I was 73 yesterday, no great age nowadays in the Western Empire, at least unti the arrival of COVID-19. Would-be friends ask of me, ‘why don’t you settle for a quiet life?’ Marilyn found this lovely poem, to which I’ll keep returning as the years roll by. The poet is Brian Bilston, who can be found at https://brianbilston.com/about-brian-bilston/
Brian Bilston is a laureate for our fractured times, a wordsmith who cares deeply about the impact his language makes as it dances before our eyes.’ Ian McMillan
AS I GROW OLD I WILL MARCH NOT SHUFFLE
As I grow old I will not shuffle to the beat of self-interest and make that slow retreat to the right.
I will be a septuagenarian insurrectionist marching with the kids. I shall sing ‘La Marseillaise’, whilst brandishing homemade placards that proclaim ‘DOWN WITH THIS SORT OF THING’.
I will be an octogenarian obstructionist, and build unscalable barricades from bottles of flat lemonade, tartan blankets and chicken wire. I will hurl prejudice upon the brazier’s fire.
I will be a nonagenarian nonconformist, armed with a ballpoint pen and a hand that shakes with rage not age at politicians’ latest crimes, in strongly worded letters to The Times.
I will be a centenarian centurion and allow injustice no admittance. I will stage longstanding sit-ins. My mobility scooter and I will move for no-one.
And when I die I will be the scattered ashes that attach themselves to the lashes and blind the eyes of racists and fascists.
The following piece was written a few weeks ago for inclusion in a CONCEPT Covid-19 special. Its opening is overtaken by events. As I write the unlocking of restrictions here on Crete gathers pace. Yet tension prevails. We wish to mingle, but with whom? We were safe on our island. We need tourism to survive, but do we fear the tourists? More than ever we need philanthropy, a love for our fellow human beings, solidarity not charity, but the virus in the hands of the powerful feeds misanthropy and xenophobia. I’ll try to tangle with this dilemma in the next week or so and pursue my call for resistance to either ‘business as usual or a ‘new normal’ – within and without of work
A virus-created radical moment: Not to be missed?
I am sitting in splendid isolation on a lush hillside above a Cretan village, where even the patriarchal kafeneio is closed. Outside its shuttered face a group of old men sit, less than socially distant, defying spasmodic police surveillance. A few kilometres away people queue obediently outside the supermarket, clutching in their plastic gloved hands the required Out-of-Home pass and their ID. There are health concerns, even though the island of 650,000 souls has precious few Covid-19 cases and only one death, but such melancholia is hardly new. Crete is awash with chemists, testing one’s blood pressure a daily routine. Notwithstanding the benefits of the Mediterranean diet it’s tempting to note that Hippocrates hailed from hereabouts and that hypochondria stems from Ancient Greek.
There is real fear, though not so much of the virus per se but of what lies ahead. As I write the island is closed for business. The tourism-oiled life blood of the local economy congeals. With cafes, tavernas, hotels, even beaches, empty of purpose, unemployment and debt soars. The Orthrus-headed threat of poverty and hunger hangs in the air. The questions on everybody’s lips are ‘when will this end?’ and ‘will we, do we, want to return to normal?’ At this moment, if assuredly we are not all in this together, from capitalist to peasant, humanity faces a fragile future.
For now, it’s ironically common-place for commentators to write that the neoliberal obsession with the free market and the self-centred individual has been utterly exposed. In this profound social crisis society turns to the public, not the private sector. Society turns to the nurse, not the entrepreneur. Capitalism’s endless pursuit of profit and growth is shown to be at odds with the common good and at odds with Nature itself
Against this tumultuous backcloth what are the alternatives as and when the virus loosens its grip? Three perhaps stand out on the grand canvas.
I. Despite the rhetoric that this is impossible, there will be an almost irresistible desire to return to normal. Even though this sordid ‘business as usual’ has created widening inequality – the world’s richest 1% have more than twice as much as 6.9 billion people – and life-threatening climate change.
2. And if, as is likely, this return to the status quo fails amidst what is speculated to be a second Great Depression of recession and austerity, there is the ever-present danger, as we bow to increased surveillance and policing, that an authoritarian, xenophobic politics with strong men at its helm moves to centre stage.
3. The third possibility depends on us. Are we able to build afresh on the recognition that we are essential; that our labour is the bedrock of society? Are we able to hold onto our renewed community experience of mutual aid and solidarity?
