You’re all gonna wonder how you ever thought you could live so large and leave so little for the rest of us
—Selina Kyle, The Dark Knight Rises
Society is God
—Pierre Bourdieu, Pascalian Meditations
We arrive in the world screaming, smeared in blood and shit. Small animals, abject and abraded by things. The inch between animation and termination is a few days warmth. And life is chiefly sleep anyway: a blur, a craving, then oblivion again. Our divinity is Ananke: necessity.
Then before long, this goddess bloats. We spend more than four times the average weekly wage on a single, short helicopter flight (‘because of … concern for the country’). We become belligerent when an RAAF trip fails to offer our special meal, then offer a weak apology (‘all of us are human’). We lament free international business-class travel (‘No edible food. No airline pyjamas … I lie in my tailored suit’).
The ‘we’ here provides a nice rhetorical intimacy between infantile simplicity and adult sophistication. But we ordinary citizens do not command the perks of Bronwyn Bishop, Kevin Rudd or Bob Carr, or become livid or whiny when these are missing. We certainly do not spend more than the median price of a unit in Melbourne … on Australian flags. These are the priorities of an elite clique of privileged politicians.
Everyone begins life as a flimsy, clumsy animal, but soon expectations vary. Some get used to the commonwealth of averageness, while others are special: they need more money, security, kudos and power. And not simply need—they deserve. The word for this in English is ‘entitlement’, which has a double meaning. On the one hand, it refers to the rights we can legitimately claim. This is its positive or neutral gist: those goods that law or custom guarantee. On the other hand, it suggests demands that are excessive. This is its negative connotation: those goods that are luxurious, superfluous or verboten, and the outlook of those who grab them.
Importantly, the second definition requires the first. When someone falls into a tantrum because her macadamias are served in a packet and not on a plate, it is because she believes she has a right to spiffily presented nuts. By humiliating the steward and putting out her fellow passengers, Cho Hyun-ah, daughter of the Air Korea chairman, demonstrated her belief: her status entitled her to exacting snack etiquette. Her own public shaming revealed otherwise: she had no such right. This was just more ‘imperial abuse of an owner family’, as one Korean newspaper put it.
These embarrassing episodes point to another part of entitlement: passion. Those scorned for this vice respond badly to privation. Shaken by their sense of loss, they mock, chastise and attack others. Trivially, this includes the wealthy suburban café patrons who yell at waitresses because their coffee is tepid—and then because the milk is burnt.
More horrifying are those who abuse, assault and murder women who dare to say ‘no’. For these men, women are not human beings, with their own physical and existential autonomy. They are things: the means to male ends; the equipment claimed as a boy’s birthright of pleasure and status. (‘You cannot rape your spouse,’ said Donald Trump’s special counsel, Michael Cohen.)
The point is not that hospitality rudeness and male brutality are equal, but that both involve more than simple belief. For good or ill, entitlement involves profound emotional ties, and a violent response when these ties are cut—even if the rage or grief is hidden by public contrition, as it is by professionally groomed politicians and celebrities.
Aristotle, writing in the fourth century BC, discussed entitlement in his Nicomachean Ethics. He examined the vice of vanity, which involves a pathological need for glory. These preening men do not simply pretend to be better than they are—vanity is not deceit. They genuinely believe they deserve plaudits and are, said Aristotle, ‘fools and ignorant of themselves’. Just as importantly, they long for applause and wreaths, so their cognitive error goes hand-in-hand with desire: too much, or for the wrong thing.
The Aristotelian outlook is helpful, because it emphasises the complexity of entitlement: not simply an idea, or an emotion, but a whole human orientation to the world. This is what Aristotle called a hexis, and in English we might say disposition. Politicians face-first in the trough are not simply canny—their entire bent is towards a certain quantum of luxury.
