Meritocracy: Origins, Myth, Reality and Alternatives…
A C20 Interview with Jo Littler
By Collective 20
[Collective 20 is a group of writers located in different places throughout the globe. Some young, some older; some long-time organizers and writers, others just getting started, but all equally dedicated to offering analysis, vision, and strategy useful for winning a vastly better society than we currently endure. The members of Collective 20 hope their contributions concerning social, political, economic, and environmental issues will generate more useful content and better outreach through a collective publication effort as opposed to individuals doing so on their own. Collective 20’s cumulative work can be found at collective20.org, where you can learn more about the group, see an archive of its publications, and comment on its work.]
Jo Littler is a Professor in the Department of Sociology and Director of the Gender and Sexualities Research Centre at City: University of London. Her research on culture, society, in/equality and power is wide-ranging, including work on meritocracy, neoliberal narratives, consumerism, social reproduction and cultural politics.
C20: First of all, thank you for doing this interview, Jo. We noticed that your book – Against Meritocracy: Culture, Power and Myths of Mobility – is available to download or read online for free. Why did you decide to do that? Is that standard practice these days? Or was that a political decision on your part?
JL: After the book came out Routledge told me they’d been approached by Knowledge Unlatched who would pay to make it open access through a Creative Commons license if I wanted. So I said yes, as I wanted people to read it. It was a surprise to be honest but a really welcome one given the cost of academic books.
Open access publishing is increasingly recognised as a social good, and of course in a fundamental sense this is completely right. But it’s also a very thorny area riven with political issues. In universities there is now more encouragement for academics to publish open access, but this tends to be very expensive and it’s often only a few academics with grants or at elite institutions who will be able to afford what in many cases are very large fees. It’s also becoming a new way of funnelling public money to large multinational publishers. So yes, open access is great but it is also, and increasingly, the site of significant political battles.
C20: The invention of the modern notion of meritocracy is interesting. In your book you talk about its socialist origins. Perhaps you could start by saying something about those beginnings. What time period are we talking about and who were the main thinkers behind the idea?
JL: The term emerged in English in the 1950s. Its first recorded use was in an article called ‘Class and equality’ in the magazine Socialist Commentary by the industrial sociologist Alan Fox. For him meritocracy is palpably wrong and unfair: it is a society where the gifted and the ruthless are not only able ‘to enjoy the fulfilment of exercising their natural endowments but also to receive a fat bonus’. Why should the rich, the lucky and the gifted be given even more prizes? he asks, incredulously: this is the vision of conservatives, he says, not the left. To Fox the solution is not only to be found in sharing the wealth, but also through the sharing of time, education and leisure. So for example he was keen on the idea of ‘cross-grading’, where if you have a particularly boring or difficult job you’d get more leisure time.
But the word was most associated with the social democrat Michael Young, who wrote the scathing 1958 fictional bestseller The Rise of the Meritocracy (as well as co-founding the Open University and the Consumer’s Association). This depicted past democratic progress being followed by a dystopian future marked by meritocracy, which is clearly a bad thing, as it leads to social division and even a black market trade in brainy babies. Meritocracy was also lambasted by the cultural materialist Raymond Williams when reviewing Young’s book, and by the philosopher Hannah Arendt, who mentioned the word a couple of years after Young’s book in an essay on education. She argued that “Meritocracy contradicts the principle of equality … no less than any other oligarchy.” And for Arendt, like Young, education was a key part of the problem. For them, like many others, the advent of the British grammar school system which divided kids so ruthlessly at 11 years of age was unfair and wrong, and their critiques of meritocracy were also critiquing this new system and structure of social division.
C20: You also explore how meritocracy has been adopted and adapted by liberal and conservative thinkers. During this transformational period meritocracy changed from having generally negative implications to overwhelmingly positive connotations. What motivated this adoption and adaptation? When did it start?
