Saturday, June 19, 2004

More on Status Anxiety, America and meritocracy

The Grey Shade has some thoughts here.

De Bottan's comparison between Aristocracies and meritocracies does indeed seem facile if you look at it as the be-all and end-all of happiness - but its not if you remember its context. De Bottan is focusing on status anxiety as one cause of unhappiness in modern socieites. He regards it as an important cause - but that is precisely because those societies have been so successful at ensuring that their citizens are generally free from want and free from fear. Slaves have many reasons for unhappiness, as do peasants, but now that most of those problems have been effectively solved (at least for most of us), the effects of status anxiety have become more important.

I think that the US was chosen as an example precisely because it is so unrepresentative of western democracies. The US is meritocracy gone toxic, where no-one has any security and thus anxiety is at its peak. It's an extreme case, allowing us to see the trends in their purest form - and it may also be a look into the future for the increasingly Americanised Anglospphere. I think de Bottan expected an understanding among his audiance that other countries did it better (for whatever reason); there was certainly a heavy subtext of laughing at the freakish Americans in there.

If you take de Bottan's thesis seriously, the question is not whether the US is really less class-bound than the UK; it's whether Americans think that it is. And fairly clearly, they do. The great American myth is that anyone can grow up to become President, grow up to be a millionaire, grow up to be a superstar. The fact is that the US has greater inequalities of wealth than any European nation, and that social mobility is declining - but Americans are blissfully ignorant of this. As a result, they are more likely to pursue the unattainable, and run smack into that unhappy gap between myth and reality.

As for comparisons with other western democracies, I don't think different attitudes are due to remnants of aristocracy so much as simply different values and an acknowledgement of luck and chance. In America, everyone is a self-made man; your status is seen as being the result of your own efforts. Everywhere else, we know that that's not the whole story. Life can deal you a crap hand, misfortune can strike out of the blue, talent can fail to be recognised. In America, the poor are seen as losers and blamed for their situation. Elsewhere, we're much more likely to say "there but for the grace of god go I". This acknowledgement that we could have been sharing their position, if not for chance (or might soon be sharing it if misfortune strikes), leads to more compassionate policies and attitudes.

Finally, I think de Bottan will probably have a fair bit to say about other reasons for status anxiety (such as consumerism) - but we'll have to wait for the next few episodes or buy the book to see.