Review: Affluenza, Oliver James

This book review is part of Lippy’s re-launch in September. For more details, click here and here.

I opened the first few pages of this book with a sense of promise that this would be an interesting read, particularly given the title’s mix of ‘affluence’ and ‘influenza’. I read the prologue and was satisfied that James would make a good author with intelligent points. For example, he characteristically dropped ‘mental illness’ and replaced it with ‘emotional distress’ – rejecting the idea that our personalities are physical diseases that could be treated with a pill or two (p.xx).

From the outset, the author argues that we have become obsessed by consumption, and that our mental well-being is in the process of severe damage due to our superficial interests in money, success, and status. Individuals do not judge people based on integrity or personal values (if people should judge at all), but rather focus on their monetary gains and material goods. How often do people ask: ‘So what do you do?’ and you reply with your job title and industry that you work in? Have we sacrificed our senses to industrial pursuits, medicated through buying ‘things’ and supplemented by a long-term sense of anxiety, hyperactivity and/or depression (p.15)? This message is a powerful one. Unfortunately for Oliver James, he failed to articulate this at all. Whilst he does indeed set out to demonstrate that this is what is wrong with Western civilisation, which he calls ‘Selfish Capitalism’, his message is poorly phrased and long-winded. 510 pages could easily have been condensed into a 300 page work that would have probably made the point more succinctly. For starters, James runs out of steam by page 209, in which he spends the sixth chapter re-hashing and re-formulating the previous five chapters. Moreover, there are large tracts of autobiography that simply needn’t be there: for example, he uses six pages to recall a dream and go into family history to make a mediocre point about how property is seen as an extension of one’s identity (pp.214-20). His writing style isn’t the best in the world with random capitalisations for words he deems are really important. His gimmicky ‘vaccines’ to solve all our problems also seem a little out-dated.

All of this is a shame, because his central idea is well thought-through, and one can easily identify with his points about the so-called Affluenza Virus and how this pervades the English-speaking world. People work themselves to death in order to consume insatiable desires that lie far beyond one’s means – mortgages spring to mind immediately. At times, however, even this message was lost through James’ own moralising mission. It is fine to make the generalisation that people who hate their job and work only for material goods and to pay off a mortgage are probably suffering (for a start, they aren’t enjoying their job). However, James judges far more than the stressed workaholic. He attacks ambition and argues that success is a hollow, temporary boost to our self-esteem (p.38). Perhaps, but does this mean that we can’t strive to make our dreams come true? He goes on to attack people who care about their appearance, who work really hard for its own sake and scorns those that are ‘oblivious’ to ‘basic needs’ of emotional intimacy (p.88-95). I find this hugely frustrating. Who is to say that someone who passes by emotional intimacy due to the interest in their work that they are emotionally illiterate and fail at the ‘basic’ things in life? Are people not allowed to work hard if this is what they enjoy? Luckily James redeems himself somewhat later in the book when he argues that intrinsic motivation for a challenge is a good value. This in itself suggests a poorly structured book, something which happens all over the place (for instance, he later re-hashes his criticism of appearance so that we must seek to be ‘beautiful’ and not ‘attractive’).

Later chapters focused on education and parenting. I gleaned from them that children must have their emotional needs met early on in life which would otherwise leave the grown-up adult wanting and frustrated all their life, always feeling guilt or shame for whatever reason their needs were not met as a child. This is partly where I find Oliver James most interesting. He seems far more passionate and can come across a great deal more wholesome on the issues of parenting than any other subject. It is also the parts that which I thought make interesting reading (interesting in the sense that it actually seemed worthwhile). There is also a lot of sense from his ideas on education, in which the system ought to focus a great deal more on the well-being of pupils and students alike and far less on passing exams and creating a workforce.

