Monday, 18 February 2008

The Selfish Capitalist - A Book Review

"I am the government of your country...When I want anything to keep my dividends up, you will discover that my want is a national need. When other people want something to keep my dividends down, you will call out the police and the military. And in return you shall have the support and applause of my newspapers, and the delight of imagining that you are a great statesman." Taken from Shaw's Major Barbara, first performed in 1905

"In real terms there was no rise in income for American male middle- and lower income workers between 1970 and 1995. Indeed, incomes stagnated for the majority of Americans, and in order to sustain a "sufficient" consumer lifestyle, wives began to work as well as husbands. In 1968, families with children had a combined 53-hour average working week; by 2000 this was 64 hours. Families living on a duel income earned 60 per cent more that those with a single male earner. Americans were having to peddle faster to stay in the same consumer place. In both the UK and the USA, there was a steady growth in gender-neutral, service-industry short-term jobs, every bit as stultifying, albeit less dangerous, than the lost manufacturing ones. Job security decreased, with shorter contracts, and the proportion of people working unsocial hours (at night and at weekends) rose to 15 per cent of the British workforce as shopping became almost a 24/7 activity." Taken from Oliver James' The Selfish Capitalist, 2007

It has been a long time since I read Major Barbara. I like George Bernard Shaw though, I've always thought that his plays are a very Irish observance on very English idiosyncrasies. He rather gently points out the ridiculousness of the class system, politics and social niceties of England in the early part of the last century. But Irish writers, from Swift to Behan, have always been canny enough to couch biting social commentary in a lilting sense of the absurd. And Undershaft, the character speaking in the first quotation, is a very British plutocrat; an arms manufacturer, a man of society, pagan, canny and pragmatic, he's very much the modern Edwardian, a man for whom money is the only morality. For Undershaft, and in this play for Shaw, money is the cure for all social evils.

It would be something of an understatement to say that Oliver James disagrees with Shaw. In his book, The Selfish Capitalist, James offers a stinging critique of a modern capitalism which he feels is fueled by both greed and, what Alan de Botton calls, "status anxiety". For those not in the know Oliver James is a psychologist, specialising in child psychology, and has acted as a special adviser for both the Conservatives and the Labour, he is also the author of Affluenza, although I am not sure if it was he who coined the term. James believes that the transition from the traditional, Keynesian economic practices of the pre-late 1970s to the neo-conservative economics of the 1980s is responsible for ill-being and social disintegration. He argues that a free-market economy, based on consumerism and share prices and lacking long term investment in companies, is damaging as it has only made the rich very much richer. Mrs Thatcher's promised "trickle down affect" never really happened, and we have only been encouraged, by successive governments to increase our debt, increase our working hours, increase our spending and leave our homes and families in search of the almighty dollar (pound), this makes the average Joe(anne) tired, fat, sick and depressed and the top 1% of income earners very happy indeed. He argues that it is a government's job to work for the well-being of the people and not for the well-being of the Undershafts of this world.

For a psychologist he does a pretty good job on analysing the economic and sociological evidence for his theory. Indeed, I found it surprising that the psychological elements of the book were confined to a critical analysis of NLP and evolutionary-psychology. However, herein lies the crux of his argument. That is to say, he feels that the growth of mental illness in the English speaking nations is primarily caused by our environment and not our genetics. He compares the health and well-being of the English speaking nations (who have all accepted "selfish-capitalism") with the health and well-being of mainland Europeans, who by and large retained economic models of "caring capitalism" (Keynesian/classical liberalism) and unsurprisingly the mainland Europeans are healthier, both mentally and physically. So, James formulates his theory that our environment is counter-productive to our well-being. That consumerism, long working hours, media saturation, anxieties over material goods and the fragmentation of the family (all side-effects of "selfish capitalism") have made us, and our society, unable to function at a healthy level. He is also not shy of criticising how the "selfish capitalist" model encourages women to leave their children in child-care far sooner than most of us would want to. He states that a parent at home, at least for the first six years of a child's life, enables a child to develop all the physical and emotional skills necessary to function properly as an adult. James then goes on to slam our "son of the manse" Prime Minister for encouraging women back to work far too soon, pouring government money into institutionalised day care and weighting the old "married man's tax allowance" in favour of families where both parents are working.

