In The Reactionary Mind, Corey Robin convincingly argues that a large part of what drives reactionaries is the desire to silence and repress (or, in academese: deny voice to) others, who they call or consider inferiors. This partly from a strong belief that their putative inferiors 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'. I found Robin's explanation intuitive, and it led me to wonder what the analogous desire and world-view were of those who the media refer to as 'the (center-)left' (called liberals in the US, liberal or social democrats elsewhere), given that the overwhelming majority of them in no way subscribe to the ('radical') egalitarianism, inclusiveness and pro-emancipatory solidarity that I consider see as central to 'leftism' (and generally to being human).
Some time 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. (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 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 or gender expression preference, 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.)
That said, it wasn't until I read Tom Frank's Listen, Liberal, that I realized that my love for learning 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, indigeneity, class membership, educational attainment, religious affiliation, intelligence, gender, sexual preference, skin color, ethnicity, etc.). And that the organizational form that we call hierarchy (primarily associated with conservatism and feudalism) is simply a special case of meritocratic organization, namely one in which challenging the legitimacy of the inheritance of class status, wealth and power are more rigidly taboo, while open use of violence is allowed. (By contrast, liberals generally favor more rigorous and intellect- and achievement-focused metrics of merit, and they tend to prefer not having to be confronted with the fact that their society is predicated on, and maintained with violence.)
Since then, I've come to realize that if we want to achieve democratic, egalitarian, inclusive societies, in which the maintenance of institutionalized oppression and inequality is not a (secret) policy goal (and in which use of force is only allowed to protect people, rather than to enforce property claims, while generally only being treated as a last resort), then we must unlearn, and help others to stop accepting, the pernicious notion that someone's moral value depends on their character traits, beliefs and behaviors, and that it's okay to harm others to create or maintain inequalities. And we need to change our institutions to the extent that they create and maintain those inequalities.
This blog will explore the following three clusters of questions. First, how meritocratic organization affects different domains of life and thought, to help you 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 reflexive 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, and our acceptance of this, fits in to all of this, and how it affects our behavior.
On meritocracy as an ideal
'Meritocracy' is normally understood to mean rule by the most capable, and is opposed to hierarchy, nepotism and 'failing upwards'. There is also a broader and vaguer meaning, with societies being thought of as 'meritocratic' when they are viewed as being dominated by a large, affluent professional/managerial cohort, part of which is said to have 'come from nothing'. Because these definitions are pervasive, and because they sound vaguely reasonable, most people, including many on the left, are quite enamored with it, and never really object to its use. Objections are raised only during times of crisis (like the past decade), when things go very obviously wrong, and when it's becoming too obvious that high status positions that are supposed to go to 'the best' go to obvious incompetents, or only to the children of the affluent. Yet even then, people generally only object that society isn't actually meritocratic, or that 'money and inheritance still play too much of a role', rather than that they start asking why it's so easy to get confused, and whether societies like that are attainable at all.
Generally speaking, then, hardly anybody seems to be asking the question what 'meritocratic organization' means in practice: how you might institutionalize this (and get rid of incumbents with money and power), how -- and by who -- the 'metrics of merit' are picked, and how tests are administered. And it's precisely because of how this ideal works out in practice, that this notion is so dangerous. To explain why, let me start by addressing two possible objections.
One common defense of meritocracy as a principle is to argue that while we're currently insufficiently 'rigorous' in picking fair and just metrics, we'll get there some day. A related one is to say that so long as we observe acceptable (to whom?) 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 be used as a justification for supporting 'fake meritocracy' or unequal living standards in the here and now, it seems to me that both of these arguments fail because they presuppose the legitimacy of classifying some people as being more 'deserving' of material comfort and fair treatment than others.
A stronger argument is to say that the root issue isn't meritocratic reasoning as such, but our acceptance of the use of violence to oppress others that we look down on, or that we think deserve to 'have it worse.' While this argument is valid, please don't kid yourself. Humans find it almost impossible not to shrug off and excuse the use of violence towards people they dislike or see as inferior, especially when the violence is 'subtle' --- that is, institutionalized. Think of selective denial of services, police over-patrolling certain areas while ignoring others, prosecutors being more likely to prosecute certain groups, and so on. By way of illustration of how difficult it is to care for those we don't view as equals, consider how easy it is to shrug off the fact that cows and calves are constantly being exploited and murdered so that you can consume dairy and cheese. Such disinterest is highly irrational, but pervasive, and it has far-reaching consequences for how we act.
