Richard John Davis
Still getting screwed by the man? Feel your values are all wrong? Here are some books that may provide a way to avoid all that…
There has been a glut of books which brag and proselytize on how it is possible to reduce one’s working week. These books invariably describe the author’s success in turning his life around and reducing his weekly hours to, say, a mere four, while still living the life of Riley. But whereas these books are boastful and just a little bit creepy (wealthy man – yes, it seems to always be a man – reduces his hours while paying minions peanuts to do his work for him), there has also been a small number of books which seem somewhat more thoughtful and that actually have something to say about society and the way we live. More than this, they seem to question these things, in a way that can only be described as subversive.
In the past four years, three books stand out. And two of them were written by the same person: Tom Hodgkinson. All three are linked by some shared philosophies. These could be summed-up in terms of the anti-materialism of the sixties and of irritating hippy types. But where they leave these pseudo-philosophies behind is in their clear thinking, research and straightforward objectives.
Hodgkinson’s book, How to be Idle (Penguin), deals with the matter of society’s reliance on the nine-to-five job and all its, in his view, nefarious attendants (mortgage, debt, alarm clocks). It does this in a hilarious and well-researched manner. His sequel, How to be Free (Hamish Hamilton), throws the net wider, questioning life’s machinery as a whole. Both books offer antidotes to many of the issues they throw up, in the form of musings not only on what might be alternatives but also on what people have already tried and are still accomplishing in their efforts to avoid the “system”.
The third book in our shortlist is by gonzo psychologist Oliver James. It’s called Affluenza (Vermillion), a term invented by James to describe the affliction of those subscribing to Western values such as – you guessed it – mortgages, debt and materialism. He’s discovered a link between these values and pressures and an increase in psychological distress in those succumbing to them.
But the concept that seems to sum up, and unify, these three tracts more than anything else is a rejection of the concept of career. This is not a rejection of career in the sense of a person finding a vocation in life and pursuing it. It is a rejection of careerism, of career for career’s sake. Hodgkinson, in How to be Free, for instance, in a chapter rather self-explanatorily entitled ‘Reject Career and All Its Empty Promises’, describes the concept of career in Puritan terms:
The idea of a career is that it follows an upward path to some ever-vanishing point above you. It is the quest for self-perfection and the secular version of the Protestant’s search for salvation. Career is a Puritan concept, it’s a sort of lonely pilgrimage.
He then goes on to define careerism as being a kind of Darwinian bloodfest. “Career advancement tends to be based on the model of survival of the fittest… your promotion depends on some other guy not getting promoted, or even sacked.” Alongside all this, as your salary rises, you will be “buying bigger cars and houses, thus feeding other people’s careers”. Career is a “greedy monster, never satisfied, always wanting more”. It is a “path set down for you by some outside authority, whereas the truly free make their own path through the woods.” Finally, career is “just posh slavery”.
But what is the alternative? As with his earlier How to be Idle, Hodgkinson suggests living on a lower income, being less concerned with competing and more concerned with the quality of life. As well as these, he also recommends the notion of vocation as a healthier option to careerism. Vocation, as he puts it, is “steady and flat”, while career is an “upward sloping curve, stretching into infinity.”
Oliver James attacks the same careerist ideals in Aflluenza. But, as might be expected of the author of the childhood-focused They Fuck You Up, he focuses on the psychological consequences of pursuing them. He does not seek to deny the quest for money. He questions the healthiness of chasing after ever higher salaries in order to “buy possessions to give you status”. If this is your goal, it is very likely that you will, in the terms of this book, never achieve lasting happiness. James terms these objectives “virus-motivated” (the “virus” being “affluenza”), and the set of ideals that supports them “virus values”.
He travels the world, researching for his book. He discovers person-upon-person apparently afflicted by affluenza. These are mainly very successful, driven people, needing – and on the whole already receiving – counselling, therapy and sometimes psychiatric treatment. He finds people obsessed with career, money and appearance. They often go to great lengths to get these. These include: betraying friends or colleagues, losing the odd set of principles and plastic surgery. Many of these people seem inherently good. Whether they are victims of societal brainwashing is debatable, but this seems possible.
James recommends replacing virus motives with “intrinsic” ones, such as doing things to “please yourself”, rather than to please others or to advance your career. We should all see through and resist what he calls “selfish capitalism”, rejecting advertising and its pressures, avoiding the tendency to buy for buying’s sake and taking part in more “playful” activities.
While evaluating these books, it slowly transpires that many of us may also be susceptible to the nasty set of values described. A process of self-evaluation – or “audit”, in James’s terms – inevitably ensues. And that is the best recommendation for reading them.
Illustration by Dan Holliday.