From well-be­ing to well-liv­ing:

To­wards a post-cap­i­tal­ist un­der­stand­ing of qual­ity of life

AQ: Australian Quarterly - - CONTENTS - DR S. A. HAMED HOSSEINI

Aus­tralians are told that they live in one of the top 10 rich­est coun­tries in the world in terms of GDP per capita, and that they en­joy a level of ‘well-be­ing’ or ‘qual­ity-oflife’ higher than many other ad­vanced so­ci­eties. Aus­tralia is ranked third af­ter Nor­way and Den­mark on the OECD Bet­ter Life In­dex, a new in­dex de­vel­oped to mea­sure na­tions’ well­be­ing more in­clu­sively than the older meth­ods that fo­cused on wealth or in­come. This in­dex in­cludes non-mone­tary as­pects of so­cial life such as em­ploy­ment, en­vi­ron­ment and ed­u­ca­tion.

Although such shifts in our un­der­stand­ing of well­be­ing must be wel­comed, the con­cept of well­be­ing hasn’t been lib­er­ated from its un­der­ly­ing hege­monic po­lit­i­cal agen­das, and has be­come even more com­pli­cated by an in­creas­ing pub­lic, state and cor­po­rate in­ter­est.

For many peo­ple, hap­pi­ness is in­creas­ingly eval­u­ated by dig­i­tal tools that con­stantly mon­i­tor a wide range of vari­ables – daily step tar­gets, calo­rie in­take, stress level, spend­ing habits, etc. – pro­vid­ing an in­cred­i­ble source of in­come to the tow­er­ing ‘hap­pi­ness in­dus­try’. 1

Track­ing our per­sonal health and ‘life goals’ has be­come a nor­malised and – some­times ob­ses­sive – phe­nom­e­non. A pop­u­lar in­tel­lec­tual project, with a strong tech­no­cratic tone, seems now to be at work to con­stantly as­sess, com­pare and pro­mote peo­ple’s hap­pi­ness.

Yet the ques­tion of how to re­alise a good life as a ‘state of be­ing’ and/or to eval­u­ate what a good life ‘achieves’ (either sub­jec­tively or ob­jec­tively) is an an­cient one. So are the dis­agree­ments – es­pe­cially for elite thinkers in both the West­ern and East­ern an­tiq­ui­ties. These elites were di­vided by a pro­found am­bi­gu­ity known as the du­al­ism of he­do­nic vs. eu­de­monic tra­di­tions.

The chang­ing face of hap­pi­ness

He­donists de­fined hap­pi­ness as ob­tain­ing plea­sure and avoid­ing pain. A mod­ern ver­sion of this ap­proach ar­gues that ‘be­ing fi­nan­cially well-off’ (as an in­di­vid­ual or a na­tion) would inevitably lead us to liv­ing well and happy.

In con­trast, the eu­de­monists equated well­be­ing with the ac­tu­al­i­sa­tion of hu­man po­ten­tials and pos­i­tive func­tion­ing in the com­mu­nity. Ac­cord­ing to them, well­be­ing is more than just hap­pi­ness – in fact hap­pi­ness might not even be present in sit­u­a­tions as­so­ci­ated with well­be­ing, given that self-ful­fil­ment is nor­mally as­so­ci­ated with hard work and pain.

The his­tor­i­cal quar­rel has cen­tred on the ques­tion of which path hu­man­ity should pur­sue, and if these two ways of un­der­stand­ing well­be­ing are in­com­pat­i­ble af­ter all.

Pre-cap­i­tal­ist dom­i­nant dis­courses an­swered this ques­tion by ad­vo­cat­ing the eu­de­monic way of life for the masses and rec­om­mend­ing a rel­a­tively self-con­tained he­do­nic ap­proach for the rulers, in or­der for the rulers to not over­spend their pop­u­lar le­git­i­macy bud­get.

Vir­tual no­tions of well­be­ing, man­u­fac­tured through com­mu­ni­tar­ian cul­tures and re­li­gious au­thor­i­ties, ar­gued that it is merely through the in­di­vid­ual’s sub­mis­sion to the pre-es­tab­lished rules, norms, tra­di­tions and val­ues that the ul­ti­mate flour­ish­ing of self and the pur­pose of life can be achieved. The for­mula was/is that good faith = good fate, as if what counts as ‘flour­ish­ing’ is fixed for all time.

