Brian Eno Shares His Critical Take on Art & NFTs: “I Mainly See Hustlers Looking for Suckers”

Image via Wikimedia Commons

It can feel, in our inequality-addled world, that we have little left in common — that there is no “we,” just us and them. But multiple crises driving us apart have the potential to unite the species. After all, a rapidly warming planet and global pandemic do threaten us all, even if they don’t threaten us equally. Do solutions exist in the creation of new forms of private property, new ways of moving capital around the world? Can the extinction-level byproducts of capitalist commodification and waste be mitigated by ingenious new forms of financialization? These seem to be the arguments made by purveyors of cryptocurrency and NFTs, an acronym meaning non fungible tokens and — if you haven’t noticed — the only thing anyone in the art world seems to talk about anymore. Why?

Brian Eno has put his opinion on the matter quite bluntly in a recent interview. “NFTs seem to me just a way for artists to get a little piece of the action from global capitalism,” he tells The Crypto Syllabus. “How sweet — now artists can become little capitalist assholes as well.” He obviously disapproves of using art solely to generate profit, but then if we know anything about Eno’s theory of creativity and influence over the past several decades, it’s that he believes the guiding reason for art is to generate more art.

“If I had primarily wanted to make money I would have had a different career as a different kind of person. I probably wouldn’t have chosen to be an artist.” There’s utterly no use in trying to peg Eno as technophobic or out of touch; quite the contrary. But the fictional financial products that have invaded every other sphere of life have no place in the arts, he argues.

When asked why NFTs are touted as a salvation for artists and the art world by cryptocurrency visionaries, including many of his friends and collaborators, Eno replies:

I can understand why the people who’ve done well from it are pleased, and it’s natural enough in a libertarian world to believe that something that benefits you must automatically be ‘right’ for the whole world. That belief is a version of what I call ‘automaticism’: the idea that if you leave things alone and let something or other – the market, nature, human will – take its course unimpeded you will automatically get a better result than you would by tinkering with it. The people who hold beliefs of this kind don’t have any qualms about tinkering themselves but just want a situation where nobody else gets to tinker. Especially the state.

That the sale of NFTs have only benefitted very few — to the tune of $69 million in a single sale in a recent high-profile case — doesn’t seem particularly troublesome to those who insist on their benefits. Nor do the creators of NFTs seem bothered by the enormous energy overhead required by the technology, “an ecological nightmare pyramid scheme,” writes Synthtopia — of which Eno says: “in a warming world a new technology that uses vast amounts of energy as ‘proof of work’ — that’s to say, simply to establish a certain age of exclusivity — really is quite insane.”

Eno readily answers questions about why NFTs seem so glamorous — it’s no great mystery, just a new form of accumulation, commodification and waste, one in particular that adds nothing to the world while hastening a climate collapse. NFTs are the “readymade reversed,” David Joselit argues: Where “Duchamp used the category of art to liberate materiality from commodifiable form; the NFT deploys the category of art to extract private property from freely available information.”

The discourse around NFTs also seems to liberate art from the category of art, and all that has meant to humankind for millennia as a communal practice, reducing creative productions to digital certificates of authenticity. “I am trying to keep an open mind about these questions,” Eno admits. “People I like and trust are convinced [NFTs] are the best thing since sliced bread, so I wish I could have a more positive view but right now I mainly see hustlers looking for suckers.”

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What Is Blockchain? Three Videos Explain the New Technology That Promises to Change Our World

Cryptocurrency and Blockchain: An Introduction to Digital Currencies–A Free Online Courses from the University of Pennsylvania 

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Chinese Youth Announce That They’re “Lying Flat” and Resisting the Pressures of Modern Life

The “Lying Flat” movement taking hold among young people in China involves doing exactly what it suggests: working little, resting a lot, and cultivating the most minimalist lifestyle possible. Unlike Timothy Leary’s 1960’s mantra, “turn on, tune in, drop out,” lying flat, or tang ping (躺平), takes no stance on a countercultural ethos or the consumption of mind-altering drugs. But it has caused the authorities alarm, even among English-language observers. Consider the Brookings Institute headline, “The ‘lying flat’ movement standing in the way of China’s innovation drive.” Standing in the way of innovation is a cardinal sin of capitalism, one reason the “niche Chinese Gen Z meme” of tang ping, Jane Li writes, “is ringing alarm bells for Beijing.”

