Leon Brown on

Oliver James

The Selfish Capitalist: Origins of Affluenza
By Oliver James
Vermillion. Pp 282. 14.99

“Things can only get ….worse.”

The thesis of popular psychologist Oliver James’s The Selfish Capitalist, the follow up to his Affluenza, is a devastatingly simple and highly attractive one (at least to those of the appropriate political persuasion, whose numbers – in this country at least - seem to be diminishing daily judging by the current credit-crunched, property-mad torpor of the British people). Capitalism, or at least the ‘selfish’ variety which James identifies, drives you mad. Quite literally.

Although to anyone on the Left, the title of the book is tautological, by Selfish Capitalism, James of course means the virulent strain of freemarket or neo-conservative ideology pursued by governments in the English-speaking world (most notably Thatcher, Reagan, Blair and Bush) during the last thirty years. This is an economic and political doctrine whose fanatical and ruthless apostles, from their pulpits in Wall Street, the City of London and Washington, preach a gospel of small government, slashed welfare provision for the poor, financial deregulation in the, at best, misguided, at worst, possibly criminal belief that a new age of aspiration, competition, hard work and consumerism will result in a more affluent, innovative and efficient society where everyone benefits, including the poor - a theory termed by monetarists as “the trickle down” effect.

What James sets out to do - if slightly simplistically as demonstrated by his use of the somewhat obvious labels ‘Selfish’ and ‘Unselfish’ Capitalism - is to forensically demolish this myth and expose the sad and at times sinister reality lurking beneath. Namely, an irrational and frenzied materialism fostering a culture where people live to consume and beat others despite decreasing social mobility; a growing gap between rich and poor and all-round misery, whether witnessed in youngsters being tested to destruction in schools; spiralling prison populations; increased promiscuity; obesity; kids stabbing and shooting each other on the street; gender rancour at home; and increased war and instability abroad.

At times the book reads like a mental health awareness pamphlet version of Will Hutton’s 1995 seminal The State We’re In, which showed how economy and civic society in Britain had withered due to Thatcherism, and extolled a palliative ‘third way’ between Keynsianism and Monetarism. At the time, Hutton was wrongly identified as being the intellectual founding father of new Labour. New Labour subsequently went on to ignore most of his suggestions for economic reform in favour of a slightly bigger spending continuation of Thatcherism. This is an irony not lost on James whom quite rightly denounces new Labour and its obsession with costly and inefficient Public Private Finance Initiatives and League Tables.

Like Hutton, James also provides an impressive battery of statistics to support his claims: most notably a recent World Health Organisation survey which categorically proves (if any further evidence were needed) that as of 2007 rates of mental illness (which James prefers to euphemistically call "distress") have doubled since 1973, the year which saw Keynsianism buried under the triple avalanches of the unravelling of the Bretton Woods monetary system, the first oil shock and stagflation. This was an economic philosophy which had governed the West since 1945, underpinned by the belief that government spending on society’s infrastructure can inflate economic growth and the well-being of the population. Keynsianism is clearly what James is alluding to when he talks about Unselfish Capitalism, although at no point does he adequately define it. Had he done so, the younger or even older less-informed readers, who have probably spent much or all of their adult lives living through Thatcherism, would have a counterpoint with which to contrast James' hated Selfish Capitalism and then decide whether in fact there is ‘the alternative’ which Thatcher denied.

James is adroit at choosing his targets and then taking aim, often with deadly accuracy. Firstly he takes aim at the 'trickle down effect', arguing instead that what has happened is in fact a 'trickle up' effect. Quite simply, the richest ten per cent have got a lot richer, whereas everyone beneath has seen their wages stagnate. He also argues that the hoped for improvements in society’s infrastructure, whether in health, transport, education or the public utilities, never arrived because privatisation’s sole aim is to improve a company’s share price and not the service. Scarcely an earth-shattering epiphany to any beleagured train commuter on the 7:47 am South Central Brighton to London.

Sadly what isn’t acknowledged is that far from being innocent victims manipulated by “wicked puppet masters” in the City, Canary Wharf and Whitehall, in a sense we are all being complicit in the insane way our society is run due to the greed that resides in all of us. In essence, we are all “selfish capitalists,” although James scarcely pays lip service to this truly revolutionary concept, which probably offends his clear love of humanity. True, the politicians and media (it is noticeable that James has little to say about the likes of Rupert Murdoch other than the role played by advertising) made a naked appeal to this greed through the sale of council houses, nationalism and the supply of easy credit but it’s scarcely likely that we are at any time soon going to tear up our credit cards or sell off our massively appreciating houses. It is this slight naievity about human nature (and particularly British human nature - which is traditionally conservative and individualistic: going back to the days of Edmund Burke, Adam Smith and John Stuart Mill) at large - namely that we are most definitely a selfish and greedy species - which is one of the flaws in an otherwise timely and badly needed polemical tract. Instead, James seems to see humans as innocents through the rose-tinted spectacles he quite rightly slams as one of the basic tenets of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy.

