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The loneliness of the long distance climber

September 17, 2012 by
Filed under: Uncategorized 

This post by Patricia Kaszynska FRSA is the latest in a conversation we have been having about social mobility. It seems particularly relevant on a day when a new Social Attitudes Survey underlines the increasingly individualistic nature of public opinion. To even up the debate I am, at some point over the next few days planning to mount a defence of social mobility.

In my previous entry I suggested that the meritocratic world can be individualistic, brutish and surprisingly static. Like the monarchies of old, meritocratic societies can ossify, but the advent of democracy means the new hierarchy must legitimise itself. It does so, in part, using the double myth of social mobility; that it exists and that were it to exist it would make society healthier.

As part of the ‘Economic Mobility Project’, the Pew Research Centre asked people what was more important, reducing inequality or ensuring that everyone has a fair chance at improving their economic standing. More than 60 % “strongly” felt opportunity was more important, while just 16% felt strongly about reducing inequality. In the same survey, 17% said it was a “major problem” that people born to rich parents tend to remain at the top as adults while, in contrast, more than half said it was a major problem that 42 % of those starting at the bottom will remain there. Even battered by the recent wave of unemployment and bruised by the stagnation of wages and polarisation of wealth, Americans still don’t want a levelling of income differences.

There is an element of deception here. As Joseph Stiglitz demonstrates in his recent book, those who are born poor in the US will stay poor and yet, nearly 7 in 10 Americans believe the ladder of opportunity exists. This self-deception is made possible by a misapprehension of social reality. As Dan Ariely’s and Michael Norton’s latest research shows, Americans badly underestimate the levels of inequality to which they are subject:  the average respondent to their survey believes the 40% at the bottom have around 9% of nation’s wealth and the top 20%, 59%. The reality is quite different: the bottom 40% of the population combined has only 0.3% of wealth while the top 20% possesses 84%.

Robert Reich has been outspoken about how the suppression of average wages since the 1970s has been ‘offset’ – first by expanding women’s access to labour; second, by extending average working hours; and third, by resorting to debt. The borrowing hedged against rising house values made it possible to perpetrate the illusion that commodity purchasing power was growing from generation to generation. With the worsening of the economic situation, a further device had to be deployed: the ‘make-believe’ of social mobility supported by the endorsement of the ‘lottery effect’. Just as people buy lottery tickets because their chance of winning is more than zero, many take the exceptional cases of self-made ‘rags to riches’ billionaires as evidence of upwards social mobility. These expectations are further fuelled by individual inducement policies, such as scholarships to prestigious schools. The effect of these policy measures has been to move a small number of individuals up the social ladder and leave their communities behind.

We are led to underestimate the magnitude of the distance we have to travel from bottom to the top of the social hierarchy and to overestimate our chances of moving upwards. But this is not the whole story: we play along not just because we are misinformed and manipulated: In a sense it is rational for us to do so. The ideas and ideals of meritocracy and social mobility assign prominence to the notion of individual agency. There is a powerful strand in Western thought defending rational egoism, or the view that individuals are best left alone to pursue their self-interests and reap the rewards for their actions. From Locke’s defence of natural rights to Hayek’s critique of state intervention and Nozick’s entitlement theory, there is a strong resentment of redistribution based on the principle of the inviolability of individual autonomy. While there is a sense that this line of thought has become ideologically appropriated to legitimise the principles of free markets and the trickle-down effect, the allure of the view comes from the fact that, deep inside, we fall for the Romantic conception of Prometheus ‘unbound’ – we want to think of ourselves as sovereign individuals.

We are attracted to individualism in part because it has been a force for social progress. It has played a significant role in the history of Western societies in unsettling the old hierarchies and in removing the associated forms of oppression. Moreover, unlike the regimes based on what seemed like utterly undeserved privilege of birth, the new order has an instinctive appeal to our sense of procedural fairness. Sadly, as I argued in the previous post, it does not follow that the new hierarchies are automatically better. We embrace them more willingly because we genuinely want to believe that they are built upon respect for individual dignity and deserved rewards.

