The difficulty of staying sane

2007-02-01 00:00

The author of this challenging, important (and pacily written) study defines Affluenza, which he also calls The Virus, as “a contagious middle-class virus causing depression, anxiety, addiction and ennui”; and it is caused by buying into a value-system obsessively concerned with “money, possessions, physical and social appearances, and fame”. In short, it is something to which most members of modern, capitalist, especially American-capitalist, society are constantly exposed.

To be exact, Oliver James is most concerned with what he calls “selfish capitalism”, as opposed to more or less “healthy” capitalism, which is aimed at meeting the “normal” needs of most human beings - the need to survive, feed and educate one's children, and lead fulfilling lives. Selfish capitalism is obsessed with wants rather than needs - that is, with unnecessary and artificially-induced (mainly by advertising) desires for things that we are brainwashed into believing we should have. Such wants might be the compulsive desire to earn more, have more or be more attractive/ famous/admired/desired than anybody else in one's society.

James sees this malady as operating in marketing, consumerist, commercialised and commodified societies, as most modern English-speaking societies now tend to be, especially those most influenced by the United States. James is uncompromising on the latter: “America is the apotheosis of selfish capitalism; the more Americanised the nation, the more selfish capitalist it will be and the more Affluenza-stricken.” James is an Englishman. But his views are based on extensive and conscientious research and not on blind anti-U.S. prejudice.

In the course of his painstaking research into this matter, James, who is a psychologist, travelled to New York, Auckland, Sydney, Singapore, Shanghai, London, Moscow and Copenhagen, and interviewed many people who were regarded as “successful” by public opinion or/and by themselves, and tried to find out just how happy or otherwise they really were and, if possible, why they were as they were.

His conclusions are not necessarily new - they have much in common with Erich Fromm's very important To Have or to Be? (1978) as well as the plays of Edward Bond - but are forcibly and systematically spelt out, either in the course of the long interviews which he records or in various summing-up sections of the book. His conclusions are that people who are constantly faced with the societal pressures outlined earlier are likely to be almost permanently stressed, anxious, driven and often depressed. They are also unlikely to have satisfying personal relationships since they regard people, including themselves, as commodities.

Interestingly, the people who seemed the “healthiest” in James's terms were the Danes, the Shanghainese (so-called) and the women of Moscow, all of whom seemed happy to live according to what felt right to them instead of endlessly trying to live up to some externally-induced set of expectations.

Each chapter of this engrossing book ends with helpful sections on possible “vaccines” to be used against the virus. Many of these are fairly general, but most are quite specific, practical, practicable and exhilaratingly sane. To find out what the many vaccines might be, do read the book.

James's 350-page book is by no means simplistic. He does not blame everything on one obvious bogeyman of capitalism, nor does he give one simple solution, and his interviews are complex and wide-ranging. The book also has a pleasingly humane, sometimes humorous tone which in no way undermines the deep seriousness and importance of its message for the many troubled, exhausted, strained high-flyers, or aspirant high-flyers, of modern times.

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