Comparative life satisfaction


We tend to think of the past century as being a time of great progress when it comes to the quality of life — for ordinary people as well as the privileged. Advances in science, technology, and medicine have made life more secure, predictable, productive, educated, and healthy. But in what specific ways is ordinary life happier or more satisfying for ordinary people in 2000 compared to their counterparts in 1900 or 1800 — or 200, for that matter?

There are a couple of things that are pretty obvious. Nutrition is one place to start: the mass population of France, Canada, or the United States is not subject to periodic hunger, malnutrition, or famine. This is painfully not true for many poor parts of the world — Sudan, Ethiopia, and Bangladesh, for example. But for the countries of the affluent world, the OECD countries, hunger has been largely conquered for most citizens.

Second, major advances in health preservation and the treatment of illness have taken place. We know how to prevent cholera, and we know how to treat staph infections with antibiotics. Terrible diseases such as polio have been eradicated, and we have effective treatments for some kinds of previously incurable cancers. So the basic health status of people in the affluent 21st-century world is substantially better than that of previous centuries — with obvious consequences for our ability to find satisfaction in life activities.

These advances in food security and public health provision have resulted in a major enhancement to quality of life — life expectancy in France, Germany, or Costa Rica has increased sharply. And many of the factors underlying much of this improvement is not high-tech, but rather takes the form of things like improvement of urban sanitation and relatively low-cost treatment (antibiotics for children’s ear infections, for example).

So living longer and more healthily is certainly an advantage in our quality of life relative to conditions one or two centuries ago.

Improvements in labor productivity in agriculture and manufacturing have resulted in another kind of enhancement of modern quality of life. It is no longer necessary for a large percentage of humanity to perform endless and exhausting labor in order to feed the rest of us. And because of new technologies and high labor productivity, almost everyone has access to goods that extend the enjoyment of life and our creative talents. Personal computing and communications, access to the world’s knowledge and culture through the Internet, and ability to travel widely all represent opportunities that even the most privileged could not match one or two centuries ago.

But the question of life satisfaction doesn’t reduce to an inventory of the gadgets we can use. Beyond the minimum required for sustaining a healthy human body, the question of satisfaction comes down to the issue of what we do with the tools and resources available to us and the quality of our human relationships. How do we organize our lives in such a way as to succeed in achieving goals that really matter?

Amartya Sen’s economic theory of “capabilities and realizations” supports a pretty good answer to these questions about life satisfaction (Development as Freedom). Each person has a bundle of talents and capabilities. These talents can be marshalled into a meaningful life plan. And the satisfying life is one where the person has singled out some important values and goals and has used his/her talents to achieve these goals. (This general idea underlies J. S. Mill’s theory of happiness as well in Utilitarianism.)

By this standard, it’s not so clear that life in the twenty-first century is inherently more satisfying than that in the eighteenth or the second centuries. When basic needs were satisfied — nutrition, shelter, health — the opportunities for realizing one’s talents in meaningful effort were no less extensive than they are today. This is true for the creative classes — obviously. The creative product of Mill’s or Hugo’s generation was no less substantial or satisfying than our own. But perhaps it is true across the board. The farmer-gardener who shapes his/her land over the course of a lifetime has created something of great personal value and satisfaction. The mason or smith may have taken more pride and satisfaction in his life’s work than does the programmer or airline flight attendant. The parent who succeeded in nurturing a family in 1800 County Cork may have found the satisfactions as great or greater than parents in Boston or Seattle today.

So we might say that the only unmistakeable improvement in quality of life in the past century is in the basics — secure nutrition, decent education, and improved health during the course of a human life. And the challenge of the present is to make something meaningful and sustaining of the resources we are given.

Alienation and anomie

It is interesting to compare Durkheim and Marx on their ideas about modern consciousness. Durkheim focused on social solidarity as one of the important functions of a social order: individuals had a defined place in the world that was created and reinforced by the social values of morality, religion, and patriotism. He observed that these strands of solidarity are stronger or weaker in different societies, and he also observed that some modern social forces tend to break down these moral strands of social cohesion — the creation of large cities, for example. In his theory of suicide, he highlights the situation of “anomie” to refer to the circumstance of individuals whose relationship to the social whole is weak, and he explains differences in suicide rates across societies as the result of different levels of solidarity and its opposite, anomie.

Marx’s concept of alienation involves a somewhat different kind of separation and breakdown — separation of the person from his/her nature as a free producer and creator, and separation of the person from his/her natural sociality. Marx thinks of affirming social relations as founded on equality and freedom. So modern capitalist society is destructive of true sociality.

