Sunday, August 2, 2009

Alain de Botton on Success and Failure

Here is an interesting video conference from Alain de Botton about the concept of success and failure. I find it interesting for both its content and its form, and I wish to comment on these two aspects, but first, here's the video:

Starting with the content, the remarks on materialism sounded insightful, but they really don't blaze much of a trail. Materialism (in its colloquial sense) is seldom thought of as a naive attachment to material goods, it is usually identified as a means for social recognition. A more detailed analysis would even introduce the idea of a mild form of fetishism, of which Freud located the origin in the unconscious, and that establishes a link between deep-seated drives and the ownership of material goods. These dimensions are readily visible in the methods of advertising.

After that, Alain de Botton comes to the more interesting discussion, and correctly in my view, of envy, linking it to the spirit of equality. Here, however, I would have preferred the more precise term of commensurability. In short, the spirit of equality is the actuality of commensurability. And my preference for the second term is that it unveils the core principle of the problematic Alain de Botton was here discussing. It indeed posits that human beings can be measured one against the other, they can be ranked, they can be hierarchise on a definite scale, the unit of which being the merit.

As for meritocracy, Alain de Botton simply borrowed from the thesis Michael Young developed in 1958 in "The Rise of Meritocracy", as to the crushing effect a purely meritocratic society would have on the "losers". A more fruitful development, in my opinion, would have been to question the concept of merit itself.
Alain de Botton repeated several times that a purely meritocratic society is impossible, but he never gave elements as to why it is impossible, and that creates a little bit of confusion: On one hand, he questioned the desirability of a full meritocracy, and on the other hand he affirmed such a full meritocracy is not possible at all. But is it meaningful to wonder about the desirability of an impossible thing? It seems to me, that by doing so, Alain de Botton is digging the grave of his own argument.
However, I think he is hinting at something important here, but a few oversimplifications need to be acknowledged and corrected to reveal the whole depth of the problematic.
More than the realisation of a purely meritocratic society, it is the philosophy of meritocracy, the aspiration to a more and more meritocratic system that leads to undesirable consequences (and Alain de Botton seems to fall into the trap of his own confusion by declaring his support to any meritocratic measures). In fact, this danger was already acknowledged by Max Weber when he noticed the rationalisation of social life (via the development of bureaucracy), specifically in "The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism" which brings us back to materialism, since while St Augustine posited the City of God as a transcendental realm, and reserved the ability to measure men's actions to a transcendental being, the protestant reform gave birth to what Weber called "worldly asceticism" in which predestination ensured the judgment had already been made. Such an idea materialized itself into the belief that a man's worldly success was merely the sign of God's grace. In this framework, the unfortunate was to become the damned, or in a more secular version, the loser. But beyond these extreme points of view, the rationalisation of social life requires a belief in some level of commensurability between human beings, and, as often, this belief translated into a belief in full-fledged commensurability (and here, we come to Materialism as a philosophical school, where the subjective is merely an illusion which will ultimately be trimmed down to an objective order of things) and eventually into the existence of merit (the secular counterpart of grace). As merit being such established, meritocracy becomes possible and either desirable or undesirable.
The problem is that, even though the sociological evolution that led to these beliefs is quite established, it does not entail that such a world view is correct. While the commensurability of two actions aiming at the same precise goal can often be realised (in utilitarian terms for instance, though, even there, we may face some serious problems), it does not seem very easy to extrapolate this commensurability to individuals. And snobbery is merely the systematic practise of this extrapolation, a practise made a priori (without curiosity, without care), by necessity, since any analysis would invalidate it.
Snobbery, and the deshumanisation of social life it produces, is the real danger of the belief in commensurability that materialises as the philosophy of meritocracy in political circles. Such, in my view, should have been the point of Alain de Botton, but he confused the matter more than he clarified it.

Can tragedy then helped to turn the situation around? I believe it can, but I am not sure greek tragedies can do much for it, Flaubert and Shakespeare were better examples, though Chekhov, Ibsen, Brecht or Beckett would have been even better. Not all tragedies say the same thing, and they say much more than that failures may happen to people who don't lack merit. The sense of the tragic goes much deeper that that, I believe it is, ultimately, the awareness of a lack of order and therefore the ultimate incommensurability of all things, as such it is the antithesis of snobbery.
And this sense of the tragic cannot be found in Sophocles, who actually posited the existence of an order above humanity, it can't be found either in Shakespeare or Corneille, where again an order was understood, at least implicitly in an afterlife. This type of tragedy, while they are still relevant to us, in many ways, are not as relevant as some others, since they do not match as closely our worldviews. More interesting are the modern tragedies, the ones from Kurt Weill and Bertold Brecht, in which orphan human beings wander from one wiskey bar to another, as in the Alabama Song, but ultimate incommensurability can be felt, and maybe with more intensity than with explicit words, in the dissonant(disordered?) music of the 20th century such as Strauss's Salome or Berg's Wozzeck.

Eventually, Alain de Botton concludes by urging us to get an idea of success which is our own, but then the question is whether we can. If we answer yes, and still maintain that meritocracy is impossible, then we fall into moral relativism, which is certainly not what Alain de Botton wishes to advocate. I believe the solution is not to consider the concept of success at all, at least not at such a level of generality. And we come back to the tragedy, it is the notion of success, extended to life, the notion of a successful life that is tragically empty and meaningless. Life cannot be successful, it can't be a failure either, it simply is a process, with a beginning and an end, it is not an action undertaken with an objective whose realisation may define the success.
A last remark to say that this sense of the tragic is only the reflection of an urge to superimpose an order onto something that has none. I believe that if one can overcome this urge, one may well discover an harmony above the tragic, but I leave that maybe for another post.

A short word on the form of such a speech then, which, despite all the criticisms I have exposed here, I still deem a valuable attempt to raise questions on matters that often go unexamined in everyday life. As such, Alain de Botton qualifies as an intellectual. My criticism on this aspect, is that, he may have been too willing to deliver a finished product to his audience (of which I know nothing about), and his willingness drove him to provide too closed perspectives on the problem he was treating. That is a defect often seen in intellectual involvement with the media(on TV in particular). I think all public intellectuals should be careful not to provide too much pret-a-penser (ready-to-think) to their public, but rather to open up the questions in order to empower individuals to think for themselves. Without doing that, they may well become part of the problem they endeavor to solve.