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'Status Anxiety' anxiety
Alain de Botton

Amol Rajan
posted 21 February 2006

Are you a sufferer too? Probably - only it's very likely you won't know it. You'll have all the symptoms: constant stress, impulse buying, an upturned nose; even - never! - a job you dislike. You seek happiness and comfort in material objects, but each time you invest in these, you empty your soul of real worth, leaving you miserable. You feel unloved, unexceptional, boring - and that huge new Mercedes at No. 42 just makes things worse. In short, you're a victim too, just like the rest of us. But never fear: Dr de Botton is here! And he has written a book to help ease your pain.

There is something necessarily tyrannical about a work of literature that takes as its premise a conviction that the majority of middle-class Western people - that is, you and I - are suffering from 'a worry so pernicious as to be capable of ruining extended stretches of our lives'. According to Alain de Botton, we are all suffering from status anxiety. And this 'possesses an exceptional capacity to inspire sorrow'. As the helpful 'Definitions' section at the start of the book outlines at length, this illness 'is provoked by, among other elements, recession, redundancy, promotions, retirement, conversations with colleagues in the same industry, newspaper profiles of the prominent, and the greater success of friends'. Or rather: in today's capitalist society, envy is the dominant emotion, and material success and consumption will not quell it.

The discomfiting implication of de Botton's initial thesis is that, if I should pick up this book in search of something other than counselling, I may be inclined to ask 'What am I missing out on?' This makes even the emotionally secure, intellectually robust reader (permit this modest admission) feel a little uneasy. De Botton, ostensibly setting out to make us feel better, sponsors a kind of subconscious manipulation of those who feel OK to begin with. He makes them feel ostracised. He makes them feel lonely. 'If everybody else has got this disease, why haven't I?' And so, by a peculiar logic, our philosophy doctor reinforces his initial message - namely, that this anxiety has much of Western society in its grip - by foisting a further anxiety onto his reader, suggesting that there is a 'club' that this reader is either part of or separate from. And who would want to be out on their own? If we weren't anxious to begin with, perhaps we are now.

Yet for all that there are major and disputable assumptions that underpin that initial thesis, this is a bold and engaging book, written throughout in a style that is clear and compassionate. The claim advertised on the back cover (that de Botton has 'singlehandedly taken philosophy back to its simplest and most important purpose: helping us to live our lives', taken from the Independent) has some truth in it. For Status Anxiety is therapy for the masses, and so long as we go along with the pessimistic premises, we can enjoy a ride that consoles and entertains, but stops short of really challenging. Many reviewers have found that greatly to their liking. Frederic Raphael, writing in The Spectator, gushingly referred to the author as 'a personal trainer who sincerely wishes to tone up our moral musculature'; Andrew Roberts, writing in the New Statesman, worshipped the 'fundamental decency and essential wisdom of St Alain'. One suspects they were comfortably rested in the therapists' armchair while reading St Alain's epithets.

Like many other self-help works of recent times, Status Anxiety is divided in two halves: first, the causes; then, the solutions. The first and most significant cause, we are told, is lovelessness. Indeed, our anxious lives are essentially two different love stories: the search for sexual love, and the search for social love. It is the second of these that de Botton will focus on primarily, and in negotiating with the various causes of lovelessness in society (snobbery, expectation, meritocracy, and dependence), there are brief and illuminating excursions into the history of those social pressures that may lead to status anxiety. For example, with reference to Thackeray's Book of Snobs (1848), we are told that the term snobbery arose in the 1820s, when Oxbridge professors referred to students from poorer backgrounds as sine nobilitate (without nobility) and later shortened this to s.nob. Evidently, the modern meaning of 'snobbery' is now almost diametrically opposed to the original sense of the word; having been 'taken to mean someone without high status', snobbery is now taken to mean 'someone offended by lack of high status in others'. The new snobbery, says de Botton, is soul crunching - and in part because 'it is on a diet of the highly conditional attentions of snobs that we are generally forced to subsist'.

What's the cure, doctor? 'It might be more accurate to limit the meaning of snobbery to a particular way of resolving the question of who and what to respect'. OK, and how shall we do that? We might now anticipate a recommendation from the author of who and what ought to be respected. But no: instead, 'The distinctive mark of snobs is not simple discrimination, it is an insistence on a flawless equation between social rank and human worth'. Though eloquently put, this is essentially escapist. Just when he might evince a perceptive consideration of the trends dominating our society, de Botton reverts to stating the obvious.