As much as I applaud his advocacy of children's well-being and as much as I enjoyed his critique of consumerism I did feel that there were one or two faults, or omissions, with his theories. First, although he does an excellent job of analysing the effects of laissez-faire capitalism he does little to address the problems of the current climate of laissez-faire morality. We live in a country where politicians are cristicised for making "moral judgments", indeed speaking out on morality is a sure-fire way to commit political suicide. Neither of the main political parties are comfortable debating what is "right" or what is "good" and this moral relativism is one of the major causes in the breakdown of our communities, we no longer have a consensus and like Undershaft we believe that only money can cure social evils. This brings me to my second criticism. Towards the end of the book James states that he would wish for the government to pay stay at home mums the national average wage as both an encouragement for them to remain home with their children and as a gesture of value of their status. This I think is a sticking paster solution to the problems he so eloquently put forward in the main body of his text. If his main critique of "selfish capitalism" is that it encourages self-worth through acquisition and consumerism then paying parents to stay home, in order for them to keep up with the Jones', both in terms of acquisition and status seems contrary to his central argument. Why not encourage our government to give equal weight to all types of child care provision? A parity between institutionalised day-care and home-parenting. Surely this could be done via the old-fashioned family allowance system, this would be a real incentive for parents to examine all child-care options, and choose what is best for their families without the system being weighted in favour of "out-sourcing" our children.

Overall, The Selfish Capitalist is a passionate and clear argument against rabid consumerism. His writing style is cogent and formal, though not overly academic, and the statistics he uses to back up his points are often startlingly instructive. Here are just a few for you to think about.

  1. The world's richest 200 people more than doubled their net worth in just the four years between 1994 and 1998 to more than $1 trillion.
  2. Real wages (adjusted for inflation) have either decreased or remained static in the USA and Britain since the 1970s. For example, the post-war peak in the USA was $15.72 per hour, falling to $14.15 in 2000, even though productivity was constantly rising.
  3. Internationally, the income gap between the bottom one-fifth richest countries and the top one-fifth richest changed from 1:30 in 1960, to 1:60 in 1990, to 1:74 in 1997.
  4. Taxes for the very wealthy have dropped very sharply since the 1970s.
  5. The growth in average household income has been achieved in two main ways in the Selfish Capitalist world:
  • By Women becoming as likely as men to have paid employment (ie average income has not increased, getting women into the workforce to create duel income households is what has raised overall affluence)
  • Working hours have substantially increased for the average household, especially for the average professional or managerial worker.


Anonymous said...

Interesting post chuck. I certainly wouldn't agree with Shaw's assertions and his quote of a person from the Salvation Army as saying: 'they would take money from the devil himself and be only too glad to get it out of his hand's and into God's'. I reckon if God can make a coin appear in a fish's mouth He certainly doesn't need money from the devil.

Do I think Stay at Home Mum's should be paid? Hmmm, it might encourage those really struggling with money to make the choice to nurture their children comfortably rather than go out to work and rely on daycare. I do feel sorry for single mums and poor families that genuinley want the best for their children but all the government offers is childcare support rather than stay at home support.

A local council estate near us considered to house families mostly on the poverty line where the average household wage was £24,000 - not much less than my hubs earns. I guess theirs would be combined incomes of say £12000's interesting that this is considered poverty level!

An interesting fact I learned recently is that in the past CEOs and Chairmen of big corps like British Gas, etc, used to earn on average 9 times that of their average employee...the gap has now moved to 100 times more. I find this shocking and sickening.

