Oliver James’ new book: it could f*** you up

In Affluenza, the clinical psychologist argues that money is driving us insane. In fact, he's the one who seems a few cents short of a dollar.

Daniel Ben-Ami

Topics Books

Affluenza: How to be Successful and Stay Sane, Oliver James, Vermilion 2007.

It is a reasonable bet that Oliver James thinks you are mentally ill. The clinical psychologist and media pundit starts his new book with a questionnaire for readers to determine whether they have contracted the ‘affluenza virus’. Among the 16 questions he poses, each of which demands a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer, are:

  • I would like to successfully hide the signs of ageing.
  • I would like to be admired by many people.
  • I like to keep up with fashions in hair and clothing.
  • Shopping or thinking about what to buy greatly preoccupies me.

If you answer ‘yes’ to any one of the questions he declares that, like most people in the English-speaking world, you have contracted the virus. His definition of affluenza is so broad it is hard to see how anyone, apart from perhaps Trappist monks or the Amish, can be immune.

This declaration is not simply a journalistic device to entice readers into the book. James means it literally. Selfish capitalism, he believes, is driving us mad: ‘my new theory is that the nasty form of political economy that I call Selfish Capitalism caused an epidemic of the affluenza virus, accounting for much of the increase in distress since the 1970s.’ (1) In giving overwhelming emphasis to mental health he takes the attack on prosperity one step further than those, such as Robert Frank or Richard Layard, who argue that it simply makes us unhappy (2).

James, whose last book was charmingly titled They Fuck You Up: How to Survive Family Life, presents himself as a leftist humanist critic of crass materialism and consumerism. He believes he is in opposition to a Labour government he condemns for ‘Blatcherism’ (combining Blairism and Thatcherism). And he assumes he has developed an original theory which can help individuals build immunity to affluenza.

On every key aspect of his argument he is deluded. His connection with reality is often tenuous. The only reason his book is worth examining in detail is that those in power increasingly often share his neurotic outlook on the world.

James’s view of the world is based on two sets of data. His primary source is what he calls, without any apparent sense of irony, his role as a ‘heroic mind tourist’. He did a ‘mind tour’ of seven locations, spending three weeks in each place: New Zealand, Australia, Singapore, Shanghai, Moscow, Copenhagen and New York (3). In each place the British Council arranged accommodation and found subjects for James to interview as the basis for his book.

Most of James’s interview subjects are rich and dissatisfied with their lives. Sam, a 35-year-old Wall Street stockbroker, is typical of many: ‘Sam is discontented, pessimistic, sex-addicted and an atheist, he is curt, domineering and unfriendly yet he has no medical problems and lives in a big apartment.’ (4) Often James does not just rely on the interviewees’ accounts of themselves but also accepts at face value their description of other people’s lives. In most courts such accounts would be dismissed as hearsay evidence but this does not stop James from making sweeping generalisations based on such impressions. Indeed at one point James even draws conclusions from his own dreams on the damaging psychological effects of the property market (5).

On the rare occasions that James speaks to ordinary people they come off relatively well. One of these is Chet, a New York taxi driver of Nigerian origin, who James presumably met while being driven between his usual rich interview subjects. Chet is poor and has health problems yet James is sure he is happy: ‘He is contented, optimistic, sexually faithful and religious, he is courteous, friendly and open.’ (6)

From accounts such as this – which make up the bulk of the book – it is already possible to start seeing the limitations of James’s arguments. For a start his approach is highly impressionistic. Drawing sweeping conclusions about the nature of society on the basis of talking to a relatively small number of abnormally rich individuals is absurd. No doubt James also asked questions which helped elicit the type of response he was looking for.

It is also possible to see that James is more conservative than a leftist (7). By comparing Sam to Chet he is implicitly drawing the conclusion that people should be happy with their lot – an argument he has also made explicitly. The poor, in James’s view, should be content to stay poor. If religion can help by inculcating anti-materialist values then so much the better (8).

Such an approach conveniently ignores the enormous benefits that increasing prosperity has brought society. It has meant longer life expectancy, lower infant mortality and less disease. For most of those in the developed world it has brought freedom from backbreaking manual work as well as shorter working hours and more leisure time (9).

But James does not rely entirely on interview material to make his case. He often refers to psychological and other material to support his case. In particular he refers to World Health Organisation studies that show a high correlation between emotional distress and what James identifies as ‘selfish capitalist’ values. These typically show that English-speaking countries suffer twice as much emotional distress as those in continental Europe. For James such studies prove beyond doubt that selfish capitalism is to blame for damaging individuals’ mental states.

But there are several reasons to question James’ use of such studies. First, they are themselves often cautious about making such comparisons. As the authors of one of the key studies cited by James note: ‘The DIS and CIDI surveys had three limitations to analysis of severity and treatment. First, as they were designed to assess prevalence, not severity, the post hoc measures of severity used in secondary analyses of these surveys were weak. Second, the interviews did not include standardized treatment questions, thwarting valid cross-national comparisons of treatment. Third, the surveys were carried out mostly in developed countries, making it impossible to assess generalisability of results.’ (10)

Second, the example of China seems to contradict James’s basic argument. In a ranking of 15 nations in terms of emotional distress Shanghai comes out at the bottom. Yet it is hard to think of a place where intense ambition and overt competition are more prevalent. James tries to get round this argument by reverting to old notions of China being a group rather than an individually-based society (11). Such societies are, he conveniently concludes, at least for the time being immune to the affluenza virus.

