Over this month of looking at “stuff” from different angles, I came to see that one of my first lightbulb moments in terms of understanding consumerism and the roots of our relationship with “stuff” was Oliver James’ books Affluenza and The Selfish Capitalist. Both books pulled together a remarkable case for the psychology that underpins our consumer culture, and the extent to which it exploits our pursuit of happiness to sell us something designed to never make us happy. It felt like this month wouldn’t be complete without a chat with Oliver …
Oliver James is a chartered clinical psychotherapist registered at the Bowlby Centre. He has written a number of books over the past 10 years, including They F*** You Up: How to Survive Family Life, Affluenza, The Selfish Capitalist, Office Politics: How to Thrive in a World of Lying, Backstabbing and Dirty Tricks and Love Bombing: Reset Your Child’s Emotional Thermostat. He is also writes magazine columns and appears on TV. You can either listen to/download this podcast, or read the transcript below:
The first book that you wrote that I became aware of was Affluenza and in that book you describe ‘affluenza’ or consumerism as a modern-day virus. Could you give us a sense of what the symptoms of that virus are?
Placing too high a value on money, possessions, appearances including ‘Keeping up with the Joneses’, fame, places you at greater risk of the commonest emotional distress and disorders. Depression, anxiety, personality disorders like me-me-me narcissism and substance above. People who have placed too high a value on these things are more at risk of suffering the commonest emotional problems that people have. In Affluenza, I explored how this was working out in 8 nations, obviously the UK, but then New Zealand, Australia, Singapore, Shanghai, Moscow, Copenhagen and New York.
I used anecdotal stories to illustrate the scientific evidence. The most important scientific fact comes from the World Health Organisation international survey about mental illness, which shows that the countries which are English-speaking, in particular America and New Zealand, but if you also include Australia, Canada and the UK, on average, averaged across those 5 nations you get an average of 23% of the population having suffered a mental illness in the last 12 months. Compared with mainland Western Europe, the six nations studied in that survey, France, Italy, Germany and so on, the average there is 11.5%.
The explanation I offered for that, the primary reason was that we are more materialistic, or what I call ‘the affluenza virus’. The reason we’re more materialistic is because of our form of political economy. Since 1979 in this country, 1980 in America, we have had free-market economics or what I would call ‘Selfish Capitalism’. Selfish Capitalism jacks up levels of materialism. It follows that if greater materialism always goes with greater levels of mental illness, if you increase the materialism of a population you would expect there to be an increase in the amount of mental illness in that population.
There are also cross-national studies which show that mainland Western European nations are less materialistic than English-speaking ones. It’s not surprising that we’re more mentally ill than mainland Western Europe. In fact, this has been going on for around about 50 years. America spent four times more per capita on advertising to its population than mainland Western Europe. In the UK and other English-speaking countries it’s twice as much per capita. Of course, advertising’s purpose is to try and persuade you that you need something which you don’t actually need. It’s a want, it’s an affected want.
So the affluenza-stricken Selfish Capitalist society is all about generating false means and getting people to conflate what they really need with what they want, or at least what the advertisers want them to want.
One of the things that you recommend in The Selfish Capitalist is that people need to “increase the strength of their emotional immune systems” in that context. What does that process look like, do you think?
Part of it is a shift away from extrinsic motives and goals towards intrinsic. Extrinsic means doing things to please other people and for rewards. That, of course, can start in early childhood and frequently does. It even starts in early infancy. So you have what I would call essentially Selfish Capitalist methods for shutting babies up, like Gina Ford, where you leave babies to cry onwards through into the education system.
You have love conditional on performance in the Selfish Capitalist system. That of course also happens in Asia. As we saw yesterday, the Asians put an awful lot of pressure on their children from a very young age to do well academically, so it’s not exclusive to Selfish Capitalism.
But increasingly, in contrast to 30 years ago, the education system is a sort of battery farm for creating extrinsic motivation. You don’t really care about your homework so long as you tick the boxes. The exam system has become similarly box-ticking, quite extraordinary really if you have children. O-Levels and A-Levels have become a ridiculous exercise in just finding out what the examiner wants and giving it to them. It has nothing whatever to do with scholarship, learning, just about going through hoops.
