In The Reactionary Mind, Corey Robin shows that a large part of what drives reactionaries is the desire to silence and repress (or, in academese: deny voice to) others. This partly from a strong belief that their putative 'inferiors' have no right to speak (or to be heard), and partly from a fear that "society" (or their place in it) will be negatively affected by the latter being heard, or organizing themselves; and that the world can only function if everyone 'knows their place'. I found this explanation quite thought-provoking, and it led me to wonder what analogous desire and world-view animates those who the media refer to as 'the (center-)left' (liberals in the US, liberal or social democrats elsewhere), given that the overwhelming majority of these folks are uncomfortable subscribing to the ("radical") egalitarianism, inclusiveness and solidarity that I take as central.
Some time later, after reading David Graeber's Debt, it occurred to me that the tendency and conviction Robin identifies isn't just found in conservatives, but in just about everyone, and that it would be much more accurate to speak of a reactionary mindset, than mind. (Which 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 nonhumans, 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 or gender expression, and so on. And b., how much inequality and violence one is okay with, and where they place the floor when it comes to quality of life for everyone.)
But it wasn't until I read Tom Frank's Listen, Liberal, that I realized that my university education (which had taught me meritocratic reasoning by osmosis) had made me miss the elephant in the room. Namely, that conservatives and liberals don't differ in world-view, but only in its justification, and in what they consider 'proper' metrics of desert (e.g., wealth, class membership, heritage, educational attainment, intelligence, gender, skin color, religious affiliation, ethnicity, etc.). And that the organizational form that we call hierarchy (which we mainly associate with conservatism and feudalism), is simply a special case of meritocratic organization, namely one in which neither the legitimacy of the inheritance of class, wealth and power, nor the use of violence to maintain inequality (whereas liberals generally favor more rigorous and intellect- and achievement-focused tests of "merit") ever really gets questioned.
Since then, I have come to realize that if we want to achieve an egalitarian, inclusive world in which the use of (institutionalized) violence to maintain inequality and oppression is forbidden (with the exceptions of protective use of force, and violence as a last resort), 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, to help people consider 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.
On meritocracy as an ideal
Let me start by saying something more about the word 'meritocracy.' This term is usually defined rather differently, namely as "rule by the most capable," with its opposite being nepotism and "failing upwards" rather than egalitarianism. Because this definition is socially dominant, many on the left are quite enamored with the idea(l), and nobody seems to really be thinking about what 'meritocratic organization' means in practice, and how it gets institutionalized. Because of this, I consider the 'regular' definition to be a dangerous distraction from the fact that meritocratic reasoning goes far deeper, and is applied far more broadly by people signed on to this idea. More on this below.
One common defense of meritocracy as an ideal is to argue that while we're currently insufficiently rigorous in picking fair and just metrics, we'll get there some day. Another is to say that so long as we observe acceptable (to whom? the native americans basically forced to live on reservations built on marginal lands, with next to no work, money?) lower limits with respect to living standards (and then somehow insulate these from the political process), there's nothing wrong with organizing society meritocratically. Leaving aside that a hope that 'we may get there some day' cannot serve to support fake meritocracy in the here and now, or unjust living standards for many, it seems to me that neither defense holds water, because both presuppose the legitimacy of classifying some as more worthy than others, when all of the criteria we invoke to justify such unequal treatment are morally arbitrary.
Another -- legitimate -- response is to argue that the root problem isn't meritocratic reasoning as such, but that we accept that people use violence to oppress some and benefit others. While this is strictly true, it is important to keep in mind that there's much more to violence and harm than just visible, physical violence; with institutional violence (denial of services to some, unequal treatment, treating humans as means) causes much more harm than direct violence, especially in western societies. And so. long as people believe that unequal treatment of equal needs is legitimate, we will continue to see, accept and engage in violence towards those we don't care for. As such, my position is that we need to get rid of both of these beliefs. But how to convince you that you want to do the same? :)
Luckily, a large part of the reason why people accept the meritocratic moral logic is that we 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' inferior (or bad), 'deserve less'. Far fewer of us today will sign on to the latter, given how obviously it can be used to 'justify' just about anything. Yet, troublingly, we reason and act this way all the time, towards people we don't like or care for.
Let me try and make this more concrete by discussing an extreme case. When someone easily labels others as "enemies", and take those thoughts seriously, we usually consider this behavior a sign of emotional immaturity or instability. As such, we generally won't accept such judgments at face value, although we may allow a friend or acquaintance to harm or hurt the people they consider an "enemy". In my opinion, any disinterest or complacency we experience when faced with such behavior is part of the problem, because even though it should be blatantly obvious to us that this way of thinking -- especially when coupled with the conviction that we may harm those who we judge to "be" 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 it does occur to us that thinking this way is problematic, we tend to avoid drawing 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.' And we don't just reason this way as individuals, we also operate our institutions on this logic. For instance, when we allow the police to not seriously investigate the rape or murder of a transgender person, sex worker or criminal because of "who they are," "what they do," and so on, we are also treating the equal needs of some as less valuable. Similarly, although everyone gets that it would be morally wrong to try to starve ordinary Americans in an attempt to bring pressure to bear on Donald Trump, Madeleine Albright can get away with saying she thought it "worth it" to impose economic sanctions on Iraq to annoy Saddam even in hindsight, when confronted with the fact that these sanctions killed some 500,000 Iraqi women and children, with most liberals barely batting an eye. The only way to make sense of this, is by acknowledging that liberalism is completely compatible with the notion that bullshit distinctions between human beings such as nationality or ethnicity can discount the inherent value of life.
