Georgy Mamedov: We do not perceive Soviet socialism as some kind of model that can guide us. Rather, it helps us to see the differences in how relations between people can be arranged.
For example, Kristen Ghodsee cites Russian researchers who showed that partnership or marital relations by the late Soviet era, by the end of the 1970s-1980s, were perceived primarily as friendships. We are far from idealising Soviet socialism, but nevertheless this is an important point: people at that time could build intersubjective relationships under conditions of a certain personal autonomy. And here we see that individual freedom was not associated with freedom of speech or freedom of movement. Instead, even under the conditions of Soviet socialism, people had resources for their own autonomous survival, and this contributed to the formation of completely different relationships at different levels. And this should be taken seriously, and not only as propaganda.
In addition, today we all – and not only in the post-Soviet space, but throughout the world – have lost the prospect of the future as something stable and predictable. We are sinking more and more into a generational gap, given that we now have the first generation whose living conditions are not improving compared to their parents. Even we ‘millennials’ feel it; we are the first generation of this kind, and subsequent generations are in even worse conditions. And this is a generally global phenomenon that certainly affects happiness.
For example, my grandmother is constantly worried about my pension, and it’s quite difficult for me to explain to her that I’m not expecting much on that front, and it will be even more difficult for people who are now 20 years old. For them, it seems, a pension will be some kind of exhibit in a museum or a concept from a history textbook. It would seem that all this is not connected with happiness; but in fact, it is directly connected.
The feeling of a future, the ability to look at our life ahead – we are deprived of this feeling, it is constantly shrinking. And it certainly makes us extremely unhappy, and you can’t change it with some pop psychology book or start thinking ‘positively’ about it. For us, the answer is this: we need to form an idea of socialist politics, of leftist politics, which would include the idea of happiness.
Many large employers are now introducing “wellbeing” and “wellness” in the workplace, and “employee care” departments are emerging in corporations. Google, for example, feeds employees coconut blossom juice and scallops with parmesan sauce. Is this not enough?
Nina Bagdasarova: There is nothing wrong with that, it’s just that the circle of people affected is catastrophically narrow, against a background of work, of course, becoming more and more precarious. Even programmers who work in these companies are guaranteed to receive some benefits, they are still exploited. When everyone is working on short-term contracts or freelancing and generally does not know what will happen to them tomorrow, and you have a job where everything is cool, then, of course, for the sake of this work you will do many things that you maybe would not have done otherwise.
Mohira Suyarkulova: I recently read Octavia Butler’s novel Parable of the Sower, which outlines a future where people’s survival directly depends on corporations. The heroine’s father works on a seasonal basis in an online college, and they live in a community, surrounded by a high fence, and outside the fence a complete nightmare – homelessness, destitution, hunger, violence – is happening. The family have some elementary benefits only because the father has a job. As soon as he loses this job, they lose everything and their whole more or less prosperous life will disintegrate. We see things like this in the US, where access to healthcare is completely dependent on the employer. Lose your job – you lose your insurance, and you can die without basic medical care.
Georgy Mamedov: This ‘corporate happiness’ has another more prosaic aspect: feeding your employees, giving them free smoothies, creating ping-pong rooms and so on, is much cheaper and more profitable than letting employees organise a trade union, hire them on long-term contracts and provide them with social guarantees. Slavoj Zizek, it seems, has long called this “liberal communism” – a situation in which these illusory benefits are created for a limited number of people, but which in fact do not lead to any serious social transformations. Besides, this all tends to look like a feast during a plague.
Moreover, even those people who are allowed to feast, in fact, are in very precarious conditions. The new union of Google programmers is a big step towards a collective happiness project that all these leaders of neoliberal capitalism are fiercely resisting. What workers really need are long-term contracts.
Nina Bagdasarova: We need a pension.
Georgy Mamedov: You need a pension, yes. And we must not forget: by focusing on the trends set by these companies, we forget that this is only the tip of the iceberg.
The global telecommunications industry is heavily dependent on semi-slave (if not slave) labour – workers who assemble and manufacture the equipment we use. Minerals for semiconductors are literally mined by child labour, where is no talk of managing your happiness and wellbeing. There is 19th-century-style exploitation in its most terrible forms out there.
I think we need to resist corporate happiness, and we see that, including for white-collar workers, this is becoming more and more obvious. It is unlikely now that anyone can be lured by a nap room, ping-pong tables or smoothies, this illusion is becoming more transparent for most people.
The idea of happiness you propose is through belonging to a certain community, a circle of like-minded people. In this scheme, happiness is like complicity in, or belonging to, something. What is the difference between this idea and the version of happiness, according to a conservative morality, of the need to be part of a collective?
Georgy Mamedov: The difference between these ideas lies in the possibility of choice.
From a left-wing perspective, you can choose to belong to this or that community, but the conservative version does not offer this: where you were born, that’s where you’re needed. The whole idea of conservative happiness is built on the essentialisation of a person’s belonging to a particular group, while the left-wing idea is based on the fact that you can choose and construct this belonging.
It seems to me that in the left-wing project, in the left-wing understanding of happiness, you do not find yourself, and you do not find your belonging – you create it. Maybe from a liberal point of view, intentionally or accidentally, this significant difference is pushed out and only collectivism remains visible. But collectivism comes in different forms. Leftist collectivism is not collectivism at birth.Print