Radical Happiness

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In Radical Happiness Lynne Segal, a veteran of the women’s liberation movement and class struggle of the late 1960s and 1970s, makes a brave attempt to synthesise political history with psychology. She draws on her own experience in the women’s movement and her rich theoretical knowledge to do so.

For 20 years there has been an emphasis on happiness/sadness on a par with physical health, with attempts to measure happiness as part of mental wellbeing. For our leaders happiness is not about recovery from mental distress, but rather the ability to work productively. The cure is individual; the individual is blamed for their own misery.

Segal takes us through the historical context of mood and how it is not only defined but created by society. For example, the rise of capitalism and Protestantism saw the suppression of joyful celebrations, magic and communal festivities.

Competition in the system leads us to equate happiness to winning — beating others. Joyful states such as romantic love are subverted to individualism and power relations.

Under capitalism happiness is equated with buying things. Our relationship to material objects: buying gifts, personal status of ownership and giving things away are woven into our social relationships. Segal states that she updates Marx’s theory of commodity fetishism by postulating that the self can be altered and be valued as a commodity — eg posing for smiling selfies.

Segal however places an over-reliance on quoting and describing other authors’ views such that her own opinions are obscured and her arguments lack power of conviction. One point that comes across loud and clear is that she rejects Marxism as she says it lacks a vision of a better world and only looks to fight against the system in the here and now.

This assertion is problematic — visions of a better world are connected with the struggles now, not created in the abstract. Her stance against Lenin and Trotsky is more practical: “party cadres neither have time nor reason [for] helping with the childcare”.

The chapter on sexual happiness is particularly meandering. Segal takes us through the history of the women’s liberation movement, but it is quite difficult to follow the connection she makes to happiness. I do like the quote she takes from Angela Carter though: “We must all make do with what rags of love we find flapping on the scarecrow of humanity.”

In attempting to define love Segal touches on whether the addition of sex hinders the loving relationship because it is fraught with “hazards”. She examines the sensation of love towards friends and animals, concluding, “love is essential for happiness and infinite in its variety”.

Rather depressingly Segal writes that “most of the goals we dream of will usually elude us” and the last chapters give us a picture of neoliberalism peppered with glimpses of fightbacks and campaigns against austerity. The Marxist method is criticised in favour of “alternative spaces”, “everyday utopias”, “gusts of radical energy” and “listening to silenced voices”, as well as watching the Olympic Games opening gala and dancing in Palestine.

The book is a very well researched narrative. However, only snatches of joy and many dashed hopes are presented to the reader.