The following article is Chapter Five of a book entitled Finishing The Rat Race which I am posting chapter by chapter throughout this year and beyond. Since blog posts are stacked in a reverse time sequence (always with the latest at the top), I have decided that the best approach is to post the chapters in reverse order.
All previously uploaded chapters are available (in sequence) by following the link above or from category link in the main menu, where you will also find a brief introductory article about the book itself and why I started writing it.
“All animals are equal
but some animals are more equal than others”
— George Orwell 1
I discovered recently and by happy accident that the author, Michael Young, who invented the term ‘meritocracy’, detested his own creation. Here’s how Young outlined his position in a Guardian article “Down with meritocracy”, published in 2001:
I have been sadly disappointed by my 1958 book, The Rise of the Meritocracy. I coined a word which has gone into general circulation, especially in the United States, and most recently found a prominent place in the speeches of Mr Blair.
The book was a satire meant to be a warning (which needless to say has not been heeded) against what might happen to Britain between 1958 and the imagined final revolt against the meritocracy in 2033.2
But I shall save further thoughts of Michael Young until later, and begin here by considering what lies in the shadows of a meritocracy. After all, and at first glance, what on earth can be wrong with the purposeful restructuring of society in ways that prioritise ‘merit’ above all else? Isn’t this the epitome of a fair system?
As with examining most ideas, it is helpful first to step back a little to gain perspective. In this case, it is important to get a fuller grasp of what ‘merit’ means when buried within the heart of ‘meritocracy’. What does ‘merit’, in this narrow political sense, finally equate to?
Throughout the last two hundred and more years, including under progressive administrations such as Clement Attlee’s reforming government in Britain and FDR’s earlier New Deal for America, the political systems in the West have remained very solidly rooted in capitalism, and being so, they have remained inherently utilitarian in design. It follows that ‘merit’ (in our narrow definitional sense) must be gauged on the scales of those extant utilitarian-capitalist conventions: that ‘merit’ therefore becomes an adjunct of ‘utility’ or, in other words, ‘usefulness’.
Advocates of capitalism like to evoke the invisible hand of the market, which they say enhances productivity and safeguards against wanton overproduction, thereby ensuring society’s needs are met. Thanks to the market that which is wasteful falls away, and in consequence profits and earnings will flow to the most efficient producers. So it follows that within a meritocracy governed strictly by market forces, with the invisible hand steering our efforts unerringly toward ‘usefulness’, estimations of ‘merit’ ought to be fairly directly measureable in terms of salaries and wealth. Maximum profits and earnings tending to go to those who serve the most useful function and are, by dint of this, the most ‘merited’. The losers are those who merit little since they provide little to nothing of use, and, conversely, the winners contribute most gainfully in every sense…
There is already a suffocating tightness in this loop; a circularity that brings me to consider the first serious objection against meritocracy, if only the most trivial and conspicuous. For judged solely by its own terms just how meritocratic is our celebrated meritocracy? Hmmm – need I go on? Very well then, I shall offer this brisk reductio ad absurdum:
Let’s start where the debate ordinarily ends, with the topic of professional footballers… To most people, the excessive salaries paid to footballers stands out as an egregious example of unfairness. I share the same view, but wonder why we stop at footballers. They are not alone; not by a long chalk.
Indeed, given that our utilitarian-capitalist meritocracy does in fact function as it is presumed to function, then it follows that most top sportsmen (to a lesser extent, sportswomen too), including footballers, but also tennis players, golfers, F1 drivers, cyclists, athletes, etc – sports of low popularity by comparison – as well as pop idols, TV celebrities and film stars (not forgetting agents and the retinue of hangers-on) are, by virtue of their fabulous incomes, not merely most deserving of such high rewards, but also, by direct extension, some of the most ‘productive’ amongst us. Would any deign to defend this high visibility flaw in our socio-economic system? Truth is that many on this ever-expanding list are rewarded for just one thing: fame – thanks to another self-perpetuating cycle in which fame makes you wealthy, and then wealth makes you more famous again.
Nor does such rightful utilitarian calculus reliably account for the gargantuan salaries and bonuses (and who else gets bonuses in excess of their salaries!) of so many bankers, hedge fund managers and other financiers who callously wrecked our western economies. With annual remuneration that outstrips most ordinary worker’s lifetime earnings, the staggering rewards heaped upon those working in The City and Wall Street have little relationship to levels of productivity and usefulness, but worse, remuneration is evidently disconnected from levels of basic competence. Instead we find that greedy ineptitude is routinely and richly rewarded, if only for the ‘made men’ already at the top and lucky enough to be “too big to fail”. In light of the crash of 2008, any further talk of “the classless society” ought to have us all running for the exits!
Then we come to the other end of our meritocratic muck-heap. And here amongst the human debris we find contradictions of an arguably more absurd kind. I am referring to those disgustingly unworthy winners of our many lotteries – you know the types: petty criminals, knuckle-draggers and wastrels (the tone here is strictly in keeping with tabloid outrage on which it is based) who blow all their winnings on a binge of brash consumerism and a garage full of intoxicants. Conspicuous consumption of the most vulgar kinds! How dare they squander such hard, unearned dosh on having fun! But wait a minute… surely the whole point of running a lottery is that anyone can win. Have we forgotten the advertisement already? So if we are really serious about our meritocracy then perhaps we should to be stricter: no lotteries at all! Yet a cursory consideration of this point presents us with far bigger hurdles by far. For if we are truly committed to the project of constructing a meritocracy (and we must decide precisely what this means), it is vital to acknowledge the fact that life is inherently beset with lotteries. Indeed when roundly considered, this represents an existential dilemma that potentially undermines the entire project.
For life begins with what might best be described as our lottery of inheritance. Where you are born and to whom, the postal code you reside in, the schools you attended, your religious (or not) upbringing, whether you happen to carry one or two x-chromosomes, and the colour of your skin… the whole nine yards. Your entire existence happened by extraordinary chance and each and every aspect of it owes an unfathomable debt to further blind chance.
