only or 
not always self-interested utility-maximisers (Amartya Sen described 
homo economicus as a ‘rational fool’), but social, moral and emotional 
animals too; studies of economic ‘irrationality’ now proliferate.

Experts and the market are no longer seen to be alternatives as 
collectors of data. We are complicit with our own surveillance, willing 
to give information about what makes us happy to anyone who asks and 
even to those who don’t, through smart watches, fit-bits, Facebook and 
Twitter. Social media platforms and websites hosting viral content such 
as Buzzfeed are renowned for ‘click-bait’ marketing techniques that 
amass more knowledge about us than 20th-century pollsters and surveyors 
could have dreamed possible. The internet allows markets to seep into 
places they weren’t always able to reach, and makes the kinds of 
psychological information once thought irrelevant to markets readily 
available to them.


We are, Davies believes, riding a new wave of scientific optimism. 
Advances in behavioural psychology and brain science have sparked fresh 
enthusiasm for the belief that there is a psychological state called 
happiness, and that it can be quantified. A digital hedonometer has been 
built: hedonometer.org takes a sample of ‘roughly a hundred million 
words per day’ from Twitter and other data sources, and assigns all of 
them a ‘happiness score’, in order to measure ‘patterns of happiness’. 
Part of the impetus for measuring happiness is the perception that the 
metrics currently used to measure socio-economic activity are 
insufficient. GDP measures economic performance, not wellbeing or 
‘national happiness’. According to the OECD’s guidelines, issued in 
2013, on how to measure and use data on subjective wellbeing, happiness 
is influenced by income, but only up to a point. Happiness indices are 
strategically useful to the likes of climate-change activists and 
anti-growth ecologists. If putting an end to climate change requires us 
to adopt a low (or zero) growth economy, and we don’t need economic 
growth to be happy, then the case can be made that slowing growth to the 
point necessary to save the climate needn’t be at the cost of our 
wellbeing. To take another example, we know that being unemployed has a 
bad effect on self-esteem, so if a government’s aim is to maximise 
happiness, it should pursue a policy of full employment. This, though, 
is an example of how the argument can cut both ways. If Cameron’s 
happiness agenda came to anything (and it didn’t come to much) it was to 
supply a neat justification for workfare: if work itself is what makes 
us happy, then there’s no need for work to be waged.

In any case, what exactly is it that’s being measured? Happiness remains 
a slippery idea. When we talk about ‘wellbeing’, health is usually what 
we have in mind, but philosophers and economists have for centuries used 
it as a more general term to describe things that are ‘good for’ people 
– the personal, social, cultural, political and economic factors that 
make our individual and collective lives worth living. In contemporary 
‘happiness studies’, definitions focus more on the individual than the 
collective, and are more directly concerned with psychological 
experience. The psychologist Daniel Kahneman defines ‘objective 
happiness’ at a given moment as the extent to which you want the 
experience you are having at that point to continue. ‘Subjective 
wellbeing’ is a broader metric, encompassing ‘general satisfaction with 
life’ and balance of ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ feelings. Or, as Richard 
Layard, the behavioural economist who did much to increase provision for 
mental health services as New Labour’s ‘happiness tsar’, put it in a 
lecture in 2003, ‘By happiness I mean feeling good – enjoying life and 
feeling it is wonderful. And by unhappiness I mean feeling bad and 
wishing things were different.’

The surveys and first-person reports that supply the data for happiness 
studies suggest that most people are broadly satisfied with their lives. 
Happiness is normal: if you are happy, you are healthy. But to see 
happiness in this way is also to think of unhappiness as a pathology, a 
psychological or mental state amenable to behavioural and medical 
intervention. This is the logic that underpins the growth of the 
‘happiness industry’. It is increasingly influential in health and 
education policy: if you’re not happy, wish things were different, or 
find it hard to adapt to the conditions of modern life, you may be 
diagnosed as suffering from a mental illness. Today depression is the 
most common pathology of happiness (though there are many other anxiety 
disorders), and many cases will be treated either with antidepressants, 
or with cognitive behavioural therapy designed to help sufferers get 
back on their feet quickly – software now exists that cuts out the need 
for a therapist. A cluster of new approaches to psychological health 
have lately become popular. ‘Positive psychology’ is a technique for 
challenging negative thinking. ‘Mindfulness’ makes use of Buddhist forms 
of meditation to reduce stress and promote wellness (at the World 
Economic Forum in Davos last year, 25 of the conference sessions 
addressed questions of ‘wellness’ and delegates were invited to meditate 
every morning). ‘Resilience’ training, intended to help individuals cope 
and adapt in difficult situations, has been introduced in some schools. 
For Freud, the ‘pathological’ was on a continuum with the ‘normal’; 
making the sick well didn’t mean making them happy, but as he famously 
said, turning ‘hysterical misery into common unhappiness’. Many people 
are unhappy for good reasons, which the new therapeutic practices of the 
happiness industry largely ignore. They prefer to deal with symptoms 
rather than causes, and aim not to cure people but to enable them to 
live fitter, happier, more productive lives.