To wonder if the latter is possible brings us inexorably to the matter of consciousness. Do the circumstances thrust upon us herald the fulfilment of the revolutionary dream, the emergence of a people, conscious of themselves as the creators of history? Half a century ago as Cornelius Castoriadis revealed presciently neoliberalism’s moneyed ‘meaninglessness’, he posed the question, “to what extent does the contemporary situation give birth in people the desire and capacity to create a free and just society?”
Speaking of which brings me to the part that youth and community workers might play in the renaissance of collective, reflective solidarity. At its best, the radical tradition contesting the ideological space to be found within our practice has been founded on critical conversations and supportive relationships through which we are as much educated as those we aspire to educate. This is a dialogue riven with moments of intimate democracy, listening to one another, as the foundation of an authentic public democracy.
Alas, over the last 40 years we have been on the retreat. The agenda of social conformity has been strengthened immeasurably by the imposition of prescribed, predictable targets and outcomes, aimed at manufacturing the compliant and resilient individual. Pressured practitioners have sought to make the best of a bad job. However, certainly in England, a generation of workers in their acceptance of the planned interventions demanded from above have cooperated with ‘formalising the informal’. For my part, the recuperation by neoliberalism of even radical elements in our practice is symbolised by the now ritual abuse on all sides of the notion of empowerment, whereby we accept without demur the absurdity that the powerless can be empowered by the powerful.
In closing, I’ll propose that, as we return to work beyond the crisis, there is a fleeting, unmissable chance to revive our commitment to an open-ended, emancipatory dialogue with young people and the community. It will mean challenging, resisting a return to the managerialist implementation of imposed norms and expectations, the catechism of ‘impact’. Such resistance will necessitate the urgent renewal of our collective capacity in the workplace, through workers’ self-organisation and the trade unions.
At the risk of being melodramatic, this unexpected rebuke of Capitalism’s arrogance and excess marks an opening we cannot afford to let slip by. Surely, we cannot wash our hands of, keep our distance from, deny this once in a lifetime moment to turn the tide of history.
To find out more about my love of Cornelius Castoriadis see as a starter.
Towards the end of a strange May Day, bereft of rallies and demonstrations, I’m posting simply the montage, my dear ‘wooly Marxist’ friend Sue Atkins has put together. However I’m hoping to follow it up with some thoughts provoked by a special Covid-19 issue of CONCEPT, the Scottish Community Education journal, especially around how might resist a return to the normal, new or old.
However in Athens the Greek Communist Party [KKE] under the banner of its trade union, PAME, protested outside the Greek Parliament today with social distancing and masks in an act of flagrant, yet disciplined and heart-warming disobedience. Let me be clear over the years the official Communist Parties have hardly been my best mates, but respect when it is due. The party measured out precisely the necessary social distancing, putting the police and government on the back foot. In the end the state and its armed body decided to keep its distance.
Over the past few weeks I’ve made untold efforts to write something useful about the present virus-induced crisis. Amidst the ‘noise’ generated by a waterfall of articles arguing that neoliberalism, its ideology of the free market and self-centred individualism, has been exposed, I seemed to have little to add and have fallen silent. Indeed the only moment when at least some words came to my mind resulted in a piece for a special COVID-19 edition of CONCEPT, the Scottish Community Education journal, which should appear soon.
In closing I’ll propose that as we return to work beyond the crisis, there is a fleeting, unmissable chance to revive our commitment to an open-ended, emancipatory dialogue with young people and the community. It will mean challenging, resisting a return to the managerialist implementation of imposed norms and expectations, the catechism of impact. Such resistance will necessitate the urgent renewal of our collective capacity in the workplace, through workers’ self-organisation and the trade unions.
At the risk of being melodramatic this unexpected rebuke of Capitalism’s arrogance and excess marks an opening we cannot afford to let slip by. Surely, we cannot wash our hands of, keep our distance from, deny this once in a lifetime moment to turn the tide of history.
Obviously this sweeping, even pretentious contention needs more explanation and exploration, which I’ll pursue when the CONCEPT special comes out. In the meantime responses to the Citizen Enquiry explained below offer the prospect of gathering evidence from the grassroots about the repercussions of the crisis on young people and youth work. I have copy and pasted from the IDYW web site. I would urge folk to be involved if at all possible.
What is going on for youth work in these current circumstances? How are young people feeling? What challenges are youth workers and organisations facing?
