The hunger for recognition is a modern phenomenon. In pre-modern societies, the recognition due to a person was a function of their social rank. High ranks had a high level of recognition because this was built into their position. A rank once it was attained virtually could not be lost. A lord could fall into penury and still possess a high status. Consequently, those who had a high social status tended to take it for granted. They didn’t have to work at it to keep it. Low ranks (most people) on the other hand had virtually no recognition.
This essay appeared in a recent Quadrant.
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A person could not be dissatisfied with this because they were born into a status and there they stayed. Upward mobility through the ranks was possible and occurred more often than we think. But irrespective of ambition or personal desire, there was only ever going to be a modest recognition granted to a journeyman and almost no recognition accorded to a swineherd. That is, a person either had recognition or they didn’t. There was sometimes bloody ambition to obtain status and sometimes bloody efforts to strip troublesome individuals of their rank. But there was little anxiety about communicating one’s status. There was no urgent need to signal it in order to prove it. Merit, such as it was, was an expression of rank rather than the other way round.
Part of the story of modern life has been the pressure to replace rank with function. Typically the more accomplished a modern society is, the more that rank and esteem for rank give way to functional behaviour and the self-satisfaction that is derived from able performance. People get a sense of accomplishment by carrying out tasks competently without fuss or attention. This is a kind of functional pride. We see it immortalised in the paintings of Vermeer, where anonymous people carry out functions conscientiously and thoughtfully, the focus of their attention on the task at hand. Modern societies do best when they stick to that. When Robert Menzies in 1942 invoked “the forgotten people”, the modest diligent vast middle of Australian society, he offered the rhetorical equivalent of a Vermeer painting. This was a way of describing in short-hand the vast anonymous conscientious mass of a modern functional society.
Menzies’s words belong to their time. But their spirit persists. They evoke the quiet pleasures of persons living in a prosperous society who draw their enjoyments from carrying out their functions with unpretentious skills and capacities. They are rewarded not with plaudits but with a general social prosperity that everyone shares in. Their life is good. Their sense of living a good life comes not from rank and social esteem but from their place in an intricate social web, a great division of labour, that requires them to do their bit in the expectation that others will do their bit as well. This arrangement is not something to which glory, and certainly not vainglory, attaches. It is not showy or flashy. Yet in its own way it is remarkable. People see their lives improve. Through all of this, there are backward steps and forward ones. Life is not linear. Nonetheless the great middle, in a successful modern nation like Australia, enjoys the fruits of a society that has learnt how to set in motion a mostly anonymous system of markets, industries and cities, detailed beyond description, which does not require much esteem to run.
Many are happy with this felicitous arrangement. But not everyone. Consider the case of Australia’s various elites. All countries have elites. How those elites are constituted varies. Some of them are functional. Others are status-driven. Australia began, and prospered, with a distinctly modern functional kind of elite—one that was not obsessed with status distinctions. It was a society forged by emancipists and free settlers for whom opportunity and achievement, not rank and status, were the key criteria. The consequence of this was palpable. Australia was the Singapore of the nineteenth century. Alone among nations it enjoyed six decades of super-growth of its GDP per capita between 1820 and 1880. No other country, not the United States, not the United Kingdom, had anything like that record. Australia was an urbanised society that paid relatively little attention to the nuances of grade, position, level or category. Instead energy, effort, vigour, self-reliance and initiative were the keys.
The status shortage
Australia’s elites are an interesting case study in how this has changed over time. From 1900 to 1970, their members on the whole were quiet achievers, not loud table-thumping personalities. They performed their functions quietly. They had a station or position in society that was signified by owning a modestly larger, tasteful residence in a leafy suburb and an automobile. Maybe they sent their children to a private school. One of the major effects of modern societies was to democratise markets. Or perhaps more precisely: for markets to democratise society. Currently it takes about eight years for newly fashionable dishes in haute cuisine restaurants to make their appearance in family restaurant chains. Today a luxury vehicle like one of the BMW series is within reach of a sizeable number of Australian consumers. The average successful plumber’s McMansion in one of the affluent outer suburbs exceeds the standard floor space in the old mid-century genteel leafy suburbs. What this means is that status is now in short supply.
