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" in 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 from a state of nature. 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 actually possessed, happiness has to be striven for as potential, 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 for which the acquisition of property stands proxy for the fulfilment of happiness.

But what is property? It seems to be obvious: it consists in all the goods and chattels an individual 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'. Does happiness therefore consist in the presencing of private property to its owner? 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 who has pursued and managed to acquire substantial propertied estate. Is a man's stand and status as somewho, 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, i.e. the acquisition of private property, 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 from impoverished countries 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' as the 'land of the free'. The privacy of private property consists in depriving others, including even the State, access to it. It thus dissociates society.

But what is private 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 in its cycle of augmentation, accumulation, its bloating. The augmentative movement of total global thingified value as capital, i.e. its valorization, requires its bearers, its players, who are enticed and necessitated to participate in the gainful game by striving for one of the guises of thingified 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 thingified value as income together constitute the total amount of thingified value generated by the gainful game in a given periodic cycle.

When seen this way, the pursuit of happiness can be deciphered socio-ontologically as the pursuit of income in the gainful game. Each U.S. citizen has the "inalienable right" and is individually free to become a player in the gainful game, striving for income, albeit without any guarantee of success and often failing to gain sufficient income to live well. All the individualized players in the gainful game, whether successful or not, are kept breathlessly in motion, motivated by the promise of gain. Beneath the surface of the economy, their pursuit realizes the accumulation of valorizing thingified value (aka capital), a movement that knows no limit.

For the players themselves, success in the gainful game is measured by the income gained, that is complemented by the happiness gained in freely spending the income gained as consumers. Consumers enjoy the personal, individualized freedom of choosing how to spend their income, including on acquiring durable goods, valuables, art works or real estate situated on a parcel of the Earth's surface. In fulfilling their role as consumers on the surface of society they enable, on the hidden, deeper level, i) the transformation of advanced capital into sales revenues, ii) the turnover of the valorizing thingified value, and thereby iii) its limitless accumulation. In their various roles in the gainful game the players are, namely, the character masks of thingified value-forms. Viewed thus, the individualized freedom to pursue, acquire and consume income is inverted into blind servility to the underlying movement of valorizing thingified value, bloating itself endlessly and senselessly by continual circular Protean transformation through its various value forms.

This American vision of human happiness and individual freedom that is supposed to serve as an ideal to be emulated by the rest of the 'free world' turns out to be the guise for an invisible, inverted world of endlessly accumulating thingified value unmoored from any human aim. We are all ineluctably entangled in this inverted world. The U.S., that often pronounces itself to be 'the greatest Nation that ever was on Earth' is thus captive to its own delusion of freedom as individualized, and entangled in the contradictions of this idea, many of whose forms of appearance on the surface of society are cruel and grotesque, and anything but the realization of happiness. We would do well to interrogate the idea of (individualized) freedom to reveal its seamy underbelly. Such interrogation calls for a renewal of thinking.

Further reading: Capital and Technology,  

Social Ontology of Whoness.

On Human Temporality.

Tale of the Qua.

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