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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.

92CommentReplyFlag


(no subject) - (Anonymous)

(Anonymous)
Fri, Jan. 9th, 2009 04:43 pm (UTC)

i agree completely. just last night i went out for dinner with three friends, all similar age (we're late-20s living in nyc). all we did was complain about certain things: the weather, our jobs, family visiting from out of town.

then we paid our bill, shuffled quickly past the homeless guy and got into our cabs back to our comfortable apartments.

it struck me that this is our pastime in America. complaining is just what we live on. it's absurd. i'm not one for new year's resolutions but i think one habit i earnestly want to break is the dependence on whining.


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(Anonymous)
Fri, Jan. 9th, 2009 03:26 pm (UTC)

It’s interesting to see how all critics to the statistics have been moved on the basis that British and American cultures might have a freer relation with disclosing mental problems and not, for example, on the implicit assumption that the healthcare related industries might have encouraged the extension of medical conditions to territories previously covered by “personality traits”. Not that I'm an expert, but the fixation with psychotherapy in media and entertainment, the multiplication of acronyms for new minor disorders or the rising of subministration of psycho-active medications to preteens might push in this direction.

Francesco


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Fri, Jan. 9th, 2009 03:43 pm (UTC)

Good point. In part 2 of his documentary The Trap, Adam Curtis interviews Dr Robert Spitzer, who says that checklists of perfectly normal human traits were used in the 1960s in the US to pump up the figures for mental disease and allow doctors to prescribe tranquilizers to almost the entire population (certainly almost all housewives in the US were, as Timothy Leary pointed out, drug addicts). In fact, Spitzer was one of the people who wrote the manual on how to identify mental disorders. He now thinks his own manual might have exaggerated actual mental illness rates by between 20% and 40%.

Behind all this, obviously, was the pharmaceuticals industry, keen to create the biggest possible market for anti-depressants etc. So it comes back to capitalism actually profiting from the enhancement of feelings of dissatisfaction.


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xyzedd
xyzedd
xyzedd
Fri, Jan. 9th, 2009 03:34 pm (UTC)
Affluenza? Will it become a boob-onic plague?

But what if you watch TV on the internet, as many of us sometimes do, or just revel in Youtube clips or stream movies? I can seldom stand to watch more than an hour or two of live television a week, but I can't say for sure that people like myself are much less depressed than average Americans. "The screens," as our beloved Pres. Bush collectively calls these and other interfaces, all seem to depress many of us a lot of the time--and certainly many of the articles and things on the web have upset my equilibrium as much as anything I've ever seen on TV.

And don't get me started on magazines--those are the most depressing things of all, with all those distracting ads, even in the most arty-lefty-liberal ones I'm more inclined to read. And read less and less of every year. Which is why getting lost in old books, far away from "now" and "new," calms me more than anything else.

The argument here seems to be, at least in part: the more you read serious, informative articles, the less depressed (about capitalism or your latest love affair) you'll be. In other words, the opposite of the old philosophical "ignorance is bliss" "the more you know, the less happy you'll be" stance. Not that I don't by and large agree with the thrust of this post!

Oddly enough, one of my German nephews and his Welsh girlfriend are moving to Edinburgh to escape what they claim is a growing economic crisis for artists in Berlin!


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Fri, Jan. 9th, 2009 03:48 pm (UTC)
Re: Affluenza? Will it become a boob-onic plague?

one of my German nephews and his Welsh girlfriend are moving to Edinburgh to escape what they claim is a growing economic crisis for artists in Berlin!

They are insane! All they'll find is London-level rents and almost no art infrastructure; few galleries, fewer collectors. If what they mean is that they intend to stop trying to be artists, fine. But if they intend to continue to be artists, and think things will be easier in Edinburgh, they are in for a hard crash indeed, and should be warned.


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(no subject) - (Anonymous) Expand



(no subject) - (Anonymous) Expand


(Anonymous)
Fri, Jan. 9th, 2009 05:16 pm (UTC)

James's thesis ignores the central relativity of affluence. Momus might pride himself on leading a frugal life, but how would his lifestyle look to someone in a Rio favela or a Bombay slum? A 70 m2 apartment in a groovy European capital, idling his days away playing wii tennis or on the Internet with his fancy Mac, jetting off several times a year to other European capitals or farther afield to Japan or the States... from the perspective of the millions sharing a corrugated iron lean-to and constrained to do hours of back-breaking labour to pay for it, the Momus lifestyle would look pretty damn affluent indeed.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Fri, Jan. 9th, 2009 05:41 pm (UTC)

James by no means ignores the relativity of affluence, what a silly comment! He openly and continuously advocates equality in societies for mental health reasons -- that where you have low Gini, ie high equality, you have less envy, less keeping-up-with-the-Jonses, less sense of relative deprivation. That's absolutely central to his books.