To overcome the supply shortage, a number of common strategies are deployed. One is to purchase mega-dwellings with ever-larger floor-plans commanding ever-grander views. But as the scale grows, the status returns that are achieved diminish accordingly. So how does one communicate one’s status—which means being seen in some way to be better than others—when markets democratise everything? For the great functional middle of society this is rarely an issue. If they have stronger than average status desires, they purchase McMansions. Problem solved. There is a market for almost everything in contemporary societies.
Others, often those with less spare change, try to do it virtually, by identifying with celebrities. We can’t all be celebrities but anyone can “follow” a celebrity just as older generations followed Hollywood film stars in the 1940s and 1950s. Celebrity is a weird status. It is a kind of fame acquired by people who have no compelling reason to have acquired it. They typically lack any great talent, achievement, contribution, or socially admirable trait. A celebrity is a person who is famous for being famous—in short a “nobody” who is a “somebody”. People “identify” with celebrities because, with a certain knack, they have managed to parlay their very lack of quality into a reason to be esteemed. They are banal yet perversely they radiate charisma for that very reason.
The proliferation of celebrity is the result of modern societies that undermine status systems by democratising them while encouraging ever-escalating demands for personalities to be accorded increasingly higher status. We downgrade the salience of social ranks yet we increase demand for them at the same time. We democratise access to universities, as Australia began to do in the 1970s, by forcing half of our nineteen-year-olds to go to university, irrespective of whether they learn anything or not. Then we devise global ranking systems to distinguish between high-status and low-status universities. The effects of this are fractal in nature. So that even if a person gets into a notionally high-status university, because the world is awash with degree-holders, the qualifications that once bestowed status become a kind of debased coinage. Enrolment in a handful of really demanding disciplines in a handful of serious universities still means something in functional terms but only because this leads to the kinds of vocations that very few people can undertake because of their peculiarly demanding nature.
In any event that is not enough to overcome the status shortage created by the democratisation of degrees. So the degree-holders who have strong status appetites or who intuit that they can progress in society only by climbing a status ladder (because they are not functionally talented) have to try another approach. Those Australians who end up in some kind of traditional professional or managerial job, in other words who are part of modern society’s ruling elites broadly defined, once could rely on a combination of degree, suburb, house and car to signal their higher status. That social signalling system no longer works for them. Some don’t care about this. Their aspirations are functional. They are driven to achieve. But others see themselves as climbing a status ladder—or realise that they will get nowhere unless they do because they have no outstanding functional ability. One way or another, “who they are” not “what they do” is the key to their psyche. This is reinforced because the psychological demands for recognition have grown rather than shrunk over time in inverse proportion to the nation’s democratisation of itself via markets, technology and voting. Some of these psyches, hungry for recognition, have grown rampant.
As conventional opportunities for status recognition in Australia have declined, the demand for it has increased. One result, mostly since 1970, has been the growth of the phenomenon of virtue-signalling. Virtue-signalling is a form of status-signalling. As the general standard of living in Australia has grown, older status symbols have declined in power and salience. So what to replace them with? The answer, in short: loud moralising. Since the turning point of 1970, attaching one’s psyche to moral “causes” has become an increasingly common way for would-be high-status persons to communicate their claim to status recognition—in other words that, in some significant way, they are better than other people.
In the most adept contemporary societies, an inverse relationship exists between honorifics and functionality. It is almost a law of modern society that the more an industry or institution hands out awards, the less well it functions. That is true of the entertainment industry, universities, corporations and charities. A functional society addresses problems practically—that is, matter-of-factly, adaptively and incrementally. It is experimental, empirical, unromantic and sensible. Adaptation leans towards quietness and silence rather than garrulous or windy speech. Its fruits are exhibited in practical social patterns conducive to high levels of human happiness rather than symbols of status. Significance lies in the reality of quiet achievement, which on the whole is indifferent to or at least not especially interested in honorifics.
