24 October 2020

Pursuit of Happiness?

 "Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness is a well-known phrase in the United States Declaration of Independence.[1] The phrase gives three examples of the unalienable rights which the Declaration says have been given to all humans by their creator, and which governments are created to protect." (Wikipedia)

The origin of this famous triad is usually given as "Life, Liberty and Estate" from John Locke's Two Treatises of Government from 1689, although this is disputed among scholars, as the Wikipedia article notes. This dispute among the scholars need not concern us here since usually the line of descent for the triad is assumed to be Locke's Two Treatises and this line has left its firm mark in political-philosophical thinking.

The phrase "Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness" occurs in a founding document from 1776 for government of the nascent United States, proclaiming "inalienable rights" for all those "men" entering into a compact for government. In Locke's Two Treatises, it is clearly said that “Government has no other end but the preservation of Property”, a man’s property being considered to comprise “his Life, Liberty and Estate”. The preservation of estate thus translates to the pursuit of happiness, i.e. from a more conservative, static connotation (preservation) to a more dynamic connotation of pursuit. Whereas estate is already possessed, happiness has to be striven for, without guarantees of success. Taking the cue from Locke's famous triad, the phrase in the U.S. Declaration translates to Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Property.

But what is property? It seems to be obvious: it consists in all the goods and chattels a person owns on the land this person also owns. 'Estate' is 'Anwesen' in German and οὐσία (ousia) in Greek. 'Anwesen' also means 'presence' in German and can be heard both as a noun (i.e. substantive) and a verbal noun, 'presencing'. The Greek οὐσία, on the other hand, is the substantive formed from the feminine present participle for 'to be', thus literally 'beingness'. It is also the concept at the very core of Greek ontology as the first category, signifying the substance and essence of what something is, i.e. its substantive whatness. Read this way, the pursuit of property becomes the striving for substance in thingly possession. A 'man of substance' is therefore understood as a man with substantial propertied estate. Is a man's whoness, however, to be conceived adequately as his standing as a substantial property owner?

Understood in a more dynamic way, however, the striving for property can become the endless striving for possessions that may or may not be successful, although it keeps the striver on his or her toes. Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Property translates easily into the twentieth formulation of the so-called American Dream that has served as an advertisement of the desirability of the American way of life, especially for those poor immigrants reaching the shores of the United States as long as, and to the extent that, the government had a welcoming, open-door policy. The American Dream has at least served as one of the justifications for American exceptionalism and its purported 'greatness'.

But what is property apart from being a collection of things owned by a person? What is its essence? The essence only becomes visible by delving below the everyday appearances and turns out to be, as I have unfolded elsewhere (see links below) in extenso, thingified value. What is usually called capitalism is the movement of thingified value through its Protean guises on the way to its augmentation, its accumulation, its bloating. The movement of total global thingified value as capital requires its bearers, its players who are enticed and necessitated to participate in the gainful game by striving for one of the guises of thingly value as income. The most basic income in this gainful game is wages and salaries. The other elementary forms of income are ground-rent, interest and profit of enterprise. A sole trader, for instance, earns both a profit of enterprise and a self-paid wage. These four basic forms of thingly value as income together constitute the total amount of thingified value generated by the gainful game in a given period.

When seen this way, the pursuit of happiness can be deciphered socio-ontologically as the pursuit of income in the gainful game. Each free U.S. citizen has the "inalienable right" to become a player in the gainful game, striving for income without any guarantee of success and often failing to gain sufficient income to live well. All players in the gainful game, whether successful or not, are kept breathlessly in motion and motivated by the gain-promising movement of thingified value itself, bloating itself by continual circular Protean transformation through its various value-form guises. 

Is this supposed to be the American vision of human happiness that is to serve as an ideal to be emulated by the rest of the world?

Further reading: Capital and Technology, Social Ontology of Whoness.


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