Status Anxiety: Reviews

Jeanette Winterson in The Times,  06 March 2004

De Botton’s gift is to prompt us to think about how we live and, just as importantly, how we might change things, says Jeanette Winterson

Does modern life make us happy? Prompted by Alain de Botton’s new book, I asked 40 people this question, and every one of them said no. Too fast, too loud, impersonal, no values were common complaints, side by side with insecurity – particularly at work. The dream of socialism and conservatism alike – to provide a framework in which people can find purpose and possibility – has become a fitful and sleepless night. Last year, in Britain alone, 30 million tranquillisers and anti-depressants were prescribed.

So what is the problem with modern life? De Botton believes that human beings are motivated by two great quests: the search for sexual and romantic fulfilment, and the search for recognition in the world. This does not necessarily mean wanting to be President of the United States, but it always means a desire for respect and admiration from our peers. Who wants to be a nobody? The word itself opens chasms of terror; without worldly success, we shall literally cease to exist. The fight for status is more than a pecking order, or keeping up with the Joneses, it is a fight for identity. “Who am I?” is a riddle we ask the world. Sadly, if the answer is returned at all, it is often contingent on the very things that make us doubt ourselves in the first place.

De Botton reminds us that as children we need do nothing to be loved and wanted. As adults, we must take our place in society, but who is to decide what place that shall be, and what kind of rewards can we expect in return? In the modern world, low status rarely means starvation, but it often involves a loss of self-respect. Such a blow would have been impossible in the pre-modern world, where roles were fixed for life, and where only the rich suffered from status anxiety. A medieval peasant had a hard life, but he never felt personal failure because he did not own the manor.

There was, too, a strong sense that the poor were spared the corrosive ambitions of life, and could live contentedly with their lot, knowing that God had ordained it. What de Botton calls “Three stories about our lives” vividly describe the psychological switch from pre-modern societies, to our own still-evolving complex social structure:

1 ) The poor are not responsible for their condition.

2) Low status has no moral connotations.

3) The rich are greedy and parasitic, exploiting the skills and resources of the poor.

Such stories cushioned the impact of low status, and kept the rich mindful of their duties to others, whether or not they fulfilled them. But by the middle of the 18th century, three new stories appeared alongside these reassuring and seemingly self-evident explanations of life’s inequalities.

1) The rich are the useful ones, not the poor. Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations (1776) is a beguiling defence of the utility of riches, and, incidentally, the book Margaret Thatcher cited as being the most influential on her political thinking.

2) Status does have moral connotations. This changeabout began benignly enough as a challenge to hereditary power; a person born to rule is not necessarily fit to rule. Napoleon was proud of appointing most of his generals from the street, and the call of revolution and reform alike was away from an aristocracy and towards meritocracy. The growing power of America, and its fiercely egalitarian principles, ensured a modern world where, in theory, everyone would have a chance, while in practice any failure could only be ascribed to oneself.

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