the friend online
18 July 2008

A selfish gene?

Edward Mackay, manager of Quaker Social Action’s ‘Knees Up’ project, discusses this bestseller’s look at the scourge of avarice

The Selfish Capitalist by Oliver James. Vermilion. ISBN 978-0091923860. £8.99.

In his bestseller Affluenza, Oliver James described a modern scourge sweeping through the English-speaking world like a virus. Affluence, he argued, led to obsessive, envious tendencies, making people prone to depression, anxiety and addictions.

The key addition that he makes to this thesis in The Selfish Capitalist is to look at the effect that our current misreading of genetic determinism has upon this. Much like the early inheritors of evolution who saw in the fabric of natural selection an imputable blue-print for a cruel society preordained not only by God but also by science, so we have decided that the dubiously dubbed 'selfish genes' excuse us from being anything other than avaricious. Encouragingly, James feels we have given too much power to our genes, and that we have a choice to be better. He argues that we are not naturally selfish and we can be 'unselfish capitalists'. In an age when Dawkins is attempting to dislodge revealed religion only to replace it with a teleology encoded in our genes it is heartening to read a defence of the possibility for humanity to choose a different way of being.

Yet the fundamental problem for anyone reading Oliver James is that his argument is so similar to that of Anthony Giddens, the architect of Blair's 'Third Way'. However noble the aim of this ideological cousin of James' 'unselfish capitalism' it has led directly to the society which James so accurately critiques. Indeed, he adds Blairism to Thatcherism and Reaganism as the cause of the problem. With this internal contradiction thwarting him from the outset, James has more in common with Marx than he might like to admit: as an economic physician he proves to be much better at offering a diagnosis than a cure. His prescription for 'unselfish capitalism' may have within it the seeds of its own destruction because, like 'compassionate conservatism', the noun trumps the adjective. To go back to the founding of modern capitalism, before Adam Smith had added a theory of moral sentiment to his 'invisible hand', Bernard de Mandeville understood that for a market based society to thrive what was required was the championing of vice and utilising people's 'most hateful qualities'. We can disagree about whether or not this will, in the long-run, produce a just society, but to champion the possibility of unselfish capitalism is a logical and humanitarian contradiction.

And so, however important James' analysis, dealing with the affluenza virus is a cure to our economic ills which benefits those at the top and in the middle of an unequal society. Where does this leave Friends, and where does it leave Quaker Social Action? Whether we are secular or religious Friends we come out of a tradition in which the transformative myth is that of God's preference for the poor and for justice. We must be about friendship with those without, not amelioration of the guilt of those with. There has been a rush of books like Affluenza, The Selfish Capitalist and Richard Layard's compelling study Happiness. All of them seem to tell us that wealth is not the answer but yet do not go so far as to offer a transformative solution.

What should this current interest be telling us about life in Britain in 2008? Behind the cushion of our wealth, we are not happy living in a society which is fundamentally divided in terms of opportunity and wealth. We are so uncomfortable with this that we are looking for ways to adjust our behaviour and our perspective. James' shift would see a change for those who suffer most, but a small one. We should be reading James and those like him to better understand ourselves, those infected by the affluenza virus. But if we are concerned with social justice, our focus should not be ourselves who have, but those who do not. Lending our weight to their struggle for justice and a new economic climate will deal more readily with our discomfort than shifting our viewpoint so we can wince less at our own behaviours.

Quaker Social Action
Knees Up
Quaker Social Action wins another award the Friend, 27 June 2008.
A year of 'knees-ups' in the East End the Friend, 20 June 2008.
Preparing for the inevitable by Judith Moran the Friend, 22 February 2008.
Banking on building communities the Friend, 4 January 2008.

The Friend provides fresh insight with news about and of interest to Quakers every week, in depth thought and reasoning through our comment, opinion and analysis pages, features that bring vibrancy to Quakerism, as well as reviews and arts pages that add to Quaker culture. Subscribe here.

Edward Mackay


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The power of microcredit
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A house of cards
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With Friends like these
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Is there a gap?
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