Bourdieu on the Economy of Happiness and the Role of Class Interest in Environmental Politics: extract 3 from ‘Sociology is a Martial Art’

A new economy of happiness. It’s an idea that … today it might seem a bit original and even utopian, whereas it’s really quite banal. All it means is that the economy as it now is, according to the dominant definition, takes into account costs and profits, etc. but it erases social costs and social profits, everything that’s not quantifiable, everything that’s not calculable, everything that can’t be anticipated by computation, etc. As a result, we severely underestimate costs and we overestimate the cost-profit ratio. For example, if we really took into account – this is just an example – the cost of urban violence. When European governments or other governments ask sociologists to study violence in schools, in the banlieues, there’s always money for this. What do they want? Recipes to make violence go away. Do we need more policemen, more social workers, more teachers? Does school play a role in the violence? But how do we protect the schools? Those are the questions that are raised. In fact, they systematically exclude the question of whether the causes of violence do not reside outside that universe, in things that are totally obvious, such as the unemployment rate, job insecurity, temporal insecurity, the fact that the future is uncertain, elimination from school, the fact that some children, because of their background,both social and ethnic, the two being often linked, are fated to be eliminated by the school system. The causes of violence reside in the whole structure. What is not perceived is that savings made on one side: as when they say, “let’s cut costs”, “let’s downsize”,”let’s lay-off 2,000 people to cut production costs and be competitive on the world market” the savings made on one end are paid for at the other end. The 2,000 people who are dismissed, especially if they’re young, will take tranquillisers, become alcoholics, take drugs, become dealers and then killers, and keep the police hard at work. If we balance the social costs induced by a purely economic approach to cost-saving, it’s easy to see what bad economics this is. That’s all. What we have is very bad economics, based on the dissociation of the economic and the social. But what’s social is economic. There’s nothing which lies outside of this enlarged economy: sadness, joy, happiness, taking pleasure in life, the pleasure of walking the streets without being attacked, the quality of the air we breathe. All of that pertains to economics.

Now with ecology, they’re starting to say. But with what difficulties! It’s a law, another social law. There are social costs which affect everyone. This is based on research done by a Dutch sociologist. He showed that in the 18th and 19th centuries, advances in the standards of hygiene were fostered by the fact that the great epidemics such as the plague, crossed class barriers. An epidemic of the plague didn’t stay in the lower-class districts. It killed everyone, including the bourgeois. So they built sewers, they implemented all kinds of measures of hygiene in the public interest, but only because these were also in the interest of the dominant. Today, for example, with Chernobyl, the radioactive cloud isn’t going to stop at the Oder-Neisse border, nor at the Rhine, nor at the border of the upper-class districts of Paris. That’s when we practise ecology “in the public interest”. Medical doctors, who are not a progressive element in any country, are beginning to say, “Oh, pollution levels are very bad “for people with a heart condition”, “who suffer from asthma, too”. But nobody knows what the consequences will be in 20 years. In 20 years, we’ll be saying, “There’s a correlation between cancer rates and urban life”.  But it will be too late.

What I say all the time is that social science is telling us now that measures which seem very rational “economically” today: “We’re going to produce more Toyotas with less steel!” As Leibniz used to say, “We’ll tie up more dogs with fewer sausages”. This way of running the economy has terrible effects which are said to be “secondary”, but in fact are primary when they concern public health, physical and mental health, personal sanity. For example alcoholism, which is a social phenomenon. I think that all these measures which make the stock market soar – it zooms up each time a measure like that is taken – will be paid for by certain people and eventually by the collectivity.

It’s a bit like the sewers in the 18th century, paid for by the collectivity. What I’m preaching is enlightened interest. I say to the dominant, “You can be cynical, you may not care what happens to the people, but it’s stupid, not just mean.” After all, I’m no moralist. “If it pleases you to be like that, but it’s stupid! because you’ll end up, like in California, in your gilded ghettos with armed guards. you won’t be able to go out without watchdogs, you’ll need security systems everywhere, you’ll be as if besieged in your fortress, surrounded by a violence you will have created yourself.” Of course, the system is very powerful and so far it’s “under control”. I don’t know how many millions of Blacks they have in prison? There you go.


La Sociologie est un Sport de Combat, (2002) Directed by Carles P. France: C-P Productions/VF Films.


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