Interview: Ashley Frawley

Summer 2022 #38
written by
Ashley Frawley with Jonny Gordon-Farleigh
illustration by
Matthew Brazier

Your book Semiotics of Happiness offers a social history of the rise of happiness as a public policy problem. Can you outline the rise of happiness science and its main claims?

Happiness as a policy agenda has its origins in a distant past, but there was a claims-making effort that coalesced around it beginning in the 1990s, and in the UK it took off in 2003. There were some rumblings around 1998, within Blairite circles, but in 2003 someone who was very well connected took ownership of the issue, and that was a defining moment in terms of its institutionalisation. But what’s interesting and what I’ve been looking at towards the present is the way that there have been very similar discourses to the happiness agenda that preceded it. The claims that people made around happiness were, for example, that if you go into schools and teach children the correct ‘scientifically verified’ path to happiness then you will ‘inoculate’ them against future problems. Martin Seligman, for example, used that language in his 2002 book on happiness [Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment]. The self esteem movement of the 1990s made very similar claims: they called it a ‘social vaccine’. So if you go into schools and teach children the correct scientifically verified paths to self esteem then you will stop them from having future problems. In fact, one of the best critiques of the self esteem movement was published in 1998 by John P Hewitt, called The Myth of Self-Esteem and subtitled Finding Happiness and Solving Problems in America, so there are connections between these issues. What’s drawn my attention towards the present is the way that the promotion of so-called positive emotions or emotional orientations are continually set up as the causes and solutions to a wide variety of problems, so lack of self esteem was said to cause teenage pregnancy, and poor educational attainment to result when children aren’t happy at school, and now it’s about promoting mental health. 

There were many attempts to politicise happiness throughout history. It became powerful relatively recently due to a kind of convergence of cultural and social phenomena, and there was a very conscious effort to diffuse it from the United States to countries all around the world. But there’s also a deeper cultural story to be told about why we keep trying to solve problems by shoring up the individual and implying that problems are caused by weakness within individual subjectivity. It’s interesting because in each iteration, the discourse fails; it doesn’t solve the problem that it claims to solve. Poor educational attainment isn’t down to how good people feel about themselves necessarily; and all these other social problems have just been misconceptualised. But instead of thinking that maybe we've misunderstood this issue, we’ve become – or claims-makers have become – more and more pessimistic about human subjectivity, saying “We’re just so weak”. And towards the present you get more of these promises of social vaccines, which become more and more tempered, and then it’s like, “Let’s just shore up the individual against this world that’s totally beyond control”.

And of course the weakness of individual agency is setting up for the role of the expert and the technocrat to make the right policy interventions.

The role of the expert is really interesting. I went to a conference last week in London, and I was reading through the papers beforehand, and one of the authors had made this offhand reference to being at the mercy of ‘flawless authoritarians’. I thought, no, it’s not flawless authoritarians, it’s flawed authoritarians. I’ve just been thinking about this recently, the way that experts make a big spectacle of the fact that they too are flawed, like a mindfulness expert saying, “I too have trouble controlling my emotions”. It’s as if the expertise is an inhuman kind of expertise, it’s verified by something beyond science, a discovery of something ‘natural’, that we humans just have to bow down to, or even supernatural, in the case of mindfulness, because there’s this quasi-religious orientation to it. There’s also this movement now towards using technology as a stand-in for the guru or the expert, that will replace the fallibility of humanity. So yes, it sets up the experts and the technocrats, but it’s also a very technological kind of expertise – this is becoming more of a trend towards the present.

Your research suggests that the recent context of happiness claims is within a “culture hospitable to framing social problems through the individualised language of emotion." This approach can depoliticise issues – turning political problems into personal issues – and encourage the “intervention of therapeutic expertise.” Can you explain what you mean by therapeutic politics?

