Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.

×

Selfish capitalism is making us ill

Mat Little interviews psychologist and writer Oliver James about his book, The Selfish Capitalist

June 5, 2008
9 min read

Oliver James is bemused by flat-screen TVs, or at least the unerring willingness of his fellow citizens to part with around £1,000 in order to adorn their living rooms with one. ‘It’s like the emperor’s new clothes, why doesn’t everyone just say, what’s the point of this thing, it’s no better than my old TV, the old TV has just as good a picture?’ he asks incredulously.

Like a patient’s giveaway nervous habit, James, the clinical psychologist who first put Britain on the Couch 12 years ago, seizes upon British consumers’ clamour for plasma TVs as the as the sign of a deeper social neurosis. ‘The only way they can sell them is because they’re more expensive and people have it in their heads that this is something they’ve got to have.’

But what really interests him is that consumers in Denmark don’t exhibit the same compulsion. ‘If you want to sell a flat-screen TV for a grand, well nobody will buy one in Denmark,’ he claims. They just wait until the price drops. But Danes, according to James, are far less afflicted by the disease he terms ‘selfish capitalism’.

Selfish capitalism sounds like a populist way of describing neo-liberalism. It’s characterised, says James, by privatisation, insecure working conditions, the redistribution of taxes from poor to rich and the conviction that the market can meet almost every conceivable human need. So far, so depressingly familiar. But what James adds is the assertion that wherever this system spreads, mental anguish follows.

Stagnating real wages, the growth of short-term, service industry jobs, a workaholic culture, combine with intensified status competition for consumer goods (frequently new and more expensive versions of existing items) and the exaltation of the consumption habits of the rich, to create a toxic cocktail of limited economic means and unrealisable desire. Depression, anxiety, substance abuse and low impulse control ensue.

And you can actually measure it. English-speaking countries, the epicentre of selfish capitalism, exhibit levels of emotional distress twice as high as more sheltered continental Europe. For example, 26 per cent of Americans suffer ‘mental distress’ each year, according to a World Health Organisation study, compared to eight per cent of Italians. While Australia provides a controlled experiment on its effects. The country deregulated consumer credit and home loans in the mid-90s, sending mortgage costs spiralling. Australians now have three times as many credit cards as Europeans and work the longest hours in the developed world.

Coincidentally, Australia was also the site of two studies measuring levels of emotional distress, in 1997 and 2001. The second study showed that the proportion of people who were severely distressed, to the point of urgently needing treatment, had increased by two-thirds in just four years. Among women it had nearly doubled.

Misery equals economic growth

What James regards as his ‘most interesting claim’ is that selfish capitalism does not merely leave depression and anxiety in its wake, it also actively works to destroy anything that might improve the well-being of the population ‘It is absolutely critical for everybody to go around feeling miserable, filling the emptiness with commodities, dealing with misery by trying to give yourself short-term boosts with hamburgers or drink,’ he says.

The system is ‘akin to the biological notion of natural selection’. For it to work, we have to be unhappy. Materialism produces anxiety, and anxious people consume more. It loves divorce and separation, he claims. Besides legal fees, each partner has to buy or rent a new home and get a new set of electrical essentials (TV, DVD player) and furniture. Misery equals economic growth.

James’ book, The Selfish Capitalist, relentlessly piles on the evidence that the economic model of the last thirty years has created an epidemic of depression. But the ultimate effect, in common with many contemporary critiques of capitalism, is to give the impression of a picture so bleak and a system so powerful as to leave an abiding sense of hopelessness. We have internalised the values of the system, says James, becoming ‘marketing characters’, to borrow a phrase of the Marxist psychologist Erich Fromm, whose description of 1950s America, The Sane Society, prophesised many of the trends James says have been exported here. ‘Service industries have taken over from manufacturing and personality is crucial,’ he says. ‘It’s like a Big Brother show where you are on TV trying to win hundreds of thousands of pounds by performing and pretending to be a certain kind of person. It’s a metaphor for the way of life in the English-speaking world, a permanent Big Brother show.’

We may be miserable and in debt, but we are in denial about the source of our distress. Despite James’ insistence that the citizens of English-speaking countries have been roundly conned by the economic revolution of Reagan, Thatcher, Clinton and Blair, rebellion doesn’t seem to be in the air. A Prozac revolution is hard to imagine.

