The Rise of Functiocracy
by David Civil
Meritocracy has failed. The distance between the winners and losers is threatening our social fabric. It’s time for an alternative… The Functiocracy .
In 1958 Michael Young published The Rise of the Meritocracy. In this fictional satire he outlined a nightmarish vision of a future society organized rigidly according to the formula: IQ + Effort = Merit.
The meritocracy was ruled by a distant + heartless elite who felt they deserved their exalted position + hoarded ever more rewards for themselves.
The inequalities generated by this society became so oppressive that the Populist movement, led by a group of elite women, overthrew the meritocracy.
Young’s vision may have been fictional but it was startlingly prescient. In society today the distance between the winners + losers is greater than ever. Inequality is rampant + threatens the social fabric.
Young’s critique of meritocracy drew inspiration from the work of socialist philosopher and historian R.H. Tawney.
Tawney rejected a society governed by a shallow equality of opportunity on the basis that it prevented the population from fully developing their talents. True equality of opportunity depends ‘not only upon an open road, but upon an equal start.’
For Tawney society should be organized according to Function. Here individuals perform certain activities for a ‘social purpose’. They do not perform actions merely for personal gain or gratification but recognize their responsibility to the community at large.
We can update Tawney’s philosophy for the 21st Century and use it as an alternative to meritocracy. This is the Functiocracy, a society where individuals are held accountable for the contribution their actions make to the public good.
The Functiocracy is governed by the formula: Social Need + Democracy = Function.
A social need could be anything from healthcare to childcare but it must be democratically identified by the community as a whole.
The Functiocracy is a society where individuals are rewarded on the basis of their contribution to the flourishing of the community as a whole.
The principles of the Functiocracy could help remedy some of the problems generated by meritocracy:
(1) While marginal inequalities may still exist they would be democratically legitimated + serve a social function.
(2) The contribution of everyone is valued. Employment would be purposeful and stimulating, serving the community at large.
(3) Democracy would be revitalised as every citizen helps to identify social needs and contributes to satisfying them.
In 1958 sociologist and social entrepreneur Michael Young published a dystopian vision of Britain in 2033 told from the perspective of a fictional PhD thesis. This society was ruled by a distant and heartless elite chosen according to the formula I.Q. + Effort = Merit. This ruling caste felt they truly deserved to hoard ever greater rewards, leaving those deemed ‘stupid’ by our contemptuous fictional commentator without power or hope.
Meritocratic logic seeped into every aspect of national life, deciding everything from who you can date to what job you can do. In the end this oppressively unequal society is overthrown in a populist movement led by a group of elite women.
With the publication of The Rise of the Meritocracy Young catapulted a new word into the political, social and cultural lexicon. Despite Young’s prophetic warnings however, Britain’s political leaders began a frenzied battle to appropriate the term. From the scientific social democracy of Harold Wilson to the entrepreneurial conservatism of Margaret Thatcher, all have sought to transform Britain into a more meritocratic society.
Meritocracy, however, has failed to deliver on its promises. As the sociologist Jo Littler has argued, in contemporary society the concept of meritocracy is little more than a cover for a rapacious plutocracy.
Meritocratic society has failed for three broad reasons:
(1) Inequality: Society has been cleft in two between the winners and the losers. This inequality is harmful to our social fabric. While all societies are likely to experience some level of inequality, these should be democratically legitimated. In a society where Kylie Jenner is portrayed as a self-made meritocrat it is clear to increasing numbers of the public that the language of meritocracy is a smokescreen to allow society’s winners to hoard ever more rewards.
(2) Apathy: This division of society into winners and losers creates apathy. Without a stake in the community, large sections of society become apathetic with democratic processes and their ability to solve national problems. With the rise of anti-democratic nationalist and populist movements our democratic institutions and procedures need revitalising.
(3) Purpose: In this unequal and apathetic society work for many has become increasingly dull, repetitive and pointless. In the midst of the technological revolution it is harder for individuals to find identity in the workplace or, with unequal access to leisure, an identity outside of it.
Young’s critique of meritocracy owed much to the political thought of socialist historian and philosopher R.H. Tawney. For Tawney, a society in which equality is solely defined in terms of equality of opportunity would neglect the talents and idiosyncrasies of all of its members.
Rather than the self-interest encouraged by the meritocracy Tawney placed the concept of Function at the heart of his political vision. Function serves as a moral standard to hold capitalism to account as well as the key organising principle for a new type of society.
A functional act must be motivated by a sense of moral duty and individuals must be conscious of their obligations. A functional society would be one where every citizen is held accountable for their contribution to the flourishing of the community at large.
This could serve as the basis for a fairer and more equitable society: The Functiocracy. It would be governed by the formula: Social Need + Democracy = Function.
In this society individuals would be rewarded based on their social function. This would be formed by satisfying genuine, as opposed to artificial, social needs which were identified and legitimated by democratic means.
The Functiocracy would help remedy some of the defects generated by the meritocracy:
(1) More Equality: The Functiocracy would recognise that creating and sustaining a flourishing community requires diversity and individuality. It would reward all those who contribute to satisfying social needs – from the responsible business leader to the full-time carer – with dignity and respect. While marginal inequalities might still exist these would be legitimated by the community at large and would serve a social function.
(2) More Engagement: Every individual contributing to the flourishing of the community would have a stake in society. Democracy would be revitalised as every citizen has a role in identifying and satisfying social needs.
(3) More Direction: All work which contributed to satisfying social needs would be valued, rewarded and respected. By spreading resources more fairly access to leisure and educational opportunities would be more widely available.
David Civil is a Midlands4Cities Arts and Humanities Research Council funded PhD student in the Department of History at the University of Nottingham. His research explores the concept of meritocracy in post-war Britain and his thesis is provisionally entitled: The Rise of Meritocratic Discourse: Appropriation, Adaptation and Transformation, 1944-2000. Before joining the University of Nottingham David completed an MA in Modern History at the University of Warwick where his research explored the political thought of British sociologist and social entrepreneur Michael Young.