Why are we privileged people unhappy?

[Some reflections from 2007]


In this age of narcissism and collective discontent, it is worth remembering that some of the happiest people in the world live in relatively poor societies.[1] We Americans, with our ubiquitous self-help books and our Faustian quest for personal fulfillment, have a lot to learn from the peasants of, say, Sapa, a small village in the north of Vietnam. During my time there a few years ago I was struck by the contrast between the region’s great poverty and the joie-de-vivre exhibited by its inhabitants. People shrunken and prematurely aged from malnutrition were friendly and cheerful, full of energy, more in love with life, it seemed, than most Westerners. To anyone who understands human nature, this should come as no surprise.

Unfortunately such villages are rapidly disappearing. As are the pristine landscapes in which they are nestled. Indeed, the ‘wholesomeness’ of the natural scenery is undoubtedly one of the reasons for the relative happiness I saw. I took some notes after my time in Sapa:


…The landscape reminded me of New Zealand, but on a larger scale. The terraces on the mountainsides covered in yellow stalks of rice added a human element to the grandeur. Hundreds of terraces everywhere, golden horizontally and green vertically, steps nearly to the summits of hills, perfectly geometrically regular, carved by plows pulled by oxen, a periodic human figure wading in the grass to harvest the rice. Beside the river running through the valleys stood men shaking bowls of rice to separate the chaff in the wind. The whole scene was from a different time, an epic time, though rumblings of tractor-trailers and jeeps and dynamite explosions in the cliffs where a road was being built proved that modernity reaches even into the heart of the wilderness.


Capitalism will eventually succeed, as it always does, in overtaking even these last holdouts of simple Tolstoyan life. So the question arises: is the unhappiness that capitalism has hitherto propagated, even in advanced cultures, inevitable? Or is there some way to mitigate it, to spare our descendants the pain that we and our ancestors have experienced? Perhaps if we fully understand its causes we can provide solutions.

Of course, the spiritual malaise of late capitalism is quite different from the brutal and unsubtle misery of capitalism’s early stages. Population upheavals, murderous and exploitative regimes, subsistence wages and all the other well-documented horrors of early industrialism do not plague advanced societies to the degree or in quite the same way that they used to. Nevertheless, almost all the varieties of capitalist-sponsored unhappiness have something in common: namely, a loss of community. Community is what I saw in Sapa, in the richness of the scenery and the poverty of the villages. Until we find a way to reinstate community, we will remain as unsatisfied as we are now and have been for decades.


I need hardly argue that the communal urge is the most basic human desire. The need to give and receive affection, recognition and respect, is essentially what the need for self-esteem amounts to. Deep self-esteem is possible only on the basis of a fulfilled craving for love and respect. But this is what the early laborers of industrial capitalism did not have, being instead treated like cogs in a machine; and it is what we Americans do not have. Insofar as we are dissatisfied it is because we have neither the thoroughgoing unconscious self-harmony of self-esteem nor the deep and simple communal recognition that many villagers in, say, Kenya likely have. Both are necessary, for they go hand-in-hand. Individuals in the United States are self-conflicted (e.g., lonely and self-doubting), because their society is self-conflicted. They internalize the divisiveness of social relations and become unconsciously self-hating, or self-doubting, themselves.


On the most basic level, then, the ‘self-dividedness’ of the modern world consists in interpersonal atomization. Atomization is the real neurosis of the age, the fundamental condition for all the others—for all the “culture wars”, for example. These wars between ideologies, such as Christianity and secularism, or fundamentalist Islam and modern democracy, are comparatively superficial; in fact, one of the unconscious functions of an individual’s immersion in an ideological movement is precisely to escape atomization. The psyche will construct labyrinthine defenses against the loss of community, elaborate illusions to hide it from view, artificial means to restore interpersonal bonds, but ‘neuroses’, on an individual or collective level, are always in some way a reaction against communal deprivation.

