By Nina Power
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The Selfish Capitalist – why we are all miserable under capitalism

This article is over 13 years, 11 months old
Perhaps the most surprising thing about this book from psychologist and media personality Oliver James is the title.
Issue 2089

Perhaps the most surprising thing about this book from psychologist and media personality Oliver James is the title.

For a mainstream publication to even acknowledge the existence of capitalism, let alone criticise it, is something of rarity.

In the prologue to his previous bestseller, Affluenza, James describes just how difficult it was to get his theories published – the audience for attacks on the free market simply didn’t exist, he was told.

Except that it does, and with good reason. James’s thesis is hard to refute, that the advent of what he calls “selfish capitalism” since the 1970s has caused an increase in the amount of emotional distress. Capitalism makes us miserable.

While James is rather too quick to make a claim for the originality of this thesis, his psychological training allows him to analyse well the impact of selfish capitalism on the emotional well-being of individuals.

Selfish capitalism, James states, is profoundly materialistic. It leads us to believe that valuing money, possessions, appearances and fame will make us happy, whereas it does the opposite – the more you have, the unhappier you are.

James makes the point that the quest for happiness itself is an illusion, and a profitable one at that.

The role of pharmaceutical companies, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and shopping as “cure” all come under attack.

James makes steps to link these pacifying social elements to larger structural forces – the rich carry on getting richer, and the rest of us struggle to keep up. No wonder almost a quarter of us would describe ourselves as depressed.

James argues that depression and anxiety are far better understood as social maladies, rather than possessing physical or genetic causes. Much of the book is an attack on evolutionary psychology, which he argues is frequently used to justify selfish capitalism.

James is less confident when it comes to political analysis. Nevertheless, as one element in a structural account of inequality, this book contains important and pressing ideas.

The Selfish Capitalist: Origins of Affluenza
by Oliver James
Vermilion, £14.99

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