Magazine article Soundings

Perversity and Finance: Sue Gerhardt, the Selfish Society: How We All Forgot to Love One Another and Made Money Instead, Simon & Schuster 2010

Magazine article Soundings

Perversity and Finance: Sue Gerhardt, the Selfish Society: How We All Forgot to Love One Another and Made Money Instead, Simon & Schuster 2010

Article excerpt

In this book Sue Gerhardt attempts to provide a diagnosis for a particularly sick patient. The patient is scornful of close relationships, gets paranoid about depending on anyone, likes to be in control and finds money and material things more reliable friends than fickle and unpredictable human beings. Recognise him? Oh, and he seems set on a course of self destruction, because his addiction to 'having' is wrecking his relationship with the one living thing he is irrevocably dependent on - nature.

Yes the patient is us - or rather, according to Gerhardt, the selfish and materialistic culture of modern capitalist societies that seeps into every pore of our being. But this isn't some one-way process through which society shapes the individual. For Gerhardt the personal is political - but the political is also personal. This is what makes the book distinctive. Gerhardt is not just another lefty bemoaning the way in which powerful social forces shape the destiny of individual lives. Because she is a psychotherapist, she is also interested in the ways in which the political is shaped by people's life experiences and psychologies. Her argument is that the way in which we bring up infants and young children in the crucible of the family has a crucial effect upon society: today's materially rich but emotionally neglected three-year-old Rory from Richmond is tomorrow's fast, clever but emotionally and ethically shallow executive manager at Coopers and Lybrand.

Gerhardt has clearly been influenced by attachment theory, which, as she illustrates in the first section of her book, in recent years has enjoyed a symbiotic relationship with some developments in the neurosciences. To summarise in a way which is inevitably oversimplified, Gerhardt argues that from birth we all (probably irrespective of culture) have a need for relationship, not just for love and affection but a need for someone who takes an interest in us, thinks about us, and engages with us. We have a hunger for others (we are social beings), but - and this is crucial - if this hunger is frustrated, given certain social conditions, a thwarted hunger for others easily becomes an encouraged hunger for things (sweets, toys, Game Boys, mobiles, Blackberrys, etc). The point is that we can control things. Like faithful labradors, they are always at our side, always wanting to please. Things become addictive. Indeed it comes as no surprise to find that some Transition activists, for example Chris Johnstone, model the process of personal change towards a more sustainable lifestyle on the '12 step' approach originally pioneered by Alcoholics Anonymous. (1) So there are psychological roots for our materialistic culture; our need for emotional security and meaning is increasingly satisfied by the world of things rather than human relationships.

What then of selfishness? Here Gerhardt draws on attachment theory and the psychology of child development to illustrate how our fundamental social capacities are nurtured by the care and attention we receive in the early years of our life. Far from coming naturally to us, we have to learn that other people have minds of their own, and that their needs, intentions, impulses and imaginations will be different from ours. Selfish people are only partly driven by greed and a sense of entitlement. Ordinary selfishness occurs simply because we have not developed the cognitive, moral and emotional capacity to conceive of others as others rather than extensions of ourselves. Gerhardt argues that if a child lacks care and attention, and in this sense is weakly or insecurely attached, then it will transmit this in its dealings with others, because its mental working model - that is, its model of the mind - knows of no alternative to emotional and relational poverty.

Not surprisingly then, a good part of Gerhardt's book is devoted to arguments about childcare and the nature of family life - arguments which in the USA, as she notes, have become crucial components of the 'culture wars' between conservatives and liberals. …

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