In Part 10 of Status Anxiety, Alain de Botton looks at the history of Bohemia and what it can teach us about how best to live our lives.
From the start of the 19th century onwards, a new group of people began to be noticed in the West. They often dressed simply, they didn’t much care about money or convention and they came to be described as Bohemian. There have been all kinds of Bohemian movements over the last 200 years: the Romantics, the Surrealists, Dadaists, the Hippies the Punks and the Naturists. These disparate groups were united by one thread which is the decision to stand outside the Bourgeois mainstream and to live for a different set of values. Bohemians pose an important question for all of us: who are we going to get to judge us? Whose opinions should we give weight to? We can learn from the Bohemians that status is available from a variety of sources, above all from our friends. Our choice of audience can be our own.
The Bloomsbury Group started an experiment in living in the 1920s and 30s whose affects we are all still feeling today. Being a Bohemian isn’t about having a certain job, income or house, it is about a way of looking at the world. In the words of the childrens’ writer Arthur Ransome “Bohemia isn’t a place, it is a state of mind”. What that state of mind boils down to is a spirit of independence and freedom and the commitment to live your life by your own values. The Bloomsbury Group gave themselves a sense of validation by breaking the rules of their time. Many of the freedoms which we now take for granted (to talk to whom we like, to have relationships with whom we like) were established by “Bohemia”. The disadvantage of Bohemia, de Botton argues is that it can spiral off in to wilful eccentricity. Take a look at the video to see him taking a lobster for a walk!
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.
In Part 8 of Status Society Alain de Botton argues that the benefits of a meritocratic system have been extraordinary. People who for generations were held down in a caste like hierarchy have finally been allowed to fulfill themselves in whatever ways their talents allow. Race, class, gender and age have all stopped being obstacles to advancement. An element of justice has been introduced into the distribution of rewards. Alongside meritocratic educational reform has come efforts to promote equal opportunities in the workplace. We are repeatedly told that through effort and diligence we can make it to the top.
There is a pride in the way many people speak about how they got to the top, a pride that would have been impossible in the days before meritocracy when you only got places because of who your parents were. Earning good money and having an important job title say more positive things about you than they ever used to. Unfortunately in a meritocracy having no money or no impressive job title say many more negative things about you than they used to. There’s a darker side to meritocracy: if the successful merit their success it then logically follows that the unsuccessful merit their failure. In a meritocratic age an element of justice seems to enter into the distribution of success as well as failure. Financial failure becomes associated with a sense of shame that the unsuccessful of old were fortunately spared. Now the question of why, if you are in any way clever or talented, you are still unsuccessful, becomes a more difficult a question to answer. The rich come to seem as though they are deserving of what is going right for them. Watch the video to see what conclusion Alain de Botton comes to about those for whom meritocracy has not delivered the status they desired. He claims that we have ended up with a curious paradox that our wealthy, opportunity-filled societies have had the odd effect of raising our levels of status anxiety.
In part 7 of Status Anxiety Alain de Botton looks at how living standards in the West have hugely improved in the last 200 years with major increases in life expectancy, economic opportunity and wealth generally. Despite these improvements it can be argued that we are much more status conscious and status anxious than we every were in the days of horse drawn carriages. Older societies despite all their disadvantages had one big advantage when it came to status. Before the mid 18th century, status was handed out in very particular ways: it did not matter what you did but who you were, who your parents were, what kind of background you had. People at the top of society had been handed their priveleges on a plate, secondly there was very little social mobility and thirdly people had very low expectations of the kind of life they could have. Under the old feudal system only a very few could aspire to wealth and fulfillment.
Alain de Botton claims that religion taught many people to accept their unequal treatment as part of a natural and unchangeable order. The English Christian medeival author John of Salisbury, who in 1159 published Policraticus, compared society to a body and used this analogy to justify a system of natural inequality. The ruler was like a head, the parliament like the lungs, the treasury like a stomach, the army like the hands, the working classes like the feet and the peasantry the toes. Behind this rather insulting metaphor lay the idea that everyone in society had been accorded an unalterable role.