The phenomenon began — where else — on social media, when 31-year-old former factory worker Luo Huazhong “drew the curtains and crawled into bed,” Cassady Rosenblum writes at The New York Times. Luo then “posted a picture of himself [in bed] to the Chinese website Baidu along with a message: ‘Lying Flat is Justice.’”

His manifesto (above) claimed the “right to choose a slow lifestyle” by doing little work to get by, reading, gardening, exercising, and, yes, lying supine as often as he liked. To further elaborate, Luo wrote, “lying flat is my sophistic movement,” with a reference to Diogenes the Cynic, the Greek philosopher “said to have lived inside a barrel to criticize the excesses of Athenian aristocrats.”

Diogenes did more than that. He and his followers rejected everything about Athenian society, from work and marriage to the abstract reasoning of Plato. Luo might have turned to a more traditional source for “lying flat” — the Daoist principle of wu-wei, or non-doing. But lying flat is not so much about living in harmony with nature as it is a state of exhaustion, a full-body admission that the promises of capitalism — work hard now, rest hard later — have not and will not materialize. They are phantoms, mirages, precisely the kind of fictions that made Diogenes bark with laughter. The truth, Rosenblum writes, is that for “essential” workers at the bottom all the way up to the “inner sanctums” of Goldman Sachs, “work has become intolerable. Rest is resistance.”

In a work culture that celebrates “996” — 12-hour days, six days a week– rest may be the only form of resistance. Political repression and lack of upward mobility have fostered “an almost monastic outlook” in China, writes Li, “including not getting married, not having children, not having a job, not owning property, and consuming as little as possible.” Since picking up tens of thousands of followers online, the lying flat movement has become the target of a censorship campaign aimed at stopping young Chinese workers from checking out. One government-backed newspaper called the movement “shameful,” and news agency Xinhua unfavorably compared “lying flattists” to front-line medical workers. The original manifesto, Lying Flat groups, and message boards where users posted photos of seals, cats, and themselves lying flat have been taken down.

Zijia Song writes of tang ping as partly a response to a traditional Chinese culture of competitiveness and overwork, but notes that there are similar movements in Japan, Korea, and the U.S., where “Black activists, writers and thinkers are among the clearest voices articulating this spiritual malaise and its solutions,” writes Rosenblum, “perhaps because they’ve borne the brunt of capitalism more than other groups of Americans.” Whatever their national origin, each of these statements defiantly claims the right to rest, posing a threat not only to the Party but to an ideal of human life as endless overwork for shiny trinkets and empty promises, during a global pandemic and climate crisis that have revealed to us like nothing else the need to slow down, rest, and completely reimagine the way we live.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

What Karl Marx Meant by “Alienation”: Two Animated Videos Explain

A common political distortion claims that socialists are lazy and want to live off other people’s labor. Never mind that this description best applies to those who do not work but live off rents, dividends, and tax breaks. A bigger problem with the idea lies in its definition of “work,” conflating labor-for-hire with labor for a purpose. In Karl Marx’s theories, work occupies a central position as a human value. We all want to work, he thought. We are not born, however, wanting to maximize shareholder value.

Marx believed that “work, at its best, is what makes us human,” X-Files star Gillian Anderson tells us in the BBC Radio 4 animation above. “‘It fulfills our species essence,’ as he put it. Work allows us “to live, to be creative, to flourish.” Work in the industrial 19th century, however, did nothing of the kind. You only need to imagine for a moment the soot-filled factories, child labor, complete lack of worker protections and benefits to see the kinds of conditions to which Marx wrote in response. “Work,” says Anderson, in brief, “destroyed workers.”

