by Matthew Harper
We live in a sham meritocracy which exists to congratulate the successful, and blame those marginalised by the system for their own failure. Rather than try to revise the meritocratic equation, the idea that there might be an equation for merit must be abandoned as misanthropic. In the 21st century, we will need to assume merit, rather than assess it.
Part 1: There is no equation
Meritocracy, insofar as it exists today, is nothing more than the preservation of the status quo. It is an excuse to explain the allocation of power in late capitalist societies. And that may be hardly surprising since, in Michael Young’s estimation, it should have taken several more decades of concerted effort to reach the form of meritocracy described in his 1958 novel The Rise of the Meritocracy. The problem is not that we have got there more quickly than he imagined; but that we have not got there at all. If the point of Young’s novel was to ask whether we should build a meritocracy, the popular response has been to ignore the question entirely, and instead assert that we have already built a meritocracy.
When we talk of the benefits of living in a meritocracy, or of the apparently self-evident virtue of a merit based immigration system, we are not using the term ‘merit’ in a rigorous sense. Young’s equation that IQ plus Effort equals Merit is rarely stated explicitly, much less interwoven throughout the entire fabric of society, as would be necessary in a true meritocracy. Instead, we encourage school children by telling them that if they work hard at what they’re good at, success will follow.
And so what we commonly mean by the term ‘meritocracy’ is little more than a justification of contemporary power structures and the insinuation that these power structures are based upon a rational, deserved, and even scientifically valid method of selection. The status quo is already fair: the wealthy deserve their wealth, while the poor deserve their poverty. Today, this brazen self-congratulation of ‘haves’ may even extend as far as asserting that billionaires do not belong to the ‘elite’ because they are allegedly ‘self-made’, while the ‘have nots’ seemingly choose not to be able to afford health care. The result is steadily widening inequality cushioned only by trickle-down apologies: tax breaks for the rich which are spuriously defended as leading to more jobs; or the election of a single black man to the Presidency of the USA, which prompts some to talk of living in a ‘post-racial’ society, as if that were all that were necessary to vanquish racism forever.
In the same way, any criticism of social inequalities can be dismissed as mere sour grapes, as bad faith virtue signalling by those who demand more than their fair share without having to work for it. At best, the language of liberation is appropriated, as women are told they need to ‘lean in’ to take what is rightfully theirs, or that a glass ceiling maintained by a few bad actors is all that bars their way. At worst, the apparatus of oppression may be leveraged against those protesting it, as with police brutally against #BlackLivesMatter demonstrators. In either case, the notionally meritocratic system is upheld: any alleged deficits are the fault of, and can be solved by, individuals.
It would be untrue to say that meritocracy has failed, since we have never lived in a meritocracy. This raises a number of questions. Does the concept, or the equation IQ plus Effort equals Merit, need to be revised at all? If we live in a sham meritocracy which has never coherently implemented that equation, then it could be argued that the equation has never truly been tested, much less been shown to be fundamentally flawed.
Could we not just properly embrace the idea, divest the elite-who-do-not-wish-to-be-called-elite of their power, and for the first time build a true meritocracy?
Then again, it can be argued that the idea has been too deeply tarnished by the disingenuous and the naïve to warrant any further consideration. Perhaps the ease with which the idea of meritocracy has been used to prop up the (un)entitled power structures it supposedly aimed to challenge is indictment enough. Perhaps its ready adoption by politicians of all stripes means that it has no actual capacity for radically restructuring society. Perhaps meritocracy will never be anything more than a confirmation bias. Which brings us back to the question: should we build a meritocracy?
It could be argued that the fundamental flaw with the equation IQ plus Effort equals Merit is not so much what it includes, but what it excludes. The act of assessing IQ, much less Effort, in anything resembling an objective manner is intensely problematic. But for IQ plus Effort to equal Merit, everything which cannot be reduced to either IQ or Effort must be denied. The feminist ‘antagonists’ of Young’s novel presumably saw this for the contradiction it was: according to the equation on which the whole of society was supposedly built, women were equal to men; but their role as mothers, which required them to exit the workforce entirely, precluded them from the participation in the meritocracy that their merit entitled them to. The equation could be revised to include Gender: but then it would then explicitly encode sexism within its brand of meritocracy. Naturally, this would hardly satisfy the feminist critics, while also serving to undermine the ’self-evidence’ of the equation which makes it so persuasive. And so Gender, and its role in the meritocracy, inevitably and necessarily, remained invisible, unseen.
In this way, Margaret Thatcher’s dictum that there is “no such thing as society” was not descriptive, but prescriptive. Any comprehensive doctrine of individualism must deny that anything outside of the individual exists or is relevant in any way. Like Baron Munchausen, the ’self-made’ lift themselves out of the swamp by pulling up on their own pigtails. They have no privilege of wealth, class, inheritance, race, gender, body, or education. And this must be so, since otherwise they could not be self-made, and not fully, self-evidently, deserving of everything their IQ and Effort alone have granted them. Every meritocratic equation must exclude everything which does not serve the ideology; and the more variables it includes, the less it is able to do so.
The equation IQ plus Effort equals Merit not only includes and excludes, but also assumes that merit can be calculated. Indeed, it assumes that individuals begin with no merit whatsoever: and that it is only by the application of IQ and Effort that merit is granted at all. As such, the meritocratic equation is rigorously misanthropic: humans have no intrinsic worth, but their worth can be measured, assessed, graded, certified, and rewarded. At the same time, it is rigidly authoritarian: those who already have merit within the meritocratic system are considered qualified to assign merit to others. It is no surprise that, under the auspices of meritocracy, income inequality has widened while real wages have stagnated, and a diploma democracy has blossomed while a precariat class has emerged.
The way forward is not to salvage whatever we can from the idea of meritocracy, but to abandon the idea that merit can be assessed at all. Instead, merit must always already be assumed. Young’s (surprisingly intersectional) feminists knew this, I suspect: their goal was not merely to get ahead within meritocracy, to break a glass ceiling or two, but to bring down the entire edifice.
There is no equation. There must be no equation.
Part 2: Prefiguration
One of the great weaknesses of meritocracy, as it has ‘existed’ to date, is that it has been all too easy to assert that it has already been achieved. Arguably its greatest strength, the seemingly self-evident virtue of the equation IQ plus Effort equals Merit, is in large part responsible for this: meritocracy was obvious and so it was also easy. A society based on the assumption of merit, rather than the assessment of merit, must strive not to fall prey to the same complacent simplicity. If meritocracy appealed to an all too human tendency to divide ourselves into unnecessary and unjust hierarchies, it would be folly to claim that such a tendency has been undone just because we say it has.
The assumption of merit cannot be imposed from above, nor can it ‘trickle down’ from a somehow enlightened elite, as such actions presuppose the very hierarchies which should be problematised. Instead, it must be interrogated at every level of society, structural and individual, explicit and implicit. We will need to study our own intersectional privilege and hold ourselves accountable, examining the ways in which our behaviours and attitudes betray us, from daily micro aggressions to unwittingly endorsing systemic inequality. Un-learning will, if anything, be harder than learning: if we truly wish to achieve a society in which merit is always already assumed, we need first to assume that we might never get there at all.
Born in Birmingham, UK, Matthew Harper has lived and worked in Germany for two decades. He is currently employed at the Otto-von-Guericke University in Magdeburg, where he teaches English, with a particular focus on academic skills, and lectures on cultural studies and critical thinking. He studied philosophy at Saint David’s University College, Lampeter, and Online, Open and Distance Learning at the Open University, and is looking into further study into the intersection between feminism, meritocracy, and education. Matthew’s pronouns are he/they.