Alain de Botton
I must preface this article by giving credit where it is due, and I must also apologize to Alain, as I did not even realize who he was until I very randomly stumbled upon his TED talk about Atheism 2.0. I had been following the channel School of Life along with Wireless Philosophy to help my understanding of philosophy. His voice immediately reminded him of his channel and I thus realized I’d been listening to him telling me about the history of philosophy. His greatest work, judging from the amount of time he has spent talking about it, is Status Anxiety. I have yet to read it, but I’ve watched various interviews and seminars he’s conducted on it. He has also made a documentary in the early 2000s about it, which I will presume most likely goes through the main points.
Alain de Botton is a contemporary, and if I am not mistaken, very important philosopher of our age. His insight appears to be mostly directed toward society, which of course is dear to my heart. It was very envigorating to see a fellow philosopher share so many of the views I held on the world, and he also happened to have taken inspiration from the same philosophers I have. His experience far exceeds mine, however, and if you were to want to investigate a prominent philosophical figure of our age, I’d say go to de Botton before myself.
Suffice to say, I will now attempt to summarize what I have understood and wish to take away from his work in this article.
There are multiple contradictions in our lives but none is more self-evident than the one we impose ourselves via third-party agencies. We have a dream of our own which we wish to follow, but sometimes it gets taken over by “reality”, by what we presume to be the more realistic thing to endeavor, the one that will secure our future and our children’s future. So our dreams, early on in life, change shape and become what society expects of us. The contradictions rest upon the dictatorship of the meritocracy.
De Botton makes a comparison between the times where everyday citizens were ruled by a totalitarian Aristocracy. There was no ambition beyond being a peasant or a servant or a knight. Everyone had their own straight lines to follow, and if you were born poor, by God you would die poor. Was there anything wrong with it? Not for the people back then. All that was expected of them was to serve the State and the State was to provide them with the necessary resources to survive.
Now of course, I need not remind you of the many, many issues that plagued times under aristocracies, so I will continue on. The contradiction nowadays rests in that we are all considered equal, up until the time where we are not. When does that happen? Directly when you receive your paycheck. For the same amount of time spent working, you amass only a small fraction of the money the C.E.O of your company does in one hour of work. Clearly, what this says is that the C.E.O. has earned this overwhelmingly larger paycheck and you should work as hard as he did to get where he is. It makes complete sense, in a way.
But what if you can’t? That’s something a meritocracy does not count on. It simply flashes the dream of riches and security and prestige, then leaves you to fend with it. Apparently, we all start at the same level. History shows us otherwise, and current-day society as well. A person that migrates from their country to yours, where society has flourished and fast foods populate every single street corner (or just about), will find their hard-earned work brushed aside like mere trifle. The many years spent in an educational system amounts to nothing in your country. They have to start over, possibly with much less energy than you have.
Now if they fail and end up having to work as a janitor in a school, what will we tell him?
“You just didn’t try hard enough. I was born with nothing and I made myself into a wealth CEO!”
All of that is well and good, but it is a double-edged sword to give to those you would coach in this fashion. What does that mean if I try very hard but still do not manage to get rich? I deserved to be poor? Meritocracy would simply assert that I should be poor. The contradiction here is thus:
1. We all are equal in opportunity.
2. Those who fail deserve to fail.
We should not work with such double-standards. It seems evident that those who promote number 1 simultaneously firmly believe number 2 to be true. Many social movements would be outraged by these two statements.
Firstly and chiefly, because we are not equal in opportunity. Many people are born in different areas of the same city and not every area of the same city shares similar household wages. Indeed, all cities have a poverty-stricken neighborhood and a bourgeois neighborhood, with middle-class suburbs serving as the middleground. Point number one fails drastically because it does not pass the test of reality. While yes we are all given the opportunity to become rich, we start at decisively different spots on the race track. That’s why social justice movements might be a little peeved to hear someone say something like that. Especially if that person happens to be a white male, speaking through the comfort of a living room or sporting an expensive suit, drinking a whiskey. The separations between types of opportunities calls for another article entirely, but I’ll leave this article for your consideration. (Many different factors are listed in this article)
Secondly, to say that those who failed deserve to fail seems to lack a great sense of empathy. Rather, it shows that once we have our castle, by God we are going to keep it to ourselves and never share it with anyone else. Because the struggle we’ve gone through to get it cost us too many years of our lives, and it will not be thrown away because some crybaby did not achieve his aspirations like we did.
