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Fri, Jan. 9th, 2009 01:36 am
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.

92CommentReply

krskrft
krskrft
Fri, Jan. 9th, 2009 01:02 am (UTC)

I think what really makes people unhappy, in the capitalist world, is overextension. Of course, this is rampant in the U.S., largely because we have the space to overextend, but also because we have, for a long time, possessed the credit necessary to overextend as well. America's main problem, culturally, is that we are so optimistic about our individual and collective manpower that we always have this overwhelming feeling that we're "good for it." So we buy enormous houses at insane interest rates, and huge cars with inefficient gas mileage, and maybe even get timeshares on beach or country houses. We do all these things because our manpower--dramatically overestimated in value--makes us "good for it."

I think that, if the U.S. were, say, half the geographic size or less, we would see far fewer sprawling homes going on the market. The admirable thing about Korea is that, because the country is so geographically tiny, people have to live in relatively tiny domeciles. More than that, people actually like to live in apartments. It's a cool thing here. Having a house is old-fashioned and rustic. People love their small, spare, but very sharp, very clean, and very modern apartment units. And it doesn't matter if these units are small, because Koreans don't really entertain in their apartments anyway ... things get messy if you have parties at home. They go out and do things on the town (eat out, go drinking, go to norebang--their version of karaoke--and take the taxi home).

In short, I don't think it's "capitalism" that does it. I think it's attitudes about money and things that does it. In the case of America, the permissiveness of the credit and loan industry is merely a reflection of the average Joe's own desires, which are based firmly in the fundamental philosophy of American life, which is to overestimate your manpower, stretch out on the vast amounts of advance capital it can get you, and then worry about paying up later.


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ajkandy.myopenid.com
ajkandy.myopenid.com
Fri, Jan. 9th, 2009 01:29 am (UTC)
competitive un-consumption

Ultimately it comes back to Buddhism, doesn't it? And all its dictums about the path to nirvana being in the elimination of desire. It is of course, the supreme irony that millionaire rock stars are the ones to paste Make Trade Fair signs on their pianos (while I don't doubt their sincerity).

There is an amount of truth to this, and yet, being only second cousins once removed from the great apes, we still have social hierarchies, pecking orders, mating displays, aggressive, dominant and submissive behaviours (think about all those different ways to pronounce Chinese words, depending on the social status gap between the conversants). How do we square up the desire for a more equitable world with the consequent idea that we have to greatly reduce our id and ego in the process?

I've never bought into the model of human consciousness that makes people into lumps of plasticene, to be molded by whatever random media we happen to be watching or reading. I'm also offended by the way that some on the Left buy into this argument when it bolsters their arguments about people's desire for unearned riches (from watching Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, no doubt), but then they decry this same impulse when the Right want to slap 'Explicit Lyrics' stickers on CDs. Which is it to be, then?

I think it is rather the reverse -- our choice of television programmes, pop music poses and reading material reflects our own concerns about the world, or class-consciousness, or status desires. And there seems to be an infinitely sliced variety of this on offer, which just makes it another long-tail product of a relatively free market, doesn't it?


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Fri, Jan. 9th, 2009 01:36 am (UTC)
Re: competitive un-consumption

I don't think you need to subscribe to tabula rasa models of humanity to see that television takes something that might be a minor part of our psychological make-up -- envy, greed, want, insecurity, comparing our lives to the lives we see onscreen -- and reinforces and heightens it.

For instance, I didn't watch any TV today. I did, though, read a lot of articles on the internet, and I played a lot of Wii tennis. If I'd chosen to watch TV, I'd have been subjected to more normative and, I think, anxiety-creating messages about myself (for instance, compared with the people on TV I'm a pretty weird guy with a weird lifestyle, and I might have started to feel, well, weird about that). Instead, I feel rather good for having beaten my computer rivals at tennis, and read some articles that made me feel smart and informed. My mental health levels are better than they might otherwise be. (Watching The IT Crowd makes me happy, though.)


