The Selfish Capitalism hypothesis

Oliver James doesn’t like “Selfish Capitalism” and wants to
return to the “Unselfish Capitalism” he imagines once existed.

A catchy phrase is always a useful way to draw the reader to a book, and Oliver James, a well known media psychologist (the one with the chunky sweater and scarf) has coined a couple in his latest book The Selfish Capitalist (Vermillion, 2008, £14.99).

In 1976 Richard Dawkins gave us The Selfish Gene, and the two books are not unrelated. The notion of selfish gene seemed to capture the ethos of the rise of the New Right ideologues, following the end of the post-war Butskillite consensus.

Welfare capitalism was on the retreat and the young guns of the “night-watchman state” and libertarian capitalism were the ideological vanguard for the restructuring of the relationship between capitalism and the working class. It is this phase of a resurgent capitalism that James calls Selfish Capitalism.

It is the psychological consequences of these thirty years of Selfish capitalism that James examines in this book. It is an enjoyable read, and it brings together some useful material, but its economic and political foundations are suspect.

Emotional Distress and Society

The core of James’s position is that in the English-speaking nations there has been a more rapid increase in the prevalence of emotional distress since the 1970s compared with the 1945-1980 period and when compared with the relatively Unselfish Capitalist nations of mainland Europe and Japan.

In setting out this hypothesis, James spends the first chapter on “The Fundamental Causes of Emotional Distress”. Dismissing both evolutionary and other biological factors as the only or the most significant factor in the production of emotional distress, James, quite rightly 1 believe, states that:
When you survey the literature on the causes of emotional distress, it is abundantly clear that most cases, perhaps the vast majority of them, are responses to environmental factors.” (p. 17)

For James, the most important of these environmental factors are early childhood experiences, especially those involving sexual and physical abuse, neglect, divorce financial difficulties, late adoption and insecure attachment. However, he does not go so far as to say that experiences subsequent to our sixth birthday are not influential, and that they combine with these earlier experiences.

These later experiences are tied in with a combination of an individual’s social class, gender, age, ethnicity and where they live. Thus, rates of depression, anxiety, alcohol and other substance abuse, and schizophrenia are significantly higher for someone who is poor, female young, immigrant and lives in a city.

James’s brief outline of these points is a preamble to his more important discussion of differences in emotional distress between nations. Basing his interpretation on an ongoing World Health Organization (WHO) survey of 15 nations, he shows that in the USA 26.4 percent of the population suffered a period of mental distress in the previous 12 months, compared with 14.9 percent for the Netherlands and 4.3 percent for Shanghai (there were no figures available for the UK).

To account for these variations, James discusses, and dismisses any explanation based on genetic differences between populations. Moreover, although he acknowledges the effect of wars and economic disasters in increasing the rates of emotional distress, these are only relatively brief periods in the history of a nation. Much more important for him as long term explanations of an increase are the processes occurring in the transition from pre-industrial, rural societies to industrial, urban ones. Drawing on the work of the cultural psychiatrist Arthur Kleinman, James writes that Kleinman: estimated that three-quarters of the hundreds of diseases listed in the DSM
[Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association] are found almost exclusively in the USA and in Westernised elites, whether Asian or European. Problems such as multiple personality disorder, eating disorders and chronic fatigue syndrome are very largely caused by industrialisation and are virtually unknown in pre-industrial communities” (p.39).

So far then, James has argued that emotional distress is largely environmental in origin, that its distribution within developed (i.e., capitalist) nations is determined by an individual’s social position, and that a significant increase occurred in the transition of nations from pre-industrial, rural communities to industrial, urban societies.

On the whole, this account would fit in with a socialist interpretation, although it would be preferable if it were couched in Marxist categories. His notion of social class is the typical one, based on income and occupation, rather than in terms of relationship to the means of production, and the connection between social class, gender, age, ethnicity and place of residence is not made clear; they appear to be factors isolated from each other rather than related to each other. Also, the technological determinist notion of a transition from pre-industrial, rural society to an industrial, urban one would be better referred to in terms of the changes in the class relations of production, of a transition from a pre-capitalist (e.g., feudal or Asiatic) to a capitalist mode of production

The Selfish Capitalist Hypothesis

The next step in his argument is to compare levels of emotional distress between industrially developed nations; it is at this point that his notions of Selfish and Unselfish Capitalism come into play. Whilst these nations have comparable levels of industrialisation and urbanisation, the levels of distress are higher in one group compared with another. For example, from the WHO survey, the USA and New Zealand have an average of 23 percent of the population experiencing emotional distress, compared with an average of 11.5 percent for six western European nations and Japan. James’s explanation for this difference is that the English-speaking nations have undergone a shift, since the 1970s, in their economic and political policies from an Unselfish capitalism to a Selfish one, whereas western Europe and Japan have persisted with the Unselfish Capitalist model.


