Status Anxiety: Reviews

Andrew Roberts in the New Statesman, 22 March 2004

Read at the New Statesman website

I suffer acutely from status anxiety. There, I’ve said it. I’ve come out as a chronic sufferer from a modern disease so shameful that it hardly dares speak its name. According to Alain de Botton’s perceptive study, anxiety about our place in society is the modern world’s dirty little secret. We care deeply about where we rank vis-a-vis everyone else, but we can barely even admit it to ourselves, let alone to others.

De Botton is a contemporary British philosopher with a difference. Instead of wanting merely to show off how clever he is and how ethereally Olympian his thoughts are, he writes accessible books that try to help people become happier. He seems to believe in happiness for its own sake, unlike any number of stoics and anti-epicureans he denounces in this book.

If there is anything that connects de Botton’s best-known works – How Proust Can Change Your LifeThe Consolations of PhilosophyThe Art of Travel and now Status Anxiety – it is his Messianic belief that we are generally miserable, but that simply by thinking about things differently we could make ourselves happier. Were Alainism to become a force as powerful as Christianity or capitalism, the world would be a far sweeter, calmer place.

Like any good shrink, de Botton first analyses our obsession with status, then diagnoses five ways to deal with it. He defines his terms clearly, and candidly condemns western society for the way that “those without status remain unseen, they are treated brusquely, their complexities are trampled upon and their identities ignored”. In his analysis of the history of status anxiety from St Augustine to the present day, he muses that “if a future society were to offer love as a reward for accumulating small plastic discs, then it would not be long before such worthless items assumed a central place in our most zealous aspirations and anxieties”.

Although it is obviously part of human nature to fret over our place in society – shouldn’t we be higher, might we fall lower? – de Botton believes that it is a fairly recent phenomenon. He points to 1776 as the date after which the decline in feudalism and the rise in American mercantilism started to wreck the excuses that the poor and dispossessed had for being disfavoured by fate. The book’s principal villains being Adam Smith, capitalism and the United States, sales of it among readers on the left ought to be assured.

Yet what de Botton also recognises is the incredible unleashing of human energy, entrepreneurial endeavour and creativity as a result of our wanting not more money than our neighbours so much as their love and respect. When the Wright brothers made the greatest invention of the post-Roman world in 1903, they did it less for the cash than for the untarnishable glory of being the first humans to fly. If life were simply about the cash nexus, they would have stuck to the bicycle trade. What they wanted was status.

A recent survey suggested that office workers care more about their job descriptions than how much they are paid. A significant percentage even admitted that they would accept lower salaries if they were suitably promoted in terms of their job title. This is a weird phenomenon, but one that Marxist political theory needs to address as a genuine aspect of the ever-mutating capitalist genius. If status – which costs society nothing in cash terms – is just as important as profit and pay in the mind of the modern worker, the left needs to think again about its approach to bourgeois false consciousness.

As soon as you have something, or love it, you begin to fear its loss, therefore status anxiety is as powerful a force as status desire. The fear of disgrace and disrespect, but even more of being ignored, is a powerful motivator in our actions, de Botton argues. He quotes one philosopher as stating that we would sooner be physically tortured than be utterly ignored by everyone on the planet for the rest of our lives. The modern cult of celebrity, which recognises only fame and makes no real moral distinction between Jeffrey Archer and Mother Teresa, has in effect abolished the concept of social disgrace, making the only certain disaster that of being unrecognised and forgotten.

What de Botton might have explored further are the myriad ways in which we evaluate status today, because although net worth has been the primary social criterion since 1776, for very many people it is not the sole one. Diplomats value their KCBs and GCBs as much as their pensions; actresses desire Oscars and wrinkle-free complexions just as much as big film deals; any number of businessmen would gladly swap a huge bonus for a peerage. My own sad secret is that if I don’t have at least a dozen party invitations on my mantelpiece at any one time, I immediately become paranoid that my career is heading for (possibly well-deserved) oblivion. Wealth might establish status on one level, but it cannot entirely assuage the naggings of status anxiety.

So what are Alainism’s five great solutions to the “sense of deprivation” from which modern society is increasingly suffering? The first is philosophy. Having thought deeply about the great issues of envy, equality,schadenfreude and so on, de Botton feels that we should try to expect less and thus be happier when we don’t get what we should not logically even want. There are messages for new Labour in this. Why do Tony Blair and Charles Clarke set the target of sending 50 per cent of our adolescents to university if all the undergraduates will do once there is build up life expectations that so many are doomed to see disappointed?

De Botton’s four other defence mechanisms against status anxiety are equally sane. He wants us to “focus on the significance of ordinary life”, to look at the tenets of Christianity and its multifarious defences against the heresy that we are better or more honourable people simply because we are richer. He advises us to embrace bohemianism of the Dadaist kind which despises all bourgeois status totems as essentially bogus. He also sees a true appreciation of art as a protection against status anxiety. Only when he promotes politics as a way of encouraging a kind of “equality of status” does he enter the realm of utter utopianism: from each according to his talents, to each according to his angst.

Although I was pained by de Botton’s wanton attack on snobbery, which I regard as a fine force for social good, human accomplishment and personal improvement, his prescription for lead-ing a happier life is a powerful one. The vicious mean-spiritedness of Confucius’s comment about how pleasant it was to see an old friend fall from a high building is clear once one appreciates the fundamental decency and essential wisdom of St Alain.

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