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mancunian
mancunian
Mr Sunglasses All The Time
Fri, Jan. 9th, 2009 02:10 am (UTC)

Don't forget Jamie Oliver. ;)


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bonsai_human
Bonsai Human
Fri, Jan. 9th, 2009 04:05 am (UTC)

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.

Be careful with these stats - they are likely (you don't provide a link to the study - could you?) based on self-disclosure. In some societies (perhaps English speaking ones?) it is more acceptable to 'come out' as mentally ill than it is in others. America in particular has a culture of self-improvement which probably skews the results.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Fri, Jan. 9th, 2009 09:26 am (UTC)

Caution on the stats (you'd have to go to James' book to get the sources), sure. There may be margins influenced by different cultural attitudes to self-disclosure. Nevertheless, when we're talking about twice as much mental illness reported in the Anglosphere as Europe (and remember that the US and UK have totally different medical systems, one free, the other not, yet remarkably similar mental illness stats), I think we have to admit that James (and the WHO) is onto something real here.

Also, if people don't think they're depressed, they probably aren't. "I don't think I'm depressed, but I'm not going to report it" is a strange way to skew figures.


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(Anonymous)
Fri, Jan. 9th, 2009 04:58 am (UTC)

http://jp.youtube.com/watch?v=41HarInmUxk

Fleet Foxes (unrelated)


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Fri, Jan. 9th, 2009 09:16 am (UTC)

The situation in Japan, from what I've been reading, is that they have much to teach us about how to cope with recession, having had much more recession (and zero interest rates, and a banking crisis) than we have lately. Their consumerism is very stop-go; it can be excessive, and then can strip back to basics (as it is now doing; basics house Uniqlo is virtually the only clothes company selling clothes right now).

The Japanese (like the Germans) are savers, not overspenders. They don't use credit cards much at all. This means they spend when they have money, and don't when they don't (revolutionary concept we could learn from!). Short-term loans are, however, becoming more popular in Japan.

Gini levels in Japan (ie levels of inequality) are significantly lower than those in the Anglosphere, which reduces envy, depression and relative deprivation.

On the question of TV, Japanese watch huge amounts of TV, which often seems like a kind of semi-chemical pick-me-up; endless comedy talents laughing and eating tasty food. Although artistically null and void, this is probably better for your mental health than Western TV.


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stanleylieber
stanleylieber
Stanley Lieber
Fri, Jan. 9th, 2009 09:01 am (UTC)
nani desu ka?

causality's so much more attractive when it seems to confirm your inner prejudices


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Fri, Jan. 9th, 2009 10:45 am (UTC)

I would read Badiou for confirmation that "being is a multiplicity without degree, of purely mathematical determination". I would not read Badiou for analysis of how and why the credit crunch has wiped out neo-liberalism.


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qscrisp
qscrisp
Fri, Jan. 9th, 2009 11:42 am (UTC)
Socialism is a four-letter word

I found this peculiarly American (castigate me with great severity if I'm wrong). It's a rant that uses global inequality of wealth to 'argue' against socialism. I quote:

"Though we are the daily recipients of these and other amazing miracles, what do we do? We complain. We could be suffused in awe and appreciation for all these wonders, but noooOOOOoooo. None of this abundance is good enough. We want more, we want better, we want newer. We want the government to give us stuff for free, stuff like health care and housing, food and employment. These are things that earlier generations knew were our own personal responsibility to provide for ourselves.

"Instead we prefer to whine and gripe and moan our way to socialism because we've become a nation of professional victims."

Really, really peculiar.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Fri, Jan. 9th, 2009 11:54 am (UTC)
Re: Socialism is a four-letter word

Not sure how you landed on that page, but the ads say it all: a book asking "Should Christians be armed?", a magazine with a lead story on "Secrets of the left" with a graphic showing a snake wriggling across the American constitution, and a banner ad showing smiling soldiers with machine guns under the Israeli flag.


