Capitalist meritocracy

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By JOÃO CARLOS LOEBENS*

The meritocratic discourse that states that the super-rich as a rule are rich because they have more merits is false.

The word meritocracy originates from merit + cracy, it would be the government of merit. Merit is related to merit, aptitude or prominence in the social group, with some different ability, such as music or football.

In this sense, meritocracy is used to justify the exercise of social leadership, or government, by people who in theory have the most merit, people who would be the most skilled or competent.

And capitalism, what would it be? In a summarized definition, it would be the use of capital or government by capitalists. If we think about the use of capital (material, financial, human resources...), we could conclude that each and every society uses capital, regardless of the political name it is given. It doesn't matter if it's capitalism, socialism, communism or neoliberalism, they all use capital.

We are left to understand capitalism as the government of capitalists, of those who own private capital, the rich or super-rich (private capital, because public capital also exists). And why should a society be ruled by the super-rich capitalists? What explanation is internalized and accepted by people as justification for the legitimacy of the government of the super-rich?

In governments run by religion, the explanation or justification is that popes, pastors, priests or bishops are representatives of God on earth. In the time of kings and nobles, the justification was heredity – the son of a nobleman was born a nobleman.

And today, what is the explanation for people accepting the government of the super-rich capitalists? It's meritocracy. The super-rich use meritocracy as a justification to claim that they are rich because they have more merits than the rest of the population. At the same time, the discourse of meritocracy serves to place the blame for poverty on the poor themselves – they are poor because they have less merit or because they have not tried hard enough.

Is this meritocratic discourse correct?

Let’s think, for example, about inheritance. By hypothesis, if you had been born the son of Roberto Marinho (Globo) or Sílvio Santos (SBT), how many more “merits” would you have at this moment? Did you try less than the children of the owners of the Globo/SBT so that they have more “merits” (capital/assets) than you? You probably tried harder and have much less “capitalist merits” than they do. Easy to understand… or not? Some refer to this situation by talking about “equal opportunities” or “the starting point matters”.

On some occasions the meritocratic justification is true, such as in Pelé or Messi's football. However, the meritocratic discourse that states that the super-rich as a rule are rich because they have more merits (more effort/skills), and that the poor are poor because they have less merits (they do not make effort or do not have skills).

It’s not because of meritocracy, it’s because of being born into a rich family, passing on “capitalist merits” from generation to generation. The son of a rich man is born rich... just like the middle ages, where the son of a nobleman was born a nobleman. It is a myth to say that you just need to be hardworking and competent enough to have the same capital as Elon Musk or Jorge Paulo Lemann (involved in the Lojas Americanas scandal).

Although the meritocracy discourse is false in this context, it is a discourse massively accepted by the population and used to justify the abusive concentration of income in Brazil (and throughout the world), making Brazil one of the most unequal countries on the planet, with half a dozen super-rich and millions of poor.   

To better understand and be able to draw your own conclusions, follow the suggestion from the book The tyranny of merit (Brazilian Civilization), by American writer Michael Sandel.

*Joao Carlos Loebens is a doctoral student in economics and tax auditor at the State Revenue Service of Rio Grande do Sul.


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