six stories

In autumn the surface water in lakes begins to cool and grow heavy.  Eventually the heavy top water sinks and displaces the lighter water at the bottom of the lake; and the lake turns.

History can be like a lake.  Take for example how we see class, particularly the members of the upper and lower ones.  Alain de Botton, in his book Status Anxiety, uses three stories to illustrate how we used to see the rich and poor, until about the middle of the 18th century, and three more stories to show how that perception of class has literally flipped.

We used to believe the labour of the poor drove wealth creation, that there was no shame in poverty, and that the riches of the upper echelons were generally ill gotten.  Now we believe the opposite.

Arguments can be made about the relative truthfulness of each of the two antipodal visions of society.  It’s much harder to argue that the radical shift in perspective has not had a profound effect on our lives.  To claim we’re not worse off, for instance.  Among many other things, it’s quite clear we have become uncompromisingly and unapologetically uncharitable.

From Status Anxiety:  the first three stories are the old vision, and the second three are what we believe today.  The old view of class:

Three useful old stories about failure:

From approximately 30 AD, when Jesus began his ministry, to the latter half of the twentieth century, the lowest in Western societies had to had three stories about their significance, which, while they could be believed, must have worked a profoundly consoling, anxiety-reducing effect on their listeners.

First Story:  The Poor Are Not Responsible for Their Condition and Are the Most Useful in Society

/…/ A theory of mutual dependence held that the peasantry was no less vital and hence no less worthy of dignity than the nobility or clergy.

Second Story:  Low Status Has No Moral Connotation

/…/ Insofar as Christianity ever strayed from a neutral position on money, it was in favour of poverty, for in the Christian schema, the source of all goodness was the recognition of one’s dependence on God.  Anything that encouraged the belief that a contented life might be had without God’s grace was evil, and wealth fell into that category, promising both worldly pleasures and a frowned-upon sense of freedom.

Third Story:  The Rich are Sinful and Corrupt and Owe Their Wealth to Their Robbery of the Poor

/…/ According to this narrative, which assumed its greatest influence between approximately 1754 and 1989, the poor were reminded that the rich were thieving and corrupt and had attained their privileges through plunder and deception rather than virtue or talent.  Moreover, they had rigged society in such a way that the poor could never improve their lot individually, however capable and willing they might be.  Their only hope lay in mass social protest and revolution.

The new view of class:

Three Anxiety-Inducing New Stories about Success:

First Story:  The Rich Are the Useful Ones, Not the Poor

/…/ Writing in circa 1015, Aelfric, the abbot of Eynsham, had emphasized that wealth was created almost exclusively by the poor, who rose before dawn, ploughed the fields and collected the harvests.  The critical nature of their work gave them a right to be honoured by all those above them in the hierarchy.  The abbot was not alone in thus recognizing ordinary workers:  for centuries, economic orthodoxy held that it was the working classes that generated society’s financial resources — which the rich then dissipated through their taste for extravagance and luxury.

This theory of who could be credited for creating national wealth survived almost unassailed until the spring of 1723, when a London physician named Bernard Mandeville published an economic tract in verse, the Fable of the Bees, which irrevocably altered the way rich and poor were perceived.  Mandeville posited that, contrary to centuries of economic thinking, it was the rich who in fact contributed the most to society.

Second Story: Status Does Have Moral Connotations

/…/ Faith in an increasingly reliable connection between merit and worldly success in turn endowed money with a new moral quality.  When riches were still being handed down the generations according to bloodlines and connections, it was natural to dismiss the notion that wealth was an indicator of any virtue besides that of having been born to the right parents.  But in a meritocratic world in which prestigious and well-paid jobs could be secured only through native intelligence and ability, money began to lok like a sound signifier of character.  The rich were not only wealthier, it seemed, they might also be better.

Third Story:  The Poor Are Sinful and Corrupt and Owe Their Poverty to Their Own Stupidity

/…/With the rise of the economic meritocracy, the poor moved, in some quarters, from being termed ‘unfortunate,’ and seen as the fitting object of the charity and guilt of the rich, to being described as ‘failures’ and regarded as fair targets for the contempt of robust, self-made individuals, who were disinclined to feel ashamed of their mansions or to shed crocodile tears for those whose company they had escaped.

Status Anxiety, Alain de Botton

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