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Blogpage A. (11/26/16) THE HAPPINESS MACHINE

The following Fable of the Happiness Machine has been with me for a long time. I received a request to reprint it as a blog on my new website. I believe it helps explain how Donald Trump got to be president.

The Happiness Machine - A Fable

by Joseph Barndt

“. . . The Right to Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.”
                                     —U.S. Declaration of Independence

Once upon a time there was a kingdom of people who pursued happiness. Nothing was more important to them than being happy. The happier they became, the happier they wanted to be.

The source of the people’s happiness was a magic Happiness Machine. Whenever the people felt unhappy they would pour their troubled feelings into the Happiness Machine. The magic machine would melt their feelings down and purify them. The residue of their troubles became dross, and the dross was drained away and dumped into a distant part of the kingdom. The people would take their purified feelings and go away singing and feeling happy again. They were called the “Happy People.” As the years and centuries went by, the Happy People became happier and happier because of the wonderful effects of the Happiness Machine.

There was only one problem. Another group of people lived in a distant part of the kingdom where all the dross was dumped. The dross made them very unhappy. They were called the “Unhappy People.” The more dross that was dumped on them, the unhappier they became. However, the Unhappy People were not permitted to use the Happiness Machine, because the one thing the magic machine could not do was purify its own dross. The Unhappy People complained to the Happy People about the problems they had with the dross. But the Happy People ignored their complaints. When they were confronted with the troubling results of their happiness, the Happy People simply took their troubled feelings to the Happiness Machine, and it made them happy again. It was easy to believe that it was not the dross of their own troubles that made other people unhappy. Rather, they convinced themselves that the Unhappy People were just incurably unhappy and that they had nobody but themselves to blame for their unhappiness.

It was not long before the Unhappy People began to protest more insistently about their situation. They organized marches and demonstrations. They demanded that the dross be removed from their part of the kingdom. And they demanded a fair share of happiness for their people. But the Happy People turned a deaf ear to their protests, which only served to make the Unhappy People unhappier, and their voices became louder and more insistent.

Finally, the Happy People could no longer ignore the protests. They used force to put down the protesters, and arrested and jailed the leaders. They passed laws and organized military force to control the Unhappy People. Many of the Unhappy People were killed. This only made them unhappier. They began to plot and plan how they could destroy the Happiness Machine.

The conflict and tension caused a severe drain on the Happy People’s happiness. To make it worse, some of the Happy People were becoming increasingly troubled about the way the Unhappy People were being treated. All these new troubles made the Happiness Machine work even harder, and as a result even more dross was produced. They had to build an even bigger and better Happiness Machine to take care of the happiness needs of the Happy People. Consequently, the dross was piled higher and higher and spread farther and farther into other parts of the kingdom, which made more and more Unhappy People. It was not long before the Unhappy People were in a constant state of rebellion.

Then a new and even greater danger arose. The Happiness Machine became so large and productive that there was no place left in the kingdom to put the dross. The piles of dross crept closer and closer to the homes of the Happy People and to the place where the Happiness Machine was operating. There was an ominous threat that the dross would back up into its own machine, and the machine would self-destruct. Now the Happy People were troubled not only by the rebellion of the Unhappy People, but also by their own Happiness Machine. The new danger caused even greater internal troubles among the Happy People. Some people began to sorrowfully predict that the Happiness Machine would soon self-destruct. Others suggested that the only alternative was to build an even bigger Happiness Machine to deal with the crisis they were facing. Others began to see that the Happiness Machine was not the solution to their problems, but the cause. They wanted to reduce the size of the Happiness Machine, or even dismantle it altogether. Some even began to wish that they could join with the Unhappy People and build a new society together without the help of Happiness Machines. . .

[the end of this story has not been written yet.]

I wrote this fable of the Happiness Machine more than thirty years ago, and have used it in many places, including as an introduction to several books. Through all these years, the message of the fable has remained relevant. This is, in fact, no fable at all, but a story about the real world in which you and I live, a story about our real-life Happiness Machines - the structures and institutions of our society. These institutions belong to us, and they work for us. They produce food and clothing, cars and housing, resorts and recreation, law and order. Their purpose is supposedly to make us happy.

But our Happiness Machines do not make everyone happy. They produce dross. They produce poverty and segregated ghettos, unemployment and underemployment, and inadequate housing, health, and education. They produce sexism, classism, nationalism, militarism, and environmental pollution, all of which cause tremendous suffering and endanger humanity's existence. The very same systems that create and sustain our standards of living also create and perpetuate wretched conditions for millions upon millions of people, not only in the United States, but throughout the world as well.

Depending upon the lens with which you view the world, the fable can be about poverty, political domination, racism, sexism or heterosexism. The Unhappy People can be pictured as poor people, underdeveloped and developing nations, people of color, women and LGBTQ people. And the Happy People can be pictured as rich people, developed nations, white people, men and straight people.

Whichever of these lenses make up your predominant worldview, this Blogpage will continue to ask three questions as it follows the fable of the Happiness Machine toward its happy or unhappy ending:

1.    What are the organizing strategies of the Unhappy People in their efforts to stop, transform or destroy the Happiness Machine? This question does not ask just how each separate struggle is progressing against poverty, political domination, racism, sexism or heterosexism, but also asks what is the sum-total and effect of all these struggles as they relate to each other as One Single Movement.

2.    What is the response of the Happy People to the efforts the Unhappy People to stop, transform or destroy the Happiness Machine? This question is not simply whether the Happy People are winning or losing, but more importantly whether they can change, be transformed. Is there such a thing as liberation of the oppressor, and how does that take place? In addition, this question asks whether the Happy People who increasingly take the side of the Unhappy People, are accepting the responsibility of going home to free their own Happy People?

3.    What are the ultimate goals of the struggle over the Happiness Machine?  Do you believe that the movement of history is on the side of the Unhappy People or the Happy People? Does the arc of the universe bend toward justice? Does the outcome of the fable necessarily have winners and losers? Is “survival of the of fittest” a measure of civilization’s progress? Or, is the movement from animal to human measured by the “survival of the weakest”? What is a humanistic outcome that benefits everyone? What does it mean to be human, or for all of us to be on a path toward becoming human?  

Stay tuned to the continuing saga of the Fable of the Happiness Machine.

Joseph Barndt
November 2016