Review: Radical Happiness

Kate Bradley reviews socialist feminist author Lynne Segal’s most recent work, Radical Happiness: Moments of Collective Joy, which addresses the relationship between political action and personal fulfilment.

Lynn Segal, Radical Happiness: Moments of Collective Joy, (London: Verso, 2018). 352 pp. £5.99

***

Radical Happiness is perhaps a victim of its own good advertising. With its back cover hinting that Segal will answer the question ‘What is the true meaning of happiness?’, the book promises so much, perhaps more than it could deliver. Nevertheless, as long as you go in expecting reflectiveness and more questions than answers, it is readable and thought-provoking on a range of topics including mental health, relationships, love and desire, the history of feminism, utopianism and the state.

Segal is a veteran socialist feminist and writer of a number of books about feminism, sexuality and social movements. I enjoyed her section in Beyond the Fragments (1979), a critique of the male-dominated socialist left of the 1970s, which still holds lessons and reflections for today. Her later work Straight Sex (1994) is a classic of feminist literature on heterosexual relationships, taking on the contradictions of sexual liberation, ‘free love’ and women’s changed relationship to sexuality. Segal revisits Straight Sex in her chapters about sex and desire in Radical Happiness, and these are some of the most interesting parts of the book, reframing her ideas in light of queer theory and resurgent feminist activism.

In some chapters, Radical Happiness meanders around, quoting a lot of other books without necessarily drawing any conclusions. I find Segal most interesting when she has her own opinion, her own theory, whereas this book felt very magpie-minded, picking up shiny ideas elsewhere and collecting them together. Some of the ideas she discussed were fascinating and compelling, such as Andrew Solomon’s reflections on depression, or many of the historical utopian texts she mentions in the chapter ‘Inventing Utopias’. Other meanders felt out of place and surplus to requirements – including an unnecessarily long section on Aristotle, as if an editor had tediously added: ‘You can’t talk about happiness without Greek philosophy!’

The main message of the book is the idea that joy is a collective phenomenon, something we can only really experience while struggling and celebrating together – and which our isolation and alienation under capitalism undermines. She makes an argument for coming together politically and joyfully as itself liberating and full of potential, implicitly countering the parts of the radical left that see revolutionary self-discipline as a matter of duty, a long, dull climb up a never-ending hill. She writes, of a Sisters Uncut protest against domestic violence:

Such joy may be fleeting, but it gives rise to new types of political perceptions and possibilities, perhaps to enable even the most threatened to feel more grounded and alive in the claims they need to be able to make. And sometimes, the strength, confidence and sense of purpose we gain from moments of joyful solidarity lasts a very long time. (p.260)

The idea that activism should be joyful is not inherently troubling, of course. In an era of political defensiveness and Tory rule, these are perfect conditions for falling into hopelessness and depression. Making our campaigning joyful and sociable, giving thought to aesthetics and pleasurable ways of participating, gets people involved and ensures that our experiences with politics are positive and energising, which in turn keeps us fighting.

However, the problem with Segal’s approach is that it centres the affect of activism as an end in itself. To feel the possibility in the utopian moment – during an occupation, or at a really uplifting demonstration – is constantly figured as itself rejuvenating, a little bit of communism in the everyday. This approach threatens to lose sight of larger political strategies and goals, and risks abandoning the less exciting legwork of building sustainable democratic structures and organisation in favour of a kind of political hedonism. An activist who thinks in this way can end up chasing the exciting struggles, the wildcat strikes and adrenaline-inducing protests, at the expense of ground-work and building working class power in the long-term. This may not be because they disagree with the need for more structural change, but because – in the face of what Segal calls ‘the statistical likelihood of failure’ (p.267) – they don’t have much hope we can achieve our goals. The danger is of fetishising the moment out of fear that it will have no material outcomes.

I felt Radical Happiness was afflicted with the same problems as arise out of this lack of strategy. It was enjoyable, but it didn’t feel like it had any conclusive answers. The final chapter on the state confirmed my suspicions about this lack of direction. Inexorably drawn to the Corbyn moment, and resolutely on-the-fence about the malleability of the state, the book was stuck in a present in 2017 that now – following the election of Keir Starmer and the eclipse of the Labour left – feels like the past.

What we do next is for a different book to answer.

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