It is in the area of CBT, and the mental health arguments of the book, on which James is of course an expert (in contrast to his sketchy grasp of economics), that the book comes alive. James derides CBT and its emphasis on positive thinking as “mental hygiene”, which seeks to erase the accumulated grime of negative experiences in sixteen sessions without seeking to address the mental scars inflicted by childhood (a theme addressed in a previous book They Fuck You Up). He movingly shows how CBT simply addresses the symptoms and not the root causes of mental distress through a series of memorable case studies.

James also takes successful pot shots at the work of evolutionary biologists such as Richard Dawkins et al, who – despite not intending to – have had their neo-Darwinian theory, that we are self-replicating machines designed to carry our selfish genes into eternity, hijacked by neoconservative propogandists as scientific justification for their dogmas. Once again here his observations prove illuminating: when he actually asked the publishers of The Selfish Gene for the sales figure history of the book, they refused - presumably because they knew that they showed a leap in sales during the Eighties, suggesting a link between biological natural selection and the mores of its economic twin: Thatcherism, or rather Selfish Capitalism, then at the start of its rise to global dominance.

Finally, and most controversially, James posits the theory that those nasty neo-cons who planned the move of Western civilisation into organised rapacious greed in the mid-seventies a loose collective known as the Washington Consensus (including Milton Friedman, Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher among its ranks) knew this all along!

In the book’s final and perhaps most deliciously memorable passage, James' loathing of Selfish Capitalism almost gets the better of him. He even goes as far as to suggest that the whole intention was to keep people addicted to consumerism in order to create misery. Because of course if people are miserable, to paraphrase the lyrics to Ghostbusters, “Who ya gonna call?” Why the prespcription drug companies of course. It’s an intriguing conjecture but although I share his clear-eyed contempt for neo-conservatives, judging by the sheer scale of their mendacity, incompetence and ignorance these past three decades, most notably in Iraq, I doubt even the likes of Friedman, Thatcher, Reagan, and more recently the Bush/Cheney hybrid, could have been quite this far-sighted or ingenious.

To those (including this writer) who cling to the punctured and shrinking liferaft that is the so-called British Left, none of this comes as a revelation, although James’ book can only be applauded and welcomed as it is likely to sell far more copies and reach more people than any work by Will Hutton. However, despite the fact that I gulped the book down like a cup of hot chocolate, I found myself yearning for solutions. Sadly, James offers none and his conclusion is decidedly blase in its assertion that the electorate is “heartily sick of thirty years of Selfish Capitalism”. In fact, there is scant evidence to support this claim. If one looks around Britain, the notion that the population are yearning for public service, redistribution, egalitarianism (beyond knee-jerk political correctness) or indeed any longer capable of questioning or criticising the society around in huge numbers seems ludicrous.
A recent Independent poll found:

“More than a quarter think poor people are poor because they are lazy or lack willpower, a view held by less than a fifth in 1986. Only 34 per cent think the Government should redistribute income, compared with 47 per cent in 1995.”

This suggests that Thatcher’s Victorian mindset is tightening its grip among a sizeable minority of the population; and not just the timid and heartless new Labour politicians who suffer a collective nervous breakdown when the foreign super-rich threaten an exodus if they’re taxed, yet are quite content to punish council house tenents with homelessness if they don’t find a job working in MacDonalds, and then proceed to throw 55 billion of public money at a failing private mortgage lender, Northern Rock. So much for the free market: which has always been an illusion. As for the claim that “sooner or later” a politician or party will come along carrying the torch for Unselfish Capitalism, again this is wishful thinking: there are no grounds for believing this will happen other than blind faith in human nature.

In conclusion then, although The Selfish Capitalist is to be applauded for its hypothesis, it is likely to remain, along with Will Hutton’s The State We’re In, Peter Oborne’s recent The Triumph of the Political Class, and Naomi Klien’s peerless No Logo, sadly another noble yet ignored addition to the small yet growing canon of dissident literature. It is a regrettable and sobering fact that if you look at the history of the last hundred years society only becomes fairer following a fearful catastrophe such as a Depression and a World War – neither of which mercifully are in the offing, although maybe the rate at which we are destroying Mother Earth may necessitate a move back towards Unselfish Capitalism, another concept which James pays scant notice to in his timely yet deeply flawed book.

Leon Brown © 2008