On one level it isn’t hard to see what causes this atomization or how it manifests itself. One has but to observe daily life to see its causes and how it plays out. The type of social conditioning that results from (and is) “bureaucracy, the proliferation of images, therapeutic ideologies, the rationalization of the inner life, the cult of consumption”,[2] the hectic pace of modern life, the commodification and commercialization of sex and love, the ubiquity of noise (“noise pollution”), the alien necessity of going to work every day just to make money, the forging and breaking of shallow friendships, the widespread retreat into video games, television and the internet, the degradation of politics into spectacle, and the fact that all these developments (and others) have become common knowledge and are widely deplored but seem impenetrable to understanding and cannot be remedied—indeed, are intensified every year, snowballing according to their internal logic—all this conditioning self-evidently churns out individuals who do not feel at home in their world, who are prone to self-doubt and anxiety and are alienated from their fellow humans. Much of it is due to the twin forces of commercialism and consumerism. These trends atomize society by commodifying everything—that is, by translating everything into monetary terms and framing it as a more or less successful means to instant gratification. They encourage, indeed compel, people to think of the world as their personal playground, as being full of things that can be used, enjoyed, and then discarded. In other words, this society sets up a division between the individual and his world: rather than being part of him, an essential component in his identity, his world and his relationships are means to his ends. He half-consciously lives his life in this instrumental, quasi-mechanistic way, rejecting people if they don’t please him. And the more he lives according to the creed of instant gratification, the more he craves it, precisely because this form of gratification is fleeting and leads to boredom. It is, therefore, self-propagating. People seek relief from the boredom of instant gratification by pursuing more pleasure, i.e., by immersing themselves increasingly in instant gratification. Thus their relationships with others are increasingly colored by the need to be entertained (and to entertain), poisoned by consumerism and commercialism.

At the same time, the compulsive and bureaucratic structure of economic life disrupts spontaneous communal life and recognition—frustrates people, frustrates their desire for freedom (to live as they spontaneously would like), pushes them into the half-conscious perception that the world is coercing them, and thus alienates them from society. Indeed, what Marx wrote in 1844 is still relevant, if not more so, in 2007:


…What, then, constitutes the alienation of labor?

First, in the fact that labor is external to the worker [whether blue-collar or white-collar], that is, that it does not belong to his essential being [i.e., his deepest sense of self]; that in his work, therefore, he does not affirm himself but denies himself, does not feel well but unhappy, does not freely develop his physical and mental energy but mortifies his body and ruins his mind. The worker, therefore, feels himself only outside his work, and feels beside himself in his work. He is at home when he is not working, and when he is working he is not at home. His work therefore is not voluntary, but coerced; it is forced labor. It is therefore not the satisfaction of a need, but only a means for satisfying needs external to it. Its alien character emerges clearly in the fact that labor is shunned like the plague as soon as there is no physical or other compulsion. External labor, labor in which man is externalized, is labor of self-sacrifice, of mortification. Finally, the external nature of labor for the worker appears in the fact that it is not his own, but someone else’s, that it does not belong to him, that in that labor he does not belong to himself but to someone else [or to some company]. Just as in religion, the spontaneous activity of human imagination, of the human brain and the human heart, operates independently of the individual, i.e. as an alien divine or diabolical activity, so the worker’s activity is not his spontaneous activity. It belongs to another; it is the loss of his self.


The result, therefore, is that man (the worker) feels that he is acting freely only in his animal functions—eating, drinking, procreating, or at most in his shelter and his finery—while in his human functions he feels himself nothing more than an animal. What is animal becomes human and what is human becomes animal.[3]


The individual feels conflicted in himself (because he is conflicted with his activities, his objectifications) and divided from society, deprived of a free and spontaneous working community. Again, this is all essentially a result of commodification, in this case of the worker’s being transformed into a commodity subject to the laws of supply and demand, and all the capricious dictates of the market. 

From these brief reflections it seems that the main source of modern unhappiness may be universal commodification. So perhaps we should take a closer look at this phenomenon, to see exactly what it is and what it entails. What is the “phenomenology” of commodification? How is it experienced by people? What are the psychological mechanisms that connect it with unhappiness?

Our task is made easier by the fact that Karl Marx analyzed the phenomenology of commodification in Capital, in the early section on commodity-fetishism. I’ll rely on his analysis. The decisive concept he introduced was that of “reification”. In the early twentieth century this concept was embellished by such thinkers as Georg Lukács (in History and Class Consciousness) and I. I. Rubin (in Essays on Marx’s Theory of Value), who recognized it as a brilliant and fruitful tool of both social and economic analysis. Right now I’m interested in its sociological aspect.

First, though, I have to describe its economic meaning.—

Any sensible economist knows that a commodity has two aspects: its use-value (its utility for the consumer) and its exchange-value (the price it commands). Marx points out that, as a use-value, the commodity is something natural and particular, concrete, while as an exchange-value it is purely the proportion of goods it can be exchanged for. It ‘embodies’ this proportion, so to speak; it is an abstract thing, a quantity, and as such is qualitatively equal to every other commodity. In this sense, commodities are abstract and comparable with each other; as use-values, though, they are just themselves, i.e., their manifold concreteness. They therefore have a dual phenomenology: they can be experienced as themselves, as things that were produced to have a specific telos and with whose natural properties one interacts, or they can be experienced as ‘alienated’ from their utility-essence, by being viewed as a mere quantity of value. This second, alienated, aspect is the form they take in the marketplace.


