Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance

Donald Trump is the president of the United States of America. This is a difficult fact to comprehend. How did this come about ? What changes have occurred in American society that lead to this ? This book as been touted as having some of the answers to this; how large groups of voters came to feel alienated from regular society and shifted to voting for Donald Trump. In the hope for answers, and some possible clarity, I thought I’d give this book a try.

First things first, this book does not answer this question. The answer to the question on the lips of people across the globe is not to be found in this autobiography. I fear that decades from now we will still be debating and analysing the changes that occurred , across the globe, and trying to formulate answers as to how right-wing, rather than left-leaning, populism captured the public spirit.However, despite this I’d still think that you should read this book as it does give a valuable insight into cultural changes that have occurred in the last few generations in America and which are important in the populist revival. The political analysis is slight, and debatable, but the social commentary is very valuable.

This is an autobiography written by a relatively young man. His story is interesting as he has overcome considerable adversity to improve his lot, to ensure that his troubled upbringing didn’t determine his future. It is a life that has shown the promise of social mobility and how it is possible to break from the grip of poverty. As such, it is a very emotional story with pages of great sadness when we consider his tempestuous and troubled early days, but great warmth when we discover that he does manage to overcome these.

It is a little like ‘Angela’s Ashes’ with prescription drug abuse taking the place of alcoholism and Appalacia taking the stead of Ireland. Perhaps the most striking thing about the story is how universal it is. This is the story of disadvantaged working class people. Although set firmly in Hillbilly territory I could read it as the story of the Scottish working class, the marginalised black working class, or any of the other groups who now form the inhabitants of “fly-over country“. The ex-heavy industry workers in the North East of England, those who have deserted Labour and voted Brexit, will see echos of their actions in the actions of the American ex-steel workers leaving the Democrats and voting for Trump.

J.D. Vance perhaps thinks that these changes are too universal. He doesn’t recognise that he is rather unusual in that he has managed to break free from this system. He tends, at times, to sound as if he is saying “if I did it, so can you” and not to recognise that he is a rather unusual individual who has managed to do what most of us do not.

But his description of life at the bottom is very telling and helpful. Poverty is still with us. Relative material poverty is possibly inescapable but this continues to bedevil our society. However, this is the type of poverty easiest to deal with it is simply a redistribution of wealth that is required. But there is a worse form of poverty, which is harder to treat, and this is cultural and moral poverty. This is the type of poverty which keeps the inequality and worsens it.

This is the poverty of ambition and expectation when people think there is nothing better to be had. It is the poverty of labour when people do not have work to give their lives meaning. The importance of work can not be overestimated, it is not chance that the name of the socialist party in the UK is “the Labour Party” as it is labour which gives us meaningfulness in our lives. Even if welfare states met our every material need, if we do not have work we can’t develop relationships, develop a feeling of status in society, and a sense of pride. In the 70’s we campaigned on the left for “The Right to Work” this is much more important than any handout, however organised.

The poverty of family and community is also factor. The family has always been a bulwark against the excesses of capitalism and our refuge. We now find support for the family as an uncomfortable idea feeling it is antiquated and old fashioned moralizing. However, before we jettison the family it might behove us to think what is going to replace the support it clearly gave.

Working class communities used to be a bedrock of support for those at the bottom of the heap.They organised burial societies, cooperatives, unions, savings societies, education groups and a myriad of other societies to offer mutual support. These will never be adequately replaced by a centralises state offering. This may replace the bread but it won’t replace the love or the dignity.

Bread and circuses‘ were used to keep the lower orders in their place in the past and in an increasingly unequal society this strategy is again coming to the fore. We are offered drugs, alcohol and pornography to keep our senses satiated and our desires low. If we are sedated, doped or post-coital we will be less likely to think our lives could, or should, be better. It is no surprise that the major dystopian novels of the last century warned us of a future when easy sex and easy drugs kept a population docile and cowed with the minimum of force.

This book does reveal what is happening to our culture and is a useful ‘view from the bottom’ about this. While it may not explain Trump, the advice to try and regain some of our working class ideals; the love of family, the sense of community and togetherness, the dignity of labour, and the importance of mutuality, might allow the left to rediscover it roots and help prevent the coming of a second Trump.

