In The Reactionary Mind, Corey Robin convincingly argues that a large part of what drives reactionaries is the desire to silence and repress anyone they consider inferiors. This partly from a strong belief that ‘such people’ have no right to speak (or to be heard); partly because they fear loss of personal status if the latter are heard, or if they successfully organize themselves; and partly from a conviction that society can only function properly when everyone 'knows their place'.

This argument struck me as correct, and it led me to wonder what would be the analogous motives and world-view of those who the media refer to as 'the (center-)left' (called liberals in the US, liberal or social democrats elsewhere). This because I knew that the overwhelming majority of them in no way subscribe to the ('radical') egalitarianism, inclusiveness and pro-emancipatory solidarity that I consider as central to 'leftism' (and generally to being human).

A few months on, David Graeber's excellent Debt made me realize that the logic identified by Robin isn't just found in conservatives, but in nearly everyone (more on this later), so that it would be more accurate to speak of a reactionary mindset, than mind.[1] Yet it wasn't until I read Tom Frank's Listen, Liberal, that I saw that my love for learning had led me to miss the elephant in the room,[4] namely that conservatives and liberals both believe in the rightness of inequality, and the 'need' for hierarchy, and only differ in their justification. That is, in what they consider 'proper' metrics of desert (e.g., wealth, indigeneity, class membership, gender, credentials, skin color, religious affiliation, 'grit', etc.). And that institutional structures like caste systems, colonial administration, feudalism and fascism are simply very inflexible and violent forms of 'meritocratic' organization, in which there are strong taboos surrounding challenging the legitimacy of status and wealth inheritance, while social mobility is often actively made harder, and open use of violence and oppression are celebrated. (While liberals tend to favor more flexible structures, predicated on credential- and achievement-focused metrics of merit, and prefer not being confronted with the fact that all inequality is predicated on and maintained using (structural) violence.)

Since then, I've come to see that if we want to achieve democratic, egalitarian, emancipated societies, in which oppression and inequality are not (secret) policy goals, and in which use of force is only allowed as a last resort, then we must collectively unlearn, and help others to stop accepting, the pernicious notion that someone's moral value can depend on their character traits, beliefs and behaviors. (That is, we need to reject merit- or deserveocracy, if you will.) And we must organize to change any institutions that promote, embody or contribute to those beliefs, behaviors and outcomes.

On meritocracy as an idea(l)

'Meritocracy' is normally understood to mean 'rule by the most capable', and is usually contrasted with hierarchy, nepotism and 'failing upwards'. A second and more vague definition has societies counting as 'meritocratic' when they are dominated by a large, affluent professional/managerial cohort, part of which is said to have 'come from nothing', with ‘the meritocracy’ being the cohort that 'won'. People who use this definition generally see 'meritocracy' as a kind of 'game' that you can 'choose' to participate in, but don't have to, by choosing to embrace 'middle class' (i.e., 'lower and unremarkable, but okay') status.

As I see it, all of these definitions either miss the point or are misleading. But because they're artfully vague, and bleed into one another, while sounding vaguely unobjectionable and reasonable, most people -- including most of the left -- consider ‘meritocracy’ appealing enough that they don’t object to it in principle, or to its invocation as a descriptor of a future (better) society. As a consequence, we only really see people objecting to ‘meritocracy’ during times of crisis. As such, it's only now that inequality has reached historic levels, while high status positions mostly go to obvious incompetents, and people once again only rise to the top if they belonged to it already, that we've started seeing criticism, including (especially since 2015) quite a few books and articles (and even entire blogs ;-) ) on the topic, and its limits and discontents.

That said, the objections being raised almost always revolve around how society isn't 'actually' meritocratic, or that 'money and inheritance still play too much of a role'. Left unasked are questions such as why it is so easy to confuse ‘meritocracy’ with capitalist hierarchy, and whether meritocratic societies are attainable at all so long as we allow most of the money to end up in the hands of a very small minority that wants to maintain its position. And beyond those two, questions like how -- and by who -- the 'metrics of merit' that you have to excel in to get ahead are picked, and how tests are administered. Let alone whether we should have societies that must create inequality to function in the first place.