Davies’s concern is to show that by making us more resilient and more 
productive, the happiness industry tricks us into settling for too 
little. It encourages us to address social and economic problems with 
bodily fixes, ‘blaming – and medicating – individuals for their own 
misery’ and ignoring ‘the context that has contributed to it’. This is 
true whether the causes are personal or socio-economic. The new 
Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders (DSM-V) classes 
grief following a bereavement, if it lasts for longer than a couple of 
months, as a mental disorder. Where once the solution to unhappiness at 
work was social reform and collective action, now it’s individual uplift 
and ‘resilience’; when we want to resist, we don’t join a union but call 
in sick. If you lose your job and feel demoralised at the prospect of 
looking for a new one, that too might be a diagnosable condition. The 
government has plans to place therapists in Job Centres, and will offer 
online courses of CBT designed to help the unemployed think more 
positively; the DWP has denied that claimants would be sanctioned for 
refusing psychological treatment, the Guardian reported in June, but the 
Tory election manifesto said the opposite. A recent report backed by the 
Wellcome Trust described the rebranding of unemployment as a 
psychological disorder. ‘Claimants’ “attitude to work” is becoming a 
basis for deciding who is entitled to social security,’ one of its 
authors, Lynne Friedli, told the BBC. ‘By repackaging unemployment as a 
psychological problem, attention is diverted from the realities of the 
UK job market and any subsequent insecurities and inequalities it produces.’

Davies perceives in all this the final triumph of Bentham’s 
‘utilitarianism’ (a term he uses to describe an ideological tendency 
encompassing forms of behaviourism and neoliberalism, rather than a 
moral, political or economic theory of decision-making). He links the 
rise of happiness – and its twin, depression – to the competitive 
excesses of capitalism, which has established individual fulfilment, 
freedom and responsibility as norms. This explanation collapses a more 
recent, and more complicated, story about the origins of the happiness 
industry in the mid-20th century, when states became increasingly 
concerned with their populations’ welfare, and psychological and 
physiological health became more closely entwined. The historian Rhodri 
Hayward has pointed to the busmen’s strike of 1937 as a turning point in 
the British version of this story. The strike was settled with reference 
not to rights or custom but to concerns over the effects of stress on 
the workforce, as evidenced in company sickness returns. In the face of 
worries about morale and the possibility of mass psychiatric breakdown 
in the Second World War, the bureaucratic machinery of the welfare state 
turned to new ways of aggregating personal data, drawing on insurance 
claims and doctors’ records. Since then, the categories of mental health 
have been transformed by changes in drug licensing, in the beliefs of 
medical and psychiatric professionals (particularly the decline of 
psychoanalysis), and consumer marketing strategies. In wealthy 
countries, health has become an ethical imperative. Through diet and 
exercise we are more and more concerned with our own bodies. As the 
pharmaceutical industry continues to generate new disorders and the 
means of curing them, we consume more of its products than ever before.

Davies sees these forms of interference by experts and the surveillance 
apparatus they make possible as an affront to democracy. His antidote, 
proposed more in hope than expectation, is more democracy in the 
workplace. ‘Businesses which are organised around a principle of 
dialogue and co-operative control’ would, he writes, be a ‘starting 
point for a critical mind turned outwards on the world, and not inwards 
on itself’. Employee-owned businesses are ‘far less reliant on the forms 
of psychological control that managers of corporations have relied on 
since the 1920s’. There are difficulties in pitching the battle this 
way. Distrust of expertise can slip into a general squeamishness about 
quantification and measurement. Doubtless the tools of scientific and 
economic analysis have penetrated too deeply into our psychological and 
emotional lives, but without quantification it’s hard to draw up any 
kind of policy, let alone policies that might work for the benefit of 
the majority. Medicine is a particularly hard case. The links between 
health and profitability are difficult to cut: the drug companies which 
profit by pathologising ordinary experience, and which are largely to 
blame for the rise in diagnoses of depression, are also the entities 
best placed to bear the risk of creating and testing new drugs. 
Happiness and depression are tied up with capital in ways more concrete 
and more intractable than Davies allows.

Yet his analysis does also point beyond the opposition between democracy 
and expertise. Greater workplace democracy is an institutional solution 
to problems which, as Davies recognises, are no longer confined to 
traditional institutional frameworks. Surveillance is no longer simply 
something done to ‘us’ by ‘them’. Markets want to know more about us 
than the choices we make, and we are all too willing to give them the 
information they seek. We collaborate in our own surveillance; we rush 
to join new markets and ‘sharing economies’; we identify with the 
psychological categories that are marketed to us. The course of these 
developments cannot be altered by small-scale redistributions of power. 
Controlling the experts will itself require new forms of expertise.

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