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Key words: Meritocracy

Jo Littler examines how claims of a level playing field disguise continuing privilege

3 to 4 minute read

Jacob Rees-Mogg against purple background

Meritocracy refers to the idea of a social system in which people achieve their social position, economic rewards and success based on their ability, talent and hard work. Cheerleaders for meritocracy tend to contrast it with social structures in which distinction and prestige are hoarded by an elite few – usually ‘feudal society’.

But critics of those who claim that we already live in a meritocracy argue that the playing field is not level, that unrestrained capitalism makes it less so, and that the claim is useful to the already privileged to disguise these facts and to justify and extend their wealth and power.

The word ‘meritocracy’ was popularised in English by British social democratic sociologist and polymath Michael Young. His 1958 bestselling book The Rise of The Meritocracy critiqued the grammar school system and offered a barbed, satirical imagining of what could happen in the future if ‘meritocracy’ was extended (for example, a black market trade in brainy babies).

The first recorded usage of the word a couple of years earlier by industrial sociologist Alan Fox was even more scathing. Why, Fox spluttered, would you give even more economic prizes to the already gifted? In the mid-20th century, then, meritocracy was widely understood as a negative term for an unfair social system.

By the 1980s, with the rise of market-oriented neoliberal society, it had been rehabilitated and given a positive charge by the theorist of the ‘knowledge economy’ Daniel Bell and right-wing politicians. Competing for rewards and status through individualised ‘social mobility’ was used as a reason to dispense with socialised and universalised forms of provision.

The term was widely used in conjunction with ideas about privatising education and, by the 1990s, had an enthusiastic currency among the socially liberal neoliberal ‘left’, such as Tony Blair.

Neoliberal meritocracy figures life as a competition in which anyone can compete and win, finding cultural expression reality TV like The Apprentice

Neoliberal meritocracy figured life as a competition in which anyone could compete and win. It found cultural expression in competitive reality TV formats like The Apprentice and Idol. ‘Parables of progress’, such as council estate kids turned entrepreneurs, were stories spotlighted by the media to show that meritocracy ‘worked’ while sidelining all those who didn’t. The idea that we live in a meritocracy was therefore a useful tool for the rich, helping plutocratic wealth balloon in ‘billionaire Britain’ and beyond.

Since the financial crash of 2008, myths justifying meritocracy have become harder to sustain, as homelessness, foodbanks and a cost-of-living crisis makes it evident that the ‘level playing field’ in fact looks more like a mountain. Consequently, there has been both a popular backlash against meritocracy and a widespread interrogation of it across academia, civil society and politics.

At the same time, however, there is now also a renewed defence of meritocracy by the right, sometimes in tandem with disturbing ideas about eugenics and the ‘natural’ high IQ of the already dominant: a stance ironically popularised by figures such as Toby Young, Michael Young’s son, and disseminated through Conservative educational networks.

It may sound ‘fair’, but the political agendas working through ‘meritocracy’ are usually anything but.   

Further reading

This article first appeared in Issue #242 Fighting Fascism. Subscribe today to support independent socialist media and get your copy hot off the press!

Jo Littler is professor of Cultural, Media and Social Analysis at Goldsmiths, University of London

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