Therefore, in our most puritanical understanding of meritocracy, lotteries relating to the guessing of random numbers will be abolished altogether, in order to set a precedent, although still these other lotteries, life’s lotteries, remain inescapable. Which is devastating blow to the very concept of fully-fledged meritocracy, since whatever meritocracy we might choose to build will always remain a compromise of one kind or another.
In point of fact, however, we have been moving instead in the completely opposite direction. There has been a tremendous and rapid growth in lotteries of all shapes and sizes: from the casino economy working to the advantage of financial speculators at the top; to the rise of online casinos and the latest betting apps, mathematically honed to suck money from the pockets of the desperate and sometimes destitute pipedreamers at the bottom. Further indications of how far our society truly diverges from even the most rudimentary notions of meritocracy.
So there is plenty of scope for devising a better version of meritocracy; one that isn’t so riddled with blatant inconsistencies and arbitrary rewards. A more refined meritocracy operating according to common sense fairness and consistency, with built-in checks and balances to ensure the winners are more consistently worthy than the losers. A more level playing field bringing us closer to the ideal – for surely a better devised version of meritocracy is the fairest system we can ever hope to live under. In fact, I beg to differ, but before entering further objections to the sham ideal of meritocracy, I wish first to celebrate the different areas in which greater equality has indeed been achieved and ones where it is still dangerously lacking.
During the Q&A session following a lecture entitled “Capitalist Democracy and its Prospect’s” that he delivered in Boston on September 30th, 2014, Noam Chomsky speaks to why the notion of a capitalist democracy is oxymoronic. He also discusses the widespread misinterpretation of Adam Smith’s economic thinking, especially amongst libertarians, and specifically regarding the misuse of his terms ‘invisible hand’ and ‘division of labour’.
There is no denying that at the start of the twenty-first century our own society has, and in a number of related ways, been made fairer and more equal than it was just thirty years ago when I was a school-leaver. Most apparent is the sweeping change in attitudes towards race and gender. Casual racism wasn’t merely permissible in seventies and early eighties Britain, but an everyday part of the mainstream culture. The sporadic Black or Asian characters on TV were neatly allotted into their long-established stereotypes, and comedians like bilious standup Bernard Manning had free rein to defile the airwaves with their popular brands of inflammatory bigotry. Huge strides have been taken since then, and social attitudes are unalterably changed for the better. Today the issue of diversity is central to political debate, and social exclusion on the grounds of race and gender is outlawed.
In the prophetic words of abolitionist preacher Theodore Parker, “the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice”; words famously borrowed by Martin Luther King in a celebrated sermon he delivered in the year of 1965.3 It was a momentous year: one that marked the official end to racial segregation in the Southern United States with the repeal of the horrendous Jim Crow laws, and the same year when Harold Wilson’s Labour government passed the Race Relations Act prohibiting discrimination in Britain on “grounds of colour, race, or ethnic and national origins”.
On August 28th (last Tuesday) ‘Democracy Now’ interviewed co-founder and chair of the Black Panther Party, Bobby Seale, who was arrested and indicted after speaking outside the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. He describes how during his trial Judge Julius Hoffman ordered him to be gagged and bound to his chair [from 9:15 mins]:
Did Bobby Seale’s treatment provide inspiration for Woody Allen’s madcap courtroom scene in ‘Bananas’? [from 5:00 mins]:
As Parker and King understood well, of course, the arc of the moral universe does not bend of its own accord but requires tremendous pressure from below. And so it was, again in 1965, after shockwaves sent by Wilson’s government through former colony Rhodesia, that in efforts to avoid the end of its apartheid system, the white minority government under then-Prime Minister Ian Smith, declared independence, and an armed struggle for black liberation ensued. It was a bloody struggle that would grind on throughout the 70s, but one that ended in triumph. Meanwhile, apartheid in neighbouring South Africa outlasted Rhodesia for a further decade and a half before it too was dismantled in 1994 and the rainbow flag could be hoisted.
In solidarity with Nelson Mandela and leading the armed struggle had been Joe Slovo, a commander of the ANC’s military wing Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) who fought alongside deputy Ronnie Kasrils; both the sons of émigré Jews. Also prominent within the anti-apartheid resistance were other Jewish figures including Denis Goldberg, Albie Sachs, and Ruth First – an activist, scholar and wife of Joe Slovo, she was murdered by a parcel bomb sent to her in Mozambique. Ironically, today Israel stands alone as the last remaining state that legally enforces racial segregation, but even the concrete walls and barbed wire dividing the West Bank and Gaza cannot hold forever.
This video footage was uploaded as recently as Wednesday 29th. It shows a young Palestinian girl living under Israeli control in Hebron having to climb a closed security gate just to get home:
The fence had been extended in 2012 and fitted with a single gate to provide entrance to the Gheith and a-Salaimeh neighborhoods in Hebron. The footage below was recorded by B’Tselem in May 2018 and shows other students unable to return from school and their mothers beseeching the Border Police officers to open it. The officers say in response that the gate is closed as “punishment” for stone throwing; a collective punishment that is prohibited under international law:
Likewise, homosexuality, which until astonishingly recent times remained a virtually unspoken taboo, was decriminalised as comparatively recently as 1967 – the year of my birth and coincidentally the same year aboriginal Australians received full citizenship and the right to vote.
Before the Sexual Offences Act came into force, gay men faced prosecution and a prison sentence (lesbians slipped through the legal loophole due to technicalities surrounding the delicate issue of penetration), whereas today they enjoy the equal right to marriage, which cynics will doubtless say entitles them to an alternative form of imprisonment, but hurrah for that… since irrespective of one’s views on the institution of marriage, equality under law is indicative of genuine social progress. The same goes for the transformation of attitudes and legal framework in countering discrimination on grounds of gender, disability and age. Discrimination based on all these prejudices is plain wrong, and liberation on all fronts, an unimpeachable good.
In these ways, our own society – like others across the globe – has become more inclusive, and, if we choose to describe it as such, more meritocratic. Yet many are still left out in the cold. Which people? Sadly, but in truth, all of the old prejudices linger on – maybe they always will – but prime amongst them is the malignant spectre of racism.