Under capitalism, Marx maintained, workers are “alienated” from their labor, a concept that does not just mean emotionally depressed or creatively unfulfilled. As early as 1844, over twenty years before the first volume of Capital appeared, Marx would elaborate the concept of “estranged labor”  in an essay of the same name:

The worker becomes all the poorer the more wealth he produces, the more his production increases in power and size. The worker becomes an ever cheaper commodity the more commodities he creates. The devaluation of the world of men is in direct proportion to the increasing value of the world of things. Labor produces not only commodities; it produces itself and the worker as a commodity.

In an economy where things matter more than people, people become devalued things: the “realization of labor appears as loss of realization for the workers; objectification as loss of the object and bondage to it; appropriation as estrangement, as alienation.” Workers are not only spiritually dissatisfied under capitalism, they are alienated from the fruit of their labor “to the point of starving to death.” To be an alienated worker means to be literally kept from things one needs to live.

This is the kind of work Marxists and socialists have opposed, that which grossly enriches a few at the expense of most everyone else. Whether or not we are content with Marxist solutions or feel a need for new theories, every serious student of history, economy, and culture has to come to grips with Marx’s formidable critiques. In the video above, Alain de Botton’s School of Life, a self-described “pro-Capitalist institution,” attempts to do so in ten minutes or less.

“Most people agree that we need to improve our economic system somehow,” says de Botton. “It threatens our planet through excessive consumption, distracts us with irrelevant advertising, leaves people hungry and without healthcare, and fuels unnecessary wars.” It perpetuates, in other words, profound alienation on a massive scale. Of course it does, Marx might respond. That’s exactly what the system is designed to do. Or as he actually wrote, “the only wheels which political economy sets in motion are greed, and the war amongst the greedy — competition.”

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

5 Free Online Courses on Marx’s Capital from Prof. David Harvey

Geographer and Marxist scholar David Harvey did not set out to become a Marxist. He didn’t even know what a Marxist was. He simply started to read Marx one day, at the age of 35, because all of the other social science methods he had applied in his study of the housing market and social unrest in US cities “didn’t seem to be working well,” he says in a Jacobin interview. “So, I started to read Marx, and I found it more and more relevant…. After I cited Marx a few times favorably, people pretty soon said I was a Marxist. I didn’t know what it meant… and I still don’t know what it means. It clearly does have a political message, though, as a critique of capital.”

The word “Marxist” has been as much a defamatory term of moral and political abuse as it has a coherent description of a position. But ask Harvey to explain what Marx means in the German philosopher’s massive analysis of political economy, Capital, and he will gladly tell you at length. Harvey has not only read all three volumes of the work many times over, a feat very few can claim, but he has explicated them in detail in his courses at Johns Hopkins and the City University of New York since the 1970s. In the age of YouTube, Harvey posted his lectures online, and they became so popular they inspired a series of equally popular written companion books.

Why study a dead 19th-century socialist? What could he possibly have to say about the world of AI, COVID, and climate change? “I think Marx is more relevant today than ever before,” says Harvey. “When Marx was writing, capital was not dominant in the world. It was dominant in Britain and Western Europe and the eastern United States, but it wasn’t dominant in China or India. Now it’s dominant everywhere. So, I think Marx’s analysis of what capital is and its contradictions is more relevant now than ever.”

To illustrate, and exhaustively explain, the point, Harvey announced by tweet recently that he’s made 5 courses freely available online as videos and podcasts. Find links to all 5 courses below. Or find them in our collection: 1,700 Free Online Courses from Top Universities.

Reading Marx’s Capital Volume 1 with David Harvey – 2019 Edition

Reading Marx’s Capital Volume I with David Harvey – 2007 Edition

Reading Marx’s Capital Volume 2 with David Harvey

Reading Marx’s Grundrisse with David Harvey

Marx, Capital, and the Madness of Economic Reason

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

What are Non-Fungible Tokens (NFTs)? And How Can a Work of Digital Art Sell for $69 Million

Value in the art world depends on manufactured desire for objects that serve no purpose and have no intrinsic meaning outside of the stories that surround them, which is why it can be easy to fool others with fraudulent copies. Collectors and experts are often eager to believe a well-told tale of special provenance. As Orson Welles says in F is for Fake, “Lots of oysters, only a few pearls. Rarity. The chief cause and encouragement of fakery and phoniness.”

