Ok, if all the news and stories of increased poverty and social suffering, exploitation of workers, dispossession of peoples from their lands, laid-off people, collapsing ecosystems haven’t convinced you yet, here’s finally a reason to rethink your values: “Growth in materialism is taking a toll on mental wellbeing.” A recent book The Selfish Capitalist – Origins of Affluenza by Oliver James argues, based on WHO studies, that selfish capitalism has resulted in a startling increase of mental illness in both children and adults since the 1970s. And those suffering most are, for some reason, the Anglos, or the English-speaking capitalist nations.
It’s not the pain of economic and social inequality causing the mental illness, but rather the insatiable greed for more when you already have more than most. Placing a high value on money, possessions, appearance and fame, capitalist materialism creates unrealistic aspirations and excessive desires to be fulfilled but makes us miserable. But it feeds the short-term economic growth by increasing consumerism. In other words, as the author maintains, “high levels of mental illness are essential to Selfish Capitalism, because needy, miserable people make greedy consumers and can be more easily suckered into perfectionist, competitive workaholism.” We can all become Bill Gates – or so we think. That likelihood has in fact drastically diminished since the 1970s.
It is the ideology of material affluence that makes you think $$ and what it can buy and get you is they the key to happiness and that if you work had enough, you can achieve it too. If you don’t, you have only yourself to blame. Yes, we have heard that before. But what came first, the misery needed for consumerism or consumerism that made us not only miserable but mentally ill too? And if you’re sick, what do you do? Go to the doctor and tell her you’re plagued by the ideology of material affluence? She’ll prescribe drugs in no time: Prozac or some other variant of antidepressants. (Prozac alone is already a killer seller: over $3 billion annually. Is somebody getting rich from our mental illnesses as well? Does this sound like a conspiracy?)
The author of The Selfist Capitalist promotes another solution: “We desperately need – and before long, I predict we will get – a passionate charismatic, probably female leader who advocates the Unselfish Capitalism of our neighbours [of countries like the mainland western Europe where the mental illness rates are twice as low].” I’m guessing he’s talking about Hilary becoming the US president. No doubt she would mean change to the neoconservative fundamentalist regime currently in Washington. But I think it takes more than changing the president – like acting on the climate change requires more than changing your lightbulbs. It’s not that easy, unfortunately. And I’m not sure about Oliver James’s claims that there’s no selfish capitalism outside the Anglo nations in the world. Consumerism and wasteful lifestyles are today as rampant in the Nordic countries as in Canada. We all want flatscreen TVs, latest car and snowmobile models, we even buy mini-snowmobiles for the kids in case they’re missing out.
And isn’t ‘unselfish capitalism’ an oxymoron anyway? Capitalism is based on accumulation of capital and if you’re not selfish you won’t accumulate any. It’s obvious we need a paradigm shift, not just some surface tricks. A lot of people around the world has been calling for such a shift for some time now, many under the motto of “Alternative World is Possible” – and as it has become clear now, “Also Urgently Needed.”
For example, Indigenous (and many other women) are increasingly calling for alternative structures of governance and economy that are not based on domination, violence, or coercion (the nation-state model) but instead, on interdependence and mutual reciprocity.
I’m also thinking of the gift paradigm as articulated by Genevieve Vaughan and others, and the International Feminist Network for the Gift Economy and all the great women involved in it – I could think of many who could well fit into the shoes of “a passionate charismatic, female leader” who advocates, not ‘unselfish capitalism’, but interdependence, other-orientation and a different set of values altogether.
Kaarina Kailo, who is one of the feminist gift theorists and activists, writes: “For Vaughan, women should be the leaders of the new-gift based order. According to the same logic, Native and/or women of color might be earmarked as the most appropriate leaders of a new consciousness. After all, more than white privileged women, they have centuries of experience of multilevel oppression, and simultaneously, of keeping sane and whole under inhuman pressures. Most importantly however, they have retained more of the eco-socially sustainable worldview, the Gift Imaginary, than most white folks.”
I’m left thinking why the rest of the world see or take seriously the gift of the gift paradigm or the passionate charismatic, female leaders of the gift network (or other networks and groups)? In other words, there’s no need to wait for a messiah or a messanger, we have plenty around, we just have to start taking them seriously, and engaging with their ideas. Let’s not forget that whoever the “passionate charismatic, female leader” ends up being, she won’t have a magic bag of tricks for quick fixes and instant solutions. (Will she be blamed if she doesn’t? Is she set to fail, once again with unrealistic expectations?)
Naomi Klein gave a talk at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association last August in New York. The theme of the meeting was “Is Another World Possible?” She argued that there’s no shortage of ideas – “we’re swimming in them: universal healthcare, living wages, cooperative, participatory demoracy” etc. Money is not a problem either – there’s “enough money sloshing around to pay for our modest dreams. We can tax the polluters and the casino capitalists to pay for alternative energy development and a global social safety net.” Klein doesn’t believe the problem is a lack of political will either. It’s just that the political leaders won’t listen – “elites don’t make justice because we ask them nicely and appealingly. They do it when the alternative to justice is worse.”
Klein argues that the problem today is confidence, a lack of “strength of our convictions, the guts to back up our ideas with enough muscle to scare our elites.” Where is our passionate intensity, she asks. At the same time, she points out: “We who say we believe in this other world need to know that we are not losers. We did not lose the battle of ideas. We were not outsmarted, and we were not out-argued. We lost because we were crushed. Sometimes we were crushed by army tanks, and sometimes we were crushed by think tanks.”
What can we do, then? In Klein’s view, we need to know the history of dirty tricks and crushed resistance and building of alternatives in order to find our passion again. We must want the alternatives as much as Cheney wants the oil in the Middle East and as much as Paris Hilton wants to be the next new face of Estee Lauder. “Understanding this history, understanding that we never lost the battle of ideas, that we only lost a series of dirty wars, is key to building the confidence that we lack, to igniting the passionate intensity that we need.”