Why Not To Chase Wealth And Status: A Community Project Perspective
One of the common things which has been proffered to the Ragged University as advice is to “make use of the wealthy and high status individuals in order to deliver the good that Ragged could achieve”. This has been repeatedly mentioned in regards to how to get the project recognised, backed and funded. One person said that ‘the trustees you have in mind are not suitable’…
My responses have been to say no. I have found it worrying that good people with great ethics and keen minds were not regarded as trustees appropriate for ensuring the correct running of the organisation, or sufficient for taking it into the future. I have thought this over many times and have come to a point where I think it is worthwhile fleshing this out on paper to reveal what is going on ‘under the bonnet’.
This is a good willed attempt at a considered response to the advice offered. As an exercise, it has been useful to tease out the rationales which underpin my actions in constructing a free public education project. If I cannot identify clear and transparent reasons for the ways that I am developing the Ragged University project then, I feel that I am undermined by a lack of awareness and unwillingness to think.
In this article I am drawing together various ideas to discuss the sociological issues with chasing wealth and status. It is an attempt to bring helpful language to the issues so that we may be able to talk about them more constructively. I invite critique and responses.
Ingroups and Outgroups; The Objectification of People
I think that it is damaging and detrimental to pursue the patronage of wealthy and high status individuals. These people are culturally ring fenced as the unfortunate reality is that people of wealth and ‘status’ tend to associate with people of wealth and status. Not only this, but humans are prone to behaviours which form ingroups and outgroups.
One could argue that this propensity to form ingroups is a natural instinct which we have to reign in if we are to get at some broader understandings of building open, healthy learning communities.
Our society is highly stratified – divided by wealth and status. These factors tend to divide people, I suspect, more than unite them. People who have wealth generally attempt to hold onto that wealth – with the exceptions of the likes of Andrew Carnegie who said that “The man who dies rich, dies disgraced”. Financial wealth and status can have an uncomfortable effect of distracting people from deeper fundamental realities which are at play in our lives and environment.
From various social perspectives, orienting our actions around wealth and status raises problems. If a society turns its attentions to bombarding wealthy individuals in overwhelming numbers – each seeking to get a portion of their time, energy and financial patronage – then certain behaviours will naturally be promoted by the logistics of the situation created.
It is in this juncture that I argue people are depersonalised and various social maladies can emerge. As both those with status and those seeking patronage suffer under these circumstances I mark it as problematic in view of healthier relationships. By mentioning depersonalisation, the process I am referring to is that of objectification of human beings – that of reducing humans to less than they are, effectively stripping them of the qualities and characteristics of personality and personhood.
Ethics have commonly been characterized as the ability to look “beyond” the material, to refrain from considering a person’s levels of wealth as grounds for differentiated treatment, and to remember that inside, we’re all the same. Being treated as a mere resource is to be harmed and degraded, because what is morally relevant about being a person, is absent in and different to material wealth [Ann Cahill].
Status is a labyrinthine quagmire of perceptions – many of them self reinforcing. Status can also become a construct which separates us from real and genuine human experience. Reducing someone to being a vesicle of power, is to ignore the whole person and set up the circumstances where that complex individual is used as a tool, climbed over and forgotten the moment they serve no utilitarian purpose.
These are ugly and noxious ways of being and seeing other people for me. They are deeply impoverishing and when I work through the logical consequences I see problems what ever way I have massaged them.
The Means and Ends Bias
A convenient bias which we can whisper to ourselves can be expressed: “I recognise and value the wealthy person of status beyond these constructs, and that due to my conscious ethic of caring, will not heap the harms of objectification on them”.
This spectre of making people less than they are is no better in nature than investing in arms or environmentally devastating practices with the promise to take the profits and place them in the Red Cross or Rainforest Alliance. On an interpersonal level, these are actions of exploitation and contribute to an ecology of exploitation which in the long run degrades us all harming the collaborative potentials which develop greater capabilities.
“Ends are not cut off from means, because the means represent the ideal in the making, and the end in process, and ultimately you can’t reach good ends through evil means, because the means represent the seed and the end represents the tree” – as Dr Martin Luther King eloquently expressed it.
So, if I were to stalk wealthy and statused individuals to use their wealth and influence for to perpetuate the Ragged University project, I would be doing so to the cost of that person and the wider society. I perceive it as a zero sum game at best, and at worst, one which results in negative balance of costs.