What this example points to is that the above argument puts the cart before the horse. Emotional investment in judgments that others are lesser or that we are better isn't something that happens naturally. We carry those judgments around because the targets hurt us, or because we (are taught we) benefit from not taking their equal needs into account, for instance by being taught that need satisfaction is a zero-sum game, and that unequal treatment and oppression are necessary for human society to function. (And this is doubly true for the people at the top, who actively use their material and social power to create structures that promote this way of thinking, and oppression, in order to keep their position, including media corporations, think tanks, elite societies, private schools, and so on.) As such, I would argue that so long as we think it okay to treat equal needs differently, we will continue to accept and engage in violence towards those we don't care for (thereby allowing others to get away with violence and oppression, after encouraging us to dislike the people they want to harm via hate campaigns and the like). And that we therefore must challenge and change both of these convictions, uphill climb though this may be.
On the negative formulation
Luckily, a large part of the reason why people accept the meritocratic moral logic is that they only associate it with its positive formulation -- 'those who are or do better, deserve more' --, and they don't consider its corollary -- the (Social-Darwinist) notion that those who 'are' inferior (or bad), 'deserve less'. And this seems to me hopeful, because it means that even though this way of thinking and of organizing institutions is pervasive, few of us are comfortable explicitly embracing this idea, given how obviously you can 'justify' just about anything that way.
That said, while people may be uncomfortable embracing this way of thinking when asked, we reason and act this way all the time, especially towards people we don't like or care for, especially when we feel angry or hurt related to something that's happened that we blame them (or 'people like them') for.
Let me illustrate this by discussing an extreme case. When someone easily labels someone else as an 'enemy' -- or if they are very quick to take offense or 'take things personally' when someone else does something they don't like -- and carries grudges, most people will recognize this a sign of emotional immaturity or instability.** If someone we know behaves this way, we generally won't simply accept their judgment of the other, although we may accept it if they decide to harm or hurt them, depending on how well they are able to make a case as to why it's 'justified'.
As I see it, any disinterest or complacency we experience in relation to such behavior is part of the problem, because it reflects our lack of awareness that it's not okay to harm those who someone 'distills' or essentializes as bad or evil. That is, we are so used to this way of reasoning that we mostly fail to notice how irrational this line of thought is, that we may harm someone just because we take offense at something they said or did. Moreover, even when it does occur to us that this is peculiar, we tend not to ponder the broader ramifications of that insight, but to accept the friend's behavior 'in this instance' because we know they are 'a good (or not a bad) person.' (Which, while generally true, is wholly irrelevant.)
Moreover, we don't just reason this way as individuals. Our institutions also embody this logic. For instance, when we allow the police to not seriously investigate the rape or death of a homeless person or "vagrant", 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, because we have it in our head that they deserve it. Similarly, while 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 could easily get away with saying that she thought it worth it to impose economic sanctions on Iraq to 'weaken' Saddam even when it is pointed out to her that this policy led to the deaths of more than 500,000 Iraqi men, women and children (as most progressives did not bat an eye). This tells us that liberalism is compatible with the idea that morally irrelevant distinctions between human beings -- such as one's nationality, gender, profession or ethnicity -- may be invoked to deny people's equal inherent value (by treating their lives as only having value to the extent that ending them might lead to Saddam's ousting). And given that the bankruptcy of that line of argument goes unnoticed, it follows that there is something wrong with liberalism, because it allows for such meritocratic reasoning.
On its positively formulated counterpart
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 very common in the West. What is it trying to convey? That some people 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 ambiguity 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.'
So, where do we learn to think of people in terms like good, bad, lesser, better, deserving of rewards or punishments, as having more or less social status, as deserving more or less voice? None of us have taken classes where we are taught to think this way, let alone that it is argued to be just, or unjust but necessary (etc.). The reason why we are nevertheless quite used to reasoning this way is that we've been taught the rules by osmosis: by 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 of mind, including the family, the school system, governmental bureaucratic institutions including but far from limited to the military, and the workplace. But what are we taught exactly?
At a basic level, what we are taught is 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, to work 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.
