Bentham in the Beehive: Utilitarianism, Neoliberalism and the Wellbeing Budgets

In this article, ESRA researcher Neil Vallelly interrogates the origins of wellbeing policy, arguing that the ‘idea that wellbeing is linked to a society that glorifies and hoards private property, exploits and precaritises work, and sees debt as a necessary component of having a place to live, access to healthcare, and getting an education, is one that we must challenge at every opportunity.’ more

18 September 2021

Neil’s new book, Futilitarianism, is available for pre-order from MIT Press here. It will be available in shops in Aotearoa early next year through Penguin Random House.  

The concept of wellbeing could hardly be more important right now. The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed both the need for the prioritisation of wellbeing and the limitations of the ways in which wellbeing has been understood and employed by policymakers to date. The pandemic is an epoch-defining event, which has revealed that our individual wellbeing is always dependent on the simultaneous wellbeing of others, across borders and cultures. It has redefined the valuation of work, precipitated acts of social responsibility, and led to wholesale state intervention in the economy to a degree we have not witnessed in decades. In this respect, the pandemic presents an opportunity to imagine and build a new world that secures the wellbeing of all global citizens.

But we have been here before, if in slightly different circumstances. The 2008 financial crisis also felt like an epoch-defining event. And, in many ways, it was, but only in the sense that an even more pervasive and authoritarian version of the same economic and social system emerged in its aftermath. As Pierre Dardot and Christian Laval put it in their book Never-Ending Nightmare, ‘the 2008 crisis, which for many should have ushered in a post-neoliberal moderation, facilitated a neoliberal radicalisation.’[1] The potential for this ‘neoliberal radicalisation’ was evident in Barack Obama’s 2009 inauguration speech, not long after the beginning of the crisis, in which he unequivocally stated ‘the question before us [is not] whether the market is a force for good or ill. Its power to generate wealth and expand freedom is unmatched.’[2] If this was not the time to question the mechanisms of the market, then it is hard to imagine a situation in which it could be questioned. In the following decade, governments across the Global North and beyond, to quote Dardot and Laval ‘openly adopted the paradigm of war against the population.’[3] As austerity measures gripped the globe, poverty, homelessness, and mental health problems skyrocketed.

It is interesting, in this context, that the post-2008 era of aggressive austerity witnessed a burgeoning obsession with the concept of wellbeing and happiness by national and supranational organisations. In 2011, the OECD initiated the ‘Better Life Index’ and the ‘How’s Life’ report.  The following year, the UN introduced the first World Happiness Report. We might ask: why did wellbeing and happiness become such a prominent focus for national and supranational governments and organisations precisely at a time when social and economic policies around the globe placed hardships on so much of the global population?

In her book Radical Happiness, Lynne Segal answers this question. She writes ‘The recent interest in happiness shown by both governments and employers has been triggered not by outbursts of benevolence towards us, quite the contrary. Rather, the disingenuous “happiness agenda” is concerned above all with softening the costs of ever-rising social wretchedness.’[4] Better to arm individuals with mindfulness techniques to navigate this ‘wretchedness’ than to actually improve social institutions and infrastructure. This wellbeing drive, Segal implies, went hand-in-hand with the logic of austerity.

While the aggressive austerity measures of the post-2008 era undoubtedly led to a decline in wellbeing across the board – it has even been named as the principal cause of death in some UK studies[5] – this decline was much more insidious and invisible than during the COVID-19 pandemic. Where austerity might create the conditions for a decline in wellbeing among populations, the COVID-19 virus literally kills people. In this context, it is much more difficult for governments to argue that the decline in wellbeing reflects a lack of personal responsibility, work ethic, or entrepreneurial ingenuity on the part of those affected. The pandemic has revealed the devastating consequences of individual pursuits of wellbeing amidst the ruins of the social state. No amount of mindfulness or yoga can account for insufficient medical equipment and access to medical care.

The 2019 and 2021 Wellbeing Budgets are Aotearoa New Zealand’s contribution to a growing international concern with wellbeing. They follow a post-2008 emphasis on wellbeing, as well as gesturing towards a post-COVID future of policymaking. The first pre-COVID Wellbeing Budget was greeted with great fanfare in Aotearoa New Zealand and beyond, representing, as Finance Minister Grant Robertson put it, ‘a significant departure from the status quo.’[6] Budget 2021 aimed to get the government back on the road of wellbeing, after a brief diversion as a result of the pandemic.

