Every Little Helps?

25/10/2012 10:15 | Updated 24 December 2012
  • Liam Atkinson Based in Edinburgh, a current affairs junkie, a Masters student in Economics, and should know better.

In a society that is becoming increasingly polarised, increased self-empowerment and self-control are making victory all the sweeter and defeat all the more bitter.

In England during the middle ages, the poorest in society were referred to as 'unfortunates' - literally someone whom fortune had not happened upon. It was an expression of the evident luck-of-the-draw which arbitrarily blights the life-chances of some whilst gracing others. In contrast, the present neo-liberal world often portrays the poorest as poor for a reason; maybe they don't work hard enough or their not intelligent enough - it doesn't matter, the implication is that it's their own fault. As the philosopher/writer Alain de Botton noted, it is the sharp end of that much vaunted ideal: the meritocratic society.

To assume we have achieved, or are near to achieving, a meritocratic society implies that we live in a society where the most able and gifted rise to the top by their own merit. To accept this requires that the least gifted are 'justly' at the bottom. The diminishing role of higher actors or powers in society's 'consciousness' has, for some reason, diminished our notion of the probability distribution that is luck. And so, part of the rising tide of unhappiness within the demos can be seen as resulting from a system which tells you to be upper middle-class with a job in management and 1.8 children, all through your own merit, whilst implying that if you haven't achieved this it is your own stupid fault. This is not to say that the problem is the idea of meritocracy itself, or of ambition more generally; but that we must recognise that pure meritocracy, whilst good, can never be achieved. It is an unobtainable ideal always to be strived for.

The problems caused by this delusion of complete self-empowerment are only enhanced by the scale of, and role played by, advertising in our society. Advertising exploits people. Fixated on pseudo-science and absurdities like the 'domestic goddess', it plays on preconceptions, trust, and likely inferences - often cultivating a superficial leering cultural snobbery for those that don't 'make it', and a deeper fascinated fetish for what you are told you should desire. In a culture which implies that failure is 'just', making it all the more crushing, advertising's appeals to consumption as a status symbol simply herd more people to view themselves as lacking. It exhorts us to place less emphasis internally, and more externally; not seeing what I have or do, but seeing how what I have or do compares to 'them'. Advertising implies that you haven't succeeded yet, and achieved meritocracy implies that you have nothing to blame but your own lacking; between them they can breed a subtle form of despondency.

There is no facile or platitudinous solution to this situation; it is not an easy question. To acknowledge that we can never live in a true meritocracy would involve informing children that no matter what their effort or ability, they might simply not succeed. Whilst true, this is nonetheless an unpalatable scenario. And what of Envy? Regardless of absurd biblical condemnations envy has served humanity well, helping to create a desire for betterment and progress. Surely advertising is an inevitability given envy and capitalism, and as such will linger on so long as humanity does?

There are no easy solutions for this epidemic, however a lack of comfortable alternatives shouldn't necessarily stand for continuation of the status quo. As such, I'll end with a broader starting question to consider: Surely, in search of greater happiness for the greater number, society can sacrifice a few extra sales of Yakult?