Having said all of that, James’ book so far presents a mixed message: a clear premise to uncover the horrors of neo-liberal capitalism that have their roots in Thatcherism and Reaganomics. That was the good part. The bad part was how poorly he wrote it and how unstructured his book became. His solutions hardly deserve comment, all of which seem out of the world. He wants to ban attractive models from advertising and have a single ‘government estate agency’ to set all prices for property. I don’t think so.

No doubt on reading this you will be no better off in thinking ‘should I read this book, then, or not bother?’. Well, if you like the idea and can see past the writing style, then go for it. In the end, James does make some valid points. And it adds to a growing weight of criticism on neo-liberal consumer society. It is hugely disappointing that they are veiled in a questionable methodology and poor execution by the author.


Off the Shelf Review: Will Hutton

Please note that this article was written for, and originally appeared in, Canvas, a student politics journal for which I was the Founder and Editor between 2010 and 2012. The article is available here.

Anticipating a cumbersome talk on old left politics did not seem to fire up a great deal of enthusiasm as I took my seat in the Student Union Auditorium on a cold Monday evening. I was equally bemused when I saw how poorly the event was organised: Will Hutton stood around the entrance of the Union by himself; he had to assemble his own seating; and, he was forced to leave his coat lying on the floor as he took to the stage. Not an impressive start by any means. However, this was but a dent in the exhilarating experience that followed. My ears pricked up the second he began to speak, and enveloped by the simple, powerful message that he called for: a politics based on fairness.

Will Hutton, who has recently published “Them And Us”, begins by explaining the rise of fairness, starting with comparisons between 1989 and 2008. The first was the fall of communism, and the second seemed to represent the fall of the market. Whilst this may be somewhat questionable, it must be acknowledged that 2008 caused a marked shift in the way we conceptualise politics. The ‘big moment’ of 2008, as Will Hutton explains, is a ‘momentous time’ because it has sparked the possible re-invention of traditionally buried ideas. Re-surfaced have important philosophical questions: are we the authors of our own lives? What will it take to live well? We took fairness to be the central tenet for the good life and it is to fairness that we must look to at present and in the future.

Hutton goes on to pit the libertarian concept of fairness with that of the left concept of fairness. Both are equally problematic. The former, because it is zero-sum; the “I kill what I eat” philosophy doesn’t work both because it is based on greed and it is inhumane. The latter, because it overcompensates “luck” in life and redistributes it to everyone regardless of fairness. Both, essentially, take fairness out of the equation. From this, Hutton wishes to construct a more open debate about the centrality of fairness in our lives. He believes that both the public and politicians need to have an open conversation about fairness.

However, what Hutton actually says on the idea of fairness is unusually pessimistic. He argues that in the next twenty to thirty years, we can only hope for a “good capitalism” and a democratised private sector. The merits of co-operative ownership are yet to be established, but this is not what was the most striking. Indeed, the fact that in our life time, nothing more than a good capitalism can be hoped for, but does this not severely limit the scope of human imagination, creativity and ambition?

What Hutton has managed to do much better, however, is in the critique of where capitalism is heading at present. The mantra of libertarians that the private sector and markets rule is flawed; the public sector is the most compelling of all markets for the private sector to grow. Taxation, too, ought not to be criticised by the libertarians. Taxation is a good thing, for our councils ‘deserve’ taxes for investing in infrastructure on our behalf; the purpose of taxation is to offer services to us in a ‘fair’ and ‘deserving’ manner. If we do not oppose this drive for unregulated market capitalism, then we will not reach the much feared Orwellian Big Brother; we will instead reach the Orwellian “private” Big Brother of corporate business. This resonated well with an applauding audience. Indeed, Will Hutton goes on to lament the risk of a second banking crisis and the lack of investment in “knowledge creation”.

More than anything, Hutton wishes to change the course of liberal, western capitalism – unfair capitalism, epitomised by the banking sector – to a new politics based on fairness. Not a politics of equality; a politics in which we work hard to earn our citizenship, to earn our benefits, and to earn our good life. This was not the cumbersome talk on old left politics that I had feared: it was an inspirationally delivered speech on a commendable ideal.


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