Issue #61 April 2023

Too Much or Never Enough: Excess, Success, and Happiness under Capitalism

Seong Moy, "Nets", (ca.1955-1965).

It is a long and rather unwieldy word, supererogation, evoking both comic books and crop management. Some sense of the beast is provided by its etymology, grounded in the Latin stem of ērogāre: to pay out or expend. To supererogate, then, is to give more than one owes, to go ‘beyond the call of duty’, as modern moral idiom has it.

The term finds its first use in the New Testament parable of the Good Samaritan, intertwining these economic and ethical implications. More recently, beginning with James Opie Urmson’s 1958 article ‘Saints and Heroes’, it has inspired debates in analytic philosophy.1placeholder Urmson was most interested in suggesting that consequentialist ethical systems cannot account for supererogatory acts, like that of a soldier throwing himself on a grenade to save his comrades, a claim which has been variously disputed and endorsed over the decades since. Whether Urmson is right is, however, much less interesting than the near-total failure of this minor academic dispute to treat supererogation as anything other than praiseworthy.

This is especially unusual given the energy poured by Protestant reformers since the 16th century into condemning the doctrine of supererogation as not only conceptually impossible, but also pathologically detrimental to both salvation and earthly existence. Luther’s sola fide stood in staunch opposition to the indulgent ‘good works’ of Catholic nobles, which in his eyes disclosed merely prideful self-deception. The distinction between commands and counsels upon which supererogation was traditionally based was rejected as sheer invention, a tool of control. German reformer Nicolaus Zinzendorf deemed that such ‘ecclesiastical regulations’ had ‘no promise for this life or the life to come’.2placeholder Calvin, for his part, offered a characteristically rigorous account of our relation to God, dismissing the notion that such ‘unworthy servants’ as we could be capable of giving the Almighty more than his due.3placeholder Even meeting our duties proved impossible, let alone exceeding them.

Weber’s classic account of how this ‘Protestant ethic’ entwined itself with the nascent spirit of capitalism is well known. It would nonetheless need updating for the new strains of capitalist exchange proliferating in the 21st century. The ascetic rigorism of ‘hustle culture’ has been paradoxically enhanced by an obsession with performance and spectacle decidedly alien to Calvin, exemplified by social media influencers whose followers function as secular indulgences. In work and leisure alike, modern consciousness is possessed on the one hand by the desire to supererogate, to go beyond the minimum, and haunted on the other by a repressed recognition that these perceived duties never can really be fulfilled in any meaningful sense. In the absence of ultimate divine salvation to fall back on, this insight proves especially painful—and, via the erection of false idols, especially worthy of repression.


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It is this double bind, of compelled yet futile supererogation, which a host of recent publications in philosophy and sociology take as their starting point. Amongst these we might name the British art critic and essayist Jonathan Crary, whose 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep (2014) centres around rising working hours and the corresponding reduction in sleep; the German sociologists Ulrich Bröckling and Andreas Reckwitz, who concentrate respectively on the societal enforcement of entrepreneurialism and creativity; and the French thinker Tristan Garcia, who, in The Life Intense: A Modern Obsession (2018), both exposes the dominant social type of the ‘intense person’ and follows the self-defeating logic of intensity to its furthest philosophical conclusions. Also deserving of mention are the Tübingen Germanist Eckart Goebel, whose Ambition: An Essay on the Burning Desire to Rise (2022) traces the literary and cultural history of this most flammable of concepts from ancient Greece to the present day; and the British art historian and political theorist Malcolm Bull, in whose works we find a recurrent concern with what Terry Eagleton calls ‘lessness’—that which remains of people and the world when ideological encrustations are scraped away or never have time to settle.4placeholder

All these thinkers share an interest in the ways society can oppress not negatively but positively; not stripping citizens of rights and privileges but coercively foisting new obligations upon them. With some exceptions, they focus on the world of work as the nexus of these pressures, observing a progressive blurring of the distinction between labour and leisure, and a replication of the former’s harms within the latter. A chief theoretical debt here is to Deleuze, who noted with great confusion in his seminal ‘Postscript on the Societies of Control’, first published in 1990, that ‘many young people strangely boast of being “motivated”; they re-request apprenticeships and permanent training’.5placeholder Deleuze’s befuddlement seems almost anachronistic now that the internalisation of social compulsions he predicted is well underway. It falls to the contemporary theorist to shade in an ever more vivid panorama of this self-reification.