And in this way, we are prepared for a lifetime of more of the same. That is, 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, by the time we're adults, to the notion of having to leave our values 'at the door'), in exchange for rewards such as a stable source of income, a chance at a different (often a "higher") role, and social status. And note that this applies whether we are a CEO, politician, lobbyist, a salesperson who convinces the elderly to sign up for services that they have no use for in exchange for commission or bonuses, 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 they accept that 'targets' must be met (which tends to be a requirement for continued employment, let alone gaining rank, increasing your income, etc.).
To a greater or lesser extent, we are all forced to function within these incentive structures, and for most of us this is the only conceivable way of functioning in this world, because we've learned not to think outside the box. That said, it's worth keeping in mind that the more unquestioningly someone accepts the rules, and the greater the overlap between someone's actual interests and the ones that are fostered and favored by the institutional structures and those with power, the more motivated someone will be to try and succeed (and to receive high grades, accolades, pay, and credentials), and the more likely they will be to succeed socioeconomically, and to gain the sought-after social status and influence. And then there's the fact that the more of us go through this funnel, and the longer it takes to go through the system, the more people will have trouble connecting with their intrinsic motivation and values, because of how they've internalized the notion that actions only have value to the extent they are pleasing to others (and especially those with institutional power). And the less likely people are to (want to) change the rules and structures, or 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 other words, people being forced to go through the school system has long-term negative consequences for their receptivity to calls for social, but especially economic solidarity, because of how the system encourages us to see rewards and punishments as resulting from fair determinations of merit. By way of example, 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 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") 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 the importance of learning and researching events and patterns to social movements. Obviously, that's all real, and reactionaries are correct about learning being a threat, and they have 'rightly' worked to make the school system more bureaucratic and expensive. I just want to make it clear that there is a contradiction between the progressive values that we embrace, and the content but especially the structure of the system in which we are taught and teach. And that both the way the educational system is organized, and the fact that we spend so much time inside it, have a lot to do with why the "'68 generation" fizzled (something I've discussed in more detail here). Nor is it accidental that a lot of the (re)thinking and re-learning that we associate with progressive movements happens outside the educational system; or that so many people hate "learning" and reading by the time they finish school.)
Let me return to Listen, Liberal. It helped me understand three things. First, why the left started shifting to the right starting in the 1970s, and why left parties largely became disinterested in, or actively hostile to, the notion of (economic) solidarity with blue collar workers and manual laborers especially, though really with everyone who doesn't end up in the top quartile of the income/wealth distribution.
Second, how to make more sense of that demographic/ideological shift. 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 questions whether democratizing access to the university system might have deleterious effects on people's psyches and sense of solidarity; nor what role spending a half-decade to a decade longer inside the meritocratic value system that's implicit in the school system might do to people; nor how extended exposure to that value system might have contributed to the spread of the now-pervasive notions that everyone must individually earn their quality of life and economic (in)security, and that it's okay to let the devil take those who end up at the bottom. (While Frank only discusses the US case, the same trends can be found in every country where access to tertiary education was so widened.)
And third, why these 'fake' -- anti-egalitarian -- progressives could so easily co-opt the Democratic Party: certainly partly because they possessed more impressive 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 about the "'68 generation", 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 contributed. To name a few of them (following Harvey): the rise of indebtedness, mainly in the form of mortgage and student loans; the rising cost of living due to privatization, deregulation, and cuts social spending. Technological and demographic changes, like the entry of women and more people of color (and in Europe, the introduction of so-called 'guest workers') into the 'labor force', and the invention of containerization. The disappearance of the Soviet Union as a existing alternative to capitalist development. And treaties like NAFTA (and the creation and enlargement of the EU), which made it much easier to move production abroad, and to threaten employees with outsourcing and offshoring unless they accepted whatever demands corporations came up with. All of these developments had similar consequences for Western labor's bargaining power. In the US especially, this led to the two-income household becoming a necessity even for white folks, and it forced them to return to working well over 40 hours per week on average, leaving them with ever less time, energy and hope for doing other things, including political organizing.
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 learning how to write, so I hope you'll bear with me, and excuse any awkward formulations. Feedback, questions and suggestions are very much appreciated, as is just saying hi. :)
* 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.
** 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."
*** If you are interested to learn what values the elites surrounding Carter held, see e.g. this talk.