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January 15, 2008

Oliver James may be engaged in important work - but he has made a hash of it, argues Richard D. North: The Selfish Capitalist: Origins of Affluenza - Oliver James

Posted by Richard D. North

The Selfish Capitalist: Origins of Affluenza
by Oliver James
London: Vermilion, 2008
Hardback, 14.99

Oliver James' last book, Affluenza, made a fair impact. Along with the work of Richard Layard, Alain de Botton and Avner Offer, it constitutes the bedrock of the "wellbeing" movement which is making headway with politicians of very stripe. Jeremy Vine and Will Self both liked it, according to the dust jacket of this long-expected new James book, The Selfish Capitalist: Origins of Affluenza.

The first tome was billed as being all the freer to be a rather personal, and even anecdotal, account of a modern middle class disease because this new book was to be an account of what Oliver James rather lofily calls "Selfish Capitalism theory". More robustly, he says that - unlike the blessed and undistressed European continentals - the US and UK live with a "bugger everyone else" capitalism. His belief is that it has given us Affluenza. It has certainly given us Oliver James' afflatus.

This stuff quite matters. It may usefully refine our social management. But it may also merely modernise the appeal of socialism and leave us prey to all its old failings.

Looked at as kindly as possible, James is on to something when he says modernity has spawned an uneasiness. But, we might sigh, when didn't it? Since he suggests that rigour is part of his new enterprise, we have to go on and say that it isn't.

The argument being made is simple enough. James says Thatcher and Reagan introduced a "selfish" capitalism which has increased "emotional distress". This is partly because in the selfish world of the US and the UK - the Anglosphere in general - inequality has been allowed to run away. The middle and lower income people in society are working harder and with less job security and yet their incomes have not risen in line with the great increases in national income.

It is also partly because there is more "materialism" about, and that is an attitude or habit which is bad for people.

For the purposes of this review, I shall ignore the majority of James' cheap shots, such as the idea that Mrs Thatcher's remarks about there being no such thing as society might be evidence of her wanting a cruel one, or that the second Iraq war is evidence that the West's demand for oil blinded Bush and Blair. These are ancient canards and James adds no lustre to them. I'll stick to the bits of his thesis which stand some chance of provability and even originality.

It is incontestable that the US and the UK quite deliberately and democratically decided that lower taxes for the well-off (that is mostly to say, an increased equality of taxation for them) would benefit the whole economy and therefore the whole of society. It is also true that the effect has been that a greater share (and even a quite surprising share) of society's (much greater) wealth is in the hands of the rich. It is also true that quite often since the late 70s in the UK and US the lower and middling classes have seen only slightly increasing disposable income and that fairly recently the less-well off have positively slipped backwards in the US. [See data at the US Economic Policy Institute.]

It is also true that the well-off in the UK and US have tended to work very long and even increasing hours. This is not, on the whole, true of many other people in these societies. There are lots of difficulties in this data, but at points it reflects a real picture. If people mind about these trends, there will be a political adjustment.

But - as most mainstream political parties acknowledge, but James does not - we would need to be quite careful in any adjustment we make. The very rich of Western societies are to some extent globalised exploiters of the world's resources, including finance. Reining them in may merely dent the world economy. It may not bring much benefit to their fellow-Westerners.

Another difficulty is that the very poor of the West seem to be suffering low wages and unemployment because they are uneducated and unmotivated. That's why some of "their" jobs are given to foreigners at home and abroad. Anyway, this is a bad moment to be ignorant and sulky.

For the rest of us, and whatever income data may say, there's a lot of economic well-being about. It is often said, and it seems to be true: people's purchasing power is quite large. That may have to do with the relative cheapness of what were previously scarce goods (for instance, affordable and capable used cars) and the high value of services bought through taxation.

And while we're at it, surely "job insecurity" (which James worries about) is less distressing than job scarcity?

Is he on to something when he gets into the social and the psychological problems he hopes to have identified? Again, in large measure, he is beating old drums. He quotes Eric Fromm at length.

But it is here on his own professional turf that he seems most adrift. I have looked elsewhere at the original data he cites about "emotional distress". I'm afraid I suspect it's an idea he uses because it gives him greater scope to be very selective in his use of material. Since he is largely repeating himself in these pages, I won't. [See my earlier review and].

One curiosity is that James doesn't like Professor Lord (Richard) Layard's belief that much modern distress can be alleviated by cheap talking therapy. This seems to James to be untrue and a cop-out. I hope James is wrong because it amuses me that Layard's "solution" might be a small price to pay for living in our modern economy (an economy - by the way - which Layard would probably like to reform on more or less leftist and Jamesian lines).