There is extrinsic motivation of course in the workplace. I wrote a book recently about office politics, which was arguing that because we now have a service sector based economy thanks to Thatcherism having destroyed our manufacturing base, office politics become critical. There is no objective matching for measuring your performance, it’s really all about the subjective evaluation of your boss.
In terms vaccines against the materialistic affluenza virus, the fundamental principle is you need to rediscover the intrinsic; accentuate the intrinsic and eliminate the extrinsic. The intrinsic being things that actually interest you, things that give you what’s known as ‘flow’, in other words when you look at your small children when they’re playing, they’re completely lost in that world, completely absorbed by it. As adults, we frequently, and from all too young an age, we’re not in that state. We’re basically in a state where we’re worrying about whether we’re pleasing other people, if we’re going to achieve things and get our reward.
You wrote recently about an idea called ‘Love Bombing’. Could you just tell us a little bit more about that and also because Transition is something which is designed as a community-wide response, whether you could imagine something like that working on a community scale, and if so what it might look like?
The idea of Love Bombing is very simple. It’s something that really people of any educational level can do. It’s simply the idea that – it works with any kind of child, your child doesn’t have to have problems, although all children do of course have some problems – it works pretty well for things like ADHD. Even somebody, there was one case described in the book of autism. What it is, is essentially giving your child an intense, condensed experience of feeling in control and of feeling loved.
The book itself doesn’t really get into the question of why children might need this, although it does explore the causes in the individual cases. It’s essentially illustrated through case histories. But the method itself is not really the same thing as ‘quality time’. People sometimes confuse it with that.
What you do is, you say to your child, your 3 to early puberty child, “would you like to have a bit of time away with me?” This might involve going away for a night or two. You can go to a B&B or something, or it might involve having the house to yourself and getting rid of the family, perhaps swapping with the grandparents, getting them to look after the family so you can go to their house. Any practical arrangement that you can fence up to get you alone with your child.
“Would you like some time away with me? You will decide what we do. It will be completely up to you and you can do anything you like, within reason. Obviously things we can’t afford are off the agenda but anything within reason”. So it’s not a hard sell to most children.
You then set about planning it. Obviously a proportion of children will say let’s go to the sweetshop and buy all the sweets in the shop. But actually, interestingly, that very rarely is where the children start. If there’s a lot of antagonism between the parent and the child – I have come across one case out of thousands where the child did actually just use it as a way of completely maliciously upsetting the parent, so I assume that something pretty ghastly had been going on between the parent and the child, but this is the only example I know of. In every other case I’ve come across, the child very quickly gets the hang of it. It really appeals a lot, to have the exclusive attention of the parent, it’s nearly always the mother.
If you go away for a night, the parent is forced to check themselves from trying to control the child, and forced to check themselves from their usual pattern of relating. Most of us get sucked into a pattern of “have you done this, have you done that”. It’s not how we want to be as parents, but partly because the system requires us to regulate our children in order to make them do their own work, in order to make them extrinsic.
Love bombing rather surprised me. I first did it actually for a TV series, and I was amazed at the results. I did a modified version of it. You go away, you hang out with the child and you’re forced to stop yourself telling them what to do. They’re in charge, you tell them you’ll love them whatever they say. It’s unconditional love. It sounds like a prescription for catastrophe, especially if your child is very needy, which often they are. But interestingly, it has the opposite effect to the one you might expect. They stop being so interested in screen time. If they want to spend hours watching telly you just sit and watch it with them but eventually they do get fed up with that and they do want to relate to you, to be with you, be cuddled by you, you to sleep in the same bed as them, and at the end of it you have an emotional top up and you or they give it a name.
It’s important that they choose the name, ‘mama time’ or ‘love time’ whatever they choose to call it. You then can institutionalise it as a period when the two of you hang out together and they’re in charge. Having established the principle they very quickly like that idea of having some brief time, even if it’s just watching an episode of The Simpsons. My son is quite happy if I sit and watch it with him, it’s so different for him than watching it on his own.
