Politics should be no less than the quest for happiness, for the conditions of happiness. The US Constitution backs down here: the right to the pursuit of happiness is not the same as happiness as the pre-eminent goal of the polis.
How are we to be happy? The question has two terms: who is this 'we'? And what is this common happiness (or should it be happinesses?)? I take from Adorno the principle that neither I nor we have the right to demand that anyone – not I, not we, not, certainly, they – should sacrifice happiness for some higher goal: there is no higher goal. We should suffer no unhappiness in ourselves or in others, no matter what pretense of greater or deferred good.
Happiness is not a right but a duty. Something we must strive for. Happiness as Agamben notes in his little essay on Magic (in Profanations) is never deserved or earned. It comes to us by luck or by magic, but it never comes if we – this still mysterious we – remove the condition of its possibility. One of the myriad ways we can do that is by destroying our environments, urban or natural, or for that matter cultural. A poisoned environment reduces the chances of happiness, and for that formal reason alone is to be fought against.
Happiness is not a personal goal. The persona is a mask, a performance for an audience – for mother, lover, child, boss, employee, student, teacher . . . Today we perform our multiple personae on blogs, microblogs, social media sites, SMS . . . each performing a facet and perhaps some kind of truth about our selves leaks out, but we know that in each instance we do not and cannot put out into the world everything we are, have been and can become. We are traversed by joys and fears that are not our own: a sporting win, a fiscal crisis. We are perpetually other than ourselves, and so cannot be selfish in looking for happiness.
Nor can we be happy in the presence of pain. Though we have inured ourselves to beggars, and learned to triumph at another's cost, the toy snatched form another child is always a poisoned chalice, and we scarcely know how to enjoy what we fail to share. If each of us is equipped with instinctual drives to survive, reproduce and shape the immediate environs to our comfort, we have learned that these ends are worst achieved alone: in this at least Hobbes was right. Our happiness is framed and formed in the need for the other, to make babies, prepare food, and build worlds, and as the necessary audience for our performances of self. Happiness is framed and formed again by our participation in the other's survival, reproduction, comfort and performance. The illimitable demand of the Other is not ethical, as Levinas stipulates, but political: the polis of the human that requires absolutely the happiness of others in order to find the happiness that is mine.
Our desires are not ours alone. Great tides of need sweep us up, sweep through our very veins and synapses. The same forces that make us individual make us social. Each of us is a nexus of the same needs and desires that forms and frames our fellows. This is that becoming-human which, severally and in unison, we embark upon with our first cries, and which maps out the task of the polis, of politics as conducting towards the Good Life, and the associations and movements we create in pursuit of it.
Alas. The institutional politics of actually existing polities are machines for defining exclusively the 'us' who deserve happiness. Since happiness cannot be deserved, this mode of polity – ours, based on wealth as privation (property as the right to deprive another of the enjoyment thereof) – therefore both destroys happiness and makes it impossible (because such polities pretend that happiness is possible only for an 'us' at the expense of a 'them'). Debt is the invention of a future absolutely dependent on the past. To that extent, our economic system is designed to kill the future as the open possibility of magic and therefore to kill the very possibility of happiness.
Happiness cannot exist in the abstract but only in the concrete, specific instance. We give only 'selves' to surveillance and to electoral politics: performances couched in clichés that lend themselves to management. Such selves and their efficient aggregations define human yearning, joy and suffering as norms and deviations. But we live in unique situations and events, not averages. Whenever the study of people takes on a scientific style (taxonomic psychologies, the pseudo-science of economics divorced from politics) it fails in its duty to happiness. The only truthful evidence is anecdotal, just as the only credible ethics is one that decides each act on its own conditions, not those of a rule.
Redefining the 'us' so that it includes non-humans redefines the human and the nonhuman, and happiness as what can only be achieved in common, in future, and in particular. We do not save a forest by starving its inhabitants; nor do we save the inhabitants by destroying the forest. Unlike freedom, which Mandela claimed to be indivisible but which is everywhere divided between the freedom of the rich and the debt-slavery of the poor, happiness is indivisible; but it is also (unlike freedom) multiple. As long as the happinesses of the forest and its inhabitants are mutually exclusive, we have failed.
This is where the real work begins