Meritocracy for beginners (or, unsuspecting)

Image: Marcio Costa


The conception of success embedded in the idea of ​​meritocracy refers to a very narrow definition of what a successful life is, and very restricted in terms of those who benefit from it.

“But neither can I admit, after the experience of a lifetime…, that someone depends only on himself, neglecting the scientific and social relationships that, only they, support the work of the individual, who thus obtains a fruitful and useful continuity” ( Robert Musil, The man without qualities).

In the dispute for the semantic primacy of the last 100 years to justify the current state of things, to praise the virtues of the system and to propose its recipe for happiness, the terms freedom, free initiative, market (this mystical entity that thinks, feels, reacts, commands), competition, management (and your shock, ouch!) meritocracy. In not so recent times, the latter seems to be winning by a rout (around 7 to 1).

As one of the founding myths of North American society, a prominent component of American Dream, which is already a meritocratic notion indicating the rise of the ragged to wealth through hard work and talent alone, has spread, Urbi and orbi, or at least in the parts of the world subject to its imperial and imperialist sphere of influence.

Associated with “competition” as the propelling vector of the capitalist economy, based on the fundamental relationship of labor exploitation, the term “meritocracy”, since the 1950s, constitutes itself as one of the ideological pillars to try, and to a large extent to achieve, justify this mode of social production of wealth, and private appropriation.

The term has been the expression of one of the most successful fallacies, the one that assumes that everyone, both "salary dependents" and "profit dependents" are in a position, from their own efforts and supposed talents, to prosper. in equal measure, "winning at life." And education would be the route to such an achievement, the mechanism for such an achievement.

This successful operation of exalting individuals who are or could become successful, regardless of considerations other than their capabilities and efforts, has a prominent place in hegemonic re-education strategies, with which the population learned to consider fair, or without alternative, the way of being, working and living under the arrangements (and breakdowns) of capitalism in its recent phases, that of Golden Age of the post-war period, and the neoliberal one, from the 1970s onwards, when the “restoration of the economy as a social coercive force” (Wolfgang Streeck). It is as if distributive conflicts between classes did not appear as such; the fact that some prosper and others stagnate are presented as a result, let's say nakedly and crudely, of work or vagrancy, respectively.

Coupled with this fallacy, we can add many others, always starting from the same false assumption: that everyone would be in a position to choose the area of ​​activity that is best compatible with their nature, their skills or aptitudes and, thus equipped, to ascend to the scale professional, conquering unlimited hierarchical positions, generating, after all, recognized and exalted successes, and guaranteed satisfaction, or money-back guarantee. This is how the booklet on capitalist individual prosperity teaches, this is how the catechism of self-effort prays, guaranteeing happiness even now, even in earthly life. Out of these elevated lectures and what they promise, the majority are compelled to do the work of beasts of burden, which in the current technological and organizational conditions, can be a computer typist, a telemarketing operator, a pizza delivery man mounted on his bicycle. , oops, an entrepreneur activating applications, a qualified industrial worker, a civil servant and many others inserted or submitted to such schemes.

Central ideological function: to camouflage under the guise of a morality of private virtues the structural opposition between collective agents as a determinant of the success or failure of each one, or even of society. Success in guaranteeing living conditions, on whatever scale it is measured, would thus depend on what the individual does or fails to do, having little or nothing to do with the underlying structures or processes constituting the current mode of production, these indeed, that determine the conditions of social reproduction of individual or collective life.

From this cunning argument stems the unavoidable cleavage: on the one hand, valiant hardworking individuals, the best and the brightest– of these will be the capitalist kingdom of heaven -, and on the other hand, hardened vagabonds, habitual lazybones condemned to the depths of all hells. If only the latter descended, due to labor inertia or laxity of will, to such scabrous places, things would not be so bad. What really makes the whole thing ugly, that is, the fate of the majority under the capitalist system, is that even the “valiant workers” are  white collars ou blue collars, in the sociological designation of the 1950s/60s, are not sure, with or without meritocracy, of escaping the exploitation of the work to which they are subjected. And, consequently, to be allocated and maintained in positions in the social and technical division of labor that respond to the needs of capital reproduction rather than those that meet or correspond to their personal skills and professional qualifications.

Initially proposed to facilitate or increase social mobility, replacing the hereditary principle, the birthright to obtain prestigious positions, meritocracy intended to displace the self-complacent prerogatives of the elites, putting in their place the promotion of talented hard workers outsiders.

Although what in principle, and for some a true ethical principle, seems to ensure opportunities for all, replacing the attribution of social positions by birth privileges, in practice it appears as yet another ideology sanctioning inequalities. A very convenient ideology for a system that makes differences in abilities and talents seem natural, perceived as attributes of some individuals and not as the result of a pre-existing social differentiation, which decides the fate of one and the other right from the start, especially via the school system. Positivist thinkers, a little earlier, and functionalists, a little later, during the course of the XNUMXth century, bet somewhat excessively on the promises of education as a complement to the industrial and democratic revolutions.

Even if we could effectively achieve what the ideal of meritocracy promises, the principle is still flawed, it does not hold, because even if individuals succeed through their own efforts, several questions arise: would they have deserved the talents that allowed them to blossom ? Was it the result of their own merits that they were born into a certain class and not into another? Of living in a kind of society that values ​​their qualities and abilities? Of being possessors of capabilities and attributes that their time privileges and values? Would it be possible to disregard the help they had and that helped them to ascend, to prosper? Would they not owe any debt to the communities in which they were inserted? With the specific social arrangements that favored their success, that made success possible for them?