Am I Just My Brain by Sharon Dirckx

I was listening to an online debate which considered the topic of panpsychism (The idea that everything is conscious to some degree) when I heard about this book. As it seemed to consider that perennial, but vital, problem for philosophy of the “mind-brain” problem I decided to give it a try.

It is quite clearly a book of two parts. The first part considers the problem that are encountered when we try to take a simple materialistic viewpoint of the mind and the limitations that still exist when we adopt any of the dualist positions. These arguments are well described and the strengths and weakness of each position well delineated. In particular the problems we encounter with the issues of free will and personhood, when we adopt a unitary materialistic (You are your brain) position, are well made. This is a useful counterpoint to much of the current media which feels that this issue has been solved.

I can remember working through this period when the advances in the neurosciences seemed to leave little room for the mind. There seemed to be little need to consider the psyche as we could now explain everything by looking at the brain. Certainly this approach played great dividends in my specialised area (dementia) but it never seem to offer any hope of help to those poor souls troubled by purely turmoil in the mind. Indeed the only real change was that psychiatry seemed to change from being ‘brainless’ to become simply ‘mindless’.

The first part of the book is successful but the second half is, unfortunately, less so. The latter portion of the book takes the stance that, if there is evidence that consciousness is best looked in a non-material way (qualitatively rather than quantitatively), then we can take this as proof for the Christian beliefs. I found this much harder to take for two reasons. Firstly the arguments were less well laid out and argued and secondly I felt she presumed faith on the reader’s part. I think someone who is already a believer would find the statements convincing. However, a reader who does not already have religious faith (especially if this is not Christian) will find this half of the book heavy with statements lacking convincing support.

Overall, an interesting read, brief but engaging, initially at least.

The Truth About Dogs by Stephen Budiansky

The Truth About Dogs by Stephen Budiansky

If you decide to read this book, and I suggest that you do, then prepare to become quite annoying. This book is so packed full of interesting facts that it is likely that on every second page you will be nudging your partner and saying “Did you know that dogs .. .. ?” The facts will range from their skills smelling and seeing, through their social behaviour and cognitive structures, to their morals and their very genetic makeup. This is a wide ranging scientific book which attempts, and largely succeeds, in giving a potted summary what we know about ‘the dog’. Despite the scientific slant this is, however, a very easy book to read and at times can be quite humorous.

It is surprising that there are not more books on this subject. This symbiotic relationship between two different species is quite unusual and very special. The length of time that our species have cohabited is stunning and it appears that both ourselves, and the dogs, evolved together and we both influenced the development of the others evolution. The fossil evidence for dogs dates back around 14000 years; a burial site in Israel (Ein Mallaha) which was dated at around 12000 years ago shows that man and dog are well acquainted from the start. The burial site contained the remains of an elderly man, curled up, with his hand resting on the skull of a young puppy.

Not only is our relationship with the dog one of our earliest relationships it is also part of a very small and select group. Of the thousands of animals and birds which have inhabited the earth alongside us only about a dozen species have entered into a domestic relationship with man. It is probably fair to say, though a few weird cat people might disagree, that the relationship mankind has with the dog is of a magnitude greater than with any other animal.

It is not that there are not a lot of books about dogs, there are. But these are often ‘how to’ books (“How to train your Alsatian“), encomia to various breeds (“For the love of Spaniels“) or pop-psychology about the dogs’ mental state or yours (“What your dog is saying to you” or “How to live as an alpha male; being a wolf in a man’s world“). This book is not like these, it is a measured review of our current scientific knowledge and it tends to puncture quite a few commonly held myths about dogs especially in the area of language and dog psychology. However, as someone who has always lived with dogs, and whose dogs grace this page, I found this more hard-nosed approach all the more interesting.

The book tackles the idea of domestication, the idea that we tamed wolf pups to become dogs, and reveals that this is very unlikely to have been the case. We, as a species, did not domesticate the dog; the dog, as a scavenger, learnt how to carve a niche for itself and moved into our society. We may later have promoted different breeds by determined mating but prior to this there is no evidence that we created the dog by breeding from its forbearer the wolf.