I think that the only answer is a change of heart in the people of this you think that this is likely? Probably not, but perhaps grass roots activists such as yourself may start a change?

I hate what our government preaches and I hate what the opposition to our government preaches. Hate is a strong word, but to be honest I just see it all as lies and pandering to what they think the majority wants but then doing something completely different behind our backs. Grrr.

Hehehehehe...I'm bordering on ranting now so I'll stop.


Sarah x

Zillah said...

Interesting sounding book, DD, thanks for the review. I'd like to say more, but the babe is asleep in the crook of my right elbow, and my left handed typing is not up to much!


Dulce Domum said...

Hi Sarah

Like you I'm completely disillusioned with all of the major political parties in this country. And, again like you I can understand why James said (on the Today Programme and in the book) that he would want SAHMs paid the average wage. It would wipe out child poverty in one fell swoop...ain't that a tempting proposition. However, I would be concerned about what people would do when they are no longer paid to parent full-time, say when the child goes to school, or even when the child leaves full-time education. How many women do you know who could walk into a £20K plus job after having a 10 year break from the job market? I know that as a teacher, I wouldn't earn much more and would probably have to retrain. Women, no matter what, are always in the lowest paid jobs.

That's why I think a substantial increase in the Family Allowance would be a better idea. Treble it, quadruple it, pull half of the money the government has given to daycare and give it directly to mums so they can decide what to do with it. It wouldn't be as much as a substantial salary but enough to keep the average family on an even keel. If you're interested there is a link on my side-bar on a group called "Time for Parenting", this is what they're campaigning for.

I too am surprised about £24k being the poverty means that the government pays public sector workers a wage on or less than the poverty line...but that's okay as long as MPs get a bloody good pay rise...

Oh am I ranting???

Hi Zillah

Oh, I know that feeling!

Anonymous said...

They didn't specifically say that £24,000 was the poverty line, but that most of the homes on the estate were considered to be living on the poverty line and then the same report said that the average wage was £24,000...which either means we are living just above the poverty line...or the report is talking nonsense, lol.

I see what you mean about the money thing. The whole modern ethos of family life...well there seems to be no ethos. Magazines bang on about 'me time' and 'slowing down' and 'quality time' but you know I think that more than anything QUANTITY of time with children is what is know sitting and listening, picking up when they are down, reading between the lines in their comments that something is wrong at school, noticing when they're a bit paler than normal, rejoicing in the little things...a dinner eaten up, shoes tidied away without being asked, cooking together, reading together, sitting in the garden together...and so on. I wish that life would slow down of course, but not for me but for everyone to just sit down TOGETHER and simply be.

Was that a waffle...? I'll probably read that back and think "what on earth...???" Lol.

Dulce Domum for Prime Minister (as long as she can bring her kids along :)

Dulce Domum said...

Hi Sarah

I know exactly what you mean. Why should time with our kids, which they very much need, be seen as the ultimate modern luxury? We seem to have replaced a gentle continuum of constant parenting with short bursts of stressful "quality" time. I think it's all very unhealthy. Also, very few people are willing to talk about the importance of the role of the family within society, to say that a solid family life is important to the health of our children, the health of our communities, would be politically inept and economically radical! Politicians fear upsetting voters, and, importantly, if parents did dedicate more time to family life and less time to work then they simply couldn't afford purchase big loans, huge mortgages, new cars electrical goods etc etc and hyper-consumerism is the fulcrum of our economy.

Dulce Domum said...

Oh and here's and interesting fact. The chappy the government have employed to sort out Northern Rock (now a nationalised bank) will earn £90k per month. He is also a tax exile.

Anonymous said...

A MONTH!!! **voice so high pitched only dogs can hear me** he single? Hahaha I kid I kid.

Dulce Domum said...

Hands off girl! He's mine! No, no, I have more integrity than that...there's more to life than money you know, in fact I've just read an interesting book about it!