The following thoughts were occasioned by reading two wildly dissimilar works in conjunction: Will Wilkinson’s recent Cato Institute policy paper about happiness research and Laclau and Mouffe’s Hegemony and Socialist Strategy. First of all, they couldn’t be further apart on the readability scale. Wilkinson writes clean, compelling prose sprinkled with wit and pointed, impassioned polemic, while Laclau and Mouffe evince the distinct aversion to active verbs and discernible grammatical subjects that you often find in works of nebulous social theory. And they initially seem to be coming from opposite ends of the ideological spectrum. Wilkinson, a libertarian, argues for as little governmental intervention as possible into the lives of sovereign individuals; Laclau and Mouffe are socialists trying to conceive of a method to bring about “radical democratic politics” to forward Leftist interests, arguing essentially that the individual has no identity outside of political struggle. Laclau and Mouffe are trying to find ways to build poltical blocs, to develop ad hoc unity among a disparate group so it can then effect social change. Wilkinson seems to be arguing against the social usefulness of collective will.

Nevertheless, maybe because I am misinterpreting them both, but I found a surprising potential for synthesis between the two works, mainly because Wilkinson’s eagerness to discount happiness research leads him to take some rather nuanced, relativistic stances at various points about they way people comprehend their own interests, just as Laclau and Mouffe, eager to dispatch essentialist, given notions of what it means to be working class, systematically undermine all appeals to universal notions. There’s no one determinant of class identity, any more than there is one definition of what happiness is, as experienced. (Whether an objective notion of well-being that we are not actively conscious of can be considered happiness is another question.)

Wilkinson cites approvingly a passage by philosopher Nicolas White, who argue that “As we develop a picture of what life is to be like, we don’t start from a ‘framework’ concept of happiness (an idea of what the picture on the puzzle will be), to which to tailor our particular aims so that they’ll fit into it…. For the most part we build up a conception of what happiness would be out of the aims that we have.” Compare that with this passage from Laclau and Mouffe: “The fixity of every social element in the first theorizations of hegemony proceeded, as we saw, from the indissoluable link between the hegemonized task and the class that was supposed to be its natural agent…. But, insofar as the task has ceased to have any necessary link with a class, its identity is given to it solely by its articulation within a hegemonic formulation. Its identity, then, has become purely relational. And as this system of relations has itself ceased to be fixed and stable — thereby making hegemonic practices possible — the sens of every social identity appears constantly deferred.” In other words happiness is contingent on aims, and aims are contingent on given social formations, and what values can become dominant (hegemonic) through the way they are articulated and their appeal broadened or made constitutive of identity for those swayed by them. The inefficacy of happiness research to pin down a consistent definition opens up the space in which hegemony can be constructed. Political work consists of defining happiness in such a way that suits a particular bloc while conveying a sense of individual empowerment (a sense of concrete identity and fulfillment of that identity’s potential) to those throwing support behind the bloc. Happiness research, then, is discourse attempting to perform this work, constructing happiness in a politically useful way and presenting that definition as natural and inevitable. Individual happiness and the collective good administered politically thereby merge into a single conception, albeit one that is always contested and is ever-shifting, no matter how much it insists it is objective and transcendent and eternally true. To gloss White, not only is the picture on the puzzle indeterminable until you start to work at putting it together, but the pieces themselves are always shifting, as is the logic of the rules for solving the puzzle.

In short, happiness may be what L&M (not the cigarette) call “nodal points,” semi-fixed notions in the field of relations that seem universal and transcendent but are actually up for grabs. Despite their tendency to shift, we still rely on them to orient ourselves in construing our own goals and in conceiving how to relate to peers and how to structure who the enemies are.