For overall, as we have become more conscious and less consenting of racism than in the past, the racists, in consequence, have adapted to fit back in. More furtive than old-style racism, which wore its spiteful intolerance so brashly on its sleeve, many in the fresh crop of bigots have learned to feign better manners. The foaming rhetoric of racial supremacy is greatly moderated, and there is more care taken to legitimise the targeting of the chosen pariahs. Where it used to be said how “the Coloureds” and “the Pakis” (and other labels very much more obscene again) were innately ‘stupid’, ‘lazy’, ‘doped-up’ and ‘dirty’ (the traditional rationalisations for racial hatred), the stated concern today is in difference per se. As former BNP leader Nick Griffin once put it:
[I]nstead of talking about racial purity, you talk about identity, and about the needs and the rights and the duty to preserve and enhance the identity of our own people.4
And note how identity politics here plays to the right wing just as does to the left, better in fact, because it is a form of essentialism. In effect, Griffin is saying ‘white lives matter’, when of course what he really means is ‘white lives are superior’. But talk of race is mostly old hat to the new racists in any case, who prefer to attack ‘culture’ over ‘colour’.
In multicultural Britain, it is the Muslim minority, and especially Muslim women, who receive the brunt of the racial taunts, the physical abuse, and who have become the most preyed upon as victims of hate crimes, while the current hypocrisy lays blame at their door for failing to adopt western values and mix in; a scapegoating that alarmingly recalls the Nazi denigration and demonisation of the Jews. It follows, of course, that it is not the racists who are intolerant but the oppressed minority who are or who look like Muslims. By this sleight of hand, Islamophobia (a very clumsy word for a vile creed) festers as the last manifestation of semi-respectable racism.
When it was released in 1974, “Blazing Saddles” shocked audiences. It is no less shocking today, but the difference today is that no-one could make it. No contemporary film in which every third word is a vile racist expletive would pass the censors. Yet as it plunges us headlong into a frenetic whirlwind of bigotry, and as all commonsense rationality is suspended, nothing remains besides the hilarious absurdity of racial prejudice. Dumb, crude, and daring: it is comedy of rare and under-appreciated genius. As Gene Wilder puts it “They’ve smashed racism in the face and the nose is bleeding, but they’re doing it while you laugh” [6:15 mins]. Embedded below is a BTS documentary tribute entitled “Back in the Saddle” [Viewer discretion advised]:
“It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances,” quipped Oscar Wilde.5 And though the accusation at the heart of his bon mot may be contested, that most people certainly do judge by appearances really cannot be. Briefly then, I wish to consider a few of the most overlooked but widespread social prejudices, which though seldom so vicious and of less clear historical significance than other such virulent strains as sexism and racism, are long-standing and ingrained prejudices nonetheless. These tend to be prejudices against certain types of individual, rather than against interconnected “communities”. Prejudices so commonplace that some readers will doubtless see my digression as trivial, or even laughable, and yet there is good reason to delve into the matter as it opens up a bigger question, and, once expanded upon, more fundamentally challenges our whole notion of meritocracy. So here goes… (I am braced for the many titters and guffaws and encourage you to laugh along!)
Firstly, there is a permitted prejudice on the one hand against short blokes (trust me, I am one), and on the other against fat ladies. Short men and fat women being considered fair game for ridicule literally on the grounds that we don’t shape up. Which would be fine – believe me, I can take a joke – except that in playing down the deep-seated nature of such prejudice, as society generally does, there are all sorts of insidious consequences. For it means, to offer a hopefully persuasive example, that whenever satirists (and I use the term loosely, since genuine satire is rather thin on the ground) lampoon Nicolas Sarkozy, rather than holding him to account for his reactionary politics and unsavoury character, they go for the cheaper shot of quite literally belittling him (and yes, prejudice in favour of tallness saturates our language too). Worse still, Sarkozy had the gall to marry a taller and rather glamorous woman, which apparently makes him a still better target for wisecracks about being a short-arse (it’s okay, I’m reclaiming the word). As a result, Sarkozy is most consistently disparaged only for what he couldn’t and needn’t have altered, instead of what he could and should have. No doubt he takes it all on the chin… presuming anyone can actually reach down that far! Yes, it’s perfectly fine to laugh, just so long as we don’t all continue pretending that there is no actual prejudice operating.
Moreover, it is healthy for us to at least admit that there is a broader prejudice operating against all people regarded in one way or another as physically less attractive. Being fat, short, bald or just plain ugly are – in the strictest sense – all handicaps, which, and though far from insurmountable, represent a hindrance to achieving success. Even the ginger-haired enjoy a less than even break, as Neil Kinnock (who was unfortunate enough to be a Welshman too) discovered shortly after he was elected leader of the Labour Party.
Indeed, most of us will have been pigeon-holed one way or another, and though we may sincerely believe that we don’t qualify to be categorised too negatively, our enemies will assuredly degrade us for reasons beyond our ken. But then, could we ever conceive of, for instance, the rise of something akin to let’s say an “ugly pride” movement? Obviously it would be comprised solely of those self-aware and unblinkingly honest enough to see themselves as others actually see them. This envisaged pressure group would comprise an exceptionally brave and uncommon lot.
Then what of the arguably more delicate issues surrounding social class? Indeed, we might reasonably ask ourselves why is there such an animal as social class in the first place? And the quick answer is that people are inherently hierarchical. That “I look up to him because he is upper class, but I look down on him because he is lower class”, to quote again the famous skit from The Frost Report. But now pay proper attention to the vocabulary and its direct correspondence with the physical stature of the three comedians.6
Class and stature side-by-side, just as they are in the dictionary – and as they have been throughout recent history thanks to dietary deficiencies. Here is a visual gag with etymological parallels: the word ‘stature’ itself a double entendre. But, and unlike physical stature, class is already inextricably tied into levels of wealth and success, and virtually impossible to escape in any society – the Soviet system and Mao’s China were arguably more deeply class-riven than our own purportedly “classless” societies.
