The elite's many virtues

I AM READING DANIEL Markovits’s The Meritocracy Trap, which is very good, compelling, and is crystallising thoughts on human merit I’ve been recently having. It’s a fairly compelling argument that the reproduction of the ruling class, today, happens at the level of transferring skills and educational training, and through elites exploiting their own labour, of specific kinds which create value in the context of our times (financial services, law, business, technology, and so on). It’s slightly less compelling in the Australian context, where the older forms—your parents buying you a house in Sydney—still work fine. Yes, I’ve been saying to myself as I turn the virtual pages of my e-reader, yes, that observation relates to the way I see the world. Yes, that is the way the ideology works. The book happens, as I happen to be, caustically enduringly angry.

And then the challenge:

Tweet by Yuan Yi Zhu: ‘I’ll go further and say that the reason for the sudden popularity of the anti-meritocracy case has more to do with traditional elites’ realisation that they are being out-competed than with concern for those left behind by meritocratic competition.’

Yes, but I think also no. Yes, the notion that anti-meritocracy is fear of competition rings absolutely true thinking of the Fairfax stable of papers’ long-term fixation on selective schools, Asian children, and exam coaching: a fear that comes exactly from the insecurity of an Australian white ruling class. No, because if there’s a ‘sudden’ anti-meritocracy case it’s at least four years old, when Helen Andrews in a 2016 Hedgehog Review was making the same meritocracy-critical arguments in reverse, arguing that these things (the concentration of power, the increasing inequality between winners and losers of the race, the stamping of failure on the second-rans), were good, actually:

For all its flaws, this elite does have many virtues. Its moral seriousness contrasts favorably with the frivolousness of certain earlier generations, and its sense of pragmatism, which can sometimes be reductive, can also be admirably brisk and hard-nosed. What is needed is someone who can summon a picture of the meritocratic elite’s best selves and call others to meet the example. But this process can begin only when this new ruling class finally owns up to the only name for what it already undeniably is.

One alternative is aristocratic self-denial, in the Russian 19thC manner, such as e.g. Francesco Pacifico, Workplace Hacks:,

Our class is a scam.
There is no merit in success. Until we destroy the impression of merit in people’s success, every discussion will be muffled by fascination—by the apparently objective, natural, collective fascination with success and successful people. This already happened with aristocrats. At some point in the 20th century they lost the bulk of their ability to impress. It should happen to us, too. We must lose our allure.

The ‘We’ is the key to all of this I think. It’s meritocracy’s great appeal that it individualises; on its face it is every candidate competing against the test, every career a separate arc of talent. Making or breaking has meaning. Hard work is rewarded, virtue recognised. Friends don’t help each other, nobody does favours, and each deserved outcome is the best of all possible worlds. Because merit must be imagined as an individual capacity (or else commit the error of bell-curvy prejudice) here is no, can never be any, meritocratic ‘we’ of belonging, or ‘one of us’. As the result, the fact of ruling class political and economic power, increasingly obvious to insiders and outsiders, threatens the whole ideology.

So a ruling class ‘we’ is up in the air, even if there’s definitely an identification of a ‘them’, from everyone who’s been pushed aside. A meritocratic ruling class by definition can’t be class-conscious: the moment it accepts the name, and responsibilities of collective rule, it also must accept the consequences of increasing wealth inequality and abuse of power, and must fold back to individualism, or else admit that it’s failing at its core aim of fairness for all. (As the saying goes, faber est suae quisquae fortunae, fuck you, Jack, I’m alright).

We start by recognising things that exist. A class that transfers benefits to itself, reproducing its power, using the tools of merit, is an existing fact. Just because it tells lies to itself about its own deserts, doesn’t mean we need to believe them. Markovits said as much to the Yankee Puritans at Jacobin:

The meritocratic suggestion that hierarchy is compatible with democratic equality because elites deserve their earned advantages is circular. Notions of meritocratic desert cannot justify inequality because they depend on inequality. And merit is not a natural virtue but rather an ideological conceit, built to launder an otherwise offensive distribution of advantage. Merit — in this precise sense — is a sham.

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