“Against Meritocracy”: why meritocracy won’t save us

The Paradise Papers has exposed the labyrinthine routes through which the wealthy secure trickle-up economics. The super-rich have supersized their wealth by investing 300 billion pounds of UK GDP in offshore tax havens and undermining democracy. This information is leaking out at a time when the wealth of the world’s plutocrats has swollen to proportions not seen for a century and when people claiming benefits have been viciously castigated. Tabloid outrage and reality TV shows like Benefits Street have functioned to endorse further cuts to public spending and to shift the media spotlight away from the actual places public money is being siphoned off from: from our shared public resources, which are being packed up, privatised and sold.

What has been dubbed ‘the Parasite Papers’ follows in the wake of the scandal around Harvey Weinstein and sexual abuse, harassment and gendered double standards in public life. This spate of exposés about the misuse of male power continues to unfurl, like the tentacles of an octopus, spreading from Hollywood to Westminster, galvanized by women sharing stories of harassment and everyday sexism on social media through the hashtag #MeToo. Every day, it seems, there is another dramatic denunciation or exposé of social injustice in the news. Racialised exclusions have received some media publicity, if not on quite the same scale. The failure of one in three Oxbridge colleges to admit any black British students has recently received widespread coverage.

What all these stories do is puncture the myth of meritocracy: the idea that we have a level playing field on which we can all fairly compete and strive. They deflate the idea that we can work hard, activate our inner talent and climb the social ladder of success to ‘the top’. These stories show that the field is not level, and that for many people the ladders are missing rungs. Whilst these revelations of economic, gendered and racist power abuses generate large piles of evidence, they are also generating the powerful sense that these systems of inequality have been tolerated for far too long by far too many. But the real test is whether we can win support to move beyond individualized and corporate ‘meritocratic’ solutions to these problems.

As my book Against Meritocracy argues, meritocratic discourse is profoundly mutable and has taken a wide range of forms. When the word ‘meritocracy’ came into being in 1956 it was a term of abuse rather than a state to aspire to.  For the radical industrial sociologist Alan Fox, meritocracy was obviously not egalitarian but rather disproportionately rewards the already gifted; for philosopher Hannah Arendt it ‘contradicts the principle of equality, of an equalitarian democracy, no more than any other oligarchy’. But after being satirised by social democratic polymath Michael Young, then positively charged by knowledge economy guru Daniel Bell, and energetically massaged by right-wing think tanks, by the 1980s it had become a byword for ‘fairness’ (and for promoting individualistic competition). By the 1990s, neoliberal meritocracy was sucking from the lifeblood of the liberation movements to suggest that anyone, no matter their gender, race or class, could ‘make it’. Reality TV, lifestyle magazines, lessons on entrepreneurialism in schools and CEO autobiographies have all served up luminous examples of ladder-climbing or ‘parables of progress’ at the very same time that the opportunities for social mobility were being eroded through privatisation and austerity cuts. This conjunction is not an accident.

How has that system worked out? With the many not ‘making it’; with the structures of social support for people being chopped away; by pushing us far further down the road to environmental collapse. The problem with neoliberal meritocracy is not only that it is a dangerous fiction but that it is a smokescreen for a plutocratic elite which puts its own wealth above the health of other people and that of the planet. As Rebecca Hickman’s excellent report for Compass 15 years ago showed, ‘social mobility’ is not the same things as egalitarianism. Similarly, neoliberal meritocracy provides economic rewards favouring the already-privileged on the basis of individualistic competition; and then the rich pass on these rewards to their children. This means that meritocracy’s ‘ladder of opportunity’ has got longer and longer, leaving more and more people at the bottom whilst the rich and their families congregate on the top rungs, talking about how they deserve to be there because they have worked so hard.

Meritocracy as a notion does contain within it some very reasonable and important components: primarily the idea of fairness, of opportunity for flourishing. But as I argue in Against Meritocracy, it is far better to return to the critiques of Alan Fox, Hannah Arendt and Raymond Williams, all of whom in their brief but trenchant writings on the subject highlighted the anti-egalitarian impulses it harboured and disguised. Instead of the smokescreen of ‘meritocracy’ we need greater levels of economic equality, robust anti-discrimination regulation and to nurture social, cultural and environmental diversity.

There are many ways in which the exposés in the Paradise Papers are already being justified by neoliberal meritocratic discourse: as the product of long chains of financial trading which the investors weren’t conscious of; or as ‘clever’ investments. After all, we’ve been told for years now to hustle, to be ‘savvy’ and ‘entrepreneurial’ and work our way to the top in the new economy. (In these terms, the Queen is just doing what The Daily Mail and Good Housekeeping have advised for years).

Such framing needs blasting out of the water. We have enabled a system empowering plutocratic elites who take from the poorest but do not give, who scapegoat the most vulnerable whilst they bleed them dry, who use arcane financial arrangements they shroud in secrecy, collectively draining our social fabric. We have let this parasitical system of private corporate interests expand itself throughout our public institutions. Meritocracy will not save us from it.

Jo Littler is Reader in the Sociology Department at City, University of London. Her new book Against Meritocracy: Culture, Power and Myths of Mobility is out now in paperback with Routledge

2 thoughts on ““Against Meritocracy”: why meritocracy won’t save us

  1. I shall certainly read the book but, surely, we can’t be against the idea of a meritocracy? A pure meritocracy – whilst satisfying fairness and maximising efficient use of resources – is not going to combat inequality or insecurity so it does have to be combined with some element of redistribution. As a Social Democrat I would like to see – as far as possible – a meritocracy in the UK. So that the most able people get the top jobs not just the offspring of the elite.We can then use the tax system – and possibly UBI- to provide a reasonable life and security for the less able. I’ll be interested to read your arguments.

  2. Sorry…The statement “why meritocracy won’t work” isn’t congruent with all the false forms presented in it’s place.

    Meritocracy won’t work because we are subjective organisms and those in power want to self define as merit at the expense of objective merits they do not have. Just think of the kings of england circa 1500. The definition of a foot, a unit of measurement, would change with the king…and so the definition of merit is also changed to fit the king every time a new one comes.

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