Where Crary provides a structural perspective on the supererogatory logic of capitalism, Reckwitz and Bröckling populate this with an (increasingly homogenous) cast of characters. Crary’s opening salvo is the alarming statistic that a North American adult’s average sleep per night has gone from ten hours at the start of the 20th century to six now. Clearly—at least not without invasive medical interference—this shrinkage cannot continue unabated, in stark contrast to the unblinking and untiring permanence of urban electric lighting and computerised technology. This ‘discrepancy between a human life-world and the evocation of a switched-on universe for which no off-switch exists’ dooms to futility any attempts by humankind to live up to its environment. But precisely this, Crary suggests, is demanded of us, resulting in a disastrously ‘unsustainable and self-liquidating identification with its fantasmatic requirements’.6placeholder Translating financial models into moral economy results in a debilitating dissonance. Whilst we convince ourselves of the need to go beyond the call of duty, exceeding all targets and forecasts, the capitalist system has liberated itself from even the notion of a limit. Prior imaginings of ourselves as climbers spotting and scaling new peaks dissolve within an inescapable lava flow, devouring all in its path.

Such slippery and non-linear conditions require equally fluid individuals. Entrepreneurial spirit and creativity do not, on the face of it, seem like especially undesirable qualities. Bröckling and Reckwitz, for their part, hardly wish to reject them outright. Rather, their critique targets a forcible universalisation—Bröckling goes so far as to dub ‘act entrepreneurially!’ modernity’s new categorical imperative7placeholder—which, by demanding them of all, strips these practices of what originally made them special. The entrepreneurial subject, a particularly virulent strain of homo economicus, must not only dominate business rivals, but also orchestrate competition on the level of selfhood, optimising and making more efficient all possible metrics. Someone like Elon Musk embodies these tendencies, handily performing them online for disciples and detractors alike. Boasting that ‘I slept on a couch in the Twitter library and I even wear slippers’, the tech mogul recently used his own actions to justify an ultimatum to staff, demanding that employees either commit to ‘long hours at high intensity’ or leave. This oxymoronic requirement exemplifies the logic at play here, whilst its romantic packaging as ‘extremely hardcore’ completes the linkage to a certain (implicitly stronger and superior) social type.

A similar universalisation of duty has taken place, Reckwitz argues, regarding the figure of the artist, now degenerated into mere ‘creator’, part of the ‘creative industries’. A two-way movement is at play here: on the one hand, the artist becomes increasingly like the media celebrity (their studio, for example, being subjected to an MTV Cribs-style exposé); on the other, the public aims to become more like the artist as media celebrity, dramatizing and monetising every aspect of their lives, from morning routines to moments of intimacy. One expects such aesthetic reprocessing of the self from Baudelaire. Nietzsche wrote in 1886 that ‘poets are shameless with their experiences: they exploit them’.8placeholder In the age of social media, this exploitation is both much more shameless, having been reduced to a form of advertising, and no longer the exclusive remit of Dichter und Denker.

As Urmson recognised, the hero is the primary archetype of supererogation. Musk does indeed represent for many a hero of tech, seen as providing maverick yet miraculous solutions to humanity’s greatest challenges. But heroism has always been a matter of precious uniqueness; the greatness of the hero implies the ordinariness of those they represent, whose energy they concentrate and wilfully enact. Turning heroism into a universal, mandating supererogation across the board, destroys the imbalance according to which it functions. Bröckling devotes his latest book, 2020’s Postheroic Heroes, to an evaluation of the extent to which this and other factors—pathos, unrepentant masculinity, moral certitude—have discredited heroism even whilst reanimating it from a post-World War II slump. He too picks up on a lost logic of representation. Whilst Schumpeter’s ‘creative destroyer’, for example, bears enormous similarities to Musk and other tech CEOs, Bröckling stresses that the Austrian-born economist meant this figure to be an exception rather than the rule.9placeholder The creative destroyer, like the classical hero, should inspire not emulation but raw obedience in those around them.

