I was walking home after a moderate jog in the park, looking at the barren trees and the boughs where late the sweet birds sang… – thinking ahead about the daffodils that come before the swallows dare…, when I heard a voice calling me. It was Alexis, the son of Callimacus, crossing the street to talk to me.
- YDS, he said, we haven’t seen you for a while. How are you doing?
- Like the time of the year between the extremes of hot and cold, neither sad nor happy, I replied.
- Listen, he said, after we exchanged the customary formalities. There is a new discussion group at the club. We meet after hours two days a week to exchange views and comments on current affairs. A debating society for students who are past their dancing days, if you like. Our friends will be happy to see you, let’s go together.
- What is the name of the discussion group? I asked.
- “The Basket of Deplorables,” he replied. We started it when it seemed impossible that the woman whose sole name blisters my tongue could lose the elections. It was our unarmed Platonic rebellion.
- You know that I prefer to grow old in the company of myself, Alexis, but for you I will make an exception. After all, what are friends, if you never see them?
He drove me to the club, which is actually a rather ornate building adjacent to a tennis court, not very far from my house. We walked-in as a discussion was ongoing. I tried to be as unobtrusive as possible, but they stopped talking.
- YDS, said Licias, with a dash of irony in his voice, to what do we owe the honor of your visit?” (By the way, “YDS” is the nickname I acquired from users of my unique and bible-sized Shakespearean dictionary.)
- You owe the honor to Alexis, I replied, whom I met by chance on my way home, and who invited me to visit with you. But let me not interrupt your discussion – or as Shakespeare would say, Let me not to this good purpose that so fairly shows, dream of impediment.
- You come at the right moment, said Critias, son of Protagoras. We were just debating how should political candidates be selected, or, for that matter, how candidates for any job should be chosen.
- And what did you conclude, I asked?
- That the only tenable and rational qualification is personal merit – meritocracy, as it is called
- Are you sure? I asked.
- We know you, YDS, said Critias. Now you will begin questioning the meaning of words and deconstruct all that we have agreed to so far.
- Nothing of the sort. I am just verifying if by merit, you mean the word by itself or perhaps how merit is assessed.
- What do you mean?
- Simply that a valuation of merit does not identify merit itself, but expresses a criterion of judgment.
- How so?
- Meritocracy is an argument that seemingly appeals to experience, but from experience is refuted. For, those to whom merit is attributed, were already deemed to be deserving, prior to the judgment. Indeed, the criteria of judgment precede the attribution of merit. Which means that judgment is the cause of merit and not viceversa.
Therefore to reward merit equates to reward what is believed to be conforming to a pre-existent and often unexpressed benchmark. And while the word ‘benchmark’ suggests an objective standard, in the instance, it is not. For it varies among men. As a clever Italian philosopher remarked, everybody likes meritocracy, because it offers the promise or illusion of a world perfectly attuned to individual and very personal canons of value.
And meritocracy continues to be liked – as you just told me, Critias – because it does not keep its promise. Nor it can, lest it please a few and disappoint all others. It’s like the charming inn-keeper of an 18th century popular comedy – she seduced all because she yielded to none.
- But then you deny that meritocracy exists.
- Not at all, I am just saying that it is not what it is assumed to be. For example, if everyone has its own standards of merit, he may include himself among the deserving – thanks to personal capacity, or to his actual potential remained unrealized, due to the lack of meritocracy at large. Therefore the myth of meritocracy flounders and sinks in its own contradiction. For one, the mirage is irreconcilably scattered among its worshipers. But also, by guaranteeing the gratification of all, it denies its own objective of rewarding the selected few.
- I am puzzled, said Critias, if there are many competing criteria of merit, who establishes the best among them?
- Quite naturally those who can impose theirs, that is, the strongest. Honors, wealth and appointments have always been bestowed on their deservers, according to the criteria of the bestowers, who could give and revoke them. Therefore in the end, meritocracy is the law of the strongest.
From which it follows that if a government, which can convert merit into law, thinks of itself as deserving of that right, that government is also of itself meritocratic via inescapable logic.
Furthermore, if there cannot be a shared agreement on meritocracy, it follows that the group that defines itself as merit-worthy can often impose itself only through violence. Look at the rancor, the spleen and the virulence currently evident in the corporate media, ill with the acrimony of malice.
Why? Because the recent elections did not comply with their standards of meritocracy – or the standards of those who paid to promote them.
- Should we throw meritocracy into the dumpster then?
- I don’t know. I am just referring to experience to experience. In fact, for example, in the earlier case of Brexit in England, commentators even advocated removing the right to vote from those who opted to leave the EU. For they were old, coward, ignorant and privileged, or so said sundry journalists or TV pundits. Those voters, that is, did not deserve (merit) to vote.
