As a child of the 1970s, I was raised to count my secular blessings. Teachers regularly wielded the blunt rhetorical instrument of relative happiness: in kindergarten they exhorted my friends and me to think of “all the hungry little boys and girls in Africa” who would love the chance to eat this bone-dry Arctic Roll/granular, reconstituted mashed potato/bright orange fish fillets of indeterminate smoky origin. I never did understand why my own misery at the prospect of Spam fritters and limp runner beans should increase the unhappiness of my African counterparts, but somewhere along the way I must have believed it, for miserable mouthful after ghastly mouthful I did my bit to sort out world hunger.
These early lessons in privilege were crass but well intentioned. Happy little plump white girls in the industrial Midlands were being forced to think about a world beyond their own happiness. In the era of Google Maps and round-the-clock news, there’s less of an excuse than ever for insular complacency. And yet those of us who live in the Global North can so easily neglect to count those secular blessings. When the broadband signal drops out, when Netflix cancels a favourite show or when I get a “Sorry, you were out” card in lieu of the £30 scented candle that I’d ordered, I’m as guilty of histrionic overreaction as the next woman. And then I read a book by someone as measured and informed as Lynne Segal and the world begins to make sense again.
Segal’s one of those “roll your sleeves up” feminists who’s been there, fought for it and refused to buy the sweatshop T-shirt. Her uncompromising socialist feminism has been the keystone of her many very important books since the 1970s, but it would be foolish to consign her to some facile category such as “second-wave feminism” when her work is more relevant now than ever and has both an accessibility and depth that we’d be ill-advised to ignore.
Segal’s brand of feminism has never been strait-laced and it’s all the more impactful for that. I first read her when I was a young doctoral student and found her Straight Sex: Rethinking the Politics of Pleasure (1994) the most wonderfully readable account of feminism and sexuality I’d encountered. “There is feminism and there is fucking,” she wrote, and “straight feminists, like gay men and lesbians, have everything to gain from asserting our non-coercive desire to fuck if, when, how and as we choose”. Her opposition to separatist forms of feminism and emphasis on the structural roots and causes of male violence against women were central to her sex-positive feminist credo and it’s a position that informs much of her new book, Radical Happiness: Moments of Collective Joy, where she postulates the possibility of a world of “more sex-positive, queer, women-friendly images of shared passion, even community building”.
The inexorable creep of neoliberal globalisation and its pernicious sidling into what we might nostalgically call our “private lives” complicates both feminism and fucking, however. In her recent Out of Time: The Pleasures and Perils of Ageing (2013), Segal candidly dissected the myths and realities of growing old in a culture that reveres youth but can profit from perpetuating an ideal of a sort of “successful”, because independent (and, by extension, not burdensome), ageing. Desire, happiness and old age are, for Segal, cultural constructs in part, and the debasement of authentic emotions that she explored in Out of Time is central to Radical Happiness, too. It’s a book that reads as the next instalment of a fascinating conversation with a well-respected, wittily erudite and entertaining friend.
At the heart of Radical Happiness there’s a robust critique of “self-reliance”, the “mantra of neoliberal rationality”. If community and collectivity are austerity’s nemeses, Segal argues, then it’s precisely to community and collectivity that we must now direct our energies. “Happiness” is not quantifiable, but it is lucrative and, therefore, political. “‘Do what makes you happy’ is the mood music of the moment,” she writes, continuing: “No other ethical considerations seem to apply unless you are labelled a paedophile, an immigrant, or a terrorist.” And if you’re unhappy or depressed, the rhetoric goes, there’s a chemical cure – at a price, of course – for that. This “mood music” needs to change – happiness must be radical and Segal urges us to start to “prioritize rather than marginalize or medicate the needs of distressed people, young and old, including ourselves”.
