Monday, March 25, 2013

Power to the most unmeek

The virtual tempest set off by Sanberg’s book and the PR blitz accompanying its release reminded me of a recent column by David Brooks in the NYT. It’s called “The Brutality Cascade,” and describes a painfully familiar phenomenon:

Let’s say you are a student at a good high school. You may want to have a normal adolescence. But you are surrounded by all these junior workaholics who have been preparing for the college admissions racket since they were 6. You find you can’t unilaterally withdraw from the rat race and still get into the college of your choice. So you also face enormous pressure to behave in a way you detest. You might call these situations brutality cascades. In certain sorts of competitions, the most brutal player gets to set the rules. Everybody else feels pressure to imitate, whether they want to or not.

The other example Brooks gives is related to the use of performance-enhancing drugs in sports. But what if the dynamic he describes has a much broader significance? What if the “brutality cascade ” is an apt metaphor to describe not just specific competitive arenas, but the economy, politics, and society in general? Once Tocqueville worried that the elimination of preset social ranks in the United Status and the pursuit of upward social mobility (a.k.a. “the American dream”) had a peculiar side effect - it was inducing a chronic state of restlessness, a profound “status anxiety,” and a universal scramble up the steps of the social ladder. And with the subsequent demise of the “Protestant ethic” and related social conventions, there may be little left to hold back the “most brutal players” (whom John S. Mill once branded as "vultures") in any field. Between the late 1940s and the early 1990s there was a valiant attempt within a few societies to institute a renewed social contract envisaging a higher degree of social restraint and solidarity embodied in the welfare state. But all this my soon be history.