Down with ‘enoughism’

Two new books claim that our blinged-up, fast-car consumer society is laying people low with compulsive acquisition disorder, harried women syndrome and various other sicknesses of the mind. Don’t buy it.

Daniel Ben-Ami

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When so many apparently disparate debates lead to similar conclusions, it is time to investigate what is going on.

Worried about climate change? Concerned about social inequality? Anxious about not being happy enough? The orthodox prescription for all of these problems has become predictable: curb your consumption, limit your aspirations, and exercise self-restraint in your behaviour.

From this perspective, it is striking that two such supposedly different books as Enough and The Selfish Capitalist come to such startlingly samey conclusions. John Naish, a health journalist and author of Enough, writes broadly in the tradition of self-help. His central argument is derived from evolutionary psychology (1). He contends that, as a creation of the Stone Age, the human brain finds it hard to cope with a world of abundance. To help quell this problem, he outlines a philosophy of ‘enoughism’ to enable his readers to deal with what he sees as consumption overload.

Oliver James, in contrast, sees himself as a radical leader and a profound thinker with wonderfully original insights. Unlike Naish, he presents himself as deeply hostile to evolutionary psychology, which he sees as a highly conservative force. Instead James develops the notion of ‘selfish capitalism’ in which the economic logic of the marketplace has led to an explosion of mental illness in the Anglo-Saxon countries. His approach appears materialist, arguably even Marxist.

Yet despite the differences in style, the two authors end up sharing much in common. Both have a deep dislike for popular consumption and a disdain for consumerism. Both argue for the exercise of self-restraint by the public. And both see humans as fundamentally weak and feeble creatures. How can two such apparently different approaches reach the same endpoint? Let’s examine their arguments in more detail.

Naish concedes that his lifestyle is a bit of a cliché. The cover of his book says: ‘He lives in Brighton with his wife but no mobile phone.’ In the text of the book, we learn that he has never owned a television, is a vegetarian, says a secular grace before eating, drives a small Peugeot hatchback, engages in regular meditation and does Tai Chi. He describes himself as a follower of ‘scientific pantheism’ – a religion where there is no god to worship but nature. Regular spiked readers will recognise him as a mellower cousin of Ethan Greenhart (2).

Of course Naish’s chosen lifestyle does not in itself disprove his case. The argument that modern humans have essentially Stone Age brains is an influential one that needs to be challenged rather than dismissed. Early in the book, he cites Robert Trivers, an evolutionary biologist at Rutgers University in New Jersey, arguing that human brains evolved between 130,000 and 200,000 years ago in the Pleistocene era. For Naish, the Stone Age character of our brains causes us immense problems, but they can be overcome if we follow the recipe of ‘enoughism’. He says his book can help, ‘by exposing the many snares that our own Pleistocene-era minds unintentionally lay for us, and explaining how the modern world of consumption hijacks our social brains so that we step right into these traps’ (3).

For Naish the human species should not be called homo sapiens (‘wise man’ or ‘thinking man’) but homo expetens (‘wanting man’): ‘What characterises us most is our capacity to want, to desire, to covet, to yearn for and generally lust after.’ (4) In the world of abundance this perpetual state of desire leads us, in Naish’s view, to terrible problems. These include compulsive acquisition disorder, harried women syndrome, information fatigue syndrome, and oniomania (buying addiction).

There is no space to detail all of the measures Naish advocates to help us overcome our various enough-induced syndromes, but they are based on developing what he calls an ‘inner ration book’. For example, he proposes that individuals go on a ‘data diet’, where they restrict the amount of information they take in, to avoid the curse of ‘infobesity’. He says individuals should only eat in small restaurants, avoid high variety meals and make meal times sacred. In his view, people should avoid credit and shun gadgets.

