by EW Wilder
Bakhtin Professor of Literary Economics at Purewater University
Today's leaders are haunted by the bad ideas of the 1990s.
From banking deregulation to globalization, the Clinton/Obama-wing of the Democratic Party and what was once known as the “mainstream” of the GOP seem to agree on a core set of principles that became ascendant in the last decade of the 20th Century. These ideas cleave to the aspirational motives and related governmental policies that foster the habits of mind of the so-called “strivers”: people whose life stories have been cast and recast as exemplars of the “American Dream” of overcoming the odds and succeeding (almost always financially) despite hardship and through hard work and dedication.
At the core of this ideology is the notion of the “meritocracy.” Thomas Frank recently described the meritocracy as the idea that the most competent people would (read “should”) get promoted in the workplace, and presumably, by extension, in the social world. Variously, the same idea has been used to justify giving a pass to “talent” of all sorts, even in the face of demonstrable disasters caused by the application of said “talent,” not the least of these on Wall Street over the last 15 years.
For most people my age and younger, the meritocracy is something of a joke. We have seen hacks take over everything from the music industry to academe, from publishing to the presidency itself.
Generation X was, after all, the first generation since the Great Depression to do worse than the generation before, not because we were “slackers,” as everyone said, but because of ever-narrowing opportunities—many of those narrowings justified by the very bad ideas of the '90s that are still in vogue. The stats need not be repeated here, but ought to be touched on: American corporations have outsourced nearly all their manufacturing capacities overseas, content to only own brands and not actually make stuff; Walmart and other massive retailers have put downward pressure on ordinary work, to the degree that a grocery worker is now making exactly the same wage in real dollars that she made in the late 1970s; and the tech jobs that promised us fun workplaces and scads of leisure time disappeared with the tech bust of the early 2000s.
But as ballyhooed as these facts have been, particularly by the liberal press, the facts have always been against meritocratic principles. Even in the halcyon days of US manufacturing, it was still a good idea to know somebody in the factory if you wanted to get work there: despite what our high-school guidance counselors told us, we were always better off relying on the strengths of our networks than the persuasiveness of our résumés.
And here we have hit upon the most practical of the problems with the meritocracy: it doesn't, and can't, exist as advertised. First of all, those deciding what merit is tend to be of the same caste of rich and powerful elites as have always been in place. Does anyone seriously think that they would define “merit” in any way other than one that would protect their own children and promote their own power? For the meritocracy to work as its supporters claim, “merit” must be broadly and democratically defined; it must be flexible enough to apply to any given individual's set of potential talents. Nowhere that I have been able to find has “meritocracy” been defined along these lines. In fact, the very vagueness of how it is defined speaks loudly about why meritocratic ideals have been able to so dominate socio-political debate. We'd all like to think that we have what it takes to make it. The meritocracy appeals to shared American ideals that hard work, self-improvement, and self-confidence will actually get you somewhere. But none of those things matter if the very parameters upon which someone is said to have merit are rigged to begin with. Your ability to survive as a single mom of color by working three jobs and managing complex familial and social relationships in order to make sure your kids stay alive are admirable, but they're not what the managerial class wants, which begins with the sort of good credit score and job stability and student internships that your single-mom of color existence most likely excludes. This is not an accident; it is one of the many ways exclusion is baked right into the system.
A good deal more damaging is the obvious fact (one nobody has bothered to point out), that the meritocracy is not democracy. Our most basic egalitarian principles are obviated by the notion that you should be judged socio-culturally by merit rather than by the simple virtue of citizenship. This does not mean that a company should hire just anybody for any position, of course, but meritocracy implies that those with merit ought to rule, and that is, quite simply, undemocratic. As much as I hate to say it, even idiots have the same rights as the rest of us, and they are also entitled to the same opportunities. The structure of our schools and terms of employment assure that this is not the case; in fact, some complete idiots are promoted by the idea of the meritocracy because they display those aforementioned presupposed talents, ones that may or may not actually be damaging to the companies, stock portfolios, or congressional subcommittees these idiots control.
But most damning is that the meritocracy is morally bankrupt.
With all due respect to Dr. King, his own Christianity does not say that we should judge others “by the content of their character.” It says, rather, “Judge not, lest ye be judged.” In fact, no major religious or moral system worth its salt says that we ought to treat people any better for having “merit” or any worse for not having it. Meritocratic ideals still perpetuate the notion that we need some system of ranking people, that what most aggrieves society is, somehow, the lack of a proper way to separate out the winners from everybody else. Indeed, the prime promoters of this idea are a class of people far more obnoxious than sore losers: sore winners. These are people who assume (with some degree of circularity) that whatever got them where they are is how merit is defined (see above), and they suffer immensely from accusations that they should in any way be beholden to those who happen to sully an otherwise happy species by not having the same characteristics they have. This is true even if those characteristics (and, again, Wall Street bankers come to mind) are downright dangerous to society as a whole. And yet, aren't those who lack these characteristics, in fact, most in need of our help? Won't those who possess “merit” do fine even without a system in place that rewards them for it, as, apparently, “merit” is the key to success anyway?
Compounding the moral emptiness at the heart of the meritocracy is the idea that competition is the means by which merit shows itself. As individuals compete for a place in society, for jobs, for respect and power, their talents will naturally sort them out. But even if we could assume that these competitions aren't rigged, we are faced with a problem: what do we, as a meritocratic society, do with all the losers? Is the teleological implication of a meritocracy that the losers ought to just, what, starve and die? In a meritocratic utopia are those without merit merely exiled, or are they actively killed? What happens to them? This promoters of the meritocracy seldom articulate. It's found only at the libertarian extremes, where the prospect of a bunch of people who don't have what it takes dying in the streets aligns with their social-Darwinist sense of justice.
But for those of us who purport to be guided by less draconian systems, this eventuality is abhorrent, to say the least. Our moral systems teach us exactly the opposite: rather than dismissing these people, the proper role of the “winners” is to use their superior powers—their status, their money, their talent—to help the losers out. If our system is based entirely—or even mostly—on competition, we've gone a long way toward recreating a Hobbesian “state of nature” of all-against-all within our society. And if that's what we want to do, then, well, why have a society at all? The whole point of cultural systems is to increase the odds its members will survive, not to recreate and reinforce ranking schemes along artificial and often arbitrary lines, and still less to do away with a whole class of people who don't “measure up” to the benchmarks those rankings set.
So what am I proposing? How about, instead of assuming that those with “merit” will win and those without will lose, we go about actually trying to create merit by leveraging the talents and abilities of individuals in order to meet social and market-based needs? How about, instead of a culture of competition that drives people out of what they can't do, we develop a culture of support that pro-actively helps people find out what they can do? How about, instead of looking for new ways to rank people, we look for new ways to understand people and their needs? How about, instead of judging worth on a person's “merit,” we assume a person's worth through the values of dignity and shared humanity?
All indications are that the future will be hard. Between climate change and market instability, between the flagging power of the US on the world stage and the dwindling of the planet's resources, we will need to develop ways of living that bring us closer together, that call on the hidden talents and the unfulfilled capacities of all of us. For the future to be a bright one, we will have to abandon “merit” and embrace mutuality, do away with systems of exclusion and create systems of radical inclusion. Together, even with our flaws, we live. Alone, even with our merits, we die.