Linking Neoliberalism, Identity Politics and Bureaucracy
In The Reactionary Mind, Corey Robin talks about what drives conservatives, who he proposes we call reactionaries. Namely, a desire to silence and repress (or, as academics like to put it, deny voice to) others. In this, they are motivated in part by a strong conviction that their putative 'inferiors' have no right to speak (or to be heard), in part by fear of the personal and political consequences of the latter being heard, or of their organizing themselves. And they tend to justify this stance, and any actions they take to maintain hierarchy and inequality, using claims such as that the world can only function if everyone 'knows their place' (and submits or obeys). I found his argument quite thought-provoking, and it led me to wonder what analogous desire and world-view animated those who in the media are called 'the (center-)left' -- and who in the US self-identify as liberals, elsewhere as liberal or social democrats --, but who don't subscribe to the ("radical") egalitarianism and belief in solidarity that I see as the foundation of left politics and democracy.
Some time later, after reading David Graeber's Debt, I realized that the tendency and conviction Robin identifies exists not just in conservatives, but in nearly everyone, so that it would be much more accurate to speak of a reactionary mindset, than mind. This also suggested a different way of thinking about someone's political identification, namely as a function of how broadly someone applies this logic -- e.g., only to nonhumans, or also to the "un- or less credentialed" and "indigent", or also to women, people of color, non-nationals, (differently) religious people, those with a different ethnic background, sexual preference, gender expression, and so on. And secondly, how much inequality one thinks is okay, and how low the floor may be, with respect to quality of life.
But it wasn't until I read Tom Frank's Listen, Liberal that I realized that I too had embraced certain meritocratic beliefs about less intelligent and less 'educated' human beings (see Plato's allegory of the cave) that made zero sense and weren't defensible, while my (Lockean liberal) social and political philosophy education had normalized notions such as that the 'rule of law' may trump basic need satisfaction, and that institutionalized political and socioeconomic inequality was morally defensible so long as the distributional arrangements were 'procedurally fair'. And that this had led me to miss the elephant(s) in the room, namely that conservatives and liberals don't differ in world-view, but only in its justification, and in their answer to the question what are proper metrics of desert (e.g., wealth, education level, intelligence, gender, skin color, ethnicity, class membership, etc.). And the corollary, that the organizational form that we call hierarchy (which we mainly associate with conservatism and feudalism), is just a special case of meritocratic organization. Namely one in which the legitimacy of the inheritance of class, wealth and power is never questioned, as isn't the use of violence to maintain inequality (while liberals generally favor bureaucratic organization, and more rigorous testing of "merit").
Since then, I have come to believe that if we want to achieve a world in which the use of (institutionalized) violence (with the exception of protective use of force, and violence as a last resort) to maintain inequality and oppression is no longer allowed, we must help each other to stop thinking that someone's moral value may depend on their character traits, beliefs or behaviors. It is my hope that this blog will contribute to that process, by addressing the following three clusters of questions. First, how meritocratic organization affects different domains of life, in order to help people think about whether we should continue organizing society along these lines. Second, how and why we are taught to accept all of this in the first place, and how we can recognize and unlearn our automatic acceptance of the idea that some "deserve" or "merit" less (security, status, safety, etc.) than others, as this conviction is completely intertwined with the meritocratic logic. And last, how (institutional) violence fits in.
The meritocratic logic in action
Luckily for humanity, a large part of the reason why people accept the meritocratic moral logic is that they only consider it in its positive formulation -- 'those who are or do better, deserve more' --, while ignoring the corollary -- the (Social-Darwinist) notion that those who "are" lesser (or bad), "deserve" less. Relatively few people will sign on to the latter, given how obvious it is you can 'justify' just about anything that way, given how good human beings are at finding sticks that others will accept as a justification for violence or unequal treatment.
An often-heard defense of the meritocracy is that we're currently simply insufficiently rigorous in picking fair and just metrics, but that we'll get there some day. Another is that this way of thinking is fine so long as we establish decent lower limits with respect to living standards (and then somehow insulate these from the political process). Leaving aside that a belief that we may get there some day cannot serve to justify the the status quo, or our support of it, I have strong reasons to believe that this cannot work, precisely because it doesn't get us away from reasoning in the way that allows and encourages us to see people as "undesirables" or "inferiors" in the first place.
A lesser-heard defense (which is largely fair) is that the problem isn't the moral logic, but that we accept the use of violence. While this is accurate, it is important to note that there's much more to 'violence' than visible, physical violence; there's also institutional violence (denial of services, unequal treatment), and the latter causes much more harm than the former, especially in western societies. And long as people believe that unequal treatment of equal needs is legitimate, we will continue to see and engage in violence in the broader sense.