It must be said that there are laudable aspects to the Wellbeing Budgets. As ESRA researchers noted in their report on the 2019 Wellbeing Budget ‘taking wellbeing seriously is a positive step toward recognising the fact that the social problems standing in the way of wellbeing are structural in nature and should not be treated in isolation.’[7] At the very least, the Wellbeing Budgets acknowledge the pernicious myth of GDP as an indicator of a healthy economy and society. As Joseph E. Stiglitz, the popular Nobel Prize-winning economist and former chief economist of the World Bank, has pointed out, a growing economy does not necessarily equate to a prosperous society.[8] In fact, the post-2008 economic recovery has been predicated on the redistribution of wealth from the poorest to the richest. Drawing on the World Inequality Database, the anthropologist Jason Hickel observes that while ‘the poorest 60 per cent of humanity contribute the vast majority of labour and resources that go into the global economy,’ their various salaries and incomes only account for 5 per cent of global wealth. Whereas as ‘the richest one per cent alone capture $19 trillion every year, nearly a quarter of global GDP.’[9] Any policy shift that challenges the idea that GDP is a fair reflection of social prosperity should certainly be welcomed. The Wellbeing Budgets also force politicians and policymakers to find alternative justifications for policy decisions, rather than simply proposing that a policy will reduce government spending and increase economic growth.

But despite these merits, what I hope to show in this intervention is that if the COVID-19 pandemic has accentuated the need to prioritise wellbeing to ensure a liveable future for all, then the Wellbeing Budgets provide some clues of how governments might re-imagine the term ‘wellbeing’ to consolidate and augment the very economic system that forecloses a liveable future, much like governments did after 2008. I argue that not only do the Wellbeing Budgets, contra Robertson’s claim, actually shore up the status quo, but they are by no means new. In fact, they are indebted to the long philosophical legacy of utilitarianism, an ethical theory that originated at the birth of industrial capitalism and the peak of British colonial expansion. Utilitarianism, first theorised by the English social reformer Jeremy Bentham, was similarly concerned with happiness and wellbeing, and the impact of utilitarianism on economic science from the eighteenth century onwards was profound.[10] The political economist William Davies argues that ‘Bentham set the stage for the entangling of psychological research and capitalism that would shape the business practices of the twentieth century.’[11] The Wellbeing Budgets follow in these footsteps by concretising wellbeing within the logic of capital. This is not a ‘significant departure from the status quo.’ Instead, Bentham is in the Beehive.

Whose Happiness?

Utilitarianism is a quite simple moral philosophy that revolves around ‘the greatest happiness principle,’ in which the most moral course of action is the one that is deemed to produce the most pleasure or utility for the greatest number of people. Bentham defined the principle of utility as ‘that property in any object, whereby it tends to produce benefit, advantage, pleasure, good, or happiness (all this in the present case comes to the same thing), or (what comes again to the same thing) to prevent the happening of mischief, pain, evil, or unhappiness to the party whose interest is considered.’[12] The most moral society, under this logic, is the one in which each individual maximises their utility in every decision they make, which, when aggregated, produces a majoritarian happiness across society. The liberal philosopher John Stuart Mill put it in simple terms: ‘The creed which accepts as the foundation of morals, Utility, or the Greatest Happiness Principle, holds that actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness.’[13] In such a worldview, individual pursuits of happiness become the basis of social cohesion and wellbeing.

But while utilitarianism might appear a somewhat simple ethical theory, the political ramifications of the greatest happiness principle have been profound. For one, utilitarianism provided capitalism with a moral framework that could sanction the exploitation and expropriation required for capital accumulation under the idea that it would lead to the greatest happiness of the greatest number. In their book The New Spirit of Capitalism, sociologists Luc Boltanski and Ève Chiapello observe that ‘the incorporation into economics … of a consequentialist ethics, based upon the calculation of utilities, made it possible to supply a moral sanction for economic activities solely by dint of the fact that they are profitable.’[14] Furthermore, exactly whose happiness was at stake when Bentham put forward his theory was tied up not only in the class structures of England and other European nations, but in the imperialism and colonial expansion of the age. There is a reason why Marx described Bentham as a ‘genius in the way of bourgeois stupidity’ and a ‘purely English phenomenon.’[15] Bentham, for the most part, represented both the economic and imperialist concerns of the ruling class of his day.

Many scholars have outlined the relationship between Benthamite utilitarianism and imperialism in the nineteenth century.[16] But Bentham’s view on imperialism and colonisation is complicated. On the one hand, he wrote texts such as Emancipate your Colonies! and Rid Yourself of Ultramania, which denounced the British, Spanish, and French empires and called for the right of colonised peoples to self-determination. He appealed to the empires: ‘You choose your own governments, why are not other people to choose theirs? Do you seriously mean to govern the world, and do you call that liberty?’[17] The British historian Peter Cain claims, somewhat hyperbolically, that Bentham made ‘one of the greatest contributions to anti-colonial literature anywhere in the Western world and one that in some ways was never improved upon in Britain’ – although, this perhaps says more about British writings on colonisation than it does about Bentham’s critique.[18]

