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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Friday, June 27, 2008

My Interview Hell

You wouldn't expect any job interview to be fun exactly, but the one I had a couple of weeks ago takes the prize for the most unpleasant and embarrassingly awkward interview that I've ever experienced. It was for an FE college lecturing job in North London. I have to admit that I wasn't as well prepared for some of the interview questions as I could have been, and I could have done a bit more research on current issues in FE and so on. I almost certainly wasn't the best candidate for the job - I'm not peeved about being turned down. What I am a bit narked about, though, is how incredibly unfriendly and rude the interview panel were.

The lady from personnel was perfectly pleasant and polite when she came to pick me up from the reception area. The usual questions about my journey were asked as she showed me towards the interview room. So far so good. The arrangement was that I made a 10 minute presentation on a subject of my choice from the course syllabus and that this would be followed by a 50 minute interview. I had spent several days preparing the presentation complete with Powerpoint slides and a hand out. I felt fairly confident, not too nervous. It all went wrong very quickly. I knew within 60 seconds of walking into the interview room that I didn't stand a hope of getting the job and that the whole thing was a collossal waste of my time and of a day's forfeited pay. I knew this because it was immediately obvious that the interview panel would clearly much rather be somewhere else, were not in the slightest bit interested in me, and weren't too bothered about concealing any of this - one of the panel spent the whole interview almost horizontal in his chair, occasionally summoning up the energy to roll his eyes at his fellow panelists and to make faint, half-hearted noises suggesting a state of exasperated boredom. He was probably what you'd euphemistically call 'a character' - or, as I prefer, 'a total knob-end'. The other two panelists (apart from the personnel officer who was friendly throughout) struggled to project any sense that they had warm blood in their veins and maintained an attitude of icy uninterest from start to finish. I don't know, maybe they'd only just come out of a coma or something.

Usually you'd expect your interviewers to rise from their seats and shake your hand when you enter the room - but with this lot it was just still, stony silence. Perhaps there was, at most, a slight nod of the head. They resembled a line of semi-hibernating reptiles eyeing some mildly appetising insect just out of reach - they knew somewhere in the back of their minds that they should show some interest, but couldn't quite find the energy to do anything about it. Just watch. Quite off-putting.

Anyway, after a few seconds of awkward hovering while I waited for handshakes or some other show of basic politeness, I went over to the laptop and tried to start up my presentation. As is always to be expected when using computer technology (especially someone else's technology) on a formal occasion, I couldn't get the damn thing to work for a few minutes. I couldn't find the Powerpoint application and an icon for the USB disk didn't show up on the desktop. Still, I thought I dealt with it quite well - in a situation like that you can either get flustered or you can make light of it, and thankfully I managed to make a joke out of it. No response. Not even a smile. Nevermind. Just start the presentation. Five minutes into the ten minute presentation one of the interviewers suggested I might like to finish now. I hadn't even come to the interesting part. OK, so some time was lost fiddling around with the laptop, but surely they'd realise that wasn't my fault? Anger started to well up somewhere in my chest, but, again, I managed to laugh it off. I still wasn't flustered, just a bit annoyed deep down. I'd boil about this later - but not now.

I sat down in front of the panel of stony, unimpressed faces. An iceberg would have radiated more warmth. No one asked me about my presentation. There was just an embarrassed silence for a few seconds while... while what? What was I supposed to do? Inscrutable reptile looks. Then the first question. I was asked how I would promote the college's Equal Opportunites policy in the classroom. Of course, I'm wholly in favour of Equal Opps policies and it's good that they clearly take it seriously - but what am I supposed to say about this? I managed to mumble something vague - but only after considering, for a second or two, a facetious response. 'How would I promote the college's Equal Opportunities policy in my teaching? Well I suppose I would promote it by not being a racist, sexist or homophobic bastard in the classroom.' What else can you say? The other questions were all fairly standard - although there wasn't one about my subject knowledge. They were all procedural questions. None of my answers seemed to impress. The lead interviewer recorded my answers in a manner that suggested that she was writing notes about something slightly distasteful and tiresome - like a blocked toilet or a nosebleed. If there had been any windows in the room, the other interviewers would have spent most of their time staring out of it. I started to suspect that they'd not read my application when they asked how much A-Level Sociology teaching experience I had when I was quite clear, on the form, that I had none. The end of the interview came and I was asked if I had any questions. I was tempted to ask whether it was normal in FE college interviews not to be shown around the college, see any teaching rooms, meet any students or be introduced to possible departmental colleages. How on earth was I supposed to know whether I wanted to work here or not? Perhaps I should have asked whether the interviewers were representative of the type of staff who worked there and, if so, why everyone was so bloody miserable. I asked some safe and polite questions about something I don't remember. The interview ended with another embarrassing silence. No one got up to shake my hand. Clearly I was supposed to shuffle off now. I decided to try and puncture the awkwardness by saying 'Perhaps we should do the formal thing and shake hands a ha ha' (so funny) and thrust my hand towards them. The character said something about how he 'would love to shake my hand' in a tone I couldn't mistake for anything but facetiousness. I bit my tongue.

