The Tyranny of Merit

Like Michael Young, Michael Sandel frames his critique of meritocracy in terms of a populist backlash against elite condescension but also (hot off the press and presumably added at the last minute) in terms of the botched response to the current global COVID pandemic. Focusing on the United States, he argues that the country was stymied not only by logistical issues or lack of political will to implement the required measures to combat infection. It was, furthermore and more importantly, “not morally prepared for the pandemic” (4). Whereas a coherent response to Coronavirus required solidarity, the USA was laid low by the discovery that this was a sentiment in short supply. Over decades, any sense of social solidarity has been eroded on the one hand by rising inequality fueled by neoliberal globalization and on the other hand by a “toxic mix of hubris and resentment” (5) that Sandel sees as the result of the entrenchment of meritocratic values throughout the body politic.

As such, seeking a culprit for the current woes of the United States, Sandel indicts less Trump than his liberal predecessors, such as Bill Clinton and, perhaps surprisingly, Barack Obama above all. Trump and Trumpism, he argues, are merely the unwelcome harvest of seeds sown long ago by a generation of center-left as well as center-right politicians who pushed equality of opportunity as the compensation for economic transformation, without considering those who, for whatever reason, were unable to take advantage of the opportunities they were given.

For, however level the playing field, meritocracy still envisages losers as well as winners. The difference is that the winners in a meritocratic system are told that they deserve their success, which is a result of their talents and hard work (rather than the accident of fortune). Conversely, the losers are told–and the more perfect the meritocracy, the more they are also likely to believe–that they, in turn, deserve their failures, which come from their lack of talent or their laziness. Rather than protesting the injustice of their lot, those at the bottom of the meritocratic pile tend to feel humiliated, left only to nurse their lack of self-esteem. Moreover, their misfortunes elicit little sympathy or solidarity from those who have done better in life. If everyone started with the same chances in life, the poor have nobody to blame but themselves.

This stigmatization of failure, and its psychological internalization by those who fail to rise to the opportunities they are offered, is the converse of the meritocratic faith that those who rise to the top should be those who deserve to do so. The losers in life’s race are doubly afflicted: not only are they left behind; they are also told they brought it on themselves. They are both victims and culprits of their own demise. Hence a politics of (sometimes violent) resentment, and the attraction of somebody like Trump, who tells them that he knows what it feels like to be called a loser, and how much it hurts. And hence, incidentally, how counter-productive it is for Trump’s foes to brand him a loser, or laugh at his mistakes: it is precisely thanks to that branding and that elite condescension that meritocracy’s underclass recognize Trump as one of their own.

Not that meritocracy’s victims are only those at the bottom of the pack. Sandel argues, especially in his discussion of higher education, that those on top are also afflicted, forever running to stand still as the stakes of every competition become higher and higher. Hence the way in which high school becomes an exercise in CV-building, with tutors and extra-curricular activities indulged in only to increase the ever-slimmer chances of making it to the elite universities that seem to hold the keys to future success. All this under the watchful eye of helicopter parents ready to fly in to ensure that their precious offspring really do fulfil their potential as surely as the meritocrats promise they can. Then at college itself, students have no time to rest on their laurels, as they dedicate their all to improving their GPAs, making the Dean’s List, and moving on to the most prestigious Law School or Medical Program. Especially at the most elite institutions (such as Harvard, where Sandel teaches), university has been transformed into “basic training for a competitive meritocracy. [. . .] The sorting and striving crowd out teaching and learning” (182). If anything, these are the last places to go if you want anything like an education, or the chance to reflect on what Sandel calls “the common good,” a concept long since abandoned in these bastions of excellence.

To remedy these ills, and to restore a lost sense of social solidarity, Sandel offers two proposals, one rather more concrete than the other. First, to give higher education back its meaning, and to rescue it from its fate as the key institution in the conveyer belt that is meritocratic sorting and measurement, he suggests that admission to college–especially its most elite echelons–should be determined by lottery rather than competition. He does admit that there should be some basic threshold, and allows some possible tweaks to the lottery system to enable (say) affirmative action or even the continuation of legacy privileges, but he argues that everyone stands to gain–those who are admitted, those who are not admitted, and the institutions themselves–if access to higher education were to be seen as a happy accident rather than the end-all and be-all of success to which the young dedicate all their time and their talents.