This is because as the world objectifies an individual, they recognise they are being reduced. They feel and live the experience of being othered and they start questioning the actions of all around them. Questions will thus start to arise before every interaction – Why is this person wanting to be in my company ? Is it for my money and their personal gain ? We reduce our humanity.
Existentially, material wealth is as much a cruelty as is a famine as it distorts the individual’s at both ends of the objectifying behaviour; it is only that wealth affords more opportunities for social interaction under chosen terms which mitigates this possible poverty.
Power Laws, Pareto and the Realism of Distribution Curves
The world of status and wealth has around it a carapace of personal assistants, bureaucratic barriers, and power laws which prevent people who do not have status and wealth from engaging with the more enfranchised individuals. If we think for a minute about the Pareto principle (which is also known as the 80–20 rule, the law of the vital few, and the principle of factor sparsity) is at work throughout nature, and increasingly artificially, through our lives.
It was an economist in 1896 called Vilfredo Pareto who discovered that income follows a power law probability distribution known as Pareto distribution. The Pareto principle was named after him and built on observations such as approximately 80% of the land in Italy was owned by 20% of the population. This distribution has been consciously adopted in business as a common axiom to follow and is thus is used to allocate preferential treatment, specifically “80% of your sales come from 20% of your clients” – thus that is where you concentrate your efforts and resources.
There is significant evidence to show that if you exist on the long tail of the Pareto curve, you simply will not be included. Indeed, the further along the long tale of the curve you exist, the less likely you are to be included. As wealth, power and influence accrue in smaller and smaller numbers of the population, greater and greater numbers of people vie for the attentions of fewer and fewer people – i.e. those who have agency and capacity to make things happen.
An Ecology of Sycophants and Dilettante’s
The meanings which are rooted in words are helpful for me to explore the subject properly. The word sycophant derives from “informer, talebearer, slanderer”; the sense of “mean, servile flatterer” is how it came to be used. According to the Oxford English Dictionary sycophant describes ‘a person who acts obsequiously towards someone important in order to gain advantage’.
The behaviours anchored in getting close enough to someone of wealth and influence necessitate compromising many commonly held social values. Culturally there is a lot of evidence, thinking and research which illustrate how we segregate ourselves from others according to wealth factors and status indicators.
Even if we as a species were not to be so ruled by our animal instincts to stick to ‘same-not-other’, there are simple logistics which prevent people of different means from frequenting the same circumstances and circles. For me – and the gross number of my peer group – there is hardly enough money to keep subsisting, let alone socialising, with the wealthy.
The worlds are too far apart to assume a simplistic fairy tale to be true – that if only one can have but a single opportunity to lay out your great ideas and noble projects before the monarch, they will wave their magic wand and make all things right. This kind of fantasy underpins a vacuous celebrity industry and supports the impoverishment of culture and heritage. It is the modern day fairy tale which carries in it Grimm collateral damage.
A culture of sycophancy is fostered through the production of scarcity of means. In practice this means that to be successful in attaining the attentions of individuals with wealth and status you have to play a numbers game; i.e. you have to engage with as many people and opportunities as possible at any given time.
The problem with this is that to do the numbers game you can not afford to invest significantly enough in any given opportunity or person – your attentions are diluted by the volume of engagement, and your investment becomes shallow. This behaviour not only reduces the individuals with wealth and status to less-than-they-are, but it cultivates an ecology of dilettante’s – ‘people whose interest in the thing they want patronage for is not very deep or serious’. Our lives become filled with perverse incentives.
In context, the configuration of the culture has necessitated that people divert their attentions from engaging in the serious work or knowledge (e.g. healthcare, safety, education or social work), and dedicate themselves to activities which do not contribute to the projects of public value but instead bring them into proximity with ‘people of wealth and status’…
Keeping My Feet On The Ground Whilst Looking At The Stars
This changing of priorities is bound to erode someone in their task. There is a great 1976 film called ‘The Man Who Fell To Earth’ based on the 1963 novel of the same name by Walter Tevis. It was about an alien humanoid called Newton who comes to Earth seeking a way to bring water back to his planet which is suffering from a severe drought, and where his wife and family are slowly dying.