It’s where problems become individualised and they are situated in the realm of emotion. So it’s a sort of lack of emotional fortitude, a generalised sense of vulnerability that invites a therapeutic response. It also means a redefinition of a huge range of social issues as being essentially therapeutic. Towards the present you can see that climate change has been enormously emotionalised. The Royal College of Psychiatrists released a press release a few months back saying that climate change is the biggest mental health problem facing young people today – it’s not causing it, it is a mental health problem. Some of this is just opportunism, they’re just piggybacking on something that is perceived to have some kind of political purchase. Once you have a hammer everything looks like a nail; you’ve got a therapeutic solution so you just start looking for problems that you can supposedly solve, and it just becomes this all-pervasive solution to everything. But at the same time there's this sense that actually the problems can’t be solved and the therapeutics become the stand-in for actually solving the problem. We become more and more disempowered. I can see this a lot in the mental health discourse. There is a side of the mental health discourse that says that if we promote mental health we’ll make better workers and more successful people, but it’s much more marginal than was the case, for example, in the self esteem discourse, which at least promised people riches. It obviously wasn't going to deliver, but at least it made a promise that it will really solve problems. Now they will temper that. For instance, I pulled up an article that said, “Young people's job prospects are the worst they’ve ever been, and yet this government has thrown wellbeing into the dustbin.” I thought, what the hell is wellbeing going to do for job prospects? But it’s like, we’ve got to do something, so we’ll do that; we can't really do anything about the structure of the economy, but we can give people therapy. And also of course, there’s an enormous lobby of job creation and making a purpose for yourself by claiming that your unique form of expertise can have something to do with some big issue. And policymakers who feel powerless to solve these issues are quite open to that. So if there’s a lobby group that says mindfulness is this new great big thing and it shows how caring you are, of course policy makers, who just can’t wave a wand and create jobs and fix an economy, will say, “Yes, of course we can give this therapeutic support to people a try and shore them up to dealing with the troublesome issues of our time”. Then they can appear as though they’re trying to do something about an issue, but ultimately it’s a lot of hand-waving that deflects attention from their inability to solve serious material problems.

In Work Stress: The Making of a Modern Epidemic (2002), the authors David Wainwright and Michael Calnan make a very similar case to what I wrote about in the Happiness book: they say that the critique of work stress was intended as a critique of the structure of work, but it resolved itself in meditation and all these different ways that employers could claim to be doing to something about stress, besides hiring more people or reducing your workload or paying you more or whatever. It was a very similar thing with wellbeing and mental health. It’s funny because people were not really fooled by this, perhaps, in the way they might have been with work stress, because at least the critique of work stress was something that I think had more of a basis in worker claims, such as just the expansion of injury to include mental injury, whereas wellbeing was a top-down agenda from the very beginning. So during the pandemic people were receiving ‘weekly wellbeing emails’ instead of childcare and other support, and people were mocking it, but it became this way for employers to claim that they were doing something and taking care of your wellbeing, and putting a positive spin on things because who could argue against it? When you put a conversion onto the train of happiness and wellbeing then we have a conversation about what is happiness, what is wellbeing? You might have wanted to have a conversation about your workload or something like that, or the job market, but instead you’re having a conversation about feelings. Some people will get sucked into that and write books like Against Happiness [by Eric G. Wilson, 2008], saying that happiness isn’t so great actually, and melancholy is this wonderful thing. There is a place for that but it’s missing the point, which is that it’s a humongous deflection activity. To give an example of this, a long time ago I did a show on the BBC called The Big Questions, and there was the Future Generations Commissioner for Wales, Sophie Howe. Someone in the audience addressed her, saying that it’s all well and good that you want to talk about happiness and wellbeing, but we in the Welsh Valleys don’t have jobs. And the response was that what we’re really talking about is mental health and the fact that we do not have enough support for mental health in this country. This woman was bewildered. She’d asked a question about jobs, but at the end it was this hand-waving, radical claim for the government to spend more on mental health, whereas she wanted to redirect it back onto something material. I think this is the danger when this kind of discourse gets absorbed into left-wing movements or into unions, because you get lured onto this terrain of emotions and away from talking about material phenomena.

Illustration by Matthew Brazier

The think tank Autonomy has just launched a pilot for the four-day week. Where do those kinds of interventions sit within your thinking about how to address work stress and empowering workers?

You have to be so careful with how you frame an issue, and make sure you stick to your principles, as it can just become reabsorbed into the structure and needs of the economy. So if you push for a four-day week, what winds up happening in a lot of institutions is people get paid part-time but they still have a full-time workload. So there’s a danger of framing it in terms of reducing stress as opposed to increasing freedom. There are, supposedly, lots of ways that you can reduce stress with mental health support and so on, but increasing freedom is more difficult. I suppose it’s a question of framing things in terms of the long historical push for the reduction of the working day and reduction of the realm of necessity, in Marxist terms, and to increase the realm of freedom, rather than getting sucked into this world of emotional wellbeing and so on.

