How to lift a heart: the joy in protest and seeking political change

How do you define or promote something as elusive as happiness? Most of us might tick the box marked “cheerful” on Wednesday morning but could well consider ourselves crashingly miserable come Sunday afternoon. And suppose we can empirically establish contentment over a longish period, how do we unpick the underlying reasons for it? A happy relationship or a triple-lock pension? A course of mindfulness or a handful of supportive friends?

Lynne Segal gives us her take on the matter straight off. The world is a place of “unbearable pain and sadness”, the experience of melancholy is an important part of an authentic emotional life. As for the official emphasis on happiness, it is insultingly limited, dishonest and functional. “We need to resist the happiness imperative beamed down at us from every other billboard. . .” In Segal’s view, “radical happiness” involves us in an enterprise very different in scope and far more meaningful: the seeking of
political change, and with it the experience of solidarity and collective joy.

Scathing of the ways that the happiness industry has played into official narratives, Segal is particularly critical of influential figures such as Richard Layard, Tony Blair’s so-called happiness tsar, who chose to “ignore the effects of structural inequality on the emotional distress it measures” preferring instead to consider emotions in the context of Gross Domestic Product, then compounding his intellectual and political sins by promoting the widespread use of the quick-fix remedy Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. Instead of Layard, she says, we should all have been listening to British epidemiologist Michael Marmot who “convincingly researched the quite devastating effects of poverty and inequality on social misery generally, and individually psychic health in particular.”

It is a feature of all Segal’s work that when she decides to tackle a subject – be it the history of women’s experience of heterosexuality, the rise of essentialist feminisms or, most recently, the politics of ageing – she examines it from every conceivable angle. She always makes me think of someone picking up a stone on the beach and turning it, with infinite exhaustive care, this way and that. Here, then, she gives us trenchant chapters, complete with plenty of historical and theoretical readings. She takes on the decline of carnivals, festivals and other expressions of communal joy (the spontaneous gathering of those “without institutional power” is always threatening to the powerful) as well as our changing understanding of depression, noting the sinister link between a rise in diagnoses for serious depression and bipolar disorder, and the discovery and marketing of drugs for treating them. “Within ten years of the launch of Prozac, around 10 per cent of Americans over the age of six were taking anti-depressants, including almost one-in-four in middle age.”

But it is also a feature of Segal’s intellectual work that she weaves in her own personal experience in order to illustrate her broader political points, particularly in her chapters on the perils of sex and love. It’s important to be reminded of the history of feminism’s hard work in uncovering women’s genuine sexual and emotional needs, but fascinating to eavesdrop on Segal’s reassessment of her own experience of the Sixties, a time in which many “women’s sexual confidence… was paper-thin, my own included”, or of how, within relationships, she so easily becomes “unbearably jealous”.

Ultimately, Segal has an important argument to make – one that derives, inevitably, from her long years as a libertarian, feminist and political activist. It is in working, with others, for broader social change, that we find deeper meaning in our existence. Or as Hannah Arendt put it: “No-one could be called happy or free without participating, and having a share, in public power.”

This faces Segal with the bleak times in which we live. Trump, Brexit, austerity – all lend themselves to atomisation, inwardness, a kind of reckless misery. Segal is sharp on the continuing popularity of dystopian fictions, one sign of the way in which neo-liberalism’s discontents have entered our collective soul, and how difficult it is even to speak of utopia – or utopias – in today’s political climate. Once upon a time, the term involved the setting out of blueprints for alternative societies, end goals for a better world. Today, she argues, “utopia” is best understood as the tenacious continuance of a strong desire, a “longing for… the improvement of the human condition”. How, she asks, paraphrasing the cultural critic Raymond Williams, can we succeed in “making hope practical, rather than despair convincing”? How indeed.

For Segal, the rise of new social movements, here and around the world, is profoundly cheering, as is the recent dominance of the left within the Labour Party: changes that restore the faith of those, like herself, from older, once more politically hopeful and active generations.

It is fascinating to read Segal in conjunction with Riot Days, Maria Alyokhina’s gripping account of her arrest and imprisonment as a member of Russia’s Pussy Riot collective. Written in a lyrically fractured, cut-and-paste style, it’s a bit like having Kathy Acker cooing at you in one ear and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn booming at you in the other. (Acker’s recent biographer Chris Kraus provides an enthusiastic cover endorsement.)

For westerners, the Pussy Riot phenomenon feels a little hard to interpret. The group seems like something out of the Sixties, science-fiction and the milder end of top-shelf porn, all at once. Certainly, the women mixed amazing courage with surely a massive dash of naivety in deciding, in February 2012, to perform “Punk Prayer” (“Mother Mary, banish Putin!”) in Moscow Cathedral. Alyokhina seems oddly surprised at their arrest, oddly stoical about their sham trial and subsequent two-year prison sentence.

Things turn worryingly sinister when Alyokhina is sent to The Zone, a penal colony in the Urals, and goes on hunger strike so as to win small daily concessions for herself and other female prisoners. It might not be anyone else’s idea of radical happiness, but here she comes to the sharp, if desperate, realisation that her actions are significant “not for the imagined outcome, but for the very right to protest. A narrow sliver of a right, in a huge field of injustice and mistreatment. But I love this sliver of freedom.” Even under the harshest possible conditions, she experiences the euphoria of mutual aid and unexpected friendship.

In both these books, so strikingly different in style and content, we find an eyes-wide-open recognition of similar phenomena: the harshness of the world, the risks and fallibility of politics and other human beings. Yet by the end, both these activists somehow manage to convince and console us. Human solidarity matters, and endures. The joy it engenders can be intense. Change can come. As Segal concludes: “One way or another simply being together strengthens us.”

Radical Happiness: Moments of Collective Joy
Lynne Segal
Verso, 352pp, £16.99

Riot Days
Maria Alyokhina
Allen Lane, 208pp, £16.99

This piece first appeared in the New Statesman in January 2018

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