Books · General philosophising · Performance & Arts · Political

The myth of meritocracy & its discontents

Status AnxietyStatus Anxiety by Alain de Botton
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’ve read other books by de Botton and (unlike some readers) enjoyed his chatty style and self-deprecating anecdotes. This book is less personal and has more of an essay feel, but the modus operandi is still graceful, readable synthesis and organisation of material from various philosophers. He aims to explain and offer relief for ‘status anxiety’ in a culture, ‘the West’, where status is conferred by wealth. I found this book helpful, as I quickly realised that I can explain my attitude to ‘Western’ values easily by saying ‘I think it’s senseless and destructive to measure status by wealth’.

This is one of those books that unintentionally makes me go ridiculously rosy spectacled over feudalism. Although de Botton is at pains to point out that being a medieval peasant was no fun at all, and I have no doubt that it was indeed miserable, I can’t help imagining a life of pottering about in the fields, chatting to my friends while shelling cobnuts, dancing around may poles and eating bread and cheese and apples with my back against a cherry tree, rather than the absence of heating, healthcare, education, books, transport, LGBTQ recognition etc.

Where was I? Oh yes. So the serf benefitted from some handy ideas: The poor are not reponsible for their poverty (god did it) and are the most useful members of society, while the rich are ‘sinful and corrupt’ and owe their wealth to ‘the robbery of the poor’. Capitalism is founded on the idea of equality and meritocracy (the rule of the Best) and leads to the idea that the profligacy of the rich is useful (‘greed is good’, because many people are employed in supplying luxuries), and that the poor must be poor due to stupidity or laziness, because society provides ‘equal opportunities’. In other words, if your status is low, JUST TRY HARDER.

The insight that the idea of meritocracy causes status anxiety in capitalist societies is helpful, and I would have liked to see this further interrogated since power structures are maintained by the illusion of meritocracy in those societies. It is the myth of meritocracy (a form of just world fallacy) that enables governments and corporate interests to keep minoritised communities/oppressed classes disempowered and divided using the contagious strategy of VICTIM BLAMING. De Botton also points out that status anxiety depends on our peers: we envy our friends and old classmates, rather than the folks on the hill. This helps explain why the myth of meritocracy in capitalism is an atomising principle working against community.

I like the bit of the book about how art works against unjust stratification. Austen’s Mansfield Park is one of many classic novels that turns a hierarchical system on its head, assigning high moral status to characters who rank low on the social ladder. Subverting the prevailing status myth, fostering empathy for the downtrodden (literature) and appreciation for the uncelebrated (painting) is what great art is good for. De Botton also points out that tragedy, (Greek or Shakesperian) ‘allows us to experience a degree of concern for others’ failure so much greater than that we ordinarily feel’; it is this ‘tragic’ degree of sympathy that we all surely deserve!

De Botton points out that financial success is only one of many ways that status has been mediated in Western culture. In my favourite section, on ‘Politics’, he offers a neat summary:

The charge made against the modern high status ideal is that it is guilty of a gigantic distortion of priorities, of elevating to the highest level of achievement a process of material accumulation which should be only one of the many things determining the direction of our lives under a more truthful, more broadly defined conception of ourselves

He points out the refusal to be victim-blamed in Virginia Woolf’s essay A Room of One’s Own. Instead of asking ‘what’s wrong with me that I am not allowed (as an unaccompanied woman) into the library’, she asks ‘what is wrong with these people that they won’t let me in?’. This turning of the tables, the spark of all resistance and social justice movements, is what de Botton calls a political manouvre. Political thinking means understanding ideology and ‘denaturalising’ it. In discussing the possibility of political change de Botton comes closest to actually decrying our concept of status.

If the whole thing lacks bite for me, I suppose it’s because I’m already very political. I wish these ideas were pushed further, but perhaps it’s best that de Botton leaves it to others to show, for example, how the metric of material accumulation has become entrenched and self-perpetuating in vast institutions and structures like the stock market, and practices like measuring prosperity with GDP, which assigns value to the building of bombs, ignores the raising of children, and marks care of the elderly and unwell as burdensome costs.

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