The cognitive styles and communication of the dog are also considered and it is shown that it is not helpful to try and shoe-horn the dogs’ actions into explanations based on human cognition or conversation. It is very rarely appropriate and very commonly leads us to errors of judgement. Dogs are not partially developed humans and is best not to think of them in these terms. It may be occasionally helpful to think of them as a form frust of wolves. But,in any event, it is better to be aware of the research that has been done and use this exciting and interesting data to understand our friends. This would stop us making the many mistakes that other books anthropomorphism lead us to (Or worse, the mistakes when we analyse our behaviour on the basis of our behaviour being related to those of the dog or wolf pack).

There is so much information in this book it keeps the reader actively engaged. Readers who live with dogs will especially find items of interest and surprise on just about every page. Those readers will also end with a much better understanding of the dog than when they started. Those readers who are not fortunate enough to live with a dog will also find it enjoyable and may help them understand why their neighbours spend time picking up 2 millions tons of dog faeces annually in the United States or why they pay $5billion a year to feed these parasites who have moved in with them.

This is a book that explains dogs as dogs, not as some reflection of ourselves. It is important to remember this as, as the author notes, “If dogs truly were human, they would be jerks. As dogs, they are wonderful”

The Salt Path by Raynor Winn

I anticipated I would enjoy this book. It has been widely lauded as an inspirational and warming story of an older couple facing and coping with adversity. It has won plaudits and awards and garnered five star reviews in newspapers and magazines. It is a memoir often described as life affirming and as being in touch with the land’s and nature’s beauty. I did indeed enjoy it, but perhaps a bit less than I had thought I might. It was a pleasant read but not a book I will recollect years from now nor one I will try and encourage people to seek out. A solid 3 stars out of 5, neither more nor less.

The story is a simple tale simply told. It concerns a couple who loose their home due to financial trickery and then are hit by the dreadful news that the husband has a slow, but ultimately terminal, neurodegenerative illness. With nowhere to live and nothing to do they decide to walk the South West Coastal Path, wild camping and living on the meagre social security benefits they had. During this time they rediscover what is important to them, rediscover each other and find that a different and better future is possible for them.

The writing is easy-going and, at times, evocative of the landscape around them. However, a lot of the times though the description may be factually accurate it falls flat and fails to convey any of the emotional impact of the surroundings. Chance encounters are described and are sometimes humorous but important events and details are entirely missed. (It seems implausible that their children, who rarely figure, would have such little contact given their parents’ homelessness and awful diagnosis). Occasional passages read like direct cut and paste insertions after a google search on the problems on homelessness and a number of the characters are too much like stereotypes to be believable. Particularly towards the end of the book there are a number of coincidences that truly strain the readers credulity.

I enjoyed the book and am happy that, on their summer trek, this couple did find a way out of their dire situation. It was heart warming to know that it ended well for them but ultimately I don’t think their story tells lessons from which we all can learn. The homilies don’t reveal much new. Other readers have obviously seen much more in the book that I was able to, so it is quite possible you may enjoy it more than I did.

White shift. Populism, Immigration and the Future of White Majorities. Eric Kaufmann

White shift. Populism, Immigration and the Future of White Majorities. Eric Kaufmann

This is a book about ‘whiteness’, what it is to be white in our curent society, what it may be like to be white in the future, but it is a book with a difference. The difference, which feels taboo breaking, is that he looks at the issue of the major ethnographic changes and includes the viewpoint of those that are white. It looks at the fears that they may have for their future and how these may be driving current populist politics.

White Shift by Eric Kaufmann

The book attempts, and largely succeeds, to look at this issue from a dispassionate viewpoint. It is not a book which looks at whiteness in order to clarify some other issue, and although issues such as empire, racism, slavery, and inequality rightly are addressed they are not the sole lens though which this analysis is made.

This attempt at objectivity, while it is the root of the book’s success is also its achilles heel and its ultimate failure. Many reviewers have commented on the magisterial and mammoth amount of data collection that the book contains. No statement is made without reams of data to support and buttress it. While this does make it possible to accept many of his observations and conclusions it also means that this is extremely heavy reading. This reads like a heavy reference tome not like a political book. So while I can say I found this book interesting I can not say I found an easy or pleasant read.