The crux of the problem is that we all would find it very difficult to put the notion of the collective before what we think of as our ‘God-given’, natural right to self-assertion; we all have a hunch that thinking of ourselves as subservient to some higher collective good would strip us of the individual dignity for which we have fought so hard for over the last three or four centuries.




  • Sam Earle

    Really interesting post, thanks! The other element of individualism as aspiration that may be worth a thought is that aspiration helps provide the ontologically necessary idea of (even illusion of) purpose. Ultimate purpose helps us guard against the threat of non-existence, and thus if the instruments of purpose that society endorses (social aspiration) are challenged, it is felt as an ontological threat, and is likely to result in even greater clinging to these aspirations (see Terror Management Theory, and Social Identity Theory on threatened identities). Ernest Becker, whose work greatly influenced TMT, points to societies’ need to erect hero figures as symbols of invincibility (i.e. Promethean types who are above/beyond, the rags to riches superstars). And it is rather telling that most of Western societies’ heroes fit the individualistic model (e.g. celebrities, the super-rich), rather than the egalitarian model (e.g. Mandela). This is ironic, however, because for tenable, sustainable purposiveness it is necessary to coordinate laterally (otherwise, a Tragedy of the Commons scenario follows).
    Also worth observing that the individualism that drove the industrial revolution &c may have contributed to greater overall wealth here, but did so surely by merely outsourcing its inequalities to the colonies. I think then, when we talk about social mobility etc, given that the ‘pie’ is finite, we must consider it on an absolute/global scale.

  • Robert Burns

    Matthew and Patricia,

    as a society we cannot afford the luxury of ‘social mobility’ on the scale on the scale that its sponsors are demanding.

    It is a lie based on the idea of ‘something out of nothing’, just like when we were all being sold the idea that the private pensions industry could provide a better alternative to SERPS.

    Globalisation has also brought a few unpleasant ‘surprises’.

    Face it, strip mining the real time incomes and future development of the young and the ‘poor’ to sustain expansion of an already underproductive middle class is nothing short of madness.

    We need to expand the middle class about as much as the Isle of Man needs a squadron of F16’s.

    But what am I going on about? Just as the UK has followed the US in so much else in the social and economic matters this country will do the same in this case.

    Many Middle Class Americans are at the tipping point of social and economic demotion and just need that ‘last push’ fall down the ladder.

    Here we are about (maybe) two to three years behind the US, but the end is clear to see and inevitible: the lower ranks of the Middle Class are doomed.

    So called liberals scratch their heads in mock confusion over this and ask ‘why?’.

    The basic reasons are very simple. Here they are.

    (a) The Middle Class exist as a functional layer between the true economic and political elite and the mass of the population;

    (b) When through expansion of imports and expatriation of jobs and uncontrolled immigration the mass of the native population are rendered economically and politically inert neither side has any (or at least a reduced) use for the services of the Middle Class;

    (c) The negative effects of Globalisation and immigration from the EU accession states are moving up the social and economic ladder.

    The days are past when EU accession state citizens are confined to factories, construction sites, coffee shops/fast food outlets and cleaning, etc.

    Like their predecessors they come ready trained and ready to work longer, harder and for less than their UK counterparts.

    The Middle Class need to brace themselves to face the forces that they have used against their fellow citizens to extort what they did not earn or ‘deserve’.

  • Robert Burns

    Interesting post Sam,

    but the words ‘fiddling while Rome burns’ spring to mind.

    Sorry, don’t mean to be ‘rude’, but………

  • Brian Hughes

    Something in the new Social Attitudes Survey which I found heartening and surprising, especially given all the attention the media gives groups such as the self-styled taxpayers’ alliance, is that only about 8% of people in the UK want taxes lowered.

    Four times as many people want tax to go up and the rest want it to stay put.

