Wednesday, November 05, 2008

What Now? - Systemüberwindung - II

Originally posted in January `08.

"Materialism is to ill-being what smoking is to lung cancer."


To follow James's analogy with smoking: it took roughly 50 years from the first serious evidence of its harm to health to the point last year when smoking in public places was banned in the whole of the United Kingdom. We are now at the beginning of the cycle and James has played a major part in popularising vital ideas; but ahead lies a long, slow slog against powerful vested interests to win the battle.

The Selfish Capitalist: The Origins of Affluenza
The single most important idea to which James needs to apply all his missionary zeal is that mental well-being is a public health issue. Happiness is not a matter of personal performance and effort ("I've achieved it" or "why have I failed?") but a product of a set of environmental - social, economic and cultural - circumstances. The highly unequal, competitive, materialistic and individualistic cultures of neo-liberal economies produce emotional distress; they cultivate the insecurities which drive hyper consumerism ... and thus they make us ill. In the most telling analogy of the book, James argues that materialism is to ill-being what smoking is to lung cancer.

Drawing extensively on the work of American psychologist Tim Kasser, James argues that our recent increased wealth has come at the cost of the emotional well-being of a large proportion of the population; rates of distress among women in the UK almost doubled between 1982 and 2000. This is true of New Zealand and Australia as well as the UK and the US, in striking contrast with more egalitarian and collectivist countries such as Denmark or Germany. He tracks how "selfish capitalism" generates insecurity and inflates comparisons; how a winner-takes-all competitiveness merely creates losers and a pandemic of low self esteem, with its compensatory pathologies around celebrity and status.

Remarkably, Erich Fromm, the Marxist psychoanalyst and Buddhist writer, foresaw much of this half a century ago and James quotes his prescient analysis of the "passive, empty, anxious, isolated person for whom life has no meaning" and who compensates through "compulsive consumption". There are interesting issues to draw out of Fromm's work about how our mass consumer societies, ironically, cripple personal agency despite their avowals of individual choice, but James doesn't dwell on this. In fact, agency remains a confused thread in his argument: exactly who is the selfish capitalist? And is there a hint of a conspiracy theory as to how selfish capitalism has "hijacked" the English-speaking world to establish a political economy which benefits only a wealthy elite? He refers to an "invisible hand" which suppresses those ideas which challenge selfish capitalism, lulling us all into a false consciousness, but one wishes he would come clean, name the culprits and provide an explanation of why and how they hoodwink us.
So now what? Any proposals for system overcoming? (and no, this is not a mean liminal jab at brother Obama's nicotine jones...,)