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  

Contribute to Conter – the new cross-party platform linking Scottish socialists
Jonathan Rimmer, editor of Conter, says it’s time for a new non-sectarian space for Scottish anti-capitalists and invites you to take part

Editorial: Empire will eat itself
Ashish Ghadiali introduces the June/July issue of Red Pepper

Eddie Chambers: Black artists and the DIY aesthetic
Eddie Chambers, artist and art historian, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali about the cultural strategies that he, as founder of the Black Art Group, helped to define in the 1980s

Despite Erdogan, Turkey is still alive
With this year's referendum consolidating President Erdogan’s autocracy in Turkey, Nazim A argues that the way forward for democrats lies in a more radical approach

Red Pepper Race Section: open editorial meeting – 11 August in Leeds
The next open editorial meeting of the Red Pepper Race Section will take place between 3.30-5.30pm, Friday 11th August in Leeds.

Mogg-mentum? Thatcherite die-hard Jacob Rees-Mogg is no man of the people
Adam Peggs says Rees-Mogg is no joke – he is a living embodiment of Britain's repulsive ruling elite

Power to the renters: Turning the tide on our broken housing system
Heather Kennedy, from the Renters Power Project, argues it’s time to reject Thatcher’s dream of a 'property-owning democracy' and build renters' power instead

Your vote can help Corbyn supporters win these vital Labour Party positions
Left candidate Seema Chandwani speaks to Red Pepper ahead of ballot papers going out to all members for a crucial Labour committee

Join the Rolling Resistance to the frackers
Al Wilson invites you to take part in a month of anti-fracking action in Lancashire with Reclaim the Power

The Grenfell public inquiry must listen to the residents who have been ignored for so long
Councils handed housing over to obscure, unaccountable organisations, writes Anna Minton – now we must hear the voices they silenced

India: Modi’s ‘development model’ is built on violence and theft from the poorest
Development in India is at the expense of minorities and the poor, writes Gargi Battacharya

North Korea is just the start of potentially deadly tensions between the US and China
US-China relations have taken on a disturbing new dimension under Donald Trump, writes Dorothy Guerrero

The feminist army leading the fight against ISIS
Dilar Dirik salutes militant women-organised democracy in action in Rojava

France: The colonial republic
The roots of France’s ascendant racism lie as deep as the origins of the French republic itself, argues Yasser Louati

This is why it’s an important time to support Caroline Lucas
A vital voice of dissent in Parliament: Caroline Lucas explains why she is asking for your help

PLP committee elections: it seems like most Labour backbenchers still haven’t learned their lesson
Corbyn is riding high in the polls - so he can face down the secret malcontents among Labour MPs, writes Michael Calderbank

Going from a top BBC job to Tory spin chief should be banned – it’s that simple
This revolving door between the 'impartial' broadcaster and the Conservatives stinks, writes Louis Mendee – we need a different media

I read Gavin Barwell’s ‘marginal seat’ book and it was incredibly awkward
Gavin Barwell was mocked for writing a book called How to Win a Marginal Seat, then losing his. But what does the book itself reveal about Theresa May’s new top adviser? Matt Thompson reads it so you don’t have to

We can defeat this weak Tory government on the pay cap
With the government in chaos, this is our chance to lift the pay cap for everyone, writes Mark Serwotka, general secretary of public service workers’ union PCS

Corbyn supporters surge in Labour’s internal elections
A big rise in left nominations from constituency Labour parties suggests Corbynites are getting better organised, reports Michael Calderbank

Undercover policing – the need for a public inquiry for Scotland
Tilly Gifford, who exposed police efforts to recruit her as a paid informer, calls for the inquiry into undercover policing to extend to Scotland

Becoming a better ally: how to understand intersectionality
Intersectionality can provide the basis of our solidarity in this new age of empire, writes Peninah Wangari-Jones

The myth of the ‘white working class’ stops us seeing the working class as it really is
The right imagines a socially conservative working class while the left pines for the days of mass workplaces. Neither represent today's reality, argues Gargi Bhattacharyya

The government played the public for fools, and lost
The High Court has ruled that the government cannot veto local council investment decisions. This is a victory for local democracy and the BDS movement, and shows what can happen when we stand together, writes War on Want’s Ross Hemingway.

An ‘obscure’ party? I’m amazed at how little people in Britain know about the DUP
After the Tories' deal with the Democratic Unionists, Denis Burke asks why people in Britain weren't a bit more curious about Northern Ireland before now

The Tories’ deal with the DUP is outright bribery – but this government won’t last
Theresa May’s £1.5 billion bung to the DUP is the last nail in the coffin of the austerity myth, writes Louis Mendee

Brexit, Corbyn and beyond
Clarity of analysis can help the left avoid practical traps, argues Paul O'Connell

Paul Mason vs Progress: ‘Decide whether you want to be part of this party’ – full report
Broadcaster and Corbyn supporter Paul Mason tells the Blairites' annual conference some home truths

Contagion: how the crisis spread
Following on from his essay, How Empire Struck Back, Walden Bello speaks to TNI's Nick Buxton about how the financial crisis spread from the USA to Europe

How empire struck back
Walden Bello dissects the failure of Barack Obama's 'technocratic Keynesianism' and explains why this led to Donald Trump winning the US presidency


38