Janet Batsleer and others (including members of our own steering group) have come together to call for a ‘Citizen Enquiry’ to find out – and document for the future – what is happening for young people and for youth work and youth workers in the current situation. They invite youth workers and young people to contribute diaries for one day per month, starting on Tuesday 12th May. The idea is to contribute these youth work diaries to the wider Mass Observation archive. More information will come out nearer the time, but for now, do get in touch with Janet (details below) if you are interested in contributing a diary, encouraging others to contribute, and / or joining a network of citizen enquirers willing to discuss and analyse the contributions. This is a bottom-up, citizen inquiry, not run by any university or institution, hoping to attract wide support from youth workers. We will be sharing more as the project progresses.
Call for a Citizen Enquiry: Youth Work and Young People Now
We propose to host a Citizen Enquiry through the community-based youth work sector concerning what is happening for young people and what is happening to youth work and youth workers now and over the coming months.
To do this we will need a) a network of correspondents in all parts of the United Kingdom and b) a network of citizen enquirers willing to join in discussing and analysing what is emerging. The main purpose is to find out What is happening here? And what is happening for young people? We do not only want to document youth work but get a snapshot into the lives of both youth workers and young people during this time and the coming months. So this can include the weather, the atmosphere, the food, the music, the emotions…whatever you want to include you can. We will be making a contribution to the wider picture of what is happening via Mass Observation (www.massobs.org.uk)
We will ask for diary entries each month for at least one day on the first week of the month (starting in May) from youth workers and if possible also with young people they are working with. We will also join the Mass Observation diary project on 12th May. In addition, we invite short reports (memos) on the following themes:
Vulnerabilities and Precarious lives
Who is missing? How is outreach work happening?
Crisis points and meeting basic needs
What is happening online?
Fears and hopes for the future of your organisation/youth project ?
Then a group of citizen researchers from the youth work sector will meet monthly to consider what has been submitted in their area, join a national meeting to see what is emerging and, after 6 months say , decide on what to enquire into further.
This will be an independent citizen led research project.
Those involved will be invited to submit their diaries via this enquiry to the Mass Observation archive at the University of Sussex who are undertaking a record of everyday experiences of the pandemic. They will be invited to use the ethical processes associated with Mass Observation and guidance of this will be given when people join the project.
In recent weeks I’ve been trying to write something both critical and useful about the present COVID-19 crisis. My stumbling effort is put to shame upon hearing of the death of the great Greek critic and political activist, Manolis Glezos at the age of 98. Even in his final decade he was still writing, a book on social mobilisation here, a history of acronyms there.
Together with Apostolos Santis, he earned legendary status in Greece on account of their dramatic act – the date, April 30th 1941. The daring duo tore down the swastika from the Acropolis. It had been hung on the ancient monument by the occupying Nazis. In their words they determined to remove the flag as it “offended all human ideals”.
However he was to become frustrated by the attention given to this impulsive heroism, remarking that ‘everyone identifies me with the flag incident…but I had done things before that, I had done things after that, and I’m doing things now.’
Indeed he had. Across the decades Glezos was imprisoned twenty eight times by the Germans, the Italians and then by Greek governments, suffering torture and solitary confinement. At the coup d’état of 21 April 1967, Glezos was arrested as a leader of the Left Opposition. During the Regime of the Colonels, the military dictatorship led by Giorgos Papadopoulos, he was exiled until his release in 1971. Looking back on nearly 16 years of incarceration he commented:
“They say to survive in prison you should love yourself, eat and read. Well I never loved myself, I didn’t care about food but I constantly read.”
His mercurial life witnessed him struggling with the classical contradiction between the price of involvement in parliamentary politics and the necessity of an extra-parliamentary commitment to struggle from below. In fact he was elected to the Greek Parliament on four occasions prior to the 21st century, twice as a representative of the United Democratic Left in the 1960s whilst still in prison, twice in the 1980s on a PASOK ticket, at the time the Greek version of the British Labour Party. It would seem he was chastened by this latter experience, withdrawing from Parliament to devote himself to the nurturing of grass-roots democratic projects and initiatives.
This focus was inspired by his love for the short-lived, but vibrant period of Athenian democracy, which in the words of Castoriadis sowed a seed, both frail yet hardy, for the future. When elected in 1986 as President of the Apeiranthos Community Council on Naxos, his home island, he immediately sought support for abolishing the privileges of the council, promoting the creation of a People’s Assembly founded on principles of direct democracy. Evidently the experiment was successful for many years, before it ran out of democratic steam. It would be fascinating to find out more about its demise, whether, to take but one factor, it foundered on the lack of a democratic commitment within a hierarchical Greek educational system.
