The Happy Consciousness

Watching the world tumble down around us, the holy markets especially, what has amused and angered is the way in which the media refuses to let go of its Sunny Disposition on Life, the Universe and Everything. This would be pathetic if it wasn’t so rampant. The Times of India has plumped up its Delhi Times this weekend to ten pages filled with exhortations to shop and full-page ads on shiny commodities. Its spectacularly vacuous Sunday Times is bursting with stories about celebrities valiantly keeping up the Diwali spirit, and thumbing their noses at the looming depression by buying more Louis Vuitton bags.

On all news channels too, there has been a tendency to follow up a sombre story about the economic crisis with some razzle dazzle that is announced cheerily by the anchor – Bollywood ‘celebrity masala’ being the easiest ally to suppress uncomfortable thoughts about our world and its systemic crises. Any reference to the latter in order to question the order is attacked with a viciousness that is displayed by those whose fondest fantasy is questioned. How many voices of small investors, shopkeepers and traders have we heard in this continuous party the news channels have become? Apropos also the exchanges on Aditya’s post on Graziano Transmissioni and the discussions on Goebbelsian propaganda, I wonder if we are suffering chronically from what Herbert Marcuse called ‘The Happy Consciousness’ in his landmark 1964 ‘One Dimensional Man’. Some excerpts:

“The Happy Consciousness – the belief that the real is rational and that the system delivers the goods – reflects the new conformism which is a facet of technological rationality translated into social behaviour. It is new because it is rational to an unprecedented degree…The power over man which this society has acquired us daily absolved by its efficacy and productiveness. If it assimilates everything it touches, if it absorbs the competition, if it plays with the contradiction, it demonstrates its cultural superiority. And in the same way the destruction of resources and the proliferation of waste demonstrate its opulence and the high levels of “well-being”…This sort of well-being, the productive superstructure over the unhappy base of society, permeates the “media”which mediate between the masters and their dependents. Its publicity agents shape the universe of communication in which the one-dimensional behaviour expresses itself. Its language testifies to identification and unification, to the systematic promotion of positive thinking and doing, to the concerted attack on transcendent, critical notions…In the expression of these habits of thought,. the tension between appearance and reality, fact and factor, substance and attribute tend to disappear. The elements of autonomy, discovery, demonstration, and critique recede before designation, assertion, and imitation. Magical, authoritarian and ritual elements permeate speech and language. Discourse is deprived of mediations which are the stages of the process of cognition and cognitive evaluation…At the nodal points of the universe of public discourse, self-validating, analytical propositions appear which function like magic-ritual formulas. Hammered and re-hammered into the recipient’s mind, they produce the effect of enclosing it within the circle of conditions prescribed by the formula.”

Marcuse, H, Boston, Beacon Press, 1964

9 thoughts on “The Happy Consciousness”

  1. What kind of a writeup is this? A really bankrupt way to promote one’s intellectual concerns by mentioning people whom the author can avoid giving attention to. This trend of speaking against the easy intellectual targets among one’s own class serves no purpose besides image-making. To bring Herbert Marcuse into this is out of context and hilarious.


  2. Dear Regardless,

    Your comment baffles me. I am unsure of what other way there is of promoting one’s intellectual concerns besides engaging with writing and ideas one agrees/disagrees with. I also find curious this characterizing of Marcuse as an “easy intellectual target of one’s own class”. Huh?

    Or is this supposed to characterize Sunalini’s description of the life-styles of the rich? In which case I really don’t see how and why to write about cultures of consumption is in any way bankrupt or “image-making”. Rather Sunalini is drawing attention to way in which “image-making” occurs in the daily festival of capital that adorns the pages of our papers. Which is why using Marcuse is apposite in this context.

    If you could spell out how and why you disagree with the use of a particular text by Marcuse then we might be able to have a discussion. Else, this just sounds like so much hot air.