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dogsolitude_v2
dogsolitude_v2
dogsolitude_v2
Fri, Jan. 9th, 2009 12:33 pm (UTC)

It's something I've been very conscious about since reading Alain de Bottons's Status Anxiety. I bought it when I couldn't afford to buy a house (not as somewhere to live, but in the hope that reading about my own Status Anxiety in the housing market may make me feel better about renting).

I then went on to examine my life and its relationship with consumer culture. Around the same time a nightmarish relationship with a woman who was somewhat insane came to an end, and eventually drove me to Buddhism just to get some peace and quiet.

Anyway, in the process I found out something about myself.

I stopped watching TV, and as you mention in your post, I started to feel happier and more 'anchored' in the real world. I stopped comparing myself to everyone else, and worrying about how much stuff I had compared to others. Cancelling my Esquire subscription meant missing out on articles about £3,000 watches, but meant I stopped worrying about getting one.

I'd messed about with my PC, and in the process installed a Hosts file which somehow blocked loads of those annoying banner adverts too.

This meant I had a life largely free of advertising.

Not watching TV meant I had time to do other things, such as paint and write music (or rather: learn about writing music). I bought music software, graphics packages and suchlike to help me with these things.

From this it occurred to me that whereas I really can't be bothered with the 'latest must-have' gadget, I do like those aspects of modern technology which allow me to express myself creatively. Anything that will help me on the path to Self Actualisation (as Maslow put it) actually seems worth the money. An iPod or an indoor remote-controlled hovercraft somehow seems a bit crap in comparison.

I can see how capitalism can make us very ill indeed though. When you consider that much of marketing is about generating demand for a product, and that (according to Buddhism) desire is the root of all suffering, advertising starts to look genuinely nasty.

Most adverts dig into some sort of latent insecurity or need. Buy one thing and you'll be more popular, better-looking or more attractive to the opposite sex. If you don't buy it, you'll stay ugly and unpopular (unlike the impossibly perfect model we used on our billboard). Oh, and your house is filthy and riddled with dangerous bacteria too. Soak it in this, and you'll never have to worry about catching Necrotising Fasciitis ever again...

Basically the message is that our sad little lives in their natural state are pathetic and full of dangers, and we can only redeem ourselves by purchasing certain goods or services. It's almost akin to the Christian doctrine of Original Sin, and serves the same purpose: to keep us in check, under control and make a small minority very rich indeed.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Fri, Jan. 9th, 2009 02:50 pm (UTC)

Buy one thing and you'll be more popular, better-looking or more attractive to the opposite sex.

This is something Oliver James has a nice riff on. He's always boosting Denmark (having researched Affluenza there, amongst other places), and he says that mating rites are different in Copenhagen than in New York. In Copenhagen, people don't advertise their attractiveness to the opposite sex via Ferraris and short skirts, but by promises that they will make a good parent, will dedicate time to child rearing.

The Ferrari guy is obviously telling us he will be absent, earning the money to pay for the Ferrari. The short skirt woman is telling us she will be spending a lot of time on her appearance (or will stop caring about her appearance and be a very different person than the one currently advertised). Removed from a hypercapitalist environment, these people would find each other attractive for different reasons, reasons more suited to what couples actually are, and actually do. (Obvious hypercapitalist relationship prognosis: breaks down quickly, followed by embittered lawsuit in which the richer partner is stung for several million.)


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georgesdelatour
georgesdelatour
Fri, Jan. 9th, 2009 01:14 pm (UTC)

There's an excellent review of Oliver James' "Affluenza" here:

http://www.spiked-online.com/index.php?/site/article/2891/


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Fri, Jan. 9th, 2009 03:24 pm (UTC)

I'm afraid I don't think that's an excellent review at all.

Daniel Ben-Ami is, as far as I'm concerned, the enemy. His big target -- as stated on his glibly-titled blog, Ferraris for All -- is "growth scepticism: the tendency to call the benefits of mass affluence into question".