Second and somewhat more vaguely, Sandel insists on the need to accord due dignity to work. His point is that the contribution of the working class to fulfilling social needs is increasingly unrecognized. To add to the fact that ordinary, non-college-educated men and women are disparaged for their failures to measure up to meritocratic ideals, the value of what they do do is frequently ignored or taken for granted. Liberal programs (welfare, for instance) that attempt to enact a distributive justice frame the poor as simply recipients of state aid, passing over their myriad contributions to society. Sandel argues therefore for a what he terms a contributive justice that allows people to feel that they are part of a broader project on more or less equal terms.

The specific policy proposals that Sandel suggests might help shift our perspective on our fellow citizens from seeing them as simply consumers (whether of market goods or state hand-outs) to producers include changes in tax law–a Tobin tax on financial transactions that do not materially contribute to the economy, for instance, or a move from taxing payroll to higher taxes on consumption and capital gains–or perhaps a wage subsidy for low-paid workers. One might add to this list, for instance by suggesting that macroeconomic policy should be less blasé about structural unemployment, or that we might revive the type of public works projects and work programs that Roosevelt’s New Deal rolled out during the Great Depression. (Strangely, FDR doesn’t get much of a mention in this book, despite its attention to the rhetoric of US Presidents; if Obama is the surprise villain of the piece, if anything it’s the Kennedys who come closest to coming out as heroes.) Yet the mere mention of unemployment points to the fact that Sandel’s claim for the dignity of work is undoubtedly the weak point in his argument.

Do not, after all, the unemployed also contribute to society? What about the disabled? Or children, or pensioners? Moreover, putting work at the center of our notion of engaged citizenship is a strange move for an argument that claims to oppose meritocracy. For merit, after all, is not just a matter of talent or credentials, even under the current meritocratic dispensation; it is also a matter of effort. As the narrator of Michael Young’s The Rise of the Meritocracy puts it, “Intelligence and effort together make up merit (I+E=M). The lazy genius is not one” (84). Yet Sandel seems to want to cut away one pillar of the meritocracy–so-called intelligence–while leaving the other pillar intact. In the terms of the religious debates that he (quite interestingly) surveys, despite his attachment to the notion of grace as undeserved redemption, he ends up preaching a doctrine that sounds very much like salvation through work(s). If, as he notes, merit always has a tendency to creep back in through the side door to edge out grace, it is in his drive to accord dignity to labor that this process is repeated in his own argument.

In any case, the erosion of the “dignity of work” is not merely a matter of elite condescension. It might equally be seen as a nascent consciousness of the reality of alienation. Work is indeed often bullshit (as anthropologist David Graeber points out). And even when it is not, we seldom work on terms that we ourselves choose. The enthusiasm with which the contributions of so-called essential workers (from nurses and hospital porters to teachers and lorry drivers and supermarket shelf-stackers) have been belatedly recognized during the current pandemic, with the nightly cheers to their efforts marking the first lockdown last Spring, is poor compensation for the fact that they continue, on the whole, to be not only underpaid but also exploited, their labour power commodified and measured out in terms of socially-necessary labour time (to use the Marxist jargon). Merely noting, and even celebrating, the fact that their labour is indeed socially necessary does nothing to alter the ongoing reality of their exploitation.

Indirectly, however, Sandel’s book point to another argument: a claim made perhaps most famously by Marx’s son-in-law, the Cuban-born Frenchman Paul Lafargue, who in 1883 published the manifesto The Right to be Lazy. Lafargue urges the proletariat to “return to its natural instincts, it must proclaim the Rights of Laziness, a thousand times more noble and more sacred than the anaemic Rights of Man concocted by the metaphysical lawyers of the bourgeois revolution. It must accustom itself to working but three hours a day, reserving the rest of the day and night for leisure and feasting.” Do what you have to do, but do it fast and sloppily if needs be; reserve the rest of your time for enjoyment and relaxation. An entire tradition of the refusal of work has elaborated on this standpoint.

Sandel’s book (perhaps inadvertently) points to something similar in that it strikes this reader, at least, as rather hastily put together, and not simply in the rushed mentions of the current pandemic that top and tail it. Throughout, The Tyranny of Merit is full of repetitions with only minor (and sometimes absolutely minimal) variation; the same points are made over and again, the same figures and statistics reappear as though the author were trying to pad out what would otherwise be an incisive article so as to turn it into something acceptable to Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Moreover, the research on which the book is based seems to rely heavily on Google and other Internet search engines: not simply in that almost all its references are to online material, or the ways in which it uses rather simplistically Google Books Ngram statistics on word frequency, but also in the way it mines the public database of US presidential speeches compiled by UC Santa Barbara’s “American Presidency Project” rather than undertaking a more systematic or nuanced analysis of the ways in which historical discourses emerge and evolve.

