Oliver James: The Selfish Capitalist

selfish-cap-300Oliver James: The Selfish Capitalist – origins of Affluenza

Vermilion, March 2008

In this sequel to his Affluenza (2007), Oliver James argues that capitalism as practised recently in the richer English-speaking countries – that includes Australia – is making us miserable. His ‘affluenza’, a portmanteau word fusing ‘affluence’ and influenza’, is the pattern of chronic over-work, debt, anxiety and waste induced by our obsession with goods and income, and James traces its cause to economic policies.

He defines Selfish Capitalism as the neoliberal Thatcherism adopted in the 1990s and finds that, despite the ‘trickle-down’ rhetoric, those policies made the rich very much richer while leaving the rest of us no better off financially and significantly worse off in other ways. Labour market deregulation undermined job security and held down real wages, the media joined business in successfully promoting perceptions of relative poverty even as real levels of consumption reached new highs, and debt increased enormously. (In Australia, mortgages rose from 2.8 to 4.2 times average annual income between 1994 and 2004 while other personal debt tripled).

If Selfish Capitalism is so bad, what is Unselfish Capitalism?

Simply capitalism moderated by social policies and structures which support equality and social cohesion, as practised in Japan and mainland Europe.

James is a clinical psychologist and he focuses on levels of ‘distress’ – basically unhappiness and mental illness. Others have presented similar arguments blaming unrestrained capitalism for social inequality, family breakdown, declining moral standards, teenage crime and many related problems. They may all be right.

Convincingly untangling all the causes and effects might be impossible – there are just too many factors to consider – but Oliver James does a good job, supporting clear arguments with good evidence.

* * * *

This review was written and originally published in 2008 but the book is still very relevant and, like The New Nature Writing, has continued to come up in my conversation. Its relevance to me now is more to do with sustainability than with mental health: if we are to avoid environmental disaster, we have to reduce our consumption – drastically – and this book presents other reasons for doing just that, and points towards solutions. David Wann (see below) has been heading in that direction, too.  

The ‘Further Reading’ list extends and updates a reference and reading list I compiled at the time but didn’t publish.

Further Reading: Affluenza

Affluenza is the title of three books written between 2001 and 2007, each with a different subtitle, focus, and country of origin.

• Affluenza: The All-Consuming Epidemic (2001) by John de Graaf, David Wann and Thomas H. Naylor, ISBN 1-57675-199-6.

These three Americans, author and film-maker De Graaf, environmental scientist Wann and economist Naylor, defined affluenza as ‘a painful, contagious, socially-transmitted condition of overload, debt, anxiety and waste resulting from the dogged pursuit of more,’ six years before James wrote his first book. Here’s their book on Wikipedia. Wann has followed up with two further books on sustainability, Simple Prosperity and The New Normal, and more.

• Affluenza: when too much is never enough (2005) by Clive Hamilton and Richard Denniss. Allen & Unwin, ISBN 1-74114-671-2. The book on wikipedia.

The authors, both economists, are now best known for their leadership of The Australia Institute.

• Affluenza: How to Be Successful and Stay Sane (2007) by Oliver James. Vermilion, ISBN 9780091900113. See the author’s Wikipedia page.

For an overview of the concept of affluenza and links to more related ideas, see Wikipedia/Affluenza.

2 thoughts on “Oliver James: The Selfish Capitalist”

  1. Richard Denniss of The Australia Institute in the Guardian: To cure affluenza, we have to be satisfied with the stuff we already own
    “It makes no sense to conflate materialism and consumerism. Indeed, our willingness to dispose of perfectly functional material goods and gadgets is the very antithesis of a love of things.”
    “Put simply, if we want to reduce the impact on the natural environment of all of the stuff we buy, then we have to hang on to our stuff for a lot longer. We have to maintain it, repair it when it breaks, and find a new home for it when we don’t need it any longer.”

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