The so-called ‘science’ of happiness is also part of the rise of evidence-based policy making over the last couple of decades. In exploring the role of ‘happiness expertise’, you argue that policy makers are now appealing to “experts for answers to questions that may have once been consigned to the realm of ideology or political debate.” Can you outline the rise of ‘scientism’ within ‘progressive’ think tanks and other policy initiatives? 

We’ve obviously seen this accelerate during COVID-19, but it’s a long-term trend. For example, after Trump was elected there was a lot of political analysis online and people were saying, “Oh, suddenly everyone is a political scientist with a PhD”, as if that’s the only way people can participate in democratic politics. So there was already this long-term trend towards emptying out the contents of democratic debate, as if we mere humans could not simply come to reasonable conclusions through our experience of the world. There’s this underlying misanthropy to the outsourcing of so many social issues to technocrats, and of course the technocrats do not rely on their own brilliance or genius, they rely on science like a religion; it’s like a dehumanised kind of science that’s handed down from God. Of course, when it comes to the natural sciences there is, to an extent, a place for it: it doesn’t matter how I interpret it, if I get the maths wrong for a rocket ship it’s not going to take off. But when it comes to the social sciences this is really the wrong place for that kind of claim, and yet there's this massive push to claim that a science ‘as hard as nails’ tells us that this is true. But that’s not how social sciences work, first of all because the sample sizes are usually not large enough, and secondly, because society itself changes. It’s subject to historical change; it is not an outgrowth of our brains or blood or our DNA, it’s an outgrowth of human activity in the world. What these claims to science do is freeze society in one place, claiming that the way things are right now is simply an extension of our human nature – and then there’s no place for any debate. Of course, the science is usually garbage, it’s just them circularly citing each other and then they say, “We have consensus”. To a certain extent, that’s a function of the way the university system, and peer reviewing, are set up. But there’s also a huge push for this in terms of policy: policy makers are looking for a way to take their policies out of democratic debate and situate them somewhere else, and in the UK, they used to be able to defer responsibility to the EU. Basically they have a path of action that they have already decided, and this is the joke of policy-based evidence: they seek out evidence for policies that they have already decided are correct. These people are just activists creating advocacy research, claiming that they’re like scientists, discovering evidence in a lab, but actually they do work to find what they already think is true. Now I do this myself of course, but I do not claim to be a scientist – I have a hunch about what is going on, I select a sample, I analyse it, and I often find things about the discourse that I didn’t expect, and I then try my best to explain it. I am not independently discovering things, I’m arguing for what I think is going on, but there’s this humongous push not to do this. In fact, when my book came out, the media marketing team at the university sent out a press release saying, “Sociologist discover problems with the pursuit of happiness”. I didn’t ‘discover’ anything, I argue that there are problems with this, and you, dear human, can argue against me if you like. There’s this enormous shutting down of debate that happens through all of these attempts to outsource expertise, and even experts themselves outsource their expertise to some god-like science, which is of course antithetical to everything that science ought to be. But of course it always transpires that the promises are unfulfilled. That’s what happened with the social and emotional aspects of learning programmes: there was no change, and in some cases things had got worse. And it was just quietly discarded – and then the same thing is suggested but in a new guise.

In terms of the adoption of scientism by more progressive Left organisations, there also have been mistakes to this approach, because these organisations – I think I’ve taken this idea from Alex Gerbich  – aren’t about freeing or representing the working class, they’re about managing it. They have set themselves up as the effective managers of the working class and their behaviours, rather than the emancipation of it. Of course the working class resents that because they recognise the sneering tone of the manager, essentially. 

Illustration by Matthew Brazier

You also make the connection between the Left’s historical view of ‘material wealth’ and the happiness agenda, from the ‘prosperity paradox’ to the degrowth movement suggesting that “economic growth is detrimental to individuals and whole societies.”