  3. I think Marcuse was speaking about controlled crass consumerism of products and ideas that has been imported by other nations over the years. ‘India Shining’ was its best example for us. Keep it up Sunalini. There are people who understand your sincere concern.


  4. Dear Anand Rishi, thanks for your comment. Perhaps ‘Regardless’ would be interested in elaborating his critique. I am happy to clarify/debate what I meant by using Marcuse. And I don’t think it would be fair to jump to any conclusions about ‘my intellectual concerns’ before such a debate no?


  5. I think this article points up an interesting question that has also puzzled me. Everyone says the Depression is coming, but so far I don’t see it, don’t feel it much, and don’t see it reflected in others’ eyes or actions; why not?

    I know from the study of history that the US, in its “Great Depression,” suffered around 33% unemployment. While many of the next lowest third of workers may have been nervous, the top 33% were, if worried about rebellion breaking out among the “bottom feeders” (as they so lovingly often thought of the poor), for the most part having the time of their lives. Prices were low, labor was cheap, hungry girls and boys could be had for a pittance.

    Those working in the media are still in that top 33%, they feel little pain, yet. And, they get paid to sell the social structure that supports their bosses and advertisers. They are like the band playing on the deck of the sinking Titanic, perhaps, feeling a little tilt starting, but so far not too bad, and their job is to keep morale up among the passengers, keep panic at bay. Keep everything looking as normal as possible as the ship goes down.

    And yes, I think you are correct, there is an element of Marcuse’s “Happy Consciousness” at work here. It is a false consciousness that is forced on people under threat of rejection. People are really massively unhappy–just look at the prevalence of crimes of rage and the widespread use of antidepressants.

    But to admit that you are not-happy, to look not-happy, if it isn’t due to personal failings, is an admission of being guilty of being conscious that the whole damn system is seriously screwed up, and that awareness must be repressed, must be forgot, and most people, who fight hard to repress that awareness, work to repress the awareness of those feelings in you by rejecting you as clinically depressed or the social darwinian/protestant ethic strategy of defining the unhappy as the failures.

    Being openly unhappy is a public admission that you no longer believe in the system. Such apostasy must and will be attacked, especially by those struggling to believe in, to love the system.

    I have some other ideas about this, including some derived from Lasch’s theory of a culture of narcissism, in which the culture has embedded itself in and altered us psychologically, that might be relevant, but I have already been too wordy, so I will close out here.

    Thank you for bringing this up, as I rarely see it being discussed. I came across this website looking for discussions on the global/american/capitalist empire and its future and significance, and hope to find further interesting discussions of similar topics here.


  6. hey sunalini,

    i cant write as fluently as you but id like to put in my two bit..

    first.. is it so wrong to be happy (even pretend happy)? i mean amidst the global crisis, if people do manage to find a reason to celebrate.. why not? and to see some mindless bit of celebrity masala is certainly more fun for the viewer than a rountable discussion by whoever they manage to dredge up at the time..

    second.. individual mood does effect macroeconomic outcome, be it investor sentiment or consumer confidence or whatever so it tends to have a self fulfilling effect. so if people could lighten up a bit and pretend that the good times are around the corner.. then they might actually be around the corner. its a bit like those laughter clubs first few laughs feel phony but then it becomes a genuine good mood. though it looks wacked out for sure)

    third, i dont think the free market system is really a conspiracy foisted upon us by dicks “global/american/capitalist empire” it was the iron curtain/eastern europe that opted out of their system and not the other way round, if my memory is not mistaken. So my submission to you is that .. if we have a system that has produced remarkable prosperity all over the world why not put up its occasional and temporary failures, with a smile?


  7. Hey Suni, nice use of marcuse, a well forgotten author in the west, he also spoke about repressive tolerance and totalitariam sublimation!


  8. Thanks Dick and Serji, I think your responses do well to reply to Shyam Vijay above. I couldn’t have put it better myself!


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