The book is wide-ranging. Segal leads her reader from Hannah Arendt to Pharrell Williams via Tony Blair, Spinoza and Bakhtin. In part it’s a philosophical meditation, an ode to joy, but it’s also a manifesto and Segal’s gimlet eye is firmly fixed on the damage done to real, collective happiness by decades of political vandalism. She’s extremely well-read, as one would expect after more than four decades of writing, academia and activism, and it’s a delight to follow her argument, to pick just one instance from many, from the languidly erotic poetry of Thom Gunn via Seamus Heaney’s painful meditations on love and loss to Donna Haraway’s Companion Species Manifesto of 2003. It’s not a logical route, but it is one which, in the wider context of the development of Segal’s core thesis, makes absolute sense, and which is gently but assertively expressed.
That admixture of gentleness and assertion typifies Segal’s writing style. Radical Happiness makes a stand in the face of the homogenising juggernaut of globalisation. She’s a clever writer, acerbic and controlled at once. Her invective is always dignified and punctuated by witty asides. She demolishes the myth about money not buying happiness, for example, by musing on why successive governments haven’t worked harder to make already-affluent bankers even happier by taxing them “at 70 per cent, insisting that their wealth brings them no added joy”. And her writing can also be exquisite, as when she discusses the importance of love and desire in relation to happiness. “Each love has both an intricate cultural and personal history, even a geography,” she writes, “relating to age, gender, ethnicity, religion, status, and much more.”
The work that Segal and her peers – especially her friend Sheila Rowbotham, author of the brilliant Dreamers of a New Day (2010) – started is ongoing and Radical Happiness is the book that we need to understand why. It would be deeply satisfying to be able to treat the radical feminist politics of the 1960s and 1970s as outdated curios, but the same battles are still being fought: the battleground of women’s bodies remains the same despite the fact that the collectivity that Segal identifies as imperative for the fight should be easier to create because of the “new” media. And to deal with that bleak fact, we need all the joy that we can find. As Segal writes, “what matters most for those stressing the significance of a politics of hope over one of resignation or despair is primarily the consciousness acquired through the exhilarating joy of resistance itself, the sense of shared agency”. Segal’s not an old-school socialist feminist, nor a new-school one; she’s quite simply the socialist feminist we need to listen to right now. Her book is an important one because we need “a politics of hope” like never before.
Emma Rees is professor of literature and gender studies at the University of Chester, where she is director of the Institute of Gender Studies.
Radical Happiness: Moments of Collective Joy
By Lynne Segal
Verso, 352pp, £16.99
Published 7 November 2017
Lynne Segal, anniversary professor of psychology and gender studies at Birkbeck, University of London, was born in Sydney, Australia. She studied psychology at the University of Sydney and went on to do a PhD, which, she says, was “dedicated to demolishing the fundamental underpinnings of all I had been taught within what was then a wholly behaviouristic academic discipline, with its avoidance of any mention of mental states, culture or social context…I have tried to stay true to that questioning spirit, suspicious of authorities of every stripe, especially when their frameworks are narrow and their creativity and openness to criticism minimal.”
After moving to London in 1970, Segal lived a life of “underground academic” and “out revolutionary” – something she believes was far easier then than now.
“For over 20 years, I was quietly ensconced in the first teaching job I applied for, in psychology at Enfield College of Technology [which eventually became Middlesex University]. But I was spending more time as a community activist in Islington where, throughout the ’70s, there were dozens of alternative spaces for feminist and left political activism – women’s centres, community presses and much more. In the 1980s, I was absorbed in various struggles against Margaret Thatcher and all she stood for.” Much of this is described in her 2007 memoir Making Trouble: Life and Politics .
Despite the state of the world, Segal still counts herself among “those who refuse to let go of our utopian yearnings” and maintains a sense of hope by “looking for solidarity and alliances, while knowing that in every way possible we must foster ways of bringing greater joy, creativity and energy into any collective engagements…What I argue in Radical Happiness is simply that those moments of collective joy that linger, that make life meaningful, are usually the joys we can share with others.”