The exchange-values of commodities appear to the consumer to be objective, “socio-natural” properties of the things themselves. Thus, commodities, as exchange-values, seem to take on a life of their own: price-movements are mysterious objective facts, things that just ‘happen’—spontaneously, as it were—determined by forces outside people’s control, by mysterious interactions between the things themselves when they enter the market. Exchange-relations between commodities confront the worker and the capitalist, and the seller and the buyer, as brute facts, impersonal and seemingly inexplicable. In reality, of course, exchange-relations are in no sense properties of the things themselves; they do not exist outside social relations, as appears to be the case, but rather express them. Exchange-values are really expressions of relations between individuals—between workers and other workers, capitalists and other capitalists, workers and capitalists, etc. Movements of prices, which are determined by the fluctuations of supply and demand, serve to allocate social labor, by providing economic agents with information they need to make economic decisions. For example, when the demand for a product increases, its price will rise because selling that product has become more profitable. At the same time, the seller will demand more of the product from its manufacturers (so as to sell more of it and make a higher profit), who will therefore move proportionately more labor into its production than into the production of other goods. Hence, in the economy as a whole, a change takes place in the allocation of labor. The higher price of the product expresses the higher value of the labor that goes into producing it—that is, the now-greater social necessity of employing labor in production of this particular commodity. So its price is basically a monetary expression of the changed relation between spheres of labor, and between individual laborers, even though it seems to express only a relation between things themselves.


The point is that, in capitalism, relations between people are reified into relations between things. And these thing-like relations are seemingly subject to their own laws of movement. The result is that “a man’s activity becomes estranged from himself, it turns into a commodity which, subject to the nonhuman objectivity of the natural laws of society, must go its own way independently of man just like any consumer article”.[4] Social activity in general develops more and more this alienated character, this appearance of being determined by strange forces outside the individual’s control. One can’t find a job in a certain sector, so one has to enter another until something happens and one gets laid-off, etc. etc.; relations between friends and family members are conditioned by the impersonal functioning of the economy, and one feels increasingly like a cog. One is compelled to take jobs one doesn’t want; one desires, and takes advantage of opportunities for, mindless enjoyment and release from the unpleasant “realm of necessity” (hence the love of video-games, television, the internet); and one’s relationships become increasingly dysfunctional. Ultimately, “just as the capitalist system continuously produces and reproduces itself economically on higher levels, the structure of reification progressively sinks more deeply, more fatefully and more definitively into the consciousness of man”,[5] such that life becomes more stressful, more mysterious, more dehumanized and atomistic. It comes to be dominated by the half-conscious perception of a vast impersonal Other which gets associated in one’s mind with the faceless strangers he sees, with the company he works for, with his boss, with his dissatisfaction and his unfulfilled desire for recognition (for freedom). One develops an amorphous hostility, sort of an indiscriminate distrust—epitomized in the hard “fuck you” attitude exhibited by, say, New Yorkers in the street—which colors his relationships with people.


Money is the symbol and the sine qua non of all this reification and atomization. It gets between people, between social relations; it ‘lubricates’ them, so to speak, and makes them possible; everything gets translated into monetary terms (e.g., “Time is money”), such that the individual cannot take up his life into himself, as purely his own, something that is one with him, but rather treats it more and more as he treats money, namely as something that opposes him, as a thing that he doesn’t really understand. It confronts him; he has to conquer it (lest it conquer him), which is to say that he has to struggle to make it his own. And in doing so he tends to adopt the acquisitive attitude, because money is both the threat and the promise, the thing that oppresses him but can liberate him, that symbolizes and is the meaning of life’s present otherness from him but can potentially signify his appropriation of (his) life. For by acquiring money, he acquires the power to make things his own, to attain power over the world and force people to ‘recognize’ him. Unfortunately, he finds that this recognition is not satisfying, for it is not a recognition of him himself but only of his economic power. Therefore, the wealthy person may come to feel alienated from people and himself (i.e., his sense of who he is or wants to be)—perhaps even more so than the poor person, who at least knows that the people who love him love him for himself and not for his power over them or as a means to an end. –Acquisitiveness is the truly alienated and quintessentially capitalist attitude toward life, which fetishizes mere things and devalues human relationships, including the self’s relationship with itself. The more acquisitive we are, the less human we are; and an acquisitive society is not a human one.


So, in short, just by virtue of the economic laws of motion of capitalism, people develop the perception of being pushed and pulled and harassed by nothing in particular—by some invisible incubus pressing down on everyone—although features of life peculiar to late capitalism have aggravated the perception. This fabrication of an abstract ‘Other’, manifested in numerous ways (e.g., in our awareness of mankind as a vast aggregate and our corresponding awareness of the littleness of ourselves), proceeds apace with communal disintegration, such that neither is possible without the other.


