Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Are You Happy Now?

Remember when all the bling and excess of the Celtic Tiger was destroying the Celtic Soul and turning us into shallow addicts of consumerism? But that that's all gone: so are you happy now? It depends, doesn't it? Andrew Simms in The Guardian suggests that happiness is the price of growth. The more you want of the latter, the less you have the former. It's an old cliche: Wordsworth demanding that The Tables Turned, even as the rural poor flocked in their tens of thousands to participate in the Industrial Revolution. I do sympathise: far happier for me the bucolic pleasures of Dunfanaghy in Donegal than the Dundrum Shopping Centre. But each to his (and more especially her) own.

The problem is: there's no going back. And the biggest obstacle? Debt. Debt is the hangover that doesn't go away - even with copious applications of analgesics. We can't even return to the bucolic bliss of, say, 1996 let alone 1896 (or whatever you fancy yourself). Instead of less growth leading to more happiness we get less growth leading to ... less happiness. Debt is the problem. That is why the likes of Charles Hugh Smith now talk about The Demise of the Consumer Economy. It isn't that people have suddenly become disgusted by the idea of shopping (perish the thought): it's just that the triple whammy of falling incomes (fewer jobs, higher taxes), rising prices (energy, public services) and crushing debt burdens (rising interest rates) has put the trips to the shopping centre on hold. In America, in the United Kingdom, and most certainly in Ireland.

But the issue isn't some imaginary trade off between growth and happiness. Rather it is about the absence of a purpose for growth beyond mere consumption. Blame democracy, or Wall Street, or even feminism. It doesn't much matter whose to blame: the failure of the West to develop a sufficiently mature culture that articulated the non-material ends (religious, philosophical, or even aesthetic) towards which growth was (broadly) directed has now trapped the West in a debt trap of its own making (for the lenders as well as the borrowers I might add).

Nevertheless we will get out of the trap. Eventually. Debt is nothing but digital Ones and Zeros on a computer somewhere. Subjecting a generation or more of real, living, breathing human beings to misery for the sake of Ones and Zeros on a computer will eventually appear as absurd as Papal Indulgences. And we know how that ended...


  1. Well said, Gerard. It seems the whole concept of growth is well overdue an examination. Growth in nature is seasonal; it ebbs and flows, waxes and wanes. Our economic system is the only thing that seems to want to defy that law of nature. The Transition movement in Ireland/Northern Ireland tells us that we'd need four new earths by the end of the century if we were to maintain our projected global growth rates. As that is clearly insane, perhaps we all need to put our thinking caps on and come up with a better way of living our lives?

  2. Great to hear this point being made, Gerard.

    I very much believe there lies a very important part of the path to engendering a new and sustainable and worthwhile growth.

    I think it comes down to clarification of our cultural and social purpose. Indeed, eencompassing the transcendent at certain points. This is why our artists and writers are so important. In this vein, perhaps we should try to free them somewhat from commercial and market diktats, no?! ;)

    "...the failure of the West to develop a sufficiently mature culture that articulated the non-material ends (religious, philosophical, or even aesthetic) towards which growth was (broadly) directed..."

  3. Isaiah Belin and his concept of negative freedom eh? I'm sure he did not have Dundrum Shopping Centre in mind when he advocated it, but it does seem to be the conclusion of relatively unfettered human instinct. Much of it still driven by the instinct to ascend the social hierarchy that was bred into us in a distant and more simian past. Dawkin's selfish gene, Laing's selfish individuals and Friedman's selfish market player. Hmm, a pattern emerges.


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