Such measures, and the many others he advocates, make perverse sense if his original premise is accepted. Yet as Kenan Malik, a British science writer, has argued, the view that humans have essentially Stone Age brains is ‘specious nonsense’ (5). Malik points out that our minds are immensely flexible. Human nature is not static but develops as we interact with and transform our environment: ‘We humans have not simply been transported to an alien environment. We have created that environment, through a long process of historical struggle and development. It seems bizarre to hold that the brain is “wired up” to invent modernity but not to cope with it. If the brain is flexible enough to do the one, then why not the other?’ (6)

Perhaps the most interesting chapter in Enough is the one on happiness. Naish rightly suggests that there are parallels between the drive to acquire consumer goods and the contemporary rush to achieve self-fulfilment. He points to numerous book titles to illustrate the race for individual happiness, including You Can Change Your Life, You Can be Amazing and You Can have Everything You Want. In this sense, the drive to achieve happiness is a close relative of consumerism, rather than an alternative to it.

However, Naish makes the mistake of assuming that his homespun philosophy of ‘enoughism’ is radically different from the ideas advocated by the proponents of happiness. In fact, the idea of respecting limits – Naish’s main argument – is central to the current preoccupation with achieving individual happiness. For example, Richard Layard, one of the main advocates of happiness as a goal of public policy, says: ‘The secret is to have goals that are stretching enough, but not too stretching.’ (7) Anthony Seldon, the master of Wellington College and one of the main advocates of teaching happiness in British schools, is even more explicit: ‘Happiness I believe lies in knowing one’s own limitations, accepting oneself for what one is, and being proud of what one achieves, at whatever level that might be.’ (8)

So Naish’s philosophy of enoughism shares with the contemporary advocates of happiness a deeply conservative premise. Humans, they argue, must learn to accept limits. For Naish, it is about developing an elaborate ‘inner ration book’. For those who emphasise individual happiness, it is about accepting your limits and not stretching yourself too far.

Oliver James might appear to be miles away from such thinking, from a casual reading of his work. Although his professional background is as a clinical psychologist, much of The Selfish Capitalist is concerned with the economics of Anglo-Saxon capitalism. His aim is to explain how economic factors have led to a huge expansion of mental illness in English-speaking countries. James’ style is also fundamentally different from Naish’s. James sees himself as a striking original thinker who is presenting a path-breaking theory about how the economic structure of society is affecting our mental state.

Sadly, however, The Selfish Capitalist does not provide any insights. James comes across like an over-eager undergraduate who is desperate to make sweeping generalisations about important social questions. But he often seems unaware that many of the points he raises have been discussed by others, often in a much more sophisticated way, before him.

In that light, it should be remembered that The Selfish Capitalist is a sequel to Affluenza. In that earlier work, James presented himself as a ‘heroic mind tourist’ who visited seven locations, New Zealand, Australia, Singapore, Shanghai, Moscow, Copenhagen and New York to explore the impact of the consumer society on different people’s mental wellbeing (9). His new book is meant to provide the theoretical background to the arguments put forward in Affluenza. Yet many of his claims are not properly referenced, and when they are he depends on a relatively narrow range of sources. It would be tedious to go through them all, but one of the most striking is his reference to David Harvey, whose A Brief History of Neo-Liberalism he relies on heavily for his understanding of capitalism; James refers to Harvey as ‘an American political scientist’ (10). In fact, Harvey, though based in America, is a British geographer (11). With some authors, it would be nitpicking to point out such factual errors. But James has such a high opinion of himself as a great theoretician that it is hard to resist. In any case, this mistake is not uncharacteristic. His work is riddled with inaccuracies, caricatures and half-truths.

James makes two ‘new assertions’ which are central to his work. He argues that ‘Selfish Capitalism led to a massive increase in the wealth of the wealthy, with no rise in average wages’, and ‘there has been a substantial increase in emotional distress since the 1970s’. He goes on to argue that: ‘These assertions are not in themselves political, they are either true or false.’ (12) He then makes a secondary point: that ‘the peddling and acceptance of… geneticism and evolutionary psychology have been important factors in making the general population susceptible to the idea that Selfish Capitalism will be good for them.’ (13)

Contrary to James’ first two points, his assertions are not simple yes or no questions. Working out whether average wages have remained static since the 1970s is more difficult than it might appear to the layman. In any case, wages are only one dimension in the measurement of living standards. Nor is it clear that emotional distress has risen in the way James suggests. Some statistics appear to substantiate his claim, but there are good reasons to open the argument to question.

