The Illusions of Social Mobility
One defense of modernity I hear endlessly by progressives of all stripes is that our modern liberal democracy has created true social mobility. Today anyone can go from rags to riches (or at least it would be possible if those pesky conservatives would stop undermining the progress of history). You’re a traditionalist? Well that naturally means you must be for serfdom and the exploitation of the underclass and all other manner of horrible, backward things. The breaking down of the class-structure has opened up possibilities for everyone, or so the mantra goes.
In one sense it is certainly true that class has lost much of its old power over society. What remains is very much an obsession of appearances (do you wear the right clothes, have the right manners, make the right conversation, etc.) over essence (are you truly a member of the elite). If anything we now live in a world dominated by the proletariat ideal, where we seek to ape the mannerisms and styles of the bottom rungs of society rather than the top. And of course this is a good thing, we are told, for it has created a fairer, more open and prosperous society for all.
But has it? One would be forgiven for asking that question. It would seem, as we look around at society today, that this is hardly the case. Certainly we are not a happier society, that much is apparent. Social angst is rampant, with endless recriminations against either “the 1%” or “welfare queens” depending on which side of the spectrum you fall on. And for all the promises of “mobility” we seem to mostly be mobile in one direction, and that is downward, with record numbers of young people unable to find a job of any kind, and the ones that are so fortune often find themselves flipping burgers or pouring coffee.
This unfulfilling promise of “anything being possible” is very much a creation of the modern era. Go back not too far into the past and things were much different. One was born into a certain station, and one lived in it. Oh, there were certainly rare exceptions where one managed to move upwards due to extraordinary examples of individual merit. There were also burst moments of wider opportunity, such as the colonial expansion of European empires or the settling of the American west, where men of daring and bravery could attain vast wealth and power, should they survive the grueling experience necessary to achieve it. The remarkable thing is, however, that far from being miserable with this reality, generations past were actually quite the contented by it. The butcher of Victorian England knew he would always be nothing but a butcher. His son would also be the same, and his daughters could aspire to nothing but marrying the sons of the baker and candlestick maker across the street. This did not trouble him, for the possibility of anything else being the case did not even enter his mind.
Now, mobility did still occur. This was not the Indian caste system where one was locked into their position from birth with no way to progress. Those of remarkable ability always found ways to rise, and history books are full of such examples. The most resilient systems of the past found ways to incorporate this, from Imperial Russia’s Table of Ranks to Bourbon France’s nobles of the bell. It is also worth noting that the most common pathways for advancement in those days often lay through the route of service to King and Country, not necessarily personal enrichment. But the common man of average abilities still had his place, and was mostly happy with it.
And then came the turn of the century, and the utter dominance of the Enlightenment and liberalism over the West. To be common became something you could no longer be contented with, instead it became something to be ashamed of, especially if you were young. Onwards and upwards became the mantle everyone lived by, for that of course was the American Dream.
Only the American Dream was just that, a dream. The uncomfortably reality no one wishes to admit is that only a small number of people can be at the pinnacle of society. Only so many of us can be lawyers and doctors and tech company billionaires. Most of us can only really aspire to be ordinary, and will remain so for all our natural lives. Whereas before the butcher’s son would simply take over his father’s shop when he grew to adulthood, gaining the secure if unglamorous living that he always expected, today he takes out the equivalent of a small mortgage in student loans to pursue a degree in English at university because “anything is possible” and life will just work itself out. In a cruel twist of irony, often it does not and the end result is he is locked into a life of destitution far more surely than any his ancestors faced.
So what is the point here? Perhaps it is that we should start teaching our children a more realistic assessment of life than our parents taught us. Perhaps we should start rethinking what we aspire to, and learn to appreciate the small pleasures of life available to us all rather than salivating enviously over the opulent lifestyles of the few and the privileged. And perhaps we should stop being so critical of the ways of the past and be more open to seeing the wisdom and resilience of their ways.