Anti-Hedonism

David Marquand

  • Politics and the Pursuit of Happiness: An Inquiry into the Involvement of Human Beings in the Politics of Industrial Society by Ghita Ionescu
    Longman, 248 pp, £16.50, September 1984, ISBN 0 582 29549 1

For neo-liberals and neo-socialists, the deepening crisis with which this and other advanced industrial societies have been grappling since the early Seventies is essentially economic – a matter of insufficient competition, or inadequate investment, or lax monetary management, or deflationary fiscal policies, to be put right by the appropriate bag of economic tricks. Those who belong to what Roy Jenkins once called the ‘radical centre’ rightly reject the economism of their rivals. For them, the crisis is not only, or even mainly, economic, but political as well. Yet even the ‘radical centre’ has so far seen it in a curiously narrow perspective. There has been a lot of talk about institutional change – electoral reform, trade-union reform, reform of the social security system, industrial democracy, a new ministry of education and training, a Freedom of Information Act, a Bill of Rights. But on the fundamental questions of value and purpose, on the answers to which any worthwhile programme of institutional change must be based, little has been said.

Against that background, Ghita Ionescu’s passionate, subtle and moving cry of protest against the emptiness and inhumanity of the twin ideologies of East and West takes on a double significance. Ionescu has spent the last twenty years analysing the political economy of industrial society, first in the Soviet bloc and more recently in the countries of the EEC. His chief conclusion, expressed most powerfully in his Centripetal Politics nine years ago, is that industrial societies are, above all, interdependent. They break down unless a multitude of functional groups co-operate in the process of production. The more advanced the society, the more numerous these groups, and the more essential their co-operation. That co-operation, moreover, must be freely willed: and it will not be freely willed unless it emerges naturally from a process of consultation and bargaining. A society of peasants can be whipped into obedience. A society of skilled technicians will balk like a mule unless the groups of which it is composed have a chance to influence the decisions that affect them.

Thus the neo-liberal doctrine that resources should be allocated through the competitive market is as obsolete as the neo-socialist doctrine that they should be allocated by a directive state. Advanced industrial production is about co-operation, not about competition: about working together, not about doing each other down; about competence, quality and service, not about buying in the cheapest market and selling in the dearest. And in an advanced industrial society, the state cannot direct: it can, at most, persuade. If such a society is to function properly, the state must therefore establish ‘partnerships’ with the producer groups on whose co-operation it depends; and since some of these groups operate across national frontiers, it must establish ‘partnerships’ with supranational authorities capable of regulating those operations.

When Centripetal Politics was published, the crisis of the Seventies and Eighties had only just begun. Memories of the long postwar boom were still fresh. A revival, possibly under new and better management, still seemed to be on the cards. Though symptoms of political dislocation were only too evident to those who cared to look for them, they could be dismissed as hiccoughs, which would disappear of their own accord when growth resumed. Even those who took a longer view had grounds for hope. Industrial society was clearly more difficult to govern than it had been twenty years before, but – in Britain as elsewhere – it looked as though the difficulties were being tackled. We had joined the EEC under Heath and successfully renegotiated the terms of our membership under Wilson. As in most of the rest of Western Europe, what the French called concertation and we called ‘tripartism’ was the order of the day. In office, the Conservatives had painlessly abandoned the neo-liberal flourishes of their 1970 Election Manifesto. The Labour Government was busily doing the same with the neo-socialist flourishes which dominated its campaign in 1974. Albeit slowly, painfully and with many backward glances, we seemed to be taking the road which Ionescu had sketched out. Appropriately enough, his tone was one of cautious optimism.

The tone now is much more sombre. In the intervening nine years, the hopes of the Seventies have collapsed. The ‘partnerships’ whose growth he described in Centripetal Politics have withered, and in some cases died. Britain remains in the EEC, but grudgingly, suspiciously and sulkily, like a tourist in a strange city, so terrified of being cheated by the waiters that he will not go into the restaurants. At home, we have abandoned the slow, necessary drudgery of industrial consensus-building for the quick fix of market liberalism. The state is more distant from the producer groups than it has been since the Twenties, perhaps since the First World War. Even more alarmingly, the producer groups are also more distant from each other. Partly as cause, and partly as consequence, the crisis has become deeper and more perplexing. No one now looks forward to an early recovery. Many doubt if there will be a recovery at all, in any sense which would have been understood in the Fifties or Sixties. Worse still, no one has offered a plausible explanation. Industrial humanity seems to be adrift in a sea which it has not charted.

In this book, Ionescu has tried to fill the most important part of the gap – to lay bare what he believes to be the moral and psychological roots of the crisis, in the hope that, in doing so, he will help us to understand its dynamics. It is a rich, complex, ruminative book, full of intriguing detours and sometimes cryptic asides. Though it is quite short, it covers an enormous quantity of ground – from the nature of tragedy and the philosophy of Unamuno to the Jacobin terror, the works of John Stuart Mill, the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia and the threat of nuclear annihilation. Though the author is a distinguished academic, it is not a conventional academic study. It is a personal statement, a cry from the heart. Perhaps because of this, it is in places difficult to follow, and will probably infuriate the tidy-minded.