Very surprising changes seem to take place. The child, I think it resets their cortisol, resets their emotional thermostat. But also I think it does the same for the parent in relation to the child. The parent comes back home and suddenly notices that they’ve got into this pattern of trying to control the child and of forgetting to express affection and to start to try and express affection and stop just trying to control them all the time. A much more benign cycle is started. I’ve thousands of examples of this. It’s very gratifying to see.
And could you imagine that same principle being extended beyond the family? Could you Love Bomb a community, do you think?
When it comes to communities, the idea that the people who are in charge, who are in a sense making us extrinsically motivated, you could say through the rule of law. I would put it more in terms of democracy. What has happened in the Selfish Capitalist world particularly but also because of globalisation and the extent to which corporations are now taking over, there is a huge problem of control. The people are not in control.
A tiny ruling elite who loot corporations and loot the taxpayers are in control. Personally I think it’s very unlikely that this ruling elite are going to give these things up very easily. What I predict, and I think it’s very dangerous to predict these things; I personally think the present situation is unsustainable not only ecologically. The sooner East Anglia goes under water or something the better, but unfortunately it’s probably not going to happen for some time. Especially because of fracking – we were told oil had run out, OPEC told us that Peak Oil had happened some time in the last decade. Unfortunately that’s not the case because of fracking.
We’re going to fry because, as George Monbiot pointed out, we’re stuffed. The oil’s going to keep coming or the gas and the ecological problem is going to get worse. It might happen quickly but it’s probably not going to happen quickly, in such a way that people really change their behaviour. For me, what is unsustainable is Selfish Capitalism. I think neo-liberalism is being completely disproved as indeed neo-classical economics is being disproved. Just as genes have been shown by the human genome project to be unimportant, but nobody’s paying any attention to this.
I think there’s a point at which a population has had enough. We’ve seen it in the Soviet Union, we saw it just disappear, up in smoke with hardly anyone predicting that. We’ve seen the Arab Springs happening. In the media, nobody’s pointing out that we don’t have democracy. Russell Brand stood up and said it and look at the reaction. He got a strong positive reaction from the population and then a load of censorious, patronising drivel from the commentariat.
I honestly would question whether the present situation is sustainable and I think there’s a very significant possibility that at some point, although it’s impossible to predict how or when, I think at some point there will just be an uprising. I don’t think, I certainly hope it isn’t a violent revolution. I think there’ll be a downing of tools and saying “we’ve had enough of this. We’re not putting up with it any more.”
One of the things that’s been very interesting in terms of that, recently, has been the beginning of a kick back against Amazon. In terms of a company that builds on those extrinsic values, and the recent Panorama programme and so on and so on. What’s your sense of what a company like that, although it all seems very quick and very simple and “one click and you’re done” and all that sort of thing…what does a company like Amazon do to us?
I remember when the internet started and thinking, this is just going to be a commercial thing. Everyone said it’s going to be so exciting, it’s going to be liberating. Actually, to some extent it has. As a scholar, it’s fantastic. You’re able to go to Google Scholar and find scientific papers. Of course, there have been huge benefits, maps, all sorts of things.
But the reason Amazon is a problem is purely because of the way that corporations have managed to destroy national identity, and the globalisation of corporations. The problem with Amazon is not the business, not the principle of being able to click on something and being able to get things delivered. Ecologically, the fact that superstores are now delivering saves journeys and saves a lot of petrol. It’s not a bad model actually, to have things delivered. The journey to the bookshop, obviously people like me are going to be slightly weepy about the loss of bookshops but I think if the Amazon platform was better developed it could be like a bookshop.
The problem isn’t the model in and of itself of a platform on an internet site, the problem of course is the way the tax system works and also the monopolistic dangers, and they are very considerable. I didn’t see the Panorama programme so I don’t know exactly what it was talking about, probably about the way they don’t pay tax and the way they have the potential to ultimately control what DVDs we see and what books we read.
No, it was about the working conditions in the factories and the degrees of psychological stress that they put workers under.