Missing in Aristotle’s theory are the social origins of hexis. The Greek thinker argued that ‘man is by nature a political animal’, and rightly so. But by this he meant that human potential is only ever actualised in a community; that the laissez-faire vision of aloof individuals is false. He was not arguing against social hierarchies and the virtues and vices they encourage. Put another way, Aristotle criticised vain citizens who got above their station—he had no issues with the station itself. He was, in many ways, a conservative with aristocratic sympathies.
As French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu notes, the hexis—what he calls a habitus—is profoundly political. It arises from the social hierarchy and helps to maintain it. There are countless positions to take up in any society: differences in class, status, gender. The hexis is what aligns these: unthinkingly, spontaneously, in a matter-of-fact way. ‘[T]he habitus makes possible the free production’, Bourdieu writes in The Logic of Practice, ‘of all the thoughts, perceptions and actions inherent in the particular conditions of its production—and only those.’ From accent, fashion and gait to music and food, to party political membership (or not), the hexis is a bundle of tendencies that are produced by, and themselves produce, the
The right hexis brings cash, mates and leverage; the right old boys’ tie, ideological mania or selective amnesia. Shimmying up the slick pole of politics is a game, but this does not make it false—any more than the competition in school, academia or business. Bourdieu has a neat word for the commitment this requires: illusio, our investment in the sport of social success. The currency of success varies: money for some, celebrity for others, bohemian ‘opting out’ for others still (which is itself a kind of opting-in, with all its handed-down symbols and signs of iconoclasm). But no-one is outside society’s snakes and ladders play. The game is real.
Which brings us back to those newborns, mucky but seemingly pure. While they begin life as bundles of rightly needy egotism and solipsism, the world soon coopts their instincts. Their urges, cravings and appetites are incorporated into some social milieu. They still get to reward themselves, but only through this family, that primary school, this office, that party. They sacrifice immediate contentment for institutional love.
In this light it is foolish to expect that politicians or senior executives will willingly forgo their absurd expenses—in their world the flights, chauffeurs and allowances are ordinary. The perks are not banal or common, since they distinguish the elite from the hoi polloi. But they are the normal recompense for a certain kind of ambition and sacrifice; the payoff for the negotiations, compromises and cruelties of their game. In many cases they are raised, schooled, trained and managed to expect more: cash, real estate acreage and clout. This is all part of their illusio.
One problem is that this elite usually legislates or lobbies to increase their portion of the pot, and decrease everyone else’s. The same politicians siphoning commonwealth dollars for party fundraising also introduce policies that give corporations tax breaks, while vilifying and punishing struggling welfare recipients. They declare that ‘the age of entitlement is over’ while helping themselves to generous expense accounts, and continuing state sponsorship of middle-class real-estate investment. Their entitlement is corrosive.
But this logic of inequality works globally. Those ‘progressives’ who tinker with redistribution usually have a stake in capitalism itself, which requires a large cohort of poor, precarious employees. Without cheap labour—often in areas with lax environmental and safety laws, and anti-union thuggery—profits decline and capital stops circulating. The current economy needs millions to go without. Their pitifully low wages prevent under-consumption and recession. Their toil, raw resources and energy enrich and enhance our communities, just as ours develop those of the world’s financial capitals. And these disparities often worsen existing gender and ethnic divides.
Most Australians take for granted a standard of living unthinkable for much of the world’s population—and we benefit from their privation. When one of my daughter’s school friends visits our two-bedroom unit and pronounces it ‘very small’, she is revealing her privilege. But our rented ‘dog box’ dwarfs the seven-by-seven hut, home to a Bangladeshi garment worker’s family of five. My household now hovers just above Australia’s poverty line, and this changes week to week. But we are hardly subsisting on 20 cents an hour like those who sew our jeans.
It is glib to pronounce entitlement relative and end it there. Politicians licking the nation’s plate ought to be censured. Corporates jostling for handouts ought to be stopped. We should recognise that these mandarins are only ordinary in their doorstop performances, or glossy weekender profiles. And we can legislate ethically, in the interests of a fairer society (there is such a thing). But it is hard not to conclude that what shrivels Australia’s discussion of entitlement to a few partisan idiocies is itself entitlement.