A number of recent events in the United Kingdom, as well as the United States of America, seem to suggest that a generally high level of material prosperity does not necessarily go hand in hand with human happiness, but, more disturbingly, that at least sometimes it seems to produce conditions that actually undermine happiness among people.
The events in question include those reported (in last week’s Sunday Times and in the latest Time magazine) on the alarming recent developments in Britain concerning a growing culture of violence among the country’s youth — developments that point to widespread disaffection and social as well as generational alienation among the young. And I mean “young”; sometimes horrifically violent attacks on people have been carried out by individuals in their early teens.
The fatal shootings of fellow students and staff at Virginia Tech in the US, by who appeared to be a “troubled” student recently — and some time ago by two teenagers at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, of a number of their peers and a teacher, as well as a shooting spree by a disgruntled broker in Atlanta after he had killed his wife and children — also suggest that something is amiss in these relatively prosperous societies. One may well ask what these events have to do with the broad question of human happiness.
Are there not always those few unfortunate souls among the vast majority of relatively happy human beings who, for reasons of coincidence that concern their particular circumstances, meet a tragic end? What grounds are there to read these as symptoms of some deeper and more widespread social malaise? And moreover, what does this have to do with symptoms of social alienation among the youth of largely prosperous countries?
The premise of my tentative argument is that most people today associate happiness with material or economic well-being. The fact that, as Gerd Behrens pointed out some time ago in Time magazine (“Healthy, wealthy and unhappy”; Time, July 19 1999, p60), the current scale of human development — the United Nations Human Development Index — which rates countries according to literacy, life expectancy and per capita income, indicates that a typically Western, materialistically biased set of values is customarily used to assess what I here call human happiness in a broad sense.
Development, the assumption states, equals economic prosperity; and this, in turn, is assumed to bring happiness. In the same article Behrens shows, however, that this equation is contradicted by empirical as well as anecdotal evidence. As he says: “Visit Europe and be mystified by the unsmiling faces and furrowed brows in the most affluent countries. Visit Africa and marvel at the laughter and general merriment, even in the most impoverished ones.”
Opinion polls confirm these impressions: in the 1980s polls showed that, in Western Europe, the most affluent — the Germans — were the least contented, while the poorest — the Portuguese and the Irish — were generally the happiest. Why is this so? And even if one could answer this question, is there a connection between these views on general “happiness’ and the alarming events and tendencies referred above — events which appear to reflect a kind of social dysfunctionality?
At an intuitive level the first question — why the economically least prosperous nations seem to be the most contented — is not difficult to answer. The anecdote retold by Behrens about the Mexican fisherman who tells the American businessman that he is quite happy with a small catch because it allows him to have a siesta with his wife, play with his children and play the guitar with his friends, captures the essential reasons for the dis-junction between enjoyment of life and prosperity accurately.
For the American businessman, it stands to reason that a concerted effort to bring in more fish would mean more profit, greater investment in fishing equipment, expansion of business interests, greater wealth and eventually retirement to enjoy the fruits of one’s labour, which would, ironically, take the form of exactly those things that the fisherman is already doing anyway. And he is doing them without the unavoidable withdrawal from family and friends for extended periods, without the worry and the anxiety that the risk involved in business expansion and capital accumulation brings.
In short, the fisherman, who does his day’s work alongside his day’s enjoyment, is living a happy and fulfilling life.
But, most Westerners would ask, is that a fulfilling life?
The answer has to be that, for some people — and perhaps this has a lot to do with the kind of culture in which one lives — this would be fulfilling, even if, for others, it would not. There does seem to be an inverse correlation, however, between the degree of one’s wealth and the ease with which one is able to enjoy life in a thoroughgoing fashion (provided — and this is an important proviso — that one’s basic needs such as shelter, clothing, food and so on, are satisfied), as opposed to intermittent enjoyments in the form of vacations that one works towards over long months.
In short: economic prosperity brings the need for constant vigilance and concomitant uncertainty (if not “unhappiness”) regarding one’s wealth, lest it dwindle, if unattended to, while, on the other hand, the poorest of the poor cannot possibly be said to be happy, either. In the kind of world in which one lives today, a basic level of material means is required, not as a guarantee, but as prerequisite, for happiness.
Regarding the question, what all of this has to do with the issue of disaffected and sometimes violent youth, I believe there is a connection between these considerations of happiness, material wealth and the events that are symptomatic of teenagers’ social alienation. I shall try to establish this connection by way of linking the so-called “gutterpunks” in American cities and a remark made by an acquaintance of mine some time ago.
The remark in question — made by a professor of material history at Middlesex University (UK) — was that American society is “in an advanced state of disintegration”. At the time I was puzzled by his remark — don’t most people think of the United States as one of the most economically prosperous and politically stable democracies today? But gradually, as my own preoccupations with questions concerning cultural philosophy and the arts, especially film and film reception, took me into areas pertinent to the relationship between cultural practice and social behaviour, I gained some insight into possible ways in which his observation could be construed.
