Does money bring happiness? Psychology professor Tim Kasser and cartoonist Larry Gonick team up in this nonfiction graphic book to make the case against money — or at least that the basic values behind our “hypercapitalist” economy — materialism, status and power — are not the ones that are most associated with happiness across the world.
On the way, we’re treated to an explanation of capitalism; a summary of psychological research about how the above antisocial values correlate with each other and how they play out in different countries; and a discussion of how advertising has skewed our values in the direction of consumption and away from satisfaction through social, personal and community ties. Gonick suggests that people are happier in countries in which there’s less inequality and more democratic input into the economy — e.g., Germany, Austria, Italy and Norway, as opposed to the United States, the United Kingdom and Canada — although he uses surrogate measures like “children’s well-being” when he attempts to use statistics to demonstrate his assertion.
“Hypercapitalism” is a fairly good introduction to the psychological effects of capitalism, Gonick’s cartoons are quite engaging, and Kasser, who is featured as a cartoon character throughout the book, manages to cover a lot of ground without getting too complicated about it all. It’s also refreshing to read a book about the economy that doesn’t assume that wealth and money are the basis of well-being, and instead asks whether having more things makes us happy.
As you might expect, a lot of psychological research indicates that consumption doesn’t make us happy, at least once basic needs are met. Kasser goes on to suggest ways that we can act out of other values that do make people more happy, values like harmony, peace and preservation of nature. Kasser argues that activities, such as mindful buying, voluntary simplicity, sharing, socially responsible investment and organizing to make government more responsive to people’s needs, also make the people engaged in them happier. Even protesting can actually increase feelings of well-being: “Protest typically springs from demands for improvement ... Most protests against hypercapitalism are also protests for certain intrinsic values ... Affirming intrinsic values is also associated with greater well-being, so it’s no surprise that research shows enhanced well-being among politically active people.”
So there you have it. You no longer have to be motivated by guilt or anger to change the world — you can do it because it’s good for you. And Kasser has to be complimented for going beyond typical individualized activities in a book like this and affirming organizing and protest as necessary parts of any political project.
In other ways, though, the book falls short. For one thing, its use of the term “hypercapitalism,” which is defined as capitalism that has penetrated every part of society through advertising, suggests that there’s nothing wrong with “non-hyper” capitalism. In fact, Kasser tells a mythologized origin story of capitalism that starts with an idealized business — a bakery — that becomes profitable simply because people like buying its product. Only later does the baker lose control of her business to her profit-seeking Board of Directors. The implication is that somewhere along the way the wholesomeness of basic capitalism got out of control as limited liability corporations were formed and owners were no longer personally responsible for what their businesses did.
In reality, though, there was no such innocent beginning for capitalism. Capitalism as a system was created not by hard-working artisans but by rich merchants who found ways to increase their wealth and political power by taking over common lands, colonizing and enslaving people from less-developed countries, and using mechanization to drive artisans like Kasser’s baker out of business. In England, where modern capitalism got its strongest start, legal regimes were created to force people to work for subsistence wages (or less) rather than live off the land or by small-scale farming.
Relatedly, Kasser really misses an important aspect of capitalism, hyper or otherwise, in the way it reinforces racial and gender hierarchies. Racism and sexism are themselves deep-seated “values” that tie into materialism and power in our society and are constantly reinforced by our institutions; it’s surprising that Kasser makes almost no mention of these. Gonick, for his part, employs a sort of random assignment of genders and races to the cartoon figures in the book (except for the capitalist, who is always portrayed as a White man), which does nothing to illuminate the roles that our society assigns or the way it uses gender and race to divide people.
A third way the book falls short is that it makes reversing capitalist values sound easy. After all, it’s good for you and it makes you feel better — why wouldn’t everybody want that? However, it’s important for people to understand that if the options that Kasser cites significantly cut into corporate profits, corporations and the people they hire would fight back and attempt to make those things illegal or ineffective, in the same way that the legal rights and power of unions have been eroded since the 1950s.
In spite of its shortcomings, “Hypercapitalism” is a useful introduction to the ways that advertising and materialism degrade our lives. It’s funny, it’s accessible and it starts from a viewpoint of values, rather than costs or profits, which is not often seen in popular books about the economy.
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