Causes: Expectation (Notes from Status Anxiety)

Notes from Alain de Botton’s Status Anxiety (2004). The book generally aligns with mimetic theory and Girardian ideas; I’ve added a G near comments that seem to do so particularly.

This is the third post on this topic; the first is here.


Material Progress

In 1800s England, services and goods that previously only the elite had access to were now available to the masses. “Luxuries became decencies, and decencies necessities.” From the 1750s, one could identify specific fashion styles for each year, which had never been the case before. The change was mostly due to agricultural innovations from  1700-1820s, and in the 1800s to technological innovations like the can opener, sewing machine, typewriter, lighting, sanitation, etc.

Equality, Expectation and Envy

A decline in actual deprivation has led to an increase in the sense of deprivation and in the fear of deprivation: “Neither who we are nor what we have is quite enough.”

How do we decide how much is enough? It’s never determined independently but rather by comparison to a reference group, “a set of people who we believe resemble us.”  G

A feeling that we might, under other circumstances, be other than what we are can be brought on by “exposure to the superior achievements of those whom we take to be our equals” and can lead to anxiety and resentment. G

We envy only those whom we feel are like us, our reference groupG

Per David Hume, it’s not the disproportion between ourselves and others that produces envy but the proximity (in A Treatise on Human Nature, 1739). The greater the disproportion, the less likely we will envy because the other is remote from us, diminishing the effects of the comparison.  G

The more people we take to be our equals, the more there will be for us to envy. [This is where differentiation comes in.]

Historically, inequality and low expectations for achievement were the norm. In 18th and 19th centuries, there began a belief in the innate equality of all and the unlimited potential for anyone to achieve anything. Previously, it was believed  by most as Aristotle said, “Some by nature are free and others by nature are slaves.” The working class were seen as without reason, and without rights and aspirations.

All believed inequality was fair, or at least inescapable.

Christianity affirmed the belief in inequality in practice. “Humans might be equal before God, but this offered no reason to start seeking equality in practice!” A “good Christian society” was stratified, with absolute power at the top and each in their place underneath. God was seen as creating all beings in rank order, with some superior and some inferior.

By the mid-17th century, political thought began to be more egalitarian. Hobbes (Leviathan, 1651), Locke (Two Treatises of Government, 1689, with its completely new idea that rulers were instruments of the people!), the American Revolution in 1776.

Society changed from a “hereditary, aristocratic hierarchy” to a “dynamic economy in which status was awarded in direct proportion to the (largely financial) achievements of each new generation.”

Tocqueville, visiting in the USA in the 1850s, first pointed out a “particular problem that seemed to be endemic to the equal societies they created;” he observed that though Americans had much, this didn’t prevent them from wanting more or from suffering envy. In a society where “everything is more or less level, the slightest variation is noticed …. G That is the reason for the strange melancholy often haunting inhabitants of democracies in the midst of abundance.”

Previously, Tocqueville noted, “a serf considered his inferiority as an effect of the immutable order of nature. … Democracy … tore down every barrier to expectation.”

Concerning expectation, William James said that “We are not always humiliated at failing things, … only if we invest our pride and self-worth in … an achievement and then are disappointed. … Every rise in our level of expectation entails a rise in the danger of humiliation. What we understand to be normal is critical in determining our chances of happiness.” [This may be the key sentence in the book for me.]

For instance, we could accept aging, fat, poverty, obscurity, but we generally don’t.

Note the prevalence, since the 19th century and starting with Ben Franklin’s Autobiography, of autobiographies of self-made heroes, advice for attainment and achievement, and “morality tales of wholesale personal transformation.”

The mass media, beginning with magazines in the 1880s, gave people the opportunity for the first time to study the lives of people of higher status and to forge a connection with them. The magazines, and the advertising, created longings. Rousseau (1754) said that being truly wealthy isn’t achieved by having lots of things, it’s achieved by having the things one longs for. Wealth is not absolute but is relative to desire.

With expectation and a sense of unlimited possibility comes anxiety that we are far from being what we might be.


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