In Part 9 of Status Anxiety, Alain de Botton looks at how great thinkers and activists have been able to alter our values in society and to change our perception of status.
Who has high status today? Who do we all look up to? Who do the newspapers favour with respectable profiles? Rich people. People who, through their own efforts and merit, have been successful in business, entertainment and the arts. People who make no secret of their achievements. This can seem shallow and unfair, de Botton argues, but it is made all the worse because we often assume that nothing can be done to alter the ideals of our society. We tend to think that it is natural that certain groups have high status while others are marginalised. In fact it is not inevitable at all, it is possible to imagine a world in which their has been a radical redistribution of respect.
The newspapers we buy contain a miriad of subtle and insidious messages about who in the world matters and who doesn’t. Karl Marx first brilliantly analysed the way that our values are being shaped without us realising it and he coined the word to describe this process as “ideology”. He defined an “ideological” statement as one that sells itself as being naturally true when in fact it is made up to uphold vested interests. Marx thought we are bombarded by such statements all of the time. Acording to Marx, the ruling ideas of every age are always the ideas of the ruling class.
The sociologist Max Weber has said that the ritual of buying the Sunday newspapers has now replaced going to church. He contests that it is now the media which is the main source of ideology rather than priests in pulpits who used to be the main source of ideology. De Botton argues that reading the papers can leave us feeling dispirited as we are being subtly rebuked for all the ways in which our lives do not conform to the dominant status ideals, all the ways our careers aren’t as stellar, our house aren’t as fashionable and our social diaries aren’t as packed as they might be. We may end up feeling as guilty about our failings as if we had spent the morning being berated by a priest. Marx argued that ideological ideas are phantoms formed in the human brain which keep prisoners in their cells without the need for bars.
Alain de Botton evaluates the teachings of John Ruskin who fought a passionate campaign to raise the status and conditions of the British working class. He hated the values of his Victorian contemporaries and their obsession with wealth. He described them as the most wealth obsessed people who have ever existed on this earth. He argued that the ruling goddess of the age was the goddess of “getting on”. Ruskin demanded free education, decent housing and access to green spaces for everyone. He challenged the central idea of his age that there was something admirable about being rich. Ruskin too was desperate to be wealthy but he had a very different idea of wealth in mind. What he wanted was not money, he wanted kindness, intelligence, sensitivity, godliness – a set of virtues which he referred to simply as “life” There is no true wealth but life he wrote. ”That country is wealthiest” he argues, “which nourishes the greatest number of happy and noble human beings. Most of the people commonly considered as wealthy are in truth no wealthier than the locks on their strong boxes” Ruskin made a difference by setting in trend many of the arguments which were to lead to the creation of the Welfare State. He remains an inspiring example of how by making a lot of noise and by acting politically someone can change the values of his world. Gandhi said that John Ruskin had been the single greatest influence in his life.
Alain de Botton goes on to look at how changes in society’s values have allowed progress for people to whom this would have been previously been denied.
The political response to status, he argues, has been to insist that our contemporary status ideals are not inevitable but are man-made and so they can be changed. He looks at people who have chosen to live by different ideals. Watch the video and see what conclusion he comes to.
Posted by Shona Lockhart on 28th June 2012