Gradually in the middle of the 18th century a way of distributing status emerged, a way that gave hope to millions of people and dramatically changed their lives but which at the same time also brought new levels of anxiety. This new system was called meritocracy. Alain de Botton travels to America to see how the creation of the United States in 1776 fundamentally changed the way status was distributed. The constitution of this new country was based on an idea which was to affect almost every aspect of life right across the Western world – the idea of meritocracy.
Thomas Jefferson drafted these words in June 1776:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit if happiness”
Part 7 of this series continues to look at how this Declaration of Independence and the ideals of meritocracy led to the belief in the American Dream – that anyone with enough talent is capable of achieving anything. An aristocracy of talent rather than birth right emerged.
Alain de Botton postulates that the search for status is linked to something which is as essential to us as light, food and water. Once we work out how central the need for love is a lot of things become clearer, from why we go shopping to why we sometimes kill one another. Much of the reason why we go shopping is unconnected to any urgent material need. We often shop in order to persuade the world we are worthwhile, interesting people. We often shop for emotional rather than practical reasons. A lot of consumption is about acquiring status symbols, material objects whose primary use is psychological and which signal to the world that we are worthy of dignity and respect.
Why do we shop?
Thorstein Veblen, an American sociologist and the man responsible for the term status symbols wrote a witty book The Theory of the Leisure Class in 1899. Having observed the rich at leisure he became fascinated by how people acquire certain luxury goods to symbolise their high status. Many clothes were deliberately designed to show that people didn’t need to work and in fact couldn’t do so in clothes which were highly impractical.
Alain de Botton looks at why we are interested in acquiring luxury cars and what these cars say about us. He argues that perhaps it is those who strive the hardest to be successful who are most haunted by feelings of failure. Scratch the surface of almost anyone who has made it to the top of their chosen field and you will find an unusually viscous fear of being a loser. What need would there be to be so impressive if their wasn’t a fear of being the opposite? There is a sad emotionaly deprived side to the purchase of luxury cars sales he claims. People are attracted to status symbols because they want to feel valued. Rather than a tale of greed, the history of luxury goods could more accurately be read as a record of emotional trauma. It is the legacy of people who felt pressured by the insensitivity of others to impress them with material objects. The amount of love you receive from the world is dependent on the amount of status symbols you can wield.
Part 6 of this series goes to demonstrate how our extreme touchiness about our status can lead to duelling and tragically even death.
Part 5 of the series Status Anxiety looks at the rewards we seek in society. We look for rewards in terms of promotion, money and buying a nicer house. For most of us the reward we really want is attention.
Alain de Botton investigates how our anxieties about status affect every aspect of our every day lives. We worry about being made redundant and how it will affect the way others see us, we worry about passed over for promotion, we worry about being kept waiting, we worry about our colleagues and even our close friends doing better than us.
However what gives us status in a given society keeps changing throughout history in the 21st century our status comes from fashion, business, sport or all three. Although the ways we attain high status have varied throughout history the consequences of high status are familiar accross time and it comes down to being treated well, being treated with respect and with a kind of love.
It is common to assume that the worst thing about low paid work is the money just as the money is the best thing about highly paid work. There is another way of looking at this isue which puts status at the heart of the subject. It could be argued that what make low paid work really distasteful comes down to how one is treated and it isn’t about the money per se, it is about the lack of status involved. Many low paid jobs leave us feeling as though we don’t properly exist. No cares who we are and what we think. Conversely part of what keeps people working even after they have made a lot of money is the respect they receive from others, they are looked up to, held in high esteem and even photographed on the way to the shops.
The philosopher Adam Smith questioned the point of the rat race in his famous book “The Wealth of Nations”.
“What is all the toil and bustle for? What are people aiming at with their ambitions and their frenzied pursuits of wealth, power and pre-eminence? Are they looking to supply their basic needs? No. The wages of the poorest labourer can supply those. What then are they after? They want to be treated well, they want to be attended to, to be taken notice of with sympathy, kindness and approval.”
It is agonising to compare ourselves with people we consider our equals i.e. returning to a school reunion can trigger huge amounts of anxiety. “Every time a friend of mine succeeds, a small part of me dies” Gore Vidal famously said.
Watch this short video to see what further conclusions Alain de Botton comes to about our need for love and status.