At times all this is frustrating, and it is tempting to say that the book was more effective in its earlier incarnation as an eight-and-a-half-minute TED talk, itself a format perhaps more suited to a meritocratic age. But I like to think that Sandel is in fact winking at us, telling us that really the illusion of merit is all that matters, and that we should relax a little and not take our work all that seriously.

7 thoughts on “The Tyranny of Merit

  1. This is an interesting reading but I am left with a question. It is not clear to me that Sandel wants to abandon all notions of merit or meritocracy. His problem with the contemporary neoliberal version of meritocracy is that it corrodes the common good by separating winners and losers. Could we imagine ways of rewarding merit that would be less morally corrosive, and that would actually bind us together? I think such a goal is closer to Sandel’s project.

    In addition to criticizing credentialism, Sandel argues for what he calls “contributive justice” and the “producer-centered ethic” that supports it. We are most fully human when contributing to the common good. A happy and productive workforce would be one that finds dignity in work that contributes to society. I think you make an excellent point when you note the rise of bullshit – i.e. meaningless – work that does not contribute to the common good and makes us miserable.

    What generates common goods is activity, and work is a kind of activity. Caring and teaching in the home, and other forms of unremunerated work, are activities, even though they are often regarded as “unproductive” because they don’t generate income. And the pandemic has reminded us how much we all rely on “essential workers,” even though the market fails to compensate them adequately. Perhaps Sandel wants us to imagine a society in which our notions of merit are more closely aligned with the common good.

    • It’s pretty clear to me that Sandel thinks all meritocracies are bad, not least because they all separate out winners and losers, but more importantly because the winners in a meritocratic system think they deserve to win (and the losers are led to believe that they deserve to lose).

      A more perfect meritocracy, based on some other attribute than intelligence, would not make things any better; if anything, it would make things worse. The worst meritocracy is a perfect one. (See Young.)

      No, Sandel is arguing for grace. The problem is that merit (however defined) endlessly threatens to drive out grace. But it is only grace that allows one even to think of the common good.

  2. You have captured part of Sandel’s argument, but he has a more expansive understanding of the common good. The idea that we are free to make of ourselves what we will, and thus we are deserving of our own success, means that the grace of God has no claim on us. But this is not the full extent of his concern. He also believes that meritocracy weakens our sense of indebtedness to others. It weakens the sense that we share in one another’s fates as citizens. Removing barriers to achievement is a good thing and a condition of a just society. Equality of opportunity to rise is also a good thing. But these are, in Sandel’s view, “remedial virtues.” The problem arises when individual mobility becomes the dominant ethos of our society, so that we see our success as own doing, and we attribute moral desert to those who rise. This makes it harder to mobilize society to act together–that is, to find the common good. You can hear his answer to precisely this question here:

  3. Very interesting that you should bring up Lafargue, laziness, and the tradition of refusal of work (presumably with a nod to the operaiste tradition in the back of your mind?). What about Rancière and his insistence that emancipation can only happen when workers occupy another place, engage in other activities than those defined by their status as productive workers? So Julien Sorel wiling away the hours in his prison cell becomes a more powerful personification of emancipation and equality for JR than any worker, Stakhanovite or otherwise.
    On another point, I’m struck by the fact that Piketty has also recently penned a quite trenchant critique of meritocracy. What could we read into the fact that two noted representatives of the liberal or centre left, Sandel and Piketty, should be turning against meritocracy, surely itself one of the keystones of neo-liberalism?

    • Indeed, the operaista tradition of the refusal of work was very much in the forefront, not merely the back, of my mind there.

      I note that Piketty is also an anti-meritocrat, it seems. I want to get to read that. (Are you thinking of Capital in the Twenty-First Century or some other text?)

  4. Piketty does criticise meritocracy in –Capital in the C21st– to a degree but he does so more extensively in the more recent –Capital & Ideology–.

  5. Pingback: The Tyranny of Merit — Posthegemony – Lungo il margine, perplessi

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