The Selfish Society, By Sue Gerhardt

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The Independent Culture

Sue Gerhardt's polemic is an unusual thing: it not only pinpoints what is wrong, but also suggests ways to put it right. Her argument is that society has created "selfish" beings of us, and not, as some evolutionary theorists might assert, that we are genetically selfish. By lightly tracing the history of capitalism, she shows how we have arrived at the present condition, where we shop to make ourselves feel less lonely, change our bodies to feel more loved, and reach for fame to give our lives a sense of purpose.

Our natural instinct is to be connected to others. If we watch how a baby behaves, Gerhardt argues, we see how our survival instinct incorporates a desire for communication with others, particularly those others who are meant to look after us. We never lose that early need to be loved and cared for, but, now that we increasingly live apart from our family and friends, capitalism has exploited and channelled it into a desire to shop and buy things.

The substitution of money for relationships is even affecting our brain development, according to Gerhardt: "Our pressurised way of life alters the behaviour of the brain's neurotransmitters," she writes. I suspect that, however readily we tend to accept arguments when they are couched in scientific terminology, this is the weaker part of her reasoning.

But, just as her allegiance to Penelope Leach's child-development theories will align her against Gina Ford's followers, Gerhardt knows that she is taking on long-cherished beliefs. Not least in her favouring of Scandinavian-style working patterns for new parents. If we don't change the way we bring up children, beginning from the moment that they are born, we will stay depressed and in debt, Gerhardt says. I think I believe her.