Two preliminary lines of defense

An oft-heard defense of meritocracy as a system is, 'although we're currently insufficiently rigorous in picking fair and just metrics, we'll get there some day'. A related line of argument is that so long as the minimal living standards are 'acceptable' (and presumably somehow insulated from the political process), there's nothing inherently wrong with organizing society along meritocratic lines. I have two main problems with these arguments. Firstly, a hope that 'we may get there some day' cannot be invoked as support for what one knows to be 'fake meritocracy', nor for terrible living standards and highly exclusionary policies in the here and now. Secondly, and more importantly, both of these arguments presuppose the legitimacy of classifying and treating some people as being 'more deserving' of material comfort and equal treatment than others, even though hardly anyone nowadays will deny that all human life is valuable, and that cultural differences cannot justify oppression.

A stronger defense revolves around the argument that the root issue isn't meritocratic reasoning as such, but the fact that we accept it or look away when see those we we look down on, or that we judge to deserve to 'have it worse,' being harmed or oppressed. While this is strictly true, it's important to recognize that humans find it nearly impossible to object to or defend people from violence in such cases. This is especially true when the violence is seen as 'measured' or 'normal', i.e., when we're talking institutionalized violence such as police and prosecutorial harassment of demonized 'minorities', chattel slavery, or people not receiving help because they live in 'backwards' or 'poor areas' (like reservations), and so on. Consider how few people respond to news of harm coming to 'vagrants', or when learning of the violence inflicted on the animals whose bodies or milk they eat, skin they wear, and so on. Even though we all know that every animal (human or no) values their own life, most people simply shrug when they hear that ('yet') another houseless or indigenous person has died, while most of us in fact reward others for harming animals. Such disinterest is completely indefensible, yet it's pervasive, and it has immense consequences for how our societies are organized.

In sum, the above argument puts the cart before the horse. Judging people as lesser, or feeling that we deserve to have it better, are thoughts and behaviors we are taught to engage in, while living in societies that are premised on inequality and oppression. We learn to blame others for inflicting (real or imagined) harms on us (e.g. 'not treating us with the respect we are due') in large part because the resulting feelings of indignation make it easier to hurt them 'back', and to oppress others. We blame victims because we don't want to address their victimization, and because we've swallowed all kinds of 'scientific' lies about how inequality is good (e.g. because it boosts 'competition', and/or technological or economic development that we're attached to).[6] As such, I'm convinced that until we actively reject thinking of some people as inferior, or of others as superior, we will continue to accept the use of violence towards others. Only if we actively reject this, will others be unable to teach us to hate those they wish to harm or oppress, or those they wish to divide. (Consider how during the Middle Ages, elites legalized rape of 'regular' women both to harm and subjugate them specifically, and to weaken the peasant movements, by encouraging and effacing violence against one part of them). Therefore, we must challenge and change both of these convictions and behaviors in ourselves as well as those around us and society more broadly, difficult though this will be.

More on deserveocracy's two formulations, and why we must reject both

Luckily, a large part of why most people embrace the meritocratic moral logic is that they only associate it with its positive formulation, 'those who are or do better, deserve more,' without considering its corollary, the (Social-Darwinist) notion that those who 'are' inferior (or bad), 'deserve less'. This seems to me hopeful, because it means that even though this way of thinking and of organizing institutions is pervasive, most people still recoil when asked to embrace it, given how obviously it allows you to 'justify' just about anything.