Newton uses his advanced alien technology to patent inventions on Earth to gain the vast wealth he needs to complete his mission. He becomes occupied with a decadent lifestyle rather than returning with water to save his family on the other planet. Eventually his original mission was colonized by the means to his end. I see in this story a parable for chasing coat tails or being drawn off piste from the work which has been identified as important.
Drifting too far from the original work will reformulate what you do so that your value system become similarly affected. Attaining the financial wealth to achieve something different can be the cuckoo in the nest.
Grounding this in the Ragged University context, the project of education is endangered by the opportunity costs of seeking financial wealth and status-by-proxy. By setting my attentions far from communicating, learning, researching, experimenting, collaborating and helping, I cease to manifest the real work which is the paramount reality. This is displaced by ‘social circle riding’ which in it’s shadows gives rise to entropic small cultures of backbiting, othering and one-up-manship (unconstructive politics).
Any such endeavour of getting the attention of wealthy, influential people is problematic as it moves the Ragged project away from intrinsic value to one of extrinsic value. As people clamber over each other to get a piece of the action, it trades in a stable structured landscape of knowledge, learning and sharing for an arbitrary landscape which cultivates a destabilised, fickle, mercenary and inhumane one.
This kind of leapfrogging race-to-the-mythical-top is comically (and slightly darkly) expressed by a friend – Dave – as Robot/Tube culture. This came up when he recounted why he left the corporate world he worked in to me, saying “I could never get on in such an environment because to get ahead you have to treat everyone below you as a robot, and tube everyone above you”. For those unfamiliar with the vernacular of ‘tubing’, it means ‘suck up to’…
The Effects of Compassion Fatigue and the Resource Curse
People are time impoverished, and wealth and status can ostracise those individuals who have it (in fortunate ways compared to the gross realities of lives of people who live down the long tail of Pareto curve). The empathic skills required for meaningful connections with other people are put under stress and can end up becoming fatigued. In medicine, ‘Compassion Fatigue’ has been described as the ‘cost of caring’ for others in emotional and physical pain.
[Compassion fatigue: Toward a new understanding of the costs of caring. Figley, Charles R. Stamm, B. Hudnall (Ed), (1995). Secondary traumatic stress: Self-care issues for clinicians, researchers, and educators. , (pp. 3-28). Baltimore, MD, US: The Sidran Press, xxiii, 279 pp.]
Compassion Fatigue is marked by physical and emotional exhaustion and a pronounced change in the medic’s ability to feel empathy for their patients, loved ones and co-workers. As a result it manifests as increased cynicism at work, a loss of enjoyment of career, which can eventually result in depression, secondary traumatic stress and stress-related illnesses. From this understanding I would infer that similar types of damage can accrue amongst those who deal with the burdens which come with wealth and influence.
A sociological parallel might be sketched from the ‘Resource Curse’; an idea put forward in 1993 by Richard Auty that resources might be more of an economic curse than a blessing for some countries. The idea describes how countries rich in mineral resources are unable to use that wealth to boost their economies and how, counter-intuitively, these countries have lower economic growth than countries without an abundance of natural resources.
How might we imagine the curses which come with attaining wealth and status ? It is not infrequent that we hear of stories of fame and wealth damaging people. As sensitive, social, empathic creatures we need certain things in our lives, and when cultures of materiality displace these, our mental and physical welfare suffers
The Ragged University project would be compromised by the approach of seeking out wealth and status as it would move the focus away from valuing people, learning, knowledge and education towards the kind of box ticking exercises which permeate our current cultural landscape.
The action of this approach of prioritising wealth and status would serve to alienate the people who are already distant from forms of social and intellectual enfranchisement by further giving more privilege to those who have it. By creating hierarchy and placing at its apex wealth and status it would colonize the project with a species of thinking alien to its authentic aims.
Everyone is valued in equal ways for the knowledge they have and the capacities they hold. Each person who is a part of the activities of the Ragged University is author of their own fruits. The idea of Ragged University will play out differently for each person who takes part. This is a social endeavour which brings people together on an equal footing.
Alternative Views of Valuation
The amount of money which people have does not correspond with the worth of their knowledge or skills, as is the unthinking mythos. Money is not a good representative of people and their abilities. A friend and brilliant thinker called Ian Blaikie had a salutary reminder: ‘You mustn’t make the mistake of thinking that because you have more money in your wallet that makes your opinion more valuable than mine’.