He returned to mainstream political activity as the new century beckoned, involved in the rise of a rainbow alliance of the radical Left, Synaspismos. which was to give birth to SYRIZA [The Coaliton of the Radical Left]. The streets, oι δρόμοι, beckoned too. In March 2010, Glezos was participating in an anti-austerity protest in Athens, when he was hit in the face by a police tear gas canister. He was carried away injured. Back in the corridors of power he was elected as a SYRIZA MP in 2012 as the new found party rose to power on a wave of popular, progressive support. Thence in 2014 he entered the EU parliament, gaining 430,000 votes, more than any other candidate in Greece. Once there he addressed the assembled by way of Euripides and Theseus, arguing that the European Union should aspire to the example afforded by Ancient Athens, a free city, free of tyranny and ruled by the many.
Unsurprisingly Glezos was appalled by SYRIZA’s capitulation to the Troika following the people’s overwhelming rejection of a deal with the creditors, expressed in the July 2015 Greek referendum. In the aftermath he is quoted as reflecting,
“I apologize to the Greek people because I took part in this illusion, let’s react before it is too late”.
For now it does seem late in the day. Political disillusionment remains the norm in my adopted country. For Glezos resistance still ran deep in his veins. In 2017 in a scene of unbearable poignance, on a rain-soaked November day, this remarkable man, 95 years of age at the time, paid lonely homage to the fallen of the 1973 Polytechnic Uprising.
Four decades of neoliberal ideology, its explicit encouragement of self-centredness has undermined our belief in the common good. Ironically Manolis Glezos dies at a moment when the collective spirit threatens to rise from the ashes. For now I’ll leave him to have a last word with regard to not forgetting the past if we are both to grasp the present and the future.
The struggle continues,
Ο αγώνας συνεχίζεται
Why do I go on? Why I am doing this when I am 92 years and two months old? I could, after all, be sitting on a sofa in slippers with my feet up. So why do I do this? You think the man sitting opposite you is Manolis but you are wrong. I am not him. And I am not him because I have not forgotten that every time someone was about to be executed [during WWII], they said: ‘Don’t forget me. When you say good morning, think of me. When you raise a glass, say my name.’ And that is what I am doing talking to you, or doing any of this. The man you see before you is all those people. And all this is about not forgetting them.
HAPPINESS AND WELL-BEING: AGENDAS OF COMPLIANCE AND CONTROL?
Notes of the opening contribution I made to the In Defence of Youth Work national conference in Birmingham on, March 22, 2019
Who could be against feeling happy and being well? Where to start?
Well, let me confess I got up this morning feeling sorry for myself, courtesy of painful sinuses. I suppose you could say I was unhappy, not so good, a bit off colour. However on arrival at the Wigan station, I bucked up, my spirits lifted on meeting my daughter Megan. We don’t see one another enough. Once aboard the train we had a wide-ranging chat, diving in and out of the personal and the political, in and out of family and work, grappling in truth with sensitive issues, given my 99-year-old mum’s funeral had taken place only a fortnight before, where we had experienced grief and relief in equal measure. Yet also we were rejoicing in the news that Logan, Meg’s 15-year-old son had been selected for the England Rugby League squad. I’m really pleased we had the chance to talk. Does this mean we were happy? I didn’t think about it at the time. I ask myself quizzically, perhaps we were? By the time though we had reached Birmingham and on our way to today’s venue, I was anxious, worried as to whether my opening to the conference was going to do the business. These fears were set aside on entering the Settlement, meeting friends and comrades – feeling that collective ‘buzz’, created by coming together in common cause. Certainly a morning of shifting emotions.
Enough of my self-centred thoughts. What strikes me is that in all its ordinariness (you will have your own versions of my morning’s ups and downs) it reveals that Happiness is an elusive character to pin down, along with its partner Unhappiness, who is never far away. This contradictory relationship is mirrored in other couplings of mood, emotion, feeling and thought – hope and fear; optimism and pessimism; excitement and anxiety (‘butterflies in the stomach’); pleasure and pain.
And, as individuals, sometimes as a group, finding ourselves in different situations, we experience these contradictions in differing ways and degrees that defy comparison, even as they are perhaps similar. We cry tears of joy. We smile through gritted teeth. I’m minded of an observation of William Blake, the visionary artist:
“The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing that stands in the way. As a man is, so he sees.”