But perhaps, if snobbery were to be rescued from the hands of those 'offended by lack of high status in others', it could become a worthwhile and defensible practice - one that could promote an engagement with the art, the politics, and the philosophy he later suggests as cures for status anxiety. Perhaps, if snobbery just meant a preparedness to assert values of the form 'Dickens was a great novelist', or 'Kicking a grounded man is immoral', then the term could be reclaimed. The word could then reach a third stage in its evolution, one in which it was wrenched from the anxious aristocracy and handed back to the hoi polloi. It is this sort of suggestion that de Botton's work stops short of: his is not an exercise in propaganda, admittedly, but it would have added a worthy final element to his work if he had taken his analysis of snobbery a step further. A call for its redefinition, to extricate it from status anxiety and actually offer it as one of the solutions to that condition, might have been just such an addition.

De Botton is wonderfully competent in explaining what modern snobbery is, but he soon reverts back to the therapeutic assault on our emotions. This is where the book disappoints, constantly cajoling the reader into a sense of contentment and casual reflection on his own condition, rather than seriously interrogating the social trends that might lead to collective anxiety, and thereby challenging the reader to continue such analysis. Anybody can say snobbery sucks; the question is, should it? And de Botton neither asks nor answers it. Instead he tells us 'there is terror behind haughtiness', that 'rather than a tale of greed, the history of luxury could more accurately be read as a record of emotional trauma' - as if that moisturiser I bought yesterday was really an urgent plea for help. In trying to avoid over-politicising his work, de Botton only tickles the skin of these apparent causes of status anxiety, and doesn't rummage below.

But he does provide plenty of pictures, and facts and diagrams too. A book that purports to cure personal insecurities provides plenty of fascinating trivia that, though a little dislocated from the author's main focus, nevertheless gives it a welcome historical context. We have copies of the American Sears catalogue from 1934, paintings from Jacques-Louis David, Henry Wallis, and a dozen more, bullet points detailing the patenting of cornflakes and the invention of the safety pin and the telephone. There is a healthy sprinkling of references to influential intellects of the past, from Rousseau to Adam Smith. It is as if de Botton couldn't help but indulge his vast knowledge. All this adds to the pleasure of the process, no question; one feels that this small work, though it contains a fluid narrative, might also function as a work of reference.

But all the while one feels as if the counsellor in de Botton received the publisher's backing over the art critic in him, as though the latter might have discomfited our perception of the art contained in the book, and therefore warranted censorship. Never is the art seriously interrogated and examined; never do Rousseau's proclamations on the origins of inequality, or Smith's theory of moral sentiments, get scrutinized. The art, the philosophy, the politics, the Christianity, and the bohemia - which, collectively, comprise de Botton's solutions to status anxiety - are always brought forth in support of his case, and never in opposition. Never in these pages does de Botton put down something that he disagrees with, and then disagree with it.

This is literature that sets out to soothe and heal, not to challenge or discomfort. Paradoxically, Status Anxiety does this by telling us how bad modern life is. When the author says that 'we are the playthings of forces of destruction which can at best be kept at bay but never vanquished', that 'everything is ultimately fated to slop back into a primeval soup', and that 'we are tortured by our ideals, and by a punishingly high-minded sense of the gravity of what we are doing', he may as well be directing us back to the caves from whence we emerged. A book such as this, which ventures to be non-political, is actually built on a politically loaded assumption: that vulnerability and anxiety are the essence of the modern human condition. To his credit, de Botton resists the temptation to hark back to some golden age when status anxiety did not exist; in fact, he makes clear that in previous ages anxieties tended to manifest themselves in great physical discomfort. But in making clear the notion that status anxiety is a historically specific condition, contingent on the advancement of consumer values that are inextricable from the capitalist system of economic organisation, our philosophy doctor cannot help but be politically assertive. And there are internal contradictions in any argument that promotes 'solutions' to status anxiety whilst doubting modern society's ability to overcome its problems.

And so the fundamental decency and essential wisdom to which Andrew Roberts referred remain plausible and impossible, respectively. But does one really want to finish a book with the lasting feeling that the author must be a good bloke, that he's done his best to make us feel better? For those willing to be pampered this is a marvellously constructed and highly readable exercise in self-help, with glittering and entertaining references across the history of ideas. But the reader would do well to prepare by asking himself: do I suffer from status anxiety? Because if he doesn't, he may think that St. Alain is out to make him feel low.


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