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rwillmsen
rwillmsen
rwillmsen
Fri, Jan. 9th, 2009 07:54 pm (UTC)

"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."

Wishful thinking I'm afraid. What ideological alternative is on offer? Our politicians will try and keep the neoliberal nightmare going at any cost - in Britain that means selling off the welfare state. And ordinary people who have fallen for the notion that shopping and sport between them account for the meaning of life will become more and more frustrated and depressed. David Harvey provides a better guide to the times we're living through than Oliver James, who I've always found a little naive, given that he seems to have no inclination to think about politics.


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rwillmsen
rwillmsen
rwillmsen
Fri, Jan. 9th, 2009 08:36 pm (UTC)

http://www.phaenex.uwindsor.ca/ojs/leddy/index.php/SSJ/article/viewFile/191/183


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(Anonymous)
Sat, Jan. 10th, 2009 12:39 am (UTC)
95% of mental health problems is lack of money

..or love

95% of those people claiming to be screwed up would suddenly heal if they won the lottery, and got a girlfriend. It's not mysterious, it's fear. There is an optimism and a clarity in admitting this.


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mcgazz
mcgazz
McGazz
Sat, Jan. 10th, 2009 12:45 am (UTC)

I'm sure I've posted this before, but here's k-punk on how neo-liberalism/post-Fordism has led to an increase in mental illness: http://k-punk.abstractdynamics.org/archives/005660.html


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mrobot
mrobot
Ben
Sat, Jan. 10th, 2009 12:56 am (UTC)

I just finished "Fear of Freedom" (or "Escape from Freedom") after reading your article on Fromm. It was very good, and if you haven't read it, I'd highly recommend it. it sounds like it's thesis is very much in line with Affluenza, which I'll have to put on my reserve list at the library.


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(Anonymous)
Sat, Jan. 10th, 2009 08:02 pm (UTC)

La Notte (Antonioni's) is a great representation of affluenza.
kuja


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(no subject) - (Anonymous)
krskrft
krskrft
Sat, Jan. 10th, 2009 04:43 am (UTC)

Right. It would seem to me that the Gini score is being used as a causal link between capital and unhappiness, but the causality, while it appears elegant, isn't actually all that clear.

Even if the average gap between rich and poor were slim in America, people would still have all the same aspirations that come with the long-ingrained Puritan work ethic. For a long time, personal wealth was seen as tied to predestination. Because the Puritans weren't supposed to acquire outlandish amounts of material possessions, they would dump profits back into their businesses. As time passed, and the growing economy required it, wealth became a sign of happiness/contentment/leisure rather than predestination. Instead of acquiring wealth in order to demonstrate fitness for a place in heaven, the corporate atmosphere shifted the focus to earning your own bit of heaven right now, here on earth.

I think the effect of the Gini score is being read as jealousy, when it's really much better characterized as a brainless, burning aspiration for some vague notion of redemption. But I'm not sure the Gini score really has anything to say about it. Now, if somebody wanted to argue that this aspiration is what creates America's Gini score, then that would be a proposition in which I might take some interest.


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eclectiktronik
eclectiktronik
eclectiktronik
Tue, Jan. 13th, 2009 04:50 pm (UTC)

Heard the latest? all this capitalist crisis, it's Bowie's fault apparently ;-)

http://new.uk.music.yahoo.com/blogs/guestlist/14935/did-david-bowie-cause-the-credit-crunch


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Tue, Jan. 13th, 2009 07:28 pm (UTC)

Ha, it's not very nice to accuse him of that just the day after his birthday!

But it's true he was dabbling in derivatives and coming up with "innovative financial vehicles" a few years ahead of the curve. He got paid, and then his Bowie Bonds were downgraded to junk status. He did very well out of it, and a staunch Bowie fan like myself can only say "Hurrah!"

I remember Jeremy Paxman, at the time, asking him rather pointedly "But what do you need so much money for?" And Bowie said that running an ISP wasn't cheap. But we space cadets knew the real reason: he was building a gigantic spacecraft on a secret launchpad, in which he would eventually blast off back to his own planet.


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