Incidentally, I in no way advocate the drafting of future legislation to close the gap on these alternative forms of everyday discrimination: demanding social justice for all those with unpopular body shapes, or who speak with the wrong accent, or stutter, or who have chosen to grow patches of hair in the wrong places, or whatever it is (beards became fashionable after I wrote this!). That would instantly make our lives intolerable in another way: it would be (as the Daily Mail loves to point out) “political correctness gone mad!” After all, prejudice and discrimination come in infinite guises, so where could we finally draw the line?
All of which brings me to our last great tolerated prejudice, and one that is seldom if ever acknowledged as a prejudice in the first place. It is our own society’s – and every other society’s for that matter – very freely held discrimination on the grounds of stupidity. And no, this is not meant as a joke. But that it sounds like a joke makes any serious discussion about it inherently tricky.
Because the dim (and I have decided to moderate my language to avoid sounding unduly provocative, which is not easy – I’ll come to other tags I might have chosen in a moment) cannot very easily stand up for themselves, even if they decide to try. Those willing to concede that their lives are held back by a deficit in braininess (sorry, but the lack of more appropriate words is unusually hampering) will very probably fail to grasp much, if anything at all, of the bigger picture, or be able to articulate any of the frustrations they may feel as daily they confront a prejudice so deeply entrenched that it passes mostly unseen. Well, it’s fun to pick on the idiots, blockheads, boneheads, thickos, cretins, dimwits, dunderheads, dunces, knuckleheads, dumbbells, imbeciles, morons, jerks, and simpletons of the world isn’t it? It is the cheaper half of every comedy sketch, and in all likelihood will remain so; with much of the rest that brings us merriment being the schadenfreude of witnessing the self-same idiots cocking up over and over again. And finally, is there really a nicer word that usefully replaces all the pejoratives above? Our casual prejudice against the dim has been indelibly written into our dictionaries.
On May 13th, 1999, comedian George Carlin was invited to deliver a speech to the National Press Club at Washington D.C. He used the occasion to poke fun at the tortuous abuse of language by politicians as well as the growing tyranny of an invented “soft language”, which includes what he describes as ‘the tedious liberal labeling’ of minorities. His speech is followed by an entertaining Q&A session:
Here’s a little more from Carlin dishing the dirt on political correctness:
Now if I’d been writing say a hundred years ago (or even more recently) the available vocabulary would have been a little different. For it was permissible during the first half of the last century to speak and write about the problem of ‘feeble-mindedness’ – a term that implies an innate (and thus inherited) ‘disability’. Moreover, as part of a quasi-scientific conversation, social reformers including intellectuals and political thinkers got into the habit of discussing how this affliction (as it was then regarded) might best be eradicated.
Those on the political left were no less shameful in this regard than those on the right, with radical thinkers like H.G. Wells 7 and George Bernard Shaw, chipping in alongside the youthful Winston Churchill8; all scratching their high brows to think up ways of preventing the spread of such evidently bad stock from ruining good society – ‘the feeble-minded’, for reasons never dwelt on by the pioneering eugenicists, not the least bit incapable of passing on their enfeebled genes.
Thanks again to genuine social progress it is unacceptable to speak (openly) about the elimination of the underclasses in our societies today, or to openly speculate on means of halting their uncontrolled and unwanted proliferation (though I write very much in terms that Wells, Shaw and Churchill would have understood). But eugenics, we should constantly remind ourselves, was a great deal more fashionable not so very long ago – even after the concentration camps and worryingly under alternative names it finds advocates still today (for instance, the Silicon Valley techies gather nowadays for conferences on transhumanism, the artificial ‘enhancement’ of humanity, which is one way in which eugenics has reemerged9).
Today’s progressives (and keep in mind that Wells and Shaw both regarded themselves as progressives of their own times) prefer to adopt a more humanitarian position. Rather than eliminating ‘feeble-mindedness’, the concern is to assist ‘the disadvantaged’. A shift in social attitude that is commendable, but it brings new hazards in its stead. For implicit in the new phraseology is the hope that since disparities stem from disadvantage, all differences between healthy individuals might one day be overcome. That aside from those suffering from disability, everyone has an approximately equivalent capacity when it comes to absorbing knowledge and learning skills of one form or another, and that society alone, to the advantage of some and detriment of others, makes us smart or dim. But this is also false, and cruelly so – though not yet barbarously.
For differences in social class, family life, access to education, and so forth (those things we might choose to distinguish as environment or nurture) are indeed significant indicators of later intellectual prowess (especially when our benchmark is academic performance). So it makes for comfortable presupposition that regarding intelligence (an insanely complex matter to begin with) the inherent difference between individuals is slight, and upbringing is the key determinant, but where’s the proof? And if this isn’t the whole picture – as it very certainly isn’t – then what if, heaven forfend, some people really are (pro)created less cognitively proficient than others? Given that they did indeed receive equivalent support through life, it follows that failure is “their own fault”, is it not?
In any case, intelligence, like attractiveness, must be to some degree a relative trait. During any historical period, particular forms of mental gymnastics are celebrated when others are overlooked, and so instruments to measure intelligence will automatically be culturally biased (there is a norm and there are fashions) to tally with the socially accepted idea of intelligence which varies from place to place and from one era to the next. There can never be an acid test of intelligence in any pure and absolute sense.10
Furthermore, whatever mental abilities happen to confer the mark of intelligence at any given time or place, obviously cannot be equally shared by everyone. As with other human attributes and abilities, there is likely to be a bell curve. It follows, therefore, that whatever braininess is or isn’t (and doubtless it takes many forms), during every age and across all nations, some people will be treated as dimmer, or brighter, than their fellows. And notwithstanding that whatever constitutes intelligence is socially determined to some extent, and that estimates of intelligence involve us in a monumentally complex matter, it remains the case that an individual’s capacity for acquiring skills and knowledge must be in part innate. This admission is both exceedingly facile and exceedingly important, and it is one that brings us right to the crux of meritocracy’s most essential flaw.
