Why do I torture myself? Why do I read Unherd sometimes? Today, into my inbox dropped an atricle called Life Is One Big Status Game, written by Ed West, and from the moment I started to read it I knew I’d made a big mistake. A mistake because I knew that afterwards, I’d be quite happy wanting to stab people through the eyes. Mostly Ed, to be scrupuloiusly fair. I really should have just settled down to read the redoubtable Louis Barfe’s new book about Morecambe and Wise, Sunshine and Laughter: it would have been a much better use of my time. Instead, I find myself trying to assemble a few thoughts about what I’ve just read. Apoloigies in advance if they’re a bit haphazard, but here they are.
“Being a loser can be fatal”
The mindset of this analysis is predicated on a very particular idea of what “status” means, and indeed that every decision about one’s life and mind can only be made by triangulating aganist other people continually. Early on West talks about “social climbing (or abseiling)”, and this is broadly indicative of way of viewing society as highly transactional, and of there being a very definite hierarchy in which we must all fit, and to which we must conform. To be fair to him, it’s become a more common mindset in many sections of society, in the last generation or so, and manifests itself in different ways depending on where you find yourself. It’s exemplified in this little vignette about a friend of West’s who has had to suffer the terrible strain of working from home during the lockdown when you can’t see in person who’s swinging their dick in on-site meetings.
These signals dominate office and corporate life. A friend who works in finance recounted how Zoom conferences were far more exhausting because in real-life meetings you can easily tell from body language who was important, and mentally zone out when low-status clients started babbling away.
Poor darling. He can’t tell who he’s supposed to suck up to, so he actually has to put in some effort at work (it’s definitely a man, isn’t it?). It says plenty about both his friend and the finance industry. I’m not entirely au fait with the office politics of the finance sector, but if you’re such an arsehole that you don’t bother listening to “low-status” clients when your job says you pretty much should do that thing, then you deserve everything you get. It is revealing about Ed and his choice of friends that the attitude of effectively ignoring anyone they don’t think important enough to listen to seems to be perfectly unremarkable to him. Worse, he then affects shock and horror that these same people should object to being treated like the shit he’d scrape off the sole of his shoe.
He takes some very snide swings at architects, throwing out blithe lines like “Post-war architecture is almost universally loathed” without really providing any particular evidence or reference to support such an assertion. He cites “polling”, but doesn’t seem to want to bother providing specific examples, or breakdowns. Then he throws in this gem, “the longer someone has been studying architecture, the more pro-modernist their views.” He attributes architects’ feelings about this not to their own expertise, epxperience, or developing aesthetics, but a mere consequence of fashion. What irks is the rather pernicious and more general subtext that anyone’s professional and expert opinion is not worth listening to if it doesn’t agree with one’s own received wisdom or prejudices. Experts? Who needs them? It’s a weird kind of snobbery, based on the unshakeable confidence of a certain kind of columnist that one’s own opinion (however uninformed) is innately superior. It’s pretty clear where he thinks he sits in this status hierarchy, isn’t it, kids?
He talks too about Marco Pierre White and the rather macho shouty quality of the rise of British cuisine in the 1980s and 90s. Like Gordon Ramsay, MPW can cook up a storm, but he doesn’t seem to seen as any kind of decent human being. It’s interesting now that Ramsay, his successor as the shouty, bullying chef archetype, seems to be doing less actual cooking, and rather more shouting on TV as a spectator sport, with increasingly dimishing marginal returns. In amongst that example was a point made about women being attached to lower-status roles, which was something conveniently glossed over when discussion turned to the benefits of status-chasing in 18th century Britain, where (he says) “membership of clubs and societies became a social marker, the result being that the number of learned societies rose from 50 in 1750 to 1,500 in 1850, with an enormous impact on education levels, wealth and a variety of other measures.” Almost universally, membership of these clubs was male. So not much impact on the education level of around 50% of the population, then. And most outside of particular social classes were denied entry as well. By the early 19th century, the likes of Michael Faraday managed to edge their way in to some of these institutions, but then usually only because of the influence of wealthy patronage. The rules of “status”, were written by a small, and highly self-selecting group. And few people outside that group even cared about those rules much. It was an exercise in a small coterie of the very wealthy playing their own, often tiresome, socially exclusive games. So it has continued.
Some of this reminds me of my time as a student. From my very youngest years, all I’d ever wanted to do was go to University. I don’t know why. It’s not like I was from a family of academics. As it turned out, I was the first to do a degree, and this in the late 80s/early 90s when HE participation rates were around 12–15%. I’d not even considered the social aspects of University life. They only started to impact upon me when going through the interview process. A mate of mine recounted turning up for a university interview, to be paired with a guy who’d rocked up in his expensive Armani suit, and who spent most of the time talking about the swimming pool and squash courts his school had(1). Arriving at University showed up those differences even more. Mostly people just kept their heads down and were perfectly pleasant, but there were definite undercurrents in certain groups of wanting to demonstrate a very particular kind of superiority. And there those who played up to it, the wannabes. They were the saddest, most pathetic people of all: desperately trying to gain membership of a club where they would never quite fit, and would always be looked upon condescendingly as the tame pleb. In fact, most of the people who affected this air of insouciant superiority were laughed at or ignored by most people. They were a curiosity, and usually best avoided; they could play their silly games if they liked, but we weren’t obliged to play along, so we left them to it.
In my own career, if you can call it that, and indeed in life, I’ve not really given much though to status at all. I’ve done jobs I’ve mostly enjoyed, been paid enough to put a roof over my head and meet basic needs. I haven’t bought dick-compensating cars, or coveted a house with a crippling martgage. to prove to the world l how “successful” I was. And I’ve not bothered with the petty manoeuvring and chicanery of office politics. It’s so tiring, especially when so often the supposed rewards are illusory and fleeting, and you spend time looking over your shoulder worrying about the possible retaliations of the people you might’ve crawled over you climb a little further up the teeming midden heap that most organisations seem to be. I’ve mostly just pleased myself. I realise, incidentally, that I’m in a very fortunate position to be able to do that, and do not take it for granted. The older I get the more I realise that this is an increasingly anomalous attitude in a society that judges itself by the things you own and the products you consume. I find myself hsppily unable and unwilling to play a game that makes everything an ongoing pissing contest. And I’m happy, mostly. My worries aren’t how my “status” appears to others, but are my own. At the same time, I wish more people felt able to ignore those petty concerns, and like me could just choose to please themselves. It’s why the article’s last paragraph makes me probably angriest of all
Modern-day identity politics is dangerous because it unleashes a competition for status that can never really end. Many idealists hope to make the world fairer by raising the status of one group, often by increasing the prestige of their ancestors through historical reinterpretation. Yet status is a zero-sum game, and unlike wealth the pie cannot be expanded: if your group rises in status, others must fall, and the psychological and even physical effects of losing status are real.
A “zero sum game”? What? All of his thinking is constructed using a social model where one set of people have to lord it over the rest of us. A place where there must be losers if someone “wins” (2). It’s very much of the Trump school of social interaction, where you are king, and everyone else is a schmuck. And it’s horseshit. As far as Ed is concerned, anyone who finds themselves not at the self-appointed apex of society can just jolly well shut up, because as far as he’s concerned, things would probably be so much better if things just stayed exactly as they are, presumably because things are quite comfortable for him, thank you. There are certainly questions to be asked around the issue of identity politics, but this article certainly isn’t a great starting point. I read so you don’t have to. Please, go and do something more productive. If you’ve got toenails to cut, that’ll do.
(1) The school was specifically mentioned, but I’m not going to bother, suffice to say it was a very expensive independent school in London
(2) Or even prospers.