Thursday, May 31, 2012

No positional competition


We're still talking about some of the issues raised in The Age of Abundance.

There's one very important potential problem with arguments about abundance and fulfilling all our material needs. Many of our needs may depend where we stand in the pecking order, and not anything inherent in a material good in itself. Status matters to many people much more than particular goods. And it may be, by definiton, limited. We discussed the argument briefly before here.

Lindsey thinks this is not such a serious problem, however. He argues that the multiplicity of new groups also means that people have many more ways to find status.

And furthermore, the assumption that status seeking is a zero-sum game, in which one contestant’s gain is necessarily and unavoidably another’s loss, makes less and less sense in a culture of plenitude. Every new subculture, every new lifestyle grouping, has created its own little status hierarchy, with rich rewards in esteem and camaraderie for those who participate successfully in this or that little corner of social endeavor.

Sure, owning a ski lodge in Aspen will be a big status marker for most people in most subcultures. Getting into Harvard will impress most people much more than going to the local state college, even if there isn't much difference in the actual classes or education on offer.

But maybe other people will be content to compete for the corner office of one out of ten thousand small companies. Or they will pride themselves on skateboarding ability, or knowledge of Japanese manga, or foodie commitment.

It often isn't so much the status which is the problem as the material rewards that might go with some particular ranks.

It's the alignment of different status hierarchies which can create inherent scarcity. It is when the CEO is also stupendously well-paid, and has the most impressive office, and chairs the local charity board, and has extra influence on the political process.

Multiplicity, on the other hand, tends to separate some of those roles. The CEO no longer is a member of a formally separate class of nobility, for example, as happened in most societies through history.

And many signs of achievement are not inherently limited, anyway. Achievement and pecking order are not the same thing. Life is not graded on a curve. There's no limit to the number of peope who can learn to play electric guitar in a cool way, or level up in World of Warcraft, or own the latest iPhone, or have thousands of followers on Twitter.

And even if people are wired to seek status, it's not the only motivator.

Still, multiplicity may mitigate positional competition - but does not wholly eliminate it. Some people will always be desperate to fit it in with the latest fashions, or win that partnership promotion no matter what it takes to get it .

It is one of the prime sources of drama, for one thing. G has been telling me about a huge controversy this week in the tv series Mad Men on that point. A female character agrees to sleep with a client to make partner.

Status and rivalry are always going to be problems. But they don't have to be gamebreakers or terminal obstacles, when it comes to making abundance work for more people.

(reedited 6/1)

No comments:

Post a Comment