“In his classic “The Promise of American Life”, Herbert Croly noted that 'a democracy, not less than a monarchy or an aristocracy, must recognise political, economic, and social distinctions, but it must also withdraw its consent whenever these discriminations show any tendency to excessive endurance.' So far Americans have been fairly tolerant of economic distinctions. But that tolerance may not last for ever, if the current trend towards “excessive endurance” is not reversed.”
This revealing wordplay is from a 2004 article in The Economist
on meritocracy. When Croly says a democracy must recognize “economic discriminations” to some degree, it is arguing for measured inequality, a necessary result of capitalist production. This becomes the normative foundation on which democracy rests. The author then asserts that “democracy” has the capability to determine when the pressure of inequality becomes dangerous and clamp down on capital by withdrawing it's consent. This conceit, that Americans are able to regulate their own inequality, belies the great fiction of so-called liberal democratic capitalism. And if we look closely at the main argument presented in the piece, that the only alternative to aristocracy is a meritocracy, and if we don't preserve the one we will inevitably slip into the other, we uncover a similarly revealing conceit, namely, that the best deserve the most. The ideological function of the discourse around merit is to give this claim universal acceptance but it's true program, like that of “democratic capitalism”, is simply to veil raw power behind liberal language.
The Greek kratos (cracy) is translated as power, so meritocracy refers to a system which bestows power to those who are deserving by virtue of their competence, intelligence, ambition and/or talent. Here the Protestant work ethic as described by Max Weber meets Keynesian “animal spirits”, creating the entrepreneurs, innovators and risk-takers which purportedly propel modern capitalist production. It is the supposed answer to the competing claims of distributive justice and liberty, with either a Rawlsian liberal caveat (the famous veil of ignorance) or a conservative/libertarian rationalization about efficiency,moral hazard and such. In either case, the dilemma for democracy is expressed by this quote: “Most Americans see nothing wrong with inequality as long as it comes with plenty of social mobility; it is simply the price to be paid for a dynamic society.” In this view, meritocracy is an ethical trade-off necessary to avoid the nightmare of uniformity, stagnation and the steady drift towards the lowest common denominator.
In contrast, I believe the most persuasive challenge to the notion of the meritocratic society lies within this false choice between equality or dynamism. A much more cooperative, egalitarian, less competitive society can still be equally dynamic, motivated less by material incentives than by shared benefits such as leisure time and increased collective well being. Metrics for measuring dynamism, such as GDP, are now recognized as fundamentally flawed. In fact, dynamism measured this way is the motor driving the planets life systems towards ecological catastrophe.
In terms of the so-called ethical trade off, there is simply no moral logic which could justify granting rewards based on blessings or gifts inherited in the “gene pool lottery” ( IQ, aptitude, physical strength, etc), much less the inherited gifts overlooked by merit proponents such as wealth, property, privilege and power. A much more just system of remuneration would reward effort and sacrifice, as well as the duration and onerousness of labor. Not it's output. In this way, we avoid not just a modern aristocracy but the class conflict which has de-stabilized society since the industrial revolution as well.
addition: I just found this over at Salon
, America's Failed Promise of Equal Opportunity by Alex Gourrevitch and Aziz Rana. A progressive critique of Meritocracy that never mentions capitalist ideology and calls for full employment and workers cooperatives. Quite tepid and yet the hysterical screaming by liberals in the comments shows the degree to which the kool-aid has been consumed. They even use race to the bottom!