With the West­ern ex­pan­sion of colo­nial­ist cap­i­tal­ism, the idea of he­do­nic

The ques­tion of how to re­alise a good life and/or to eval­u­ate what a good life ‘achieves’ is an an­cient one. So are the dis­agree­ments

well­be­ing gained greater mo­men­tum over its eu­de­monic ri­val. The new rul­ing class recog­nised how the in­di­vid­ual’s end­less crav­ing for plea­sure and com­fort can be a great source of profit and be lever­aged by a sys­tem that as­sumes nat­u­ral re­sources are in­fin­itely ex­ploitable.

The ar­rival of the holy dol­lar co­in­cided in with the wan­ing power of the re­li­gious au­thor­i­ties in Europe, and nu­mer­ous sec­u­lar and ra­tio­nal­ist ide­o­log­i­cal ma­chiner­ies were set up to deal with the task of re­defin­ing hap­pi­ness and well­be­ing. New schools of thought emerged to pro­vide the mod­ern sec­u­lar pol­i­tics with a moral frame­work to de­fine what hu­man suc­cess looked like.

Con­trac­tu­al­ists, like Hobbes and Rousseau, based their moral frame­work on prin­ci­ples every­one would agree to in ideal sit­u­a­tions and placed hap­pi­ness as the stand­alone plan for this life within the frame­work of so­cial con­tracts.

Lib­eral psy­chol­ogy held the in­di­vid­ual re­spon­si­ble for find­ing the bal­ance be­tween re­al­ity and ex­pec­ta­tion ( hap­pi­ness = re­al­ity – ex­pec­ta­tion); lower your ex­pec­ta­tion if re­al­ity is not on your side.

Util­i­tar­i­an­ists went even fur­ther by turn­ing well­be­ing into a moral cri­te­rion, an ul­ti­mate aim of this life, a right­ness of ac­tions that can­not be ques­tioned. Util­i­tar­ian well­be­ing ( plea­sure – pain = well­be­ing) had a

strong so­cial di­men­sion (max­i­mum plea­sure for max­i­mum num­ber of peo­ple) but its def­i­ni­tions of pain and plea­sure re­mained highly sub­jec­tive, too de­mand­ing to be fea­si­ble and the ef­forts to quan­tify it through uni­ver­sal in­dexes turned out to be im­prac­ti­cal to many crit­ics, in­clud­ing the Crit­i­cal So­cial Sciences.

Crit­i­cal So­cial Sciences have raised the ques­tion of the dis­tri­bu­tion of well­be­ing and the di­ver­sity of con­texts, and high­lighted the pol­i­tics be­hind this in­tel­lec­tual project. De­spite the ex­ist­ing dis­putes and di­ver­si­ties, many of the com­pet­ing West­ern ap­proaches, whether ortho­dox or het­ero­dox, share a num­ber of un­der­ly­ing as­sump­tions, and al­most all tend to be based on dom­i­nant ra­tio­nal­ist West­ern/north­ern per­spec­tives. 2

With the demise of the ‘wel­fare state’, af­ter the free mar­ket revo­lu­tion in the 1980s, the idea of im­prov­ing in­di­vid­ual’s ‘well­be­ing’ was sold to the pub­lic as the ul­ti­mate goal of the so-called ‘car­ing cor­po­rate cap­i­tal­ism’.

This sen­ti­ment con­tin­ues to­day, with ‘so­cial wel­fare’ in­creas­ingly seen as a bur­den too heavy for the state to carry alone in this age of lower taxes for the rich. In a cun­ning twist, a promis­ing new im­age of ‘well­be­ing’ has emerged, one that fully de­volves re­spon­si­bil­ity for an in­di­vid­ual’s well­be­ing onto the in­di­vid­ual while cre­at­ing new faith in the magic of mar­ket and cap­i­tal. This

The for­mula was/is that good faith = good fate, as if what counts as ‘flour­ish­ing’ is fixed for all time.

in­de­pen­dent con­sumer model of well­be­ing fur­ther re­duces the role of the state to sim­ply a provider of in­sti­tu­tional sup­port for the mar­ket in its mis­sion to max­imise well­be­ing for all. Both the cen­tre right and the cen­tre left po­lit­i­cal forces in the West share a great deal of in­ter­est in this project.

Iron­i­cally, the erup­tion of the global fi­nan­cial cri­sis (GFC) in 2008 did not weaken the mod­ern well­be­ing dis­course. Rather, it helped the dis­course to be­come even more so­phis­ti­cated by bring­ing el­e­ments of the eu­de­monic tra­di­tion back in the form of shared suf­fer­ing for the com­mu­nal good.

