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The meritocratic race – no place for the sluggish

Reading Next Left’s blog today, I was struck by a passage regarding the problems inherent to any meritocratic structuring of society, and thought I might as well offer a few speculative (and no doubt rather more naive) thoughts of my own.

Now I must confess that, until a few years ago, I could not see any possible objection to the meritocratic ideal. Indeed, I thought it was marvellous – a truly egalitarian system whereby those with talent were no longer held back from achieving what they were capable of achieving. Any opposition would surely be, or so I thought, the desperate cries of an embattled elite trying to defend the terms of their own privilege, intent on securing the ripest fruits for their own harvesting.

Then two things happened, in a relatively short period of time. Firstly, a priest said something to me that put the whole notion in a new perspective – “ah yes, the problem with meritocracy is that those at the top tend to forget who gives and who takes away – humility is lost on them”. Secondly, I stumbled across an article in the Guardian by Michael Young, spelling out what he believed to be the most pernicious consequences of the rise of meritocracy (I must confess that I still haven’t read his full book on the subject yet).

I’ll try and avoid merely regurgitating what Michael Young says (I’m purposely not re-reading the article now in order to try and avoid this happening), not least because you’re all quite capable of reading the thing for yourself and forming your own opinion, but also because I want this blog to be about my own experience of the issue – the consequences as I see them.

Since meritocracy has become the creed of our times, the system has invariably tilted toward those possessed of most ‘merit’ – according solely to the standards set by those who define the system. This entrenches privilege, because ‘merit’ largely becomes a reflection of the things valued by those already at the top, a self-affirming social ladder that merely endorses the priorities of the already empowered. These are the environmental factors Stuart White discusses in the blog post, but the pertinent point is not that meritocracy fails because of a pre-existing lack of ‘equality’, but because it also actively fuels further injustice: those at the top have sufficient power and privilege to tilt the system in their own favour, and hoard opportunities accordingly.

And this is where that priest’s comment comes in – because a self-affirming social structure allows those at the top to write off those at the bottom, a kind of Nietzschean complex whereby those who lose have deserved to lose, and those who win have deserved to win. The issue of governance thus becomes the inheritance of the meritocratic classes, whose job is to uphold the status-quo (what else could they do – let the losers be in control?), and manage the tension between, to use Ferdinand Mount’s language, the Uppers and the Downers. Here the misanthropic impulse emerges – that unmistakable conceit buried at the heart of so many of the social elite, particularly on the intellectual left, who see themselves as enlightened, elevated above ‘the crowd’, a fundamental mistrust of the plebiate that leaves them genuinely disdainful of representative democracy.

Yet it is the flip-side of this particular coin that is most disastrous. For it pools the ‘losers’ of the race together, stripping their number of anybody that might be deemed ‘successful’, and consigning all those ‘without merit’ to communes where perceived failure blots out the last remnants of ambition or aspiration – they attend the same schools, live in the same streets, compete for the same mundane jobs, apply for the same benefits, all similarly rejected by society as failures in the meritocratic race. Society is split in two, and we end up with an underclass that is basically abandoned to itself, where the measure of good governance is the effective management of this dispossessed segment of society. They are written off, socially and intellectually and economically, and so long as nobody starves to death or freezes for want of state assistance then that is all that can be reasonably expected.

This downward spiral of lost ambition and low aspiration is replicated in the state’s approach – after all, being a loser in the meritocratic race is a desperately hard barrier to overcome, and so why demand any different? Accordingly, instead of providing the conditions, environment and opportunities conducive to self-advancement (a much more diverse job market, better education, welfare that incentivises good life choices) it instead merely embraces the social trends, and seeks to alleviate the worst consequences of it, in so doing facilitating more of the same. Consigned to the inevitably of the losers always being losers, the aim instead becomes to mitigate the downfall – and in so doing those at the top exacerbate the problems.

So where does meritocracy sit in all this? Well, we have a perfect storm of conditions that, as society is more and more dominated by the interests of those who tend to be in charge of it, so it continues to be structured along lines incapable of recognising the talents of those ill-suited to the meritocratic race. The role of meritocracy here is, to my mind, to provide the deterministic underpinning that sees no hope of redemption for a group fundamentally ill-at-ease in a society that no longer values their potential contribution. These people are angry, and so they should be, because they are patronised and left to wallow in their own failure by a group of people who have already given up on them.

Things will change, I’m sure; they always do. And in a time of crisis it is always those at the bottom that pull those at the top away from the flames and into safety. Maybe there will always be poor people, losers in the race of life – I only hope there is not always a social philosophy that provides the subliminal justification for it.

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