This appears doubly problematic today. For one, increasing social atomisation has made traditional forms of identity-based representation (nation, class, gender) implausible and suspect in equal measure. The shallow quantification of follower counts has taken their place, in line with Deleuze’s notion of the ‘dividual’. On top of this, we are unwilling—owing as much to our egotism as our belief in democratic equality—to accept the elitist premise central to heroism: that, as Bröckling puts it, ‘the outstanding qualities of the one confirm the mediocrity of the others’.10placeholder We all want a slice of the pie.

Certain manifestations of this desire are especially alarming. The Italian theorist Franco Berardi has analysed mass shootings as desperate attempts to reclaim the ‘heroic’ potential of the self, clawing to escape banality and irrelevance by attacking the world and all it has to offer.11placeholder Most of us choose less immediately disastrous methods of pursuing the same end goal. What are we looking for? One answer is provided by Garcia: intensity.

Intensity, defined by Garcia as the ‘principle of the systematic comparison of a thing to itself’, is something of a limit case for the supererogatory logic of modernity, its purest concentration.12placeholder It can be sought and found in any sphere, from sport to drugs, sex to scientific investigation, faith to politics, and of course the world of work. It is promised and hinted at everywhere in society, flaunted as the justification of our very being. Rather than, like Bröckling or Reckwitz, targeting one particular vessel of excess, Garcia succeeds in isolating the foundation of all such obsessions, and in so doing bringing the contradictions they entail most clearly to view. One could, at least in theory, work all the time, or approach every waking moment with the outlook of the creative entrepreneur. But intensity is a relational concept, which must by definition apply only in a select few cases, and becomes ever more difficult to access after each prior taste. Not only this, it stridently resists quantification and exteriorisation, existing only on the level of our perception. The momentarily doubting workaholic may comfort themselves by the mathematical reality of targets achieved and deals brokered. Forcibly inducing the ephemeral feeling of intensity in one’s own mind is a far trickier prospect.

Many have tried, some few have succeeded. Garcia traces a genealogy of the intense subject from the 18th-century libertine (epitomised by the Marquis de Sade), through the 19th-century Romantic, all the way to the 20th-century ‘adolescent rocker’. Alongside this, he illuminates the history of electricity as both scientific and metaphysical concept, threading a current between experiments with animal magnetism and Alice Cooper’s extravagant pyrotechnics, part of a speculative definition of modernity as the ‘domestication of electric current’.13placeholder In the 21st century, anguished outcasts and decadent rulers find themselves accompanied in their hunt after this elusive quarry by society at large. As Garcia puts it, the ‘fear that haunts the victor’, that of exsanguinated boredom, ‘has been democratised and extended to modern humans, who have become frustrated even as their needs are more satisfied’.14placeholder

Our anxieties around ‘existential flatness’ and the ‘devitalisation’ this brings with it, along with the evaporation of religion’s transcendent promises, have resulted in an ethic of personal intensification. Modernity, Garcia suggests, ‘no longer promises individuals another life, the glory of what lies beyond, but rather promises what we already are—more and better’.15placeholder (Existentialist ‘authenticity’ is very much in the crosshairs here.) At the same time, however, we are taught to seek out nooks and crannies of novelty, worshipping variation and change. Or, perhaps better, to embrace what Garcia calls ‘primaverism’, a primitivist infatuation with first times, convinced that ‘nothing is ever stronger than it was at the beginning’.16placeholder Across all these methods, one unfortunate truth remains: as De Quincey’s opium addict finds out to his despair, intensities ‘have to be increased in order to be maintained’.17placeholder The intense subject thus oscillates between various ruses, mixing newness with acceleration, likely tasting some cognitive dissonance but failing to act on it, for searching after an alternative is so easily also seduced by intensity’s charms. Yet intensity can never be upheld; it inevitably stutters and crumbles, denaturing into lifeless routine. Even the highest dosage eventually fails to resurrect it.