Incidentally, a particularly telling manifestation of reification (atomization) is the common use of the word ‘they’ to refer to some mysterious social entity that has power over oneself. For instance, someone might say to his friend, “If you don’t pay your taxes, they’ll catch you and send you to prison”. Who are ‘they’? ‘They’ are the Other, the impersonal system that is associated with politicians and all authority-figures, and which is constantly coming between the individual and himself—his self-expression, his life, his relationships, the fulfillment of his desire for recognition and freedom. ‘They’ will do this, they will do that; they are a constant threat, something breathing down your neck, waiting to punish you, watching you wherever you go and whatever you do, like Foucault’s “Panopticon”—to the extent that they are internalized, such that the individual is incessantly watching himself, feeling separated from himself and his acts. But ‘they’ are not really concrete people; they are the structure of society itself, which compels one to act along narrowly conformist paths and is always ready to punish transgressions. ‘They’ are economic imperatives, bureaucratic dictates, ideological and legal institutions, the media, social mores, most of which disrupt spontaneous communal life and propagate anxiety. Consistent with Marx’s analysis, all these things—these concepts and habits and institutions—are “personified”, becoming a ‘they’, i.e., something with a will and intelligence and evidently a deep-seated maliciousness, while people themselves are reified into mere numbers, statistics, objects, obstacles that have to be overcome or irrational things that have to be placated. The social world is turned upside down, and humanity becomes a slave to the social relations it has created.


In peasant villages there is no such slavery, no such atomization. Life is simple and transparent; individuals are, to some degree, masters of their fate, and they work together to achieve a common end. No doubt there are a good many unpleasant features of village and tribal life, and it is surely not desirable for mankind to return to it. But by looking at that simple kind of happiness we can get a vague idea of what we need in order to be happy ourselves.


So, now that we have at least a rudimentary understanding of what has gone wrong, what is left for us to do? How does this knowledge help us? What it seems to suggest is that not without a social revolution will civilization become ‘healthy’ in some way. There is no reason to think the revolution has to be 'sudden' and overwhelmingly violent; it could be an evolution instead. But it has to result in a restructuring of social relations such that universal commodification and reification are eliminated, and the community restored.


Prima facie, however, it would seem that a commodity economy is necessitated by the fact of scarcity, i.e., by the need to ration scarce resources. The price-mechanism is arguably the most effective and efficient way to do this, and the price-mechanism implies commodification. So as long as we use money—as long as we have to ration resources—it seems almost unavoidable that we will have a commodified economy. 


What is not unavoidable, I think, is that there will always be a scarcity in fundamental resources. This opinion must sound crazy, since we’re so used to thinking of the world in terms of scarcity, but it isn’t unheard of. Marx himself argued that true communism is impossible except on the basis of material abundance; and he thought that capitalism’s historic function was to unleash society’s productive powers and bring the world to the very threshold of this state of abundance. It was the task of socialism to finish the job—to lead us to a society governed by the principle “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need”. In his day the economy was nowhere near overcoming scarcity, as he liked to think; but in our own, the possibility seems a little less outlandish. Genetic engineering may conceivably someday allow us to actually manufacture our food, to clone as many plants or animals as we need to feed everyone. Renewable energy is, by definition, not scarce, so it isn’t unimaginable that we won’t need to "ration" energy in the future. Luxury items will always be scarce, but with regard to necessities like energy and food, money may someday be superfluous. If and when this happens, the economy will take a vastly different form than it does now under capitalism. Cooperation rather than competition may become the norm, the most rational way of organizing economic activities; and commodification will end in all but a few peripheral spheres, because money itself will, on the whole, wither away.


It is, however, futile to continue these speculations. Such developments may come to pass or they may not, but what is certain is that the universal alienation and anomie of the modern world will not end until the present global economic order either evolves to some form of socialism ("cooperativism") or collapses into a state of primitivism, possibly as a result of global warming and/or nuclear war. If this diagnosis seems bleak, then it’s that much more important that we fight for a better future.

[1] In 2003, for example, Nigeria was determined by researchers to be the "happiest country in the world."

[2] Christopher Lasch, The Culture of Narcissism (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1979), p. 32.

[3] The Portable Karl Marx, edited by Eugene Kamenka (New York: Penguin Books, 1983), pp. 136, 137. The thoughts in that passage are dramatized in many pop-cultural creations, for example in the popular show “The Office”.

[4] Georg Lukács, History and Class Consciousness (Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1971), p. 87.

[5] Ibid., p. 93.


© 2014-2020 by Chris Wright