Wednesday, 29 September 2004

Status Anxiety

"I was sad because I had no on-board fax until I saw a man who had no mobile phone" - New Yorker cartoon
Status Anxiety I'm presently reading Alain de Botton's Status Anxiety, about one of the fundamental paradoxes of modern capitalism and meritocracy: by making it possible (or at least trying) for anyone to succeed in a society, the corollary must be that those who don't succeed somehow brought it upon themselves. It's the troubling flip side of opportunity, perhaps because of the fundamental attribution error: people tend to discount the role of luck and fortune in judging success, and so create these assumptions of morality associated with success.

De Botton comes from a philosophy background (he wrote How Proust Can Change Your Life), but there are lots of strands of thought that parallel the economist Juliet Schor (whom I had the privilege of taking a class under). What I think is interesting is how their solutions to status comparisons tend to suggest individual action, either leaving society or becoming conscious of status comparisons in order to reject it (in The Overspent American, Schor suggests that as consumers we should be "conscious of the process (of being forced into consumption) and the insidious ways it ensnares us"). But is it possible to live in the modern world without some sense of anxiety, of "lack", of desire? What if envy is a natural psychological reaction? The natural solution to envy, in the immortal words of William Devaughn, may be to be thankful for what you got. Easier said than done, I think.

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