Happiness and Unhappiness weave in and out of our daily lives. Sometimes they seem to vie for our attention in the very same moment. Perhaps it is poetry that comes closest to unravelling the complex relationship. How can you experience happiness without unhappiness, joy without sorrow? W.H. Auden in a New Year letter suggested that poetry was “the clear expression of mixed feelings”. In a more down-to-earth moment, he wrote: “In times of joy all of us wished we possessed a tail to wag.”
Or, if not poetry, exploring what happiness signifies is a philosophical journey of judgement and interpretation, demanding what Aristotle called ‘phronesis’, a concept which Jon Ord utilises brilliantly in his criticism of the instrumental emphasis today on imposing supposedly measurable, prescribed outcomes on our practice. Not content with pressing us to manufacture the emotionally resilient young person who will put up with whatever society throws at them, the National Youth Agency in its Youth Covenant now proposes we should be rendering him or her ‘happy and positive about the future’. We will return to this bizarre proposal later.
The Happiness agenda is deeply individualistic and a child of its time. For now let me propose that happiness is both visible and invisible, provisional and never guaranteed. It is not an instrument of measurement. It cannot be coached or taught. Yet how we understand Happiness and the broader notion of Well-being are vital questions. Given the restrictions of time, I am viewing Individual Well-being in the same frame as Happiness, although this is contentious. I will focus on Social Well-being as potentially a positive concept towards the end of my argument.
The briefest of historical turns
Way back in Ancient Athens, Aristotle famously viewed happiness as flowing from a flourishing and virtuous life. Perchance he lived in unusual times. Centuries later, Hegel, the great German philosopher, observed, “History is not the soil in which happiness grows. Periods of happiness are the blank pages of history.” Indeed the majority of humanity has led a tough existence, often miserable and grim, much less flourishing.
Classically across the ages religion has sought to offer hope, purpose and consolation. As a church-going child I remember (or is it a trick of my memory) being struck by the similarity between the ending of fairy stories, ‘happily ever after’ and the heavenly promise ‘happy in the hereafter’. Evidently, happiness was not to be found in either real-life or on earth.
The capitalist class in recent times paid scant attention to the happiness of those, who laboured under its yoke. As Max Weber stressed its main concern was with the physical health and discipline of the working class. However, the emergence of social psychology, especially in the USA, was closely tied to the world of business, management and profit. On the back of this relationship, Happiness rose up the agenda. As Will Davies notes, one of its pioneering works was Dill Scott’s 1903 ‘The Theory and Psychology of Advertising’ – an exercise in the conscious manipulation of our needs and desires, their sense of what happiness should be. This transatlantic example aside, given that history suggests a lack of interest by the powerful in the happiness of the powerless, at what point does it become an increasing contemporary concern for governments, corporations and the Davos elite?
From social democracy to neoliberalism
To address this question is to visit the history of someone like myself, born in the aftermath of the 2nd World War, into a previous era of austerity. Except that through the 1950s to the 1970s what is often termed a social democratic consensus prevailed within which all parties supported government intervention and the creation of the Welfare State. I don’t know whether anyone from on high said we should be happy but Harold MacMillan, a Tory Prime Minister of the time did claim that, ‘we’d never had it so good’. I didn’t know any better. Despite rationing and an absence of luxuries, we lived in a comfortable, affordable council house. I went to the newly built primary school on the estate. As I grew older it seemed right and proper that my Higher Education was free and, given my parents’ low income, that I got the full grant, a princely £105 per year. After all, I would be repaying my debt to a caring society, to the common good, by becoming a committed teacher. As Liz Heron notes, quoted in Lynne Segal,
“Along with the orange juice and cod-liver oil, the free school milk, we seemed to absorb a sense of our own worth and a sense that the future gets better and better as if history was on our side”.
Ironically as I began both to teach and do some part-time youth work (a bit of money on the side) the consensus was unravelling as class struggle re-emerged. Symbolically Margaret Thatcher, the Education Minister in 1971, ‘Thatcher the Milk Snatcher’, got rid of free school milk for Juniors and above, signalling that life was going to change. Less than a decade later Thatcherism was the name given to an aggressive neoliberal capitalism, hostile to the State, contemptuous of the collective, armed with a quasi-religious belief in the market, caught in Thatcher’s infamous quote that “there is no such thing as society, only individual men and women and families”. As for the Higher Education system which had spawned dissidents like me, she sneered, “the problem with HE is that it is equipping people to criticise and question everything’” Happy she was not, and determined to take her revenge.