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A deep-rooted cultural pessimism seems to bind together all the thinkers mentioned so far, a distrust of the system so great that it permits only negativity, stripping back all that characterises humanity without concern for how little might be left. Indignant objections spring to mind fairly easily. Is creativity really so bad? Can the price of intensity be so high? Is my life not worthy of art? Or, more pointedly: why shouldn’t I at least try? Why should I accept mediocrity, boredom, and banality when others don’t? As off-hand as they may seem, these are no shallow critiques. On the contrary, they cut to the heart of why this spate of European theorists, united by the family resemblance of their concern for ‘lessness’, have felt compelled to offer such dismal diagnoses in recent decades.

Is not the left—and these thinkers are all very much on the left—a vocal defender of egalitarianism, social mobility, and human potential? These notions, unfortunately, are more complicated than they may initially appear. Equality is especially troublesome. One of the first to recognise this, on his travels around 1830s America, was Tocqueville, to whom Goebel devotes particular attention. In America, Tocqueville observed, the proclaimed equality of all served as a breeding ground for individuals desperate to establish their own inequality, now provided by the common denominator of quantifiable wealth rather than any claim of inborn honour. As the French aristocrat summarised, ‘the desire to rise is born at the same time in all hearts; each man wants to leave his place’, meaning that ‘ambition is the universal sentiment’.18placeholder

Equality is a bitter pill to swallow, and one a considerable proportion of the population will go out of their way to regurgitate. On top of this, the notion of political equality has provided a convenient smokescreen for the establishment of ever more pervasive forms of socioeconomic inequality. The former has largely taken on the role of scapegoat, whilst the richest and most successful—in other words, the most unequal—continue to represent an ideal. Ambition, after all, implies that one believes in the superiority of those whose coattails one is chasing.

If one wholly rejects the normative structures of class society, it becomes markedly more difficult (not to say impossible) to offer any constructive vision of positive advancement within its strictures—ruling out, for example, the naïve promise of social mobility. Hence the countercultural ‘drop out’ mentality of much leftism in the latter half of the 20th century, hence also, as William Davies notes, the decidedly ‘minimalist notions of resistance’ found in Crary’s 24/7: sleep as the last remaining means of blotting out the evil noise and invasive light.19placeholder This is not a new problem. Adorno went so far as to remodel philosophy as an entirely negative enterprise, seeing in this the only way of resisting the falsity of the whole. And indeed the critical method may be by far the most promising member of the left-wing toolkit. It is, however, a dangerous game to play.

Morris Graves, "Spring with Machine Age Noise V", (1957).

The Italian Marxist Domenico Losurdo differentiated in his mammoth book on Nietzsche between two strands of the critique of ideology. Alluding to Rousseau’s famous flowers and chains, Losurdo contrasts Marx with Nietzsche. Whilst the former, he argues, sought to remove the flowers of ideology adorning the chain of oppression in order to shake it off entirely, the latter swept aside the flowers so as to glorify the chain itself, revelling in the ‘natural’ necessities of hierarchy, suffering, and exploitation which tied its links together.20placeholder This makes for confusing overlaps. After all, Nietzsche targeted in his day and would target now the illusionary promises and foundations of consumer capitalism—albeit only to provide alternative, considerably more ruthless justifications for its consequences.

This parallelism allows the spectre of Nietzschean aristocratism, whip-like chain in hand, to rear up behind the contemporary thinkers at hand here, reflecting and distorting their works like a circus mirror. Whilst Nietzsche’s aristocratic perspective saw him criticise the Christian bourgeois doctrine of equality on the grounds that it would result in universal mediocrity and the disappearance of greatness and genius, it is precisely bourgeois society which has absorbed and perversely democratised the demand for heroic intensity. Gone are the days discussed by Garcia in which the only remaining opponent to intensity was the ‘social embodiment of the averagely average’: the bourgeois, a ‘settled, sedentary, married’ figure, who ‘holds tight to a cookie cutter plan that guides her life’.21placeholder Rather, the mass internalisation of a form of elitism which unquestioningly endorses socioeconomic success even whilst maintaining (and objectively promoting) the essential sameness of all necessitates the reintroduction of thought which, in stressing the radical differences between people’s wants, needs, and abilities, articulates in some sense a more overt form of elitism.

