Affluenza: How to be successful and stay sane, by Oliver James

Ills of an age when more means worse
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The Independent Culture

At the core of this book are some sharply stated truths. Beyond a certain level of material wealth, more does not equate to happiness; indeed, the pursuit of more is positively pathological. Where this pursuit is accompanied by increasing inequality and economic insecurity, the results are even more dire. Add to this the ever more insidious power of advertising, the new electronic circus of celebrity culture, and the workaholism of unregulated economies, and we are, as we know, in big trouble.

Oliver James argues that the spread of the US model of capitalism is responsible for the epidemic of emotional distress that has swept across the developed world, and is threatening to engulf the new China and Russia, among others. The competitive drive for money, status and power results in a profound deformation of the human soul. We end up treating ourselves and others as commodities, as mere means to vacuous ends. Our capacity to form authentic, loving relationships, to feel secure and balanced, is destroyed. Anomie, alienation and addiction await us.

In the face of this pandemic, James offers us a series of vaccines that might inoculate us against the psychological destructiveness of our contorted affluence. From China and its familial Confucianism, he calls for realistic assessment of ourselves and our contexts. In contrast to the insane perfectionism and achievement-only orientation of American life, he finds the importance of knowing when good is good enough, and wisdom in recognising the real social limits of our lives. In Denmark, he finds a more egalitarian society that continues to reject the false gods of fame and brands in favour of solidarity, integrity and authenticity.

Where James is at his strongest and most passionate is around the experience of childhood. In response to the great weight of disastrous parenting, he suggests we go and sort it out, disentangling externally imposed goals and motives from our own. With regard to our own children, he argues for loving, consistent, playful and educative parenting. Turn off the TV as much as possible, he advises, offer an alternative voice to the exam-driven drudgery of mainstream schooling, and play with them as much as possible. And, for God's sake, make sure you and your partner divide up the drudgeries and pleasures equally.

I agree that the single most important social and emotional intervention that most of us can make is to take more and better care of our kids and our partners. However, I found James's insistence on the emotional superiority of nannies to collective childcare for small children to be indefensible, and a rare intrusion of his own personal preferences and circumstances into an otherwise well-argued case.

To let my own circumstances intrude: as the main carer of our kids, I found his persistent use of "motherhood'' over "parenthood" irritating. How does he expect a new generation of men to take on caring responsibilities when the model is cast in gender-specific terms, or does he really think that only mother knows best? I also find it odd that a book that so correctly rejects the mendacious have-it-all optimism of self-help psychology should have a subtitle that so shamelessly apes its language.

James recognises the limits of his virus/vaccine model. Individual action might provide a cure, but only collective action is going to sort this out. In the closing pages, he bravely attempts to think through some political implications of his case. It here that we reach the limits of social psychology, and medical models. James is on sure ground when calling for a massively more progressive tax system, and an end to the grotesque instrumentalism and fake meritocracy offered by the education system.

However, his ventures into price-freezing in the housing market and the banning of attractive models from advertising are not thought through, to say the least. Nonetheless, I share his insistence that we think some unthinkable thoughts, that we refuse to accept that there is no alternative to our current ways of living. Sanity, balance and wisdom await us.

David Goldblatt's global history of football, 'TheBall is Round' is published by Viking

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