We should regard with great suspicion the position that ‘because someone holds a position of cultural status, that their input automatically trumps others – that their time is worth more than others’. This would be to place a fallacy of materialism at the heart of education and life. Expertise and interest are distributed widely and in myriad ways.
This kind of material positioning establishes a focus on the abstracted symbol of the phenomena rather than the phenomena themselves. In plainer terms, we end up hunting for the certificate rather than the knowledge; the curriculum vitae rather than the skills; the public recognition rather than the ability itself; the money rather than the manifest good or service.
This is part of the pathology of when labour and knowledge becomes professionally demarcated. People get marooned from communities of peers and large sections of the population become stranded from participating. More significantly professional demarcation contributes to the replication of problems by preventing people from making cultural contributions. It is a pathology of devaluation.
Avoiding Absurd Simplifications
What I am articulating here is not to be confused with simplistic renderings such as people who have wealth and influence are all empathy fatigued, lucky sycophants who have had their passion for creating public value hollowed out by the mercenary forces of the cultural context. This is absurd.
Another absurd statement: People who have no wealth and influence lack the social and intellectual abilities to improve their situation; they lack the drive to better their lives and do not understand public value because they are focused on themselves and not the wider good. There is something much deeper and complex going on than the popular binaries, misidentifications and misunderstandings. There are people’s lives and circumstances, situations and opportunities to see things in more complete ways – if we choose to.
There obviously exists snobbery and reverse snobbery. Clearly some people have had their ability to empathise dented at points, and we – as a species – are prone to scaling ‘ladders of inference’ [Argyris] and jumping to conclusions. But we need to place our feet on the group and walk shoulder to shoulder if we are to really encounter the carnival which is going on.
An Analogue: Free Tuition Does Not Mean Fair Access
The project of Ragged University is a pragmatic venture in one aspect (amongst many). It is not helpful to be averse to compromise as we need to work with many people and their agendas, should we place equity and public value as a value high on our list of priorities. This said, why change the fundamental nature of the endeavour to something which already pre-exists in, and, dominates in the landscape if it was designed on identified needs which are lacking in.
There is a special word to be said for ‘mission drift’ in these times. Central to the concept of ‘free education’ which Ragged University champions is valuing knowledge wherever it lies. Sadly our world is not perfect. In Scotland – where education is commonly hailed as being free – a great number of people are precluded from taking part in formal higher education. A disproportionate number of people from the most deprived 20% are missing from the ranks of Higher Education:
Grounding this in the context of the discussion of wealth and status, were Ragged University to ‘only let people with formal qualifications do talks’, then in that action we ostracise people who have valuable knowledge and skills from participating in the teaching/learning process, amongst a community of peers. An in-group and an out-group is generated which brings with it isolation and anti-social behaviour.
In this I am drawing a parallel in the administrative and organisational situation. We said to the charities regulator OSCR that it was important that everyone could share their knowledge and learn through teaching.
Thus – analogous – to privilege individuals with wealth and status over those who have less visible assets is to side step the capabilities people have and to replicate existing structural problems. In terms of trustees and champions of the concepts at the heart of the project, anyone could be in these positions on the basis of their thinking and doing. You don’t have to have lots of cash or influence to hold the idea of open and free learning in trust so that it is not abused. Once again, money and status are not necessarily good measurements of morality.
Into The Heart of Farquharness: Reproduction of Differentials
Wealth and status are often bedfellows which play a major part in forging identities in terms of culture. The way we speak, the way we dress, the music we like, the food we prefer, and our names, all carry cultural connotations. Thus seeking to accrue the status we want to add to our agency can engender unhelpful affectations.
My experience of status societies, groups and clubs is that they suffer acutely from the social issues which accompany perceived differences in cultural capital. Pierre Bourdieu developed the concept of cultural capital to demonstrate how an individual is defined by their embodied, objectified, and institutionalized assets in addition to their economic wealth and social class.
Ingroup and outgroup behaviours pervade status clubs and societies of all sizes. Becoming a part of them can be as unhelpful as being a part of them as it sets you apart from those who are not a part of them. It is simplistically thought that having letters to add after your name distinguishes you positively, however it can also separate you from the social mycelia where one has existed.