However, a problem exists. If you are no good at quiet achievement then you look hopefully at the status ladders that do exist, and you ask yourself: how do I climb up them? What signals will lift me up? You worry if those ladders start to get out of reach. Those who are not confident quiet achievers love to receive awards and titles. The labels assure them—and others—that they are important and that they matter. The postmodern short-cut to getting awards and titles is to adopt “causes”. This is a form of status branding. These “brands” are signals generated by high-status (or would-be high-status) persons and organisations in order to shore up their standing.
We saw a good example of this in 2018 during the Wentworth by-election in Sydney. This electorate is awash with advertising executives and professionals. Once its constituents would have been predominantly Liberal Party loyalists. They would have voted for the party irrespective of whether they were unhappy with one or other of its policies or its member of parliament. However, in 2018 this cohort voiced its unhappiness loudly and voted en masse for an independent candidate who represented classic virtue-signalling causes (climate-change catastrophism among them). They did so out of a sense of disenchantment with the loss of the prime ministership that had been suffered by one of their own—Malcolm Turnbull—a seasoned high-status virtue-signaller who had become a talisman for persons for whom big houses and luxury cars no longer can satisfy their craving for status.
The Wentworth by-election encapsulates the peculiar mentality of the 2010s. The era presented a strange mix of fragile self-esteem (individual and collective) and boastful pride. Cringe-worthy claims to moral superiority masked deep underlying status anxieties. The classic Australian mentality of quiet achievement was premised on not making a great fuss. Australians could genuinely admire a person who was good at doing what they did and single out those who were in some way exceptional. But the converse of this was not overstating abilities or pretending that individuals had capacities that they didn’t have. Cutting pretentious tall poppies down to size was a national art. In the era after 1970 a gradual shift occurred. The self-image of Australian elites began to change as an almost unconscious response to the generic Australian indifference to status. Grandiloquence began to creep into the national self-understanding in place of matter-of-factness.
The first sign of this was the language used by organisational elites. This language became increasingly artificial. Directness and plain-speaking began to be replaced by awkward locutions and stilted, mealy-mouthed phrases. An unprecedented degree of fawning appeared. Organisational courtiers bowed and scraped to one another. They feigned praise for their colleagues and suspended their own disbelief in order to play a game of mutual ritualised inauthenticity. But phoney praise by courtiers can go only so far, as it has limited appeal among the general population. So began an avid search by post-1970s Australian elites for “causes” to champion and lower-status groups to patronise. The same vapid grandiloquence that elites applied to their peers was applied to a proliferating series of status out-groups and ritualised moral dogmas. What followed was a complex status game: in-groups patronised outlier status groups in order to burnish their own social standing. Insiders used their own outlier stories (real or made-up) as trump cards to secure status promotion. Pretentious moral claims air-brushed stagnant or declining performance by self-admiring organisations and institutions.
The quiet Australians look askance at this. Their image of Australia is a society that is comfortable and relaxed. They value proficient and pleasant anonymity over grandstanding status-signalling. There are simple rules in Australia for a person to get to a comfortable place in society: form a dual-headed household in your twenties, stick by it, be prepared to be mobile in the job market, be conscientious, give some thought to your duties both to yourself and to others, and apply yourself. For most Australians a happy life is within reach even if a high-status life is not. Everyone suffers misfortunes and setbacks. Everyone at times cries out in pain or anguish. Suffering is a normal part of the human condition. But suffering is not a sign of being morally “special” or “important”. It is how we cope with suffering—our endurance—that is noteworthy.