A crucial distinction does, of course, exist between Nietzsche and the currents of contemporary leftism floating in his wake. Where the former unashamedly erects a hierarchical ‘great chain of being’, rejecting those he saw as lesser and in many cases planning their enslavement or extermination, the latter take an opposite approach. Turning the Nietzschean pyramid upside down, they embrace the valorisation of inferiority as a solution to the problem of inequality. (Bull’s 2011 Anti-Nietzsche, with its project of reading the German philosopher ‘like a loser’ so as to finally cast him loose, is perhaps the clearest example of this.) Nonetheless, the inverted resemblance of the two arguments is close enough as to make such leftist arguments rather unconvincing for most people who aren’t already steeped in that theoretical world, provoking reactions from general confusion to impassioned denial. One encounters a mix of defences of the condemned ‘virtues’ of capitalist ideology and disgusted dismissals of counterproposals like Crary’s emphasis on leisure and sheer laziness.

Again, the problems stem from the thorny doublet of equality and difference. At risk of oversimplifying, we might suggest that if for Nietzsche there was both difference and hierarchy, then today there is hierarchy but no difference, and what we should be aspiring for is difference but no hierarchy. This means asking how we can conceptualise the vast divergences between individual people, in almost all respects, in a non-normative way, encoding and celebrating neither superiority nor inferiority, nor pitting concepts of the same against each other.


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The discrediting of destiny as a metaphysical notion since the 19th century makes this task substantially more difficult. For all Nietzsche’s emphasis on relentless self-overcoming, he nonetheless reliably returns to an ontological (even if worryingly biologically deterministic) concept of fate—his concern is with ‘how one becomes what one is’. Whilst the natural inclination when engaging with Nietzsche is to see in his Freigeist or Übermensch an incarnation of oneself, an interpretation made all the easier by his charismatic rhetoric, his works repeatedly stress that this elite group is vanishingly small. In this sense, Bull’s aim to read Nietzsche ‘like a loser’ is surely an accurate reflection of the latter’s own appraisal of his readership. It would, however, be wrong to think the German philosopher was entirely uninterested in these supposed ‘losers’. As Andrew Huddleston has convincingly argued, Nietzsche was in fact very much concerned with the flourishing of those he deemed inferior.22placeholder Across his oeuvre, he explored at length the ways in which tendencies like democratisation and universal education had impaired the flourishing of those he saw as weaker or less intelligent, especially as compared to their Grecian forebears.

Of course, one may rightly think it an extremely backhanded form of concern to suggest that the slave’s fulfilment is found in obedience and comparatively mindless labour. But the fact remains that, in this system of what we might dub ‘inegalitarian communitarianism’, Nietzsche offers an account of human variance which at the very least coherently allows for differentiated forms of flourishing. It is far from clear that the dominant contemporary viewpoint is capable of the same. The task of determining human destiny has now been outsourced to the market and its imperturbable rationality, where success reigns alone as provider of value. We find this thought expressed particularly forcibly in the ‘Two Worlds’ fragment of Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944), where Adorno and Horkheimer lament that in America ‘there is no difference between a person and that person’s economic fate’. In other words, ‘all are worth as much as they earn, and earn as much as they are worth’, finding out ‘what they are through the ups and downs of their economic life’.23placeholder

Fate’s financialisation turns it inside out. No longer serving to lift responsibility or at least circumscribe it to the discovery of a particular pre-set goal, destiny becomes the individual’s guilty conscience, blaming itself for the inefficacy of an economic miracle cure. There are still losers here—‘failures’—but the recalibration of fate along a single axis precludes any hope of their flourishing, any hint of meaningful difference. Garcia links this with a broader transformation of stable states into processes, nouns into verbs, giving as examples the progressive erasure of any ‘inviolable species demarcation between humanity and other animals’ and of gender and sexual boundaries. Irrespective of whether one thinks these developments positive or not, they do certainly signify the end of a paradigm in which science believed it could ‘divide up all of space into a vast display case where every species could be viewed at once, each in its separate compartment’, a liquidation of difference which worryingly shadows market processes.24placeholder