On the other hand, there was a deep-rooted authoritarianism at the heart of Bentham’s thought. He wrote, for instance, that ‘the business of government is to promote the happiness of society, by punishing and rewarding.’[19] The authoritarian potential of Benthamite utilitarianism was brought to the surface by subsequent liberal thinkers, such as James and John Stuart Mill, and the Benthamite tradition became instructive to the British colonisers of the era. Edward Gibbon Wakefield, the mad-cap thinker behind the New Zealand Company, was perhaps the most influential of the colonisers of the Benthamite tradition. He put forward a theory of ‘systematic colonisation,’ which essentially transported the class system of early eighteenth-century England to the colonies, in which new settlers could not immediately purchase land and had to sell their labour in the meantime. Simon Barber notes that ‘Wakefield’s scheme was designed to secure the transplantation of English economic and social relations to the colonies to ensure the existence of a landless class compelled to sell their labour for wages.’ And, as Barber importantly reminds us ‘Māori land, through its appropriation and sale, would fund the entire venture. Māori were to fund their own colonisation.’[20] In fact, Wakefield even converted Bentham to the idea that ‘colonisation was “a work of the greatest utility”’.[21] In 1831, the year before he died, Bentham wrote that Wakefield’s scheme of ‘systematic colonisation’ could ‘transfer individuals in an unlimited multitude from a state of indigence to a state of affluence.’[22] The greatest happiness principle could thus be realised through colonial expansion.

The undisguised class exploitation inherent to Wakefield’s political economy, as Barber points out, exposes the deception of the liberal state, especially in the age of laissez-faire capitalism, where the market was supposedly free from any government intervention. Barber persuasively argues that Adam Smith’s theory of the ‘hidden hand’ of the market gained popularity ‘not only because of the skill of [Smith’s] advocacy for the free market, but equally his obfuscation of state practices of forcefully creating those same markets.’[23] While many scholars have noted how the neoliberal state intervenes to protect capitalism, the presumption that the liberal state stayed out of the way of capitalism is clearly not borne out by the evidence of colonisation. As Campbell Jones has argued ‘capital has always been accompanied by the capitalist state, to which it turns when it is unable to effect its designs through the “voluntary” agreement of individuals and enterprises.’[24] The difference between Wakefield and other thinkers of the Benthamite tradition, is that he did not pretend to hide the mechanisms of state power.

The question, therefore, of the greatest happiness of the greatest number was not quite as neutral as it appeared in Bentham’s writing. Instead, who got to judge what constituted utility and happiness was deeply enmeshed in the class structures of English society and the transportation of those structures to the colonies. The wellbeing of the English male bourgeoise became representative of the wellbeing of all people, and the colonised were forced into reproducing of the happiness of this archetypal subject.

Measuring Happiness

Until the eighteenth century, happiness had mostly been considered a metaphysical or spiritual concept in the history of Western thought, or perhaps more crudely, a subjective rather than objective phenomenon. The emergence of early scientific enquiry and the unleashing of human reason as a consequence of the Renaissance in Europe of the sixteenth and seventeenth-centuries challenged the assumption that happiness was beyond measurement. Certainly, Bentham believed that happiness, manifest in the principle of utility, could be calculated through measuring a series of what he called ‘circumstances,’ such as the intensity, duration, and likelihood of pleasure and pain. And while the idea that happiness was measurable through observing the outside world rather than internal reflection might have been revolutionary in the eighteenth century, it would be difficult to convince any policymaker today that happiness was anything other than measurable.

The measurement of happiness and wellbeing has become central to governmental policymaking in the twenty-first century, especially when amalgamated with contemporary behavioural psychology and neuroscience. However, as Davies notes, how happiness and wellbeing are defined by these branches of science simply sidesteps a whole host of philosophical difficulties. Neuroscientists, for example, regularly bypass human subjectivity to pinpoint happiness, or any emotion, in certain neural transmitters and brain chemicals. These can then be altered through medication, which is very lucrative for the pharmaceutical industry, and entrenches the idea that unhappiness is a physical and individualised problem independent from the wider economic structures of society. Likewise, as Davies suggests, the dominant strands of neuroscience reverse the Cartesian mind-body hierarchy, viewing emotion as constitutive of brain and physiological indicators, irrespective of any independent and free-thinking subject. The behaviourist, in a similar vein, sees happiness and wellbeing in the conduct and physical actions of individuals as they respond to external stimuli. Change the stimuli, often covertly, and the behaviour changes with it.

The confluence of behavioural science with governmental policy, as Davies notes, ‘stretches Bentham’s dream of scientific politics to its limit, imagining that beneath the illusion of individual freedom lie the cold mechanics of cause and effect, observable only to the expert eye.’[25] Many contemporary governments have placed great faith in behavioural science and psychology, exemplified by the UK’s Behavioural Insights Team (or ‘Nudge Unit’), which uses behavioural theories to inform policy decision. Obama even issued an Executive Order in 2015 titled ‘Using Behavioural Science to Better Serve the American People,’ which dictates that US departments and agencies should ‘recruit behavioural science experts to join the Federal Government’ and ‘strengthen agency relationships with the research community to better use empirical findings from the behavioural sciences.’[26]

Economic policy in the twenty-first century has tapped into this measurable account of happiness as well. In a 2006 speech to Google, David Cameron promised to move beyond GDP as the measurement of a successful economy. Instead, he stated: ‘it’s time we focused not just on GDP, but on GWB – general wellbeing.’ He continued: ‘Wellbeing can’t be measured by money or traded in markets. It can’t be required by law or delivered by government. It’s about the beauty of our surroundings, the quality of our culture, and above all the strength of our relationships. Improving our society’s sense of wellbeing is, I believe, the central political challenge of our times.’[27] Before you ask what the hell happened to the 2006 version of Cameron, it is important to note that he explicitly tied wellbeing to wealth creation throughout this speech. He also argued that GWB could not be secured by state regulation and legislation, but rather could ‘renew and revitalise the relationship between the individual and society.’ This speech was not a call for new forms of social welfare or security, but rather the very opposite. It was tying wellbeing to the values of individual freedom, entrepreneurialism, and personal responsibility, which became the backbone of his post-2008 austerity politics.