“Concepts of fakery and originality bounce off one another as reflections,” Lidija Grozdanic writes of Welles’ documentary on “our innate infatuation with exclusivity,” a film made when the internet consisted of 36 routers and 42 host computers — in total (including a link in Hawaii!). Now we are immersed in hyperreality. Copies of digital artworks are indistinguishable from each other, since they cannot be said to exist in any material sense. How can they be authenticated? How can they become exclusive placeholders for wealth?

The questions have been taken up, and answered rather abruptly, it seems, by the architects of blockchain technology, who bring us NFTs, or “Non-Fungible Tokens,” an acronym and phraseology you’ve surely heard, whether you’ve felt inclined to learn what they mean. The videos featured today offer brief explanations, by reference especially to the case of South Carolina-based digital artist named Mike Winklemann, who goes by Beeple, and who first harnessed the power of NFTs to make millions.

Most recently, in a first-of-its-kind online auction at Christies, Beeple’s montage “‘Everydays — The First 5000 Days’… became the ‘What Does the Fox Say?‘ of art sales,” writes Erin Griffiths at The New York Times.

A crypto whale known only by the pseudonym Metakovan paid $69 million (with fees) for some indiscriminately collated pictures of cartoon monsters, gross-out gags and a breastfeeding Donald Trump — which suddenly makes this computer illustrator the third-highest-selling artist alive.

The criticism is perhaps unfair. As Christies argues in its defense, the piece reveals “Beeple’s enormous evolution as an artist” over five years. Specialist Noah Davis calls the collage, stitched together from Beeple’s body of work on Instagram, “a kind of Duchampian readymade.” But it doesn’t really matter if Beeple’s work is avant-garde high art.

The libertarian econo-speak “nonfungible token” reveals itself as part of a world divorced from the usual criteria art historians, curators, auction houses, and others apply in their judgments of authenticity and worth. Instead, the value of NFTs rests mainly on the fact that they are exclusive, without particularly high regard for what they include. One may love the work of Beeple, but we should be clear, “what Christie’s sold was not an object” — there is no object — “but a ‘nonfungible token,’” which is “bitcoinese for unique string of characters, logged on a blockchain,” that cannot be exchanged or replaced… like owning a Monet without owning a Monet.

Unlike the Wu Tang album Once Upon a Time in Shaolin, bought for $2 million in 2015 by Martin Shkreli, content attached to NFTs can be shared, viewed, copied, etc. over and over. “Millions of people have seen Beeple’s art,” the BBC explains, “and the image has been copied and shared countless times. In many cases, the artist even retains the copyright ownership of their work, so they can continue to produce and sell copies.”

Other sales of NFTs include a version of the 10-year-old internet meme Nyan Cat that sold for $600,000, a clip of LeBon James blocking a shot for $100,000, and a picture of Lindsay Lohan for $17,000, which then resold for $57,000. Lohan articulated the NFT ethos in a statement, saying, “I believe in a world which is financially decentralized.” This is not a world where judgments about the value of art and culture can be centralized either. But power can be, presumably, in the form of currency, crypto-and otherwise, traded in speculative bubbles.

“Some people compare it to buying an autographed print,” the BBC writes. Some compare it to the age-old scams warned of in folk tales. David Gerard, author of Attack of the 50 Foot Blockchain, calls NFT sellers “crypto-grifters… the same guys who’ve always been at it, trying to come up with a new form of worthless bean that they can sell for money.” This eternal scam exists beyond the binaries posed by F is for Fake. Originality, authenticity, or otherwise are mostly beside the point.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness.