Even if a person does find success, the logic of infinite maximisation and intensification ensures that no end point comes into view. Continuing on the same treadmill, depression and burnout rear their heads on the horizon. It is typical of Crary’s pessimism that he also quashes even the slightest chance of ‘beating the system’ through cunning or unorthodox participation (his go-to example is the ‘lone hacker’), judging this to be an ‘illusion’.25placeholder In this respect, he reiterates Adorno’s thoroughgoing distrust of the affirmative, according to which any kind of affirmation, however brief or cynical, inevitably slips into identification. One is always the puppet, never the puppet-master. Goebel offers a scene from Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks as a case study. Here, as he summarises, students cheating in an oral test in Wilhelmine Germany come away from their trickery earnestly believing that ‘they are good students who know their Ovid, delivered solid performances, and thus earned their good grades’ and being ‘proud of their success, the irresistible magic of which has here worked its charms’.26placeholder Success according to the norms of the system not only seems to efface any moral considerations, operating according to purely instrumental reason, but also brings with it an element of repressive self-deception. The epitome of these tendencies is the fraud or confidence man, working on the self-fulfilling maxim of ‘fake it till you make it’.

Leaving recent interest in ‘subversive affirmation’ to one side, total negation of societal impositions hardly seems a better solution. The classical exemplars of this ethos, Melville’s Bartleby and Goncharov’s Oblomov (the unnamed protagonist of Ottessa Moshfegh’s 2018 novel My Year of Rest and Relaxation is a more recent incarnation), might be compelling literary figures, but these ‘avant-garde modern refuseniks’, as Goebel describes them, are hardly realistic ideals for life.27placeholder Rather, Garcia compellingly argues, such characters merely recreate the logic of intensity with reference to boredom, laziness, or melancholy. In their ‘legendary ennui’, they reaffirm that ‘any strong intensity, up to and including suffering, is better than a mediocre truth, a mediocre beauty, or a mediocre life’.28placeholder This tenet of literary and cultural modernism is likewise embodied by David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King (2011), where formal contortions facilitate boredom’s intensification and aesthetic justification.

Yet it is perhaps telling that Foster Wallace’s own wish was for ‘adult sanity’, which he lauded as ‘the only unalloyed form of heroism available today’.29placeholder Unfortunately, the author provided precious little suggestion of how one might go about achieving this. It is, after all, not the most glamorous topic, though all the more important for its apparent rarity. Alternatives are equally thin on the ground in Garcia’s Life Intense. Whilst he does discuss wisdom and theological salvation as two potential antidotes to intensity, implying that such pre-modern ideals will fall back into fashion as the beleaguered 21st century consciousness strives to escape itself, here too there are hidden trapdoors back into intensity. In God’s kingdom, Garcia notes, intensities are maximised to such a point where ‘everything becomes so strong that afterwards nothing can be more or less anymore’; the very concept of variance is transcended. Likewise, the stoic virtue of wisdom aims to ‘level the sine wave of life into an even plane by sucking anything that perceives, desires, remembers, suffers, or enjoys out of the spirit’, bottoming out into obstinate flatness.30placeholder Ultimately, then, de-intensification or delayed gratification annihilate difference in the same way as that which they attempt to negate; ‘the whole trick is to intensely believe in something other than intensity’, with predictable consequences.31placeholder We must look elsewhere.


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One clue to a more sustainable solution is found in Goebel’s discussion of the largely forgotten Austrian sociologist Gustav Ichheiser. Success, Ichheiser suggests, serves a key function in society, namely that of providing a ‘theodicy of happiness’.32placeholder In other words, it allows happiness to be legitimised, justified to one’s conscience. Weber, from whom Ichheiser draws the term, had previously allocated this role to religion, noting that the happy man ‘needs to also have a right to his happiness’, to be ‘convinced that he has earned it, particularly in comparison with others’.33placeholder One might object that neither success nor religion appear to be functioning very effectively in this capacity at present. Compelled supererogation ensures that the former can scarcely even be reached, let alone begin to sediment other states of being. But we would do better to reject the more foundational assumption: that there is something shameful about happiness, such that it must be propped up conceptually and hidden behind masks.

