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Cambridge Analytica and Popular Happiness Industry

Truth and happiness don’t go together – truth hurts, it brings instability, it ruins the smooth flow of our daily lives. The choice is ours: do we want to be happily manipulated or expose ourselves to the risks of authentic creativity?

by Slavoj Zizek

( April 18, 2018, London, Sri Lanka Guardian) Now that our media is full of reports and comments on Cambridge Analytica, a key feature of the affair is, as a rule, ignored: the context of Cambridge Analytica makes it clear how cold manipulation and the care for love and human welfare are two sides of the same coin. Tamsin Shaw recently pointed out the central role played by researchers into happiness, like "The World Well-Being Project, a group at the University of Pennsylvania’s Positive Psychology Center that specialises in the use of big data to measure health and happiness in order to improve well-being,” then there is “Aleksandr Kogan, who also works in the field of positive psychology and has written papers on happiness, kindness, and love (according to his résumé, an early paper was called ‘Down the Rabbit Hole: A Unified Theory of Love’).”

Why does such research on authentic happiness and well-being draw so much interest from intelligence agencies and defence contractors? This link is not externally imposed on the behavioural sciences by “bad” political manipulators but is implied by their immanent orientation: their aim is to discover “means by which we can be ‘nudged’ in the direction of our true well-being as positive psychologists understand it.” This “nudging” does not make individuals overcome their “irrationalities”: contemporary behavioural sciences “aim to exploit our irrationalities” since they view us “as manipulable subjects rather than rational agents.”

All this is extensively covered by our media, and we are getting a terrifying image of the new forms of social control which make the good old 20th-century “totalitarianism” a rather primitive and clumsy machine. To grasp the full scope of this control, we should move beyond the link between private corporations and political parties to the interpenetration of data processing companies like Google or Facebook and state security agencies. The biggest achievement of the new cognitive-military complex is that direct and obvious oppression is no longer necessary: individuals are much better controlled and “nudged” in the desired direction when they continue to experience themselves as free and autonomous agents of their own life.

But all these are well-known facts, and we have to go a step further. It is not enough to demystify the innocent-sounding research into happiness and to bring out a hidden gigantic complex of social control and manipulation that uses it. What is urgently needed is also the opposite move: we should focus on the form itself. Is the topic of scientific research of human welfare and happiness (at least the way it is practised today) really so innocent, or is it already in itself permeated by the stance of control and manipulation? What if sciences are here not just misused, what if they find here precisely their proper use? We should question the recent rise of a new discipline: “happiness studies.”

As is often the case, Bhutan, a developing Third World country, naively spelled out the absurd socio-political consequences of this notion of happiness: two decades ago, the kingdom of Bhutan decided to focus on Gross National Happiness (GNH) rather than Gross National Product (GNP); the idea was the brainchild of ex-king Jigme Singye Wangchuck, who sought to steer Bhutan into the modern world, while preserving its unique identity. The Oxford-educated new king, 27-year-old Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, ordered a state agency to calculate how happy the kingdom’s 670,000 people are. The main concerns were identified as psychological well-being, health, education, good governance, living standards, community vitality and ecological diversity: this is cultural imperialism, if there ever was one. No wonder that, two decades ago, ethnic cleansing was conducted since it was “discovered” that the presence of a strong non-Buddhist minority is an obstacle to the happiness of the Buddhist majority.

We should date to take an even further step and enquire into the hidden side of the notion of happiness itself – when, exactly, can a people be said to be happy? In a country like Czechoslovakia in the late 1970s and 1980s, people in a way effectively were happy: three fundamental conditions of happiness were fulfilled there. Firstly, their material needs were basically satisfied – not too satisfied, since the excess of consumption can in itself generate unhappiness. It is good to experience a brief shortage of some goods on the market from time to time (no coffee for a couple of days, then no beef, then no TV sets): these brief periods of shortage functioned as exceptions which reminded people that they should be glad that the goods were generally available. Life thus went on in a regular and predictable way, without any great efforts or shocks, one was allowed to withdraw into one’s private niche.

Secondly, the Communist Party was conveniently blamed for everything that went wrong, so that one did not feel really responsible – if there was a temporary shortage of some goods, even if there a stormy weather caused great damage, it was their guilt.

Thirdly, last but not least, there was an Other Place (the consumerist West) about which one was allowed to dream, and even visit sometimes – this place was just at the right distance, not too far, not too close. This fragile balance was disturbed – by what? By desire, precisely. Desire was the force which compelled the people to move beyond – and end up in a system in which the large majority is definitely less happy.

Happiness is something confused and inconsistent – recall the proverbial answer of a German immigrant to the US who, when asked “Are you happy?”, answered: “Yes, yes, I am very happy, aber gluecklich bin ich nicht…” It is a pagan category: for pagans, the goal of life is to live a happy life – no wonder Dalai Lama himself is having such a success recently preaching around the world the gospel of happiness, and no wonder he is finding the greatest response precisely in the US, this ultimate empire of the (pursuit of) happiness. In our daily lives, we (pretend to) desire things which we do not really desire, so that, ultimately, the worst thing that can happen is for us to get what we officially desire. Happiness is thus inherently hypocritical: it is the happiness of dreaming about things we really do not want.

Do we not encounter a similar gesture in much of leftist politics? In the UK, many leftists privately admit that the near-victory of the Labour Party in the last elections was the best thing it could have happened, much better than the insecurity of what might have happened in the Labour government would have tried to implement its programme.

The same holds for the prospect of Bernie Sanders’ eventual victory: what would have been his chances against the onslaught of the big capital? The mother of all such gestures is the Soviet intervention in Czechoslovakia which crushed the Prague Spring and its hope of democratic socialism. Without this intervention, the “reformist” government would have to confront the fact that there was no real possibility of a democratic Socialism at that historical moment, so it would have to choose between reasserting the party control and allowing Czechoslovakia to become one of the Western liberal-democratic capitalism.

The Soviet intervention saved the Prague Spring as a dream, as a hope that, without the intervention, a new form of democratic Socialism might have emerged. And did not something similar occur in Greece when the Syriza government organised the referendum against Brussels’ pressure to accept the austerity politics? The government was secretly hoping to lose the referendum, in which case it would have to step down and leave it to others to perform the dirty job of austerity. Since they won, this task fell to themselves, and the result was the self-destruction of the radical Left in Greece. Without any doubt, Syriza would have been much happier if it lost the referendum.

So, back to our starting point, not only are we controlled and manipulated, “happy” people secretly and hypocritically demand even to be manipulated for their own good. Truth and happiness don’t go together – truth hurts, it brings instability, it ruins the smooth flow of our daily lives. The choice is ours: do we want to be happily manipulated or expose ourselves to the risks of authentic creativity?

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