Term coined by Michael Young in a 1958 work (The advent of meritocracy, 1870-2033), meritocracy is satirically presented by this author as a sociological utopia that would lead, at the end of a progressive genealogical mobility, in a society governed by the most intelligent, whose high intellectual coefficient would legitimize their dominion over an inferior class totally disqualified even for basic professional functions , leaving them with domestic chores in the homes of gifted potentates.

In this way, we would not be far from a model of technocratic society, where not only democracy fades away, due to the marginalization of the majority, but the very agenda of coexistence would be governed by criteria of instrumental effectiveness, productivist or organizational performance and performance, to the detriment of values humanistic values ​​of consideration, empathy, cooperation, solidarity, dignity.

In recent decades, with abysmal and growing inequalities, an attitude towards success has spread, which some call meritocratic hubris; a smug attitude of those who rise to the top, attributing their success solely to their own initiative, and by implication the less fortunate, who are left behind, get only what they deserve, and have only themselves to blame for their failure.

Attitudes like these, and the ideology that corresponds to them, are among those that have generated resentments that create or exacerbate a polarization in society, halfway through which the inequality on which they are based, and reproduced, gives rise to conditions for a new form of tyranny.

The challenge of how to maintain sanity in these times of division and to sustain some parameter of civility in the face of heightened emotions, in the regulation of social exchanges and in the context of political confrontations, becomes a crucial task for those who are not satisfied with the somber tones under the which we live. And, definitely, the conception of success embedded in the idea of ​​meritocracy refers to a very narrow definition of what a successful life is, and very restricted in relation to those who benefit from it. Even for these, their achievements exacted a price that makes their lives miserable, an endless competition that consumes them quantitatively and qualitatively, leaving them no room for self-expression, creativity, desires and vitality, only self-exploration, extraction of value and endless anxiety. Alienation and conformism are the tolls that the meritocratic system charges them, because only by denying oneself as a social being, reducing oneself to a being for and in the market, and uncritically integrating oneself into it, can one's eventual merits be recognized and valued.

The condition they are given to live is an illustration of what Franco Berardi observed, that is, the current transformation of each domain of social life into the economy, leading to the “subjugation of the soul to the work process”.

It could be recalled here other objections to the meritocratic narrative, such as the prejudices of gender, race, class, origin that, despite the same qualifications, dedication and performance for identical functions, confer very unequal wages to women, blacks, LGBT, immigrants, those who receive men, whites, heterosexuals, with networks of long-established relationships. We would then not be far from an anti-meritocracy, a social control mechanism that ends up rewarding the most equal among the supposedly equal, in addition to eventually favoring opportunists, upstarts and unscrupulous people to rise in the functional hierarchy and in status positions. A meritocratic caste thus constituted would not exactly be the virtuous demonstration of the system, nor would it define parameters for a good society.

The values, practices, arguments and assumptions implicit in meritocracy, which intend to govern our daily lives, are therefore flawed and disastrous. If they were valid and promoters of what they state, we would not see the movements and demands for inclusion and diversity so clearly characterizing the vanguard of current struggles for social justice and democracy.

Despite being so embedded in the ethos contemporary collective, to the point that we find it difficult to imagine that meritocracy is not one of the foundations of fair organization in society, the fact is that it is a trap, which imprisons us all, accentuating inequalities. In a 2019 book (The Meritocracy Trap: How America's Foundational Myth Feeds Inequality, Dismantles the Middle Class, and Devours the Elite), Daniel Markovits demonstrates how this mechanism of supposedly rewarding the best and hardest workers becomes, in practice, a trap that spoils everyone's lives. Although the author, as befits a representative of the mainstream academic still bets on an economy and a labor market capable of promoting economic equality instead of emphasizing hierarchies, updating the meritocratic principle by expanding access to education, opening semi-specialized jobs for the middle classes, always thought of as the center of northern life American. But he recognizes that an updated version of these arrangements, even if possible, does not ensure what he calls a democratic economic order. The most probable collapse of this attempt leaves no alternative but the reiteration of inequality.

A democratic, fairer and more egalitarian society should, therefore, constitute itself apart and distant from this meritocratic mythology/dystopia.

The counterfactual condition of the promises of a socially pacified capitalism, of which meritocracy would be one of the components, finds in the crises of this beginning of the XNUMXst century even less plausibility, less adherence to the harsh reality of the Hayekian phase – the one in which the system seeks to survive by the credit mechanisms, public and private, at the expense of the chronic indebtedness of both. In these conditions, of recurrent crises, government affairs are in fact transferred to the central banks, which, if they help the political system to get rid of the dirty work of legitimizing it, do not even guarantee a new cycle of growth, much less the establishment of a less predatory economy.

With things configured in this way and with the aggravation of the increase of a model of Hayekian economic dictatorship, unless in the short and medium term, the rupture between capitalism and democracy becomes evident, admitting that they were close for some time, even if in always strained relationship.

The alternative would be a democracy without capitalism, but given the conditions of our time, we can only feed this promising hope by keeping it on the agenda, with permanent political mobilizations, nudging and disturbing the social order without respite, for the next several years or so. decades.

Faced with these long-term critical prospects, the question is to combine historical patience with permanent social and political struggle.

*Remy J. Fontana, sociologist, is a retired professor at the Department of Sociology and Political Science at UFSC.


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