The Breathtaking Courage of Harriet Tubman: An Animated History Lesson Speaks to Her Place on the $20 Bill

I was a conductor on the Underground Railroad, and I can say what many others cannot. I never ran my train off the track, and I never lost a passenger.  —Harriet Tubman

Remember how one of the Obama administration’s final initiatives was to redesign the $20 bill, banishing Andrew Jackson, a slaveholder, to a minor role on the back of the bill, in favor of abolitionist Harriet Tubman, who was born into slavery?

The announcement arrived on the heels of a controversy, after then-Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew enraged American women by going back on a promise to install a woman on the face of a newly designed $10 bill.

The decision to keep Alexander Hamilton, architect of our financial system and the country’s first Treasury Secretary, in place is rumored to owe rather a lot to his status as the subject of a certain hit musical that had opened earlier in the year.

The official design of the Tubman bill was to have been unveiled in 2020, to coincide with the hundredth anniversary of the 19th Amendment, which guaranteed a woman’s right to vote. Had all gone according to plan, it would have been in wide circulation later this decade.

At the time Lew was untroubled by the possibility that the incoming administration might kill off the proposed makeover:

I don’t think somebody’s going to probably want to do that — to take the image of Harriet Tubman off of our money? To take the image of the suffragists off?

It seems, however, that someone did want to do that.

In 2016, presidential candidate Donald Trump told NBC that replacing Jackson with Tubman was “pure political correctness,” suggesting instead that a place might be found for Tubman on the $2 bill… which is no longer printed.

He also reportedly remarked to former White House adviser Omarosa Manigault Newman, “You want me to put that face on the twenty-dollar bill?”

The Treasury Department website’s revision in the wake of the 2016 election scrubbed all references to planned changes to the currency.

Lew’s replacement, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, finally announced that the new $20 bill wouldn’t be ready until 2028, and that the finished design might not include Tubman at all. He attributed this to technical reasons relating to security features, though a Treasury Department employee told The New York Times that the engraving plate for it was completed “as recently as May 2018” and that the design “appeared to be far along in the process.”

Certainly, there were bigger stories in 2020 than the absence of the promised Harriet Tubman $20 bill, but the obfuscation and delay were maddening given everything Tubman, a woman of action, was able to accomplish well over a hundred years ago.

Most of us are familiar with her prominence on the Underground Railroad, which led to the sobriquet “Moses of her people,” but there are several things in the above animated TED-Ed lesson by Janell Hobson, Department Chair of Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies at SUNY Albany, that may come as news to you.

Of particular note, Tubman was the first woman in US history to plan and lead a military raid, resulting in the liberation of nearly 700 enslaved persons in South Carolina.

Her second husband, Nelson Davis, also born into slavery, had been a Union soldier, which entitled her to a pension of $8 as a military widow.

She fought hard for an increase on the basis of her own service to the Union Army, enlisting various friends and supporters to lobby on her behalf, including Lincoln’s Secretary of State, William Seward, who said, “I have known her long as a noble high spirit, as true as seldom dwells in the human form.”

Finally, in 1899, her pension was increased to $20 a month.

Professor Hobson, whose lesson predates Mnuchin’s announcement of the stall, called the denomination “a fitting twist of fate.”

As is the rubber stamp that artist Dano Wal created to help disgusted Americans convert Jacksons into Tubmans without the help of the Treasury Department:

Who we choose to honor as a society affects the moral attitudes that are baked into us as we grow up. The impact that seeing the face of Harriet Tubman staring back at you from a $20 bill should not be underestimated. This sort of representation can subtly but deeply affect someone’s conception of themselves and their place in society. The slightly subversive nature of it being currency that’s been hand-stamped by another human makes a discovery of one of these bills all the more joyous.

Good news looms on the horizon. Less than a week into the Biden administration, the Treasury Department confirmed that the agency is “exploring ways to resume” putting Harriet Tubman on the bill, as well as ways to hasten their release. She will be the first female and first Black American to be featured on our folding money.