That said, while most people will reject the latter formulation when it's put to them that way, it's important to note that we and our institutions constantly reason and act this way, especially towards people or groups we don't like or care for, or when we blame them (or 'people like them') for something that's happened. For example, take someone who easily labels others as enemies, or who is very quick to take offense, and who carries grudges. Most people who are friends with someone like that do realize that these are signs of emotional immaturity or instability,[2] and won't accept their friend's judgments at face value themselves (and they may even criticize their friend's behavior behind their back). Nevertheless, they tend to accept it when their friend decides to harm or hurt their enemy, assuming their plans don't sound too 'extreme' to them.

Then there are the people who takes this logic one step further, such as 'bullies'. These of course are people who are quite happy to harm others in order to 'provoke' them, if they think their target deserves it, e.g. when the latter has engaged in what's framed as 'objectionable behavior', like 'showing weakness'. Bullies also tend to attract other people to them who encourage or praise their behavior, with all of them at some level believing that 'might makes right'. Note also that these patterns occur most often in meritocratic institutions like prisons, schools, and workplaces.

But even when we recognize and reject it when individuals behave this way, there's also the issue of how we treat institutions that do the same thing. For instance, France imposed a huge fine on Haïti (in part to pay for France's reconquest attempt) because it freed itself from France, and it got wide support for doing so, with huge consequences for Haitians. Or consider how the US responded to the 2001 attack on the Twin Towers by militarily invading and occupying two entire countries, causing the deaths of at least a million people as 'collateral damage', which then served as a recruitment poster for other terrorist groups. Similarly, even though nobody would defend starving ordinary Americans to oust Donald Trump, Madeleine Albright, as secretary of state, felt free to argue that the killing of 500,000 Iraqi 'children'[5] was 'worth it'. All of these examples illustrate not only that institutions like the state behave this way constantly, but also that when they do, most of us accept this, and many start hating the victims. (Of course, it doesn't hurt that corporate and state media tend to wage huge propaganda campaigns to encourage this.) Or to take more everyday examples of institutional violence: consider how in the US today there's a long-standing practice of incarcerating children to motivate them to 'change their ways' (thereby teaching them the reactionary lesson that if you have power over others, it's okay to use violence to get them to do what you want). Likewise, whenever the state refuses to seriously investigate the rape or death of marginalized people like "vagrants," sex workers or criminals, it treats their humanity as less important (and it gets away with it because we're socialized to accept this).

As I see it, any disinterest or complacency we experience in response to people acting this way is part of the problem, reflecting our own lack of awareness that it's not okay to harm people just because you see them as bad or evil, or because they -- or people 'like them' -- treated you in a way you're not happy with. Because it shows that at some level, we don't understand that two wrongs do not make a right, and that such judgments cannot justify "return violence". Furthermore, the fact that the above events and reasoning consistently fail to lead to protests -- let alone something more substantial -- illustrates that we are comfortable with, or at least used to, equal needs being ignored depending on considerations like nationality and ethnicity, and that some people only matter to the extent that, say, outrage over their starvation and death is useful to political elites. And the fact that most of these events are forgotten within weeks or months (due to actions of this sort happening constantly, and cases like the 'War on Terror' only standing out due to the number of people affected), indicates that there is something terribly wrong with how we learn to reason generally, and with liberalism and capitalist institutions in particular.

And even when we do find this such behavior is undesirable and unhealthy, we tend not to ponder the broader ramifications, but to instead accept the friend's (or 'our' nation's) behavior 'in this instance', because we know they are 'a good (or 'on the whole' not a bad) person'. (And while this thing is generally true, it follows that it also is wholly irrelevant.)

All that said, while the problems with the negative formulation may at least be clear to most, we can only escape the meritocratic moral logic by rejecting both formulations (and to take a different stance on the rightness of the use of violence). Which raises the question why most people are so attached to the positive formulation that they are completely unwilling to reconsider -- let alone abandon -- the notions that some deserve to earn and have 'more' than others, and that society should be organized in such a way as to generate inequality?

