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Affluenza Hardcover – January 15, 2007
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“A wonderfully clear and cogent thesis.” –Guardian
“Should be mandatory reading for everyone.” –Will Self
From the Trade Paperback edition. --This text refers to the Paperback edition.
About the Author
Oliver James trained and practised as a child clinical psychologist and, since 1987, has worked as a writer, journalist and television documentary producer and presenter. His books include Juvenile Violence in a Winner-Loser Culture, the bestselling They F*** You Up and Britain on the Couch, which was also a successful documentary series for Channel 4. He is a trustee of two children's charities: the National Family and Parenting Institute and Homestart.
Top customer reviews
The first problem, of many, I have with Oliver James' Affluenza is that, for all the weight of scientific research he claims to have done, none of it is advanced in support of the existence of this thing called Affluenza in the first place. James states it as a bare fact - in fact, rather less than that: he includes a questionnaire designed to determine whether you have Affluenza, and then launches into an idiosyncratic monologue of anecdotes which he seems to regard as having the effect of revealing eternal verities.
The questionnaire doesn't give you much chance of not having the disease: answering in the affirmative to any one of the 16 statements he poses (grammarians and lawyers note: it's a disjunctive test) consigns you to infection. Given the statements include such outrages to public decency as "I would like to be admired by many people" and "my life would be better if I owned certain things I don't have now" it is difficult to see who, other than a misanthropic Trappist monk, wouldn't be "infected".
Other than Chet, a diabetic, malnourished, disenfranchised, frequently-mugged, misleadingly youthful-looking, church-going, taxi-driving New York immigrant, whom James has credulously (or, more likely, apocryphally) interviewed in the course of his travels.
Chet (who would never cheat on his wife, James confidently assures us) sounds almost too good to be true, as indeed do his "negative" New York examples, multi-millionaire broker Sam (who sounds like he stepped straight out of Wall Street) and Consuela, whom James admits reminds him of the "affluent young Manhattan women described in Jay McInerney's sharply observed novel "Story of My Life". You can't help the feeling James has been swept away by the literature a little.
Affluenza thereafter quickly settles down into a hair-shirt-adulating moan.
In part 3, after some 400 pages of injudiciously edited anecdotes, James takes the gloves off and, he warns the reader, gets "personal". It is quite tempting for a reviewer to do the same - this is, after all, a solution to the modern world's woes from the pen of an obviously angry, Eton-educated psychology graduate whose own aspirations for attention, fame and success seem transparent. In any case this is a book of politics and not pop psychology as it purports to be. James' target is "Selfish Capitalism" and prescriptions such as "reject much of the status quo" have more than a hint of the socialist workers' party leafleteer about them. What riles James, I suspect, is that, given a choice between "spiritually happy" impecunious violent disenfranchisement (the Chet model) and "spiritually barren" materialistic, godless life of sterile consumerism (Sam and Consuela), most people would squarely opt for the latter. And who could blame them: a small sprinkling of philosophical self-reflection leavens naked materialism in a way it tends not to compensate for the effects of violence and lack of access to health, education and justice. In fairness, James doesn't think so: he says, rather presumptuously drawing his readers' conclusions for them, "if you met them both I would be very surprised if you preferred to be Sam rather than Chet")
On the other hand, by the same assertion, James acknowledges that most people (being his readership) already do have this sense of self-reflection. If it is true that they would not like or relate to the cardboard figure of Sam precisely as James has cut him out (and as mentioned, I can't help thinking Sam's outline has been exaggerated) then Sam isn't a symptom of modern life, but an anomaly in it. As it happens, I've worked in the investment banking industry for a decade, and the only character I've come across who even vaguely resembles Sam is Gordon Gekko, and he was a figment of Oliver Stone's imagination.
When it comes down to it, what we have here is a fabulous hook: the name "Affluenza" is an inspired bit of marketing, and the initial premise - that over the last two or three decades our asset-rich/time-poor lives have got themselves out of perspective does resonate (I've hacked this review out on a blackberry on the tube on my way to work - you have to be very disciplined!). I dare say many of us would happily re-trade that equation if we could figure out how, but all the same, our lives are still richly fulfilled in other (non materialistic) perspectives. When you get down to the execution: James' love of anecdote, his badly disguised fifth-form socialist agenda and his laboured prose, the tendency to flip pages becomes hard to resist.
If the success story of a society is measured by the speed of microchips it can produce, we have many accomplishments to be proud of, but if a successful society is also measured by the happiness and contentment of its people, Western Society is failing miserably.
Studies show that in affluent societies rates of depression, anxiety, and emotional stress are rising all the while the missionaries of corporate consumerism infect the remaining unplugged masses of the third world.
Oliver James refers to this epidemic as the Affluenza Virus. James reports on his results tracking the contamination levels of emotional distress through conducting psychological based interviews across the globe.
His interviews are used to demonstrate and expand on results which studies have already shown, that the more a society values money and external success, the higher the rates of unhappiness.
However, the potentially greater value in this work is that through the exploration of people's beliefs, goals, and values, the reader may be inspired to reflect on the level that he or she may be infected with Affluenza.
This reflection may lead the reader to think about questions such as:
Are the values and environments that are necessary for the success of corporations beneficial for improving the well-being of people?
How do we define success in our own lives?
How much is our definition of success based on goals surrounding our job performance, income or position?
How much are our own personal identities and searches for well being linked with purchasing consumer products?
In what ways our own goals similar to corporate ideology and mass marketed messages?
Is it possible to have a society of relatively contented individuals who measure success not through competition to obtain more/better/different achievements, recognition and consumer products, but instead measure success through personal happiness and vitality, stimulated with wide ranges of outside-of-work interests and complimented with fulfilling, authentic, and intimate relationships?
And finally, if you answer yes to this last question, are you currently living this way? And if not, instead of waiting for corporations to lead the way for you, or governments to make new laws, or other people to change, in what ways may it be possible for you to find a way to begin living this way from now on?