It is perhaps worth noting that James also thinks that Richard Dawkins' book, The Selfish Gene, reinforced the idea that selfishness was genetic, and that it therefore chimed with, and helped cause, a policy which encouraged selfish capitalism. I am no fan of Dawkins but I think that James' argument about him is wrong at every point. For a start, wasn't Dawkins arguing that complex life forms are in some sense a vehicle for the unconscious agenda of genes rather than that complex life forms are necessarily made selfish by that process?

I think it is entirely possible that a person may be a little more at risk of distress in James' "selfish" economies than in his "unselfish" ones. But the correlations are not very clear or large and we are entitled to ask: "So what?". I gather it can be quite frustrating being an Italian (and subject to corruption and a dominating mother, for instance) or a Frenchman (too few jobs or foreign restaurants, for instance). Maybe the Anglophone culture gives us a bit of stress and the Continent's version gives them a bit of tedium. The EU allows people to switch between these economies more easily than at any time in recent history, so its citizens can to some extent choose the "problem" they want.

It is important to James to say that there is something wrong with materialism. He cites evidence that people tend to be unhappy if they stress that they care more about money than people. This is so obvious that banging on about it seems silly.

James' own evidence insists:

Someone from the lowest class is about twice as likely to suffer the commonest problems, such as depression and anxiety as someone from the highest one.
So the big problem for James is that affluence is healthy. His only get-out might be that materialists aren't affluent, or that affluent people aren't materialist, which seems a stretch.

It is possible that the people in society who are being left behind, or have unrequited materialism, may be rendered miserable in a "selfish" capitalist society. But we know that even the middle classes who are being "left behind"- and may feel unrequited - are happier than the echelons below them.

Even if we're worried about materialism, it matters to know whether Thatcher and Reagan ushered in a world in which it became rampant. As a part-time bohemian and an intellectual snob I am happy to be snooty about crass commercialism. My difficulty with James' argument is that (as I tried to explain in my book Rich Is Beautiful) our Western affluent societies are richly populated with all sorts of trends and tendencies, and only a few of them are frankly materialist.

Besides, I don't find it easy to believe that Germans, Italians and Frenchmen are less materialist than the Brits. I see scruffy, careless, sports-mad, eccentric, gardening fellow-subjects wherever I go, and more evidence of expensive bourgeois proprieties abroad than here.

The deeper point, though, is that the US and the UK probably are the "natural" home of a boldly cavalier approach to economic and social life. It doesn't bother me much that Denmark, say, is a more homogeneous, stable and socialistic place than the UK. Or that France is more statist and its people more culturally indoctrinated than the UK and its people.

Shouldn't we wonder about whether the core idea of "selfish" or "unselfish" capitalism really stands up? A simple response to James is to say that where Will Hutton and his book The State We're In wasn't persuasive for very long, it is hardly likely that this slapdash amateur would give us a better analysis. I see no sign that capitalism is freer to be cavalier or exploitative than it used to be. I see constraining rules wherever I look. And its mores are richly conflicted, as they should be. Capitalism has embraced political correctness to a remarkable degree.

James argues that the UK and US are alike in selfishness, and thus are distressed, whilst France and Denmark are alike in unselfishness and are therefore less distressed. Leave aside that the "unhappiness" scores of the countries are open to great dispute. The fact is that the UK's economy is a high-tax one compared with the US (and surely that's a decent proxy for selfishness?). And though it is unclear whether France can escape the high unemployment which doesn't afflict the UK, it is making efforts in the direction of Thatcherite Reaganomics. It is not clear that the French are as happy with Frenchness as James is.

How important is government anyway? James argues that government policy has shunted us into materialism and selfish capitalism. Isn't it truer that national temperament and democratic choices have done so, if anything? Are we the populace to rob ourselves of the dignity of at least having chosen the predicament in which James purports to find us?

His own arguments about distress suggest the blame doesn't lie with Thatcher or Reagan. At several points he argues that childhood influences are very important in storing up distress for later years. This dramatically undermines his supposed detection of misery closely following the new materialism of the late 70s. (Though it is true that Mrs Thatcher's reforms were followed temporarily by a recession, which distressed plenty of people.)