If we are to sum up neoliberalism, now dominant for four decades, in one word it would be privatisation. Not just in the obvious sense of putting public services into private hands, but crucially in terms of our discussion about Happiness and Well-Being, wanting to privatise the way in which we see ourselves and others, turn us in on ourselves. It has been a behavioural modification project on the grandest scale, the attempted and singularly successful attempt to make of us possessive, egocentric individuals, for whom happiness is the ceaseless consumption of commodities, shopping the elixir of existence.
The Happiness Industry
Gradually as neoliberalism has become dominant the media presents its way of seeing the world as common sense, normal, even eternal, claiming there is no alternative. And a significant element in neoliberalism’s propaganda machine is what Will Davies dubs the Happiness Industry supported by the development of Happiness Science- a multi-billion pound project complete with an array of gurus, technocrats, research scientists, psychologists, physiologists and more than a few charlatans.
Crucially since its rise to importance in the early 1990s, it has reflected both neoliberalism’s insistence on the self-regulating and self-sufficient individual and neoliberalism’s reluctant recognition that all is not well; that its way of seeing the world is not necessarily a happy one. In this context, the financial bubble having burst in 2008, it is vital that we experience our unhappiness, our dismay as emanating from our personal inadequacies and not at all from the social inequality and injustice at the centre of neoliberal policies.
Within the Happiness Industry Will Davies points to psychologists and economists busting a gut to find a common measure of happiness; to neuroscientists scanning our brains to locate neural patterns related to our subjective feelings. One paper claimed to have found specific neural circuits, one dealing with pleasure, the other with price. How convenient! We witness physiologists focused on our bodily activity, aided by all manner of apps with fitness coaches urging us on. Evidently, you can now download Moodtracking, Track your Happiness or even Mappiness. We find doctors and psychiatrists, identifying and diagnosing growing conditions of unhappiness, prescribing drugs to resolve the anxiety. Hence the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health (Version 5) has indeed indicated that to be unhappy, to grieve for more than 2 weeks after the loss of a loved one is to be considered a mental illness. A drug ‘Welbutrin’ will evidently sort your troubles out. Last but not least, the Industry’s marketing arm hosts a parade of publishers and a gaggle of gurus producing books, self-help manuals, organising life-changing courses, all in the service of our happiness.
Talking of gurus brings us to Martin Seligman, the creator of the brand, Positive Psychology, who having forged this step forward for humanity, patents his Authentic Happiness Inventory and runs multiple therapeutic conversations online at 2,000 dollars a touch. As Barbara Ehrenreich observes, the positive thinking movement lays the blame for misfortune firmly in the mind of the unfortunate. According to the PosPsy mantra, Happiness is a personal choice and to be happy is to have an advantage in the competition for increased status, power and more money. Every success, every failure is down to willpower or the lack of it, to individual desire and effort. To be negative is almost sinful. The key to happiness is to master your mind.
In the workplace, once a site of collective struggle, the pissed-off worker is more likely to be sick than join a trade union or be present but disinterested, a condition now named ‘presenteeism’ as opposed to absenteeism. Into this alienating and oppressive environment, the Happiness and Well-Being consultants are summoned.
A friend of mine and an exceptional youth worker was a few years ago a critical voice as a Youth Service was dismembered. She was seen as a pain in the arse by management but refused to be silenced. Frustrated management forced her to go on a Wellness training course. As my friend spoke about her situation the response of the Wellness trainer was to refuse to engage with the issue of bullying and intimidation in the workplace. The problem was her attitude. This had to change not the institution.
Worried about the morale of its workforce Barclays Bank ( the outfit guilty of all manner of deceit in the 2008 banking crisis, but now rehabilitated and the purveyor via TV advertising of Barclays Life Skills) warns its disenchanted employees.
“Today’s brain-based economy puts a premium on cerebral skills in which cognition is the ignition of productivity and innovation. Your depression attacks that vital asset.”
Some positive psychologists suggest that lack of ‘engagement’ by workers is contagious and that workers not responding to well-being interventions should be sacked. Ehrenreich quotes from a motivational speech to a group of fixed-term contract workers, encouraging them to be good team players, to be positive, to smile frequently, not complain, but gratefully do as one is told …… so that employer and employee will be happy and competitive in harmony together.
