When ignorance is bliss

The epidemic of misery in the English-speaking west has been caused not by rampant consumerism, but

In the 1980s there were champagne socialists, those Bollinger-swigging Thatcher-bashers who cheered on the workers and sometimes handed wads of cash to the unions. Today we have the herbal-tea socialist. This new breed of lefty is more likely to be therapeutically minded and green-leaning, and to fret about capitalism "stressing out" the workers. The herbal-tea socialist wants to massage our minds rather than fund our fightbacks; he thinks we need therapy, not theory.

The most striking thing about herbal-tea socialism is its focus on the alleged evils of consumerism. Old Marxists quite admired the consumer society. Karl Marx himself praised its "charms" and "chatter", writing: "In spite of all his 'pious' speeches, [the capitalist] searches for means to spur [the workers] on to consumption, to give his wares new charms, to inspire them with new needs by constant chatter, etc. It is precisely this side of the relation of capital and labour which is an essential civilising moment." For Marxists, it was in the sphere of production, not consumption, that man was most degraded. It was there that he was exploited and alienated from his creative endeavours - and it was there that he had the power to change things. Only through overhauling production, Marxists argued, could man be made free.

Contrast that with herbal-tea socialism. Whether it's Buy Nothing Day campaigners hectoring the "sheep" of Oxford Street into detoxing from shopping, or environmentalists claiming that our addiction to "stuff" (a disease some refer to as "stuff-itis") is making us mentally ill, the herbal-tea socialist is myopically outraged by what we buy, rather than how exploited or unfree we are. Where Marx considered workers to be the gravediggers of capitalism, the herbal-tea socialist sees us as zombies of consumerism.

Herbal-tea socialism has a new bible in Oliver James's The Selfish Capitalist. Nothing better captures the snobbery and paternalism of the new anti-capitalism than James's tome. Dolled up to look like a fearless, searing critique of modern capitalist society, it is actually a deeply prejudicial, historically illiterate and conservative broadside against people's desire for material comfort and wealth.

James is a clinical child psychologist. In his last book, Affluenza: How to Be Successful and Stay Sane, he claimed to have uncovered a new virus. "Affluenza", he said, is brought on by the rampant materialism and cult of consumerism nurtured under "Blatcherism" (that's Blairism and Thatcherism combined). As we are encouraged to lust after stuff, to aspire to live the mock-Tudor lifestyle of a superwealthy, blinged-up footballer's wife, we begin to neglect non-material matters such as friendships and family relations, argued James; we become emotionally distressed, destructively perfectionist, and discontented, sex-addicted and domineering to boot.

The Selfish Capitalist promises to trace the "origins of affluenza". One of James's central claims is that there is twice the prevalence of emotional distress or "mental illness" in English-speaking "selfish capitalist" nations there is in the "unselfish capitalist" nations of mainland western Europe. This suggests that materialism is driving us Brits mad, literally.

There are just a few problems with James's thesis. He never convincingly demonstrates that mental distress is higher in the "selfish capitalist" world than it is elsewhere. He shows no direct causal relationship between materialistic desire and levels of emotional distress. And the implications of his argument - where, in effect, the government is encouraged to manage our well-being - are so borderline Orwellian that they make Blatcherism look almost progressive. Yes, "selfish capitalism" leaves us edgy and unfulfilled; but what we might refer to as the therapeutic socialism that James seems keen to instal would turn us into mental slaves.

James says that where 23 per cent of people in "selfish capitalist" nations (the United States, Britain, Australia, Canada and New Zealand) have suffered emotional distress in the recent period, only 11.5 per cent of people in "unselfish capitalist" nations (France, the Netherlands, Belgium, Spain, Germany, Italy and Japan) have been distressed. This finding is the foundation on which he builds his thesis about the perils of life in a neoliberal society. Yet James has to play the role of research contortionist to arrive at the claim that people in the selfish capitalist sphere are twice as likely to be unhappy.

He kicks off by citing the findings of a study by the World Health Organisation into the "percentage of the population [in different countries] that has suffered a mental distress in the past 12 months". Of the 15 countries probed to date, the US and New Zealand come top: 26.4 per cent of Americans and 20.7 per cent of New Zealanders claim to have "suffered a mental distress" recently. Must be that pesky selfish capitalism they're forced to live under. But what's this? Ukraine, better known for its poverty and unemployment than for any epidemic of Posh- and-Becks-style materialism, comes third in the WHO's "league of woe": 20.5 per cent of Ukrainians say they have recently suffered mental distress. Colombia (17.8 per cent) and Lebanon (16.9 per cent), hardly nations in which disposable income is sloshing around, come fifth and sixth.

