Mer­i­toc­racy: the great delu­sion Jo Lit­tler

Politi­cians sell it as a sys­tem of fair­ness, but in re­al­ity it priv­i­leges the wealthy and en­trenches in­equal­ity

The Guardian - - JOURNAL -

e must cre­ate a level play­ing field for Amer­i­can com­pa­nies and work­ers!” shouted Don­ald Trump in his first ad­dress to Congress last month, be­fore an­nounc­ing that tighter im­mi­gra­tion con­trols would take the form of a “merit-based” sys­tem.

Like so many be­fore him, Trump was wrap­ping po­lit­i­cal re­forms in the lan­guage of mer­i­toc­racy, con­jur­ing up the im­age of a “fair” sys­tem where peo­ple are free to work hard to ac­ti­vate their tal­ent and climb the lad­der of suc­cess.

Since be­com­ing prime min­is­ter, Theresa May has also promised to make Bri­tain “the world’s great mer­i­toc­racy”. She re­it­er­ated this pledge when an­nounc­ing her re­vival of the gram­mar schools sys­tem, aban­doned in the 1960s. “I want Bri­tain to be a place where ad­van­tage is based on merit not priv­i­lege,” she pro­claimed, “where it’s your tal­ent and hard work that mat­ter, not where you were born, who your par­ents are or what your accent sounds like.”

In the wake of the 2008 fi­nan­cial crash, many peo­ple no­ticed that the mer­i­toc­racy they had been taught to be­lieve in wasn’t work­ing. The idea you could be any­thing you wanted to be, if only you tried hard enough, was in­creas­ingly hard to swal­low. Even for the rel­a­tively pam­pered mid­dle classes, jobs had dried up, be­come down­graded and over-pres­sured, debt had soared and hous­ing was in­creas­ingly un­af­ford­able. and Trump have man­aged to re­sus­ci­tate the idea of mer­i­toc­racy to jus­tify poli­cies that will in­crease in­equal­ity. They use dif­fer­ent cul­tural ac­cents: Trump’s brash rhetoric pan­ders overtly to racism and misog­yny; May presents her­self as a fair-minded head­mistress of the home coun­ties. But their po­lit­i­cal logic is in­ter­twined, as in­di­cated by the in­de­cent haste with which May rushed to the White House post-elec­tion. Both ac­knowl­edge in­equal­ity but pre­scribe mer­i­toc­racy, cap­i­tal­ism and na­tion­al­ism as the so­lu­tion. Both want to cre­ate eco­nomic havens for the uber-rich while deep­en­ing the mar­keti­sa­tion of pub­lic wel­fare sys­tems and ex­tend­ing the logic of com­pe­ti­tion in ev­ery­day life.

When the word mer­i­toc­racy made its first recorded ap­pear­ance, in 1956 in the ob­scure Bri­tish jour­nal So­cial­ist Com­men­tary, it was a term of abuse, de­scrib­ing a lu­di­crously un­equal state that surely no one would want to live in. Why, mused the in­dus­trial so­ci­ol­o­gist Alan Fox, would you want to give more prizes to the al­ready prodi­giously gifted? In­stead, he ar­gued, we should think about “cross-grad­ing”: how to give those do­ing dif­fi­cult or unattrac­tive jobs more leisure time, and share out wealth more eq­ui­tably so we all have a bet­ter qual­ity of life and a hap­pier so­ci­ety.

The philoso­pher Han­nah Arendt agreed, ar­gu­ing in a 1958 es­say: “Mer­i­toc­racy con­tra­dicts the prin­ci­ple of equal­ity … no less than any other oli­garchy.” She was par­tic­u­larly dis­parag­ing about the UK’s in­tro­duc­tion of gram­mar schools and its in­sti­tu­tional seg­re­ga­tion of chil­dren ac­cord­ing to one nar­row mea­sure of “abil­ity”. This sub­ject also trou­bled the so­cial demo­cratic poly­math Michael Young, whose 1958 best­seller The Rise of the Mer­i­toc­racy used the M-word in an af­fa­bly dis­parag­ing fash­ion. The first half of his book out­lined the rise of democ­racy; the sec­ond told the story of a dystopian, mer­i­to­cratic fu­ture com­plete with black mar­ket trade in brainy ba­bies.

But in 1972, Young’s friend the Amer­i­can so­ci­ol­o­gist Daniel Bell gave the con­cept a more pos­i­tive spin when he sug­gested that mer­i­toc­racy might ac­tu­ally be a pro­duc­tive en­gine for the new “knowl­edge econ­omy”. By the 1980s the word was be­ing used ap­prov­ingly by a range of new-right think­tanks to de­scribe their ver­sion of a world of ex­treme in­come dif­fer­ence and high so­cial mo­bil­ity. The word mer­i­toc­racy had flipped in mean­ing.

