In defence of materialism

Lot of stuff in the papers recently about what psychologist Oliver James calls ‘affluenza’. James has a thesis that freemarket capitalism causes mental illness. He makes some good points about the myth of voodoo economics and the galloping chasm between rich and poor.

Readers of this newspaper will need little reminding that Selfish Capitalism has massively increased the wealth of the wealthy, robbing the average earner to give to the rich. There was no “trickle-down effect” after all.The real wage of the average English-speaking person has remained the same – or, in the case of the US, decreased – since the 1970s. By more than halving the taxes of the richest and transferring the burden to the general population, Margaret Thatcher reinstated the rich’s capital wealth after three postwar decades in which they had steadily become poorer.

Although I risk you glazing over at these statistics, it’s worth remembering that the top 1% of British earners have doubled their share of the national income since 1982, from 6.5% to 13%, FTSE 100 chief executives now earning 133 times more than the average wage (against 20 times in 1980); and under Brown’s chancellorship the richest 0.3% nobbled over half of all liquid assets (cash, instantly accessible income), increasing their share by 79% during the last five years.

In itself, this economic inequality does not cause mental illness. WHO studies show that some very inequitable developing nations, like Nigeria and China, also have the lowest prevalence of mental illness. Furthermore, inequity may be much greater in the English-speaking world today, but it is far less than it was at the end of the 19th century. While we have no way of knowing for sure, it is very possible that mental illness was nowhere near as widespread in, for instance, the US or Britain of that time.

All very true. Here he explains the Affluenza term:

We are suffering an epidemic of what I term the Affluenza Virus — putting a high value on money, possessions, appearances (physical and social) and celebrity. These values place you at greater risk of depression, anxiety, substance abuse and personality disorder because they impede the meeting of true needs (security or intimate relationships), rather than confected wants.

You can read Madeliene Bunting talking in much the same way here.

James and Bunting strike a chord. They are right to highlight the effects of mindless competition as the basis for a society. But there is something uneasy about their arguments because they claim that material wealth is, in and of itself, a bad thing.

This is a common view. Think of how many times you’ve heard the word ‘materialistic’ used as an insult; as in, ‘He is just so materialistic and selfish.’

But materialism is a good thing. Materialism is about food, drink, shelter, warmth, comfort, companionship. Marx knew this. He knew the problem wasn’t technology or wealth as such, just that the vast majority of it was like today concentrated in the hands of a powerful elite. Likewise, George Orwell said in Homage to Catalonia: ‘let the belly come before the soul.’

I will take materialism over spirituality any day. That doesn’t mean you lose the capacity to love or to feel emotion or to appreciate beauty and art. If anything, it’s the opposite.

The left critique of contemporary society is becoming indistinguishable with that of the conservative and religious right; it is the narrative of a Great Fall from a golden age. Liberals and conservatives alike moan that we have lost our traditional values and are drowning in a morass of casual sex and binge drinking. Bunting makes good points about the problems in today’s world yet her admiration for reactionary clerics suggests that her ideal, more spiritual society would be ten times worse. Many of my friends take regular breaks in ‘spiritual retreats’ in the Lake District, and these retreats always seem to involve some sort of privation: no alcohol, nicotine, meat or even conversation. It’s telling that Bunting describes the smoking ban as the pinnacle of half a century of progress.

James talks of the joyless scramble for money and possessions but he doesn’t seem to realise that people want the big house and the car not to enjoy those things for themselves but to gain social status and assuage echoing insecurities. In other words, the problem is not that we are too materialistic but that we aren’t materialistic enough. We choose status over pleasure.

The unhappiness James highlights is real but its cause is mundane, not abstract. Put simply, we work too hard; the longest hours, for the lowest pay, in Western Europe. And the separation between work and life is eroding. Most senior managers I know work on their projects over evenings and weekends. As Mark Steel pointed out, if you worked in a nineteenth-century factory you wouldn’t be expected to take bits of machinery home and make things in your own time. Yet this is more or less what happens today.

Of course, the wasted time spent at work is time you could be spending with family and friends: time for laughter, drinking, creativity, sex. The twice-daily commute adds another few unpaid hours. As no one would do any job if they weren’t being paid, there is always a vague, frightening sense that you are wasting your life. And you are right.

Progress in civilised society is progress towards less work. The major victories of workers’ movements have been to secure shorter working days. This progress is hampered though by a romantic convention that work is ennobling or character-building in some way.

Oliver James’s ‘Affluenza’ can be cured by doing two simple things.

1) Shorten the standard working day to thirty hours a week

2) Raise the minimum wage, and punish employers who circumvent it

I predict that this would lead to a rise in general happiness while having a negligible effect on the economy. But with business leaders getting top jobs in government, it’s not something that will happen any time soon.

2 Responses to “In defence of materialism”

  1. ‘What a glorious castle it was…’ « Max Dunbar Says:

    […] Max Dunbar ‘The day it is ending in laughter and song’ – Danny Skinner « In defence of materialism […]

  2. ‘O wretched generation of enlightened men’ « Max Dunbar Says:

    […] today such a godless age? It seems an article of faith that materialism is bad, and many secular liberals pay a lip service to religion that is seldom justified. Even when […]

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