In relation to real wages, these are harder to establish than might be assumed. For example, in Britain there is no single series of statistics on wages that runs from the 1970s to today. The selection of the appropriate inflation measure to use – necessary if real wages are to be calculated – is also open to debate. James seems to rely heavily on the work of Avner Offer, an Anglo-Israeli economic historian based at Oxford University, from whom he mainly gleans American data (14). But it is arguable that American society is exceptional in this respect. For James to justify such sweeping claims about all Anglo-American societies, he would need to do a much more extensive study of the data; of course, he hasn’t done that.

Moreover, there is more to living standards than what we earn. Even if income inequality has widened over the years, it is still the case that living standards have risen. In other words, there can be a relative increase in inequality at the same time as an absolute improvement in living standards. This is clear in the area of consumption. In many respects, the mass of society has access to a far wider range of consumer goods than the rich did back in the 1970s. For example, in Britain the percentage of households with central heating rose from 37 per cent in 1972 to 95 per cent cent in 2006. Back in 1972, only 42 per cent of households had a telephone at all; by 2006 some 80 per cent of households had a mobile phone (15). Of course for the likes of James and Naish, the mass ownership of such consumer goods is distasteful – but for ordinary people it represents a substantial improvement in their quality of life.

The other main reason it is wrong simply to focus on real wages is that it obscures one of the main social changes in recent decades: the achievement by women of a more equal position in the workplace. In the 1970s, it was much more common for women with children not to have a job or, if they were employed, to be in an unequal position relative to men. Today, women more often have a job, and when they do they are more likely to have equal status with men.

One consequence of this change is that household incomes have generally risen much faster than individual incomes. Forty years ago, many households would depend on the income of one man as the ‘breadwinner’. Today, many households have two incomes, from the man and the woman – so even if real wages have remained static, the fact that a greater number of households have two sets of wages means that they are, overall, better off.

James grudgingly admits that household incomes have generally risen since the 1970s, but he sees this largely as a retrograde step (16). For him it would be better if one parent stayed at home to look after the children rather than both going out to work. He is not so crass as to argue that women should stay at home while men should work; it can be the other way around, he says. Yet still, in effect, he is arguing against one of the great social gains of recent years: the fact that women have moved much closer to equality in the workplace than ever before. It is no longer the case that men inhabit the social world of work while women are confined to the relatively privatised sphere of the family and child-rearing – and that is a very good thing.

James’ second main contention is as flawed as the first. His claim to originality in linking ‘selfish capitalism’ – also sometimes called Thatcherism or Reaganomics – to mental illness is dubious (17). It may be true that others do not use the term ‘selfish capitalism’, but many authors have linked our contemporary society of abundance to mental illness. For example, Richard Layard argues that ‘there has been a huge increase in depression in the United States and other countries studied’ during recent decades of rapid economic growth (18). Ed Diener and Martin Seligman, two of America’s most prominent psychologists, make a similar point: ‘In stark contrast to the improvement in economic statistics over the past 50 years, there is strong evidence that the incidence of depression has increased enormously over the same time period.’ (19)

In any case, the argument that mental illness has increased rapidly in recent years is far from beyond dispute. It is true that a rapidly expanding number of people are being classified as mentally ill or depressed. But there is good reason to believe that this can be explained by a widening definition of mental illness rather than a genuine epidemic of depression. It should be remembered that in James’ previous book, Affluenza, he defined mental illness so widely that it was hard to imagine how anyone could avoid being afflicted. For James, signs of the ‘affluenza virus’ included trying to hide the signs of ageing, shopping too much, and keeping up with fashion (20).

