Monday, March 1, 2010

The elusive pursuit of status

Alain de Botton’s three-part documentary (based on his book), Status Anxiety, offers an explanation to the perennial sociological puzzle: If in recent decades Western societies have become so much wealthier, why haven’t their inhabitants become proportionately happier? His title sums up the theory he espouses: status anxiety. In modern egalitarian societies individuals jostle for status, and as those on the top now claim they have risen as a result of superior merit, the unavoidable corollary is that the masses who fail to live up to the American dream of becoming superrich celebrities (be it in the US or elsewhere) must also be deserving of their fate. And the success of the successful is increasingly precarious, so the majority of people caught in the hedonistic treadmill end up vaguely anxious and less than fully happy. De Botton offers glimpses of some truly refreshing characters: a black minister who preaches to an eager audience the godliness of making heaps of money (his “church” is in a run-down neighborhood where the only prestigious object is his shiny Lexus, in addition to maybe a few high-end vehicles owned by drug dealers which are not shown); a war roomful of British tabloid journalist who spit out mock titles to stories that would convey some of the great tragic narratives of world literature; a bunch of, to put it mildly, unathletic middle-aged British nudists who on weekends gather together to strip away the vanities of society-mandated clothing; etc. My only gripe is that de Botton’s promised solutions to the problem of status anxiety (a few marginalized bohemian lifestyles, the consolation of traditional religion or of Schopenhauer’s “intelligent misanthropy,” grumpy socialism, artistic celebrations of unexceptional ordinary living and reminders of mortality) are all a bit lame. These are remedies that could all work mostly for people who don’t need them because they are not quite afflicted by the malady de Botton describes. If you go to his web site, though, you will find the real thing. His current grand project is the construction of a collection of modernist houses to be rented out to people who want to spend a holiday in a building imbued with a symbolic meaning. This experiment in what has been branded Living Architecture was inspired by “a desire for people to be able to experience what it is like to live, eat and sleep in a space designed by an outstanding architectural practice.” So, if you are eager to buy a timeshare of high status by shelling out the equivalent of Upper Volta’s GDP per capita for a vacation in the countryside, de Botton’s venture will soon offer you the chance. Oh, and that BMW featured in his documentary as an object of conspicuous consumption might have been the smartest product placement ever. On second thought, what kind of status symbol is that, really? A friend just forwarded some pictures from the weddings of a couple of coal magnates’ kids in a previously poor region of China. The motorcades are brimming with Rolls Royces, Bentleys, Ferraris, Lamburginis, Mazerattis, etc., with Porche SUVs reduced to the unenviable “status” of service vehicles. The dowry of one wedding, featuring a check, pieces of solid gold, fancy sports cars, etc. is definitely worth more than the whole GDP of what was Upper Volta, to say nothing of the diamond-encrusted fingernails of the bride, the huge grotesquely over-decorated reception hall, and so on, and so forth. The funny thing is, the majority of China’s less well-off citizens seem unperturbed by this display of what some might call obscene opulence. Recent polling data suggests that something like 76 per cent of the population are satisfied with the condition of their country, a figure roughly twice higher than the corresponding number for major Western states. De Botton might have a point here – since most Chinese do not yet dream the American dream, and realize that there are relatively narrow limits to high how they can reasonably expect to rise in a lifetime, they are generally satisfied with the washing machines and full fridges their sweatshop wages have bought.