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.

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