For how can those who are thought dim be left in charge of important things? They can’t. Which means that it would be madness to give the dimmest people anything other than the least intellectually demanding jobs. The meritocratic logic then follows, of course, that being less capable (and thus relegated to performing only the most menial tasks) makes you less worthy of an equal share, and yet this cuts tangentially across the very principle of ‘fairness’ which meritocracy is supposed to enshrine. For wherein lies the fairness in the economic exclusion of the dim? To reiterate what I wrote above, our prejudice is so deeply ingrained that to many such exclusion will still appear justified. As if being dim is your own lookout.
For whether or not an individual’s perceived failure to match up to society’s current gauge of intelligence is primarily down to educational ‘disadvantage’ (in the completest sense) or for reasons of an altogether more congenital kind, we may justifiably pass over the comfortable view that equal opportunity (laudable as this is) can entirely save the day. Degrees of intellectual competence – whether this turns out to be more socially or biologically determined – will always be with us, unless that is, like Wells, Shaw and Churchill (together with a many other twentieth century social reformers including Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Alexander Graham Bell, and the founder of Planned Parenthood, Margaret Sanger) we opt instead for the eugenic solution – and I trust we do not. But bear in mind that programmes of forced sterilisation kept running in regions of the western world long after WWII right up to the 1970s.11 Earlier calls to weed out the “feeble-minded” that never fully went away, but instead went underground.
On March 17th 2016, ‘Democracy Now!’ interviewed Adam Cohen, co-editor of TheNationalBookReview.com and author of “Imbeciles: The Supreme Court, American Eugenics, and the Sterilization of Carrie Buck”, who explained how:
After World War II, we put the leading Nazis on trial for some of the worst things that the Nazis did. One of those very bad things was they set up a eugenics program where they sterilized as many as 375,000 people. So we put them on trial for that. And lo and behold, as the movie [“Judgment at Nuremberg”] shows, their defense was: “How can you put us on trial for that? Your own U.S. Supreme Court said that sterilization was constitutional, was good. And it was your own Oliver Wendell Holmes, one of your most revered figures, who said that. So, why are we the bad guys in this story?” They had a point.
Click here to watch on the Democracy Now! website.
Now for those further thoughts from the man we might describe as “the father of meritocracy” – even though he would certainly hate it! This is Michael Young speaking out against about his accidental bastard child and the decisive role it is has played in reshaping our societies:
I expected that the poor and the disadvantaged would be done down, and in fact they have been. If branded at school they are more vulnerable for later unemployment.
They can easily become demoralised by being looked down on so woundingly by people who have done well for themselves.
It is hard indeed in a society that makes so much of merit to be judged as having none. No underclass has ever been left as morally naked as that.12
This meritocracy we live in today, as Michael Young points out, is not just a distant remove from the fairest society imaginable, but in other ways – psychological ones especially – arguably crueller than any older, and less enlightened, -ocracies.
Embedded below is one of a series of lectures “Biology as Ideology” given by distinguished geneticist and evolutionary biologist Richard Lewontin in 1990. Lewontin here explaining how erroneous theories of biological determinism have been used to validate and support the dominant sociopolitical theories and vice versa. He also offers his subversive thoughts on meritocracy:
Inevitably, ‘merit’ is equated with, and thus mistaken for, ‘success’, and this is true not only for our self-declared meritocracy, but universally. Think about it: if millions of people love to read your books, or to listen to your songs, or just to watch your delightful face on their TV screens, then who would not leap to the conclusion that what they do is of the highest ‘merit’? How else did they rise to stand above the billions of ordinary anonymous human drones?
The converse is also true. That those who remain anonymous are often in the habit of regarding themselves as less significant – in fact psychologically less real – than others in the limelight they see and admire: the celebrities and the VIPs. Which brings me to a lesson my father taught me; an observation which reveals in aphoristic form the inbuilt fault with all conceptions of meritocracy: VIP being a term that makes him curse. Why? For the clinching fact that every one of us is a “very important person”. If this sounds corny or trite then ask yourself sincerely, as my father once asked me: “Are you a very important person…?”
Famously, Van Gogh sold just a single painting in his lifetime13, but then we all know that millions of terrible painters have also sold one (or less than one!) Not so widely known is that a great deal of Schubert’s music was lost when, in the immediate aftermath of his death, it was recycled as waste paper; but then again, thousands of dreadful composers have also had their music posthumously binned. So the odds are that if you can’t sell your music or publish your book, then you’re just another of the billions, rather than an as yet unappreciated master and another Van Gogh or Schubert. For aside from posterity, and no matter how much we might like to conjure one up, there is no established formula for separating ‘merit’ from ‘success’, and no good reason for supposing we will ever discover such a razor.
In reality therefore, any form of meritocracy will only ever be a form of success-ocracy, and in our own system, money is the reification of success. A system in which success and thus money invariably breeds more success and more money because unavoidably it contains positive and negative feedback loops. For this reason the well-established ruling oligarchies will never be unseated by means of any notional meritocracy – evidence of their enduring preeminence being, somewhat ironically, more apparent in the American republic, where dynasties, and especially political ones, are less frowned upon, and in consequence have remained more visible than in the class-ridden island kingdom it abandoned and then defeated. But even if our extant aristocracies were one day uprooted wholesale, then meritocracy simply opens the way for that alternative uber-class founded by the “self-made man”.
Indeed, ‘aristocracy’, deriving from the Greek ἀριστοκρατία (aristokratia) and literally meaning “rule of the best”, sounds a lot like ‘meritocracy’ to me. Whereas governance by those selected as most competent (the other way ‘meritocracy’ is sometimes defined) is better known by an alternative name too – ‘technocracy’ in this case – with the select order of technocrats working to whose betterment we might reasonably ask. Meritocracy of both kinds – and every meritocratic system must combine these twin strands – has fascistic overtones.
The promise of meritocracy has been seductive largely because of its close compatibility with neoliberalism, today’s predominant, in fact unrivalled, politico-economic ideology. Predicated on the realism that humans do indeed have an ingrained predisposition to social hierarchy (something that traditional concepts of egalitarianism sought to abolish), it offers a reconfigured market solution to foster a sort of laissez-faire egalitarianism: the equalisation of wealth and status along lines that are strictly “as nature intended”. Furthermore, it appeals to some on the left by making a persuasive case for “equality of opportunity”, if always to the detriment of the more ambitious goal of “equality of outcome”. A sidelining of “equality of outcome” that has led to a dramatic lowering of the bar with regards to what even qualifies as social justice.