Alongside Cameron’s theory of GWB, a whole host of programmes and datasets have developed in the last decade aimed at measuring happiness and wellbeing. The aforementioned OECD ‘Better Life Index’ and the ‘How’s Life’ reports look at a variety of indicators – from access to education and healthcare to social connections and work-life balance – across 37 OECD countries to judge ‘whether life is getting better.’ Likewise, the UN annual World Happiness Report uses the Gallup World Poll to rank 156 countries on how happy their citizens appear to be (Aotearoa New Zealand is currently at number eight). Likewise, the ‘Social Progress Index,’ published by the Social Progress Imperative, focuses on environmental and social outcomes rather than GDP to measure the wellbeing of society. And since 2008, Bhutan has replaced GDP with ‘Gross National Happiness’ as the goal of national policymaking, focusing on sustainable environmental and social policy instead of simple measures of economic growth. The idea of incorporating wellbeing into economic policy is therefore not new, and the Wellbeing Budgets insert themselves into a growing trend in national and global governance.

Wellbeing 3.0

The Wellbeing Budgets are not only indebted to the Benthamite tradition in the belief that happiness can be measured, but they also share with the Benthamite tradition a similar view of society as a collection of individual interests. By viewing the individual as the initial locus of utility, Bentham envisaged society as the aggregation of individual actions and not as a totality in itself. ‘The community is a fictitious body,’ he wrote, ‘composed of the individual persons who are considered as constituting as it were its members. The interest of the community then is, what?  – the sum of the interests of the several members who compose it.’[28] Likewise, John Stuart Mill argued that social happiness was merely the aggregation of individual happiness: ‘each person’s happiness is a good to that person, and the general happiness, therefore, a good to the aggregate of all persons.’[29] As I have argued elsewhere, in the conditions of capitalism, it is easy to see how individuals might maximise utility in a way that satisfies their own happiness under the illusion that such individual maximisation contributes to the overall happiness of society.[30]

With his construction of society as a ‘fictitious body,’ Bentham anticipated the vitriolic critique of society initiated by the neoliberal intellectuals of the twentieth century. In his influential book The Road to Serfdom, for instance, the Austrian neoliberal F. A. Hayek argued that ‘what are called ‘social ends’ are for it merely identical ends of many individuals – or ends to the achievement of which individuals are willing to contribute in return for the assistance they receive in the satisfaction of their own desires.’[31] It is unsurprising, given Hayek’s influence on Margaret Thatcher’s political worldview, that only a few decades later Thatcher would infamously come to the conclusion that ‘there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families.’[32] It is hard to overestimate the impact of such an ethos on the social realm. As the political theorist Wendy Brown notes, ‘if there is no such thing as society, but only individuals and families oriented by markets and morals, there is no such thing as social power generating hierarchies, exclusion, and violence, let alone subjectivity at the sites of class, gender, or race.’[33] Instead, for utilitarian and neoliberals alike, social happiness is simply the aggregation of individual happiness. And thus, wellbeing practices necessarily focus on individual pursuits of self-improvement.

The Wellbeing Budgets follow in the steps of Bentham and Hayek. That is, the Budgets view society as an aggregation of individual data points. Overseeing the measurement of wellbeing is the Living Standards Framework (LSF) developed by the Treasury in the lead up to the first Wellbeing Budget. This framework puts forward ‘twelve domains of wellbeing,’ from civic engagement, cultural identity, and environment to income and consumption, jobs and earnings, and social connections. To calculate wellbeing within these domains, the LSF Dashboard acts as the measuring counterpart, in which each domain is split into a series of ‘indicators,’ drawn from statistics (or ‘units’) compiled by governmental agencies, private research firms, and the OECD. So, for example, indicators of civic engagement are statistics on ‘perceived corruption,’ ‘trust in government institutions,’ ‘voter turnout,’ and the like. Or measurements of cultural identity are made through statistics on te reo Māori speakers or surveys on ‘ability to express identity.’[34] What we see here, then, is that the judgment of the wellbeing of Aotearoa New Zealand society is based on different levels of aggregation. First, ‘units’ must be collected from individual citizens, which are then collected into statistics on a particular topic. These units are added together to form ‘indicators,’ which are then aggregated, depending on the topic, into a ‘domain.’ These domains come together to provide an overall picture of wellbeing in Aotearoa New Zealand. With each level of aggregation, we get further away from the actual lived experience of wellbeing and closer to a Benthamite dreamland of pure technical measurement of wellbeing. In fact, the LSF is a methodology that can only be dreamed of precisely because of Bentham.