Fortunately, an excellent new study by two American social scientists examines the phenomenon they describe as ‘diagnostic inflation’ in great detail (21). In The Loss of Sadness, Allan Horwitz and Jerome Wakefield examine how the definition of depression in succeeding editions of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), often described as the ‘psychiatrists’ bible’, has been successively broadened out. And the World Health Organisation has played a key role in spreading the American understanding of the term ‘depression’ around the world.

The latest version of the DSM (published in 2000) says that five of the following nine symptoms must be present over a two-week period for depression to be diagnosed (including the first two): ‘1. depressed mood; 2. diminished interest or pleasure in activities; 3. weight gain or loss or change in appetite; 4. insomnia or hypersomnia (excessive sleep); 5. psychomotor agitation or retardation (slowing down); 6. fatigue or loss of energy; 7. feelings of worthlessness or excessive or inappropriate guilt; 8. diminished ability to think or concentrate or indecisiveness; and 9. recurrent thoughts of death or suicidal ideation or suicide attempt.’ (22)

An important exception to this definition is what is known as the bereavement exclusion. The loss of a loved one can lead to many of the same symptoms as depression. Yet the DSM recognises that under such circumstances the symptoms can be seen as a normal reaction to a personal tragedy, rather than a mental health condition.

Yet Horwitz and Wakefield argue that many other common human experiences can lead to similar symptoms. They point out that intense sadness can be a normal part of the human condition rather than a mental disorder. Negative events such as betrayal by a romantic partner, being passed over for promotion and discovering a life-threatening illness can all lead to deep sadness. For the authors of The Loss of Sadness, the basic flaw of the DSM definition of depression is that it ‘fails to take into account the context of the symptoms and thus fails to exclude from the disorder category intense sadness, other than in reaction to the death of a loved one, that arises from the way that human beings naturally respond to major losses’ (23). Significantly, there is a sympathetic foreword to the book by Robert Spitzer, a professor of psychiatry at the New York Psychiatric Institute, who headed the task force that created the 1980 edition of the DSM.

So James’ contention that mental disorders have increased is far from a simple or established fact. On the contrary, there is strong evidence to support the view that what has happened is that the definition of mental illness has been broadened exponentially, and this has created the misleading impression that there is an epidemic of mental illness.

It should also already be clear that James’ final claim is open to question. He argues that evolutionary psychology somehow makes the public more amenable to right-wing ideas. In other words, people see the competitive free market as a natural extension of the survival of the fittest human genes. From James’ perspective, evolutionary psychology legitimises a conservative outlook.

Yet James himself comes to conservative conclusions despite his explicit rejection of evolutionary psychology. He may use Marxist language at times, but his disdain for popular consumption often suggests the outlook of a High Tory patrician. And his eagerness to define everyday experiences as a sign of mental illness betrays a contempt for ordinary people. For James, the average person is a weak and vulnerable individual who cannot resist consumer goods and who suffers mental sickness as a result.

In fact, James is closer to evolutionary psychology than he cares to admit. He acknowledges that the title ‘selfish capitalism’ deliberately echoes the idea of the ‘selfish gene’ proposed by Richard Dawkins (24). For Dawkins, the behaviour of animals, including humans, can largely be explained in terms of trying to propagate their genes. Animals will do whatever they can to maximise the chances of their genes being passed on to the next generation. James explicitly rejects this view, but his notion of capitalism is often strikingly reminiscent of it. He tends to portray selfish capitalism, with all of its characteristic features, as an organism intent on passing on its features to subsequent generations. Consumerism and mental illness play a useful function, in this view, because they allow selfish capitalism to flourish.

What both Naish and James have in common is a deeply degraded view of human beings. Admittedly, Naish sees himself as defending people against the scourge of consumerism, and James would claim that he is trying to protect individuals from mental illness. But both see humans as fundamentally feeble creates who find it hard to cope with the demands of contemporary society.