Then, in 1999, I happened to see an American television programme in which the presenter and a studio audience had a number of young people, so-called gutterpunks, as their guests, together with movie director Penelope Spheeris (Wayne’s World II; The Decline of Western Civilization III).
From the exchanges between the presenter and her guests it was apparent that these young people, who invariably came from materially wealthy, (upper-middle class?) homes, voluntarily live on the streets of cities like Los Angeles — “in the gutter”, so to speak — under what most people would probably describe as conditions of deprivation. Voluntarily! (To the poverty-stricken shack-dwellers of South Africa this would probably be totally incomprehensible … until they grasp what it is that these young people don’t have.) Why?
Although they spoke English fluently, and making allowances for a certain reluctance or sulkiness on their part, none of them struck me as being very articulate about the reasons for their departure from (rejection of?) their parental homes, but a few symptomatic statements and phrases did emerge, if not from the studio guests, then from the gutterpunks interviewed by Spheeris in her film, The Decline of Western Civilization III, excerpts of which were shown in the course of the television programme. These included remarks like “My Mom and Dad were hippies during the Sixties, and look at them now — the picture of respectability!”; and “I like it on the streets — I can do what I want. It’s freedom, man”.
The last statement may sound like a tired rerun of a thousand groping expressions of counter-cultural ideals during the 1960s, but in the context of the late 1990s in an economically booming US, it assumed a different significance.
Think about it — what did the hippie movement signify? Beyond the craving for “freedom”, it signified a rejection, by virtually an entire generation, of an older generation’s value system, especially as this rejection was captured in the slogan, “Make love, not war!” (remember Vietnam, The Graduate, Hair?) This is precisely what seemed to be at stake in the late 1990s — a rejection of a value system, but this time I had the impression that it was an entire nation’s values that were being rejected by these rebels without a cause.
The 1980s, as everyone knows, saw the rise of the yuppie — the young, upwardly mobile professionals with only one thing in mind — to get rich. Gone were the ideals of freedom — however misguided — of the hippies. What counted was whether you drove a BMW, wore a Rolex, had a cellphone (initially known as a Sandton Earring in South Africa) and wore designer clothes.
And the yuppie mentality of the 1980s has continued through the 1990s and into the 21st century — a value system that has even alienated other cultures from what used to be different ways of living. (Witness South Africa, where the carrot of development promotes and justifies the most blatantly materialistic lifestyles amid the most abject poverty, and without any necessary or desirable connection being posited between the acquisition of certain “skills” — to use the fashionable jargon — and an income that would enable one to live this kind of lifestyle; much less a justification in terms of certain “human” values, which are somehow connected with material wealth.)
My guess is that the gutterpunks, without another Vietnam to make their rallying cause, are rebelling against what may superficially be described as an axiologically (value-related) empty, materialistic way of life.
But again: why? Isn’t that what everyone the world over desires? Material wealth, anyway. Isn’t that what the “ideology of development” (Lyotard) promotes daily as the ultimate justification of life?
But the question is: Is this justification itself justified? My own answer would be consonant with the sentiments that the fictional Mr Keating — the unorthodox English teacher in Peter Weir’s film, Dead Poets’ Society — shares with the boys in his senior English class, when he reminds them that accounting, engineering, medicine and the like are “noble professions”, and necessary to sustain life.
But, he then points out, they are not what we live for. According to Keating, what we live for are “beauty, poetry, love …”
The point is that all human beings need humanly sustaining values; that is, values which — whether they have been given or satisfied, or at least (preferably, I would say) been identified as values to be cherished or continually actualised in one’s life — have the uncanny capacity to impart meaning and value to the rest of one’s life as well. Without them, one’s life would be what the Germans call aussichtslos — without hope or prospect, blind, misguided.
Materialistic values (that is, values which are predicated on the belief that material things are all there is, with nothing which transcends them) are like that — aussichtslos. Without being embedded in the cradle — a very fragile one at that — of human values like love, charity, interpersonal fulfilment, valuing nature, the cultivation of democracy or a sense of obligation to one’s fellow humans, material wealth would be empty, without purpose, even if it seems to be so obvious that it is self-justifying, self-sufficient.
The gutterpunks of big American cities have sensed — intuitively and in a not too articulate manner — that there is something missing from their parents’ wealthy homes. And just like Benjamin, the central character in that epoch-making movie of the 1960s, The Graduate, who escapes from the banal materialism of his parents’ friends (“Textiles, Benjamin, textiles!”) by donning his graduation present, a scuba outfit, and descending to the bottom of the swimming pool, the gutterpunks are opting for the dirt, exposure, hunger and “freedom” of the city streets in preference to the empty comfort of their materialistic parents’ homes.