Shouldn't he be working with a twenty or thirty year time lag, and seeing "blame" in the 40s and 50s and 60s and not merely the Reaganomic 80s if he wants to understand what's "wrong" with adults in more recent decades? I agree with him when he says that in the 50s and 60s there was anxious talk of the new materialism. He might have mentioned that the talk was old hat even then. So he is on about trends which go way back. But that, of course, would not have fitted with his ambition to be novel and to have discovered a novelty.
I don't worry about modern people half as much as James does and I like much but not all of the Mass Affluence and the inequality of our day.

But I have my gloomy days, and try to diagnose society's failings.

My generation did not do very well in its contribution to modern society. We sneered at commerce, industry, politics, heroism, progress and conservatism - whilst rather greedily hoovering up all the affluence we could. I agree with James that "individualism" has something to do with our modern unease, but I don't suppose economic individualism (whatever that might be) matters as much as the individualised relativism and cynicism which kids have been learning in university.

Of course it's important that every generation assess the value of what it inherited and what its legacy will be. James is - to put in charitably - engaged on important work. But he has made a hash of it. That much is evident simply from seeing how he abuses the evidence he adduces.

It is also evident when one looks around the people and society one actually knows - rather than theorising about trends which are abstractly supposed to be out there.

Richard D. North is the author of Rich is Beautiful: A Very Personal Defence of Mass Affluence and Scrap the BBC!: Ten Years to Set Broadcasters Free.

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Mercurius I too have a great deal of optimism laced with hethlay doses of terror and depression for my nieces etc. that we're capable of being vasty more efficient, effective etc etc with the resource available, and within that providing a decent standard of living to everyone on this planet if we so choose.However as we in the west continually place purchasing optional consumer goods over helping those in extreme poverty, for a whole variety of reasons, I don't think its reasonable or evidence-based to ignore the fact that culture and societal organisation played a significant part in the choice' that previous socieites have made to exceed sustainable limits & thus collapse.My point being, we might have all the technology, but we've blatantly lacked the will for quite sometime, and the west can be rightly accused of living by a lifeboat philosophy, not one of human equity and sustainability for all.I'd argue one of the reasons our track record' may have gotten better at digging out of messes is because naive people like me (apparently) patiently remind people that truism become truisms because they are true, and need to be dealt with accordingly, not scoffed at.I and many others would also point out that the rate of ecological collapse at this point is so pressing and global that even without climate change we're in deep shit unless we change our ways. Changing our ways, from my pov at least, does not mean all the tired crap about back to caves etc., it means harnessing both technology along with what we know makes us happy (not excess consumption) to create a more equitable world. Sure, strum along with kumbaya if you want, but I don't have time and nor do you for me to write that in more empirical detail and I suspect you get the gist.You seem to be labouring under the misapprehension that all civilisation collapses are past distant. Firstly, I'd point out that Easter Island and the modern tale of New Zealand Maoris and the role self-induced resource scarcity played in their relationship with the colonisers are not distant memories; and I've yet to see a strong refutation of Diamond's thesis that resource scarcity was a very significant contributing factor to the Rwandan genocide.Secondly I'd point out that with regard to the devestation wrought on once fertile areas such as the Mediterranean and the Middle Eastern grain belt the cradle of civilisation to many that the effects of those decisions thousands of years ago still render those areas markedly less productive and more fragile than they were. In other words, the past is still with us and we are adding to it. At this rate our footwork is going to have to get very fancy indeed to get out.Finally, I'd like to reject your conflation in your last paragraph with my views on this topic to meaning that I don't think the developing nations have a right to develop. I very much do. I know it's not uncommon to find Greens who argue so strongly for reducing consumption that they don't seem to grasp that this means dooming millions of the world's poor and is grossly inequitable. I am not one of them. I spent much of my childhood in India, and now work with refugees after many years in environmental policy / science. I don't trade of one against the other.It would be why the real problem and objection I have to Hamilton is his framing of the consumption debate in terms of a disease, a negative, and to accuse many individuals of greed. It's unhelpful and ignores a fundamental truth that people operate within a context, and the vast, vast majority of us on this planet are simply trying to do the best we can with the resources available to us -that might mean choosing to buy food or medicine for a sick child because you can't have both; or it might mean taking the kids to the movies and blowing $100 because the family has been under stress and needs a break.None of that changes a need to look at what, how and why we consume what we do, including the economic and societal assumptions its based on and that has to start from acknolwedging the truism you so hate.But consuming more resources than the earth actually has? Impossible, even in principle. The very idea is ontological nonsense.evidence please.

Posted by: Riady at June 4, 2012 08:09 PM
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