I remember one slightly heated debate with my grandmother after a family dinner. I was defending immigration or gay rights or cannabis or some such issue. I made a rather obtuse point and my grandmother, throwing her hands up in exasperation, declared: ‘You know what you are? You’re just a Johnny Intellectual!’ Naturally I was devastated.
‘Intellectual’ is a dirty word in Britain, and not just here. Ever since philosophy was invented, people have accused it of being impractical, unworldly, and slightly effete. Plato complained that his fellow Athenians laughed at him for being pale and over-sensitive. He dreamt of the day when intellectuals would seize power and force the people to take them seriously. ‘When I am king you will be first against the wall’, as another pale intellectual put it.
Since the Athenians executed Socrates, the relationship between the intellectual and the masses has been a little tense. There’s always been the sense of a gap there, and the question of how to bridge that gap.
This was especially the case in Russia in the 19th century, where the gap between the intellectual elite and the peasant masses was enormous. The Russian ‘intelligentsia’, as they were known, defined themselves as a class by their relationship to the people. To be a member of the intelligentsia, it was not enough just to be clever. You have to serve the people, build a bridge to the people, become one with the people.
Hence Tolstoy dressing like a serf and going to help his peasants with the harvest. There was even a movement, called the Narodniki (it means ‘populists’), made up of intellectuals who abandoned the city to go and live among the rural peasants, teaching them the necessity of radical political reform. The peasants didn’t like these posh students much, and tended to beat them up.
So the Narodnik movement transformed and became a revolutionary vanguard, Narodnya Volya (‘the will of the people’), who eventually assassinated Alexander II. Ironic they should call themselves the will of the people, when really, of course, it was a small handful of intellectuals telling the people how to live. And they in turn were replaced by another misnamed cadre of intellectuals, the Bolsheviks, who succeeded in imposing their philosophy of Marxism-Leninism on an entire country…for their own good of course.
Here in the UK, our intellectuals were more modest in their ambitions, thank God. Perhaps they never took themselves as seriously – or were taken as seriously – as their Russian counterparts. But we still ask ourselves: what’s the point of intellectuals? What good are they? How do they help the people?
Three of Britain’s leading intellectuals have just presented an answer: ‘We are here to make you happy’. They are Geoff Mulgan, the superbrain of Britain’s think-tanks; Anthony Seldon, the most famous headmaster of his generation; and Lord Richard Layard, the thinking-man’s Oprah, and this week they set up Action for Happiness, a mass movement to bring about a happy revolution in Britain…and the world!
This is the intellectual re-connecting with the masses – through hugs. The intellectual doesn’t want to change the masses. They just want to hug the masses…and change them a little bit. If you dig a little deeper, the philosophy behind AfH appears to be utilitarianism, the brain-child of the ‘genius’ Jeremy Bentham (as the website puts it).
Action for Happiness only has 10,000 people signed up as of yet, but hopes to become a genuinely revolutionary movement, which will teach the science of happiness to the people: how to meditate, how to keep a gratitude journal, how to be kind, how to have friends. At the moment, the people don’t know how to be happy. That’s the basic problem. But eventually, an army of psychologists, sociologists, economists and NGOs will help to make the people happy, by teaching them the techniques.
There’s so much to applaud in this initiative. Many of the people around me are completely ignorant of how to be properly happy, and I can’t wait for the day when Action for Happiness rings on their door and shows them the error of their ways. In fact, I think AfH should set up some sort of phone line where we can inform on neighbours or colleagues who we suspect of not accepting the principles of Benthamite-utilitarianism. I’m pretty sure Mrs Jenkins next door is a Kantian.
But I think we need to go further. We need to take Jeremy Bentham’s embalmed body from the University of London, and put it in some kind of mausoleum in Trafalgar Square, so the happy faithful can go and pay their respects to the great visionary. Secondly, the research suggests that depression is contagious – depressed people tend to make the people around them less happy. Clearly, this emotional underclass are the greatest threat to our happy society. Some of them even insist on their ‘right’ to be unhappy.
The solution, it seems to me, is to identify the least happy people in Britain, and place them in some kind of camp (perhaps near Liverpool?), where their contagious depression can be contained, and they can be subjected to a more intense course of Benthamite-utilitarian re-education.
Yours with hugs and happiness,
PS – Here’s some subversive non-Benthamite samizdat I have discovered, which I faithfully submit for investigation and destruction:
Here’s a piece by me in this week’s Spectator on the US Army’s $125 million resilience training course, the biggest and most expensive pilot study in the history of psychology.
Here’s a BBC radio documentary about a parasite that has infected 40-60% of the human race, and which scientists think may control our minds.
Here’s an MIT research centre, dedicated to the field of ‘affective computing’. They design machines and devices that can read your emotions and respond intelligently, including a little Tigger toy, whose ears perk up when its owner is happy, and who feels sad when we feel sad. Awwww.
Finally, here are some philosophy self-help posters I have designed, to spread our leader’s glorious message of happiness. All power to the Benthamites! Death to the Aristotelian revanchistes!