Australians cope in various ways with misery and disappointment. Among us there are fatalists, stoics, humorous self-deprecators, maudlin personalities, melodramatic personas, pessimists and optimists. We interact with all manner of temperaments. There are angry choleric, optimistic sanguine, happy phlegmatic and anxious melancholic individuals. The classic social psychology of Australians leans towards a mix of the sanguine and the phlegmatic. But an undertow of choleric and melancholic personality types has always existed. Often in the past this has given inflection and colour to Australia’s dominant sanguine-phlegmatic social type. However, in the postmodern era, a discernible shift is evident. In the decades following 1970, choleric and melancholic strands in the Australian national character became more visible and more vocal. This was not uniform across the period. It rose and fell. The 1970s and the 2010s in particular saw a notable spike in fractious and dysphoric attitudes and behaviours. The degree of neuroticism in Australian society shot up. Other decades, though, were more relaxed.
The politics of contempt
In those times after 1970 marked by spikes in melancholic dejection or sullen choleric acrimony, we see a parallel shift in attitudes to suffering. Australia’s classic sanguine-phlegmatic social psychology regards suffering as a condition to be endured with fortitude and where possible abated. It abjures a world of obsessive “safety” or one of masochistic pain. In contrast, postmodern personalities—a distinct subset of contemporary society—think of suffering as a prospective status signal. Human beings have natural sympathy for those who are hurt or injured. But using trauma, whether it be small and large, to boost a person’s or a group’s moral status is not only a false claim on sympathy but a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of human happiness—and, in virtue of that, a misunderstanding of the essential nature of Australian society.
At its core Australia is a happy society, relaxed and comfortable. This doesn’t exempt it from stresses and strains and miseries. But, in coping with those, on balance it leans towards sanguine and phlegmatic responses rather than choleric and melancholic ones. That said, social moods shift. We saw in Australia a drift in the 2010s towards choleric and melancholic feelings. This was evident in politics. Malcolm Turnbull’s prime ministership had an aura of haughty melancholia about it. His opponent, Labor leader Bill Shorten, was caught in a perpetual stance of angry sneering. The Australian electorate liked neither of these styles and voted accordingly.
This revealed a distinct divide. Today the higher that one moves up the social ladder, away from Australia’s large middle class into its various elite classes, the more likely one is to encounter choleric and melancholic attitudes and styles of behaviour. These are certainly not universal. Nonetheless they are widespread enough to have a peculiar distorting effect on society. This is because political rhetoric—as opposed to election voting—is dominated by elites. That dominance, in itself, is a mundane and uninteresting fact. What is surprising though is the degree to which Australia’s political rhetoric, especially in the 2010s, has expressed itself in angry and mournful tones. It is striking that those with the least apparent reason to be acrimonious or funereal about the world are the ones most likely to engage in this behaviour. It is a perverse and singular characteristic of our age that members of social classes who have no particular reason to feel desolated, pensive and woeful—or furious, incandescent and vexed—nevertheless project all of those emotions obsessively onto the world.
Among certain sections of Australia’s elites, the older striving for quiet achievement has been displaced by a need to loudly express bad-tempered and splenetic ideas or display downcast and doleful attitudes. They routinely trumpet mean-minded, condescending and sanctimonious views. But if you look at virtually any set of key Australian social statistics, almost nothing in the real world justifies such moods. If we think of it as a long-term trend then, since 1970, the tone of Australia’s various elites has become subtly but increasingly despondent and self-flagellating. The downcast and disenchanted strains found amongst various professional and managerial cohorts have internalised a mix of penitence for a world that they think has gone wrong and disdain for anyone who disagrees with them.
This trend fortunately has neither been universal nor linear. Periodically, if only temporarily, the distemper hijacks the national mood. In other periods, the reverse happens. In the 1970s, neuroticism rose. Then, from the mid-1980s to the mid-2000s, the powerful phlegmatic and genial nature of Australia’s culture pushed back against it. After that yet another relapse into despondency occurred. It kidnapped the national mood between 2005 and 2020.