However, I’ve chosen not to dissect the particular approaches taken in the eclectic Happiness Industry, e.g. Mindfulness with its debt to Buddhism. I have my doubts about this, that or the other, but my main point is that these techniques are overwhelmingly put into the service of the individualist agenda and ignore the social and political. It would be remiss though not to mention the widespread use of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy [CBT] in tangling with people’s anxieties and dilemmas. All the more so as the NYA is organising CBT training courses for youth workers this coming summer. Certainly, CBT, championed by such as Richard Layard, New Labour’s ‘happiness tsar’ has been the cheap, go to therapy in the NHS with its tight structure and timescale. Focusing utterly on the present and refusing to deal with the past, it has had limited success in offering useful tips and cues in relation to the specific concerns but is in no sense a holistic approach. It desires behaviour that is predictable and is suspicious of complication and contradiction. Ironically you can now access computerised CBT treatment online, ‘Beating the Blues’ and dispense with the therapist [or indeed perhaps the youth worker?].
I could go on about the insidious nature of the Happiness Industry’s view of the human condition, but I’ll mark for now that we should not underestimate that this attempted science of human sentiment with its access to a mind-boggling amount of data that we ‘naively’ provide, aims to monitor, manage and manipulate our feelings. And we are complicit in our surveillance. Will Davies wonders if we are moving to a society designed and regulated as a vast laboratory, within which we are unavoidably imprisoned? The question emerges, to what extent are we already bit-players, part-time employees in this Happiness Industry? Certainly, teachers and lecturers are now on board, pressured to deliver a Happiness curriculum in schools and universities.
The National Youth Agency is very keen, taking leave of its critical senses in my view in its Youth Covenant, which promises amongst other things that we will render young people happy and positive about the future, underpinned by the deeply problematic theory of adolescent developmental psychology. Evidently, as Hans Skott-Mhyre suggests we are asked to be “the missionaries of development, spreading the good word of adulthood as salvation from the storm and stress of adolescence”. In the words of the NYA Covenant, we are the adults who know what is needed, a position utterly at odds with a Youth Work tradition, which seeks to negotiate a relationship with young people within which we don’t claim to know what is best. There’s more than a whiff in the NYA’s pretentious claim of the Happiness Industry’s emphasis on experts knowing better than us how we feel. It shares too the Industry’s utter unwillingness to ground its relations with people, young people, in their actual lived circumstances.
Facing the Future
For a moment let’s compare my generation’s optimism that the future was going to get better, that history was on our side, with the situation facing young people today. It’s utterly legitimate, sense-making and not at all negative for young people to feel things are getting worse and that history’s face is set firmly against them.
The future is precarious. It’s not for nothing that the ‘precariat’ has replaced the proletariat. Berardi, the Italian critic declares that the future has been cancelled. Young people experience a world of short-term contracts, low wages, mounting unmanageable debt, little or no access to affordable housing, asked to hide their insecurities by projecting an upbeat self, a commodity with a smiling face, forced to be part of a cult of compulsory happiness. Looming over them (and of course ourselves) are the consequences of neoliberalism’s casino capitalism, where the rich get richer and the poor poorer, where its inability to face the consequences of perpetual, unfettered production and ceaseless consumption threatens the future of humanity.
And let me make a crucial point, young people are not just young people, a homogeneous category. The precarious experience outlined above is experienced in general but also in specific ways, according to the mixture that is a young person’s identity, informed by class, gender, race, sexuality, disability and faith. Austerity has spawned rising prejudice and xenophobia. It has also fed growing misanthropy, a lack of trust in others.
What kind of illusion allows some to suggest that young people should feel happy and positive in this depressing scenario? Unhappiness is a legitimate and even necessary response to injustice and exploitation. Anger and indignation perfectly in order. In a spirit of critical negativity and resistance, I’ll outline some possible areas for us to explore. The prevailing view of Happiness and Well-Being is thoroughly individualistic. Rather than beginning with the body politic, it refers only to the body personal. We must turn this upside down.
Let me propose to you a way of exploring social well-being through a triangle of the Material, the Relational and the Subjective., drawing on the work of Sarah White.
For example, thinking about well-being at the level of a community, electoral ward, village, the catchment area of a youth club – what we often called the community profile.
The material would involve looking at income levels, levels of debt, quality of housing, employment opportunities, the presence of public services, the range of amenities, the quality of the environment. The relational would involve investigating the makeup of the community in terms of class, gender, race, etc.; the diversity of supportive organisations from churches, sports clubs to activist groups; relations with the law, with welfare agencies, with schools, with the youth club; and the history of collective action. The subjective would involve the community’s sense of identity; its hopes and fears; its sense of its place in the wider society.
This outline is sketchy but I think it has possibilities and my challenge would be to ask you to take back into your projects a willingness to embrace this larger picture of well-being as a prerequisite for exploring well-being at an individual level.
