|Status Anxiety - Reviews
The New Statesman, 22 March 2004
I suffer acutely from status anxiety. There, I've said it. I've come out as a chronic sufferer from a modern disease so shameful that it hardly dares speak its name. According to Alain de Botton's perceptive study, anxiety about our place in society is the modern world's dirty little secret. We care deeply about where we rank vis-a-vis everyone else, but we can barely even admit it to ourselves, let alone to others.
De Botton is a contemporary British philosopher with a difference. Instead of wanting merely to show off how clever he is and how ethereally Olympian his thoughts are, he writes accessible books that try to help people become happier. He seems to believe in happiness for its own sake, unlike any number of stoics and anti-epicureans he denounces in this book.
If there is anything that connects de Botton's best-known works - How Proust Can Change Your Life, The Consolations of Philosophy, The Art of Travel and now Status Anxiety - it is his Messianic belief that we are generally miserable, but that simply by thinking about things differently we could make ourselves happier. Were Alainism to become a force as powerful as Christianity or capitalism, the world would be a far sweeter, calmer place.
Like any good shrink, de Botton first analyses our obsession with status, then diagnoses five ways to deal with it. He defines his terms clearly, and candidly condemns western society for the way that "those without status remain unseen, they are treated brusquely, their complexities are trampled upon and their identities ignored". In his analysis of the history of status anxiety from St Augustine to the present day, he muses that "if a future society were to offer love as a reward for accumulating small plastic discs, then it would not be long before such worthless items assumed a central place in our most zealous aspirations and anxieties".
Although it is obviously part of human nature to fret over our place in society - shouldn't we be higher, might we fall lower? - de Botton believes that it is a fairly recent phenomenon. He points to 1776 as the date after which the decline in feudalism and the rise in American mercantilism started to wreck the excuses that the poor and dispossessed had for being disfavoured by fate. The book's principal villains being Adam Smith, capitalism and the United States, sales of it among readers on the left ought to be assured.
Yet what de Botton also recognises is the incredible unleashing of human energy, entrepreneurial endeavour and creativity as a result of our wanting not more money than our neighbours so much as their love and respect. When the Wright brothers made the greatest invention of the post-Roman world in 1903, they did it less for the cash than for the untarnishable glory of being the first humans to fly. If life were simply about the cash nexus, they would have stuck to the bicycle trade. What they wanted was status.
A recent survey suggested that office workers care more about their job descriptions than how much they are paid. A significant percentage even admitted that they would accept lower salaries if they were suitably promoted in terms of their job title. This is a weird phenomenon, but one that Marxist political theory needs to address as a genuine aspect of the ever-mutating capitalist genius. If status - which costs society nothing in cash terms - is just as important as profit and pay in the mind of the modern worker, the left needs to think again about its approach to bourgeois false consciousness.
As soon as you have something, or love it, you begin to fear its loss, therefore status anxiety is as powerful a force as status desire. The fear of disgrace and disrespect, but e