An important strand of the book is the current failure to look at these changes in an impartial way. The inability of most commentators to understand that people may be upset or anxious about the changes they see to their communities brought about by demographic change. The dismissal of these concerns, and the lazy assumption that these worries simple reflect racism, is shown to be a potent driver of support for populist political groups.

The book makes a good case that the future should not be bleak. All evidence suggests we accomodate to change and further manage to create better societies a consequence. But, if we ignore this change, or mishadle or responces to it, as we are currently doing, we may stoke the very problems we seek to avoid.

So in summary, a worthwhile and valuable read, if not a very enjoyable one. Perhaps one for the reference shelves.

‘I saw a man’ by Owen Sheers

Owen Sheers is one of the best writers working in Britain at the moment. As a poet, dramatist, playwright and novelist he is at the top of his form. There are few who can match him as a story teller. He is certainly the equal of Ian McEwan and in this book he shows some clear similarities in style. Perhaps, unusually he is the first person to become the writer in residence for the Welsh Rugby Union. Though this is not inappropriate for a man who played scrum half for Gwent County and, when a student, captained the Oxford University Modern Pentathlon team.

But why am I spending so much time talking about the author. The reason is simple. I think you should read his books especially either his first one “Resistance” or his most recent novel, this one, “I Saw A Man”. It is difficult to review this novel without giving too much away and spoiling the book for a future reader and hence I have padded this review with some autobiography and the hope that this and his clear credentials might tempt people to try the book.

This book has a number of interwoven tales where the protagonists deal with the issues of loss, grief, guilt, accidental tragedy and the hopes for redemption. The book can be read as a thriller with a mystery revealed in the first few pages which is then followed by a tense ride as the sequence of events is uncovered. The links between events become clear and there is great satisfaction in their denouement. I, like many other reviewers, read this book in one sitting it is so captivating. The links may not seem obvious, between a drone operative in Creech Air force base in Nevada and a young girl falling down stairs in her London home for example, but they are never contrived or stretched.

However, much more impressive than being an effective taut thriller it is also a wonderfully well written book about grief and guilt. He manages to write in a manner that brings the characters and their domestic circumstances to life. We can imagine them and empathize with them. Importantly we can see, and understand, the mistakes the characters make and perhaps this is where the novel is at its best; it lets us see and consider our own tendencies to self-deception.

Absolution by Olaf Olafson

Absolution by Olaf Olafson

A book by Olaf Olafson about Pétur Péturson might be thought likely to be Nordic or Scandi Noir, but while this story is partially set in Iceland and Denmark its theme is international. This is the story of a life lived badly, the story of man who was materially successful but whose soul was lost.

I can say only a little in a book review, as to reveal too much would mar the experience for a future reader. Suffice to say it starts at the end of Pétur Péturson’s life. He has died wealthy and alone and left a manuscript detailing how a “little crime” in his youth has followed and burdened him throughout his life.

This aspect of the book is gripping. It reads like a thriller as we try to work out the crime, the victim and the motive. As he gradually reveals the history of his life we start to know what crimes he has committed and these are not only those that he confesses; in his braggadocio he reveals crimes that he does not recognize as his responsibility. As a non-believer he reports that he seeks no absolution and sees no need for atonement but his desire and need for both become apparent to the reader as the story progresses.

As we try to understand the nature of Pétur and his crime we become aware of a very black-hearted individual riven with jealousy, lust and anger and this is where the power of the novel lies. Although it concerns a lying, cheating, greedy man who is almost the epitome of a bastard, it is written in such a way that we can understand these feelings and even see part of ourselves in them. We may dislike Pétur, but we don’t hate him and by the end understand him a little and hopefully also may have gained a little insight to where some of our own less gallant emotions arise. It is all very well to read about heroes and heroines, but we also need to know where our faults lie and what may be making us poorer people than we could be.

Those of you who are without sin, and have no baser aspects of character that need addressing, can still enjoy this novel as a gripping mystery. There is much that will hold your attention through to the end, where even the last pages may surprise you.

The Great Betrayal by Rod Liddle

The Great Betrayal by Rod Liddle

If you enjoy Rod Liddle’s pieces in the Spectator and the Times it is likely that you will enjoy this book. It is a short book and reads very much like an extended rant about the failure of our political system to successfully organize Brexit. It has all of the author’s hallmarks; biting acerbic wit and vicious but accurate satire. If you are looking for a balanced review of the difficulties following the referendum then this book is not for you, but if you want to understand the groundswell of anger that underpins the populist revolt we are witnessing in Britain then this book may well help you.