Moreover, the rightward drift to meritocracy involves the downplaying of class politics in favour of today’s more factional and brittle politics of identity. This follows because under meritocracy the rigid class barriers of yesteryear are ostensibly made permeable and in the long run must slowly crumble away altogether. In reality, of course, social mobility is heavily restricted for reasons already discussed at length. But this abandonment of class politics in favour of the divisiveness of identity politics is greatly to the benefit of the ruling establishment of course. Divide and conquer has been their oldest maxim.
Interestingly, of the many advocates of meritocracy – from Thatcher to Reagan; Brown to Blair; Cameron to Obama; Merkel to May – none have bothered to very precisely define their terms. What do they mean to imply by ‘merit’ and its innately slippery counterpart ‘fairness’? And whilst they talk of ‘fairness’ over and over again – ‘fairness’ purportedly underlying every policy decision they have ever taken – the actual direction all this ‘fairness’ was leading caused a few to wonder whether ‘fairness’ might be wrong in principle! Like other grossly misappropriated abstract nouns – ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’ spring instantly to mind – the difficulty here is that ‘fairness’ is a handy fig-leaf.
Instead, and if we genuinely wish to live in a society striving for greater equality, then the political emphasis ought not to be placed too heavily on wooly notions like ‘merit’ or ‘fairness’ but upon enabling democracy in the fullest sense. The voice of the people may not be the voice of God, but it is, to paraphrase Churchill (who mostly hated it), the least worst system.14 One person, one vote, if not quite the bare essence of egalitarianism, serves both as a fail-safe and a necessary foundation.
Of course, we must always guard against the “tyranny of the majority” by means of a constitutional framework that ensures basic rights and freedoms for all. For democracy offers an imperfect solution, but cleverly conceived and justly organised neither is it, as so many right-wing libertarians are quick to tell you: “two wolves and a sheep deciding what to have for dinner”. This sideswipe is not just glib, but a better description by far of the extreme right-wing anarchy they advocate. In reality, it is their beloved ‘invisible hand’ that better ensures rampant inequality and social division, and for so long as its influence remains unseen and unfettered, will continue to do so, by rigging elections and tipping the scales of justice.
Democracy – from its own etymology: rule by the people – is equality in its most settled form. Yet if such real democracy is ever to arise and flourish then we must have a free-thinking people. So the prerequisite for real democracy is real education – sadly we are a long way short of this goal too and once again heading off in the wrong direction. But that’s for a later chapter.
Addendum: our stakeholder society and the tyranny of choice
Prior to the rise of Jeremy Corbyn and to a lesser extent Bernie Sanders (for further thoughts on Sanders read my earlier posts), mainstream politics in Britain and America, as more widely, were converged to such a high degree that opposition parties were broadly in conjunction. Left and right had collapsed to form a single “centrist” amalgam in agreement across a wide range of diverse issues spanning race relations, gender equality, immigration, environmentalism, to foreign policy, and most remarkably, economics. In Britain, as in America, the two major parties ceased even to disagree over the defining issue of nationalisation versus privatisation because both sides now approved of the incorporation of private sector involvement into every area of our lives. “Big government”, our politicians echoed in unison, is neither desirable nor any longer possible. Instead, we shall step aside for big business, and limit ourselves to resolving “the real issues”.
The real issues? Why yes, with the business sector running all the fiddly stuff, governments pivoted to address the expansion of individual opportunity and choice. Especially choice. Choice now became the paramount concern.
Even the delivery of essential public services, once the duty of every government (Tory and Labour alike), began to be outsourced. No holy cows. It became the common doctrine that waste and inefficiency in our public services would be abolished by competition including the introduction of internal markets and public-private partnerships, which aside from helping to foster efficiency, would, importantly, diversify customer choice once again.
Under the new social arrangement, we, the people, became “stakeholders” in an altogether more meritocratic venture. Here is Tony Blair outlining his case for our progressive common cause:
“We need a country in which we acknowledge an obligation collectively to ensure each citizen gets a stake in it. One Nation politics is not some expression of sentiment, or even of justifiable concern for the less well off. It is an active politics, the bringing of a country together, a sharing of the possibility of power, wealth and opportunity…. If people feel they have no stake in society, they feel little responsibility towards it, and little inclination to work for its success. ….”15
Fine aspirations, you may think. But wait, and let’s remember that Blair was trained as a lawyer, so every word here counts. “Sharing in the possibility of power…” Does this actually mean anything at all? Or his first sentence which ends: “…to ensure each citizen gets a stake in it” – “it” in this context presumably meaning “the country” (his subject at the beginning). But every citizen already has a stake in the country, doesn’t s/he? Isn’t that what being a citizen means: to be a member of a nation state with an interest, or ‘stake’ (if we insist) in what goes on. However, according to Blair’s “One Nation” vision, members of the public (as we were formerly known) are seemingly required to become fully paid-up “stakeholders”. But how…?
Do we have to do something extra, or are our “stakeholder” voices to be heard simply by virtue of the choices we make? Is this the big idea? The hows and wheres of earning a salary, and then of spending or else investing it; is this to be the main measure of our “stakeholder” participation? In fact, is “stakeholder” anything different than “stockholder” in UK plc? Or is it less than this? Is “stakeholder” substantially different from “consumer”? According to the Financial Times lexicon’s definition, a stakeholder society is:
“A society in which companies and their employees share economic successes.”16
Well, I certainly don’t recall voting for that.
