Criticism of the critique of meritocracy

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Meritocracy, despite the apparent and noisy criticism, remains sovereign and laughing at those who assume that there will be, within the framework of capitalism, a place for everyone

I don't know when I heard for the first time in my life that effort, discipline would be the first conditions for me to become a person. In my mother's mouth enchanted words came out: "you need to study to be someone in life". Perhaps in different ways, this mantra can be identified as one of the structuring axes of Brazilian social life. Through the students' voices I see their mothers and I see my mother again. There they are in a classroom, trying to make themselves people.

The reflections that I have carried out in my academic career, initially marked by feminist theories, in a way, freed me from this initial belief that was incorporated in the phase of life in which everything that the father/mother says is internalized as absolute truths. When, at some point in our lives, we realize that there are historical, social and economic conditions that precede our desire, we are faced with two possible ways to deal with the dilemmas or ruptures with the internalized values: either we make the effort to understand why certain conditions of possibilities were denied me (because I am black, woman, transsexual, indigenous) or we try to negotiate individually with these same conditions that limit our access to socially disputed material and symbolic goods. In the first case, we are faced with dilemmas that turn to history outside of us. In the second, it is we, in the world of life, who try to survive and “break through” the siege of barriers. It is here, in this second movement, that the notion of meritocracy prevails.

What is meritocracy?

Meritocracy can be understood as a hierarchy and award system based on the personal merits of each individual. Etymologically, it comes from the Latin the merits (merit) and cracy ("power"). The power of merit is based on the assumption of individual qualities, the result of their efforts and dedication. This term was first used by Michael Young in his book Rise of the Meritocracy (Rise from Meritocracy), published in 1958. In Young's book, merit is understood as a pejorative term, since it was related to the narration of a society that would be segregated, based on two main aspects: intelligence (high IQ) and a great level of effort. The best hierarchical positions would be conditional on people who have the best educational and moral values ​​and specific and qualified technical or professional skills in a given area.

The meritocratic reward system is widely applied by companies and private organizations, by valuing and rewarding professionals who present better productions, either with salary increases or offering higher positions. Meritocracy in companies is a way of motivating employees who dedicate themselves to their duties in search of achieving better opportunities as a result of the merits presented.

There are a multitude of voices that point to the ideological nature of attributing success to individual efforts. Social stratification data continue to show considerable wage differences between men and women who perform the same tasks. These differences deepen when other social markers of difference are crossed (for example: race, sexuality, origin). When we do not consider the historical conditions that made it possible for certain identities and corporeality to ascend socially, we have the following explanatory possibility: there are people with certain attributes who, in fact, are more intelligent and disciplined. Here we find the essentialist explanation.

Meritocracy can be understood as the marrow of liberalism. Here, the individual is presented as a being free of social constraints. He is able to give birth and, from nothing, he becomes a being. Racism, misogyny, transphobia, xenophobia are strange terms for those who believe that individual effort is the measure of all things, and the job market would be the place of veridiction, the one that will make the final judgment of the qualities that each one possesses . Criticizing meritocracy makes no sense if it does not bring the capitalist market, the site of repeated production of inequalities, to the center of the debate.

However, what can be observed is a contradiction that continues to operate in the debate on meritocracy and social justice. The meritocracy critic's speech is only heard because he himself is a successful person. As I pointed out, meritocracy is a reward system. What happens to someone who criticizes meritocracy by closing his axis of criticism to a certain population? He/she will be invited to speak on television programs, become the idol of celebrities and produce the desire of other excluded people to be like him/her.

It is also common to hear that visibility due to success is important for the production of identifications. And so, we go around in circles. what is at stake? An alliance is formed between the domesticated critic of meritocracy and the market. One of the axes that make meritocracy work is to produce a quantum of successful people so that there is an incessant production of identifications with successful people. There is an unspoken alliance between the domesticated critic and the market, based on silence, on the concealment of a simple truth: the rule in capitalism is the exception. It is with this exceptionality that the new successful critics of meritocracy have made their living.

The traditional success narrative combines family poverty and personal effort. What has been observed in recent years is something new: subjects belonging to certain historically excluded populations who begin to speak on behalf of this population and point out/denounce the illusion of meritocracy. Where is the crux of this criticism of meritocracy? In the reduction of criticism to the systematic nature of exclusion. The criticism of meritocracy is made as if, by virtue of the criticism of the specific situation of “my population”, all women managed to enter the labor market and have conditions worthy of remuneration and recognition. Thus, the criticism of meritocracy closes in on itself. The invisible obstacle that exists for women to ascend to certain places makes me choose, in my critique of meritocracy, the gender dimension to read it.

Domesticated criticism of meritocracy ends up being happy with the election of a black woman as vice president of the United States, with the appointment of a black general as Secretary of Defense of the United States. I wonder if there is much difference for the nation-states destroyed by the US invasions if, in command, there was a black man or a white woman. From now on, the Empire will wage wars, continue to sustain the apartheid and Israeli colonialism with the faces that seem more palatable to us. Finally, we are represented! And new generations will learn that success is possible because they already have someone to identify with.

Can't criticize meritocracy be articulated with identity struggles? What is commonly called an “identity struggle”, I call the struggle for life. Constructing analyzes and policies for the lives of populations that were and are excluded from fundamental rights, which are thrown into conditions of absolute precariousness, cannot be reduced to the simplification of an “identity struggle”. But there is no non-precarious life for everyone under capitalism. Capitalism is nourished by the example, the hero, the one who produces the narrative of overcoming, of impossible crossings.

How is it possible to criticize meritocracy and, at the same time, remain silent on Rede Globo's pact with market interests? How can I sustain a coherent critique of meritocracy if I offer my success to advertise an App that maintains work relationships similar to the early days of capitalism (18-hour workdays, miserable wages, absence of any rights). I, with my place of speech, because it's me, my history, my corporeality, I place myself at the disposal of the capitalist machine. Thus, the place of criticism feeds itself on the substances it believes it denies.

Meritocracy, despite the apparent and noisy criticism, remains sovereign and laughing at those who assume that there will be, within the framework of capitalism, a place for everyone. Criticism is instrumentalized as a way of denying criticism.

*Berenice Bento is a professor at the Department of Sociology at UnB.



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