TED-Ed has a list of additional resources for those who’d like to delve deeper into Tubman’s life and legacy, as well as a discussion as to whether putting Tubman’s face on the $20 bill is a fitting honor.

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Designer Creates a 3D-Printed Stamp That Replaces Andrew Jackson with Harriet Tubman on the $20 Bill

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

MIT’s Introduction to Economics: A Free Online Course

From MIT comes a free introductory undergraduate course on Microeconomics. Taught by Professor Jonathan Gruber, the 25-lecture course covers the fundamentals of microeconomics, including “supply and demand, market equilibrium, consumer theory, production and the behavior of firms, monopoly, oligopoly, welfare economics, public goods, and externalities.” Watch the lectures above (or on YouTube). Find the syllabus and lectures notes on MIT’s site. A MOOC version of the same course can be found on edX. Coursera also offers a host of other econ courses.

Principles of Microeconomics will be added to the Economics section of our meta list, 1,700 Free Online Courses from Top Universities.

Would you like to support the mission of Open Culture? Please consider making a donation to our site. It’s hard to rely 100% on ads, and your contributions will help us continue providing the best free cultural and educational materials to learners everywhere. You can contribute through PayPal, Patreon, Venmo (@openculture) and Crypto. Thanks!

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The UN’s World Happiness Report Ranks “Socialist Friendly” Countries like Finland, Norway, Denmark, Iceland & Sweden as Among the Happiest in the World

One of the most pernicious, “dangerous, anti-human and soul-crushing” myths in the business world, writes Liz Ryan at Forbes, is the “idiotic nostrum” that has also crept into government and charitable work: “If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.” The received wisdom is sometimes phrased more cynically as “if you can’t measure it, it didn’t happen,” or more positively as “if you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it.”

But “the important stuff can’t be measured,” says Ryan. Don’t we all want to believe that? “Can’t Buy Me Love” and so forth. Maybe it’s not that simple, either. Take happiness, for example. We might say we disagree about its relative importance, but we all go about the business of trying to buy happiness anyway. In our hearts of hearts, it’s a more or less an unquestionable good. So why does it seem so scarce and seem to cost so much?  Maybe the problem is not that happiness can’t be measured but that it can’t be commodified.

Buddhist economies like Bhutan, for example, run on a GHI (Gross National Happiness) index instead of GDP, and pose the question of whether the issue of national happiness is one of priorities. In other words, “you get what you measure.” In March, Laura Begley Bloom cited the 20 happiest countries in the world at Forbes, using the UN’s 2020 World Happiness Report, “a landmark survey of the state of global happiness,” as the report’s website describes it, “that ranks 156 countries by how happy their citizens perceive themselves to be.”

Happiness is measured across urban and rural environments and according to environmental quality and sustainable development metrics. The report uses six rubrics to assess happiness—levels of GDP, life expectancy, generosity, social support, freedom and corruption, and income. Their assessment relied on self-reporting, to give “a direct voice to the population as opposed the more top-down approach of deciding ex-ante what ought to matter.”  The last chapter attempts to account for the so-called “Nordic Exception,” or the puzzling fact that “Nordic countries are constantly among the happiest in the world.”

Maybe this fact is only puzzling if you begin with the assumption that wealthy capitalist economies promote happiness. But the top ten happiest countries are wealthy “socialist friendly” mixed economies, as Bill Maher jokes in the clip at the top, saying that in the U.S. “the right has a hard time understanding we don’t want long lines for bread socialism, we want that you don’t have to win the lotto to afford brain surgery socialism.” This is comedy, not trenchant geo-political analysis, but it alludes to another significant fact.

Most of the world’s unhappiest countries and cities are formerly colonized places whose economies, infrastructures, and supply chains have been destabilized by sanctions (which cause long bread lines), bombed out of existence by wealthier countries, and destroyed by climate catastrophes. The report does not fully explore the meaning of this data, focusing, understandably, on what makes populations happy. But an underlying theme is the suggestion that happiness is something we achieve in real, measurable economic relation with each other, not solely in the pursuit of individualist ideals.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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