Coming from a low income part of town and being brought into a status society/club perceived as established because of it’s wealthy, influential membership has had the effect of damaging ties with my low income peers. Not only is one uprooted from community, but there are great difficulties which are met with when trying to find a footing to be embraced in the better off community.
Norbert Elias’ work in ‘The Established and the Outsiders’ is a well known sociological study which examines the mechanisms of stigmatisation, gossip, taboo, monopolisation of power, collective fantasy, as well as the ‘we’ and ‘they’ images which support and reinforce divisions in society. I mention this work because within this well regarded study are relevant discussions of status and the issues which come with power/status differentials.
The issues of inequality are well known yet sociologically we regularly in act in ways that reproduce inequalities through group behaviours which reinforce divides. Attempting to enter into an established community as an outsider can bring about behaviour that undermines the outsider by group behaviours manifest in the established community.
There can be real problems which come about when individuals determined to join their new situation, indulge in othering behaviours designed to bring them into the hierarchy of the established. People can sometimes end up embodying the oppression which they so disliked and hampered them as individuals trying to be a part of social interaction.
By undermining other individuals also trying to take up a new position of the status society, they feel they are constructing their identities as part of the culture by highlighting how other individuals are less a part of the culture. The petty politics which play out in casual gossip and chit chat can function to both underpin figures perceived to be higher up the status hierarchy, and to undermine others so that they are lower down in it.
This idea of cultural reproduction of societal structures needs to be engaged with and thought about if we are to understand how to develop structures which better enable people to become more self sufficient and meaningfully involved in cultural production.
Someone who has focused on developing understandings of reproduction in the sociological context is that of Niklas Luhmann. I was introduced to this systems thinker by a friend, Desmond. Luhmann’s work contributes important language for articulating an understanding of how complex systems reproduce themselves via their circumstances.
The Concentration of Opportunity into Smaller Spaces
Let me set something up in a short preamble… If we cast our eyes sideways for a moment to the discipline of economics, we find in the work of Thomas Piketty (Capital In The 21st Century) that wealth is concentrating itself into smaller and smaller numbers of people worldwide. If we make a deliberate underestimation of the concentration of wealth -based on the international collection of economic data – we can get a conservative appraisal of the socio-economic backdrop in which people are operating.
“The distribution of wealth—and therefore of income from capital—is always much more concentrated than the distribution of income from labor. In all known societies, at all times, the least wealthy half of the population own virtually nothing (generally little more than 5 percent of total wealth); the top decile of the wealth hierarchy own a clear majority of what there is to own (generally more than 60 percent of total wealth and sometimes as much as 90 percent); and the remainder of the population (by construction, the 40 percent in the middle) own from 5 to 35 percent of all wealth.” [Beginning Chapter 10, Inequality of Capital Ownership, Thomas Piketty, Capital In The 21st Century]
- If you want to draw your own analysis, you can find the international datasets which were collated by him and his colleagues here:
- A helpful free tool for statistical analysis is via VassarStats:
In the preface to their book ‘Tackling Inequalities: Where are we now and what can be done ?’, Pantazis and Gordon introduce Radical Statistics (www.radstats.org.uk) a group of statisticians and others who share a common concern about the political assumptions implicit in the process of compiling and using statistics and the misuse of statistics and its techniques
[Pantazis, C. And Gordon, D. (2000) Tackling inequalities: Where are we now and what can be done ? Bristol: The Policy Press]
The reason to this preamble is to give us a grounded framework to get a sense of the amount of time one human has to engage with others. The inference I am making is a simple affair…
If ten of one hundred people own 60 percent of the resources, then can you think through what happens to the time constraints of those ten people. If we think of those ten people focusing their attentions on only 20 percent of the remaining ninty people, then nineteen out of one hundred people are engaged with in their ideas. This leaves 81 people of that hundred to jostle for the attentions of those with the resources/agency held by the few.
Let us assume that the Jones family are doing good, productive things with their lives. The time and energy required to ‘keep up with the Jones’ represents sunken costs which cannot be gotten back (or afforded) by people of a less resourced socio-economic circumstance. That is – if my aim is to develop a community project but spend my time trying to be in proximity with the Jones family, I cannot get my time and resources back to reinvest in the community project. The time is spent – which I cannot get back – and my resources are thrown towards a lottery ticket that the Jones family will give me their resources…
The kind of extrinsically motivated reward behaviour necessitates engaging in the same social circles and ritual as the Jones. In short, for example, people you find at Ascott tend to socialise with people you find at Ascott because their means are similar.