JL: It started to happen in the 1970s. In terms of social theory, Michael Young’s friend in the States, Daniel Bell, a key theorist of the information society, reconfigures meritocracy as a positive rather than a negative idea — as an engine of knowledge economy. It probably doesn’t seem so much of a big deal to advocate working hard to compete, to achieve and rise at this moment, when there’s still a strong welfare state. After that time it became used as a term by right-wing think tanks in the US and UK as a rationale for reducing collective or socialised public provision. The Institute of Economic Affairs, for example, advocates privatising secondary schools by arguing that meritocracy is the key to a better society, that ‘the best’ will naturally rise to the top. By the 1980s and 1990s meritocracy was being championed by both ‘third way’ politicians and sociologists on the liberal left, like Anthony Giddens and Tony Blair, as well as by the right. The right then started to use it in a more savage and punitive way. So this new cheerleading stance for meritocracy across different political positions is part of what I call ‘neoliberal meritocracy’. It’s a key part of the advent of neoliberalism: the idea, the story of the narrative of meritocracy – that you just need to work hard individually and you can make it, no matter what your background! – becomes a justification to slash collective forms of support and social structures. And the fact that the earlier, wholly negative meaning of meritocracy gets lost, gets completely squeezed out of the picture, is part and parcel of how the left was getting squeezed out of the political picture, and the balance of power, as neoliberal capitalism becomes dominant.
C20: You state that meritocracy functions as a fig leaf. Why do elites within liberal societies need the myth of meritocracy? What is this fig leaf concealing?
JL: It provides a justification for capitalism by making it sound egalitarian. It makes it sound like anyone can make it! But it conceals the vastly different starting blocks and huge range of different kinds of advantages people have. So it perpetuates inequality.
C20: Meritocracy is also closely associated with other key notions such as social mobility (and the metaphor of the ladder) and equality of opportunity (and the metaphor of the level playing field). Could you say something about how these three ideas relate to each other. This can all sound very progressive. But how does this theory pan-out in the real world?
JL: You’re right, they can sound very freeing and democratic. And in part what gives them their power contain important grains of truth. Yes, everyone should be able to have similar opportunities open to them so they can develop their skills to the best of their ability; yes, we should be able to move beyond what we are born into; no, the privileged should not be able to stay secure behind the golden gates of power.
So what’s the problem? Well, social mobility involves the idea that we should move up the social ladder. When people say there should be improved social mobility, they are saying there should be more people travelling upwards. But what about the people travelling downwards? The whole idea of the social ladder is part of the problem. In 1958, the cultural theorist Raymond Williams pointed out that the ladder is a perfect symbol of the bourgeois idea of society: for while it undoubtedly offers the opportunity to climb, ‘it is a device that can only be used individually; you go up the ladder alone’. It ‘sweetens the poison of hierarchy’ by offering growth through merit rather than money or birth, whilst retaining a commitment to the very notion of hierarchy itself. So in other words, social mobility promotes an impoverished social imaginary that works against the common good. We are interdependent and only flourish collectively.
As for equality of opportunity: it sounds great but in reality it belongs to part of a philosophical tradition which is pitted against ‘equality of outcome’ or ‘equality of condition’. That’s the first problem. The second is that it simply doesn’t exist in a society of increasingly extreme wealth inequality! So it’s thrown around as a term by the right whilst they fail to address the obscene gap between rich and poor. The level playing field is not being made level. The language has been stolen by the right (‘levelling up’) whilst the opposite is happening in practice.
C20: Many people intuitively feel that the system is rigged. We have also started to see some well known progressives  and leaders on the left  talk about rigged economics. How can your work on meritocracy help people gain a better understanding of how political and economic elites within liberal societies get away with biasing the system in their favour?
JL: It draws attention to the ideological work that works in its construction, the scaffolding of the economic system if you like. This is important to get to grips with. You need to understand where you are, the terrain you are on, to make sense of what’s around you and to change it. Know your enemy!