Over the past few decades, ne­olib­eral mer­i­toc­racy has been char­ac­terised by two key fea­tures. First, the sheer scale of its at­tempt to ex­tend en­tre­pre­neur­ial com­pe­ti­tion into the nooks and cran­nies of ev­ery­day life. Sec­ond, the power it has gath­ered by draw­ing from 20th-cen­tury move­ments for equal­ity. Mer­i­toc­racy has been pre­sented as a means of break­ing down es­tab­lished hier­ar­chies of priv­i­lege.

Even Mar­garet Thatcher, de­spite her so­cial con­ser­vatism, pre­sented her­self as an en­emy of vested in­ter­ests and a pro­moter of so­cial mo­bil­ity. Un­der New Labour, mer­i­toc­racy em­braced so­cial lib­er­al­ism, re­ject­ing ho­mo­pho­bia, sex­ism and racism. Now, we were told, re­ally any­one could “make it”.

Those who did “make it” – the en­ter­pris­ing mumpreneur, the black vlog­ger, the coun­cil es­tate boy-turnedCEO – were spot­lighted as para­bles of progress. But climb­ing up the so­cial lad­der be­came an in­creas­ing in­di­vid­u­alised mat­ter, and as the rich got richer the ladders be­came longer. Those who didn’t make it were ig­nored or po­si­tioned as hav­ing per­son­ally failed. Un­der the coali­tion and Con­ser­va­tive gov­ern­ments, mer­i­to­cratic yearn­ing took a more puni­tive turn. In David Cameron’s “as­pi­ra­tion na­tion”, you were ei­ther a striver or a skiver; the very act of hop­ing to reach up­wards be­came a moral obli­ga­tion. Those who could not draw on ex­ist­ing reser­voirs of priv­i­lege were told to worker harder to catch up.

The fact is, mer­i­toc­racy is a myth. So­cial sys­tems that re­ward through wealth, and which in­crease in­equal­ity, don’t aid so­cial mo­bil­ity, and peo­ple pass on their priv­i­lege to their chil­dren. The Con­ser­va­tives have made this sit­u­a­tion far worse by rais­ing the in­her­i­tance tax thresh­old. And their rein­tro­duc­tion of gram­mar schools would in­volve us­ing ex­tremely nar­row ed­u­ca­tional mea­sures to di­vide chil­dren and to priv­i­lege the al­ready priv­i­leged (of­ten with the help of ex­pen­sive pri­vate tu­tors). As the ge­og­ra­pher Danny Dor­ling has said, it is a sys­tem of “ed­u­ca­tional apartheid”.

“Merit” it­self, more­over, is a mal­leable, eas­ily ma­nip­u­lated term. The Amer­i­can scholar Lani Guinier has shown how, in the 1920s, Har­vard Univer­sity curbed the num­ber of Jewish stu­dents ad­mit­ted by stip­u­lat­ing a new form of “merit”: that of “well-rounded char­ac­ter”. A more re­cent ex­am­ple was sup­plied by the re­al­ity TV film­mak­ing con­test Project Green­light, in which the white ac­tor Matt Da­mon re­peat­edly in­ter­rupted black pro­ducer Effie Brown to tell her that di­ver­sity wasn’t im­por­tant in film pro­duc­tion: de­ci­sions, he ex­plained, have to be “based en­tirely on merit”. This “Da­mon-splain­ing” was widely ridiculed on so­cial me­dia (“Can Matt Da­mon tell me why the caged bird sings?”). But it il­lus­trated how ver­sions of “merit” can be used to in­grain priv­i­lege – un­like clear cri­te­ria for spe­cific roles, com­bined with an­tidis­crim­i­na­tion poli­cies.

It is not hard to see why peo­ple find the idea of mer­i­toc­racy ap­peal­ing: it car­ries with it the idea of mov­ing beyond where you start in life, of cre­ative flour­ish­ing and fair­ness. But all the ev­i­dence shows it is a smoke­screen for in­equal­ity. As Trump, May and their sup­port­ers at­tempt to res­ur­rect it, there has never been a bet­ter mo­ment to bury mer­i­toc­racy for ever.

Il­lus­tra­tion by Nathalie Lees

Jo Lit­tler is the au­thor of Against Mer­i­toc­racy: Cul­ture, Power and Myths of Mo­bil­ity

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.