In addition to these fundamental causes of distress, James proposes that a major cause of distress in the developed nations is what he refers to as “materialism”. This he defines as “placing a high value on money, possessions, appearances and fame” (p.43). According to James, there is a distinction to be made between “survival” and “relative” materialism. In conditions of absolute poverty, where an individual’s basic needs are not met, or are uncertain, then survival materialism can is likely to contribute to their well-being. However, once these basic needs have been met, then any increase in an individual’s level of materialism, to relative materialism, does not lead to an improvement of their well-being.

Basing his views on a wide range of research, he states that “those with relative materialism are significantly more likely to be emotionally distressed than ones who are unmaterialistic” (p.45). Such views on the apparent paradox that increases in material wealth and possessions do not result in increases in well-being or lower rates of distress have been recently the subject of a number of books such as The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less (Schwartz, 2004), and are summed up in the title of an article by the psychologist
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi “If We Are So Rich, Why Aren’t We Happy?” (American Psychologist, 1999).

Recognising the earlier work of Erich Fromm (although this is limited to his views on consumerism), James points out that such a culture of celebrity, bling, Ten Years Younger, It Could Be You, “you’re fired!” etc. is based on creating high levels of insecurity, low self-esteem and dissatisfaction about the self in order then to sell the commodities that will ease these feelings. Such a need structure is produced from very early on, and vigorously maintained and expanded not only by the institutions of advertising and the mass media, but also by the family and schooling. It is this continuous assault on the self and the impossible nature of the ideals set, that results in the increase in emotional distress. Overall, this discussion of relative materialism provides some useful ammunition for an attack on the vacuous consumerism which characterises present-day capitalism.

Up to this point, James’s argument has been compatible with a socialist critique of capitalist culture, with its relentless desire to create facile needs and the commodities to fulfil them—although not quite, as a satisfied individual is a customer lost. However, from now on James’s arguments start to be less soundly based from the socialist point of view. It is here that he makes his crucial distinction between Selfish and Unselfish Capitalism, and begins his defence of the latter. The early promise of an attack on capitalism as such turns into a far from novel, indeed geriatric, defence of reformist capitalism, albeit with a therapeutic twist.

Selfish and Unselfish Capitalism

James’s argument is that in the English-speaking nations over the last thirty years such a “materialist” culture has been produced by the adoption of Selfish Capitalist policies. Mainland Europe and Japan, however, maintained their post-war Unselfish Capitalist regimes. In James’s view Selfish Capitalism has four defining features:

  1. the success of a company is judged largely by its current share price, rather than by its underlying strength or its contribution to the economy”;

  1. a strong drive to privatise collective goods such as water, gas and electrical utilities”;

  1. minimal regulation of financial services and labour markets, including the introduction of working practices that strongly favour employers and disfavour trade unions, making it easier to hire and fire. Alongside this, taxes are not concerned with the redistribution of wealth, making it easier for corporations and the rich to avoid them, and to use tax havens within the law”;

  1. the conviction that consumption and market forces can meet human needs of almost any kind” (p.120).

In contrast to this, he defines Unselfish Capitalism as “a capitalism which limits personal profits and fosters personal well-being” (p.124). To illustrate the differences between the two, he states that the USA is the epitome of Selfish Capitalism and Denmark that of Unselfish capitalism.

How you define things often sets the limits of what follows. James has limited his basic definitions to the market level, rather than at the foundation of the relations of production. He is concerned more with how the spoils of the exploitation process are divided rather than with the conditions of this process. He does not bother to highlight the essential features of capitalism, but instead focuses on the management of this process by either Keynesian or non-interventionist means. This is why his main emphasis on the political level rather than of the economic one. There is no discussion of capitalism as a society of generalised commodity production organised around private ownership of the means of production and the exploitation of the working class, of production for profit and other essential features of capitalism.

Rather, private ownership (by private capitalist companies or the state) and working for a wage are an unquestioned given, and emphasis is on a particular choice between the myriad forms which capital can take. No doubt these various forms have important differences from each other, and the effects these have on the working class are worth discussing—and James does provide some useful material—but to restrict one’s vision to varieties of capitalism (under the guise of being “realistic”) is to be captured by the fetishism of commodities. Capitalism is not an eternal, natural system, but a material human creation: we create it, we break it.

I am sure that James considers himself some sort of socialist; after all he does rage against Thatcher, Blair, Reagan, third-wayism and other enemies of the left and Old Labour. But, like them, his analysis remains on the surface of capitalism and does not penetrate to the anatomy of capitalism. James’s argument is not so much wrong as not just radical enough. It is not a matter of which form of wage-slavery is preferable, but of struggling for the abolition of wage-slavery in itself.

There is no Unselfish Capitalism. By its very nature, capitalism is voracious, looking for every chance it can to drain what it can out of the working class, but always aware that it mustn’t kill its source of unpaid surplus value. Indeed, it must sometimes make its host fatter in order to realise its own value. It appears as if the worker is healthier, but it is a health in the interest of the parasite and not the host. As Marx wrote:“Capital is dead labour which, vampire like, lives by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks” (Capital, Vol 1, ch. 10, section 1).


Leave a Reply