January 9th, 2009


Capitalism: doesn't it make you (mentally) sick?

Run a google image search on Oliver James and you'll find the website of a luxury home electronics store on the King's Road, Chelsea.

"Picture the scene," it purrs, "you’ve arrived home at the end of a tiring day, in need of some relaxation. As you enter the house, you turn to a touch-screen near the door, press a few buttons and at once a host of possibilities arises… Music and DVDs can be played in any room of the house. You can unwind in your personal home cinema. Lights of all colours can bathe your home. Visitors can arrive safely through your gated entry system.... Style. Comfort. Taste. Opulence... Oliver James."

The other Oliver James, child psychologist and writer Dr Oliver James, must find this website hilarious. He's dedicated his life to the proposition that it's precisely this sort of materialistic "opulence" -- this obsession with the latest status-enhancing gadgets -- that makes us deeply unhappy. His book Affluenza came out in 2007, but it's only now, post-financial meltdown, that the book's post-materialist message (which The Times perversely misinterpreted, in 2007, as proof that "we should take the shackles off the capitalist juggernaut") is really hitting home. James appeared on Sunday's Bookclub, for instance, talking about "affluenza".

His arguments go like this. The habits of modern industrial societies -- acquisition, competitive wealth-making, organised greed -- far from producing happiness are the source of misery, stress and a greatly increased incidence of mental illness. Over-emphasis on money, possessions, appearances and fame is linked with depression, anxiety, substance abuse, personality disorder.

Interestingly enough, affluenza is an affliction of the Anglosphere. A World Health Organisation study of mental illness showed that there's twice as much mental illness in the English-speaking nations as in mainland continental Europe. In continental Europe 11.5% have suffered from mental illness in the last 12 months. In the Anglosphere -- UK, US, Canada, Australia -- 23% have. The rate for the US on its own is 26.4%. The Gini rates (measuring the gap between the richest and poorest ten percent, in other words measuring inequality and failure to redistribute income) are also different in and out of the Anglosphere: Denmark's Gini is low, at 0.247. Wealth redistribution is a widely-accepted Danish priority. Gini in the UK is higher, at 0.36. In the US it's 0.408.

James thinks there's a clear reason why the Anglosphere suffers from higher rates of mental illness. His book The Selfish Capitalist lays the blame squarely at the feet of the neo-liberal Anglo-Saxon capitalism of the past thirty years, the culture ushered in by Thatcher and Reagan. It's -- we should use the past tense, because this culture has now ended -- it was a culture fixated on short-term share prices, a culture which believed the market could fix any problem, which pushed through massive privatization and tolerated massive inequality, which fostered job insecurity, deregulation, and a consumerism based on high rates of personal debt.

The good news is that the credit crunch has wiped out neo-liberalism. There will be some short-term pain and anxiety as people worry about money and their jobs, but with any luck, says James, there will now be a shift from having to being, from wants to real needs. People will stop thinking about widescreen TVs and start playing with their toddlers instead. Values like authenticity, vivacity and playfulness will replace acquisition, competitiveness and greed. Mental health levels will start improving.

One thing that can make us instantly happier, says James, is to stop watching TV. Studies have shown that the more TV you watch, the less happy you tend to be. TV fosters insecurities and wants, and shows models of "success", that make us feel worse about ourselves. James points us in the direction of Aric Sigman's book Remotely Controlled for more on the toxic effects of television. He also recommends Tom Hodgkinson's How To Be Idle, which is actually not about being idle but about being happy and relaxed and using your time constructively. (Hodgkinson founded The Idler magazine, whose parties I used to attend when I still lived in the Anglosphere.)

Reviewing The Selfish Capitalist a year ago, The Guardian said: " James is charting the new frontiers in psychology which have the potential to be the most significant indictment yet of the form of market capitalism that has held sway across the English speaking world for the past generation. As the burgeoning happiness-book industry - led, curiously, by economists such as Richard Layard, and political scientist Robert Lane - have well established, our hugely increased wealth over the past half century has done nothing to increase our happiness. Where James now develops the argument further is in pointing out that not only does market capitalism have little impact on improving levels of happiness, but it actually increases certain types of mental illness."

If capitalism really does make you sick, there's a possibility that the strange new world we've been living in for the past three or four months -- a world in which the gearbox of the Anglospheric capitalism we've known since 1979 has been thrown into reverse -- might make us healthy.