Happiness is something of a dirty word on the left. It too has been largely cast out as part of the ideological smokescreen. William Davies unveils a ‘happiness industry’ selling us commercialised packets of wellbeing, whilst Sara Ahmed advances a ‘killjoy feminism’ slicing through contentment’s enervating complacency.34placeholder The German philosopher Wilhelm Schmid bemoans a ‘tyranny of happiness’, offering an encouragement to its opposite: dare to be down.35placeholder Much of this is warranted: happiness surely is marketed to us in many ways, and it surely can work to uphold unfreedom and illusion. But this does not mean we should throw the baby out with the bath water, ignoring its radical potential.

For a start, it would be wrong to conflate whatever scraps and shadows the ‘happiness industry’ promises us with any genuine concept of the same. Such an enterprise functions only as long as its claimed goal is yet to be achieved; it serves as both carrot and stick, ensuring the former is far enough ahead of us that it cannot be gobbled up. The ideological transformation of happiness from state into process is well underway, attempting to turn it, like intensity, into an addiction which requires ever greater portions before withdrawal sets in. It is not being but becoming happy which has become an obligation, hence the rabid whirlwind of contemporary wellness schemes.

This is not to suggest that happiness takes no work, or simply comes naturally. Nor is it to deny that there are many whose political or socioeconomic conditions make happiness considerably more difficult to come by. Material factors and their alleviation remain of the utmost importance. But as an ethos, an adaption to one’s mindset, happiness holds enormous promise. Standing against the demand to be and do more always, against capitalism’s emphasis on action and change, happiness allows a practice of inaction which is meaningful without being farcical. It suggests not that we feel wholly complete, for there is danger in this too, but that we reject the verdict of inevitable incompleteness. Perhaps most importantly, it allows for a non-judgemental concept of human difference, which respects where each person elects to pause, to stop, to content themselves with what they have and what they are.

Goebel quotes Luc de Clapiers, marquis de Vauvenargues, to the effect that ‘no one is content with his status out of mere modesty’, since ‘only religion or the constellation of powers can curb ambition’.36placeholder I hope only that my belief that this is far from true will not be deemed fanciful. Much may depend on it.

Jack Graveney graduated 2022 with a Starred First in History and German from the University of Cambridge, and will soon be heading to Oxford for a Masters, writing his thesis on labour, happiness, and community in the work of Friedrich Nietzsche. His work has been published in German Life and LettersThe Oxonian ReviewThe Cambridge Journal of Law, Politics, and Art, and the Cambridge Review of Books.

Works Cited

Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, Dialectic of Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments, Stanford 2002.

Sara Ahmed, Living a Feminist Life, Durham NC 2017.

Franco Berardi, Heroes: Mass Murder and Suicide, London 2015.

Ulrich Bröckling, The Entrepreneurial Self: Fabricating a New Type of Subject, London 2015.

Ulrich Bröckling, Postheroische Helden, Berlin 2020.

John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, vol. 1, Edinburgh 1863.

Jonathan Crary, 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep, London 2014.

William Davies, ‘Economics of Insomnia’, New Left Review 85, January-February 2014.

William Davies, The Happiness Industry: How the Government and Big Business Sold Us Well-Being, London 2016.

Gilles Deleuze, ‘Postscript on the Societies of Control’, October, vol. 59, Winter 1992, pp. 3-7.

Terry Eagleton, ‘Does marmalade exist?’, London Review of Books, 27 January 2022.

Tristan Garcia, The Life Intense: A Modern Obsession, Edinburgh 2018.

Eckart Goebel, Ambition: An Essay on the Burning Desire to Rise, London 2022.

William Harvey-Jellie and Frederick William Brown, The Preacher’s Commentary on the Book of Jeremiah, London 1882.

Andrew Huddleston, ‘“Consecration to Culture”: Nietzsche on Slavery and Human Dignity’, Journal of the History of Philosophy, vol. 52, no. 1, 2014, pp. 135–160.