For instance, the ultra-privileged will use a language of meritocracy and travelling upwards to gain popularity. The language of graft, a classed language of manual labour, is often used by the richest and most privileged of people to show how ‘they earned it’. Think of Donald Trump, for instance. Or Duncan Bannatyne, the Dragons’ Den CEO who suggests he made his money by working his way up from the bottom rather than through cashing in on privatization of local authorities, social services and sections of the NHS. I call this figure the ‘normcore plutocrat’. Instead we need to ask where they come from, how they got their money and what they are using it for. Also, when politics has been colonized by technocrats in suits, implemented top-down rather than by the people — being ‘outside politics’ is a space most people over the past 50 years have been positioned in. Neoliberal meritocracy creates aggrieved groups who want to rail against the system. And they have been aggressively courted by right-wing populists.
C20: As part of your analysis, you identify five key problems with meritocracy. To give the reader a general idea of what you have in mind, could you briefly sketch-out what those main problems are?
JL: Firstly: it’s structurally impossible. Meritocracy conjures up the idea of the level playing field whilst not being one. Meritocracy has never been used as a term outside a system of vastly unequal economic rewards for different jobs. Those who ‘achieve’ pass on more privilege to their children, thus contributing to an unequal social starting block. It’s impossible, it’s a tautology.
Second, it endorses a competitive, individualistic, ‘ladder’ system of social mobility in which by definition people must be left behind. Failed talent is the necessary and structural condition of meritocracy’s existence. It promises opportunity whilst fostering social division. In the contemporary era, the promises of meritocracy have become increasingly loudly trumpeted and competitive participation has become presented as a moral obligation at the same time as the ‘ladder’ has grown longer.
Third, meritocracy often assumes that ‘talent’ or ‘intelligence’ is a primarily inborn, essentialised ability that’s either given the chance to ‘succeed’ or not. Really merit and talent are far more complex – e.g. you might have a talent for playing clarinet, but you’re not going to know unless you have access to it, and to tuition, and time and space to practice it. And what ‘talent’ and ‘merit’ means has been profoundly problematically gendered and racialised.
Fourth, it endorses problematic hierarchical status rankings. For instance, certain professions are put at the ‘top’, but whether they should be there – and why they are there — tends to be less discussed. Why do a singer or an entrepreneur become roles to aspire too and to reward so fully above those of a doctor or a vet? It helps extend a very narrow status system in which some are rendered abject and others successful.
And the fifth key problem with meritocracy, is that it functions as a myth to obscure the role meritocracy itself plays in actually expanding economic and social inequality. The most unequal Western society, the US, doesn’t have any more fluid intergenerational mobility than Sweden, the most equal Western society — but its myth of social mobility is used to validate greater inequality.
C20: You write that meritocracy “has become the key means of cultural legitimation for contemporary capitalist culture” [emphasis added]. This suggests that focusing on exposing the reality of the meritocratic system should be a strategic priority for the left and progressives generally. Is this what you have in mind? If so, could you say why you believe it should be a main focus?
JL: Yes, I think that meritocracy, the idea of anyone being able to make it, has been the key legitimising narrative of contemporary capitalism. It has been used in a range of ways: made more socially liberal at times, like in the 1990s (i.e. connected to sexual, gender and ethnic diversity in the Blair years) or punitive and authoritarian (as in the early years of austerity culture). My work has been part of a wider wave of critiques of this toxic and divisive worldview which pits us against each other as competitive individuals rather than helping us all progress, in and through our differences, together. These include books by Lani Gunier (The Tyranny of the Meritocracy) Daniel Markovitz (The Meritocracy Trap) and Michael Sandel (The Illusion of Merit) to name but a few. The fact that this is all having some impact is shown by the right-wing defence of the idea is now occurring, for example the right-wing commentator Adrian Wooldridge – who wrote one of the early 1980s pamphlets advocating privatising all schools under the guise of meritocracy’ – defends the idea in his new book; as well as how it takes new forms (the current lies about ‘levelling up’ in which money is thrown selectively at swing constituencies (pork barrel politics) whilst the public sector is further privatised and money siphoned off to the already-rich.
C20: You also talk of the “cultural pull of meritocratic hope”. Could you say how this pull has impacted on mothering? How are young mothers being seduced by this ideological discourse, this system of beliefs? What is a “mumpreneur”?