Now, mass affluence is simply not possible -- we would need eight planet earths for everyone to have the lifestyle the rich currently have. Ben-Ami, though, is against environmentalism. A recent blog entry says: "Sadly it sounds like South Korea is taking up what a comment in the Wall Street Journal calls the Green New Deal “boondoggle"." Why he adopts the Wall Street Journal's term for the revitalization of four major rivers, eco-friendly transportation, small dams and forest maintenance, I don't know, but presumably there aren't enough Ferraris involved.

Ben-Ami says: "James is more conservative than a leftist. By comparing Sam [rich trader] to Chet [cab driver] he is implicitly drawing the conclusion that people should be happy with their lot... Rather than promoting prosperity so that everyone can have more he wants to encourage an outlook in which everyone is content with what they have already got."

Ben-Ami's stance is basically neo-liberal. High Gini gaps are fine, trickledown floats all boats, the poor do better when there are very, very rich people increasing general wealth and health, opportunity exists for ambitious individuals to do well, social mobility is not broken, the capitalist system is not broken. He calls James "deluded", but I'm afraid history is tilting towards the verdict that it is Ben-Ami's perspective that is deluded.


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(Anonymous)
Fri, Jan. 9th, 2009 01:28 pm (UTC)

This is what Peter Whybrow calls the "mismatch between the wealth of good and the technology-rich environment that we have created, and the biological limits of who we are as evolved creatures of our planet." Peter C. Whybrow, American Mania. When More Is Not Enough (W. W. Norton, 2005), p. 107.


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(Anonymous)
Fri, Jan. 9th, 2009 02:22 pm (UTC)

The US stuck with consumerism and large-scale industry through the Great Depression, 7-10% unemployment of the 70s and 80s, the 87 market crash, the Asian crisis, the dot-com boom, the 9/11 recession, etc. The DOW is still higher than it was back in 2002. What indication is there that people will suddenly decide to drastically change their lifestyles now?

The unemployment rate is 2% higher than it was a year ago. As unemployment rates go, that's a significant jump, but on a scale of 1-100, 2 is a very small number. We're all still going to work, filling our cars up with gas, coming home, watching Gray's Anatomy, College football, going to Target , etc. There is no change and no reason to expect one.

I am dubious about studies re: happiness. It is uncertain if we can even achieve a positive balance of happiness over the course of our lives. What makes us human is that we are perpetually dissatisfied. All of our industry and artistic creations are manifestations of this dissatisfaction. If we were easy to satisfy, we would be content to just stare at the first thing we lay our eyes on.

I would prefer to say that capitalism is a sick system because in its obsession for efficiency, accumulation and utlity it creates a landscape of crude and unimaginative buildings, vehicles, tools products, and citizens.


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(Anonymous)
Fri, Jan. 9th, 2009 02:26 pm (UTC)
Move to a small town and go on the dole

City folk! Stop living on the losing side in the urban battleground, chewing over affluenza, waiting for the revolution.

Do what thousands of others do.

1. Move to a picturesque town or village

2. Register as homeless with the local authorities

3. Book into a bed and breakfast at their expense

4. Receive a visit from local Simon Community asking if you need a cooker

5. Soon get moved to one of the new-build homes no-one can sell, or even rent

6. Move in, with your new cooker

7. Go to the doctor and get a barrow-load of anti-depressants

8. Run the local pub quiz every Friday night

9. Forget ambition altogether, look at the squirrels, listen to the shipping forecast, chill


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rwillmsen
rwillmsen
rwillmsen
Fri, Jan. 9th, 2009 08:00 pm (UTC)
Re: Move to a small town and go on the dole

"7. Go to the doctor and get a barrow-load of anti-depressants"

Prozac is a product that makes you crave more products.


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rurritable.wordpress.com
rurritable.wordpress.com
Fri, Jan. 9th, 2009 02:30 pm (UTC)
The reset

You have to wonder how much money it's going to cost to ease people out of the exurban model, and return to using farmland as farmland, instead of a stage set for consumerist psychodrama. They've also torn up all the railroad infrastructure that used to connect food producing areas to the markets, so small farms can begin to replace the centralized factory variety. Local markets drive the most sustainable form of capitalism.
That Wal-Mart shit is just another breed of command economy.


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