Saturday, June 28, 2008

Oliver James: The Pathologies of Consumerism

There's an interesting interview with the psychologist Oliver James in Red Pepper. He talks about his new book, The Selfish Capitalist - the main thesis of which appears to be the idea that consumer capitalism (neo-liberalism?) makes us depressed, ill and generally demeans us.

"Selfish capitalism... [is] 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....

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."

I read James' previous book, Affluenza, a year or so ago. In this book James makes similar kinds of claims to those above, but fills the book with a number of case studies - close observations of a number of individuals suffering from the 'Affluenza' illness - an empty materialistic acquisitiveness accompanied by 'status anxiety' and depression. It was quite interesting, but it left me a little cold because the subjects of James' study were all very rich yuppie-types - none of whom I felt much sympathy for. There was something rather grating about the implication in this book that the victims of 'Affluenza' are all upper-middle class. The political implications that James drew out in his book, I seem to remember, were fairly weak too. The answer, he suggested was to return to a more civilised form of social democratic capitalism - a return which could be brought about by a generalised change of heart in society. From the looks of the interview, James draws the same kind of hand-waving conclusions at the end of his new book, too. He seems to be banking on the idea that the political pendulum is due to swing back towards the left and fairly soon - something close to Polanyi's idea about the regular pattern of oscillation between 'free' marketisation and state intervention under capitalism.

I'm not at all convinced that there's very much 'space' for radical social democratic reformism under capitalism today. I hope there is, but my feeling is that there isn't. To this extent New Labourites are, in very broad terms, right to suggest that 'things have moved on' and that 'the world has changed'. I'm sure there's a lot of 'space' to the left of New Labour for social democratic type reform - but not as much as there was, say, in the 1940s and 1950s. Left-wing reforms would probably run up against certain structural constraints pretty quickly, it seems to me - the particular structural constraints of capitalism at a time where there isn't much slack in the system. Thatcherism/Blairism/Neo-liberalism are very often portrayed by the soft left wholly in terms of a successful ideological offensive. Neo-liberalism, that is, is seen to be a way of thinking - a successful hegemonic strategy in the battle of political and economic ideas. But neo-liberalism has solid material foundations. It's hard to explain why it's been quite so consistently successful in the battle of ideas across the world without reference to the material problems for which it provides some sort of partial solution. Intensified global competition over the past few decades has put constant, and constantly increasing, pressure on governments to do what it can to reduce relative labour costs and social spending. Any serious left-wing politics needs to recognise the material economic context in which neo-liberalism has sprung up. Thatcher and her heirs did not just win an argument which might, in principle have gone any conceivable way. It's not just air. Neo-liberalism won the argument (largely, but not wholly) because it mapped onto the material referrents of contemporary political and economic debate - an acute and growing crisis of profit for capital. (There might have been other solutions, or partial solutions, within capitalism, of course - a dirigist form of capitalism might have prevailed for example.)

James' curiously weak politics are highlighted at the end of the article. It seems that he has been in talks with the Cameroonians. He also remarks:

‘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.’

It's as if James doesn't think that his critique of 'selfish capitalism' is at all political - as if politics is wholly synonymous with party politics and that anything beyond that is non-political. Strange.

Nevertheless James is an interesting writer and I'd like to get hold of his book when I can. He's not as good as Fromm though.

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