Let's return to the question of subjectivity. When it comes to the habit of (easily) labeling others "enemies", and taking those thoughts seriously, most people recognize such behavior as a sign of emotional immaturity or instability (except in politics). As a consequence, at least once we reach adulthood, we generally don't really take such judgments on seriously ourselves, though we may allow our friends to use said judgments as reasons to hurt or harm the person they think about that way. As I see it, this kind of complacency is symptomatic. Because even though it should be blatantly obvious that this way of thinking, especially when coupled with the conviction that we may harm those who are bad or evil is morally odious, we generally don't really object to it, or even feel much surprise when someone feels or behaves this way. Moreover, even when we do realize that thinking this way is problematic, we tend to avoid thinking about the broader ramifications of that insight, preferring to wave it off, or to accept the behavior 'in this instance' because we 'know the actor is a good (or 'not a bad') person'.
But no matter how obviously objectionable the negative formulation, hardly anyone is willing to reject the positive formulation. And this is a problem, because the only way to escape from the meritocratic moral logic is to reject both prongs (and to take a different stance on the rightness of the use of violence). Which raises the question: what gets in the way of our being willing to reconsider this second prong, let alone abandon it?
One part of it is that people are loath to take on the notion that even though basically all humans wish to contribute to others' lives, much of what we do is morally odious (while most who do recognize the latter issue, resort to cop-outs like misanthropy). Another is that we find it comforting to think that the problems facing us today are caused by our not (yet) being ruled by "the best" (as mediated by the educational and class systems). This thought is popular not least because most of us do think that these 'best' people would necessarily also only do 'good' (i.e., because the wording can be interpreted multiple ways, it's easy to believe in the principle and see it as a healthy ideal).
But I suspect that the main issue is that most of the time we reason this way, we don't even notice that we're doing it, because it is second nature, while the vitriol and violence usually are (respectively) far subtler and less harmful than declaring someone part of an "Axis of Evil" or "member of a terrorist organization", and an outlaw who may -- or must -- be killed. Nevertheless, while the more subtle versions may seem harmless, they're hardly sensible (as well as a distraction). Take a phrase like "undeserving poor", which is quite popular in the US. What does this mean? That they are undeserving of being poor? (And if so, according to who?) Or does it mean [rightly] poor, because undeserving (according to the people who have institutional power)? Sadly, though, circular and subjective though this may be, this way of thinking about others is the norm -- blaming rather than focusing on what's bothering someone, focusing on people and their characteristics ('female', 'black', 'religious', 'queer') rather than actions; and never asking the question what we would like people's reasons to be for acting differently.
The school system
So, where on earth do we learn to think of people in terms like good, bad, lesser, better, deserving of rewards or punishments, lower or higher social status, more or less voice? None of us have taken classes where we are taught to think this way, never even mind classes in moral theory where we justify thinking this way, or where we talk about the reason why such thinking is consequentially desirable even though it isn't morally defensible. Yet we all are highly adept at it, because we learn these rules by osmosis: watching and interacting with the people around us, from childhood on. And it's worth emphasizing that just about every public and private institutional structure embodies and reinforces these beliefs and habits, including the family, our schools and workplaces.
What we learn, at a basic level, is primarily to respect authority (i.e., to obey those with institutional power), to work towards goals identified and chosen almost exclusively by others, to work for extrinsic rewards (including to avoid punishments), and to silence or ignore our intrinsic motivation and interests, especially to the extent they don't overlap with the ones thought desirable by the structures and those with power over us.
In this way, we are prepared for a lifetime of more of the same: to do things that don't necessarily interest us, or even actively go against our personal values, in exchange for rewards (an income, and an employment contract) -- though this is something that we generally don't even think about, as we simply leave our values at the door. And note that this is true whether we are a CEO, a salesperson who convinces the elderly to sign up for services that they have no use for, or a customer service rep, nurse or teacher who is discouraged from taking the time they need to actually help the person requesting their assistance, because 'targets' must be met (which are requirements for continued employment, for gaining rank, get raises, etc).
And it's worth noting that the more unquestioningly someone accepts these premises, and the greater the overlap between their own interests and the ones that are encouraged and favored by the institution and those with institutional power, the more motivated they'll be to succeed in their eyes (and to receive high grades, accolades, pay, and credentials), and the more likely they are to succeed socioeconomically, and to gain high social status, and influential positions.
Simultaneously, the more of us go through this funnel, and the longer we're exposed to this logic, the more trouble we have connecting with our intrinsic motivation and values, and the more deeply we internalize the notion that our actions only have value to the extent they are pleasing to others (and especially those with institutional power). And the more deeply we internalize these values, the less likely we are to (want to) change the rules and structures (which is different from hoping to displace incumbents), and the less likely we are to believe in notions like decent living standards for all, rather than decent living standards for those who deserve it (especially when the 'experts' on that subject say is that 'for all' is unfeasible).
In short, going through the school system has consequences for someone's receptivity to calls for social, but especially economic solidarity, because of how we are trained to see rewards and punishments as resulting from fair determinations of merit. (By way of illustration, notice how, even though most professionals at the very least pay lip service to the notion that everyone has equal moral value, and even though many self-identify as 'social liberals', only a fraction of them (still) believe that the institutional structures of public and private institutions should (or "can") embody solidarious principles, while most actively or passively pursue or endorse developments in the opposite direction.)