The diversion of time, energy and resources from dealing with a public need to one of occupying the same social terrain as someone of different means has a corrosive action on humane psychologies through engendering an ecology of opportunism. I would go as far to say that many of the status structures which exist in our society serve to separate people from being more authentically productive in terms of the creation of public value – which is a shame 🙁
The ecologies of opportunism arise in such a way where people move increasingly towards the short term promoting people investing in the strategy of a numbers game. Under such circumstances people will increasingly throw out promises, volunteer themselves and suggest commitment to many initiatives so that they may cherry pick when opportunities come back their way.
Of say ten chances which are primed, one boat may come in for them causing the abandonment of the others by lack of follow up; even worse, they may switch their allegiances as they perceive better gains elsewhere. The problem I see with this configuration of society is in the long term damage it does to the individuals involved. It is hurtful to be used and climbed over, and it is hurtful to use others as a ladder. That pain which is felt is indicative of an ailment; a particular pathology.
I wonder if this kind of pathology is revealed by the likes of the Tinder app used for ‘swipe left-right dating’, whether the likes of Tinder is recreating the pathology, or a little of both ? I wonder if this kind of behaviour has been shaped by a short term and opportunistic employment market ? Large companies or employees engaging in fickle processes and not following up on commitments, thus externalising the costs of engagement to the other parties.
It leads to exploitation of the etiquette and courtesies which humanise our interactions. Without our humanity we walk the route of reducing people to less than they are. We set ourselves into the terrain of objectification, depersonalisation, and derivatisation which are part of the spectrum of dehumanisation.
What Practical Approach Is There ?
It is all very well being critical, but any such analyses loses value without presenting constructive prospects in context. Also, it is important to understand the difference between what is, and what ought to be; without this ballast we can end up with hopelessly idealistic pictures which do not map to the practical realities of our world…
This narrative is an exercise for me to see if I can articulate my rationale for sticking to the primary work of bringing community together around the notions of learning and sharing and not getting distracted by displacing the values inherent in that work.
My experience of ‘doing the rounds’ is reflected in this essay, and I have tried to sensitively bring to the surface some of the issues I have observed and encountered. There are a great deal of great projects, ideas and individuals around that need and deserve support – and everyone is vying for a small number of people’s attention and resources.
The third sector, public value and social life as had the value systems of competition brought over it. Competition threatens to displace cooperativeness, and the more people have their attentions clamoured for, the more distant those people become from the communities to which they belong. This is corrosive to the fabric of interpersonal relationships and co-relations from which the cloth of society is cut.
The choice in Ragged University is to focus on doing what we can, with what we have, when we have the time – it is also an imperative of the circumstance. I don’t want to become someone who spends their life grabbing for coat tails of wealthy, influential people any more than I want to become a manager of paperwork which does not reflect the social realities which surround us.
The people with wealth and status who intrinsically value community projects like Ragged University are those who live the reality by discovering, being a part of it and bringing their support. Those who have value systems which are oriented around extrinsic rewards are unreliable as they have replaced engaging with a firsthand reality with a token system which substitutes for that reality.
Without either wealth or cultural influence I am afforded better to think more about what ought to be and try to operationalise it. I do not pretend that things are so simple for everyone, even up high where one does not have to worry about how food is going to appear on the table next week. I do want to call out a fairy tale mentality for what it is.
I appreciate that people in positions of influence have a great amount of responsibility to shoulder; I also appreciate that the same responsibility comes with the proportionality of wealth one has available to them. I am not so sure that I want the responsibility of having to deal with all of the world’s issues as they are in reality; however I know that I share in this responsibility non-the-less.
Maybe part of my contribution is to capitalise on the luxury of being able to discuss what I think life ought to be more like, and document the issues with operationalising it. My responsibility also lies with learning different perspectives and seeing things in fuller, more mature ways, and keeping myself open to the possibilities that I might be wrong.
In view of this, I would like to hear your critical thoughts about what I have written. Many thanks for reading.