    This suggests we’re not all as acquisitive and self-centred as most of those who rule our country and pontificate about it in our media seem to think we are. Maybe it’s because they’re all so highly driven by their own desire to become rich and/or famous that they assume that everyone is. What an arrogant lack of imagination!

    And I think that Patricia may have made the mistake that she accuses others of by taking outliers as the norm when she writes: ” we all would find it very difficult to put the notion of the collective before what we think of as our ‘God-given’, natural right to self-assertion” or “that thinking of ourselves as subservient to some higher collective good would strip us of … individual dignity”.

    We are not all the same…

    All of mankind’s achievements are collective endeavours…

  • Robert Burns

    Hello Brian,

    very interesting post but I don’t buy it, here’s why…….

    I’ll start with your last point about ‘collective endeavors’.

    Most human achievements (for good or bad) are the outcome of the activities of small collectives or individuals whose creation then gets adopted by a larger host collective.

    This adoption by the larger collective happens for reasons that have more to do with validating their ideology than the intentions of the creator(s) or the objective intellectual rigour and verifiable factual content of what they are adopting.

    At a collective level things don’t happen because they are ‘right’, they happen because a case is made for it that suits the purposes of those with enforcement powers.

    Nazi Germany couldn’t develope nuclear weapons because they rejected ‘Jew Science’, Soviet agriculture was wrecked by Lysenko making his case against the ‘Bourgois Science’ of Genetics.

    Gallileo wasn’t the first person to point a telescope at the night sky and question established cosmological theories of his day (it was an Englishman by the way).

    It is interesting to note that Gallileo’s ideas found favour in Protestant states interested in presenting a comprehensive challenge to the political, intellectual and theological hegemony of the Roman Catholic Church.

    Once the Catholic authorities tried to suppress Gallileo’s work its’ success in the Protestant domain was virtually assured because it was showcased as an example of Catholic repression.

    The list goes on…….

    Moving on to your point about taxes…..

    The 8% who would support lowering taxes probably represent those who have done the maths and can see that they would be better of with lower taxes.

    The rest represent those who (at the most basic level) know empirically that lower taxes mean a smaller pot from which to draw direct and indirect state subsidies for their standard of living.

    Those who want taxes to go up almost certainly do so because they think it is ‘someone else’ who will bear the burden of the increase.

    There is little to nothing altruistic in the thinking of any camp on this issue.

    Your point on ‘God given right to self-assertion’ puts a finger right on the pulse of the perverted nihilism that runs through present day politics and what passes for public social discourse.

    Moving on to ‘we are not all the same…….’

    An interesting comment to make in the context of a society that claims becoming an equal opportunity heaven as one of its objectives.

    Lastly, once humans start to operative in ways, or on scales, that strip individuals down to their lowest common denominators all the pointers are set for disaster.

    Multiculturalism, Globalisation and the ‘Social Mobility’ lobby (with its discourse about ‘the poor’ as a homogenised human waste tip) put us all on the road to disaster.

  • Ian Christie

    Thanks to Patricia for a very interesting piece.