Going back even further than that, wealth had once been seen as having great emancipatory potential, forming the basis of a new society where you wouldn't have to work nearly as much to reproduce your existence, the things you need in order to survive. You can see it in Marx, you can see it in the early Socialists: capitalism is a wonderful system for producing wealth but at a certain point this productive system becomes a fetter on the further development of the forces of production. Feudalism once was productive enough, with enough of a surplus created for a ruling class to be quite comfortable, but it became a fetter on the production of further wealth, and capitalism burst from the bonds of feudalism. The same thing is true of capitalism. In the Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels write that the capitalist is like the sorcerer who is unable to control the forces that he’s conjured up from the netherworld. So you conjure up these enormous forces of production and then they begin to undermine the capitalist system itself. After the Second World War, there was this big question of why there weren’t revolutions in Germany and in England. It had been all but inevitable, but the working classes did not revolt. The answer was that they were bought off with the cheap pleasures of capitalism. In the post-war period, you had the golden age of capitalism. It would seem silly to say that the problem was that it wasn’t productive enough, so you start to say that it’s too productive, it lulls us to sleep and creates this consumerist dystopia… You get these Leftist, even guerrilla, movements who are very disparaging of the working class and their consumption problems. The prevailing consensus as to why there wasn’t a revolution was this: because the workers were bought off. Then enormous amounts of Leftist theorising was devoted to the problems caused by wealth, rather than that the production of wealth would one day come to an end. If you go back to theories of surplus value, Marx talks about how the bourgeois economists had foreseen, by the falling rate of profit, that capitalism would one day end, and this was the bourgeois twilight of the gods, as Marx calls it. And that’s just gone; it’s like the problem of capitalism is that it will just go on forever. I have no problem talking about the great things that capitalism produces, because I know that it ultimately destroys those things. What we ultimately need to rescue is a comfortable basis of living that is possible for everyone on a higher level, in a new form, whereas now people think that if we don’t tell people how terrible capitalism is, it will never end. So you have to tell people that capitalism is bad for your soul and bad for your mental health, as opposed to saying that it creates a world of wealth and culture, and then takes it away from you and says you can’t have it. It’s not even that capitalism creates it, you create it, you build it every day and yet you can’t have it, you live on the edge of subsistence in a world of enormous wealth, in this precarious kind of existence in a world in which everything should be secure.

JGF So many social movements are now arguing for both ‘outer’ and ‘inner’ change or transition, which claim to focus on “outer circumstance” and “inner subjectivity.” Can they be consistent approaches?

It’s nothing new; in fact, a lot of how these discourses become powerful is by inserting themselves in between some movement and some goal that’s proved elusive. For instance, the self esteem movement became very powerful within feminism because it was like, we haven’t really been able to topple the patriarchy but if we could just go to women and shore up their self-efficacy and confidence, because patriarchy takes away our confidence and that’s the problem… It’s alway “first promote ‘x’” and then somehow, in some way, we will be able to solve this insoluble problem. We just defer the actual solution to this insoluble problem until the day that human beings are sufficiently shored up to the vicissitudes of life and it actually gets further and further away. I published a paper in 2020 about the use of wellbeing and trauma in mental health discourses in relation to indiginous parenting. Self-determination amongst indiginous groups is one of the biggest goals that we have had for a very long time, and it’s interesting because all these outside parties are saying, “You’re all so messed up” and “first we need to promote this” and “once you’re able to be better parents then the next generation might not have these problems”; but then again no, because it’s like original sin, it’s passed down to the next generation anyway. You’re born with it and always going to have it. Then somehow, in some way, we will have self-determination. There was a paper that almost used these exact words: somehow we will get to self-determination which is a distal determinant of wellbeing. So it’s just a way of inserting this new thing into an insoluble problem – finally we will be able to address it instead of really getting to the heart of how- maybe this thing we’re doing is wrong, maybe we’ve misconceptualised the problem, maybe we need to think about the whole basis and structure of society. That’s not palatable, no-one’s going to go on Sky News and say that maybe the reason why we have persistent inequality that hasn’t budged a huge amount is because of the structure of capitalism and the fact it requires a reserve army of labour. Nobody is going to say that; it’s outside the Overton window. It always firstly promotes ‘x’ and then somehow, in some way, these insoluble problems will supposedly disappear.

In the book you briefly outline the weaknesses of what you call the ‘romantic return’, a form of cultural anti-capitalism, which is obsessed with “lost values” and “precapitalist truths.” Is it not possible that the ‘romantic return’ can or will inspire a more structural response to capitalism?