Although I enjoyed this book primarily because of the quality of the writing and the humour (It is laugh-out-loud funny at times) I would not want to give the impression that it is a comic piece. There is a serious thread running though the book which is treated appropriately and his arguments are well researched and supported with evidence. He describes a country riven in two with the metropolitan middle class operating the levers of power and the rest of the population feeling ignored and increasingly angry. This is a concern that many authors have recently witnessed, commenting on a growing gulf between the rulers and those being ruled.

This can be difficult in a democracy, because it can lead to the situation we are in now, where those in power do not wish to enact the clear result of a democratic process. Three years after the referendum we are no further forward and can only look back on a period of obfuscation, vacillation, and deception. Our rulers, the ones with the power (kratos), can not bring themselves to acceed to the voice of the masses (demos), and as a consequence democracy has been stalled.

This risk has been known for a long time. The reason requests for a referendum on capital punishment have come to naught is that our ruling class has always known that is was likely that the people would vote for its reintroduction. It was known that this would cause a democratic crisis, which could undermine the stability of our state, and thus it has always been held better not to allow a public vote on the issue. I am sure there are many in our ruling classes who now wish the public were never given a vote on the issue (even if they do call for a further Peoples Vote where they hope the mass gets back into its place and votes as they are told).

However, every crisis is also, in a way, an opportunity. The crisis we are in does give us the chance to look at our failing parliamentary system and its parties. The failures of democratic representation should prompt us to consider ditching our unfair “first past the post” system and jettisoning our archaic ‘House of Lords’. Hopefully, we will also see new parties (Perhaps the SDP)created to replace our moribund Labour and Conservative parties which no longer function, having abandoned their traditional support. Ironically, if we do manage to extricate ourselves from the EU we can also look at re-balancing our economy, reconsidering whats is the role of the state or of the private sector, and aim for an economy which benefits our citizens rather than being perpetually governed with the aims of big corporations in mind. We could look at issues such as immigration, not from the viewpoint of capital but from the viewpoint of the immigrant and the communities they live within. There are many, many opportunities.

These are the opportunities of ‘Lexit‘, a left-leaning case for leaving the EU. Those unfamiliar with this argument might find this book useful as it is a major theme in the book and the Lexit case is well expounded. You could discover the arguments, find a lot of information about the EU of which you may have been unaware, and have a good laugh at the same time. As with all good satirists, sometimes the most serious of ideas are conveyed best by the most humorous of lines.

4 out of 5 stars

McMindfulness by Ronald E. Purser

I was introduced to the raisin in the last few years of my work. Eating a raisin is often used as an exercise to explain the mechanics and theory of mindfulness. I, along with a group of mental health service providers, were invited to look at the raisin, smell it, examine its contour and texture, hold it in our mouth and examine it with our tongue and taste buds and through this, and some other strategies, learn how to be “in the moment“. We were being introduced to Mindfulness which we were assured was a new revolutionary change in psychotherapeutics; one that was scientifically based, efficacious, and applicable to almost all forms of distress and disorder. It seemed that it would not have been wrong to say we had in our hands a not a raisin but a veritable panacea; a remedy for all ills.

This was not the first time I’d been introduced to the next great revolutionary step forward in psychotherapy. When I started working the physical therapies had just started to lose their lustre and the Freudian classical analysts had fallen rather out of favour. The Kleinians introduced Object Relations Theory which was going to revolutionize analysis and we all studiously learnt this. Around the same time behaviour therapy jostled it as the ‘true way’ before, via a detour through Transactional Analysis, it was relaunched as Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT). CBT was then touted as scientifically based, efficacious and applicable to almost all forms of distress and disorder. Transcendental Meditation (TM) came and went, somewhere in between, but throughout my working life it seemed that twice a decade a new bright and shiny panacea would surface to replace the older shabby panacea which had become boring.

