By Nick Clark
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The Selfish Capitalist

This article is over 14 years, 3 months old
Oliver James, Vermilion, Oliver James £14.99
Issue 322

Gordon Brown’s drive to get people off benefits includes establishing a programme aimed at those with chronic depression. They will be given cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) for six to 16 weeks, after which they are expected to be job ready. Former New Labour advisor Derek Draper described CBT with characteristic compassion: “It would make people more employable and better parents, thereby increasing productivity, cutting the benefits bill and reducing antisocial behaviour.”

Psychologist Oliver James has a differing view. In his new book he describes it as sending “the depressed, wounded worker back to work with a false smile sticky-plastered to their face”. But CBT fits very neatly into the neoliberal world view, where cheap and quick ways of getting people back to work will boost the bottom line.

James pointed out in his previous book, Affluenza, that as a nation’s wealth increases, mental health problems (which he describes as “emotional distress”) also seems to increase. He considers that an emphasis on material possessions and fame leads to alienation and unhappiness. But there are wide differences between countries in the occurrence of such distress, he says, and this book sets out to offer an explanation.

He blames the development of “selfish capitalism”. This he characterises as judging business success almost exclusively by share price; privatising public utilities; minimal regulation of business, suppressing unions and low taxes for the rich. This results in massive economic inequality, accompanied by the ideology that consumption and market forces can meet almost all human needs. According to him, “America is the apotheosis of selfish capitalism, Denmark of the unselfish variety.”

In ascribing the growth of “emotional distress” to peoples’ material and ideological environment, he acknowledges his debt to the work of Marxist psychoanalyst Erich Fromm (previously unknown to me). James goes on to debunk very effectively the current obsession with genetic predisposition as an explanation for much mental illness.

Mental illness is more prevalent in English-speaking countries, according to World Health Organisation figures. James blames this on a combination of bad childhood experiences with the massive growth of inequality, which has arisen from neoliberalism. In the UK you can date the growth of such distress from 1975. He outlines the damaging effect that neoliberalism has had on society, citing in detail the work of radical geographer David Harvey.

Unfortunately, despite these influences, James does not criticise capitalism per se. The book gives us no clear definition of “unselfish” capitalism, but in addition to northern Europe, James cites Japan as an example. A country with one of the highest suicide rates in the world (32,552 in 2005) is no model of mental health, and the occurrence of death from overwork hardly suggests a relaxed work regime. And Denmark, a country with the xenophobic Danish People’s Party as part of government, privatisation taking off, and troops in Iraq, no longer seems the social democratic heaven James suggests.

James’ evidence could as well suggest that all capitalism screws people up, but the more dogmatically neoliberal the system is, the worse it is likely to be for the mental health of those who have to endure it. Nevertheless, in relating our economic system to a decline in mental well being, he provides us with valuable arguments against the ideological consensus of New Labour, the Tories and the Lib Dems.

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