    Three quick points:
    1) Individualism and the desire to ‘climb’ will always be with us, but don’t have to be dominant features of a culture. The hyper-individualism espoused by the Right for the past 30-40 years was not always central to Tories’ or Republicans’ thinking. It does not have to be accepted now as a dominating fixture in our political and economic culture.
    2) Social mobility and meritocracy have enormous appeal, but have serious drawbacks at individual and collective levels. See Michael Young, The Triumph of the Meritocracy, for an astringent and salutary view of what is lost when we embrace meritocratic individualism. For one thing, it makes the position of the ‘losers’ who aren’t able to ‘climb’ even worse than it might be in a more hierarchical and less fluid society.
    3) One great loss in the ever more individualistic and meritocratic culture of the West over the past half-century and more has been the decline of ‘congregational’ institutions between the state and the market, and beyond the immediate bonds of family. These are ‘belonging’ organisations – churches, political parties, unions, clubs etc – that provide sources of activity, identity and solidarity that can’t be bought in the market or supplied by state welfare. They’ve been much reduced by consumerism and individualism, but they aren’t finished by any means and many are finding new ways to thrive, as hinted at by Matthew in his annual lecture. One important thing about these institutions at their best (and I know they are sometimes far from being at their best) is that they provide spaces and networks where ‘mobility’ simply doesn’t matter and where ‘merit’ is not assessed in terms of money, promotion or power to get somewhere else. The point of these congregational bodies – at their best, because all fail in familiar ways – is that their members are already where they want to be and are valued for what they are and do, regardless of rank. One reason US religion thrives in a culture of deep individualism is not just that American churches have compromised themselves (which they have in many cases) with capitalism, but also that churches can provide a haven from the harsh world of striving for ‘mobility’ and merit based on money and promotions. The antidote to excessive focus on mobility and merit is to consider what makes for thriving communities of place and interest that people don’t want to escape from and where they don’t feel under-valued because of low pay or rank.

  • Robert Burns


    replying to your points:

    (1) ‘Individualism and the desire to ‘climb’ will always be with us, but don’t have to be dominant features of a culture.’

    True, but the devil is in the detail.

    The specific problem under scrutiny in this thread is how to deal with the consequences of artificially created demand for ‘social promotion’ in a society with a shrinking economy.

    The UK simply has no use for the numbers of people seeking ‘upward social mobility’.

    Indeed, in the present circumstances I view the whole ‘social mobility’ movement as an extention of the ‘junk bond’ market.

    The thing is a speculative fraud that makes dupes of anyone who buys into it.

    (2) Here you talk of ‘merit’, ‘winners’ and ‘losers’.

    These are emotive terms used to fog the issue and deflect dispassionate examination of the substance of the claims being made for ‘social mobility’.

    Further, it takes the arrogant liberty of signing everyone up to something they may not consent to, or find desirable, and then brands non-participants as ‘losers’.

    Under those conditions the concept of ‘merit’ and the ‘winners’ it produces lack legitimacy.

    (3) The family, etc.

    The Christian church has a long history of being an agency for ‘social mobility’ and it is only in relatively recent historical times that this has ceased to be the case.

    The most famous case of this being Cardinal Wollesey (probably wrong spelling) of Henry VIII fame.

    Wollesey is also an example of how differing concepts of ‘merit’ treat an individuals’ actual talents.

    You are also wrong about the internal workings of modern religious groups.

    These groups operate very intensive competitive cultures of promotion and are dominated by individuals who cannot find an outlet for their ‘drive to climb’ in the outside world.

    Organised crime and gangs provide a similar framework for similar reasons.

    Both types of organisation engage in ruthless economic and psychological exploitation of their ‘congregations’.

    The people who benefit from exploiting the clamour for ‘social mobility’ aren’t interested in building a ‘better place’ for anyone but themselves.

    Laslty, absolutely the last thing they want finding purchase are the ‘hippie’/’communist’/’loser’ ideas set forth in the last sentence of the last paragraph of your post.

  • Donnachadh McCarthy

    I am a Fellow of the RSA and have attended the last 4 RSA AGMs.

    At each of them I requested that in future the annual report should include an environmental report detailing the RSAs annual environmental data, in line with best professional practice.

    At each of them the Board agreed to look into the request.

    Yesterday I read the latest Annual Report and for the 4th time in a row there is NO environmental data.

    As I read this report, I could not get the catastrophic news about the arctic ice out of my mind and was filled with rage at how our establishments are simply point blank failing to act with the urgency required.

    Are there any other RSA members reading this or who know any RSA members, who might be willing to turn up and support the FIFTH call for such environmental reporting at the AGM on October 3rd?

    many thanks
    Donnachadh McCarthy
    Facebook: Donnachadh McCarthy
    email: [email protected]