I didn’t know about that. Funnily enough I did manage to make contact with an employee at Amazon who said it was terrifying. But I didn’t know about that aspect of it. It doesn’t surprise me in the least. But what I’m more concerned about is the monopolistic risk. There will eventually be books that we can’t get hold of any more because they’re not on Amazon because there aren’t any bookshops.
How are corporations going to be controlled? The only way I think ultimately it’s going to be done is if you have a meeting of minds amongst powerful countries in the world. And that’s actually not going to be easy to see how that’s going to come about, because as we saw with Leveson, there really is a revolving door within the ruling elite. The politicians move in and out of business, the businessmen move in and out of politics. So politics has no longer become the mechanism by which these problems are going to be dealt with.
Again you come back to, at what point does it become apparent to the population that this system doesn’t work and in what way will they apprehend it? All I can say is that people are not going to put up with it. If you’ve got The Daily Mail baying against the amount that bankers are paid, that must tell you something.
One of the things, you mentioned Google and Amazon, and I suppose the way in which that now, or a Tesco Clubcard, knows more about us than probably our partners do in terms of what we do on a daily basis and the degree to which it enables advertising targeted to you to be popping up in your email every time you open your email. There’s an extrinsic values machine that’s almost able to read our minds these days. How important is it that we somehow create space in our lives where those things can’t reach?
To a certain extent it doesn’t really matter if my wife knows if I’ve bought this or that on Amazon. The most alarming purpose that information serves is partly to be able to advertise to us, so we get an increasingly limited view of the world because when you go for information on Google it uses your past history to control the search terms. So if you’re very right wing and live in America, you’ll only get ‘right wing live in America’ information. If you’re left wing and live in England, you’ll get the same thing. You get a rather limited world view.
That’s a worry. But more irritating than practical is the differential pricing. Although they can’t tell your IP address, through your past usage they pretty much know who you are. Using that you get differential pricing. You could say there is no such thing as an air fare. If I googled for an air fare on my computer now, I would be offered a different price than somebody who lives in Brixton who’s never tried to get an air fare before or who’s only able to afford very cheap ones, whose expenditure and consumption pattern shows that they’re a young person, they will get offered a lower air fare. You could say that’s democratic but I would say it’s very startling and not how it should work at all.
I think also the Edward Snowden, that kind of snooping stuff is also potentially worrying and certainly in some respect we are living in Oceania, Big Brother has come to pass. If you’re on a computer that contains a camera, if GCHQ want to watch what I’m doing it’s very easy for them to do that. If for some reason they wanted to, they’d be able to switch on my camera and watch me and hear what I’m saying and doing. That is spooky and in the wrong hands, but I think one doesn’t want to get carried away with conspiracy theories either. But the means by which Oceania could come about is now all there, it’s all sitting waiting to happen in a sense, if you want to get paranoid about it.
One of the things that I’ve asked everybody this month is given your analysis of things, what are you buying for people this Christmas?
Hopefully very very little. My take on Christmas (I offered it on You and Yours recently) is that if you’ve got children, club together with other family members and choose something that they’re still going to want in three months’ after Christmas. So it’ll probably be a fairly high-end, expensive item. Then just ask everybody to contribute to it. Whether it’s an iPad or a bicycle or whatever it is, keep it simple.
Obviously if you’ve got under 5 year olds or small children, in a way it’s even more important, because that pile of plastic and paper that you end up with on Christmas morning or on birthday mornings is just such a nightmare. It’s so depressing for everyone including the child.
That’s my top tip for avoiding that happening. Indeed, we have agreed in our family to do a ballot. We did a ballot and each person is going to be given one present by the group. I can’t remember who I’m giving my present to, and I can’t remember who’s giving me my present, but only one present is all I’m going to get or give within the group of people who I’ll be together with on Christmas day. That’s a way to control it.
Christmas is for children really. For adults it’s when you all get together and there is a sense of community, although a lot of it’s quite tense and bad tempered, but then that’s families for you. But it doesn’t have to be like that and for many families it isn’t and for the adults. But I think it’s primarily for children. It does have a sort of wow factor and it is a magical moment potentially.