Solutions: Politics (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 ninth post on this topic; the first is here.

PART II: Solutions


“Every society holds certain groups of people in high esteem while condemning or ignoring others, whether on the basis of their skills, accent, temperament, gender, physical attributes, ancestry, religion or skin colour. Yet such arbitrary and subjective criteria for success and failure are far from permanent or universal.” G It’s the job of the status quo to make them seem absolutely universal and permanent.

Rather eccentric timeline: of who and what has been held in high status:

400 BC Sparta: Soldiers: Men, aggressive, vigorously bisexual, not family men, not business men.

Western Europe 476-1096: Saints: followers of Jesus Christ, shunning of material goods, suppression of sexual feelings, extreme modesty.

Western Europe 1096-1500 (after first Crusade): Knights: Wealthy, killed people and animals. Lovers, poets. Prized virgins. Loved money but not from trade, only from land.

England 1750-1890: Gentlemen: Dancing, dabblers, not merchants. Supposed to like families but OK to have mistresses. Cultivation of languid elegance. Hair. Women seen as taller children.

Brasil, 1600-1960 (Cubeo tribe): Men who spoke little, did not dance or play a part in raising children, and were good at killing jaguars. High status – hunters; low status – fishermen. Shameful to even be seen helping wife make a root-based meal.

London, Sydney, New York, LA, 2004: Anyone who can accumulate money, power and renown through their own accomplishments in some sector of the commercial world. Because culture is now seen to be meritocratic, financial achievements are understood to be deserved. The ability to accumulate wealth is proof of creativity, stamina, intelligence. Other virtues, like godliness and humility, don’t matter much.

By what principles is status distributed?:

(1) by threatening and bullying

(2) by defending others (strength, patronage, control of resources, etc.). Where safety is in short supply, soldiers and knights are celebrated. Where the livelihood of the majority depends on trade and high-tech, entrepreneurs and scientists are celebrated.

(3) by impressing others with goodness, talent, skill or wisdom (saints, European footballers)

(4) by appealing to conscience or sense of decency of peers – by moral authority.

Ideals are not cast in stone; the process by which they alter is politics.

For us in the western world now, prosperity = worthiness. And poverty = moral deficiency. Money is ethical. This equation of prosperity and worthiness seems “natural” to us but it only came into being as “the way it is” in the mid-1800s.

Thorstein Veblen’s Theory of the Leisure Class (1899): “Wealth has become the conventional basis of esteem.” Material goods confer honour (hence conspicuous consumption, to give evidence to one and all of one’s ‘true’ worth).

Some have fought the idea of meritocracy, the idea that wealth = virtue, including most notable John Ruskin, and also  George Bernard Shaw, Michel de Montaigne.

Modern life also posits a connection between making money and being happy. This connection rests on three assumptions:

(1) that we know what we need to be happy and so we know what careers and projects will help us flourish as humans. Rousseau refutes this (in Discourse on the Origin of Inequality, 1754):  We are actually, he says, “dangerously inept at deciphering our own needs. Our souls rarely articulate what they must have in order to be fulfilled, and when they manage to mumble something, their requests are likely to be misfounded or contradictory …. Our minds are susceptible to the influence of external voices telling us what we require to be satisfied….”   G

(2) that all of the occupational possibilities and consumer goods available to us are actually a helpful array that’s capable of satisfying our essential needs.

(3) that the more money we have, the more goods and services we can afford, which increases our odds of happiness.

(de Botton writes more about this here: “Americans Were the First People to Worship Work”)

Current Events Tie-In: “Will economic growth make Americans happier?” (23 June 2008, Chicago Tribune)

Some posit, in contrast to the money-happiness connection, that those who live in a “natural state” understand themselves much better. (Part of the ‘noble savage’ idea) E.g., the native Americans, who lived with little yet were reputed to be content. But within only a few decades of the arrival of the first Europeans, what came to matter to the Indians was the amassing of weapons, jewellery and whiskey. This didn’t happen spontaneously; the European traders deliberately sought to foster desires in Indians to motivate them to provide animal pelts for the European market.

In 1690, the English naturalist and minister John Banister noted that the Indians of Hudson Bay area had been successfully tempted by traders to want “many things which they had not wanted before.” As the volume of trade increased, suicide rates and alcoholism also rose, fracturing communities. Indian leaders called on tribes to renounce their addiction to European luxuries.

Defenders of commercial society argue that no one forces anyone to buy anything. Rousseau emphasised how strongly predisposed humans are to listen to others’ suggestions about how to think and what to value.  G

Advertisers et al. actually insist that their trades are ineffective because the population is so independent-minded. This is not shown to be true, based on what people once said were luxuries that they quickly came to see as necessities:

Percentage of Americans who say these are necessities:

2nd car in 1970: 20% / 2nd car in 2000: 59%

dishwasher in 1970: 8% / dishwasher in 2000: 44%

A/C in car in 1970:  11% / A/C in car in 2000:  65%

A/C in home in 1970: 22% / A/C in home in 2000: 70%

more than one telephone in 1970: 2%  / more than one telephone in 2000: 78%

(Salon article about marketing — “commercial persuasion industry” — and consumerism: We Are What We Buy: “‘We can talk all we want about being brand-proof … but our behavior tells a different story.'”)

“Life seems to be a process of replacing one anxiety with another and substituting one desire for another” and we’re not aware of it. G We think achievements and acquisitions will satisfy us but they don’t. Not only can we not stop envying, but we envy the wrong things!

John Ruskin excoriated 19th-century Britons for being wealth-obsessed. He said he was, too, but he was obsessed by being wealthy in kindness, curiosity, sensitivity, humility, godliness, and intelligence — which in the aggregate he called “life.”

In his conception, the wealthiest Britons would not be automatically merchants or landowners but rather those who felt the keenest wonder gazing at the stars or who were best able to alleviate the suffering of others. (in Unto This Last)

Ideology and Political Change

Lots of ideas have been seen as so immutable as to be ‘natural’, e.g.,:

  • men’s rule over women (Earl Percy, 1873)
  • European people are better than Africans (Lord Cromer, 1911)
  • women don’t have sexual feeling (Sir William Acton, 1857)
  • Africans are naturally subordinate to whites (Alexander Stephens, 1861)

Dominant beliefs are at great pains to suggest that they are no more alterable than the orbits of the sun. They are ideological — “a statement that subtly promotes a bias while pretending to be perfectly neutral.” The ruling ideas of every age are those of the ruling class; but they can’t seem to rule too forcefully. The ideas have to seem natural and unforced, just “the way it is.”

Ideology, like a colourless, odorless gas, is pervasive and yet unnoticed as what it is. It makes light of its perhaps unjust or illogical take on the world and meekly implies that it’s only presenting age-old truths.

“When institutions and ideas are held to be ‘natural,’ responsibility for whatever suffering they cause must necessarily either belong to no specific agent or else to the injured parties themselves.”

Virginia Woolf, when not allowed into a college library in England on the basis of being female, became sceptical of the feminine role model she grew up with, the image of a woman who was always charming and utterly unselfish. The model woman sacrificed herself daily. She took the worst piece of meat, the most uncomfortable seat, etc. “She was so constituted that she would never have a mind or wish of her own, but prefer to sympathise always with the minds and wishes of others.”

“The enthusiasm for materialism, entrepreneurship and meritocracy that saturates the newspapers and television schedules of our own day reflects nothing more complex than the interests of those in charge of the system by which the majority earn their living.”


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