Meritocracy's discontents

Meritocracy is a convenient lie, as Socrates foretold, and it is the ballast of the social system we have built.

The story goes like this. Once upon a time, we had kings and queens and their families and nobles, who got the best meat and the best mate, and everyone lived happily. But then the things fell apart as luxury corrupted the nobles and feebled the spirits of their offsprings - and the peasants and the artisans came claiming their fair share. So we had the age of revolutions in Europe and North America, when we created a new, fairer social system, under a 'natural aristocracy of men', where destiny was no longer shaped by birth but by intelligence and hard work, and anyone could make it in life. And, everyone again lived happily ever after.

Of course, this did not really happen. Slavery persisted, at least for a long time. The 'fair' system mostly excluded the real peasants and workers and once they have done their duty dying for various revolutions, they were sent back to do their work as, naturally, peasants and workers. Princes and Nobles learnt to live with the merchants, bankers, priests and professors, who were mostly their younger brothers anyway. When keeping everything in the family became a bit too embarassing, the exclusive schools, clubs and universities step in to keep in the fraternity. And, this accommodation was done under the guise of meritocracy.

Meritocracy was - and still is - central to the democracy we have come to so love. Political equality of the election day was designed to ephemeral: After the divine right to rule was rejected, the common folk was to give their mandate to a specially selected few to do the business of governing. Even proletariats had their vanguard, whose day job was to run the palace intrigues and the show trials and all that. Chosen few - whoever chose them - was at the heart of the architecture of any modern society. Meritocracy - or the claim that these chosen ones are really deserving - maintained the fig leaf of legitimacy so badly needed.

But there is truth in the proposition that one can't fool all the people all the time. One could really call the twentieth century the century of meritocracy but its edifice was already dwindling as we entered the twentyfirst. With the Great Recession and the oncoming COVID19 one, the illusion of meritocracy is in tatters. After watching the disaster in slow motion, who wants to believe that we have able men (and women) leading us anymore? We now know that a few privileged fools is all we have produced and the whole system is utterly unfair. It's only logical to check how our hallowed meritocratic system can really produce such an incompetent bunch and sure enough, 2020 has seen a surge of attention - mostly critical - on the functioning of meritocracy.

Our attention may currently be arrested by the obsence wealth of the top 1%, but it's really the top 10%, rich middle classes, meritocracy's beneficiaries, who are really blocking social mobility. It's with their insistence on private schools, pristine localities and lower taxes that keep pushing back public provisions and affirmative actions. The role of these meritocrats is less researched but they have raised their head above the parapet, backing the anti-democratic political leaders in different countries. As the tides turn, when it eventually turns (starting, hopefully, with the departure with Trump next January), they are likely to be held accountable for the world they made. 

We should be aware that 'meritocracy' started as a satire, a dim prognosis about a world run by technocrats that would be mired with crisis and out of touch with simple human values. This has somewhat come to be, with the oddity that those in charge look like especially foolish, corrupt and out-of-touch. This may not be the end of the world and a mere glitch in capitalism, but meritocracy's sun is about to set.


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