“Affluenza” by Oliver James

ISBN 9780091900113. “Affluenza – How to be Successful & Stay Sane” by Oliver James was published by Random House in 2007. Previously James was known for his book “Britain on the Couch” but it is THIS Bestseller for which he is best known now. Almost everybody knows about this book, almost everybody thinks they know what this book is about, but at well over 500 pages how many have actually read it? You MIGHT think it is about how monetary wealth has an adverse effect on your well-being. Yes, it is about that.. But it is also about so, so, so much more. This ain’t no pop-psychology peddling a set of simple problems & easy answers. It isn’t so much “affluence” that’s the problem, it is “Americanisation”. Ouch…

Putting it simple: money can’t buy you love but it can buy you a lot of unhappiness unless you can value something else. The intrinsic. You are who you are; not what you own. These values are programmed in through our upbringing. They are not genetic. The Affluenza “virus” (as James describes it) is the result of “Selfish Capitalism” which is four basic things: judging a business by its short term share value, privatisation of public utilities, the deregulation (or unregulation) of business, limited taxation of the very rich, and a conviction that consumption and market forces will meet all human needs. This causes emotional distress and the problem is acute amongst those who believe that childhood nurture plays no part in how they turned out. The problem is not universal with Denmark seemingly almost immune whilst James observes that cultural influences grants some immunity too. For example in Asia you can fail and still feel good as long as you did your best. In the USA it is only the outcome that matters for your self-esteem.

Whilst reading this book I quickly concluded that the Transition Movement could be characterised as a culture-within-a-culture with high immunity to Affluenza. This would mark the Transition Movement as some form of antidote because it represents a value-system looking to enhance human well-being over monetary wealth. This seems borne out by James’ description of one New Zealander:

“Lizzie praises the authenticity of the uneducated, the rural and the poor. ‘When I travel out of the city I think everybody does seem more happy’.”

Some may view this is utter tosh of course and it is easy to be cynical about visions of the “noble poor”, but James goes on to describe New Zealanders thus:

“…down-to-earth, practical people; decent, open and ethical; not especially motivated by the pursuit of power, status and wealth; not interested in appearances or being cool or uncool; and not cynical but healthily sceptical.”

It is this latter description that best fits the sort of authenticity that Transition attracts. Those who revel in a fantasy of a bucolic rural idyll as the “Transition” are in for a rude awakening. It isn’t where we are, it is who we are. What we can learn is that the original Transition elements of Peak Oil and Climate Change are not what the movement should be about. Threats change, evolve and move on. An immunity to Affluenza is Transition’s contribution to building resilient people and communities. For example it is entirely possible in Transition to “celebrate failure”. Where, in other modern cultural value systems, would that be embraced? We are a walking cure.

James pours scorn on the American pop psychology culture of “thinking positive”. His cures is all about taking responsibility with humility; if you failed it is due to how you were raised and your community. He credits Confucianism for keeping Affluenza at bay in Asian countries. So if you think this book is just about how money makes you sick you are wrong. It is far more sophisticated. It studies a plethora of related problem stemming from James’ believe that childhood nurture is the cause of these problems. He urges readers to:

“Avoid black-and-white simplification, embrace complexity and tolerate contradictions”

If some of those in the Transition movement may be falling down is in their adoption of Transition as an absolute philosophy and not the experiment it is intended to be. This leads to unfounded ideology and dogma that, for example, can only comprehend the argument “big box store versus small independent retailer” rather than more sophisticated thought pattern behind “how do we make big retailers work for the local community?”

When James turns his attention to Denmark he observes this:

“Denmark may pose a major challenge to the theories of evolutionary psychologists and to the American assumption that there is a one-size-fits-all human nature (which just happens to knit neatly into the economically neo-liberal, atavistic one found in America).”

Boy does James dislike American influence in our lives. This book is littered with references to numerous academic studies that appear to support James’ theories. One of the interesting factoids uncovered concerned the poor correlation between advertising spend and  economic performance:

“America has long spent 2% of GDP on advertising, other English-speaking nations spend 1%. Continental Europeans spend only 0.5%.  [..] these differing spends do not increase national economic performance: it is an unnecessary as well as a corrosive fraud, one which damages public trust.”

James moves on to examine authoritarianism and used former President George W Bush Jnr as an example:

“Their personalities are organised around rabid hostility to ‘legitimate’ targets, often ones nominated by their parents’ prejudices. Intensely moralistic, they direct hatred towards despised social groups.”