‘It’s implicit in my theory that people are going to find it difficult to take this on board,’ he concedes. ‘But there is a whole other side of people that is totally disgusted by the situation and sick to the back teeth. I’m saying the system contains within it the potential for people to go on strike, though not go on strike literally because that’s been made illegal. How will the system change? It will change because people will ultimately reject it and I’m optimistic that somebody will come along and start offering us something much better.’

That something better, in James’ eyes, will involve reining back the market through the very methods – public ownership and redistribution of wealth – that were discarded in the ’80s and ’90s. But it also entails scaling back the intrusion of work into our personal lives and placing a new value on care of children. ‘Most of all, I’d put stress on a situation that when two parents have a child – whether they get married is not important – they stay together and the care they proved is child-centred rather than parent-centred or society-centred,’ he says. ‘That is the foundation of mental health’. He advocates the adoption of the Austrian policy which pays new parents the national average wage so they don’t have to go back to work until their child’s third birthday.

A Thatcher of the left?

Implicit in James’ argument is a rejection of the libertarian individualism that he says the Left peddled, to the ultimate benefit of its free market nemesis, in the ’60s and ’70s. ‘In the English-speaking world, the Left created a gaping hole into which it was possible for Thatcher and Reagan to go,’ he says. ‘We hadn’t thought through the implications of making a shift from a collectivist to an individualist society. Sure, there were a lot of benefits from going from a situation where you are defined by your gender, class and background. In an individualist society, identity is achieved through education and career. We set everyone free in the ’60s and ’70s and you ended up with an anarchistic, chaotic scenario with technology whizzing along in the background.’

James predicts a Thatcher of the Left, probably a woman, will appear to define our predicament and offer a radical change of direction. That requires, he says, strong leadership. He has contempt for politicians who claim they are responding to voters’ wishes. Like an unyielding therapist, he thinks we need to be told what’s good for us. ‘Politicians should say, ‘this is what we think is the right thing to do, this is what we think men, women and children should be like, this is what think education should be for. And we’re going to impose this on you. We are going to create laws and you must obey them.’

James doesn’t see this as authoritarian. ‘It’s not authoritarian, it’s democracy. People will accuse you of paternalism and patriachalism but I think that what will happen is that you’ll get a politician that says the last 30 years have been a disaster and we need to start taxing the rich properly and totally rethink the purpose of education. We need to nationalise the public utilities and take the money back that’s been stolen from us and we need to renationalise the railways and create a decent transport network that really works. If somebody came forward and said all that, they’d be voted in with a massive majority.’

Curiously for someone who quotes Marx on false consciousness and revolutionary potential and seems intent on reviving the ghost of socialism, James is being courted by the Conservative party. They consult him on policy. ‘Cameron did have a window of opportunity,’ he says. ‘I was talking to his people and there were people around him would would’ve genuinely agree with everything I’ve said.’ Cameron, he says, has read The Selfish Capitalist.

He describes Cameron’s director of strategy, Steve Hilton as a ‘very nice person’ unlike New Labour who ‘don’t get it all’.

So where does James stand himself politically? He confesses to a brief spell in the Labour party in the early 1980s but adds, ‘I’m not a political economist, I’m not a political philosopher, I’m not a political administrator, I’m not all at an expert on politics. My instinct is with George Orwell in that he wasn’t a member of any political party. I’m deeply, deeply sceptical. I don’t think I’d be doing anyone any favours if I was banging a drum and urging people to vote for someone or other. I’m more interested in influence than in power.’

The Selfish Capitalist: Origins of Affluenza is published by Vermilion

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
Why not try our new pay as you feel subscription? You decide how much to pay.
Share this article  
  share on facebook     share on twitter  

The World Transformed: Red Pepper’s pick of the festival
Red Pepper is proud to be part of organising The World Transformed, in Brighton from 23-26 September. Here are our highlights from the programme

Labour’s NEC has started to empower party members – but we still have a mountain to climb
The crunch executive meeting ahead of Labour conference agreed some welcome changes, writes Michael Calderbank, but there is still much further to go

Working class theatre: Save Our Steel takes the stage
A new play inspired by Port Talbot’s ‘Save Our Steel’ campaign asks questions about the working class leaders of today. Adam Johannes talks to co-director Rhiannon White about the project, the people and the politics behind it

