Oliver James: Despite ourselves, we are all Gordon Gekkos now

Selfishness and greed are thriving - and are more culturally accepted than we may like to admit

Whatever the French is for "gutted", it's safe to assume that is how junior broker Jérôme Kerviel, 31, felt last week after having gambled and lost £3.6bn on European stocks rising. The sum was astonishing but so was the premise – in a world dominated by feral herd tendencies, to have supposed those stocks would go up at that moment was bizarrely aberrant.

The broking world is pressurised: the hours are fearsome, the harshness of the penalties for failing implacable. It's the apotheosis of dog-eat-dog individualism. A 2000 study of New York brokers showed two-thirds were depressed, with high levels of depersonalisation and extremely high levels of anxiety and sleeplessness. On average they spent 12 hours a day at work, smoked nearly two packs of cigarettes, consumed alcohol and some form of illegal substance (mostly cocaine) twice a day. For relaxation they chose solitary pursuits: jogging, masturbation and fishing more often than dining with friends or sex with others.

But while most of us sigh with relief that we do not have careers like that, we may not realise the extent to which we have been infected with the underlying mentality. Liberals may like to think that Thatcherite neo-liberalism (what I call Selfish Capitalism) has come and gone. But we may not grasp how far its ideas have become part of our intellectual furniture. Often unknowingly, we have been infected with the ethos of Gordon Gekko, venal anti-hero of the film Wall Street.

At the heart of its justification is social Darwinism, which first gained widespread acceptance in the late 19th century. The phrase "the survival of the fittest" was coined by Herbert Spencer, not by Charles Darwin. Spencer maintained that it would be disastrous for the state to do anything to protect the weakest. Nature should take its course, strengthening society.

This is a deeply pessimistic political philosophy, allowing no room for a benign state enabling the disadvantaged to improve their well-being. It is a rejection of the post-war consensus that the poor and women have the same potentialities as the rich and men.

Spencer was widely read and feted in the US. He was most in vogue when the gap between the richest and poorest was three times greater than today. Prominent US businessmen and politicians frequently used him to justify this.

We may like to think that was then, this is now. Think again. The wealth of the wealthy has massively increased since the introduction of Selfish Capitalism (Thatch/Blatcherism) in the late 1970s. There has been no increase since then in the average real wage for English-speaking people at all, no trickle-down effect whatsoever.

Running alongside this has been the re-emergence of Social Darwinism clothed anew as evolutionary psychology. The history of the sales of Richard Dawkins' The Selfish Gene is an example of how such ideas knitted into neo-liberal ideology. Published in 1976, it was not until the 1980s that it became a bestseller. It was only when "no such thing as society" Thatcherism took off that the book did too. Whatever its merits, the extent and timing of its success may be due to its central contention that we exist as machines for reproducing our selfish genes, a highfalutin justification for the "greed is good" ethos.

It is hard to think of a single prediction made by evolutionary psychology that does not give succour to Selfish Capitalists. The rich are rich and law-abiding, and the poor are poor and criminal, because of their genes, says the US sociologist Charles Murray; those at the bottom of the gene pool have sunk because of their defective DNA, a view more widely believed than admitted. Nouveau Labourites say they support equality of opportunity for all. What they really mean is that the poor will always be with us because of defective genes – unable to take the opportunities because of their lack of "god-given talents" (as Blair once put it).

A closet sexism has also crept in. Men have to be real men and women have to look like "babes" not because it serves advertisers so well but because of our ancestral past, according to the US psychologist David Buss.

But Dawkins' book, more than any other, supplied the "scientific" underpinning for Selfish Capitalism, along with the work of his friend, Matt Ridley. The writer-turned-businessman is both the principal British cheerleader of evolutionary ideology and a loud advocate of cutting back the state, explicitly linking the two. It's a mind-boggling irony that Ridley was, until recently, also chairman of Northern Rock, which the taxpayer is to bail out following its disastrously ill-regulated dealings.

The whole evolutionary psychological edifice ultimately rests on speculations about humans millions of years ago, but we can never know what actually went on then. It's fun, not science.

I am tempted to make my fortune with a board game called Evolution, in which you have to guess the original purpose of psychological traits. For instance: "Nuclear weapons capable of destroying all life increase the likelihood of us reproducing our selfish genes because one million years ago: (a) Cavemen advantaged their gene pools by destroying all rival hunter-gathering groups; (b) Cavemen enjoyed killing other men because then there was no chance of them impregnating their women; (c) Cavewomen encouraged their men to kill because it turned them on, making them more fertile and ensuring that the male winners were the mates with the best genes." I can't decide whether to ask Dawkins, Buss or Ridley to supply the "right" answers and share in the profits of this ludicrous game.

Rather than focusing on such Just So fables we should concentrate on the psychosocial facts of here and now. Things like whether our banks are lending funny money (Northern Rock) or whether their employees are playing Russian roulette (Société Gé*érale). But the price of deregulated Selfish Capitalism is emotional, as well as financial – it's not only brokers who are driven nuts by their destructive values. Those of us in the English-speaking world are twice as mentally ill today as in the 1970s. We are also twice as mentally ill (nearly one-quarter of us) as relatively Unselfish Capitalist mainland western Europeans. This is stuff we could do something about and Social Darwinism has been a giant distraction from doing so.

Oliver James will discuss evolutionary psychology in London on Thursday. See www.selfishcapitalist.com

Further reading 'Affluenza' and 'The Selfish Capitalist: Origins of Affluenza', both by Oliver James and published by Vermilion