(Note that none of this is to deny the emancipatory power of learning, the joy that comes from grappling with new ideas and concepts, or its importance to social movements. Obviously, I think this is extremely important. It's not for nothing that reactionaries hate education and freedom of information, and have worked hard to make the school system much more rigid and expensive than it was in the '60s and '70s. It's just to emphasize the importance of (the contradiction between) the content of what we learn, and the structure in which we are taught, because when you recognize this, a lot of apparent contradictions melt away. Similarly, it's not accidental that a lot of the (re)thinking and re-learning that we associate with earlier social movements happened outside the school system, in movements that were usually organized very differently.)
Listen, Liberal helped me understand two things. First, why so many self-identified progressives who entered politics from the mid-late 1970s onward were largely disinterested in (economic) solidarity with those who aren't their class mates or peers -- who aren't fellow "knowledge workers" (etc.) --, and where their disinterest came from. Because although 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 managerialism, I'd never really considered the question what role a half-decade to a decade of additional exposure to the meritocratic value system that's implicit in the school system might've played. Or how that ties in with the now-pervasive notions that everyone must earn their quality of life and economic (in)security, and that it is completely appropriate that we must each individually merit our deserts. (Note that while Frank only covers the US case, the same trends can be found in every country where access to tertiary education was democratized.)
And second, why these 'fake' -- anti-egalitarian -- progressives could so easily co-opt the Democratic Party: in part because they possessed the credentials, but at least equally importantly, because they subscribed to the same meritocratic value system that the large donors and party elites subscribe to. Because the latter made them much more palatable -- and far less threatening -- to the Party leadership.* As such, while I'm sure elites at the time were worried sick, and absolutely hated the social and cultural change that did occur, in my view the educational system largely did its job in disciplining and domesticating people, and broadening support for this latest meritocratic counterrevolution.
Of course, many other factors also contributed. To name a few that strike me as particularly relevant (following Harvey and Chomsky): the rise of indebtedness, in the form of student and mortgage loans, and the rising living costs, caused by the waves of privatizations and mergers, and the cuts to taxation and public spending. Technological and demographic changes, like the entry of women and more people of color into the the labor force, and the invention of containerization, which allowed Asia to become much more important as a manufacturing center. And equally important, treaties like NAFTA (and the enlargement of the EU) would also help employers, by making it much easier to move production abroad, and to threaten employees with outsourcing and offshoring unless they accepted whatever demands they came up with. All of these developments had similar consequences for Western labor power,** and over the long term, they would turn the two-income household into a necessity, and force people (especially in the US) to work more than 40 hours per week (again), leaving them with ever less time and energy for other stuff, including political organizing.
Looking around the internet today, I see very few people talking about this. I'd say that it's high time that we start.
Countering the neoliberal counterrevolution
So how to counter this reactionary counterrevolution? As I see it, we need to start paying much more attention to our own values, and to questions like why we do what we do, and why we think the way we do, to become aware of the extent to which our thoughts and actions are informed by meritocratic attitudes. We need to do so both in our private lives, in public, and in the parts of our lives that we spend working for or inside institutions (which have their own rules that we are asked to embody, in exchange for a salary or status).
A large part of how we can do so, is by familiarizing ourselves with nonviolent communication. Using the insights and tools gained from studying nvc, and by reading other work, we can start challenging those attitudes in ourselves and in those around us (including at work), and helping each other understand the costs of the current way of organizing society. Only then do we stand a chance of moving beyond superficial change (i.e., moving beyond cheering on "non-white" capitalists, "shattering the glass ceiling" for equally meritocratic non-male leaders of private tyrannies, violent "revolutions," and so on). Anything else, and we'd be leaving the organizational and institutional structures intact, the value system intact, the goals the same, and the means the same.
Now 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 simply too deeply ingrained in everything we do. And there obviously are personal risks and costs involved. But unless we start challenging and helping ourselves and those around us to change, things won't. Moreover, no matter how widely shared beliefs concerning the justice of unequal treatment of equal needs are, and how normal it is to do so, it is never okay to dismiss or devalue others, or to use (structural or physical) violence in pursuit of these goals, or to maintain an unjust system; so if we value justice and fairness, we have little choice but to try.
I hope that this blog will contribute to that process, by becoming a collection of useful resources, and by providing a platform on which we can provide one another with support, suggestions and encouragement. :)
PS. As you will have noticed, I'm still in the process of finding my voice, and figuring out how to explain this in a way that makes sense and works for people. This post is likely rather longer than will become the norm, but I need to lay some groundwork, and connect a few dots before I can move on to writing shorter, perhaps more accessible posts. As Chomsky has pointed out, concision is only possible when you're regurgitating established truths; alternate histories, and big lie demolition, take much longer (in part because it takes more work to identify mutual ground as a starting point). So I hope that everyone who finds this blog will bear with me. Feedback and questions are very much appreciated, as is just saying hi. :)
* If you are interested to learn what values the elites surrounding Carter held, see e.g. this talk.
** Note that I obviously am in no way opposed to the social and economic development of the non-western world. I just think they should be allowed to do so for their own reasons, rather than because it suits us that they're willing to produce stuff for us, really cheaply. Will write more about this later.