Part of it is the reason I mentioned earlier: we like to comfort ourselves with that thought that today's problems are due to our not (yet) being ruled by 'the most capable' or 'best' (as mediated by the educational and class systems), and that we'll only outgrow parochialism and chauvinism once society is "truly meritocratic". This is helped by the fact that most of us do think that these 'most capable' people would necessarily also only want to do 'good' -- i.e., to act in the true interest of the group.

But I suspect that the main reason why we find it difficult to reject is that it's completely ingrained. As such, we simply don't see the harm in the notion that some people -- 'who contribute more to society' -- may be 'rewarded' for this by giving them more material goods, and privileged access to social services. This is just too normal and 'logical', at least outside times of extreme scarcity or hardship. Nevertheless, we must interrogate the idea that e.g. 'doctors' deserve more creature comforts than 'nurses', or that people with the power to directly affect others' lives like CEOs or state functionaries deserve to have nicer lives than, and to be treated with deference by 'their employees' and 'ordinary citizens'. Especially because we know that any wealth and status differences increase over time, if only because parents tend to want their kids to have it easier than they did, and because it's simply so very alluring and convenient to have others doing your work for you, especially once they're convinced to accept that their having it worse than you is okay, or even 'as it should be'. Which of course provides a strong motivation for those who have to ensure that 'those without property' don't gain political control, and 'rob' them of their well-earned advantages.

Lastly, take a phrase like 'undeserving poor', still very common in the West. What does it mean? That some people are undeserving of being poor? Or does it mean '[rightly] poor, because undeserving' (a conviction that many members of marginalized groups have internalized, to rationalize their treatment as second-class citizens)? To me, the fact that these words can be read both ways, with the second reading being circular, means that we shouldn't be using them, given that most people simply accept 'they deserved it' as an argument, rather than as a conclusion used to justify, cheer on or dismiss the relevance of (im)material rewards granted, or harm or violence inflicted or suffered.

On education and socialization

This raises the question where we learn to think of people in terms like good, bad, lesser, better, deserving of rewards and punishments, as having higher or lower social status, and thus deserving more or less voice? None of us have taken classes where we are taught to think this way, let alone that we are explicitly taught that this just, or 'morally indefensible but necessary' (etc.). Nevertheless, we're quite good at reasoning this way, because we've been taught the rules by osmosis: by watching and interacting with the people around us, pretty much from infancy. And this isn't just taught by individuals: just about every public and private institutional structure embodies and reinforces these beliefs and habits of mind, starting with the family, the school system, governmental bureaucratic institutions including but far from limited to the military, as well as where we work for 'the boss'.

And what are we taught there? At a basic level, to respect authority (i.e., to obey those with institutional power) and to accept their beliefs as true. To work towards goals identified and chosen almost exclusively by others, in exchange for extrinsic rewards (including punishment and punishment avoidance). And to silence or ignore our intrinsic motivation and interests, especially to the extent our interests don't overlap with the ones thought desirable by the structures and by those with power over us.

In this way, we are prepared for a lifetime of more of the same. Namely, doing things that don't necessarily interest us, and which may even actively go against our values (though this mostly goes unmentioned, given that we've been taught to leave our values 'at the door'). In exchange -- if we 'prove ourselves,' of course -- we gain access to a stable source of income, a chance at different (often a "higher") roles, social status, and so on. And note that this applies regardless of whether we are a high-level manager, judge, politician, lobbyist, soldier, salesperson, customer service rep, or a nurse or teacher; the interaction with the patient, client, customer, or student (or with the other employees) is secondary, and what matters most is whether and how well we embody the institutional values, and how much we contribute to the organizational goals. (More on this here.)

In sum, we are all forced to function within these incentive structures, and for most of us this is the only conceivable way of functioning, because people have been taught not to think outside the box. That said, it's worth noting that the more unquestioningly someone accepts the rules, and the greater the overlap between someone's personal interests and the ones that are fostered and favored by the institutional structures and those with power, the more motivated that person will be to try and succeed (by pursuing high grades and other accolades, pay, and credentials) and the more likely it is that they will (and that they won't object to society being organized this way).

