[iDC] Not well-being, but well-becoming

pat kane scottishfutures at googlemail.com
Wed Jun 13 11:35:21 EDT 2007

Hi all

Trebor has asked me to post this blog I published in the Guardian  
earlier this year - it's an attempt to link the recent happiness/ 
wellbeing debates taking place in the UK, coming off the writings of  
people like Daniel Kahneman and Barry Schwartz and Richard Layard,  
and a much less equilibrial vision of human becoming, substantiated  
by the society and culture of networks, and theorised radically by  
the autonomists (Virno, Deleuze, Negri, etc). I'm somewhat hopeful  
(typical North European social democrat) that an enlightened, network- 
literate state could support well-becoming. The original publication  
has tons of hotlinks, if you want further depth of research.


Be interested in your general responses, best pk

Not wellbeing, but wellbecoming

Pat Kane

February 26, 2007 3:30 PM


There was so much that discomforted me about the well-being debate  
last week - probably because I found myself (using an appropriate  
mental-health metaphor) feeling like Steve Martin in The Man With Two  

One brain was delighted that the political argument was shifting away  
from the old narratives about "work", "prosperity" and "consumption"  
as the main goals of British life. The other brain was horrified at  
the level of behavioural meddling and social prescription that this  
shift seems to imply. And both brains were dragging me round the room  
in different directions, at the same time.

I find Richard Layard's argument more than a little creepy, if you  
think about his biography. His first claim to fame was as the core  
adviser to the incoming New Labour government in 1997 on their  
"welfare to work" scheme - that classic piece of applied  
Presbyterianism by Gordon Brown, where "them that shall not work,  
shall not eat" (or in Brown's words, "no fifth option").

Layard's input was to bolster the notion of work - any work - as the  
essential tool of socialisation. Anything to banish that Brownite  
spectre of "people sitting around all day, watching television, doing  
nothing" (a favoure phrase from pre-1997 speeches, and barely changed  
to this day). This is such a demeaning conception of the human self -  
that without the compulsion of wage labour, we will simply sink into  
indolence and passivity.

In that sense, Layard has been entirely consistent as a bureaucrat of  
bliss: he still thinks the citizen-worker is too weak-minded to know  
his or her own best interests, and that policy-makers must herd us  
all to a median state of happiness. It's the implicit paternalism in  
the wellbeing debate that constantly rings my alarm bells.

So if the stats say "marriage makes them more contented", then let's  
make divorce harder. If the research says "our media landscape  
saturates us with perspectives and world views, and leaves us  
dissatisfied", then we must control the media (or even, in one  
submission to this series, enforce a national switch-off of the telly  
at mealtimes).

Every other day I walk by the Hampstead towers where Beatrice and  
Sidney Webb planned their giant Fabian schemes to "improve the  
eugenic stock of the worker". I often idly imagine their spectres are  
twirling happily together at the sight of all these social-scientific  
shepherds, meticulously planning the micro-behaviour (if not  
eugenically, then at least neuro-psychologically) of the ex-working- 

And I mean ex-working-class, because they are now the service class,  
mostly - which is the deepest problem underlying our angst about  
wellbeing. How can one have a genuinely happy society where one large  
chunk of it is in the position of servicing the domestic and  
hedonistic agendas of another large chunk?

This is the great psychological wound, ever more exacerbated since  
the workfare reforms of 1997, which causes disillusion and alienation  
and general grumpiness in this country. Among younger generations,  
who have now grown up nourished and watered by the globalism and  
diversity of the internet, this servile future induces a particularly  
acute form of cynicism.

The book was much derided at the time, but Nick Barham's Dis/ 
connected got something right about youth culture in Britain. Faced  
with so little real opportunity to realise their cultural and digital  
sensibilities, many youths are conducting an "exodus" into their own  
worlds. Which, yes, can include environmental activism as well as gun  
culture, joyous drug-fuelled raving as well as isolated depression,  
McWorld as well as Jihad.

The authorities might fret about youth disconnection from the norms  
of society. But their policy and institutional responses,  
particularly in education, show no imagination whatsoever. The  
spectrum of creative life-options that face our energetic millenials,  
thanks to the dull workfare-ism of Brown and Layard, is pathetic. Add  
to that the workaholic culture of too many of their parents,  
neglecting child-care in favour of jobs that seem close to absurdist  
in their lack of meaning and purpose, and the unhappiness of young  
people's existence is all too understandable.

Let's push on through to the other side of this debate. As some  
commenters have acutely noted, the wellbeing merchants are often  
frustrated old collectivists, looking for a new set of research stats  
to justify the construction of a solidarity and consensus that was  
left behind with the industrial era. Never mind trying to restore  
this lost unity (which was a negative, defensive, bruised-and- 
battered unity at that). Can't our policy-makers begin to see that  
their best role is to give us the support and resources to help us  
navigate our deeply complex societies?

Some great old gurus have been quoted in this debate - Erich Fromm,  
Hannah Arendt - but I'd suggest that we should also be reading Gorz,  
Rifkin, Negri and Virno. From them, some obvious policy suggestions.

Revive (and destigmatise) social housing, so that we can live well  
yet cheaply. Make all higher education free at the point of use, in  
order that the cognitive gap between the "serving" and the "serviced"  
classes become even more untenable. Strongly regulate capitalism  
(shorter working weeks, citizen's incomes, powerful public  
infrastructures and networks) so that men, women and children can  
experiment with new mixes of the productive and the emotional in our  

In short: support our autonomy, don't prescribe our happiness.

It's not well-being our state should be in the business of enabling,  
but well-becoming - our multitude of life-journeys towards meaning  
and purposefulness, not some steady-state of managed contentment. The  
"happ" in happiness comes from the Norse, and it means "luck" or  
"chance": this week's parade of neo-Webbs should remember that. Help  
us to be strong and capable, so we can live interesting, surprising,  
memorable lives. Other than that, get your hands off my soul.


Click here for a full list of articles in the Politics of Wellbeing  

Pat Kane
+44 (0)7718 588497

All mail to: patkane at theplayethic.com

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