The Austerity of Wellbeing

The 2021 Wellbeing Budget obviously responds to a very different world to the 2019 Budget. The Prime Minister and Finance Minister’s introductions tell us as much, where more traditional economic language – relegated behind wellbeing in 2019 – now emerges alongside wellbeing. As Grant Robertson states: ‘Budget 2021 strikes a careful balance between continuing to support and stimulate the economy during this period, while looking towards the need to keep a lid on the necessary debt we have taken during COVID-19 to protect lives and livelihood.’[35] With this in mind, the wellbeing rhetoric and foundations of Budget 2021 are considerably weaker than 2019. As economist Bernard Hickey has noted, the Labour government are ‘choosing debt reduction over a much more concerted effort to reduce child poverty, improve housing affordability and invest in climate emissions-reducing infrastructure.’[36] If in 2019, the Wellbeing Budget seemed really new, then Budget 2021 represents a return to a version of neoliberal economic orthodoxy. The introduction of a public sector wage freeze was emblematic of this shift, even if the government wanted us to focus solely on the increases to welfare payments, increases that were much less than experts had recommended, Hickey points out. In short, as Hickey implies, Budget 2021 uses the language of wellbeing to mask what is, to all intents and purposes, an austerity budget.

All of this brings us back to a fundamental imbalance at the heart of the LSF. The twelve domains of wellbeing feed into what are identified as ‘The Four Capitals.’ The LSF claims intergenerational wellbeing ‘requires the country’s Four Capitals – natural, human, social, and financial/physical – to each be strong in their own right and to work well together.’[37] As the LSF contends, ‘looking after intergenerational wellbeing means maintaining, nourishing, and growing the capitals.’ But as ESRA researchers noted at the time of the 2019 Budget:

The LSF presents the relation between the four capitals as one of symbiosis, where each category works with the others to promote wellbeing. The LSF communicates this relation with the image of a weave, in which each of the four strands are intertwined, suggesting that they work together, bonding the social and allowing it to thrive. This, however, is not the image presented by the Wellbeing Budget. What many suspected and what this budget has confirmed is that one of the four capitals ultimately takes precedence over the others. The Government’s ongoing commitment to the Budget Responsibility Rules, as well as its broad rejection of meaningful tax reform … all point to the predominance of financial capital as a policy driver over and above the other ‘capitals’.[38]  

The prioritisation of financial capital within the LSF framework is confirmed by the 2021 Wellbeing Budget. What both budgets portray is not the prioritisation of wellbeing above financial capital, as the rhetoric around the budgets often implied, but the entrenchment of the logic of financial capital at the heart of wellbeing.

Again, this prioritisation of financial capital would have pleased Bentham. As he wrote in an essay called ‘The Philosophy of Economic Science,’ there was only one reliable measurement for happiness: ‘The Thermometer is the instrument for measuring the heat of the weather,’ he stated, ‘the Barometer the instrument for measuring the pressure of the Air…. Money is the instrument for measuring the quantity of pain and pleasure.’[39] It seems that the Labour government have taken a very similar view. In this case, the philosophical argument is that it is not so much the accumulation of money that determines wellbeing, but reducing the amount of money one owes. Translated into policy, this means it is not public spending on health care, education, infrastructure and the like that contributes to wellbeing, but debt reduction. As Hickey asks: ‘Why hasn’t Treasury done the wellbeing analysis to show the long-term costs and benefits of more public spending – not only on the health, education, justice and housing sectors, but also the wider effects on collective “happiness” and other intangibles such as higher productivity?’[40] The answer is simple: such an analysis might reveal a fundamental contradiction within capitalism – that collective wellbeing and capital accumulation are incompatible.

Against Wellbeing?

Despite the claims of their architects, the Wellbeing Budgets are not a new way of doing policy, but the merging of two historical schools of thought – utilitarianism and neoliberalism – both of which aim to negate the very idea of society. The Budgets draw from utilitarianism the belief that happiness can be individually measured and then aggregated in order to discern overall wellbeing, with money, of course, ultimately prioritised over any other measuring unit. From neoliberalism, they borrow the logic of austerity and a political rationality that prioritises individualism, competition, and personal responsibility over social solidarity and welfare. The kind of wellbeing that emerges in such a scenario is not one that contributes towards a shared common good, but one that further privatises emotions by situating them within individual indicators of wellbeing. Once we understand this development, we can gain a better sense of how the concept of wellbeing is situated within a wider political project. 

In a talk at the World Economic Forum in 2019, Jacinda Ardern suggested that the political impetus behind prioritising wellbeing is ‘not ideological … it doesn’t have to be something just progressive governments do.’ [41] As I have shown in this piece, the Wellbeing Budgets are undoubtedly ideological, given their insistence that wellbeing is concretely measurable. But more importantly, the Wellbeing Budgets offer a glimpse of a post-political future, where governmental policy is expunged of moral judgements and policymaking is dictated by datasets and analytics. The endpoint of Ardern’s vision is to lay the ground for the disintegration of political antagonism, to relegate the political to the peripheries of policymaking, and to cement a technocratic infrastructure at the heart of the state that can dictate policy, irrespective of who is in government. This is ideological: it implies that politics would run much better if we simply let the data speak for itself.

