Happiness and Capitalism: Work, Wealth, and Misery
“No society can surely be flourishing and happy, of which the far greater part of the members are poor and miserable.” So observed the “father” of political economy, Adam Smith, in his classic The Wealth of Nations. Nearly 250 years later, Smith’s self-appointed children, secure in economics departments, central banks, and government agencies, are quick to insist that, in absolute terms, “quality of life” has vastly improved since Smith’s day. Empirically speaking, this is certainly true—but affectively speaking things are grim. Misery abounds; depression, anxiety, and burnout proliferate. The fundamentals of the West’s political economy may be strong (depending on your point of view)—but the landscape of its libidinal economy is saturated with pain. Why?
In this course we’ll tackle a basic question: what is the character of “happiness” under capitalism? Combining philosophical, psychoanalytic, and ethnographic perspectives, we’ll explore key accounts and critiques of capitalist life from the eighteenth century to the twenty first. We will pay particular attention to how capitalist culture appears to normalize and reward certain experiences and personality types while medicalizing and stigmatizing others. What does it mean that C-suites are disproportionately full of well-compensated psychopaths, while from classrooms to hospices, workers in the helping professions are at the end of their tethers? In what ways do ostensibly pathological formations—from outbreaks of workplace violence to mushrooming diagnoses of depression, anxiety, and attention deficit disorders—symptomatically implicate the supposed efficiency and rationality of the market? How do our most personal desires, fantasies, and fears map on to the impersonal flows of capital? How does the workplace stand in relation to the family as a site of antagonism, alienation, and community? What are the pleasures of consumption, what are the pains of precarity, and what does it say about capitalism that, when psychologists poll them, so many of the twenty-first century’s wealthiest people routinely describe their lives as anxious, miserable, and captivated by dreams of fleeing planet earth itself? We’ll explore topics including anomie, alienation, and so-called “deaths of despair”; the concepts of waste, “Human Resources,” and “Human Capital”; surplus repression, affective labor, and burnout; malignant normality and pathological normalcy; the discourses of “self-help” and “wellness”; and more.
Readings will include works by Adam Smith, Karl Marx, Max Weber, Rosa Luxemburg, Sigmund Freud, Herbert Marcuse, Edward Baptist, Mark Fisher, Lauren Berlant, Robert Jay Lifton, Arlie Hochschild, Karen Ho, Tanya Luhrmann, Byung Chul Han, and many others.
Course ScheduleSunday, 2:00-5:00pm ET
March 12 — April 02, 2023