The eras of peak elite dejection mirror eras of relative economic and social stagnation. When market and industry innovation slackens, productivity drops, procedural bureaucracy and statism increase and the quality of schools and universities declines, then elite cheerlessness grows. The question is: are these measurable phenomena the effect or are they the cause of the downcast mentalities of various elites? Possibly both. On the other hand, they may indicate a deep contrary fact. It is often observed that higher income does not make people happier. What is less observed though may be equally true: happiness makes people more prosperous. Phlegmatic, calm and impassive mentalities are much more conducive to achieving the human good than neurotic ones are. The same is true of sanguine, upbeat and confident feelings.
The 2010s, like the 1970s, were broadly uninviting economic periods characterised by a crescendo of peevish and despondent feelings. It is an interesting but irresolvable question of what causes what. Nonetheless, what is clear is that mirthless and carping outlooks to a degree edged out their opposites in these decades. The explanation of why this happened is rooted in the tension between deep archaic (even primeval) longings for status and the tendency of modern prosperous societies like Australia to replace status with functionality. The attraction of personalities to lachrymose and petulant rhetoric is understandable as it embellishes the standing of those who give voice to it. It is a medium for moral status-climbing.
Status is a communication to others about one’s relative superiority. Status-signalling, including virtue-signalling, is what high-status groups or persons do in order to maintain and boost their position in the world relative to others. This is achieved in many ways. A key to successful contemporary status-signalling is the phenomenon of “tribes”. These are not literally archaic tribes but rather audiences of peers. Status is hierarchical. People like hierarchies not only because they get to feel that they stand above others but (just as much) because they get to enjoy a comforting subordination. All superiors in a status tree are also subordinates. Even kings kneel before God. Peers in contrast are the principal audience for status signals. Peers confirm or deny the validity of a person’s status claims. That’s why “friends” and other peer networks are so common on the internet and social media. They are not really friends. Rather they are members of a person’s approximate rank (or “tribe”). They can validate your view of who you are when you condescend to others or are contemptuous of them.
If you say “those people are evil, they are the lowest of the low” and your “friends” agree with you (they “like” what you say) then you can tell yourself that you are virtuous and high-minded. Your “friends” (your peers, your “tribe”) smother your internal doubts that this is so. The smothering of doubts is important. For under the surface today, status anxiety is massive. A balm for this is the “likes” that persons receive for every narky, gloating “comment” that they make. Today in the major electoral democracies like Australia, fealty and superiority (the stuff of hierarchy) are not reflected much in actual social structures. The principal hierarchies that exist are organisational ones—procedural bureaucracies. As hierarchies go, they are significant but much less so than those found in feudal, patrimonial or despotic societies. As a consequence, in Australia as in other comparable nations, hierarchical feelings and dispositions have become increasingly virtual. They exist as entertainment, ideological and online fantasies. These are a psychological echo of a now largely lost world—a mental nostalgia for something that functional reality doesn’t have much time for. These fantasies often fixate on political and media figures who present as cartoon heroes and villains.
In the 1930s Carl Schmitt argued that the key distinction in politics was between friends and enemies. Schmitt was a German political theorist, the best of his generation. He was also a Nazi jurist. Contemporary political twitter agrees with Schmitt. In the age of social media, the pursuit of online enemies has become super-charged. De-platforming, cancelling and pack aggression are common techniques deployed against imagined enemies. In the nether-world of Schmitt-style behaviour, persons accumulate friends by attacking nemeses. Finding a “cause” is a key component of contemporary downcast moralism. This is often then wrapped up in an exaggerated depreciation of foes and an expansive adulation of political or media celebrities. Meanwhile the actual world proceeds strangely untouched by these apparitional idols.