This vision of politics has been over two hundred years in the making. Davies identifies Bentham as ‘the inventor of what has since become known as ‘evidence-based policymaking’, the idea that government interventions can be cleansed of any moral and ideological principles, and be guided purely by facts and figures.’[42] When utilitarianism is combined with neoliberal forms of depoliticisation – which entail the economisation of social life – it provides the conditions for a politics without the political to emerge, one in which political viewpoints become increasingly irrelevant to the actual functioning of the state apparatus.[43] As Quinn Slobodian puts it in his remarkable history of the Geneva School of neoliberalism, ‘[the neoliberal project] was not a minimalist but an activist vision of statecraft mobilised to push back against the incipient power of democratically elected masses and those special interests, including unions and cartels, who sought to obstruct the free movement of competition and the international division of labour.’[44] The neoliberals wanted to relegate politics to the periphery of the state apparatus, where the economy could be shielded from the realm of politics. Likewise, by instrumentalising wellbeing and emotion, Ardern and her government attempt to sidestep the political tensions at the heart of what constitutes wellbeing and happiness, especially the idea that widespread ill-health and unhappiness might be the logical response to the brutality of contemporary capitalism. Instead, the Wellbeing Budgets deepen the relationship between wellbeing and capitalism, and in doing so, they offer us a future in which we can only experience wellbeing through further concretising the conditions of capitalism.

Transforming Wellbeing

Wellbeing does not have to be conceived like this. There are alternatives. For one, there is no reason why wellbeing must be inextricably attached to capitalism. In fact, if we have learned anything from centuries of capitalism, it is that capital accumulation and the wellbeing of the greatest number rarely, if ever, go hand-in-hand. The Italian philosopher Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi is instructive on this point: ‘The masters of the world certainly do not want humanity to be able to be happy, because a happy humanity would not let itself be caught up in productivity, in the discipline of work or in hypermarkets.’[45] There is no reason for capitalism to guarantee the wellbeing of the greatest number if such wellbeing gets in the way of capital accumulation. By locating wellbeing with the ‘Four Capitals,’ the Wellbeing Budgets attempt to negate any imaginings of wellbeing outside of capitalism. Our job on the Left is to keep anti- and post-capitalist forms of wellbeing alive, and thus resisting the principles of the Wellbeing Budgets is an important first step in doing so.

The commotion over the He Puapua report, commissioned by Te Puni Kōkiri, also points to an alternative form of wellbeing. The report puts forward a plan to realise the 2007 UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People, which Aotearoa New Zealand initially voted against (along with, unsurprisingly, Australia, Canada, and the US). The Right have been whipped up into a frothy fervour about this report, with cries by Judith Collins of a separatist agenda. But while debates have centred on the proposed changes to legal and constructional frameworks, I want to focus instead on how the concept of wellbeing guides much of the report. The report strongly connects the wellbeing of rangatiratanga, the right to self-determination, as laid out in the UN declaration. The report states: ‘There is strong research and empirical evidence that outcomes for Indigenous peoples improve, and Indigenous peoples enjoy greater wellbeing where they are self-determining,’ and that ‘Indigenous governance systems have often proven to be better than external actors in providing services to and ensuring the wellbeing and rights of indigenous peoples.’[46] In many ways, the report is a fundamental challenge to the wellbeing framework by showing alternatives.

However, while the report challenges the underlying foundations of the current wellbeing approach to policy, it is not so much an attempt to abandon wellbeing but rather a call to reform it. It proposes to ‘amend the Living Standards Framework to recognise the role of te Tiriti and the importance of self-determination to enhancing wellbeing.’[47] Perhaps, as the report recommends, ‘New Zealand’s understanding of wellbeing will incorporate a holistic te Ao Māori and Mātauranga Māori perspective,’ which would prioritise Māori-led wellbeing initiatives, especially by linking these initiatives to Māori self-determination. This would certainly be a positive development. But, as I have argued throughout this article, the wellbeing approach by the current Labour government is indebted to a history of measuring wellbeing and happiness that is rooted in the political economies that drove colonial expansion and capitalist exploitation. Those in power are the ones who get to decide what wellbeing means. This current wellbeing framework is thus part of the very same system that stands in the way of indigenous self-determination and, as a result, greater wellbeing.