The dawn of commons politics
As supporters of the new 'commons politics' win office in a variety of European cities, Stacco Troncoso and Ann Marie Utratel chart where this movement came from – and where it may be going

A very social economist
Hilary Wainwright says the ideas of Robin Murray, who died in June, offer a practical alternative to neoliberalism

Art the Arms Fair: making art not war
Amy Corcoran on organising artistic resistance to the weapons dealers’ London showcase

Beware the automated landlord
Tenants of the automated landlord are effectively paying two rents: one in money, the other in information for data harvesting, writes Desiree Fields

Black Journalism Fund – Open Editorial Meeting
3-5pm Saturday 23rd September at The World Transformed in Brighton

Immigration detention: How the government is breaking its own rules
Detention is being used to punish ex-prisoners all over again, writes Annahita Moradi

A better way to regenerate a community
Gilbert Jassey describes a pioneering project that is bringing migrants and local people together to repopulate a village in rural Spain

Fast food workers stand up for themselves and #McStrike – we’re loving it!
McDonald's workers are striking for the first time ever in Britain, reports Michael Calderbank

Two years of broken promises: how the UK has failed refugees
Stefan Schmid investigates the ways Syrian refugees have been treated since the media spotlight faded

West Papua’s silent genocide
The brutal occupation of West Papua is under-reported - but UK and US corporations are profiting from the violence, write Eliza Egret and Tom Anderson

Activate, the new ‘Tory Momentum’, is 100% astroturf
The Conservatives’ effort at a grassroots youth movement is embarrassingly inept, writes Samantha Stevens

Peer-to-peer production and the partner state
Michel Bauwens and Vasilis Kostakis argue that we need to move to a commons-centric society – with a state fit for the digital age

Imagining a future free of oppression
Writer, artist and organiser Ama Josephine Budge says holding on to our imagination of tomorrow helps create a different understanding today

The ‘alt-right’ is an unstable coalition – with one thing holding it together
Mike Isaacson argues that efforts to define the alt-right are in danger of missing its central component: eugenics

Fighting for Peace: the battles that inspired generations of anti-war campaigners
Now the threat of nuclear war looms nearer again, we share the experience of eighty-year-old activist Ernest Rodker, whose work is displayed at The Imperial War Museum. With Jane Shallice and Jenny Nelson he discussed a recent history of the anti-war movement.

Put public purpose at the heart of government
Victoria Chick stresses the need to restore the public good to economic decision-making

Don’t let the world’s biggest arms fair turn 20
Eliza Egret talks to activists involved in almost two decades of protest against London’s DSEI arms show

The new municipalism is part of a proud radical history
Molly Conisbee reflects on the history of citizens taking collective control of local services

With the rise of Corbyn, is there still a place for the Green Party?
Former Green principal speaker Derek Wall says the party may struggle in the battle for votes, but can still be important in the battle of ideas

Fearless Cities: the new urban movements
A wave of new municipalist movements has been experimenting with how to take – and transform – power in cities large and small. Bertie Russell and Oscar Reyes report on the growing success of radical urban politics around the world

A musical fightback against school arts cuts
Elliot Clay on why his new musical turns the spotlight on the damage austerity has done to arts education, through the story of one school band's battle

Neoliberalism: the break-up tour
Sarah Woods and Andrew Simms ask why, given the trail of destruction it has left, we are still dancing to the neoliberal tune

Cat Smith MP: ‘Jeremy Corbyn has authenticity. You can’t fake that’
Cat Smith, shadow minister for voter engagement and youth affairs and one of the original parliamentary backers of Corbyn’s leadership, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali

To stop the BBC interviewing climate deniers, we need to make climate change less boring
To stop cranks like Lord Lawson getting airtime, we need to provoke more interesting debates around climate change than whether it's real or not, writes Leo Barasi

Tory Glastonbury? Money can’t buy you cultural relevance
Adam Peggs on why the left has more fun

Essay: After neoliberalism, what next?
There are economically-viable, socially-desirable alternatives to the failed neoliberal economic model, writes Jayati Ghosh

With the new nuclear ban treaty, it’s time to scrap Trident – and spend the money on our NHS
As a doctor, I want to see money spent on healthcare not warfare, writes David McCoy - Britain should join the growing international movement for disarmament


38