Political Well-Being and Collective Joy
What needs to be added to the triangle is a more explicitly political dimension. What sort of power has the collective, the demos, over the conditions of its well-being? The question brings us to the crucial issue of an authentic democracy. Interestingly Hannah Arendt talks of ‘public happiness’, which she sees as the active and enthusiastic participation of people in the creation of norms, laws and institutions which serve the common good. William Morris called for the liberation of the desire to question all existing values, knowing together we can create values most pertinent to the common good. Lyman Sargent and Ruth Levitas speak of the collective longing for an improvement of the human condition, of the need for utopian rather than dystopian imaginings. In drawing our attention to these radical democrats Lynne Segal argues for the revival of collective joy, that uplifting sense of being at one with others in struggling to prove ‘another world is possible’.
Some of us in this room have been privileged to share such moments. Forgive the personal recollection, I am talking about years ago now, for example, the startling impact of the Women’s Caucus on the Community and Youth Workers Union in the early 1980s (gendered collective joy?) or being together, men and women, freezing on an early morning picket line during the Miners Strike. Nostalgia aside I believe the young people on Climate Change Strike last week felt something of the same festive joy, all the more intense when in Goethe’s words, ‘the festival is not really given to the people, but one that the people give to themselves’. I suspect too the idea of collective joy can be much less politically explicit – making or listening to music, dancing together, being in a team together (although in sport where there is collective joy, isn’t there collective misery?) [Or as Janet Batsleer pointed out in the ensuing discussion what do we make of a collective joy inspired by fascist ideas? It would be good to explore this further.]
In Praise of Resistance
I want to argue strenuously that we should resist being incorporated into the Happiness industry, but should try to develop a politicised and collectivised sense of Social Well-Being. which ought to be at the heart of our relationships with young people.
I would suggest that the best of the open-ended youth work tradition has something significant to contribute to what ultimately is a struggle for democracy, what Castoriadis terms the struggle for the inextricably interrelated notions of individual and social autonomy, ‘taking control of our lives’ in concert with one another. Recently I’ve taken to suggesting that a young person-centred practice, within which listening intently is the bedrock, within which learning from one another in a critical dialogue is central, might be seen as a form of what Rosi Braidotti calls ‘intimate democracy’. Thus youth work produces a proliferation of intimate democracies important in and for themselves, but also a preparatory and essential ingredient in the flowering of direct democracy, Arendt’s arena of ‘public happiness’.
Lest I be misunderstood as a miserabilist, I hope that youth work is full of fun, play and moments of happiness – ‘the wild zones and free spaces’ lauded by Filip Coussee and Guy Redigand ‘the dancing in the streets’ recorded by Ehrenreich. Inevitably though there will be awkward moments of challenge, argument and tension too. There will be tears of joy and sorrow in any honest relationship.
Let me finish by remembering a meeting of a few years ago, a Social Work conference in Durham, where the final plenary was held in the church-like hall of the NUM Headquarters. On the platform was a diminutive woman in her late 70’s, she began sotto-voce asking us ‘were we sitting comfortably?’ Then as we shuffled our bums, the pews were hard on our posteriors, she posed the question afresh and then shook the hall to its rafters with a ringing ‘well you bloody well shouldn’t be!’, before cataloguing the misery inflicted on her community as a result of pit closures. Her heartfelt cry can be inspiring, but also off-putting. In the face of such a call to arms, we can feel overwhelmed. However, at the very least if we claim to be critically reflective practitioners committed to social justice we are obliged to scrutinise what we are up to, where we are up to in challenging the self-absorption of much of the Happiness and Well-Being agenda.
To paraphrase a classic humanist concern:
‘I cannot feel well unless you too feel well’. ‘I cannot be happy if you are not happy too’.
Thanks for listening.
A glaring omission in the above is the lack of attention paid to the need for love and sexual intimacy in the pursuit of happiness, which in itself poses the question of to what extent is this discussed in youth work? As to its significance across history, it’s only necessary to point to the tradition of love songs traced in Love Songs: The Hidden History by Ted Gioia.
POSSIBLE READING – hopefully I’ve indicated sufficiently my debt to these writers
The Happiness Industry: How the Government and Big Business Sold Us Well-Being by William Davies, Verso 2016
Radical Happiness: Moments of Collective Joy by Lynne Segal, Verso 2018
Bright-sided: How Positive Thinking Is Undermining America by Barbara Ehrenreich, Picador 2010
Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy by Barbara Ehrenreich, Picador 2007