The roots of the crisis, Ionescu believes, are to be found in a contradiction between political beliefs and productive realities. The increasingly complex, delicate, interdependent mechanism of industrial production needs complex, delicate, co-operative forms of political regulation. By a terrible paradox, however, the two dominant ideologies of the industrial world – Marxist-Leninism in the East and Benthamite hedonism in the West – are crude, manipulative and, in a profound sense, hostile to the whole notion of willing co-operation, and destructive of the values which inspire and sustain it. For those are the values of fellowship, creativity and service – the values of Unamuno’s shoemaker, who shod his customers ‘for the love of them and for the love of God in them’. They have no place in the competitive marketplace or in the calculations of Gosplan. Yet without them, the willing co-operation which alone makes industrial society possible will dry up.

On one level, of course, the two ideologies are irreconcilably opposed. Benthamite hedonism provides the ideological justification for market liberalism, Marxist-Leninism for Communist autocracy. But Ionescu believes that they are brothers under the skin. Both are the bastard children of 18th-century materialism. At the heart of both lie the beliefs – most dramatically and destructively expressed by the Jacobins during the French Revolution – that the sole object of human existence is happiness; that there are and can be no limits to the pursuit of happiness; that the point of political action is to produce happiness; that ‘true’ happiness can be produced only by and through politics; and that, in the process of producing happiness, it is legitimate to inflict the most appalling cruelty and suffering on those who stand in the way.

‘By sanctifying our work with our blood,’ promised Robespierre, ‘we should see at least the first light of the dawn of universal felicity.’ The cultivated English gentlemen who thought it wiser to let the Irish peasantry starve to death than interfere with the laws of political economy did not express their ambition quite so forcefully, but it was essentially the same ambition: the ambition that sent the Soviet tanks into Czechoslovakia and the American bombing fleets to North Vietnam.

Ionescu does not deny that there are crucial differences between the two ideologies, and therefore between the societies they have helped to shape. Marxist-Leninism has been imposed on society by an organised party, through revolution, dictatorship, terror and the establishment of a totalitarian regime. Benthamite hedonism has been disseminated through society by a peaceful process of cultural indoctrination. The indoctrination has sometimes been rather heavy-handed, as in early 19th-century England or late 19th-century America: but it has never been totalitarian. In the West, other traditions, other values, other systems of belief, have always existed alongside the Benthamite orthodoxy. At different times and in different degrees, the Christian Church, the Labour movement, noblesse-oblige Disraelian Toryism and Continental Christian Democracy have all provided centres of resistance to it. It is pervasive and corrosive, nibbling away these centres of resistance like acid in the air. But it is not monolithic in the way that Marxist-Leninism is monolithic; and because of this the Western world is capable of change, even of transformation, in a way that the Soviet world is not. There can therefore be no question of a ‘plague on both your houses’. By any civilised reckoning the diluted Benthamism of the West is infinitely preferable to the undiluted Marxist-Leninism of the East.

But – and the ‘but’ is the heart of the book – these differences are less striking, and less significant operationally, than the similarities. Both ideologies promise happiness (actual happiness, and not just the pursuit of happiness, as in the Declaration of Independence), and both sets of ideologues hold power by virtue of that promise. Both proclaim that happiness can be achieved by following the precepts of the ideology, and that it cannot be achieved in any other way. Both hold – Marxist-Leninism openly, Benthamite hedonism covertly – that the end of happiness justifies whatever means are necessary to obtain it. If the goal of full Communism requires the crushing of free trade unions, the murder of the kulaks or the torture of dissenters, then trade unions must be crushed, kulaks murdered and dissenters tortured. If the competitive market requires child labour, or mass unemployment, or the degradation of popular culture, then it is sentimental obscurantism to stand in the way. Happiness is all; and if unhappiness is necessary to achieve it, so be it.

Both ideologies thus violate the fundamental Kantian precept that men must be treated as ends and not as means. Both deny Unamuno’s ‘tragic sense of life’ – the recognition of death, and the sense of human fraternity that comes with that recognition. Because both are death-denying, both are life-denying. Because neither can accommodate the fundamental existential reality that men are born to die, neither has any place for the notion of a good death; hence neither can offer a satisfactory notion of a good life. Partly because of all this, both are essentially hubristic, denying the possibility of limits to human existence and human achievement, and (although Ionescu himself does not say this) substituting an abstract and reified Technology for human choice. Both fail to recognise the essentially tragic nature of politics, political life and political action themselves; and because of that failure, both court nemesis.

Ionescu’s critique of Marxist-Leninism, though powerful and deeply-felt, comes as no surprise. His real originality lies in the critique of Benthamite hedonism and of the market liberalism that springs from Benthamite hedonism; and, still more, in the insight that the moral inadequacies of Benthamite hedonism and market liberalism are at the heart of the crisis of modern industrialism. He has not begun to sketch out the political implications of that insight, and perhaps no one can. He has, however, made it clear that someone ought to try.