But surely their parents love them? A mother of one of the gutterpunks, who was in the studio audience, affirmed as much.
It is not a matter, by and large, of lack of affection for their children on the part of parents; it is rather a question, I believe, of a certain helplessness in the face of their children’s unfathomable needs — the kind of helplessness that is the result of deeply ingrained consumer habits combined with a world view constructed largely on the basis of the most banal “television culture” — sitcoms, studio audience talk shows and the like. What these young people are sensing gropingly and obscurely, but irresistibly, is the directionlessness of their culture — a culture of addiction, as Aronofsky so persuasively showed in his eye-opener film, Requiem for a Dream.
The “dream” which is here the subject of a funerary song, is the Enlightenment dream of a “happy” society, and Aronofsky exposes, in brutally graphic detail, how this dream has degenerated, in the lives of his four protagonists, to the level of hopeless, self-destructive addictions of various kinds.
In the 18th and 19th centuries the Enlightenment belief in progress was at least coupled with an idea of what that progress entailed, namely progressive freedom from scarcity, from nature’s tyranny, and from political dictatorship.
Today, the ideology of development, reduced to the material emptiness of bare economic and technological development, is unsustained by anything other than development itself — it is proffered to “developing” nations like a truncated mantra, as if it is entirely self-justifying.
Penelope Spheeris, the film director who had worked with the gutterpunks in the making of The Decline of Western Civilization III, said that, although she had had little financial support for the production and the distribution of her film, she was determined to screen it as widely as possible, because there seems to be an incomprehensible blindness to the growing phenomenon of the gutterpunk subculture in the United States and to its significance.
On the other side of the spectrum, it must be admitted, there are (still?) numerous young people who live full, and fulfilling, lives, like those who discover the joy of the outdoors, of giving their time to worthy causes such as welfare organisations (for humans as well as animals), or the fulfilment of disciplines like philosophy, literature, physics or the arts at university.
I get to know many of these individuals in the course of teaching philosophy — the kind of philosophy that is predicated on the belief that philosophy is more than just the assessment of the technical correctness of arguments — and I am always struck by the fact that those who do not struggle with what I would broadly call nihilism (the uncanniest of guests, as Nietzsche remarked, and the one, I believe, behind the growth of gutterpunkdom and of the growing social alienation of British teens, too), are the ones who have found a means to get to grips creatively with their own questions and problems.
And, frankly, I don’t count “churchy” students among these — it is true that the growth in fundamentalist religions the world over could be ascribed to the emptiness (and nihilism) of a global, mono-dimensional materialistic culture, on the one hand, and to the increasing inability of people to cope with the complexity of this culture, on the other.
But I don’t believe that the attempt to find refuge in the church — orthodox or fundamentalist — is an adequate way to deal with the problem. It corresponds to what Nietzsche called “incomplete” (or passive) nihilism, as opposed to “complete” (or active) nihilism. “Incomplete”, because, while it acknowledges the collapse of the old, Platonic-Christian value system, it shrinks back from the yawning abyss that remains, and runs straight back into the arms of the priests which serve this sterile, anachronistic system as if nothing has changed.
The “complete” or active nihilist, in contrast, similarly acknowledges the disintegration of the old constellation of values, but instead of shrinking back from the abyss of nothingness, she or he actively creates (or discovers), that is, LIVES, new and other values.
The students that I am talking about count among the latter kind of “active” nihilists — those who actively engage in generating something valuable, which, in turn, reinforces their subsequent attempts. It is an axiological case of “nothing succeeds like success”.
I suspect that, as long as the axiological emptiness, which manifests itself as vacuous materialism (development’s bedfellow) does not make way for a critically creative cultural practice that is consonant with the “immaterial” complexity of post-modern culture across a broad spectrum, the ranks of disaffected, violent youth and of the gutterpunks will continue swelling, and tragic occurrences like the ones in Britain where mere kids kick adults to death (“just for kicks”), and at Virginia Tech, at Jamesboro and at Columbine High School in Colorado in the United States, will continue.
Societies have to rediscover, and infuse their education practices with, what the fictional Mr Keating tried to teach his students in Dead Poets’ Society, namely that professions such as medicine, engineering, accounting and law are “noble professions”, and they sustain society, but they are not “what we live for” — humans, as beings filled with passion, live for love; to love and to be loved, to care and be cared for. Without this, one’s life is empty, no matter how much one owns or has in the bank. The consolation for truly wealthy people is that they, too, may taste happiness of this sort, but only if they have love and learn to wear their wealth like their old clothes.
And although there are no fail-safe guarantees, children who grow up in homes — or other social contexts, even if these are institutions such as orphanages or other kinds of children’s homes — where they experience love and care, are far less likely to turn to violence and substance abuse, “just for kicks”, than those who are unfortunate enough never to experience any such source of human care and compassion.