What is interesting in this comparison is that both Durkheim and Marx appear to be diagnosing a similar feature of modernity. In Durkheim’s case there is an implicit contrast between a pre-modern world in which individuals have a well-defined social and moral place and the contemporary world in which these strands of solidarity are breaking down. In Marx’s case the contrast is forward-looking. Marx compares the present — the factory — with the future — a society of free, equal, social producers. But in each case the theorist is grappling with an absence in modernity — an absence of a social and moral setting that gives the individual a basis for self-respect and sociable collaboration with others. The social itself is breaking down. (This is a theme with other social theorists as well; for example, in Tönnies’ distinction between Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft. Peter Laslett’s title The World We Have Lost, England Before the Industrial Age captures some of the same idea.)

Coming forward to the social theories of the late twentieth century, these issues continue to fascinate some social observers. Robert Putnam’s work on trying to measure the changing density of civic involvement (social capital) is a different perspective on Durkheim’s concept of solidarity. (Another great title — Bowling Alone : The Collapse and Revival of American Community.) Sociologists who focus on disaffected young people are raising similar issues. And the New Left sociology and theory of workers’ alienation from society picks up where Marx left off on this issue.

Is the time right for a new round of thinking about the nature of social consciousness and social solidarity? Do we need some new concepts of how ideas and identities contribute to a social whole? Is the study and theorizing of social subjectivity an important aspect of the challenge of sociology?

Alienation and subjectivity

Marx provided a rigorous basis for analyzing the facts about exploitation in a class society. This is on the materialistic side of the equation — interests, resources, consumption. But he also provided what must be considered pathbreaking writing about workers’ subjectivity — their state of consciousness, their subjective frameworks for understanding the world they inhabit, and the ways in which their identities are forged. At a distance of one hundred seventy years, this effort at analysis of subjectivity seems remarkably current. It harmonizes with the cultural turn in some of the social sciences and with feminist theorizing about the lived experience of women. It suggests the value of empirical ethnographic work on the experience and mentality of workers. And it is unfinished business.

What Marx had to say about the subject is mostly expressed in the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844. The concept of alienation refers to separation from something important. In EPM Marx analyzes the structure of the production process in a factory in capitalism. And he finds that the nature of this process works to alienate the worker from the product (limited consumption), the labor process (because his/her labor is commanded rather than freely expressed), from one’s social nature (because of factory work rules that prohibit talking and collaborating), and from “species-being” (the worker’s essence as a free, social, self-directed creator). So the causes of worker alienation are to be found in the workings of coercive relations of production that deny the worker the opportunity for free creativity and self-expression.

There are several other concepts in Marx’s work that get some grip on subjectivity — the fetishism of commodities, the idea of class consciousness, and the idea of ideology and ultimately false consciousness. These are all concepts through which Marx sought to explore the main features of worker subjectivity — the ways in which ideas and mental frameworks structure one’s experience of the world and the ways in which these mental structures are “determined” or influenced by social relations. And a central concern of Marx’s was to understand the subjectivities underlying political consciousness and mobilization.

There are two important points here. First, there is the formulation of an important intellectual task — that of formulating a set of concepts that permit us to analyze and explore mentality or consciousness. And this body of research should also give us a basis for understanding political behavior. People’s thoughts and assumptions influence their politicl behavior. Second, and more distinctive of Marx, is the formulation of an agenda of explanation, a sociology of consciousness. Marx wants to discover some of the ways that historical circumstances, economic structures, and social relations of production influence or determine these features of historically situated consciousness. He wants to know how it is that “the hand mill gives you the feudal lord”. The theory of ideology is one such effort — a causal theory that says that the interests of powerful people shape the consciousness of the worker. But it is evident that this theory is just the beginning.

Likewise, Marx offers a materialist theory of alienation. Social circumstances — the social relations of production and the factory system — produce a subjective effect — the worker’s alienation. And similarly with commodity fetishism, reification, and false consciousness. These ideas moved forward in the twentieth century in the hands of Antonio Gramsci (in his concepts of hegemony and the intellectual) and in the thinking of theorists in the Critical Theory tradition (Horkheimer, Adorno, Wellmer).

The reason I think it is worthwhile recalling this history in a few hundred words is that our goal is to — understand society. This means finding the concepts necessary to probe objective social factors and causes. But equally it requires coming to grips with subjectivity and its historical and social conditions. So finding the tools that will allow us to describe, analyze, and explain the fluid formations of mentality, identity, and consciousness is a leading challenge for a more satisfactory social science. And Marx’s early ideas about alienation and fetishism provide some good starting points.

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