Filed under: brave new world, the sweet life | Tags: alain de botton, bohemian, bourgeois, failure, success
In our recent economic downturn, people say that there is a culling happening, that the brightest and the best are being retained in their companies while the dubious and slovenly are let go. They say that this is a good thing, as the fit become fitter and human progress is assured. No one really says what happens to all the people that slip through the cracks: trampled underfoot perhaps, but anyway out of sight out of mind.
This version of who sinks and who swims doesn’t fully square with my experience. I have found that, at least sometimes, the loyal and boring tend to rise quickly and entrench, while the smart get restless and make waves and are let go, or get bored and leave of their own accord.
Those are our two prevailing cultural narratives of success, no doubt both of which contain a semblance of truth, and neither of which hold the whole of it. They are warring, dialectical visions.
One of the best sources I have found that describes the historical antecedents of these competing ideas of success are de Botton’s books Status Anxiety and The Consolations of Philosophy. I recommend them both.
In this following excerpt from Status Anxiety, de Botton describes our debate as one that has raged between two competing camps: the bourgeois and the bohemian. The author describes the bourgeois version of social success in which: the bourgeoisie benefit from the rules that they themselves have written, cast aspersions on those who have not risen to their rank, and pander to achieve their ends.
But the author goes on to describe how bohemians on the other hand see the stupidity and fatuousness of the methods and status of the bourgeoisie and call into question the very basis upon which our middle class culture has been erected. Damnably, commercial and class success is often, for the bohemian, a mark of stupidity and lack of ethics and imagination.
I’m not sure people are ready these days to be classed bohemian, however, it seems more and more of us are willing and even eager to rethink our fealty to market and social orthodoxies with which we have lived for two generations and more and which have, from all evidence available, failed us miserably. For instance, one big idea that people are beginning to question is that GDP is a proper measure of a good life. A related idea that is showing cracks is that economists are properly equipped to lead us.
The bourgeois idea of success is inextricably related our neo liberal, market- based, GDP-measured society which has dominated world culture for some generations. It’s got us by the throat. The good news is that the boho response – whether we take the name or not – offers a counter narrative which can relieve the pressure of a narrow, relentless and ultimately cruel way of life.
Here is the passage from Status Anxiety:
Bohemia has also carefully redefined its understanding of the word failure.
In the bourgeois lexicon, any financial or critical failure in business or the arts rises to the level of significant indictment of an individual’s character, given the bourgeoisie’s ideological assumption that society is essentially fair in distributing its rewards. Bohemians, however, refute this punitive interpretation of outward failure by pointing out how often the world is governed by idiocy and prejudice. Human nature being what it is, they reason, those who succeed in society will rarely be the wisest or the best; rather, they will be the ones who are able to pander most effectively to the flawed values of their audiences. There may indeed, bohemians hint, be no more damning marker of a person’s ethical and imaginative limitations than a capacity for commercial success.
Status Anxiety, Alain de Botton
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