Thursday, January 08, 2009


Analysing Affluenza

I bought Affluenza by Oliver James a year ago and read it with great interest. He argues that we have been getting richer and richer but not getting any happier. The latter follows because we have been seduced by what he might call 'false' values: the pursuit of material plenty, flaunting our wealth, especially when competing against others; status, appearances and fame.

He argues that by imbibing the blandishments of 'super' capitalism we have contracted a virus which can only harm us. We have been misled into thinking appearance is more important than substance, that being better than one's fellows is the only satisfaction worth achieving in life. James was on Jim Naughtie's Book Club this afternoon and explained his ideas with some enthusiasm. His key argument is that such 'infections' really do make us unhappy and clinically ill, mentally ill.

The USA, Canada and UK-the home of laisser faire capitalism- have twice the percentage of people who are mentally ill than other developed countries, something like 23% to their 11%. We can never reach that Holy Grail of being better than others and feel constantly stressed- hence the extra candidates for the psychiatric wards in Anglo-Saxon countries. My feeling is that he's dead right but that we are so far gone in our 'illness' that we cannot heal ourselves easily and maybe not at all unless we do it individually out of conviction.

James sounds a bit like many moralists exhorting us to eschew selfishness and live a more self denying life. He says the Danes have managed to avoid the worst aspects of the disease: even top executives rarely earn more than five times the average wage; conspicuous consumption is sneered at rather than envied; and women are treated as true equals to men. Having visited and lectured in Denmark many times I agree with all this and have kind of always hoped, that Labour would eventually adopt a similar approach to social democracy. James won't cure us with his book but it has served to highlight the problem and maybe that's as much as any single author can do.

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