In particular, both of them see the human desire to improve our lot and obtain more as deeply distasteful. Both of them, in their different ways, argue that humans should curb their desires. For Naish, it is primarily a question of finding techniques for people to develop their ‘inner ration book’. For James, it is about modifying the structure of capitalism to make people less acquisitive and about providing widespread therapy.

It would be far better to celebrate rather than condemn the qualities that make us human. Rather than limit our desires or curb our consumption, we should continue the quest to make our lives better still. It is not simply a question of acquiring more consumer goods, although that has its place, but of freeing us of the remaining shackles that constrain us. It means liberating our potential to create a better society. Rejecting the types of restraint that John Naish and Oliver James advocate would be a good start.

Daniel Ben-Ami is a journalist and author based in London. Visit his website here.

Enough: Breaking Free from the World of More by John Naish is published by Hodder and Stoughton. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

The Selfish Capitalist: Origins of Affluenza by Oliver James is published by Vermilion. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

The Loss of Sadness: How Psychiatry Transformed Normal Sorrow Into Depressive Disorder by Allan V Horwitz and Jerome C Wakefield is published by Oxford University Press. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

(1) For a discussion and critique of evolutionary psychology, see Stone age men in a space age world?, by Kenan Malik.

(2) Read more on Ethan Greenhart here.

(3) Enough: Breaking Free From the World of More, John Naish, Hodder & Stoughton, 2008 (p.9)

(4) Enough: Breaking Free From the World of More, John Naish, Hodder & Stoughton, 2008 (p.57)

(5) See Stone age men in a space age world?, by Kenan Malik.

(6) See Stone age men in a space age world?, by Kenan Malik.

(7) Happiness: Lessons from a New Science, Richard Layard, Allen Lane, 2005 (p.73)

(8) Lessons in life: Why I’m teaching happiness, by Anthony Seldon, Independent, 19 April 2006.

(9) See Oliver James’ new book: it could f*** you up, by Daniel Ben-Ami, 26 February 2007

(10) The Selfish Capitalist: Origins of Affluenza, Oliver James, Vermillion, 2008 (p.121)

(11) See his homepage at the City University of New York.

(12) The Selfish Capitalist: Origins of Affluenza, Oliver James, Vermillion, 2008 (p.4)

(13) The Selfish Capitalist: Origins of Affluenza, Oliver James, Vermillion, 2008 (p.5)

(14) For a review of Offer’s work, see The Challenge of Affluence: Self-Control and Well-Being in the United States and Britain since 1950, Daniel Ben-Ami, Culture Wars, 3 July 2006.

(15) See A summary of changes over time: consumer durables and Consumer durables: consumer Durables ownership increases. Both at the National Statistics website.

(16) The Selfish Capitalist: Origins of Affluenza, Oliver James, Vermillion, 2008 (p.127)

(17) The Selfish Capitalist: Origins of Affluenza, Oliver James, Vermillion, 2008 (p.3)

(18) Happiness: Lessons from a New Science, Richard Layard, Allen Lane, 2005 (p. 36)

(19) Beyond Money: Toward an Economy of Well-Being (pdf), Ed Diener and Martin EP Seligman, Psychological Science in the Public Interest 5(1), 2004 (p. 16)

(20) See Oliver James’ new book: it could f*** you up, by Daniel Ben-Ami, 26 February 2007

(21) A similar argument is put by Helene Guldberg in her review of Christopher Lane’s Shyness: How Normal Behavior Became a Sickness. See Humanity thou art sick, spiked review of books, January 2008.

(22) The Loss of Sadness: How Psychiatry Transformed Normal Sorrow Into Depressive Disorder, by Allan V Horwitz and Jerome C Wakefield, Oxford University Press, 2007 (p.8)

(23) The Loss of Sadness: How Psychiatry Transformed Normal Sorrow Into Depressive Disorder, by Allan V Horwitz and Jerome C Wakefield, Oxford University Press, 2007 (p.14)

(24) The Selfish Capitalist: Origins of Affluenza, Oliver James, Vermillion, 2008 (p.124)

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