Red Pepper carries an interview by Mat Little with psychologist Oliver James about his book The Selfish Capitalist. James’ thesis is familiar; that economic growth and the unfettered market bring misery and mental illness in their wake, while we as a society languish in denial – especially in the English-speaking world.
James argues that not only is this misery a by-product of market capitalism; but capitalism actually needs it. Little writes:
What James regards as his ‘most interesting claim’ is that selfish capitalism does not merely leave depression and anxiety in its wake, it also actively works to destroy anything that might improve the well-being of the population ‘It is absolutely critical for everybody to go around feeling miserable, filling the emptiness with commodities, dealing with misery by trying to give yourself short-term boosts with hamburgers or drink,’ he says.
The system is ‘akin to the biological notion of natural selection’. For it to work, we have to be unhappy. Materialism produces anxiety, and anxious people consume more. It loves divorce and separation, he claims. Besides legal fees, each partner has to buy or rent a new home and get a new set of electrical essentials (TV, DVD player) and furniture. Misery equals economic growth.
Renewal on the Left?
James argues that a Thatcher of the left – probably a woman – will appear who can offer the analysis and leadership to start pulling things around. He is encouragingly dismissive of the focus-group politicians who believe that their job is to follow public opinion – what he seems to be advocating is a real form of democratic leadership, in which politicians lead and promote what is right. And he is surely correct in arguing that this is in effect what market capitalism is doing already. It’s the elephant in the room of modern political discourse; here in Britain, with three political parties arguing over the increasingly small area of political space defined by market capitalism, it’s a powerful and liberating argument.