Meritocracy v the people

The biggest division in modern society is between the meritocracy and the people, the cognitive elite and the masses, the exam-passers and the exam-flunkers.

Four Cambridge students ride a four seat tandem bike on the campus wearing mortarboards and gowns.
Four Cambridge students ride a four seat tandem bike on the campus wearing mortarboards and gowns. Credit: Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

Why did Donald Trump win the 2016 presidential election? Why did Britain vote for Brexit? And why does Erdoğan win loud applause whenever he mocks liberal ‘blah blah blah’? Why, in short, is liberal democracy in turmoil and populism on the march? Commentators are competing fiercely to produce the best answer to these questions. But as far as this author is concerned the prize goes to a book that was published in 1958 – when Donald Trump was just thirteen and Vladimir Putin was seven. The book is Michael Young’s The Rise of the Meritocracy.

Young argued that the most significant fact about modern society is not the rise of democracy, or indeed capitalism, but the rise of the meritocracy, a term he invented. In a knowledge-based society the most important influence on your life-chances is not your relationship to the means of production but your relationship to the machinery of educational and occupational selection. This is because this machinery determines not just how much you earn but also your sense of self-worth. For Young, the greatest milestones in recent British history were not the Great Reform Act of 1832 or the granting of votes to women in 1928. They were the Northcote-Trevelyan report of 1854, which opened civil service jobs to competitive examinations, and the Butler Education Act of 1944, which decreed that children should be educated according to their ‘age, ability and aptitude’.

Young was a towering figure in British life – the author of the Labour Party’s 1945 manifesto, the founder of the Open University, and a pioneering sociologist. But for all his distinction many readers misread the book as a celebration of meritocracy. The likes of former prime ministers Harold Wilson and Tony Blair shamelessly marketed themselves as meritocrats – enemies of the fusty old order and embodiments of modernity and justice rolled into one. In fact, it was meant to act as a warning. Young believed that the rise of the meritocracy was dividing society into two polarised groups: the exam-passers and the exam-flunkers. This would inevitably end in tears. The exam-passers would become the hereditary elite: selected on the basis of their brain power they would nevertheless do everything possible to make sure their less than brilliant children were given every educational advantage. The exam-flunkers would become increasingly embittered, first turning in on themselves, in misery and despair, and then turning against the society as a whole, in pig-wrestling rage. The result would be a revolution: the ‘failures’ would finally rise up against their meritocratic overlords (abetted by members of the ruling class who could no longer tolerate the system) and wreak their revenge for all the snubs and sneers.

Look around the world and almost everything that Young worried about can be seen in action. His only mistake was one of timing. Young thought that the populist revolution would be delayed until 2033. In fact it is already occurring. The biggest division in modern society is not between the owners of the means of production and the workers, as Karl Marx posited. It is not between the patriarchy and women or the white races and non-white races, as the post-modernists posit. It is between the meritocracy and the people, the cognitive elite and the masses, the exam-passers and the exam-flunkers. The winners are becoming intolerably smug. The losers are turning in on themselves, with an epidemic of suicides and drug addiction reducing the life-expectancy of working-class Americans for the first time in a century. And the tumbrils are beginning to operate.

The global establishment is, above all, a meritocratic establishment: it consists of people who have done well at school and university and who have gravitated to jobs that require both intellectual skills and evidence of those intellectual skills in the form of credentials. There are various sub-divisions within this elite: people who work for universities and NGOs like to snipe at people who work for business and banks, but in fact all members of the global elite have more in common than they like to think.

They routinely marry other members of the meritocratic elite: the marriage announcements in the New York Times read rather like marriage announcements between blue-blooded families in the high Victorian age, with the lists of university degrees (Harvard and Yale marries Brown and Columbia!) replacing lists of family pedigrees. Only two out of every thousand marriages are between a partner with a university degree and a partner with primary qualifications only. They usually share a common outlook. They pride themselves on their cosmopolitan values partly because they live in a borderless world – they are forever hopping over borders, in their business trips and foreign holidays – and partly because liberal immigration policies provide them with all the accoutrements of a cash-rich and time-starved lifestyle, cleaners, baby-sitters and exotic restaurants. They like to demonstrate their sympathy with racial and sexual minorities: businesses are now busily importing affirmative action schemes and gay-friendly policies from universities. But they don’t give much of a damn for the old-fashioned working class: whether they will admit it or not, many exam-passers think that those left behind deserve their dismal fate not just because they are less intelligent than the exam-passers but because they are less enlightened as well.

