The Rise of the Meritocracy

Michael Young’s The Rise of the Meritocracy is a strange little book, more akin to a dystopian novel than to a work of sociology (though of course all dystopian novels encode some kind of critique of contemporary society). Published in 1958 but set in 2034, it purports to be a work of historical sociology tracing not just the rise of meritocracy, a term that Young coins here, over the long period from 1870 to 2033, but also its crisis. There may be much that Young’s futurology gets wrong, but surely one thing he gets very right is the prediction that some day meritocrats would face a populist backlash that could even end in violence. (In a note to the book’s final sentence we learn that its narrator has died amid the disturbances, and that this is therefore a posthumous publication.) Have we not seen something of that in the events at the US Capitol a couple of days ago? If anything, Young’s dystopian future has come to fruition a decade or so earlier than he anticipated, in 2021 rather than in 2034.

Yet the difference between Young’s critique of meritocracy and the rejection of expertise that characterises not only Trumpism but also (say) Brexit and COVID denialism is that whereas the current populist insurgency is firmly aligned with right-wing politics, often viciously chauvinist and nationalist, by contrast Young imagines meritocracy to be brought down by a fundamentally left-wing (even feminist) protest against its anti-egalitarian injustices. (We are told that the narrator dies at a public meeting at Peterloo, in clear resonance with the Peterloo massacre of 1819, in which the army repressed a crowd gathered to demand that parliamentary representation be democratized.) It is a sign of the distance between our times and Young’s that it is hard to imagine today the struggle against meritocracy to be a progressive cause, so much has the erstwhile left tied itself to its banners.

The particulars of Young’s futurology also (naturally enough) reflect his own British post-war context more than they resonate with today’s political or social realities. For instance, he envisages the continued relevance of state planning, and can hardly imagine the ways in which the market has effectively supplanted the state in so many areas of life. So although he recognizes that meritocracy means that the school and university become ever more the key institutions of social reproduction (think of that uber-meritocrat Tony Blair’s famous slogan, “Education, education, education”), and even predicts both the exhaustion of the comprehensive system and the increasing prevalence of testing at every younger ages, he somewhat bizarrely foresees the withering away of the private sector where what we have instead seen has been the wholesale marketization of public education as schooling has been firmly painted as a private rather than a public good.

At the same time, though Young no doubt correctly envisages the declining relevance of the House of Commons, as meritocracy eats away at democracy, he (perhaps fancifully) portrays the House of Lords taking its place at the center of the parliamentary system, missing the rise of the executive and the triumph of various forms of presidentialism even in notionally parliamentary democracies such as the UK (and again, Blair and Blairism are no doubt paradigmatic here).

Yet for all its failings, and perhaps because of as much as despite its somewhat quaint air, it is worth returning to Young, not least to shock us out of the meritocratic “common sense” that grips us. Merit, which Young defines here as a combination of intelligence and effort, is firmly entrenched as a supreme virtue not only on the left but also, in the form of a valorization of entrepreneurialism, on the right. It is the shibboleth of our times, so much so that few believe it can be questioned: they assume that arguments against meritocracy can only be framed in terms of the fact that “equality of opportunity” has yet to be achieved by many (minorities, women, the poor, or whoever), and so what is needed is for merit to be more, rather than less, perfectly recognized and rewarded. But Young’s dystopia is in fact a fully realized meritocracy: he takes aim at the ideal itself, rather than the obstacles that lie in its path; he is against equality of opportunity, which he opposes in the name of the rather more radical notion of equality, plain and simple.

It is in the nature of any book that goes so against the grain of prevalent common sense that it is misread and misunderstood. In later years, Young felt the need to add a supplementary introduction, in his own voice rather than that of his narrator, to point out that he was arguing against rather than in favour of meritocracy, a point that the satirical tone also perhaps obscures much as some readers apparently felt that Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal (which argued that the eighteenth-century Irish could alleviate their economic woes by selling their children as food for the rich) was somehow a serious proposition. Yet the term that he coined is still almost universally presented as utopian model rather than, as here, dystopian warning.

It is also in the nature of the book’s satirical genre that Young’s alternative to meritocracy is seldom articulated. But it is here, and it comes in the form of a Manifesto that is imagined to have been published in the early 2000s, and which deserves to be quoted at length:

The classless society would be one which both possessed and acted upon plural values. Were we to evaluate people, not only according to their intelligence and their education, their occupation, and their power, but according to their kindliness and their courage, their imagination and sensitivity, their sympathy and generosity, there could be no classes. Who would be able to say that the scientist was superior to the porter with admirable qualities as a father, the civil servant with unusual skill at gaining prizes superior to the lorry-driver with unusual skill at growing roses? The classless society would also be the tolerant society, in which individual differences were actively encouraged as well as passively tolerated, in which full meaning was at last given to the dignity of man. Every human being would then have equal opportunity, not to rise up in the world in the light of any mathematical measure, but to develop his own special capacities for living a rich life. (159)

This is the firmly egalitarian left-wing critique of meritocracy, and it should surely be revived.

3 thoughts on “The Rise of the Meritocracy

  1. Pingback: The Tyranny of Merit | Posthegemony

  2. ‘evaluate people according to their kindliness and their courage, their imagination and their sensitivity’. Hmmm. Doesn’t a version of this evaluation of our most personal characteristics now happen every time we have an annual appraisal at work, we apply for a new job, or are obliged to write a response to our student evaluations? Isn’t this kind of evaluation of our personal characteristics the worst kind of intrusion and exploitation? At least those perceived to have failed in terms of ‘their intelligence and education’ could tell themselves they failed because they never tried, didn’t care how well or badly they did at school, chose to mess around in class instead, etc.. But if society’s evaluation of our merits now finds us lacking also in terms of our ‘kindliness and courage, imagination and sensitivity’, what recourse do we have against these judgements, what tales can we tell ourselves to preserve our dignity in these circumstances? This sounds like an absolute nightmare and no path to equality at all – quite the opposite. There’s a reason those C19th French Republicans insisted on the need to preserve the distinction between the public and the private selves, seeing this as fundamental to freedom, equality and social solidarity. Those Frenchies got a lot wrong but sometimes they got something right!

    • Yes, point taken. In part no doubt the problem is the entire discourse of evaluation. There is another tendency in Young’s book, which is more strictly egalitarian. I think you can see the tension in that very quotation, perhaps, between evaluation (which implies judgment) and tolerance (which doesn’t).

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