Posted in: Book Reviews

affluenzaby Oliver James

Vermillion £17.99

Psychologist Oliver James defines Affluenza as a contagious middle class virus causing depression, anxiety, addiction and ennui and he says we’re all in danger of catching it.  Asking why we in the English speaking world are afflicted by more mental illness and low level dissatisfaction than ever before despite being richer than ever, James toured the world to find answers.

“Cards on the table,” he says “I contend that most emotional distress is best understood as a rational response to sick societies.”  He identifies the Western style of Selfish Capitalism as having hijacked decent ideals including meritocracy, egalitarianism, female emancipation and democracy and employed them in the pursuit of personal income.  This, says James, can never lead to happiness, only to the kind of dissatisfaction which continues to drive capitalism.  He finds the least depression in countries with the fewest inequalities and, unfortunately, visits places where the virus is just beginning to take a grip.

In the course of his investigations James traveled to New Zealand, Australia, Singapore, Shanghai, Moscow, Copenhagen and New York.  He interviews people living in places suffering from acute affluenza, and also places which are less affected.  Denmark, with its high taxes and gender equality, suffers much less from the virus and is held up as a valuable role model where the population is less impressed by wealth and glamour than just about anywhere in the developed world.

In part two of his book James advocates seven vaccines against the Affluenza virus.  Interestingly three of these are child-centred; Meet Your Children’s Needs (Not Those of Little Adults); Educate your Children (Don’t Brainwash Them) and Enjoy Motherhood (Not Desperate Housewifery/Househusbandry).  In this last chapter James analyses the way a virus-suffering society regards parents caring for their children.  He notices the same impact of the virus on mothers in all the English-speaking nations he visited, finding them feeling obliged to return to work in order to pay a mortgage which can’t otherwise be afforded, and having the sense that only paid work is ‘for me’ whereas occupying only the role of mother leaves ‘me’ powerless and worthless.  He also visits a Danish nursery which is regarded as a model, nationally and internationally to illustrate his point that whereas generating a new role for men (thus alleviating ‘role strain’ for women) is a vaccine against Affluenza, daycare for toddlers is not.

In a powerful, convincing conclusion to this chapter James states: “The truth about modern parenthood almost everywhere is that it is infected by the notion that the only worthwhile activities are paid ones.  Well, so be it.  At least follow through the logic of that toxic message: pay parents to care for their children until they are three or, if neither parent wants to do it, then pay one person properly to be a substitute.”  Indeed when he was interviewed on Radio 4’s Today Programme, and asked what one social change he would like to see to allieviate virus suffering in the UK James said “Raise the status of being a mother from that of less than a street sweeper.  That would break the cycle.”

James completes his study with his radical ideas for The Unselfish Capitalist Manifesto. His informal style is deceptive, and the ideas he comes up with for making real, effective changes to the way we live our lives, are governed and regard ourselves, may seem impossibly different to the current status quo.  But James is simply being true to one of his vaccines; he’s being authentic (rather than sincere) in his clarion call for strong medication to combat Affluenza and its dangerous symptoms.

Mel Tibbs

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