In a time of steady economical and financial downfall, how can we say something like this and still keep a straight face? The expansion of the gap between the wealthy and the poor keeps on spreading, yet we still have wealthy individuals going on conservative think-tanks, saying the economy would be better if those pesky millenials just invested into the right things. Well, you’ll find it a little bit difficult to invest in pretty much anything of value, when you are indebted head over heels. The stress put upon everyday folk is simply too enormous to even bother with stimulating the economy. People struggle just to make ends meet! It takes but a moment of hesitation, a moment of sheer bad luck, for years of savings to be flushed down the drain.
It’s an incredibly deterministic and cruel way of looking at the world, where those who get rich should get rich and those who don’t, shouldn’t. It further creates tension between the wealthy and the poor, augmenting the bassin of the latter, to the profit of the former. Now that we’ve looked at the contradictions in a meritocracy, let’s look at one of the societal issues it creates, which is one of the core factors of Status Anxiety.
It’s not enough that we have trouble making ends meet, but the moment we hear that one of our friends got it made, we have this little feeling in our chest. First, of jealousy, then of fake compassion and then of hate. Mostly toward ourselves. We hate ourselves for being unable to be successful, and then we wallow in self-pity, because we see our friends going for high paying jobs, with the same education as us.
Why is this happening? Why haven’t I got my lucky streak?
Well, if the meritocracy is to be believed, you just suck. You’re a loser and you should just have worked harder (although you very well may have). So what happens when we fail to progress, in our own lives? We look at our friends, and we start hating those that succeed. Further entranching the poor versus the rich. This is utterly poisonous to a society of supposed equality, and in the situation where people who are poor stay poor, we shouldn’t spread false promises of equality of opportunity. We shouldn’t put a carrot in front of the donkey if they already know that they won’t ever reach it. They’ll sooner cast off their hopes to despair and suicide.
Furthermore, why claim equality if we readily admit that some people stay poor because they suck? That inherently means that there is no such thing as equality in our society, and we want it that way! We want to be envied and in the same motion, we want to envy others, so that we can feel confirmed in our self-pity. There’s no winning, in a meritocracy, because we are always looking at the other, wondering what they have that we don’t.
At the same time, we snob those beneath us, and we judge quickly who is or isn’t worth our time, based on their job. Most people are quick to excuse themselves when they find out that the person they’re speaking with, in a school reunion, for example, hasn’t gone very far and is now working minimum-wage employment. It’s not very exciting, and while it helps us feel better about ourselves, they become unworthy of our envy and thus our attention. In a meritocracy, we thus want to reach this level of self-satisfaction where we can easily dismiss a person based on two things:
- Their education level.
- Their job.
Like in a video game, if they happen to be inferior to us, we find ourselves disinterested because we have nothing to learn from them. Likewise, if they are of a higher level, we want to test our mettle, we want to learn from them.
All of this is very bleak, but what solutions can we offer to such a terrible predicament, in our day and age? Well, easily enough: We shouldn’t base our hopes and fears solely on the type of job we’ll be doing, nor should we judge others on that same quality or qualities. Their education is part of their story and so is their work. Our intellectual laziness forces us to quickly judge people, and the meritocracy tells us who we should hang around with to remain successful.
“L’Enfer, c’est les autres”, as Sartre once said, not with respect to how others act toward us, but how we use others to help our own suffering. Everything is fine in our mind, until the competitive meritocratic game starts. We go on an endless race to one-up the person in front of us, not realizing we are in fact running circles around ourselves.
There is nothing in the materialism of the Occident that is worth keeping. Every single thing we hope to achieve or attain will one day expire, as will our own lives. We should be careful not to choose what society expects of us but rather what we find most fulfilling for ourselves. If you want to be a rich CEO, go right ahead! If you want to be a janitor, do that!
Let’s do away with the irrational notion of money and career envy to justify our existence. While the two permit us to keep living, we should realize that there is always bigger fish than us out there, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Being happy with our own selves is the first step to defeating Status Anxiety, and in order to be happy with ourselves, we need to put importance not on what clothes we should wear, what car we should drive and what job we should have, but on what we personally DO want to do with our lives.
Most of all, we need to stop evaluating our self-worth based on what others are doing.