The He Puapua report is undoubtedly a step in the right direction. But, I argue, if we are to truly experience wellbeing, we need to disentangle it from governmental policy and, ultimately, capitalism. To start, we must resist the ways in which wellbeing is defined by things like the LSF, the World Happiness Report, or the Better Life Index. The word itself must be revitalised. The philosopher Carl Mika is helpful here. He argues that dictionary definitions of Māori concepts ‘imply [that] Māori terms are themselves not infused with the world but, instead, with a human-derived logic or rationality.’[48] The dictionary, he contends, ‘reduces language to a concise instrument.’ In response, ‘we need to redefine terms so that the reflect the fullness of the world within them.’ As he suggests, all things are ‘world-flooded.’[49]

The kind of wellbeing put forward in the Wellbeing Budgets is the very opposite of ‘world-flooded.’ Rather, like Bentham, the liberal philosophers of the eighteenth century, and neoliberal policymakers of the twenty-first century, the budgets would have us believe that wellbeing can be isolated from the world, concretised in statistics and data, and turned into a ‘concise instrument.’ But if we think of wellbeing as world-flooded, we find, first of all, that the world is not very well, as evidenced by rapid ecological degradation, rampant economic and social inequalities, increasing precaritisation of labour, and mental health epidemics. Secondly, we come to understand that wellbeing is produced not through isolating separate parts of the world, and then aggregating them together to paint a picture of societal wellbeing, but through the interconnectedness of all aspects of the world, human and non-human.

A ‘world-flooded’ conception of wellbeing is not possible under capitalism. Capitalism works to partition the human from its environment so that the environment can be viewed as a separate and extractive realm that facilitates human activity, rather than as interwoven in such activity. And, as is most evident through the neoliberal mutation of capitalism, we are separated from one another and encouraged to see other humans as competitors rather than collaborators. So as the current government talks of wellbeing indicators, we simultaneously get news reports that tell us that psychologists are turning away clients as they are oversubscribed.[50] This contradiction, along with many others, is not a consequence of insufficient wellbeing frameworks and policies. It is intrinsic to capitalism and always will be. By coming to this realisation, we can begin to imagine undoing two centuries of damage in which defining and measuring wellbeing became central to maintaining capitalist hegemony and colonial power structures.

What if instead of trying to cement wellbeing within capitalism, we imagined wellbeing outside of capitalism? The wellbeing of the greatest number would surely be more secure if everyone had the right to good and safe housing, health and dental care, free education. The wellbeing of the greatest number surely increases when we protect our natural environment from expropriation and degradation. The idea that wellbeing is linked to a society that glorifies and hoards private property, exploits and precaritises work, and sees debt as a necessary component of having a place to live, access to healthcare, and getting an education, is one that we must challenge at every opportunity. In short, wellbeing is not a by-product of capital, as these budgets would have us believe. In fact, we have more than enough on this planet for all of us to live well. The wellbeing of the greatest number should, in fact, stand in direct opposition to the economic and social conditions of capitalism.

Wellbeing is worth fighting for, which is precisely why me must resist the logic that underpins the Wellbeing Budgets. That logic was initiated by Bentham and the liberal philosophers of the nineteenth century, systematised by the colonisers of that era, and bureaucratised in neoliberal policies from the late twentieth century. The thing that connects these thinkers, colonisers, and bureaucrats is a dedication to prioritising the wellbeing of capital over all other forms of wellbeing, even if that meant significantly diminishing the wellbeing of the greatest majority, as occurred in the post-2008 decade. The COVID-19 pandemic has placed us at a similar juncture as 2008, and our future wellbeing is at stake. We deserve better than austerity disguised in the language of wellbeing.

[1] Pierre Dardot and Christian Laval, Never-Ending Nightmare: The Neoliberal Assault on Democracy, trans. Gregory Elliot (London: Verso, 2019), 15, emphasis in original.

[2] Barack Obama, ‘Inaugural Address,’ Obama White House Archives, 21 January 2009,

[3] Dardot and Laval, Never-Ending Nightmare, xx, emphasis in original.

[4] Lynne Segal, Radical Happiness: Moments of Collective Joy (London: Verso, 2017), 5.

[5] Karen McVeigh, ‘Austerity a Factor in Rising Suicide Rate Among UK Men – Study,’ The Guardian, 12 November 2015,; Sarah Boseley, ‘Austerity Blamed for Life Expectancy Stalling for First Time in Century,’ The Guardian, 25 February 2020,

[6] Grant Robertson, in ‘The Wellbeing Budget 2019,’ 30 May 2019, 3,

[7] ESRA, ‘Budget 2019 Report,’ Economic and Social Research Aotearoa 13 (June 2019), 2.

[8] Joseph E. Stiglitz, ‘GDP is not a Good Measure of Wellbeing – It’s too Materialistic,’ The Guardian, 2 December 2018,; Joseph E. Stiglitz, ‘It’s Time to Retire Metrics like GDP. They Don’t Measure Everything that Matters,’ The Guardian, 24 November 2019, See, also, Tim Jackson, Prosperity Without Growth: Economics for a Finite Planet (London: Earthscan, 2009) and Post-Growth: Life After Capitalism (Cambridge: Polity, 2021).

[9] Jason Hickel, ‘We Cannot Grow Our Way Out of Poverty,’ New Internationalist, 20 April 2020,

[10] To read more on the historical relationship between utilitarianism and economic science, see Chapter 1 of my book Futilitarianism: Neoliberalism and the Production of Uselessness (London: Goldsmiths Press, 2021).

[11] Davies, The Happiness Industry, 25.

