Mirror, mirror: the uses and abuses of self-love by Simon Blackburn, book review


Oliver James
Thursday 27 February 2014 01:00 GMT
Because I'm worth it: 'Narcissus at the Spring' by Jan Roos
Because I'm worth it: 'Narcissus at the Spring' by Jan Roos

Simon Blackburn's starting point is the iconic “Because you’re worth it” L’Oréal ­slogan. He writes that the model in the advertisement “is on a pedestal in our eyes, partly because she is on a pedestal in her own eyes”. Her vanity both attracts and damages us through its disdain and solipsism and also through its corrosive sucking-up of praise, creating envy. Grandiose self-love is at our expense.

Amusingly, it seems that the original slogan had been “Because I’m worth it”. Blackburn points out that this would be dispiriting for us, because it’s all too visibly the case that the gorgeous model is worth it. He goes on to show that “the ­underlying message was not ‘Because you’re worth it’ but ‘Because you aren’t worth it. But you could be if you buy the stuff’”.

Blackburn gets to his main point in chapter 3: that the narcissistic blinkers of the ruling elites of Britain and America have enabled them to loot our corporations and countries. In teasing out nuances between valid and pathological vanity, pride, self-respect and self-love, he uncovers the mindset behind the “Greed is good” culture which has dominated for 30 years.

He blasts the psychology of our leaders with the substantial evidence that they are narcissists. They believe themselves to be our superiors in all ways, sealed-off by lackeys and the admiration of each other, oblivious to what we think or what our lives are like (pace the L’Oréal model). This justifies their astonishing and obscene self-remuneration: they can loot their corporations (and fall back on the public sector to bail them out when they fail) because “they’re worth it”.

With admirable concision, Blackburn itemises the extent of the looting. In America, production rose 119 per cent between 1947 and 1979; average wages by 100 per cent. The proportion of national income that the top one per cent obtained was 9-13 per cent.

Contrast that with what happened between 1979 and 2009, the era of Free Market Economics (or Selfish Capitalism, as I call it). Productivity rose 80 per cent, average wages by just 8 per cent but the top 1 per cent doubled their share of ­national income, at 23 per cent.

In America, the wealth of just the three richest people could pay off the whole of their national deficit. Four hundred people control the same amount of wealth as half the nation’s people: each fat cat owns the same assets as the total for 400,000 Americans. This is possible, psychologically, because the rich falsely attribute their success to themselves. That they enacted the disaster of the Credit Crunch is not noticed when living in their looking-glass world. Yet this gets them nowhere. Blackburn demolishes the vogue for happiness as a goal by pointing out that it is a temporary state. Once a change for the better has occurred (like a pay rise), the happiness subsides.

The pursuit of it is a treadmill, the endlesss replacement of one goal with another; insatiable; never “enough”. It is also relative. He points out that, “A letter from the tax authorities, demanding a barely noticeable sum, can plunge the rich recipient into gloom for a day; a day at the races winning another barely noticeable sum brings a burst of elation”. Happiness is a mug’s game, yet it dominates our ruling elites and they have ­presented it as an admirable goal for our schoolchildren and electors. It fuels the “shop till you drop” consumerism of Affluenza: “The pursuit of happiness rapidly turns into the pursuit of wealth, which soon becomes a vast, limitless end in itself”. We end up living to earn, rather than earning to live.

Blackburn feels on solid ground because he can quote hard evidence on these subjects but he is strangely tentative on other psychological matters. In the later chapters on temptation, respect and authenticity, he is much less well-armed with empirical scientific evidence, falling back on ­philosophy. Too often, he presses the post-modern Hyperspace button. Happy to wheel out hard evidence to demolish American Selfish Capitalism, he has none to champion (British) authenticity over (American, Blatcherite – “I invaded Iraq because I believed it was the right thing to do”) sincerity. Instead there is the all-too-common shrugging of the British intellectual establishment shoulders, as he claims that “Real-Selves and Self-Realisation are fantasies”.

Alas, he is unaware that, whilst the Human Genome Project is proving that genes play very little role in explaining differences in our psychology, developmental psychpathology is proving that it is caused by our early years, combined with social factors like gender and social class. Whilst the concept of the authentic self is more complex than Hippies or Jean-Paul Sartre may have thought, we are rapidly discovering that the early years sets each of our electrochemical thermostats, a unique authenticity.

The best longitudinal study, which followed 180 children, showed that 90 per cent of those who were maltreated when young had a mental illness by the age of 18. In the more extreme case of schizophrenia, the work of the likes of John Read (in Models of Madness) and Richard Bentall (in Madness Explained) are also arguing that it is the result of maltreatment.

People subjected to just one childhood adversity are only two times more at risk of psychosis, compared to 18 times if there were three ­adversities and 193 times if there were five. Our childhoods do create a strong sense of who we are – or lack of it. Our task is to have insight into these origins. We can do this alone, otherwise, ­therapies which explore them have been proven to be more effective in achieving long-term change, than quick fixes, like CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy). The unholy alliance between CBT, antidepressants and the happiness-pushers, backed by leading Blatcherites, needs to be exposed and rejected. Armed with that understanding, Blackburn could have written a far more effective book. But he confesses on page 1 that he lacks focus. The book “is more of a perambulation than a quest or a journey”.

One of the main obstructions to the exposition is a somewhat patrician tendency to litter the text with quotes from sages of the past. That is a shame because when you cut away the intellectual ­driftwood, this book has admirable ambitions. Blackburn has many splendid insights, well-expressed. He should trust himself to say what he thinks. He is enough of a sage in his own right.

Oliver James is the author of ‘Affluenza – How to succeed and stay sane’ (Vermilion, £6.99)

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