Mindfulness is this decade’s new, shiny panacea. It is widely promoted and now is applied in many diverse situations, not simply as therapy for mental disorder but also in schools, workplaces, prisons, boardrooms and even for the existential angsts of growing old or facing death. It has spawned a $1.1 billion wellness industry. There are many books promoting mindfulness and inviting readers to follow them on a route to personal salvation through MBSR (Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction). This book, however, is not one of them.

McMindfulness
McMindfulness Book Cover

This book looks at the promotion of mindfulness in our capitalist society. It shows how ‘mindfulness’ has been severed and removed of its religious Buddhist origins to make it both saleable and useful in a market economy. The author clearly shows that there was a deliberate intention to “secularize” mindfulness to remove it of any taint of association with Buddhist practice and ethics to create something “spiritual but not religious” which would be much more acceptable to a western audience. This acceptability was further promoted by giving the endeavour a scientific sheen with a liberal application of neurobabble. There is a good review of the neuroscience behind mindfulness in the book which reveals how little actual empirical evidence there is – there is little more than there was for TM which was quietly dropped after large amounts of public money financed research into the mental health benefits which confirmed relatively minor and questionable benefits.

The book does not question whether the practices of mindfulness or meditation are effective. It agrees that these can have major effects but questions whether in their current form this is a wise way to approach them. Indeed, as an example it recounts how Anders Breivik, the right wing terrorist, used such strategies to assist his focus during his bomb and gun attack when he murdered 77 men, women and children.

Much of the success of mindfulness is touted as its ability to make us cope with our difficult lives. To help us deal with stress, to avoid the distress of disappointment, to feel calm in the stormy waters of uncertainty and threat. This is its major selling point to large organizations like Google, Facebook or the American Military. It can help create a calm unruffled workforce which will perform better. The military hope that mindfulness will improve efficiency with an M16 – ‘on the trigger pull – breathe out!’ This is a major aspect of the problem. It promotes the idea that the stress is all of our making, in our minds, a failure of our ability to cope. But there are many times when the stress is due to uncertainty, injustice or inequity and the emotions that these problems cause is the motive power for people to demand and create change. It is wrong, through mindfulness, to encourage people to tolerate or cope with these situations. Just as Marx warned that religion was an opiate for the masses to soothe their pain and subdue their needs for change, the author issues the warning that mindfulness is the new religion for capitalism with exactly the same problems.

As our society becomes increasingly secular there are still those who yearn for the benefits of religion. Mindfulness seems to promise this. However, shorn from all its Buddhist teachings it will never be able to fill this promise. Religions gave us ethical codes, personal responsibilities, moral duties and a call to action to create a better society. This strategy is to steal the clothes of Buddhism but to ignore its body and soul. You can put the clothes on but you will not suddenly become a Buddhist. Similarly, if one copied the communal singing, weekly meetings, and candle burning of the Christians you won’t suddenly develop a sense of personal duty and awareness of right and wrong. The rituals are the least thing of a religion it is the teachings and ideas which are at its core. These require to be learnt and understood there is no shortcut to them; certainly not through sucking a raisin.


Excerpt

When the book has been considering Congressman Tim Ryan’s conversion to mindfulness after his “mindful moment with a raisin” it continues

“Never mind how the raisin looks, feels, smells and tastes to a privileged congressman, what if Ryan had contemplated the farm where the raisin was grown by Hispanic migrants doing back-breaking work in the San Joaquin valley earning a cent for every two hundred grapes harvested, Reflection on the raisin could call to mind units from US Immigration and Customs Enforcement rounding up workers like cattle and deporting them. Might Ryan be cognizant of the smog where the raisin was grown? What about the water shortages, or the fossil fuels burnt to transport raisins from Central California to his Catskills retreat ? What about the grocery staff that unloaded, unpacked and stocked raisins on the shelf ? Would Ryan be mindful of the fact that the CEOs who run large agribusiness and grocery chains earn hundreds of times as much as grocery clerks ?

How Much Is Enough? By Robert and Edward Skidelsky

How Much Is Enough? By Robert and Edward Skidelsky

“How much is enough?”  is a deceptively simple question and one which appears easy to answer. It is also a perennial and vital question as many of our actions, as individuals or as societies, have as their intention either the reduction of want (when there is not enough) or the control of waste and excess (when there is more than enough). However, as this book reveals, it is quite clear that currently we really have little idea of “How much is enough?”

