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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

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