Of course, the more people go through this funnel, and the longer they're inside, the larger the group of people who have trouble connecting with their intrinsic motivation and values, because of how they will have internalized the notion that people's actions only have value to the extent they please others (especially those with institutional power). And the less likely they are to (want to) change the rules and structures, and to believe in notions like decent living standards for all, rather than decent living standards for those who deserve it (especially when the 'experts' say that 'decent lives for for all' is unfeasible or counterproductive). This because of how this system encourages them to see rewards and punishments as being the result of fair determinations of merit.

By way of example, consider how even as most professionals at the very least pay lip service to the notion that everyone has equal moral value, and even though many of these professionals self-identify as 'social liberals', only a fraction of them (still) believe that the institutional structures of public and private institutions should (or "can") enforce a comfortable minimal living standard, while most of them pursue or support developments in the opposite direction.

(To be clear: none of this is to deny the emancipatory power of learning, the joy that comes from grappling with new insights, ideas and concepts, or of the importance of learning, and researching events and patterns to social movements. Obviously, that's all real, and reactionaries are correct to consider learning a threat, so that they have 'rightly' worked to make e.g. the school system more rigid, bureaucratic and expensive. My point is that there is an important yet largely unacknowledged contradiction between the progressive values that we associate with liberalism, and the theoretical content but especially the structure of the liberal structures in which we are taught and teach. And that this has a lot to do with why e.g. "the generation of '68" fizzled, a topic which I've discussed in more detail here.)

The Right Turn

Besides showing me that "meritocracy" is a pure propaganda term, reading Listen, Liberal helped me understand three things. First, why left political parties started to seriously shift to the right starting in the 1970s, and why they were specifically disinterested in (up through actively hostile towards) the notion of (economic) solidarity across 'educational' lines. Second, why there wasn't more effective resistance to this trend in politics (it was a consequence of a broader demographic shift). Because while I'd long been troubled by the role played by the substance of the education people receive in business and economics courses, and the related rise of (often pretty tyrannical) managerialism in the workplace, I'd never really considered whether democratizing access to tertiary education might undermine egalitarianism and solidarity, because of how it meant that a large group of people would be spending a half-decade to a decade longer inside an implicitly and explicitly meritocratic institution. And third, why these fake progressives could so easily appear to co-opt the Democratic Party: certainly in part because they possessed useful skills and credentials, but more importantly, because they subscribed to the same meritocratic value system that the party elites and backers subscribed to. This made them much more palatable -- and far less threatening.[3] As such, while I'm sure business owners and social elites were worried sick about the "'68 generation", and absolutely hated the social and cultural change that did occur, it seems to me that the educational system largely succeeded in disciplining and domesticating people to embrace capitalist liberalism, and to invest their energy in their careers, coupled with doing 'volunteer work' in their off hours.

Of course, many other factors also contributed to this rightward turn, hardly all brought about by the ascent of 'anti-egalitarian left' as such. To name a few of them (partly following Harvey): union cooptation, the imposition of mass(ive) indebtedness, mainly in the form of mortgage and student loans; the rising cost of living due to privatization, deregulation, and cuts to safety net programs. Technological and demographic changes, like the entry of women, more people of color, and migrants (and in Europe, the introduction of so-called 'guest workers') into the labor force, and the invention of containerization (which made it possible to start to integrate Asia into the capitalist world as a production center). The disappearance of the Soviet Union as a existing alternative to capitalist development. And last but far from least, treaties like NAFTA and the WTO (and the creation and enlargement of the EU), which made it much easier for businesses to move production to other areas, and to circumscribe the state's role in the economy. All of these developments had negative consequences for the bargaining power of workers. And in the US in particular, it led to the two-income household becoming a necessity for everyone, while forcing many workers to once again accept working well over 40 hours per week, leaving them with ever less time, energy and hope.

