The Hegemony of Self-Esteem

by Irene Pena Abellan and Lisa Deijl

“My neighbour knows how to dress well, and whenever I see her walking out of our building in one of her fabulous outfits, I take a mental note. The other day, she was wearing the key item of her fall wardrobe: a checked scarf. At that moment, I thought: “I need to buy myself a hat.” Because by buying this hat, I would be able to transmit the message of  how aware of fashion trends I am.”

- Anonymous girl, 2013

The world has been through different stages of socio-economic development. According to Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt[1], these stages include: the agricultural, industrialized and the informatization of the economic model. These stages are not mutually exclusive: potato production can become industrialized and informatized, for example when the potatoes are harvested with machines and when their distribution is guided by computers. It is important to realize that when a society changes socio-economic paradigm, this does not only change the way we trade with each other but it affects the way we relate to each other and to ourselves.

Our social relationships have changed. Imagine you are a factory worker in the 1930’s. You would identify yourself as a member of the factory-worker-class and you would sympathize with your fellow factory workers. However these days, we don’t hold one job -like working in a factory- instead we “build careers”.  Also, the jobs themselves have become more complicated. Technically, because of informatization that blurred physical and mental boundaries, there is no limit to what we could become. “What we are” can be completely filled in by our own imagination. Or so we have been led to believe.

This belief is at the basis of capitalist societies, that are structured around a concept called meritocracy. In a meritocracy, your personal value is assessed by looking at the ‘merit’ you bring to society as a whole. However, what this ‘merit’ is, is very foggy.  There is no longer a strict division of lower, middle or higher-class jobs.  Now, everybody supposedly has access to every step on the social ladder; the kids from lower social milieus are also “offered opportunities”.  What you accomplish in your life is entirely dependent on your own effort. Everybody has access to education, right? Right.

But wait, while it seems fair that everybody is judged in terms of their effort of contribution to society, the equal opportunities spoken of are non-existent. They may seem to be there on paper, but reality is different and more nuanced. Meritocracy does not take the social milieu into account. Kids that do not receive support in their development towards becoming a well-rounded person, have a lower chance of becoming that well-rounded person due to their position in the social milieu.

In many Western individualistic societies, we see our ‘Self’ as independent but not isolated[2]. We are affected by and relate to the people, material stuff and ideas that surround us. This categorization is pleasant as it gives us a sense of belonging. But because we can’t identify with others through our work anymore (the main social tool in the previous socio-economic stage), we turn to ourselves. Our place in society becomes the place we think we deserve to be. In other words: our self-esteem leads us to our social status.

As we explored before, the relationship between occupational achievement and self-esteem is blurred and indefinite under the term ‘meritocracy’, but how do we value how worthy each job is? There is no guideline or chart which describes how much each different career is worth, or a grading system to determine who is a more valuable citizen. Instead, we compare ourselves to those who are closer to us. In his book Status Anxiety (2004), Alain de Botton explains how we are only envious of those who are closer to us and have similar opportunities because then we see each other as ‘equals’ within an unequal society[3]. Of course, it would not make sense to be envious of Mr Bill Gates when his assets gain another 10 million dollars, but we will be jealous of our neighbour’s new car, or scarf, or hat.

Alain de Botton quotes the French historian De Tocqueville: “When inequality is the rule in a society, the biggest inequalities will not stand out. But when everything is approximately equal, the tiniest difference will hit a person.” What follows is the rat race, in which every individual is trying to distinguish themselves through consumption. A study from 2011 by Truong and McColl showed that consumers who buy luxury goods for extrinsic motivations (reasons that have to do with the display of wealth towards others) have no motivations of self-fulfillment (intrinsic motivations). In the same study it was also proven that consumption of luxury goods can improve self-esteem, and that there is a growing number of intrinsic rather than extrinsically oriented consumers[4]. This shows that consumption is becoming more and more directed towards immediate satisfaction of the ego, which supports the argument that self-esteem is nowadays a tool for social categorization.

Consumption can also boost self-esteem in the sense that it can give people a feeling of belonging. De Botton writes that we only buy the products that are consumed by the group that we would like to belong to. As we’ve seen before, individuals harbour feelings of jealousy towards their equals, which means that they desire the products their equals possess. The increased blurred lines of social categorization in a meritocracy like the USA have caused self-esteem to become some sort of self-fulfilling prophecy: people with high self-esteem will attribute to themselves a high place in the social stratification and thus the right to expensive products and high salary. Respectively, people with low self-esteem will find that they deserve nothing more than the low social status they are in. They try to imitate the people directly above them in the social hierarchy, ultimately failing because they do not consider themselves ‘worthy’ due to their self identified lower social status.

In our time, status and class don’t fit anymore, because these concepts are closely connected to the kind of work one fulfils. Class and status were external tools for classification, put upon people by other people. As occupational boundaries have become more and more blurry, people needed a new tool to determine their position in society. This tool is self-esteem, which is internal instead of external.  In this way, an internal feeling can deliver you your place in society and also maintain the social stratification that already exists. The hegemony is reproduced in your own head.