Most strikingly, Shanghai is at the bottom of the WHO's list of screwed-up territories: only 4.3 per cent of its residents have recently been seriously stressed. Yet it is hard to think of a country where naked ambition and the desire for stuff is stronger than China right now, where two coal-fired power stations are erected every week, gleaming new skyscrapers poke holes in the clouds, and tens of thousands are abandoning back-breaking tasks in the countryside to get proper jobs (and TVs and cars) in the city.

If "selfish capitalism" and its sidekick rampant consumerism provoke mental distress, why aren't the Chinese suffering but people in Colombia are? James has some neat and tidy explanations. Colombia and Lebanon might be distressed as a result of "social unrest and civil war"; Ukraine is probably emotionally under the weather as a result of its "economic crash"; and the people of Shanghai seem not to be stressed ("yet . . ." he warns) because "the Chinese conceptualise questions about mental states differently from westerners". I see.

Moreover, Britain, Canada and Australia - three "selfish capitalist" nations to which James refers frequently - were not even part of the WHO study of distress. Instead, James uses completely different surveys of national distress for these countries, which he confesses is a "debatable" tactic, because "these studies have not used identical instruments for measuring distress to those employed in the . . . WHO study". On page 31 of this book, he notes: "Comparison can be safely made only between studies in different nations which used the same instruments, in the same way." Yet, ten pages later, he is marrying completely different studies, explaining away the high levels of distress in poor countries like Colombia and the low level of distress in rising capitalist tigers like China.

The book seems packed with caveats about its own scientific claims. James cites Émile Durkheim's study of suicide in 19th-century Europe, and then writes in parenthesis: "(Durkheim's data has since been queried)." After testing his hypotheses about materialism causing distress, James writes: "The scientifically trained reader will rightly assert that [my] tests of the theory are less than would be needed for a submission to a learned journal." Indeed. Even I, whose scientific training came to an inglorious end with a C grade in GCSE physics in 1990, can see that.

Other parts of the book suggest that he might also have a tenuous grip on history. He writes: "Industrialisation and urbanisation are arguably the fundamental causes of high rates of emotional distress." So why didn't people complain about suffering from "low self-esteem", "anxiety" or "impulse disorders" during a historic upheaval such as the British Industrial Revolution? Then, a nation was transformed within a gene ration: vast cities were built or expanded and swaths of the population moved from farm work into factories. Life was tough, smelly, unforgiving, yet people somehow survived without the likes of Oliver James or Oprah or Jeremy Kyle offering them emotional guidance.

No one can possibly believe that people in Britain today have harder emotional lives than those women in shawls who sold soap on misty bridges in Dickensian times, and who had a life expectancy of 46 if they were lucky. Perhaps it is simply that people are more likely to complain about mental hardship these days?

James fails fully to interrogate one possible, simple explanation for why Americans, Canadians and Brits allegedly suffer, or rather claim to suffer, from higher levels of mental distress than others: the "therapy culture". Over the past 30 years, precisely the period in which James says there has been an increase in levels of emotional distress, America has spawned a culture in which we are positively encouraged to discuss everyday problems, from overwork to sadness, as "illnesses" that require therapeutic intervention. In his brilliant Shyness: How Normal Behaviour Became a Sickness, the American academic Christopher Lane painstakingly shows how the category of "mental disorder" has been expanded in recent decades, so that what were once considered normal emotions or everyday foibles - shyness, rebelliousness, aloofness, and so on - have been relabelled as phobias, disorders and syndromes. The influence of America's therapy culture has been greater in other English-speaking nations (Britain, Canada, Australia, New Zealand) than it has been in China, for example. It's not that their citizens are more distressed than, say, people struggling to make ends meet in Nigeria (where only 4.7 per cent of the population claim to have mental issues), but rather that they are more likely to understand and discuss their problems in these terms.

As you sift through James's claims and data, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that what we have here is plain old prejudice - against garish consumerism, especially of a kind indulged in by the nouveaux riches - dressed up as a scientific study. At heart, this book is deeply conservative: it rehashes the age-old warning that riches will make you unhappy, so you're better off living a simple, smiley life. Because they see overconsumption as the greatest evil, herbal-tea socialists such as James end up not offering solidarity to workers, but constantly warning them that their "greed" will come back to haunt them in the form of a mental disorder. They have rehabilitated the sin of gluttony in pseudo-scientific terms.

I say we should resist the attempts by James and others to relieve us of our "emotional distress". Prickly emotions are frequently the triggers for change, making people strive for better and more meaningful ways of living. James, who advises the government on social policy, argues that "well-being should be a high governmental priority". No, it should not; government-imposed "happiness" or "satisfaction" would only churn out an emotionally complacent populace trained to be satisfied by the simple life. We may all be on the edge - but some of us are looking over it, to see what will come next.

Brendan O'Neill is editor of "spiked" (www.spikedonline.com)The Selfish Capitalist: Origins of Affluenza, Oliver James, Vermilion, 288pp, £14.99

This article first appeared in the 28 January 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Merchant adventurer