Luxury, labour and life

James Maxwell

… talks Marx and alienation with professional philosopher and documentary-maker Alain de Botton.

A lot of people don’t like Alain de Botton, the professional philosopher, author and documentary-maker. Or, at least, a lot of people I know don’t like Alain de Botton. He is viewed, by a select-cut of my most cerebral and scholarly friends, as a pseudo-intellectual, a hack, and a charlatan.

He is guilty, they claim, of popularising and, as such, debasing or corrupting the purity of the ‘philosophical method’.

Being neither cerebral nor scholarly (and having less than no interest in the purity of anything), I don’t approach him with the same prejudices.

In fact, I find the soft-tone delivery he employs in his broadcasts on The Art of Travel and The Architecture of Happiness almost soothing, and his lucid expositions of Schopenhauer and Socrates refreshingly accessible.

And I’m not alone. De Botton’s books have sold in their millions — becoming best-sellers in more than thirty countries — and he has won the praise of major literary figures like John Updike and John Gray.

So how does the man himself interpret the simmering hostility he attracts, even if it is only from the fringes of academic discourse?

“It is deeply, deeply unfortunate,” he tells me, over the phone from his home in West London. “I think it’s not productive for anyone that this argument goes on really,” he continues, in an accent that is unmistakeably southern and distinctly effete.

“You know, we’re living in a world where most culture is so dumbed down. It’s beyond belief that people have never read a book; that people leave school and abandon intellectual life entirely. So to be having a debate about whether my books are or are not too high or too low is really whistling in the wind while Rome burns.”

Perhaps de Botton’s detractors have his luxury-soaked upbringing in mind when they level their criticisms. He was born, in 1969, to an absurdly wealthy Swiss family. His father, Gilbert, was a friend and business associate of the Rothschilds and bequeathed to his son a trust fund account of more than £200 million (although de Botton insists he only lives off the income generated by his own work). He was schooled at an elite French speaking institution in Oxford and subsequently graduated from Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, with a double starred first in history. At twenty-three he wrote his first novel, Essays in Love, and hasn’t looked back since.

“Well [academics] have at some level a guilty conscience, a sort of inner anxiety about what they are doing” he says.

“They are taking tax-payers money to do really quite an odd-job, which is to sit around and rehearse the thoughts of past-thinkers to a very small audience while life for most people goes on untouched. That’s where the guilty conscience comes from — a feeling of ‘what’s the point of this’? They have to convince themselves that it is very important.”

And philosophy at the professional level is, at the best of times, a peripheral enterprise that has a negligible influence on mainstream debate — even for those few who do it well. De Botton, on the other hand, has established himself, almost effortlessly, as a distinguished presence in our book shops and on our television screens. Does this make him an easy target for disgruntled rivals?

De Botton seems reluctant to attribute their animosity to jealousy: “It’s a system. It’s a kind of caste system, and I take a lot of flack for being outside of that. I’m a lightning conductor for a certain kind of feeling that academics might have. It’s sad, I mean… what a stupid sort of thing to be wasting one’s time on. Philosophy should be a big tent. Let whoever pitch up.”

De Botton’s most recent book, The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, is an investigation of contemporary alienation. Modern labour, he argues, whether in an office, on a cargo ship, at an assembly line, or at the peak of a corporate hierarchy, leaves us feeling distinctly unfulfilled, principally because it doesn’t allow us to invest anything of ourselves in the things we produce. Work, de Botton says, is not a means to an end; it is a means to a means to an end.

For a thinker who has been accused, as John Gray puts it, of “dispensing morsels of platitudinous philosophy to readers anxious for re-assurance,” this is a strikingly radical analysis, drawing on one of the defining insights of Marxist theory. Was Marx the inspiration behind this study?

“To anyone who is thinking about work, he’s fascinating and remains absolutely relevant. The cliché about Marx is true: as long as he is proposing new solutions to economic life, he doesn’t have any answers, but he’s got a very, very good grasp of the problem … The fact is, what he called ‘alienation’ hasn’t developed all that much. His is a very relevant way of looking at it.”

Is it possible to extract meaning from work under the conditions of the market, or, in twenty-first century Britain, is alienation just an occupational hazard?

“Well it demands, in the broadest sense, political organisation … Whatever industry you are in, there are always factors that will make it more fulfilling or less fulfilling. There are always forces — whether you are in the fishing industry, the book industry, the construction industry — that will make that job more miserable. You need to organise with your colleagues.”

“There is also a certain amount of psychology to be done by individuals to try and understand yourself, and understand your talents but also your limitations, and to explore both of those quite vigorously in a way that the average career counsellor or work-place psychotherapist might not allow you to do. Many of us just don’t know ourselves well enough as workers.”

Despite its obvious pleasures, I wonder if de Botton himself ever feels alienated from his own work as a full-time writer. It can, of course, be a hugely frustrating and lonely endeavour.

“Well, a lot of the writing that comes out of writer’s studies is concerned with a very narrow band of experience. The working world does not enter into it simply because most writers are horrified by it.”

He goes on, “It is very isolated. There are moments of joy but I think it is a very unnatural occupation; to sit for hours on end and kind of tease sentences out of your mind and arrange them in a row.

“It’s prone to put you in grumpy mood. I much prefer most other things. Most writers are sort of semi-depressed … Forcing sentences out of your brain, it’s a very unnatural way of living.”

The question of whether to resent or admire, like or dislike, Alain de Botton suddenly seems totally inappropriate. At the very least, we should all agree that he should be congratulated for his honesty.


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