But the most important reason to question James’s view of the data is that social and cultural factors influence how individuals react to such surveys. James has no doubt that the surveys show the greater prevalence of mental illness in the English speaking world. He does not consider the possibility that there is a greater propensity to diagnose mental problems than in the past. The definition of what constitutes a mental illness has broadened enormously over the years (12).

Under such circumstances, individuals are also more likely to interpret everyday problems in mental health terms. As Frank Furedi, professor of sociology at the University of Kent, argues in Therapy Culture: ‘Today we fear that individuals lack the resilience to deal with feelings of isolation, disappointment and failure. Through pathologising negative emotional responses to the pressures of life, contemporary culture unwittingly encourages people to feel traumatised and depressed by experiences hitherto regarded as routine.’ (13)

This insight hints at yet another one-sidedness in James’s argument. To the extent that there is a preoccupation with material goods in contemporary society it coincides with an unhealthy obsession with individual happiness and with the environment. The same person who craves particular brands may make a big deal about recycling or saving electricity. As has been argued previously on spiked both consumerism and anti-materialism share an obsession with consumption (14).

Oliver James’s claim to originality also means downplaying the existence of a huge genre of literature devoted to attacking consumption and economic growth (15). Since the 1970s it has become the accepted wisdom to attack prosperity for its allegedly damaging effects on society. Indeed James’s Affluenza is the third book with that title (16). If he has an original contribution it is to give so much emphasis on the allegedly damaging impact of popular prosperity on mental health.

Given the criticisms of James’s book in this review it would be expected that his policy prescriptions are likely to be viewed with hostility. But it is worth outlining them to give an idea of where his argument leads. On the more political side, his main focus is on promoting equality. While this may sound progressive, in the context of a perspective that is hostile to affluence it can only mean an economic leveling down. Rather than promoting prosperity so that everyone can have more he wants to encourage an outlook in which everyone is content with what they have already got.

But for the idiosyncratic James the notion of equality does not just refer to economics or even politics. One of his proposals is for ‘a total ban on the use of exceptionally attractive models in all forms of advertisement.’ (17) Whether averagely attractive models are acceptable or whether they should be downright ugly he does not make clear. Nor does he outline who will decide what constitutes exceptional attractiveness.

But perhaps his most odious proposal is for the widespread use of what James considers real therapy. James argues that ‘whether you are emotionally distressed or not (as ascertained by the questionnaire at the start of this book), you may need help from a professional’ (18). So even in the unlikely event that you answered ‘no’ to all of James’s 16 initial questions you may still need therapy.

And for James not any form of therapy will do. He rules out cognitive behavioural therapy because it discourages investigation of childhood experience (19). And he also advises avoiding most people who are trained as psychiatrists as their treatments primarily involve drugs. His favoured approach is pursued by ‘psychodynamic psychotherapists’ although he acknowledges that ‘this kind of therapy entails a huge commitment of time and money.’ (20)

If you think this approach is over-the-top it is important to remember one thing: Oliver James thinks you are almost certainly mad.

Daniel Ben-Ami’s website can be found at www.danielbenami.com.

Affluenza: How to be Successful and Stay Sane is published by Vermilion (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon(USA)

(1) Affluenza, pxiv.

(2) For a critique of some of the main assumptions of the happiness discussion see Daniel Ben-Ami, There is no ‘paradox of prosperity’

(3) Affluenza, pxii.

(4) Affluenza, p25.

(5) Affluenza, p147-8.

(6) Affluenza, p25.

(7)For an explicit presentation by Oliver James of himself as a leftist critic of the government see It’s a mad world, Guardian, 16 February 2007

(8) See, for example, Affluenza, p27.

(9) On some of the material benefits of affluence see Daniel Ben-Ami We’ve never had it so good

(10) Prevalence, Severity, and Unmet Need for Treatment of Mental Disorders in the World Health Organization World Mental Health Surveys, Journal of the American Medical Association 291 (21) 2 June 2004

(11) See Affluenza, p89-91. For a critique of the idea of defining societies as individual or group-based see Daniel Ben-Ami ‘Is Japan different?’ in Phil Hammond (ed) Cultural difference, media memories, Cassell 1997.

(12) For an attempt to quantify the broadening definition of mental illness see the reference to the different editions of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorder in the Wikipedia entry on mental illness

(13) Frank Furedi Therapy Culture Routledge 2004, p6.

(14) James Heartfield, A secular version of Kingdom Come

(15) My website is devoted to uncovering the flaws of this genre.

(16) The others are John De Graaf, David Wann and Thomas H. Naylor Affluenza: the all-consuming epidemic, Berrett-Koehler 2002, and Clive Hamilton and Richard Denniss Affluenza: when too much is never enough Allen & Unwin 2005. De Graaf was himself the producer of the PBS documentaries Affluenza (1996) and Escape from Affluenza (1998).

(17) Affluenza, p333.

(18) Affluenza, p293.

(19) Affluenza, p293-4. This is also his main disagreement with Richard Layard. See Oliver James It’s a mad world, Guardian 16 February 2007
and Richard Layard A lead supporting role, Guardian, 19 February 2007

(20) Affluenza, p294.

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