Public Happiness

Apropos the events of last weekend, I thought I’d share these passages from Alexander Cockburn’s journal-cum-memoir, The Golden Age Is In Us:

Hannah Arendt has described eloquently how, when political action succeeds in generating real power, the participants experience a happiness different from the kind of happiness one finds in private life.

Public happiness is not isolating but shared. It is the happiness of being free among other free people, of having one’s public faith redeemed and returned, of seeing public hope becoming public power, becoming reality itself … The experience of public happiness is an exceptional one in the politics of our time, but not such a very rare exception. It has been known in many countries in this century, on every continent, in societies of every kind of political, economic and cultural configuration. It has been felt, if sometimes only momentarily, everywhere, and therefore it is possible everywhere.

Doug Lummis quoted in Alexander Cockburn, The Golden Age is in Us. London: Verso, 1995, pp 299 – 300.


Listings for the Golden Age in dictionaries of mythology are rare. But turn to “Saturnalia” and you’ll find it. These days, Saturnalia spells “drunken sex spree,” which has its elements of truth, but the rest of the older meaning involved subversion of the social order.

In this pre-spring festival, senators and slave owners put aside their stately togas and kindred marks of rank and donned shapeless garments, known as syntheses. The prime metaphor of the Saturnalia was freedom from all bondage—the bondage of poverty, of wealth, of the laws and above all, of time. Slaves set up a mock king and were served delicious fare by their masters. Such delicacies, given to the powerless by the powerful, were called “second tables,” because the tables were temporarily turned. Each household became a mimic republic, in which the slaves held first rank. The law courts were closed. The image of Saturn, whose ankle was bound with a woolen fetter the rest of the year, was freed. Gifts were exchanged. The Lord of Misrule reigned.

There was always something dangerous about jovial Saturn, an element of the hooved and the horned, and later he became transformed into the witch-pleasing devil of the Middle Ages. The debauched aspects of the Saturnalia became emphasized, and the revolutionary aspects began to fade away.

So the Golden Age is subversive and it’s fun, which means that for us on the left, it should be our goal and our sales pitch. People love utopias that make sense. …

These days we’re shy imaginers of Utopias on hold. We know we live in the age of iron, lamented by Hesiod and Ovid. All the more reason not to lose heart. There is abundance, if we arrange things differently. The world can be turned upside down; that is, the right way up. The Golden Age is in us, if we know where to look, and what to think.

Cockburn, Golden Age, pp. 1 – 2.

As we came down Jackson toward 4th Avenue in Seattle, a little girl being carried by her father led the crowd around her in a shout for “equality!” and “justice!” Her face was completely lit by the almost unbearable delight of a four- or five-year-old getting a huge crowd of grownups to yell along with her. It was the living embodiment of the public happiness that Arendt, Lummis, and Cockburn describe. (I’d post a picture but I prefer to respect that young girl’s privacy.)

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