Romanticism has its place – this longing for meaning, it points to something that really is missing, the sense of normlessness and nihilism and so on, the perpetually liminal experience of modern life. But romanticism is not enough, particularly when romanticism is this rejection of everything. It needs knowledge and theorisation, it needs sublation – you can’t just reject everything. People will say that everything went wrong with the Enlightenment. I teach a class on classical sociology, and I begin with the Enlightenment – which is a very unfashionable thing to do – and I talk about how the romantic rejection that happened after the Enlightenment brought forward a very useful critique of the excesses of scientism and all these sorts of things, saying that you can’t just have a fully scientistic view of the world. They were searching for laws of everything, that you would just have to find the secrets of the human brain and then you’d solve all the problems in society. That obviously is not correct and it’s led to some awful things like the mental hygiene movement and eugenics and all these sorts of things, this excess of scientisation. Romanticism was a useful kind of temper on that, and through this kind of dialectic of romantic rejection of some of the excesses, but also a recognition of power and importance of the Enlightenment, you come to a much more nuanced understanding of how we move forward. But I remember I was teaching a second-year class and one of the students said, of the Enlightenment, “That was a mistake”, when I’d just taught a whole class on how it was not a mistake. But it’s so ingrained in the culture that everything is just all bad, we took a wrong turn at that point. You’ll even see Leftists talking about how feudalism wasn’t actually that bad because feudal serfs got to nap at midday. That may be true but you were born and died a serf. So yes, there are lots of really bad things about capitalism, but you have to recognise that it allowed something else to happen.

To give an example of this, people will often reject objectification, that is the human mind goes inside of an object; you create something and it’s a reflection of your human mind in an object. So a person who lived in a hunter-gatherer society, they pick up a rock and they chip it into a spear, and some of their human creativity goes directly into that object; they kill a deer with it and they eat it and that becomes part of their body in this basic dialectic. Now in our societies, we’re alienated from that – and people will stop there. No, you’re halfway there! The point is not to reject objectification as such, but to recognise that capitalism alienates us, but it also gives us the ability through which these things will come back together in a higher form. So if you think about music: you had an orchestra that would produce this beautiful music, then this gets separated from the musicians in the recording studio and each little separate piece gets taken apart. Now you can, in your bedroom, create symphonies that would make people’s eyes water five hundred years ago. Through this process of alienation, it allows things to come back together in a higher form. You can think it and create it, just like the person in the hunter gatherer society could do. Now you’re able to do that but in a higher form, through a process of technological development that required that alienation to happen in the first place.

So this is the issue, that this romantic rejection is halfway there, and if you stop there you have done something very dangerous, very nihilist, because you’re saying ‘destroy everything’. People literally make that argument, that you have to destroy capitalism entirely. It’s not actually how history works, it’s not like you just suddenly one day destroy everything and rebuild it. Even with the fall of the Roman Empire you still had vestiges of it that carried on. So we have this really dangerous nihilistic rejection that can get expressed in all sorts of very destructive forms, self-destructive forms, destructive forms on society – and less destructive forms, like dropping out of society and getting a bunch of chickens and trying to get close to the earth, and that kind of thing. In one sense, the problem with the romantic critique is it’s halfway there. You cannot be critiquing the present only on the basis of the past, you have to understand how the present also leads us into the future.

Finally, can the happiness agenda be appropriated by collective politics?

I’m not sure, because as an agenda it became filled with this kind of scientistic meaning, which is getting your five a day, and being happy with the way things are, and not wanting too much, and maybe meditating for five minutes. Happiness as a kind of perfunctory allusion to freedom I think has some potential, and you can see this for example in the American Declaration of Independence when they talk about the pursuit of happiness. I’ve sat on so many panels where they’ll say, “They say this but they don’t define it”. But that was the whole point: it was about freedom and openness that hadn’t existed before, that you would come to this country and you wouldn’t be held back by the bonds of religion, or the feudal lord, or whatever it was; that you could pursue our own happiness. It signified a kind of openness, and now we want to close it down and fill it with content, and say, “You think it’s about a sunset that catches you unaware in a field full of daisies? No, actually it’s prosocial spending, our studies show”. It’s so filled with contents and the contents that it’s filled with are very presentist, and tautological as well. So it’s like the equivalent of saying, “Most people in this country like hockey. Seven out of ten people like hockey, it makes them happy. Hey, you three out of ten, what’s wrong with you? We need to go into schools and teach them to like hockey”. And that’s the extent of it; it’s like how people find happiness in a given society becomes the true meaning of happiness for ever and ever, instead of signifying an openness, a future that is potentially open when there is a different material basis. I don’t know what would make me happy, what sorts of necessities of life I will require, I have no idea, but I know I won’t have the roadblocks I have now, and that’s something that’s worth fighting for. ∞

Ashley Frawley is the author of Semiotics of Happiness: Rhetorical beginnings of a public problem published by Bloomsbury in 2015 and the forthcoming Significant Emotions which explores the seemingly never ending rise and fall of new emotional panaceas for social problems. She is a member of the editorial board for Zero Books and writes for a variety of popular online and print publications.

Summer 2022 #38

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