The Scourge of Meritocracy

An elite based on merit could be more impenetrable than one based on nepotism.

Jane MillerAugust 6, 2012

Social mobil­i­ty” has become a ral­ly­ing cry in the U.K. — and a use­ful dis­trac­tion. Nick Clegg, the Lib­er­al Demo­c­rat leader and the coali­tion government’s deputy prime min­is­ter, says it’s the government’s cen­tral social pre­oc­cu­pa­tion.” They have even import­ed some­one from Tony Blair’s gov­ern­ment to make help­ful sug­ges­tions on the sub­ject. None of them are in favour of rad­i­cal change or leg­is­la­tion. They just want the pro­fes­sions — law, med­i­cine, bank­ing, and so on — to open their doors more invit­ing­ly to peo­ple from dis­ad­van­taged back­grounds.” Schools and teach­ers are blamed, as they always are, for fail­ing to spot and encour­age tal­ent, and uni­ver­si­ties are adjured to accept as stu­dents those who have been recip­i­ents of free school meals” (a euphemism for poor”), pro­vid­ed their grades are up to scratch.

Mer­i­toc­ra­cy” is back in fash­ion. The word was invent­ed by my friend Michael Young in his 1958 book, The Rise of the Mer­i­toc­ra­cy 1870 – 2033. Michael died in 2002, so he wasn’t quite turn­ing in his grave when he wrote in a 2001 essay for The Guardian about the egre­gious mis­read­ings to which his book had been sub­ject­ed; par­tic­u­lar­ly by Tony Blair and New Labour, for whom mer­i­toc­ra­cy” was tak­en to be an unprob­lem­at­i­cal­ly desir­able social ambi­tion — a use of the term which effec­tive­ly turned its orig­i­nal mean­ing on its head.

Michael’s book is a some­times dif­fi­cult mix­ture of his­to­ry, satire and prophe­cy. It fea­tures a crusty nar­ra­tor, a soci­ol­o­gist writ­ing in the wake of a riot­ing Britain in 2033, who offers stern Swift­ian warn­ings against the rule of mer­i­to­crats. Lament­ing Blair’s enthu­si­asm for the idea, Michael wrote in The Guardian: It is good sense to appoint indi­vid­ual peo­ple to jobs on their mer­it. It is the oppo­site when those who are judged to have mer­it of a par­tic­u­lar kind hard­en into a new social class with­out room in it for oth­ers.” These mer­i­to­crats of a par­tic­u­lar kind,” Michael thought, were like­ly to be smug in their belief that they are right — and con­vinced that their own social mobil­i­ty, and its par­tic­u­lar impe­tus and tra­jec­to­ry, is the best (if not the only) form for every­one else, par­tic­u­lar­ly their own chil­dren. Such an elite, he pre­dict­ed, could become more impen­e­tra­ble for out­siders than a social order based on nepo­tism. Rely­ing on the largesse of the new­ly priv­i­leged may be riski­er even than pri­mo­gen­i­ture as a mech­a­nism for alter­ing the sta­tus quo.

The strength of Michael’s argu­ment lies in his vision of what would hap­pen to a soci­ety, pol­i­tics, the pro­fes­sions, the civ­il ser­vice and, above all, to edu­ca­tion, if mer­it, as mea­sured by grades and exam results, were the grounds and the guid­ing prin­ci­ple of social mobil­i­ty. It would not only cream off the aca­d­e­m­i­cal­ly most suc­cess­ful mem­bers of the work­ing class, leav­ing a rump sub-class with no lead­ers of their own. It would reduce edu­ca­tion to some­thing like a sys­tem for sort­ing sheep from goats, a mar­ket­place for assess­ment and cer­ti­fi­ca­tion, with no oblig­a­tion toward, or inter­est in, edu­cat­ing the whole pop­u­la­tion — espe­cial­ly those who were not expect­ed to move up in the world. Such a sys­tem relies on mass fail­ure and on the dele­te­ri­ous effects for most peo­ple of ear­ly com­pe­ti­tion. As Michael’s nar­ra­tor bru­tal­ly announces, Wide­spread recog­ni­tion of mer­it as the arbiter may con­demn to help­less despair the many who have no mer­it.” In Michael’s 2033 dystopia, social­ism has been killed off and trades unions emas­cu­lat­ed — while edu­ca­tion has become occu­pied sole­ly with repro­duc­ing an elite.

The world Michael pre­dict­ed is fright­en­ing­ly famil­iar. We have a nation­al cur­ricu­lum,” which all but pri­vate schools must fol­low and which in its nar­row­ness seems cal­cu­lat­ed to turn off all but the most dogged­ly ambi­tious stu­dents. Local author­i­ties are relieved of their charge of schools, and of their account­abil­i­ty to the com­mu­ni­ties they serve.

To invoke social mobil­i­ty in the midst of high youth unem­ploy­ment — if there are no moves to reduce eco­nom­ic and class inequal­i­ties — emp­ties the term of mean­ing. The scram­ble now at every lev­el is between peo­ple who are equal­ly qual­i­fied for the job. And those who can afford to stay out of the job mar­ket for a time — either in edu­ca­tion, or in work for which they are not paid, as interns — will win out, as they are expect­ed to. 

Jane Miller lives in Lon­don, and is the author, most recent­ly, of In My Own Time: Thoughts and After­thoughts (2016), a col­lec­tion of her In These Times columns and interviews.
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