Meritocracy in action, as you see, Critias. Curiously, none of these dictators of meritocracy, after predicting dire and irreversible consequences if Brexit prevailed, did resign or apologized, when their predictions proved a hoax.
Which equally proves that meritocracy does not seek the good or the truth as you would hope, Critias. It is but a tool to mask deceit and give respectability to the prevarications exerted by the (often) dumb.
- But why meritocracy is so popular as an idea?
- Because it suggests scientific precision or, at least, a scientific approach in its implementation. This is achieved by using technical (and by inference precise) terms. Words associated with meritocracy are, for example, tests, performance, rating, ranking, etc. The idea is to give a technical and ideologically neutral definition of the “best” – be it best people or best practices.
As the philosopher earlier mentioned said, meritocracy loves technology and technicians love meritocracy. To the point that, in Europe, some governments call themselves “technical,” a word-grouping for which I have not, as yet, found a meaning.
More importantly, these ideas lead to another ominous conclusion, the myth of a society mechanistically, ‘technically’ ruled by the merit-worthy. And they are merit-worthy according to a criterion essentially divorced from ideas, especially from the concepts of good and evil. Actually, more than a myth it is a technocratic totalitarian delirium – another approximation to Huxley’s “Brave New World.” It is the same ‘technocratic’ approach whereby Obama signed off every week on the list of humans to be pulverized by drones. In another field, it also informs, at large, the advocates of an education based on answers to identical multiple-choice questionnaires, filled by millions and issued by gods of wisdom, residing in the Olympus of a divine-like academic institution.
- Pretty frightful, I should say.
- I’ll go further. If government is run by the merit-worthy, and if merit is politically neutral, why vote? And if responsibility, prestige and wealth go to the merit-worthy, why should critique, criticism and debate be allowed? For many of us the proposition is unconceivable, but it is the actual scenario envisaged by the shadow powers advocating the New World Order.
- I follow the reasoning from its premises to its conclusions, said Critias. But I still cannot reconcile myself to the idea that meritocracy is a complete illusion.
- Quite understandable, Critias. The fortune of meritocracy rests mostly on its fallacy, because fallacy is overpowered, or at least balanced, by strong psychological motives. He who advocates the supremacy of a social group associated with a virtue, – be it competence, culture, honesty etc. – includes himself implicitly among the virtuous. That is, if I advocate the primacy of the merit-worthy, it means I do not fear to be excluded or penalized by them. Therefore I am merit-worthy. Equally, the strategy enables him to affirm his own qualities indirectly, by criticizing those who lack them.
All this, however, does not mean that meritocracy did not or does not have its critics.
- Who are they?
- More than with critics we are dealing with schools of thought. The most valid criticism of meritocracy is that it implicitly advocates the most brutal form of Darwinism. Meritocracy could function only in conditions of absolute equality at the onset of life. To prevent the objection, various strategies have been designed. One is denial. See, for example, the Declaration of Independence, drafted by a group of slave owners who said that “All men are created equal….” – less the slaves, for they are not human, the natives for they are not white, the poor for they are not rich, and the women for they are not men. As the immortal George Carlin said of the contention, “…. stunnigly, stunningly full of shit.”
Another criticism is that we are dealing with a monstrous race to misery at infancy. Let all infants be poor and see what they can do as they grow up without obvious privileges. I state the strategy in its stark extremism, but some softer approaches have been tried without any success recorded.
- Is there anything good you can say about meritocracy?
- Let me think…. Actually there is still another observation pending on meritocracy. I made reference to the education based on standardized multiple-choice tests. The captains of erudition who promote and advocate such methods of selecting the best, sit on academic thrones and are monstrously well compensated. Yet, they often lament the poor standards of education, even when compared to some less wealthy nations. And they attribute the problem to the lack of impetus towards merit. Why do they not resign, as they are the responsible divinities that created the curricula promoting merit? Or why do they not write or document the extraordinary circumstances whereby they are the exception? Their untouchable position suggests that advocating meritocracy immunizes its advocates against it.
But if this be madness, yet there’s method in it. He who dwells on the lower rungs of the ladder advocates meritocracy as a remedy against inequality. Those on the top rungs find in meritocracy the best ally to justify and increase their own privileges.
Which, by the way, is a good picture of the present state of affairs.
For, at least to an extent, before the age of reaganomics, neo-liberal economics, the Chicago school etc., unemployment, disenfranchisement and associated miseries were symptoms of bad policies to be changed. But in a meritocratic environment they are the right consequences of the limited commitment and ability shown by the unemployed and disenfranchised. The unemployed and disenfranchised deserve their condition because they are not merit-worthy. Or rather, unemployment and disenfranchisement is what they deserve.