Gustav Ichheiser, Kritik des Erfolges: Eine soziologische Untersuchung, Leipzig 1930.

Domenico Losurdo, Nietzsche, the Aristocratic Rebel, Leiden 2020.

Daniel T Max, ‘The Unfinished’, The New Yorker, 9 March 2009.

Friedrich Nietzsche, Jenseits von Gut und Böse. Vorspiel einer Philosophie der Zukunft, Stuttgart 1988.

Wilhelm Schmid, High on Low: Harnessing the Power of Unhappiness, New York 2014.

Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Indianapolis 2012.

James Opie Urmson, ‘Saints and Heroes’, in Abraham I Melden, ed., Essays in Moral Philosophy, Seattle 1958, pp. 198-216.

Max Weber, Die Wirtschaftsethik der Weltreligionen. Konfuzianismus und Taoismus. Schriften 1915–1920, Tübingen 1989.


James Opie Urmson, ‘Saints and Heroes’, in Abraham I Melden, ed., Essays in Moral Philosophy, Seattle 1958, pp. 198-216.


Quoted in William Harvey-Jellie and Frederick William Brown, The Preacher’s Commentary on the Book of Jeremiah, London 1882, p. 38.


John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, vol. 1, Edinburgh 1863, p. 781.


Terry Eagleton, ‘Does marmalade exist?’, London Review of Books, 27 January 2022.


Gilles Deleuze, ‘Postscript on the Societies of Control’, October, vol. 59, Winter 1992, p. 7.


Jonathan Crary, 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep, London 2014, pp. 30-1.


Cf. Ulrich Bröckling, The Entrepreneurial Self: Fabricating a New Type of Subject, London 2015.


Friedrich Nietzsche, Jenseits von Gut und Böse. Vorspiel einer Philosophie der Zukunft, Stuttgart 1988, §161.


Cf. Ulrich Bröckling, Postheroische Helden, Berlin 2020, p. 142.


Bröckling, Postheroische Helden, p. 25.


Franco Berardi, Heroes: Mass Murder and Suicide, London 2015.


Tristan Garcia, The Life Intense: A Modern Obsession, Edinburgh 2018, p. 10.


Garcia, The Life Intense, p. 19.


Garcia, The Life Intense, p. 3.


Garcia, The Life Intense, pp. 3, 5.


Garcia, The Life Intense, p. 91.


Garcia, The Life Intense, p. 97.


Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Indianapolis 2012, p. 1120.


William Davies, ‘Economics of Insomnia’, NLR 85, January-February 2014.


Domenico Losurdo, Nietzsche, the Aristocratic Rebel, Leiden 2020, p. 431.


Garcia, The Life Intense, pp. 82-3.


Cf. Andrew Huddleston, ‘“Consecration to Culture”: Nietzsche on Slavery and Human Dignity’, Journal of the History of Philosophy, vol. 52, no. 1, 2014, pp. 135–160.


Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, Dialectic of Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments, Stanford 2002, p. 175.


Garcia, The Life Intense, p. 56.


Crary, 24/7, pp. 46-7.


Eckart Goebel, Ambition: An Essay on the Burning Desire to Rise, London 2022, pp. 152-3.


The recent fad for ‘quiet quitting’ offers something of a middle ground.


Garcia, The Life Intense, p. 81.


Quoted in Daniel T Max, ‘The Unfinished’, The New Yorker, 9 March 2009.


Garcia, The Life Intense, pp. 122-3.


Garcia, The Life Intense, p. 128.


Gustav Ichheiser, Kritik des Erfolges: Eine soziologische Untersuchung, Leipzig 1930, p. 5.


Max Weber, Die Wirtschaftsethik der Weltreligionen. Konfuzianismus und Taoismus. Schriften 1915–1920, Tübingen 1989, pp. 89-90.


William Davies, The Happiness Industry: How the Government and Big Business Sold Us Well-Being, London 2016; Sara Ahmed, Living a Feminist Life, Durham NC 2017, p. 230.


Wilhelm Schmid, High on Low: Harnessing the Power of Unhappiness, New York 2014, p. 8.


Goebel, Ambition, p. 31.


April 2023


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