In part 4 of this series Alain de Botton argues that if you met someone very “successful” who had lots of fame, money and respect and asked them why they were successful and they said it was just luck you would think they were being unduly modest. On the other hand if you met someone who was a “failure” and asked them why they had not succeeded and they said it was just bad luck you would think they were trying to hide something. Essentially luck has disappeared as a plausible explanation for what has happened in our lives. Winners make their own luck is the punishing modern mantra.
In traditional societies high status and the respect it brings may have been inordinately hard to achieve but it was also pleasantly hard to lose de Botton argues. Modern society makes status dependent on achievement, primarily financial achievement. The nature of the economy which society has created is making that achievement ever more precarious.
For most of us our work is the chief determinant of the amount of respect and care we will be granted but the globalised economy is making that work more unstable, opening up an anxiety-inducing gap between what we need and what the world will give us.
We seem determined to remove any excuse which we might point to for our failure at a time when more and more of us are less secure in our jobs than ever. What consolations are available to the unsuccessful when the world doesn’t give them the respect they need?
This part of the the programme looks at whether religion is a consolation to those who are not successful in terms of fame and money. Take a look at this short video clip and decide if you agree with the conclusions.
Part 3 of this documentary series by Alain de Botton on “Status Anxiety” looks at the theory of meritocracy. Is meritocracy the route to happiness? De Botton investigates the “American Dream” and asks if such a thing is achievable. The programme cites William James, an American psychologist, who looked at the problems which societies create for themselves when they start raising huge expectations in their citizens. The formula James came up with is that Self esteem = Success/Expectation.
In order to have the healthy level of self esteem which we are all looking for we can do two things: we can either become more successful or lower the number of things we expect to be successful at. The problem is that modern societies place us under huge pressure to succeed and make self esteem very elusive. Every rise in our levels of expectation entails a rise in the risk of humiliation.
According to Alain de Botton it became possible to argue for the first time that the rung of the ladder which a person stood on accurately reflected their true qualities and conveniently for the successful this reduced the need for welfare, redistribution of wealth or even sympathy.
Take a look at the arguments made Alain de Botton in the third part of this fascinating series and decide whether you agree with his analysis. If you want to learn more you can purchase Alain de Botton’s book Status Anxiety from Amazon.
This is the second part of the short documentary series by Alain de Botton which looks at our theme of how our obsession with money and status can be a huge obstruction to our happiness. Part 2 looks at why we torment ourselves with comparisons between our lives and those just a few rungs up the ladder. It does not make us any happier so why are we so incapable of curtailing our painful aspirations? It is not just comparisons with others which make us feel discontent it is also what we demand of ourselves. We are all now expected to succeed. We ask ourselves: Should I be more than I am?
Should we follow the advice of philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau who argued the case for the “noble savage”. Being wealthy is not just a question of having a lot of money, it is having what we want. Wealth is not an absolute, it is relative to desire. Every time we seek something which we can’t afford, we can be considered poor, however much money we actually have. Every time we are satisfied with what we have we can be considered rich however little we may actually possess. Rousseau argued that there are two ways to make make people richer, one is to give them more money and the other is to restrain their desires.
Take a look at the arguments made in the second part of this fascinating series and if you want to learn more you can purchase Alain de Botton’s book Status Anxiety from Amazon.
This short documentary series by Alain de Botton continues to look at our theme of how our obsession with money and status can be a huge obstruction to our happiness. The documentary series opens with de Botton’s assertion that “the past 200 years in the West have seen staggering increases in wealth and economic opportunity and yet there have been no comparable increases in our levels of happiness. Despite being so much richer than a few generations ago we are often more anxious about our own importance and achievements than our grandparents were”.
Alain de Botton refers to this anomaly as “status anxiety” and aims to explain where this has come from, how it affects our lives and what we can do about it. Part 1 of the documentary looks at how we compare ourselves with others who we consider our equals (in terms of rights and opportunities) and this can lead to disappointment if we feel that we have not attained the same level of success as our peers.
Take a look at the first part of this fascinating series and if you want to learn more you can purchase Alain de Botton’s book Status Anxiety from Amazon.