The populist movement that is sweeping the world is, more than anything else, a revolt against meritocracy. The groups that are driving the rise of populism have disparate material interests: they consist of traditional working-class people, Main Street business people such as real-estate agents and old-line manufacturers, and older voters who came of age before the great university expansion of the 1960s. But they are united by their common opposition to the meritocratic elite with their cosmopolitan values and habit of valuing intellectual achievement over physical skills.

The biggest predictor of populist attitudes is failure in the exam race. In Britain’s EU-referendum, 72 per cent of people with no educational qualifications voted to leave, compared with only 35 per cent of those with a university degree. In America, whites without a degree voted 67 to 28 for Trump while whites with degrees voted 71 to 23 for Hillary Clinton. The first female presidential candidate for a major party lost white women without a degree by a margin of 27 points. For some strange reason the average waitress doesn’t care about getting more women onto the boards of Fortune 500 companies.

The western electoral map is increasingly a map of education institutions. In America the Democrats win places where colleges are thick on the ground – the coasts, the cities and the university towns. The Republicans win places where Wal-Marts and Dennys are more common. In Britain the Remainers won by huge margins in knowledge-intensive cities such as London and in college towns such as Oxford and Cambridge. The Leavers won in the provinces and in smaller towns.

One reason why the Leave vote proved such a surprise for pollsters in Britain was that it was driven by a surge in turn-out among people who had almost given up the habit of voting. Areas with large numbers of people with no educational qualifications witnessed a larger increase in turnout (8.4 points) than areas with large numbers of middle-class graduates (6.6 points). The estimated participation gap between highly educated professionals (who largely voted Remain) and people with lower levels of education (who usually voted Leave) was reduced from 39 per cent in the 2015 general election to only 20 per cent. Those who advocate a re-run of the referendum should think carefully about overturning a vote that galvanised large numbers of people who had given up the habit of voting precisely because they had come to the conclusion that their votes didn’t make a difference.

In the 1990s, American politics was profoundly reshaped by culture wars that focused on ‘gays, guns and God’. Today, it is not just American but global politics that is being reshaped by a new iteration of culture wars which focus on questions of education, identity and self-worth. Donald Trump proudly boasts that he ‘loves the poorly educated’. Trump’s enemies respond by questioning the ability of the ‘poorly educated’ to pursue their own interests. The most effective way to rile the meritocrats is to attack their faith in expertise: Lord Turnbull, a former Cabinet Secretary, has said that the Brexiteers’ willingness to question Treasury forecasts of the impact of Brexit was reminiscent of pre-war Nazi Germany. The easiest way to rile the populists is to imply that their attachment to symbols of national identity, such as blue passports or the Union Jack, is a sign of low intelligence.

Why is the revolt against the meritocracy so powerful? Why is it trumping economic factors despite stagnant living standards for the masses? And why does it persist despite concerted attempts to close it down from the establishment? Three things lie behind the fury.

The first is marginalisation. The meritocrats have progressively seized control of almost every institution of any significance and, almost without realising it, muscled aside anybody who doesn’t share their values and interests. Few people would begrudge the meritocrats their success in wresting control of the civil service from dim-witted aristocrats in the mid-19th century or wresting control of academia from ‘men of letters’ in the mid-20th century: you need a combination of brains and discipline to administer the modern state or to explore the universe. But recently the meritocratic revolution has advanced into more questionable areas. Businesses used to provide a ladder for people to climb from the shop floor to the corner office through practical success rather than academic qualifications. Now they are increasingly taken over by people with MBAs and a few years working for McKinsey. National newspapers used to recruit people from local newspapers who cut their teeth on the crime beat. One of the best columnists in Britain, the late Frank Johnson, left school at 16 and started his career as a messenger boy on the Sunday Express. Now journalism is becoming an all-graduate profession and you can pass effortlessly from studying gender studies at university to decrying sexism in a major newspaper without ever so much as meeting a member of the general public. Most damaging of all is the marriage between politics and meritocracy.

The essence of democratic politics is that it’s open to anyone regardless of background or education. The great democratic reforms of the late 19th and early 20th centuries removed successive barriers erected by property, biology or education. The great left-wing parties earned their spurs by helping working-class people into parliament. Before the Second World War, for example, most Labour MPs were manual workers who had been sponsored by trade unions. But across the West new informal barriers to participation are being erected by the march of meritocracy. Mark Bovens and Anchrit Wille, two academics, talk about the rise of ‘diploma democracy’ or ‘political meritocracy’.