JL: Who doesn’t want to improve themselves or their situation? That’s part of the cultural pull of the idea of meritocracy. A core feature of contemporary neoliberal meritocracy is that very disempowered constituencies are relentlessly addressed by meritocratic discourse of ‘empowerment’. So mothers are encouraged to compensate for the lack of good part-time job opportunities and lack of affordable childcare by setting up businesses from their kitchen table as mumpreneurs: to solve the problems individually themselves by working twice as hard after having a new baby!
I wouldn’t use the term ‘seduced’ in this context, partly as it’s so gendered. But there is a relentless barrage of media messages. What I call ‘parables of progress’ are continually pushed on us, emphasising, again and again, the idea that anyone can do it, rather than mentioning the structures that enabled them. If you look at the real life situation of most successful mumpreneurs, a majority come from very wealthy families and have extensive support. Instead we need systems of support for all parents, including far better parental leave and a shorter working week, for starters.
C20: You write that, “We need to take the power away from the 1% and give it to the 99%”. As anti-capitalists we have no problem with this. Isn’t it the case, however, that most of the main proponents of the myth of meritocracy are located within the 99%? We are thinking here of what is referred to as the professional-managerial class . Isn’t it the case that we could still have a toxic “meritocracy” even without capitalists and capitalism? Hasn’t the history of 20th Century socialism, which was informed by this two class analysis – 1% vs 99% – shown this to be the case?
JL: That’s two, possibly three questions I think. Yes, neoliberal meritocracy is an ideology, a worldview used to justify capitalism, which extends way beyond the 1% otherwise it wouldn’t be powerful. It works as a technique in which people are encouraged to vote against their own interests. The middle-aged professional managerial class has upheld much of it over recent decades in part because of their historical position: many of them benefitted from the asset economy, from the housing market alongside the expanded welfare state and its jobs. The stereotype of the centrist dad and the boomer who vote against sharing the wealth, at the expense of younger generations in particular, is relevant here.
C20: As part of your conclusion you state that, amongst other things,“we need to argue for economic equality”. You then draw on the work of Wilkinson and Pickett who have proposed “different strategies to move toward economic equality, such as using taxes and benefits or narrowing the difference in gross market incomes” . As short term measures this, of course, sounds fine. However, isn’t it the case that if we are going to actually address the effects of capitalist meritocracy we will need to identify and replace the institutions that facilitate its corrosive dynamic? In other words, doesn’t the left need to come up with alternatives to the hierarchical division of labour and competitive markets, for example? .
JL: Yes the system of casino capitalism is only generating vast inequality and destroying the environment. We need global financial regulation to stop offshore billionaires siphoning off all our collective wealth. Ann Pettifor’s work is excellent on this. And yes we need a mixture of both collective universal basic services and a wide diversity of worker co-operatives at all levels. We discuss this in The Care Manifesto. And for more on these topics I’d recommend reading Anna Coote on Universal Basic Services, Jeremy Gilbert’s book Twenty-First Century socialism and, on local alternatives, Rhian Jones and Matthew Brown, Paint your Town Red.
C20: Similarly, in one of his Podcasts – RevolutionZ – Michael Albert discusses meritocracy and what he describes as “the thorny issue of income”.  As part of his introduction he asks, “I get that you want a higher minimum wage, I get that you support people striking for better pay, but what do you think really ought to happen regarding people’s earnings?” Albert then goes on to make the case for what we might think of as a socialist meritocratic criteria for remuneration. According to this criteria, people no longer get remunerated for ownership, bargaining power or output. Instead their income is determined by the amount of effort and sacrifice they make (as determined by their peers). In other words, people get paid according to how hard they work, how long they work and for the onerousness of the conditions in which they work (assuming that the work is collectively determined to be of social value). Do you think that this is a desirable alternative to capitalist meritocracy?
