In My Own Words: AFFLUENZA
Selfish capitalism and mass consumerism are damaging not only the planet but also the people.
ECOLOGISTS MAINLY FOCUS on the damage being done to the planet by advanced industrialisation. I come at the same problem from a different direction: the damage done to our emotional wellbeing by the particular form of advanced industrialisation which many call neo-conservatism or market liberalism, championed by the USA. My conclusions are the same but via another route: we must declare an end to profligate mass consumerism not only because of the damage to the planet but because of the damage it is doing to people.
To investigate this, in 2004 I embarked on a ‘mind tour’ of seven countries, spending three weeks in each, interviewing citizens of New Zealand, Australia, Singapore, Shanghai, Moscow, Copenhagen and New York. My object was to explore the way in which what I call the “Affluenza Virus” has panned out around the globe.
By ‘Affluenza’ I mean the placing of a high value on money, possessions, appearances and fame. Studies from samples drawn from fourteen different nations show that people infected with the Virus are significantly more at risk of the commonest mental illnesses – depression, anxiety, addictions and personality disorders.
Affuenza causes illness because it prevents the meeting of true psychological needs, conflating them with wants confected by advertisers and consumerism. A large body of scientific evidence reveals the following reasons why the Virus impairs the meeting of the four needs that most psychologists agree are fundamental.
Constantly comparing your lot with others, especially those who have more than you, is not a prescription for feeling safe. If you are constantly worrying whether you have enough money and the right possessions, or about your appearance, or seeking fame, you are digging the proverbial bottomless pit. You will have a nameless sense that there is always something you should be doing; a free-floating anxiety. You will be depressively running yourself down because you do not do as well as others, moving the goalposts if you do succeed.
At the same time, you may deal with the sense of your inadequacy by falsely building yourself up (exaggerating your wonderfulness in a narcissistic compensation) and by desperate
attention-seeking. To deal with depression, anxiety and exaggerated self-love, you will medicate your unhappiness with booze, drugs and all the myriad other quick fixes that Selfish Capitalism is so adept at confecting and making profits from.
The Virus prevents you from meeting your need to connect with family, friends and the wider community by relegating them to a low priority. Unless your family members assist your career, you keep them at a distance. In choosing friends, you are motivated by their use to you, not a desire to be close, emotionally, and to enjoy shared pursuits for fun rather than competition.
Friendship and romantic attachments are so muddled up with professional alliances that they become indistinguishable, as do work and play. You become liable to buy friendship through expensive presents or career gifts (promotions, salary rises) and this may extend to lovers. Your values prioritise selfishness, so you miss out on the large satisfaction to be gained from supporting others and feeling supported.
The consequent lack of intimacy leaves you feeling bored, empty and lonely, promoting depression and anxiety; you compensate with substance abuse, to make you feel better and to introduce thrills into the over-
controlled, predictable dreariness.
The same features of the Virus that breed insecurity also impair your need to feel competent. However conventionally successful you are, it is never enough. With your self-focused mindset, there is only one person’s inabilities that can be to blame for this ‘failure’: your own. There is also only one response that you know: try even harder. In a hole, it’s advisable to stop digging. The Virus-stricken, driven on by a powerful sense of their inefficacy, just carry on. As you get deeper and deeper, the sunlight of competence gets weaker and more distant, with an ever-greater threat of the walls of self-criticism and rampant anxiety burying you. With the darkness closing in, you are very vulnerable to anything that will give brief relief. Occasionally, you may even try to end your life.
The Virus impedes our need to feel authentic and autonomous by creating a thin, tough, impermeable barrier of false wants between us and our true desires. Most Virus-stricken people are ‘marketing characters’, to a greater or lesser degree. By seeing yourself and others as possessions that can be bought and sold, you cease to experience yourself as a person, but instead as a powerless entity whose value depends wholly on that placed upon it by the market, something that is ultimately beyond your control. Whilst you have the illusion of volition throughout your waking hours, like decisions about who to sack or hire and what to buy or sell, these choices are not real to you: they are part of a virtual reality. This is because the decisions concern matters unconnected with your core, true needs.
This leaves you with the feeling that you are an actor in a play rather than living a real life. The ‘marketing existence’ is an act: it is false, a game you play. Your chameleonism, hyper-competitiveness and Machiavellianism prevent you telling the truth or being told it. If you are ever honest, it is only as part of your manipulativeness – you may use truth-telling sometimes, but to foster trust in order to trick someone, be it a lover or a colleague. This inauthenticity and lack of autonomy leave you feeling outside yourself, at one remove. It makes you very prone to personality disorders and to any purchasable, snatched snacks of reality, or glimpses thereof, be it through drugs, drink or sex addiction.
ON MY TRAVELS I found this was borne out by my interviewees, but perhaps the most startling information I have to impart comes from armchair research – the results from the World Health Organisation’s ongoing cross-national study of mental illness. My analysis of its results shows that citizens of
English-speaking nations are twice as likely to suffer mental illness as citizens from mainland Western Europe.
The US is by some margin the most mentally ill nation, with 26.4% having suffered in the last twelve months. This is six times the prevalence in Shanghai or Nigeria; a huge discrepancy. Genes do not explain it – studies show that when Shanghaiese or Nigerians move to the US, within a few generations they develop US prevalences.
My contention is that what I term Selfish Capitalism largely explains the greater prevalence among
English-speaking nations. By this I mean a form of political ideology that consumption and market forces can meet human needs of almost every kind. The US is the apotheosis of Selfish Capitalism, Denmark of the Unselfish variety, and English-speaking nations are more infected with the Virus than mainland Western European nations.
To be clear, then, my argument goes like this: Selfish Capitalism infects populations with Affluenza; it fosters mental illness; English-speaking nations are more Selfish Capitalist and therefore more prone to illness.
Its implications hardly need spelling out to an ecologically minded readership. We have to completely rethink the way we organise our societies, shifting from Selfish to Unselfish Capitalist political economics. It is increasingly clear that the people of the world are waking up to the threat posed by global warming. It is my earnest hope that the damage Selfish Capitalism is doing to our mental health will hasten this awakening process, promoting a speedy change towards a much more benign world.
Affluenza: How to be Successful and Stay Sane is published by Vermilion, UK. The second edition of They F*** You Up: How to Survive Family Life is published by Bloomsbury, UK. Oliver James is a member of the advisory panel for Resurgence.