Guy Aitchison reviews: Affluenza by Oliver James.
This book offers an authoritative diagnosis of the destruction wrought by Blairite values but a less than convincing political cure.
The New Labour elite embraced free market ideology as the ultimate form of progress and with it the love of wealth. They were, as Peter Mandelson put it, "seriously relaxed about people becoming very, very rich". But has economic growth made us any happier, including those who've gained the most? Not according to psychologist Oliver James. Affluenza, part self-help book, part political manifesto, is his account of why we're all so miserable despite previously unimaginable levels of prosperity. It is also a scathing attack on the avaricousness and greed at the heart of New Labour.
The Affluenza virus is, according to James, a set of values that make us vulnerable to emotional distress. It is our insatiable desire for money, fame and power; our envious and obsessive need to compete with and compare ourselves to others. In this celebrity-obsessed age it is not so much our keeping-up-with-the-Joneses as our keeping-up-with-the-Beckhams. It is, in short, neo-liberalism, or from James's socio-psychological perspective, "Selfish Capitalism".
To make the point, as James does, that money does not buy happiness, is to risk sounding banal, cliché even. It was after all Aristotle who first said that beyond a certain level of material well-being happiness does not increase and today it seems not a week goes by without some new study showing that Scandinavian street-cleaners are the happiest people on the planet and our kids the fattest and most miserable. Affluenza, however, gives this moral truism a 21st century twist. It's no longer simply that the more money we get the smaller our felicific gains, the so-called law of diminishing returns described by fellow happiness expert Richard Layard; it's that money is making us depressed, anxious and miserable.
To illustrate his theory, James recounts the stories of some of the more extreme Affluenza cases he meets around the world. There's Sam, the soon-to-be-billionaire investment banker who sits paranoid and alone in his huge New York apartment; when not addicted to heroin Sam gets his kicks from meaningless sex with teenage girls who he has delivered to his place "like a pizza". And then there's Julia, coke-snorting wife of millionaire Jim, twice her age: he abuses her and sleeps around; she spends his money to get her own back.
The serious questions, if you buy into the Affluenza thesis, which I do, are the political ones: who is to blame and what can be done? In our case the answer to the first is unequivocal: Thatcher and her New Labour progeny. The psychology of the New Labour elite is a subject James has intimate knowledge of. He was on close terms with a number of Blair's inner circle and even held six-weekly lunches with Jack Straw where he provided the Home Secretary with "blue sky" thinking. One can only assume his thinking was too blue or sky-like for Jack since in the last - "political" - part of the book James launches a diatribe against the Blairite fetish for power, glamour and extreme wealth, brilliantly cataloguing their money dealings in all their grubby detail.
Remember "seriously relaxed" Mandelson's murky deals over mortgages and rich Indian businessmen? Remember Blair's shady property deals? His holidays with Cliff Richard, Silvio Berlusconi, and the other millionaire "friends" he freebied off? How about Tessa Jowell and her claimed ignorance of a £350,000 "gift" her husband received following his testimony in support of the Italian PM? When the hardback edition of James's book was released the loans-for-peerages scandal was in full swing; now as the paperback version hits the shelves, we have Abrahams and the Peter Hain affair in the headlines. Coincidence? Or the sign of a destructive and contagious Affluenza at the heart of the system?
It's clear which is James's view. He shows how the New Labour elite, like other Affluenza sufferers, often started off pursuing goals of "intrinsic value" (Jowell, for instance, was a social worker and charity administrator), before becoming infected with Blairite virus values that place money, appearance and power above all else. As with the rest of society, the symptoms expected to follow from Affluenza have emerged in New Labour circles; David Blunkett and Alasdair Campbell both publicly reporting depression recently.
James is convincing when discussing the symptoms and causes of our malaise, but less persuasive when it comes to the political transformation needed. Like Layard he finds much to admire in the social solidarity of the Scandinavian systems, but his specific policy conclusions are at times illiberal and bizarre. This is partly due to the classic liberal's quandary: if the government decided to pursue values other than economic growth, what values should they be? One of the defining principles of liberalism is its supposed neutrality between the various goals human beings might be expected to pursue. Although we might share James's aversion to neo-liberal diktats on working harder longer hours, we might feel equally uneasy about government intervention aimed at promoting the values of family life and public service.
One of James's odder suggestions is that, following their election, MPs should spend two weeks caring for a two year old, a scheme, he says, which would need to be "strictly enforced, with direct monitoring by an independent authority." Beyond the wackiness there's something a little sinister about this kind of social engineering. For starters, one can't help but worry about the fate of the poor two year olds being used as "vaccines" for virus-prone MPs. Combined with James's absolute prohibition on attractive models in advertising, such schemes would shift our view of the proper role and function of the state onto new and frankly disturbing territory.
Then, of course, there is the question of how people would react to being told to pursue non-virus values. The answer, if the reception of the Gummer-Goldsmith report for the Tories (released after the first edition of James's book) is anything to go by, is not too enthusiastically. Their Quality of life report drew similar conclusions to James's work and even used the term "Affluenza". It was met with scorn, bewilderment and a telling silence from Cameron. Any hope James may have had that Brown was listening will have been dashed in the period between the publications of the two editions. There is, it seems, a long way to go before we start following the Bhutanese in the pursuit of Gross National Happiness.
(Affluenza, Oliver James, Vermilion, 592pp)