JL: That’s interesting as it takes us right back to Alan Fox and his ideas about cross-grading (refuse collectors getting more time off) in some ways. I know in some smaller organisations there are some innovative practices with income. I know one co-operative organisation where they discuss pay levels in relation to a complicated set of variables including their number of dependents and inherited wealth alongside everything else. That’s harder to do in large organisations of course. And it also reminds us that it is really important that when we’re thinking about income we don’t take our eye off the issue of assets. The new book by Melinda Cooper et al, The Asset Economy for example makes the completely persuasive case that when we’re thinking about class we cannot ignore the fact of assets – such as inherited wealth and property. The authors argue that now it needs to be factored directly into any consideration of class division. I completely agree with that. The generational access to assets is also obviously wildly uneven, and over past decades has been facilitated by the housing market and the selling off of council housing, as Kier Milburn lays out so well in Generation Left.
So the issue of income is currently skewed by the asset economy: solving income inequality on its own is only one part of the story, and you can’t leave assets out of the picture. When we do turn our attention to income there are several points that can be made. A simple one is that it’s obviously not socially healthy to have wildly uneven salaries and rates of pay. The astronomical pay levels given to bosses and CEOs is wildly different from 50 years ago: we have very high ‘pay ratios’ as the High Pay Centre puts it. Instead we should regulate for small pay ratios as a social good, dump high pay and excessive bonuses, introduce an actual liveable wage together with an economic and employment culture that pushes hard for employee ownership and worker co-ops, alongside a strong culture of universal basic services and green social infrastructure for all. So I would primarily argue on these grounds. I think that is more important than being given more money for working hard.
C20: Thanks again for doing this interview, Jo. Before we finish, could you say what other material you have come across on meritocracy and/or related themes? Have you read any other books, for example, on the topic that you would recommend?
JL: Thank you! There’s loads of great work which relates to this subject and I’ve tried to mention some already. Two other books that I like include:
Inequality by Design by Claude S Fischer et al. This is a magnificent multi-authored book which shows how a particularly narrow notion of intelligence (i.e., psychometric testing of IQs) structured the ‘bell curve’ debates of the 1990s that became a conduit of renewed racism towards African Americans. It’s a great example of a multi-authored work bringing together a range of different perspectives on an issue, simultaneously analysing ‘hard data’ and cultural narratives. Along the way it is also extremely perceptive about all kinds of questions pertaining to inequality and intelligence.
In Why we can’t afford the rich, Andrew Sayer demolishes the myths of trickle-down wealth and the common idea that the rich are good for us. Excavating the precise mechanisms and structures through which the rich are organising, leveraging and stealing their wealth, he shows how neoliberalism has operated as a system siphoning off money from the public to a small number of billionaires. We simply can’t afford the rich if we want to flourish and the environment not to be devastated.
[INITIAL SUBMISSION: Mark Evans | AUTHOR: Collective 20 (Andrej Grubacic, Brett Wilkins, Bridget Meehan, Cynthia Peters, Don Rojas, Emily Jones, Justin Podur, Mark Evans, Medea Benjamin, Michael Albert, Noam Chomsky, Oscar Chacon, Peter Bohmer, Savvina Chowdhury, Vincent Emanuele)]
- For more information on Jo visit: https://www.city.ac.uk/about/people/academics/jo-littler
- Available here: https://www.taylorfrancis.com/books/oa-mono/10.4324/9781315712802/meritocracy-jo-littler
- For example: https://www.scientificamerican.com/video/a-nobel-laureate-explains-the-rigged-american-economy/
- For example: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pnSQVixz7wg
- In her book Virtue Hoarders: The Case Against the Professional Managerial Class, Catherine Liu writes: “The radical and material difference in average income between janitors and CEO should be intolerable to everyone who is not a capitalist, but PMC elites have internalized the values of the meritocracy so deeply that they cannot see the radical nature of this difference in income as essentially different from all other kinds of difference”. For more information on the book go to: https://www.upress.umn.edu/book-division/books/virtue-hoarders
- For more on this approach see the Campaigns page at the Equality Trust: https://www.equalitytrust.org.uk/campaigns
- Proposed alternatives do already exist. For example, balanced job complexes have been proposed as a means of generating an egalitarian division of labour and participatory planning as an alternative to competitive markets. For more information on these and other alternative institutions see: https://zcomm.org/looking-forward/
- The Podcast is available here: https://revolutionz.buzzsprout.com/330161/1180337-ep-3-vision-meritocracy-and-income