We are increasingly boggled by choice. Once there was a single electricity supply and a single gas supply – one price fitting all. Now we have literally dozens of companies offering different deals – yet all these deals finally deliver an entirely identical supply of electricity and gas. The single difference is the price, but still you have to choose. So precious moments of our once around the sun existence are devoted to worrying about which power company is charging the least amount. And the companies know all this, of course, so they make their deals as complicated as possible. Perhaps you’ll give up and choose the worst of options – for the companies concerned, this is a winning strategy – thinking about it, this is their only winning strategy! Or, if you are of a mind to waste a few more of your precious never to be returned moments of existence, you may decide to check one of the many comparison websites – but again, which one? Just one inane and frustrating choice after another. And more of those tiresome tickboxes to navigate.
But choice is everything. So we also need to worry more about the latest school and hospital league tables. It is vital to exercise our right to choose in case an actual ambulance arrives with its siren already blaring. In these circumstances we need to be sure that the ambulance outside is bound for a hospital near to the top of the league, because it is in the nature of leagues that there is always bottom – league tables giving a relative assessment, and ensuring both winners and losers.
And provided, an entirely free choice – and not one based on catchment areas – what parent in their right mind elects to send their offspring to a worse school over a better one? So are we just to hope our nearest school and/or hospital is not ranked bottom? Thankfully, house prices save much of the time in helping to make these determinations.
Meantime I struggle to understand what our politicians and civil servants get up to in Whitehall these days. Precisely what do those who walk the corridors of power find to do each day? Reduced to the role of managers, what is finally left for them manage?
And where is all of this choice finally leading? In the future, perhaps, in place of elections, we will be able to voice our approval/dissatisfaction by way of customer surveys. With this in mind, please take a moment to select the response that best reflects your own feelings:
Given the choice, would you say you prefer to live in a society that is:
□ More fair
□ Less fair
□ Not sure
Please note that for the purposes of ‘publishing’ here I have taken advantage of the option to incorporate hypertext links and embed videos – in order to distinguish additional commentary from the original text all newly incorporated text has been italised.
1 Quote taken from Chapter 10 of George Orwell’s satirical fairytale Animal Farm published in 1945. After the animals have ceased power at the farm they formulate “a complete system of thought” which is designed to unite the animals as well as preventing them from returning to the evil ways of the humans. The seventh and last of these original commandments of ‘Animalism’ is straightforwardly that “All animals are equal”, however, after the pigs have risen to dominance again, the sign is revised and so this last commandment reads “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others”.
2 From an article entitled “Down with meritocracy: The man who coined the term four decades ago wishes Tony Blair would stop using it” written by Michael Young, published in the Guardian on June 29, 2001. http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2001/jun/29/comment
3 Quote taken from a sermon by Martin Luther King Jr. delivered at Temple Israel of Hollywood delivered on February 25, 1965. In fuller context, he said:
“And I believe it because somehow the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice. We shall overcome because Carlyle is right: “No lie can live forever.” We shall overcome because William Cullen Bryant is right: “Truth crushed to earth will rise again.” We shall overcome because James Russell Lowell is right: “Truth forever on the scaffold, wrong forever on the throne. Yet, that scaffold sways the future and behind the dim unknown standeth God within the shadow, keeping watch above his own.”
An audio recording of King’s speech and a full transcript is available here: http://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/mlktempleisraelhollywood.htm
4 Quote taken from a meeting on April 22nd, 2000 with American white supremacist and former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, David Duke, that was recorded as “American Friends of the British National Party” video.
In fuller context Griffin says:
“Perhaps one day, once by being rather more subtle we got ourselves in a position where we control the British Broadcasting media and then we tell ’em really how serious the immigration problem was, and we tell them the truth about a lot of the crime that’s been going on, if we tell ’em really what multiracialism has meant and means for the future, then perhaps one day the British people might change their mind and say yes every last one must go. Perhaps they will one day. But if you hold that out as your sole aim to start with, you’re going to get absolutely nowhere. So instead of talking about racial purity, you talk about identity, and about the needs and the rights and the duty to preserve and enhance the identity of our own people. My primary identity quite simply is there (points to veins in wrist). That’s the thing that counts.”
The clip was shown in BBC1’s Panorama: Under the Skin first broadcast on November 25, 2001.
The transcript is available here: http://news.bbc.co.uk/hi/english/static/audio_video/programmes/panorama/transcripts/transcript_25_11_01.txt
5 Although these words are frequently attributed to Wilde himself, they actually belong to one of his characters. To Lord Henry Wotton who says “To me, beauty is the wonder of wonders. It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances. The true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible.” Taken from Chapter 2 of Wilde’s once scandalous novel The Picture of Dorian Gray.
6 The “Class Sketch” was first broadcast on April 7, 1966 in an episode of David Frost’s satirical BBC show The Frost Report. It was written by Marty Feldman and John Law, and performed by John Cleese, Ronnie Barker and Ronnie Corbett in descending order of height!
7 Anticipations of the Reaction of Mechanical and Scientific Progress upon Human Life and Thought (1901), is one of H.G.Wells’ earliest blueprints for the future. Set in 2000, a youthful Wells (aged 34) suggested an altogether more matter of fact solution to the problem of what he then called “the People of the Abyss” than a promise of education, education, education (the commentary is my own of course):
“It has become apparent that whole masses of human population are, as a whole, inferior in their claim upon the future, to other masses, that they cannot be given opportunities or trusted with power as superior peoples are trusted, that their characteristic weaknesses are contagious and detrimental in the civilizing fabric, and that their range of incapacity tempts and demoralises the strong. To give them equality is to sink to their level, to protect and cherish them is to be swamped in their fecundity…”
Which is putting it most politely! Oh dear, oh dear! What has happened to the clarion call for freedom and equality (and here I mean equality of opportunity, since to be fair Wells was ever the egalitarian, consistently keener on meritocracy than any of the more radical ideals of wealth redistribution). Might it be that the young Mr Wells was showing off his truer colours? Let us go on a little:
“The new ethics will hold life to be a privilege and a responsibility, not a sort of night refuge for base spirits out of the void; and the alternative in right conduct between living fully, beautifully, and efficiently will be to die.”
Just who are the hideous hoards who Wells so pities and despises (in roughly equal measures)? Let us read on:
“…the small minority, for example, afflicted with indisputably transmissible diseases, with transmissible mental disorders, with such hideous incurable habits of the mind as the craving for intoxication…”
But he’s jesting… isn’t he?
