How capitalism manufactures 'happy' citizens

April 22, 2020
Cover of Manufacturing happy citizens how the science and industry of happiness control our lives
Cover of Manufacturing Happy Citizens

Manufacturing Happy Citizens:
How the Science and Industry of Happiness Control our Lives
By Edgar Cabanas & Eva Illouz,
Polity Press, 2019

* * *

Sociology and critical theory are at their best when they reveal anew what we take most for granted. Who in their right mind would have anything critical to say about happiness? Edgar Cabanas and Eva Illouz certainly do.

Taking the reader through a well-researched piece of scholarly work, Cabanas and Illouz convincingly demonstrate that the modern subject is continuously bombarded by injunctions of wellbeing, satisfaction, happiness, self-management and self-fulfilment. The book is, of course, not arguing against happiness per se, so much as it is questioning the socio-economic function these injunctions and overall discourse of happiness serve.

The authors “understand happiness not as an emotion so much as a specific and normative model of selfhood defined primarily in psychological and emotional terms and strongly imbricated in and shaped by the market”.

They argue the discourse of happiness helps the worker internalise corporate control and minimise the importance of objective working conditions, which in turn makes exploitation more tolerable. The happy citizen is asked to be happy without making any actual changes, which conveniently aligns rather well with political conservatism.

The aim is squarely directed at positive psychology and happiness science, whose genealogy Cabanas and Illouz skilfully present.

They do not limit themselves to "following the money", showing the close ties the "scholarly" side of these disciplines has had with the state and powerful industry funds. They also highlight the commodification of self-help in ever-growing bookshop corners, conference halls and seminar retreats, with all its corollary guru-talk and personality cults.

But perhaps most interestingly, they also point out how, historically speaking, allures of neutrality, objectivity and science have inevitably weighted in favour of the socio-political status quo.

According to the two authors, it is precisely by “practising as valid and universal what the individualistic, utilitarian and therapeutic worldview of neoliberalism has already presumed to be true and desirable for individuals and societies alike” that positive psychology and happiness economics draw the bulk of their cultural power and scientific authority.

“Positive psychologists and happiness scientists, do not simply describe [happiness], but rather shape and prescribe it. It escapes no one how convenient it seems that the psychological profile of the happy person portrayed by happiness advocates, and further spread and channelled through the market, match almost perfectly the self-made, self-managed and self-determined neoliberal portrait of the ideal citizen”.

For example, a cross-cultural study in positive psychology found “individualism was the variable that most strongly correlated to happiness”. Apparently, “individualistic cultures tend to produce citizens with higher levels of life-satisfaction than non-individualistic or collective cultures”, because they have “more freedom to choose [their] own life course and are more likely to attribute success to themselves.”

One is left wondering what amount of objective science is left in the propaganda of the presumably well-meaning positive psychologists.

The problem, of course, is that it "sells"; we have all internalised these "truths" to such an extent that when "scientists" confirm what we knew all along, there isn’t an inkling of unease. And if there is, it must be because we are being "critical" or "negative", which itself apparently goes against the ideology of happiness.

And here we begin to grasp the risks associated with such an uncritically happy approach to struggle, “the alluring promise of complete self-management easily turns into a threat: not engaging in constant self-surveillance entails the danger of becoming unhappy and unruly beings that do not care much about themselves”.

The happy citizen must take full responsibility for their emotional state and social status, independent of their material condition and must continue to perform their "authentic" happy self, perfectly formatted to their happiness app or self-help program’s requirements. If they are lucky, they will be good at this and will in turn be able to commodify and broadcast their "lifestyle success" in yet other apps and books, selling the wonderful commodities and programs that helped them get there. For the others: keep trying, working and buying.

And so, the self is emptied from its communal and political content, replaced by a narcissistic self-concern, stigmatising any kind of negativity, anger or resentment, thereby erasing the possibilities for a challenge to the status quo and the collective construction of socio-political change.

In the face of individualistic, ahistorical and apolitical ideological hegemony, there must be a resisting communal, historical and political materialism. Cabanas and Illouz do rather well on most counts and their exposé is robust.

Nevertheless, I would have appreciated a little more systematic theoretical articulation of the various arguments made, for example, further development and integration of the inversion of United States psychologist Abraham Maslow’s pyramid under this "happy" neoliberalism.

But, above all, the book is lacking a minimal material and historical framing of why happiness was co-opted to support the production side of capital accumulation (that is, happy, self-managed workers) after it had already been co-opted to support the consumption side earlier in the 20th century (that is, commodities promising happiness).

As it stands, the empirical research provided to show the rise of positive psychology and happiness science, without its historical and material theoretical framing, presents as a "conspiracy theory" orchestrated by knowingly dishonest and greedy scientists and capitalists.

We catch a glimpse of what is happening at a deeper level here and there, for example: “what companies do to make themselves secure is precisely what makes their workers feel insecure.” But the first part of that sentence is not given any attention, thereby refusing to capital the exact structural logic that the authors argue is at work for workers.

There is good reason for this to occur: it is a political struggle after all and ideological hegemony must be fought. However, if the pursuit is knowledge, we should not fall prey to the same reductions "capitalist science" falls prey to.

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