Whereas eco­nomics has his­tor­i­cally been de­fined as the science of man­ag­ing scarce re­sources, post-gfc pro­gres­sive re­vi­sion­ists are shift­ing the fo­cus from ‘mea­sur­ing’ pro­duc­tion to ‘mea­sur­ing’ qual­ity-of-life; “the goal of eco­nomics is [now] to en­hance our well-be­ing”. 3

This move has also played well in the hands of eco­nomic con­ser­va­tives. If well­be­ing is more than hap­pi­ness, and re­quire sac­ri­fices and pain to achieve a higher sta­tus of self-flour­ish­ing and max­i­mum plea­sure for the ma­jor­ity, then eco­nomic aus­ter­ity can be morally jus­ti­fied.

Yet the more peo­ple are delinked from the state’s pro­tec­tion un­der aus­ter­ity regimes, the more they be­come de­pen­dent on non-state forces to pur­sue hap­pi­ness: from pos­i­tive psy­chol­o­gists, to the fit­ness in­dus­try, to al­ter­na­tive medicine, to the gi­ant debt in­dus­try that en­cour­ages con­sumers to spend even in an age of fewer state safety nets and eco­nomic stag­na­tion.

The more the pub­lic sec­tor is colonised by the cor­po­rate sec­tor – through pri­vati­sa­tion or con­trolled by man­age­ri­al­ist tech­nocrats from within – the more the ac­quire­ment of ‘well­be­ing’ (as a process or out­come) will pri­mar­ily be­come the re­spon­si­bil­ity of the in­di­vid­ual.

This de-politi­ci­sa­tion of own per­sonal well­be­ing and health clearly serves the in­ter­est of the rul­ing class and their pol­icy mak­ers, by blam­ing the in­di­vid­u­als for their so-called bad choices. So­ci­eties how­ever have not been ap­a­thetic to­wards the com­mod­i­fi­ca­tion of well­be­ing (i.e. treat­ing well­be­ing and health as com­mod­ity). Re­claim­ing the com­mons, the state, and pub­lic spa­ces where the ‘qual­ity of life’ is mainly de­ter­mined, has been one of the ma­jor de­mands of many re­cent pro­gres­sive move­ments. Such move­ments have in­spired many of their ac­tors to re­think the main­stream no­tions of well­be­ing.

Suma qumaña

Trans­for­ma­tive move­ments against ne­olib­eral glob­al­ism, mostly from the global South, have ques­tioned the well­be­ing dis­course since the early 2000s, by high­light­ing cul­tural speci­fici­ties, the cen­tral­ity of com­mu­nal life, and the crit­i­cal­ity of eco­log­i­cal en­vi­ron­ments. 4

These are all is­sues that can hardly be mea­sured, let alone be ad­dressed, by the main­stream Euro­cen­tric ap­proaches to well­be­ing.

In the early 2000s, as one ex­am­ple among many, the aug­ment­ing indige­nous move­ments in post-ne­olib­eral Latin Amer­ica (Ecuador and Bo­livia) – draw­ing on the legacy of their pre­cap­i­tal­ist liv­ing epis­temes and post/ colo­nial ex­pe­ri­ences – raised the idea of buen vivir, sumak kawsay, or suma qa­maña (‘liv­ing well to­gether’) and strug­gled to trans­late it into gov­ern­ment poli­cies or leg­isla­tive re­forms.

De­spite the in­built ten­sions within the dis­course and the po­lit­i­cal com­pli­ca­tions, the core idea is that na­ture, com­mu­nity and in­di­vid­u­als all share the same metaphysical or spir­i­tual di­men­sion. There­fore, achiev­ing and


main­tain­ing a psy­cho-spir­i­tual state


The more peo­ple are delinked from the state’s pro­tec­tion un­der aus­ter­ity regimes, the more they be­come de­pen­dent on non-state forces to pur­sue hap­pi­ness.

Well-liv­ing is about en­hanc­ing the ca­pac­ity of in­di­vid­u­als to care for and to pro­mote the well­be­ing of their com­mu­ni­ties and their en­vi­ron­ment in the most col­lab­o­ra­tive way pos­si­ble.

of har­mony within the self (among its dif­fer­ent func­tions like rea­son­ing and emo­tions) and be­tween selves and na­ture, is a vir­tu­ous and thereby a self-ful­fill­ing way of life that needs to be pur­sued at all lev­els from the per­sonal to the po­lit­i­cal.