But while the problems with the negative formulation may seem pretty obvious, we can only escape the meritocratic moral logic by rejecting both prongs (and to take a different stance on the rightness of the use of violence). As such, we need to figure out why we are so attached to the positive formulation that we are largely 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 facilitate that.
A first reason why, is the one I discussed earlier: we like to comfort ourselves with that thought that the problems we are facing today are being caused by our not (yet) being ruled by 'the most able' or 'best' (as mediated by the educational and class systems), and that it is only by organizing society along meritocratic lines that we may outgrow parochialism and chauvinism. This is helped by the fact that most of us do think that these 'most able' or 'best' people would necessarily also only want to do 'good.'
But I suspect that the main reasons why we find it difficult to reject is that it's completely ingrained, so that most of the time, we don't even notice that we're reasoning this way; although the vitriol and violence we dish out usually is far subtler and less harmful than declaring someone a member of an "Axis of Evil" or a "terrorist organization," and then declaring that they 'may' -- or 'must' -- be killed. Nevertheless, while the more subtle and everyday instances may seem innocuous, they're still incoherent (besides being a complete distraction).
Take a phrase like "undeserving poor", still quite popular in the US. What is it trying to convey? That some are undeserving of being poor? Or does it mean '[rightly] poor, because undeserving' (a conviction that many poor folks have internalized, to rationalize their treatment as second-class citizens)? And this way of thinking is quite normal, circular and subjective though it may be -- victim-blaming people for how and what they 'are' and how we (and societal institutions) treat them; judging and discriminating against people wholesale because of their characteristics ('female', 'poor', 'religious', 'uneducated') rather than judging actions and defending the notion that every human being should be treated with respect, and deserve help and inclusion by virtue of shared humanity, and irrespective of how (much) they 'contribute.'
The school system (and beyond)
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, as having 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 learn that this is just, or where we talk about the reason why such thinking is consequentially desirable even if morally indefensible. Yet all of us are highly adept, because we learn these rules by osmosis: watching and interacting with the people around us, pretty much from infancy. And it's worth emphasizing that just about every public and private institutional structure embodies and reinforces these beliefs and habits, including the family, the school, governmental bureaucratic institutions including but far from limited to the military, and the workplace.
What we are taught, 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 punishment avoidance), 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 by 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 (though this is something that we generally don't even think about, as used as we are to leaving our values 'at the door'), in exchange for rewards such as a stable source of income, a chance at advancement, and social status. And note that this is true whether we are a CEO, politician, lobbyist, or 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). We act out roles, though we may become them, and enjoy them a lot.
That said, it's worth emphasizing that the more unquestioningly someone accepts these premises, and the greater the overlap between their intrinsic 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 not the same as wanting to replace 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.)
(To be clear: 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.)
Returning to Frank's Listen, Liberal: it 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", members of the "creative class", 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 in that rightward turn in politics. And 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 discusses the US case, the same trends can be found in every country where access to tertiary education was broadened.)
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): 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. The disappearance of the Soviet Union as a visible alternative to capitalist development. 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's bargaining power, and over the long term, the two-income household would become a necessity, forcing people (especially in the US) to return to working well over 40 hours per week, leaving them with ever less time and energy for other stuff, including political organizing.
Countering the neoliberal counterrevolution, unlearning and undoing meritocracy
So how can we combat and undermine this counterrevolution? Since it takes many different shapes, and the logic operates at many different levels, from institutional discrimination and favoritism to cultural and personal-level attitudes towards certain people or groups, the short answer is, it varies. It may involve resisting imperialism, combating classism and the devaluation of those who are less educated, changing the way we treat 'children' in school, or the way we treat our 'employees' and 'bosses' while working. To engage in it, we will have to organize and fight alongside others, for equal treatment of their equal needs and against their discrimination, as well as for improved living conditions, and to remind people that solidarity and inclusion are non-negotiable, especially at the institutional level.
To suggest a few pieces of the puzzle: First, familiarize yourself with nonviolent communication. Once that starts to sink in, try to live by these principles. Next, start reading about the 'sacred cows' of liberal, imperialist capitalism, including how to live by one's values while at work (I have made a few suggestions here). Fourth, try to bring others along with you, because we cannot do this alone, or ourselves. Fifth, reconsider your use of other animals as means to our ends. And obviously, depending on where you live, figure out which other aspects of your life or community's behavior can be improved along these lines. Hopefully, these things will help you to successfully and constructively challenge meritocratic attitudes in ourselves and in those around us, and helping each other understand that we need to organize society differently, as well as ourselves and each other, to achieve that goal. But I do think all of these things must be taken into account in whatever we try, as otherwise, 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 deeply ingrained in everything we do and think. And there obviously are personal risks and costs involved. But unless we start challenging and helping ourselves and those around us to change, nothing much will change. And I don't see how we have an alternative to trying, as simply 'living our own lives in the best way we know' is too costly to those currently at the receiving end (which will include most readers) to be ethical. 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 may have noticed, I'm still figuring out how best to write about this. 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.