Democratic politics is naturally polarised. Its premise is that there is a governing party and an opposition party. The expression of that democratic political polarity varies over time. In its longest-lived, deepest and most consequential version, it personifies the schism between capitalism and socialism. Even though the opposition between capitalism and its opposite (statism) remains the most consequential practical divide in liberal democracies, it is noteworthy that the dominating polarity in those societies in the 2010s was that between friends and enemies. The personas of capitalism and socialism still played minor roles on the political stage, but typically only as partisan jeremiads and material for contemptuous put-downs, aspersions and jeers.
Australia is fortunate. The Schmitt-style makeover of politics has had much less impact in Australia than in the United States. The friend-enemy distinction has dominated American politics for the last decade. It had some (understandable) salience in foreign policy during the Cold War era. But now it permeates US domestic political discourse. Around half of voters, sometimes more, in each of the two major parties think of their opposing peers in the other party not as intellectually misguided or wrong but as morally deficient or simply idiots. Opposition voters are not persuadable—they are contemptible. A majority of voters in each party think of their mirror opposites as being either closed-minded, immoral, unpatriotic, unintelligent or lazy people—so much so that one cannot even live near them. When we get to this point, contempt has replaced truth as a political value. It is not that your peers in the other party have wrong or untrue views. Rather they are bad people.
Contempt is a status-value. It places you above others. Truth has no value in a status system. Nor do facts. When contempt replaces truth, the nature of party activism changes. The party activist is conventionally defined by their loyalty to a regular institution. In Schmitt’s world, though, the loyalty of the activist is to a kind of irregular partisan warfare personified by a leader who “fights”. The aim of that kind of politics is not simply to win a periodic electoral contest. Rather it is to engage symbolically in a permanent war to “win”. The principal weapons of this perpetual animosity are pugnacity, swagger, scorn, contempt and excoriation. Australia’s happy blend of optimism and matter-of-factness insulates it to a significant degree from this kind of primal partisan loathing. Even so, the easiest way of getting “likes” for a post to a contemporary Australian newspaper is to make a hauteur comment about the political party that you oppose. Comments about public policy get little response from readers unless these comments are wrapped in partisan scorn. The experience of being a partisan is heady. It is endorphin-generating.
The political philosopher Thomas Hobbes warned about introducing the toxin of contempt into politics. He observed its corrosive effects on the English seventeenth century. Lessons painfully learnt are rarely remembered. Our fate, it appears, is the eternal return of social poisons. Hobbes pointed to the enduring appeal of the feeling of “sudden glory” that is achieved when a person disdains their opponents. All it requires today is to send out a tweet filled with derision to achieve this psychological boost. This is not to be confused with witty mocking or playful banter. It is when opponents become enemies that a line is crossed. The politics of the 2010s became unwittingly Schmittian in its style and mentality. Contumely, scorn, sneering and hauteur emerged as the common emotional tone of the social media era. This is different from debate that is sharp, robust and steely. It is not about ideas or insights or arguments. It is about feelings of superiority. We feel contempt towards those we feel superior to. We compare ourselves with others. We rank our fellows higher and lower than us.
The propensity to rank things is natural. It is coeval with the human species and deeply ingrained in us. It is also naturally biased in our own favour. We have a strong desire for this bias to be confirmed by others, our peers. But what we elicit from others is often spurious. For false rankings are common—as are false plaudits. Rankings and grades are frequently higher than is warranted on closer inspection. Sometimes ranks and grades are lower than is warranted. In either case, the psychological disposition to exaggerate a person’s status, whether one’s own or another’s, has to be kept in check. If it is not, then a society is apt to spiral down into pervasive contempt. Rampant depreciation occurs across the board. In the 2010s, belittling others, despising and abhorring them became the lingua franca of media-saturated politics. While politics only ever involves a small number of people directly, it sets the tone for the rest of society. The tone of contempt is an ugly one.
Peter Murphy is the author of The Political Economy of Prosperity: Successful Societies and Productive Cultures (Routledge, 2020).