From the meritocratic point of view, any protection not directly related to individual performance, is an obstacle to the promotion of merit, because it extends a privilege to the undeserving. Health care for the unemployed, a guaranteed job for those who want to work, family assistance and everything that is generally classified as ‘safety net’, should be abolished as stumbling blocks in the path of merit.
In the end, with meritocracy, rights become privileges. Hence meritocracy simultaneously achieves two objectives, to justify current inequities and to praise and ennoble those measures that increase them. Meritocracy only deals with the best and the deserving. The losers have only themselves to blame.
- It seems to me, said Critias, that you are describing in a different way, the tenets of the Calvinistic doctrine, according to which the rich go to heaven and the poor to hell. For in Calvin’s religion, a man’s economic condition is a symptom of God’s pleasure or displeasure. Don’t you think that the picture you paint of meritocracy is too extreme?
- Not at all. Because, just like religion, meritocracy is an ideology and ideologies absolve themselves. In fact an ideology gives its followers a triple waver: intellectual, practical and moral. The intellectual waiver consists of retaining only facts favorable to the thesis that one supports – often by inventing them – and by denying, forgetting or omitting others to prevent them from being known.
The practical waiver deletes the criterion of effectiveness, disregarding the value of any confutation, however factual and logical. In fact a function of ideology is to fabricate its self-absolving explanations. Need I remind you of the (in)famous secretary of state in the shape of a woman, Albright, who said that the genocide of 500,000 Iraqi children (due to the American bombing and blockade) was “worth it”?
Finally, the moral waiver abolishes any notion of good and evil for the ideological players; or rather, for them ideology becomes the substitute of morality.
In the instance, the ideology of meritocracy suggests a humanity barely above the level of bestiality, whose collective progress relies on man’s lowest instincts; the will to triumph over others and the fear of ruin.
It is a vision inherent to the neo-liberal ideology, or rather pathology – in which men are like children or dogs, to be led with the promise of a biscuit or the threat of starvation.
For he who talks of merit has guilt in mind, and he who talks of prize, punishment. Theoretically, meritocracy may promise to reward the better. In practice it exists only to sanction the worse, identified according to the whims and interests of the masters.
The only and real reward of meritocracy is a promise not to be punished, at least until the next day. And in the end meritocracy is the dialectic prostitute of the exploiters.
Among the exploited, he who think of meritocracy as a means to redeem himself at the expense of the unredeemed, lives like the drunken sailor on a mast, ready with every nod to tumble down into the fatal bowels of the deep. And when he tumbles, he will have, indeed and meritocratically, ‘merited’ it.
- Is meritocracy, then, the hallmark of neo-liberal ideology, or extreme capitalism as some call it?
- Yes indeed, and meritocracy is a facade to hide the cancer under. When King Claudius killed his brother to steal the crown and marry Hamlet’s mother, he was but applying the tenets of meritocracy. It was only by a metaphysical fluke that Hamlet discovered the murder. Otherwise Claudius may have lived happily ever after. Actually he wouldn’t have, because, thou clearly evil, he still had a conscience. Something the neo-liberal ideologues at large are sorely lacking. Therefore, a neo-liberal ideologue is someone of whom we can properly ask, “What is this quintessence of dust? A reaganomic neo-liberal delights not me.”
- YDS, said Critias, you certainly gave us much to think about. Is there no way out of the dilemma?
- Maybe there is, maybe there isn’t, but it is not amiss to mention an idea. Antony Trollope was a very popular novelist of XIXth century England, and he also wrote a most entertaining autobiography. In which he tells of his first employment with the Civil Service, a position achieved by passing a very competitive examination, aimed at removing the less deserving. To take the exam with a probability of success, candidates underwent long and extensive training, hoping to absorb all the subjects on which one or more questions may be asked.
Trollope passed the examination and used the experience of travelling through England on a horse, as source of inspiration for his novels. In the end, however, he observed that many who passed the test with the best marks were less suitable to be effective employees than the less ‘deserving’. He concluded that, once basic competence requirements were established, the ideal qualification for a civil service position should be that of a ‘gentleman.’
How a man becomes a ‘gentleman’ is well outside the scope of our discussion, but I mentioned an example since you asked.
As I left the “Basket of Deplorables” I don’t know if they were convinced. For many still believe that what the pundits say is true, without foresight of consequences or apprehension of deceit.
PS. For the treatment and main threads of this article, YDS is indebted to an anonymous philosopher. If and when he will discover his identity, YDS will not fail to mention his name.
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