Academic journal article Erasmus Journal for Philosophy and Economics

The Happiness Industry: How the Government and Big Business Sold Us Well-Being

Academic journal article Erasmus Journal for Philosophy and Economics

The Happiness Industry: How the Government and Big Business Sold Us Well-Being

Article excerpt

Review of William Davies's The happiness industry: how the government and big business sold us well-being. London: Verso, 2015. 314 pp.

Neoliberalism has been broadly accepted as a fairly recent economic and political project. For example, David Harvey, distinguished professor of anthropology at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, in his widely cited book, A brief history of neoliberalism (2005) looks upon the years 1978-1980 to begin his social and economic history of neoliberalism. For Harvey, key figures from this period, including Deng Xiaoping of China, Margaret Thatcher of Britain, and Ronald Reagan of the United States set the stage for "a revolutionary turning-point in the world's social and economic history" (p. 1). Others mark the turning point for the project of neoliberalism to the work of Milton Friedman and the emergence of the Chicago school of economics in the 1960s. Still others trace it back to the work of Friedrich Hayek and Lionel Robbins and the London School of Economics during the 1930s. It is within this context of "standard" neoliberal economic and political history that the story told by William Davies stands out.

In a bold and intriguing move, Davies places the foundations of neoliberalism in the late eighteenth-century social and political philosophy of Jeremy Bentham. Davies reminds us that the English philosopher's hedonism had strong connections with business, government, and the market-a point often overlooked in the rush to dismiss Bentham's hedonistic utilitarian ethics as merely a philosophically weak precursor to the more philosophically mature eudaimonistic utilitarianism of his student John Stuart Mill. "The business of government", wrote Bentham in The principles of morals and legislation (1789), "is to promote the happiness of society, by punishing and rewarding" (cited by Davies, p. 19). "The free market, of which Bentham was an unabashed supporter, would largely take care of the reward part of this 'business'"-comments Davies-"the state would take responsibility for the former part" (p. 19).

Thus begins Davies creative and convincing journey from the hedonic calculus and surveillance state of Bentham to the contemporary "happiness industry" and neoliberal state. But Davies's project is much more than merely parsing out some of the originary moments of neoliberal thought in the happiness science of Bentham, it is also to looking beyond the current formation of neoliberalism to its next position, the post-neoliberal era.

Referring to Hayek's The road to serfdom (1944), Davies notes that "[o]ne of the foundational arguments in favour of the market was that it served as a vast sensory device, capturing millions of individual desires, opinions and values, and converted these into prices" (p. 10). However, for Davies, we may be "on the cusp of a new post-neoliberal era in which the market is no longer the primary tool for this capture of mass sentiment" (pp. 10-11). "Once happiness monitoring tools flood our everyday lives", writes Davies, "other ways of qualifying feelings in real time are emerging that can extend even further into our lives than markets" (p. 11).

It is here, however, that Davies arguments concerning business, government, and the market go well beyond the standard critiques of neoliberalism and the surveillance state-and extend into the fields of psychology, neuroscience, and health care. To be sure, Davies is very hard on all three. For him, governments and corporations have become obsessed with measuring how people feel and then cashing in on it. The measurement and commercialization of our feelings and emotions through "smart technology", for example, is clearly not something that Davies thinks really improves our "well-being". Rather, it is only part of a larger effort to cash in on our emotions and place them under continuous surveillance. "Any critique of ubiquitous surveillance", argues Davies, "must now include a critique of the maximization of well-being, even at the risk of being less healthy, happy, and wealthy" (p. …

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