Then the nice woman from personnel escorted me back to reception. In some ways this was the worst part, because we both had to pretend that the whole thing hadn't been a total waste of time. I still had to keep up the bright-eyed keeny act (this is very tiring for me) and express an interest in some aspect of the interview process suitable for small talk in the corridor and she had to pretend, when she told me when to expect the result, that the whole thing was still more than a formality and that I really stood a chance of being offered the job. We both knew that the other was pretending too. I found that desperately humiliating for some reason.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

I Don't Get it

Just finished reading Use of Weapons. I have the feeling that I must have missed something. OK, I understand that the twist at the end is that Zakalwe turns out not to be the real Zakalwe, but the horrible 'Chairmaker', Elethiomel. Fine. It's one of those books, however, that leaves me thinking 'what was the point of all of that'? It just seems like an account of an interesting series of events with an unusual time-frame/narrative sequence. It demands quite a lot of the reader in that s/he has to work out how each chapter 'fits' in relation to the whole and the reverse narrative half of the book allows us to come to understand the background experiences of Zakalwe in a layer by layer fashion. I get the feeling that there's more to it, though, than an interesting structure and a twist at the end. Look to Windward, for example is clearly about something - if you know what I mean. You can identify underlying themes in the story - guilt, loss, loneliness, doom. The book has something to say in addition to, and beyond, the immediate events of the plot. I didn't pick up on anything like that in Use of Weapons - is it really just an adventure story? This happened, then this happened, then this happened, twist, the end.

Most of the sub-adventures in the story seem to come to nothing and fizzle out. In fact they seem quite pointless - that war between the Hegemonarchy and the Empire that Zakalwe gets involved with, for example.

I'm a little confused about the book's epilogue too. Banks seems to imply that Zakalwe and his helper have returned to the planet on which the aforementioned war occurred. They place a nuclear device in a park and wait for the occupying army to arrive. Is there some key to the text here that I've missed? Why does the book begin and end at this point, roughly? What does the poem at the end signify?

The Culture doesn't come out of it very well - there's a pretty impressive death toll of poor bloody infantry in the book as Special Circumstances engages in a complicated process of war-mongering, war-fighting by proxy and betrayals. In the end they seem to order Zakalwe to set off a nuclear bomb (at least it's implied that SC are Zakalwe's 'masters' here). Lovely.

Perhaps the book's 'about' foreign intervention and real politik.

Perhaps I'm barking up the wrong tree in looking for somekind of 'deeper meaning'.

Can anyone help me out?

I really liked the description of Zakalwe's exploration of the Orbital, though. The daisy-chain making, insect bothering drone with the dry wit and casual attitude to violence is pretty good too.


Tuesday, June 17, 2008

David Harvey's Lectures on 'Capital' Online

David Harvey, the radical urban geographer, has long been relatively famous in left-wing academia for his near-legendary reading group/course on Capital. Harvey is making his entire series of lectures on Vol. 1 available on his website - you can watch them for free. There are, apparently, going to be 13 installments - the first two are up already. Each lecture is two hours long (!) - but it will be worth going through the lot (I'm making tentative plans to set aside two hours on Sunday afternoons), especially if, like me, you've only ever read the first couple of chapters. It's not clear if there are any plans for similar online lectures in relation to Vols. 2 and 3 - I assume not. I suspect that, other than Marx, Engels was the only person ever to read the second and third volumes anyway.


Whoops! Just realised that I don't have speakers on my PC - balls! So I won't be sitting the course on Sundays then. Perhaps I should get around to buying some.

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