The author goes on to say that:

“I did not meet anyone in Denmark who had a good word to say about the American Way.”

On education we learn this:

“…there is absolutely no evidence that a nations’s economic growth benefits from further investment in education.”

Clearly a basic level of attainment is essential but beyond that there are no more gains to be made. This argument of course also holds true for economic growth as a whole: beyond a certain level it doesn’t make us happier. James concludes:

“Blaming the collapse of the family and the fragmenting of communities on the decline of religion and louche morals is a favourite habit of the political Right. Virus values, driven by Selfish Capitalism, seem far more significant.”

So what we have here is less pop psychology and more political manifesto. The author is doing nothing less than challenging the assumption underpinning our culture. Undoubtedly this is a leftist/liberal cause. For many readers some of the James’ rhetoric does drift off into hyperbole. He occasionally descends into pages of technobabble, but it is worth staying with this book through the rough patches. Even if you cannot agree with certain elements of his hypothesis there is much here that makes the reader sit up and pay attention. It challenges you to think: can that possibly by true?

To keep you sane James advises that we all try to maintain our authenticity without lurching into false sincerity. We should retain “vivacity” without being hyperactive. We should be “playful” without playing games. He is strongly critical of the mawkishness found in American politics. Something that is creeping over to the UK slowly but surely. James is outright in his rejection of American cultural influences. We wonder how Americans react to him deriding the ghoulish “sincerity” of political leaders at 9/11 anniversaries? Is it all a show for the TV camera designed to impress voters? Isn’t that just politics? Isn’t kissing babies they same thing?

So how else does James think we can cure ourselves?:

“Reject much of the status quo. English-speaking nations are designed to maximise the profits of a tiny minority of very rich people, not the citizens’ well being or, for that matter, the survival of the planet.”

Certainly sounds like he is advocating some kind of a Transition to us. When James had his opportunity to challenge economic growth with Whitehall mandarins he got this response:

“…if economic growth was no longer the goal, unemployment would increase and there would be less funding for projects such as ending child poverty, and people would be unhappier.”

The author’s response is not recorded but he writes of his opinion that the civil service was “trapped in the Selfish Capitalist model”. When David Cameron became head of the Conservative Party he set up six commissions to rethink Tory policies from scratch. One dealt with “quality of life” and was how Zach Goldmsith MP became involved with his mentor Lord Gummer. James was invited to participate in this commission but (we guess) he declined on the basis that he didn’t believe David Cameron would really implement any of his ideas:

“…there is no sign of deep thinking. The assumption is that we must impose Selfish Capitalism on the world and from this will flow economic growth.  The reality is that, even if it were achieved , it would merely spread the Virus. Even more fundamentally than that, infected or not, within the foreseeable future of this American Dream being realised, vast numbers of people would start dying from the knock-on effects of Global Warming.”

Amen to that – however grim a conclusion that may be. Hence a Transition is required. By the end of the book James launches his own manifesto, his own flight of fancy, a wish list to Santa. He admits that:

“I am not against capitalism, which in itself does not cause Affluenza”

His manifesto doesn’t include the Transition but remember he was writing in a time before Transition existed. How would he have described it? We may never know. It is hard to see how any of his wish list is really pertinent to the problems ahead. However, it is these words that are left echoing in your head long after the last page has turned:

“Remember also that the more Americanised a culture, the more consumerist it is.”

And consumerism is the problem.

This book can be heartily recommended. Not always an easy ready, long but never dull. It will open your eyes to what is wrong in this world. It is essential reading. Certainly every Transitioner out there should read this and use it to frame what they do; NOT because it is about Peak Oil or Climate Change but because it about how we lead happy fulfilling lives without destroying our home. That is its contribution.

About post-carbon-man

A passionate advocate of a peaceful transition to a sustainable political-economy, Mark hails from a working class farming background. Today he is a Company Director and Chairman of the Low Carbon Chilterns Co-operative. Whilst at University (Engineering Masters) he was active in Conservative Student politics but has had no affiliation since. He has travelled widely on business covering the USA, Europe, Middle East and Central Asian Republics. In 2007 Mark founded Post-Carbon-Living and a year later co-founded Transition Town High Wycombe. He lives with is wife & daughter in a home they retrofitted to be carbon-neutral. Today he blogs about surviving politics on a shrinking planet and is passionate in his rejection of Nationalism.