Keywords for the Age of Austerity 25.5: Meritocracy

“Meritocracy” recently came in via the Suggest a Keyword link, and unlike most of the terms I examine here it is a recent coinage, with an explicit political meaning. Nevertheless, the word has long since has taken on a life of its own, which makes it a complement to the rise of “competencies,” “wellness,” and other means of offloading risk to employees. British sociologist Michael Young invented the word in 1958 in his book, The Rise of the Meritocracy, which adopted a “looking backward” conceit to imagine Britain in 2033, when compulsory schooling and a competitive civil service had replaced the inherited privileges of birth.

Young’s coinage was a portmanteau of “merit” and “aristocracy.” His idea wasn’t that educational notions of merit were displacing the class-based distribution of privileges, but rather replacing them. If privileges and status are distributed through the “talents” nurtured in education, then access to education merely becomes the means of reproducing privilege and status. As Young himself wrote in a 2001 essay denouncing Tony Blair’s embrace of a New Labour meritocracy:

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. Ability of a conventional kind, which used to be distributed between the classes more or less at random, has become much more highly concentrated by the engine of education.

Young’s point was that Blair had missed the point of meritocracy, embracing the ideal of “merit”–itself an implicitly hierarchical notion that is treated as egalitarian–while forgetting the “aristocracy” part. Young argued that the aristocracy of merit was a new, superficially democratic way of reproducing a class through the school system: “The new class has the means at hand,” he writes, “and largely under its control, by which it reproduces itself.”

This Blairite misidentification of meritocracy is popular in American politics, as well, where it lacks any residue of the class system to which the word originally referred. As Chris Hayes writes, in American politics the meritocratic metaphor of the “level playing field” exerts a powerful, hypnotic pull–it’s a rhetorical point of consensus that “undergirds our debates,” he writes, “but is itself never the subject of them.”

This fondness extends to historical treatments, even of, say, slaveholding Virginia. “Jefferson was always pulling for meritocracy,” writes Andrew Burstein in Democracy’s Muse, a profile of the third president’s republicanism in light of 20th-century politics. Other affirmative uses of the term identify it with a kind of benevolent, hierarchical efficiency. Singapore, where meritocracy, pragmatism, and technocracy are an official governing ideology, is often praised as a model nation in this regard. Sometimes the authoritarian logic of meritocracy is not disguised at all, as in William A. Henry, III’s In Defense of Elitism. Henry, The Third uses “meritocracy” in Young’s sense of an aristocracy of “merit,” but here favorably, in a right-wing polemic against affirmative action.

Skeptical treatments about meritocracy, meanwhile, often tend to treat it as a myth or an aspiration–the common alliterative phrase “myth of meritocracy” sometimes seems to suggest an ideal that, if only realized, would produce an egalitarian society. Other critics like Lani Guinier, whose recent book on inequality in higher education is titled The Tyranny of the Meritocracy, use the term in more purely pejorative sense.

Tyler Cowen, whose book Average is Over rather gleefully images a future society (iWorld, he calls it) divided by mastery of computing technology, imagines a “hyper-meritocracy,” a concept apparently coined by the Japanese sociologist Honda Yuki. Unlike traditional meritocracy, ostensibly distributed through the educational system and measured in examinations, Honda’s “hyper-meritocracy” describes an unstable neoliberal workplace, where the dangers of of layoffs and redundancy are ever-present. A hyper-meritocracy demands not just up-to-date skills, but competencies (see KFTAOA 25 on this)–“all the skills that are flexible, and rooted deeply in an individuals’ personality and emotional makeup,” Honda writes (as translated and quoted in Katsuya Minamida’s Pop Culture and the Everyday in Japan). Cowen writes early in his book, laying out the problem (though he doesn’t appear to see it as much of one):

If you and your skills are a complement to the computer, your wage and labor prospects are likely to be cheery. If your skills do not complement the computer, you may want to address that mismatch.

If you misread “complement” as “compliment,” as I initially did, Cowen’s blithe and breezy description of a dictatorship of technological “competencies” sounds like it is narrated by HAL in one of his more tender moments. “What are you doing, Dave? Why don’t your skills compliment the computer?”

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