A couple of weeks ago I had the privilege of chairing a conference that considered whether London’s economy would continue to benefit just the lucky few, or whether it could be managed so that everyone could join in.
One speaker, to whom I was a little mean and who must therefore remain anonymous, spoke with considerable conviction to impress upon us how important it was that London (that peculiar and personified entity of which we so easily speak) should strive to remain ‘number one’ in the ranking of world cities.
Another speaker – the rather wonderful (and hence here identified) Sue Terpilowski – challenged this notion, suggesting that if we chose to be ‘seventh’ (interestingly, the world’s favourite number) then that would be fine.
Given the crowded agenda there was little time for anything more than a ripple of response from the audience, the main tenor of which was that, if London tries to compete with Beijing, then we’ll end up living somewhere just like – well, like Beijing.
I found myself pinged forward a couple of decades into a scene from an unwritten Philip K Dick novel set in New Beijing, where the elite live in gleaming fortresses that tower above the grime and poverty at street level; before pinging back again to the scenes from Blade Runner that are now available from a wide variety of streets in and around Southwark, should one choose to glance up at the preparatory monstrosity called The Shard.
(I have to confess to having form on this ridiculous and domineering manifestation of male insecurity, having used it as an illustration of just how appalling everything could be in 50 years’ time in my contribution to the London 2062 book published recently by UCL. Only now, however, do I understand that it is merely an early phase of the development of New Beijing…)
Anyway, to get back to the point – which is (ahem) what is it that drives such behaviour? Why do we – singly, collectively – want to be ‘top’?
At the level of individuals, it’s easy (and good fun) to be cruel, given just how much ‘achievement’ seems to be the obsession of men (sic) who are over-endowed with ego and under-endowed elsewhere. Oh the joy I had with my sons when they were young, on seeing a gleaming sports car/yacht/tall-building-shaped-like-a-spiky-thing, to explain that the men involved were just compensating because they had tiny willies. I was even able to support my explanation (though by this time the boys would be gleefully running around pointing and shouting ‘Tiny willy!’ at prosperous-looking strangers) with reference to the work of the social psychologist Dr Geoffrey Miller, who predicted, for the New Scientist’s 50th anniversary special, that by the middle of the century:
“Darwinian critiques of consumer capitalism should undermine the social and sexual appeal of conspicuous consumption. Absurdly wasteful display will become less popular once people comprehend its origins in sexual selection, and its pathetic unreliability as a signal of individual merit or value.”
(My version of this prediction is that, by roughly the same time, DSM, the bible of American psychology and psychiatry, will have continued its relentless expansion to include 'the belief that you should be in charge' as a disorder meriting medical treatment.)
More generally, though, the stunning work of the American economist Robert Frank, most notably in ‘Choosing the Right Pond’, reveals the ubiquity of the quest for status: even if you don’t own a Ferrari or feel the need to build priapic testaments to your anxiety, you still want to feel valued, important, and preferably more valued and important than someone else. The search for the right pond, Frank explains, is the search for an environment where the terms of competition suit you. Status may be measured in citations (if you’re an academic) or points (if you play sport) or money (if you work in the City) or your holiday destination (if you’re just jockeying for position among the other mums and dads, fellow choristers or free-divers). You just need to find the company and the metric that give you your hit of status.
But where does that need come from?
I remember many years ago encountering some research, the details of which I can no longer find even on the interweb (perhaps the algorithms are punishing me), commissioned by the then Department for Trade and Industry. They were responsible at the time (and probably still are) for providing an ‘advice service’ to the nation’s small and medium sized enterprises, the intention being to foster the kind of innovation and dynamism and growth and stuff that is absolutely essential if ‘we’ are to, er, remain top.
Leaving aside the fact that the overwhelming majority of small business owners would rather eat their own offspring than seek help from government, it became clear to the relevant authorities that a distressingly large proportion of the businesses that either sought advice or might conceivably seek advice were not, in fact, particularly interested in innovation or dynamism or even growth, they were interested instead in not having a boss and in having control over their lifestyle.
So the research question became: what are the characteristics of the ‘growth-oriented entrepreneur’ and how could you spot one? If you could spot one, you could target the service more precisely and boost its ‘effectiveness’ and so forth.
And the researchers dug away and I can no longer remember exactly what they did and how many interviews they conducted and all that jazz, all I can remember is that they’d done the job properly and I went to the trouble of actually reading what they’d found out and it turned out they’d discovered something amazing and wonderful:
One of the key determinants of whether or not an entrepreneur wanted to establish a business that would keep getting bigger and bigger was the relationship the individual had had with their father
Roughly speaking, and in extremis, if the father had died while the child was young, the individual was dramatically more likely than otherwise to want to build a growth-oriented business. As adults, we still seek the affectionate affirmation of our parents and, if we are lucky, we can show them the things we’ve done and they can pat us on the head and tell us how clever and wonderful we are. If we are unlucky, they are gone, and no matter how big you make it, no matter how fabulous or impressive it is, the idealised and absent daddy who disappeared at such a formative stage cannot put you at your ease. There is nothing else to do but keep going: achieve bigger, shinier, more impressive.
Here, suddenly, the quest for ‘status’ is simply the quest for love and affection, for the retrieval of irretrievable sensations of infancy and childhood, for the comfort of the pre-conscious home. The desire to achieve, the urge to be top, is us searching for love. The more elusive it is, the more driven the search, the greater the desire to be top.
By contrast, when people are making love, they very often take it in turns to be on top.
So maybe the challenge of moving from the competition of trying to be top, to the collaboration of taking it in turns to be on top, is analogous to the maturation of love from the parent/child dependency to the partner/partner equality. And maybe, to go further, and to consider the matter at a collective level, to move on from the zero-sum game of competitive capitalism, we just need to get more collaborative and grow up a bit.