Unlearning internalized and undoing institutionalized meritocracy

So how can we finally rid ourselves of this way of thinking, and of organizing society? Since the meritocratic logic operates on every level from personal attitudes to institutionalized discrimination and favoritism, it's going to take a lot of rethinking, and there's only so much effect we can have on our own. It will require educating ourselves and each other, for the purpose of overcoming whatever forms of learned disinterest in the plight of some we carry with us. It'll involve organizing and fighting for equal treatment of equal needs, and against discrimination of the marginalized, and reminding our fellow humans that solidarity and inclusion should be non-negotiable, especially at the institutional level. It'll involve anti-imperialism, combating classism and the marginalization of those who are less educated and "successful". And it means changing the way we treat children, how schools treat students, and how workers treat and see each other and their bosses. (And so on -- this is in no way intended to be an exhaustive list.)

For those who want to become better at recognizing meritocratic reasoning, especially in its subtler and institutionalized forms, let me offer a few starting suggestions: Familiarize yourself with nonviolent communication. Reconsider your support of the various sacred cows of Lockean liberal, imperialist capitalism by working your way through the reading suggestions I've put up here, the capitalism tag, and checking out the blog's books section; see also this essay). Read the other pieces in this group. Reconsider your use of other animals. Try to get others interested, because we cannot do this alone. And think about which issues affect your own community, and how you can help address them, perhaps starting with how the most marginalized people (including indigenous people, if you live in a colonial state) are treated. Hopefully, the reading material will help you to challenge meritocratic attitudes in yourself and in those around you, and in figuring out how we can help and work with others who see that we need to think about and organize society very differently.

Of course, there's no way to address or change all of these things at the same time, overnight, or on our own. This way of thinking and operating is deeply ingrained in everything we do, and most of our social theory. Furthermore, there obviously are personal costs involved in trying. But there's also no defensible alternative to challenging and helping ourselves and those around us to change. Because simply 'living our own lives in the best way we know' is far too costly to those currently at the receiving end and at the bottom, common though that attitude may be. (Also, it could cost us the planet.) I hope that this blog will contribute to that change, by becoming a collection of useful resources, and by providing a platform on which we can provide each other with support, suggestions and encouragement. <3


PS. As you may have noticed, I'm still getting used to writing clearly, so I hope you'll bear with me, and excuse any awkward formulations or paragraphs that are a bit messy. Feedback, questions and suggestions are very much appreciated, as is just saying hi. :)

[1] As an aside, this also suggests a different way of thinking about political (self-)identification, namely as a function of how a., how broadly someone applies this logic -- e.g., only to the other animals, or also to the 'un-' or 'less credentialed,' the 'indigent', non-nationals, women, people of color, (differently) religious people, those with a different ethnic background, sexual preference, gender expression, and so on. And b., how much inequality and violence someone is okay with, and where they place the floor when it comes to minimal living standards.

[2] And note that the this is just a more extreme form of the utterly mundane "they hurt me, so it's okay/fair for me to hurt them back, or to let harm come to them that I could've easily prevented."

[3] If you are interested to learn what values the elites surrounding Carter held, see e.g. this talk.

[4] Which had taught me meritocratic reasoning by osmosis, because authors I read reasoned that way, and because the institutions that provided me with that education were organized on those principles.

[5] Note that the accusation only mentions children, because 'children' are the only people who are automatically 'innocent', while their adult family members, friends and acquaintances are not.

[6] This conviction of course is particularly important for the rich and powerful, who use their material wealth and social power to create and maintain structures that promote this way of thinking, as they have a strong interest in encouraging us to think that many people don't deserve nice lives, because only so long as people believe that, do they not get together to combat inequality and private hoarding and control. These structures include media corporations, think tanks, elite societies, private schools, and many more besides.

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Category: general.phrase.none Tags: Bureaucracy Liberalism Inequality Hierarchy Education Group: Main