In re­sponse to the para­doxes and in­ad­e­qua­cies of main­stream well­be­ing dis­courses, and in­spired by such rad­i­cal trans­for­ma­tive voices in the global South that ad­vo­cate for post-ne­olib­eral fu­tures, I aim to ini­ti­ate an ar­gu­ment

6 for both the plau­si­bil­ity and in­dis­pens­abil­ity of a pro­found shift in our un­der­stand­ing of peo­ple’s well­be­ing.

‘ Well-liv­ing’ (a term I coin and ad­vo­cate for here) can func­tion at least as a di­a­log­i­cal po­ten­tial, to rep­re­sent a tran­si­tion in how we un­der­stand what qual­ity of life is with­out cre­at­ing con­tra­dic­tions be­tween the in­di­vid­ual and the com­mu­nal, the ma­te­rial and the sub­jec­tive. Well-liv­ing is about en­hanc­ing the ca­pac­ity of in­di­vid­u­als to care for and to pro­mote the well­be­ing of their com­mu­ni­ties and their en­vi­ron­ment in the most col­lab­o­ra­tive way pos­si­ble, through gen­uinely demo­cratic or consensual mech­a­nisms.

The ques­tion here is not pri­mar­ily about how far ‘my’ eco­log­i­cal and com­mu­nal con­di­tions are suit­able to ‘me’ to ob­tain more plea­sure and avoid pain (ac­cord­ing to the he­do­nic views) or even to ful­fil ‘my’ true self (ac­cord­ing to the self-ori­ented eu­de­monic per­spec­tives). Well-liv­ing, at the so­ci­etal level, is not just a sum or av­er­age of in­di­vid­u­als’ well­be­ings.

Well-liv­ing, as a gen­eral frame­work rather than a fixed no­tion, is about (1) en­abling the Self and Oth­ers, (2) di­ver­si­fy­ing ex­pe­ri­ences, (3) pro­mot­ing equal­ity and self-suf­fi­ciency, (4) pro­mot­ing rec­i­proc­ity and con­vivi­al­ity, and (5) a peace­ful co­ex­is­tence. I would like to warn, from the out­set, that such an idea must not be turned into an­other rei­fied no­tion (even with a dis­sent­ing ges­ture).

Well-liv­ing can only be re­alised in a so­ci­ety where all in­di­vid­u­als have equal ac­cess to the op­por­tu­ni­ties and re­sources nec­es­sary to meet their ba­sic needs, achieve sus­tain­able com­fort and re­fine­ment with­out com­pro­mis­ing the planet’s eco­log­i­cal ca­pac­ity to sus­tain it­self and life, and to achieve a per­sist­ing har­mony with na­ture (now the most op­pressed, voice­less en­tity in hu­man his­tory).

Well-liv­ing is there­fore about the cre­ation of har­mony within the in­di­vid­ual, be­tween the in­di­vid­u­als and be­tween the cul­ture and na­ture. This state of har­mony how­ever can­not be achieved when there are many forces of dishar­mony, like cap­i­tal­ism and con­sumerism, at work. This there­fore inevitably be­comes a grass­roots po­lit­i­cal project – partly a po­lit­i­cal de­mand from be­low for a non-re­formism re­form of the state and econ­omy, and partly a col­lec­tive prac­tice that can be ex­er­cised through com­mu­nity build­ing wher­ever pos­si­ble.

Can well-liv­ing co­ex­ist with cap­i­tal­ism? Well-liv­ing can­not be universally de­fined or de­ter­mined. Rather it needs to be de­fined con­tex­tu­ally ac­cord­ing to cul­tural sys­tems that give mean­ing and pur­pose to life and cre­ate so­cial bondages, given that they are sub­ject to open de­lib­er­a­tions within pub­lic spheres.

There­fore, the com­plex­i­ties of every given con­text will be taken into ac­count when op­er­a­tional­is­ing well-liv­ing as an ab­stract no­tion into a praxis. More­over, it is not the level of ac­cess to the means of pro­duc­tion and sub­sis­tence that de­ter­mine well-liv­ing but more how demo­crat­i­cally the ac­cess and con­trol is de­ter­mined.

Such a non-cap­i­tal­ist no­tion of ‘qual­ity of life’ is needed to be­come the cen­ter of our trans­for­ma­tive grass­roots projects when imag­in­ing or plan­ning al­ter­na­tive modes of liveli­hood and so­cia­bil­ity be­yond, car­bon, cap­i­tal and growth.


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