[12] Jeremy Bentham, An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1876), 2.

[13] John Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism (London: Longmans, 1879), 9.

[14] Luc Boltanski and Ève Chiapello, The New Spirit of Capitalism, trans. Gregory Elliot (London: Verso, 2005), 12.

[15] Karl, Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, vol. 1, trans. Ben Fowkes (London: Penguin, 1976), 758–59, note 51.

[16] Bernard Semmel, ‘The Philosophic Radicals and Colonialism,’ The Journal of Economic History 21, no. 4 (1961): 513–25; Frederick Rosen, ‘Jeremey Bentham on Slavery and the Slave Trade,’ in Utilitarianism and Empire, eds. Bart Schultz and Georgios Varouzakis (Oxford: Lexington Books, 2005), 33–56; Barbara Arneil, ‘Jeremy Bentham: Pauperism, Colonialism, and Imperialism,’ American Political Science Review, online first (2021): 1–12.

[17] Jeremy Bentham, Emancipate Your Colonies! Addressed to the National Convention of France, 1793 (London, 1830), 3.

[18] Pater J. Cain, ‘Bentham and the Development of the British Critique of Colonialism,’ Utilitas 23, no. 1 (2004), 24.

[19] Bentham, Principles of Morals and Legislation, 70.

[20] Simon Barber, ‘In Wakefield’s Laboratory: Tangata Whenua into Property/Labour in Te Waipounamu,’ Journal of Sociology 56, no. 2 (2020), 236.

[21] Bernard Semmel, ‘The Philosophic Radicals and Colonialism,’ The Journal of Economic History 21, no. 4 (1961), 518. Thanks to Simon Barber for alerting me to this article.

[22] Quoted in Semmel, ‘Philosophic Radicals and Colonialism,’ 519.

[23] Barber, ‘In Wakefield’s Laboratory,’ 235.

[24] Campbell Jones, ‘Introduction: The Return of Economic Planning,’ South Atlantic Quarterly 119, no. 1 (2020), 3.

[25] Davies, The Happiness Industry: How the Government and Bid Business Sold Us Well-Being (London: Verso, 2015), 88.

[26] Barack Obama, ‘Executive Order: Using Behavioural Science to Better Serve the American People,’ 15 September, 2015,

[27] David Cameron, ‘Speech to Google Zeitgeist Europe,’ The Guardian, 22 May, 2006,

[28] Bentham, Principles of Morals and Legislation, 3, emphasis in original.

[29] Mill, Utilitarianism, 53

[30] Vallelly, Futilitarianism, 34–35.

[31] Friedrich Hayek, The Road to Serfdom (London: Routledge, 2001), 63.

[32] Margaret Thatcher, ‘No Such Thing as Society,’ interviewed by Douglas Keay, Women’s Own, 23 September, 1987,

[33] Wendy Brown, In the Ruins of Neoliberalism: the Rise of Antidemocratic Politics in the West (New York: Columbia University Press, 2019), 40.

[34] See Living Standards Framework Dashboard,

[35] New Zealand Government, ‘Wellbeing Budget 2021: Securing Our Recovery,’ 20 May 2021,

[36] Bernard Hickey, ‘The Brilliant and Perverse Absurdity of Labour’s Austerity Budget of 2021,’ The Spinoff, 6 May 2021,

[37] NZ Treasury, ‘Living Standards Framework,’ accessed 5 October 2020,

[38] ESRA, ‘Budget 2019 Report,’ Economic and Social Research Aotearoa 13 (June 2019), 2.

[39] Jeremy Bentham, ‘The Philosophy of Economic Science,’ in Jeremy Bentham’s Economic Writings, vol. 1, ed. Werner Stark (London: Routledge, 2004), 117.

[40] Bernard Hickey, ‘Lower Debt in, Cutting Child Poverty Out,’ The Spinoff, 7 May 2021,

[41] Jacinda Ardern, ‘Speech at World Economic Forum,’ YouTube, 24 January 2019,

[42] Davies, Happiness Industry, 17.

[43] For more on the Left’s embracement of politics without the political, see Jodi Dean, ‘Politics without Politics,’ Parallax 15, no. 3 (2009): 20–36.

[44] Quinn Slobodian, Globalists: The End of Empire and the Birth of Neoliberalism (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2018), 92–3.

[45] Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi, Precarious Rhapsody: Semiocapitalism and the Pathologies of the Post-Alpha Generation (New York: Autonomedia, 2009), 43.

[46] ‘He Puapua Report,’ Te Puni Kōkiri (2019), 8; 31.

[47] ‘He Puapua Report,’ 53.

[48] Carl Mika, ‘The Possibilities for Exile from Colonisation: A Māori Return to Terms,’ Through That Which Separates Us, eds. Simon Barber and Miri Davidson, (Christchurch: Te Reo Kē/The Physics Room), 46.

[49] Mika, ‘Possibilities for Exile from Colonisation,’ 47.

[50] Rowan Quinn, ‘Psychologists unable to take new clients fear ‘tsunami’ of mental health problems,’ RNZ, 13 July 2021,