The book is written by father and son academics how-much-is-enough-skidelsky(in Economics and Philosophy respectively) and, in part takes as its starting point the 1930 essay by John Maynard Keynes “Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren”. In this essay Keynes believed that by 2030 capitalism would be hugely successful at generating wealth (which has been the case) and much more productive, requiring less labour, so we would all have much more leisure (which has not been the case). Indeed, as our wealth has increased so has our workload; it appears now that as we have more we also want more. We seem to have become an insatiable society and our wants no longer have limits.

“The question is: why do people who ‘have everything’ always seem to want more?”

Skidelsky, Edward. How Much is Enough? (p. 34). Penguin Books Ltd.

Some of this is due to the modern functioning of capitalism which valorises growth over all things. Growth and increasing consumption are the motors which drive our development. We assess our needs and wants ‘relatively’, that is, we determine our needs and desires on the basis of comparison with others. Our happiness and status arise from our position in relation to others, meaning that we will never feel we have enough and also meaning we will never feel truly happy.

 

“It is not just that we want more but that we want more than others, who at the same time want more than us; this fuels an endless race.”

Skidelsky, Edward. How Much is Enough? (p. viii). Penguin Books Ltd.

“The American combination of social equality and income inequality has since become the capitalist norm, leading to a situation in which every member of society is in a sense competing against every other.”

Skidelsky, Edward. How Much is Enough? (p. 40). Penguin Books Ltd.

In an interesting chapter they discuss the types of good which will often keep this spiral of increasing consumption moving. They discuss “bandwagon goods“, these are goods that people want as everybody has them (e.g. Mobile phones, microwaves). Envy and social conformity drive the desire for them. Then there are “snob goods“, these are goods that most people do not have (e.g. exotic holidays, cult films). Here the desire is to stand out from the crowd. Often successful snob goods will change to become bandwagon goods. Then there are “Velben goods“, these are goods which are expensive and known to be expensive (e.g. Rolex watches, Apple watches). These goods act as advertisements of the owner’s wealth.

These trends to the constant amassing of wealth might not be a concern if we knew what to do with our wealth. If our wealth allowed us to live a “good life“, then it would clearly be a boon. If we knew what was a “good life”, then we would know when we had what we required to live it. In essence, we would know “how much is enough ?” We seem unable to agree on what constitutes “the good life” therefore we continue to want and seek more wealth without thinking ‘what is this for?” It leads into the danger of loving money and wealth rather than what they provide.

All the ancient civilizations and all the main religions warned against the “love of money”. It was felt to corrupt the individual and also all of their actions; from Aristotle to Adam Smith greed and the love of money were major problems which endangered society. In prior times, until our present increasingly secular society, religion could act as a counterbalance to capitalism’s drives – the fears of being thought a sinner through avarice or gluttony, coupled with the need to display charity, may have tempered some of the excess.

 

“Money is the one thing of which there is never enough, for the simple reason that the concept ‘enough’ has no logical application to it. There is perfect health and happiness, but there is no perfect wealth.”

Skidelsky, Edward. How Much is Enough? (p. 75). Penguin Books Ltd.

The old civilizations of Europe, India and China all shared a basically Aristotelian outlook, even if it was not drawn from Aristotle. All viewed commerce as properly subordinate to politics and contemplation, while at the same time recognizing and fearing its capacity to subdue these other activities to its own end. All regarded the love of money for its own sake as an aberration. Such agreement between three great and largely independent cultures ought to give us pause.”

Skidelsky, Edward. How Much is Enough? (p. 86). Penguin Books Ltd.

Unfortunately the brakes, that these older views may have given, are now off. Our consumption and growth continue ever upward. There is no doubt that this has pulled millions out of poverty and destitution and that there are areas of the world that still need development. However, developed countries are witnessing increased personal harm from this continued greed – alcohol deaths, drug death, obesity deaths all have increased as have prescriptions for antidepressants and anxiolytics – our affluence is not continuing to buy happiness. Further, our continued consumption and production of waste now threatens the very existence of our habitat and our species. If this book prompts more people to consider “How much is enough?” it will have served a very valuable purpose.

4-out-of-5-stars


“Better is a dinner of herbs where love is, than a stalled ox and hatred therewith”
Proverbs 15:17