“And I imagine also the plea and proof that a grave criminal is also insane will be regarded by them [the men of the New Republic] not as a reason for mercy, but as an added reason for death…”
Death? Why not prison and rehabilitation…?
“The men of the New Republic will not be squeamish either, in facing or inflicting death, because they will have a fuller sense of the possibilities of life than we possess…”
Ah, I see, yes since put like that… yes, yes, death and more death, splendid!
“All such killing will be done with an opiate, for death is too grave a thing to be made painful or dreadful, and used as a deterrent for crime. If deterrent punishments are to be used at all in the code of the future, the deterrent will neither be death, nor mutilation of the body, nor mutilation of the life by imprisonment, nor any horrible things like that, but good scientifically caused pain, that will leave nothing but memory…”
An avoidance of nasty old pain… that’s good I suppose.
“…The conscious infliction of pain for the sake of pain is against the better nature of man, and it is unsafe and demoralising for anyone to undertake this duty. To kill under the seemly conditions of science will afford is a far less offensive thing.”
Death, yes, a more final solution, of course, of course…
This is horrifying, of couse, especially in light of what followed historically.
Deep down Wells was an unabashed snob, though hardly exceptional for his time. Less forgivably, Wells was a foaming misanthropist (especially so when sneering down on the hoi polloi). But mostly he longed to perfect the human species, and as a young man had unflinchingly advocated interventions no less surgical than those needed to cure any other cancerous organ. But then of course, it was once fashionable for intellectual types to seek scientific answers to social problems: programmes of mass-sterilisation and selective reproduction.
His Fabian rival George Bernard Shaw had likewise talked of selective breeding in his own quest to develop a race of supermen, whilst Julian Huxley, Aldous’s big brother, was perhaps the foremost and pioneering advocate of eugenics, later coining the less soiled term ‘transhumanism’ to lessen the post-Nazi stigma. Judged in the broader historical context therefore, Wells was simply another such dreaming ideologue.
That Wells was also one of the first to use the term “new world order” maybe of little lasting significance, however totalitarian his visions for World Socialism, but importantly Wells was never in the position to realise his grander visions, in spite of being sufficiently well-connected to arrange private meetings with President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who entertained him over dinner, and with Joseph Stalin at the Kremlin. Finally, he was unable to inspire enough significant others to engage in his “open conspiracy”.
All extracts below are taken from Anticipation of the Reaction of Mechanical and Scientific Progress upon Human Life and Thought, Chapman & Hall, 1901
Like most of his contemporaries, family and friends, he regarded races as different, racial characteristics as signs of the maturity of a society, and racial purity as endangered not only by other races but by mental weaknesses within a race. As a young politician in Britain entering Parliament in 1901, Churchill saw what were then known as the “feeble-minded” and the “insane” as a threat to the prosperity, vigour and virility of British society.
The phrase “feeble-minded” was to be defined as part of the Mental Deficiency Act 1913, of which Churchill had been one of the early drafters. The Act defined four grades of “Mental Defective” who could be confined for life, whose symptoms had to be present “from birth or from an early age.” “Idiots” were defined as people “so deeply defective in mind as to be unable to guard against common physical dangers.” “Imbeciles” were not idiots, but were “incapable of managing themselves or their affairs, or, in the case of children, of being taught to do so.” The “feeble-minded” were neither idiots nor imbeciles, but, if adults, their condition was “so pronounced that they require care, supervision, and control for their own protection or the protection of others.”
Extract taken from a short essay called “Churchill and Eugenics” written by Sir Martin Gilbert, published on May 31, 2009 on the Churchill Centre website. http://www.winstonchurchill.org/support/the-churchill-centre/publications/finest-hour-online/594-churchill-and-eugenics
9 “Population reduction” is another leftover residue of the old eugenics programme but freshly justified on purportedly scientific and seemingly less terrible neo-Malthusian grounds – when previous “population reduction” was unashamedly justified and executed on the basis of the pseudoscience of eugenics, the pruning was always done from the bottom up, of course.
10 Aside from being the invention of pioneering eugenicist Francis Galton, the IQ test was an pseudo-scientific approach that first appeared to be validated thanks to the research of Cyril Burt who had devised ‘twin studies’ to prove the heritability of IQ. However, those studies turned out to be fraudulent:
“After Burt’s death, striking anomalies in some of his test data led some scientists to reexamine his statistical methods. They concluded that Burt manipulated and probably falsified those IQ test results that most convincingly supported his theories on transmitted intelligence and social class. The debate over his conduct continued, but all sides agreed that his later research was at least highly flawed, and many accepted that he fabricated some data.”
From the current entry in Encyclopaedia Britannica. http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/85886/Sir-Cyril-Burt
Eugenics is now rightly abjured, and if only for its abominable record for cruelty. But the cruelty of the many twentieth century programmes of eugenics was hardly incidental. Any attempt to alter human populations to make them fit an imposed social structure by means of the calculated elimination and deliberate manipulation of genetic stock automatically reduces people to the same level as farm animals.
It should be remembered too that what the Nazis had tried to achieve by mass murder across Europe was only novel in terms of its extremely barbarous method. Eugenics programmes to get rid of “inferior” populations by forced sterilisation having been introduced earlier in America and surreptitiously continuing into the 1970s. For instance, there was a secret programme for the involuntary sterilisation of Native American women long after the World War II.
12 From the same Guardian article entitled “Down with meritocracy” written by Michael Young, published in June, 2001.
13 Van Gogh famously sold one painting during his lifetime, Red Vineyard at Arles. A painting that now resides at the Pushkin Museum in Moscow. The rest of Van Gogh’s more than 900 paintings were not sold nor came to public attention until after his death.
“Many forms of Government have been tried and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”
— Winston Churchill in a speech to the House of Commons, November 11, 1947.
15 Tony Blair speaking in Singapore on January 7, 1996.
16 The source for this definition is given as the Longman Business English Dictionary (although the link is lost). http://lexicon.ft.com/Term?term=stakeholder-society