Parliaments are increasingly dominated by graduates. In many European countries more than 80 per cent of MPs have university degrees – and the figure goes up to almost 100 per cent when you look at the latest intake. In Angela Merkel’s third cabinet, installed in 2013, 14 out of 15 ministers had the equivalent of a master’s degree, nine had a PhD, seven had held some sort of job in a university, and two had held full professorships, before entering politics. (Having a PhD is such a boon in German politics that some politicians have awarded themselves degrees without going through the tedium of actually bothering to study.) More than 80 per cent of MEPs have university degrees and more than 25 per cent have PhDs. It is conventional to agonise about the slowness of the rise in the number of women or ethnic minorities in parliament. The simultaneous decline in the number of working-class MPs arouses almost no comment whatsoever.

Parliaments are the tip of an iceberg of educational privilege. The political parties are ceasing to be mass membership organisations and instead becoming professional bodies dominated by graduates. Most NGOs are now run by professionals rather than volunteers. Graduates are more likely to engage in political activities such as signing petitions or calling for boycotts than non-graduates. Even the bastions of the working-class, the trade unions, are being colonised by knowledge workers: in Britain the average trade unionist is a woman in her sixties with a higher qualification.

This has important consequences for the political agenda: the 70 per cent who didn’t go to university have different priorities from the 30 per cent who did. They are much more preoccupied by questions such as crime (which deserves stiff punishment), immigration (which needs to be curbed) and welfare scrounging (which must be stopped), and much less concerned about the environment and the travails of refugees. One of the most dramatic changes in the United States in recent years has been the reduction in the life-chances of a significant section of white America. In the 1990s the risk of a non-college-educated white person dying in his early fifties was 30 per cent lower than for a comparable black person. By 2015 it was 30 per cent higher. Non-Hispanic white males make up 31 per cent of the population but accounted for 70 per cent of suicides in the US in 2014. Yet politicians and journalists have paid little attention to these problems on the grounds that white men are, ipso facto, embodiments of various sorts of privilege. Between November 8, 2015 and November 8, 2016 the word ‘transgender’ appeared in the New York Times on 1,169 occasions. The word ‘opioid’ appeared only 284 times.

The second problem is condescension. The most common complaint made by populists is that the elites look down on them in every imaginable way. They despise the symbols that they hold dear. They chuckle at their favourite sports such as NASCAR racing. They make jokes about their favourite clothes (skimpy T-shirts are ‘wife beaters’). In many ways this is an age of hypersensitivity: commentators make jokes about racial minorities at their peril. But the working-class remains fair game. This attitude is revealed in a mass of off-the-cuff remarks – some of which, such as Hillary Clinton’s description of Mr Trump’s supporters as a ‘basket of deplorables’, have captured the public attention but most of which pass for normal. Anti-Brexit warriors such as AC Grayling routinely describe Brexit voters as stupid. The Sunday Times quoted an Italian lawyer describing his country’s populists as belonging to ‘another species’. Emily Thornberry, while Britain’s shadow Attorney General, chortled by tweet over an image of ‘white van man’ and his stereotypically crude predilection for the Cross of St George.

One reason why populists are so furious about political correctness – the majority of people who voted for Brexit and Trump put opposition to political correctness high on their list of reasons for so doing – is that they regard it as an exercise in condescension. Political correctness serves two covert functions for the elite. It allows them to demonstrate how virtuous they are by taking offence at ‘insensitive’ remarks. It also allows them to demonise blue-collar workers by stigmatising their traditional habits. In many ways it’s a postmodern version of conspicuous consumption: it allows its devotees to demonstrate their superiority over their fellow citizens by building mansions of virtue in the same way that 19th-century robber barons built physical mansions. ‘How does it feel to be a problem?’ wrote WEB Du Bois at the beginning of the century in reference to black people. Political correctness is today’s way of defining your fellow citizens as a problem.

The third problem is over-reach. The meritocrats – particularly the super-meritocrats who run global institutions – have repeatedly promised more than they can deliver. The architects of the Washington consensus presented two big arguments for globalisation, particularly financial globalisation. The first was that globalisation would make us all richer. A few bankers might get obscenely rich. But that was a small price to pay for the fact that overall living standards would rise. The second was that they knew how to control the gods of finance. Financial liberalisation might unleash a certain amount of turbulence. But wise men such as central bankers possessed the techniques that they needed to bring that turbulence under control. Gordon Brown, the UK’s former long-standing chancellor and short-lived prime minister, even boasted that he had ended the cycles of boom and bust in the British economy.

The financial crisis of 2008 blew these arguments to smithereens. The wizards failed to bring the crisis under control until it had destroyed billions of dollars’ worth of wealth. And the bankers continued to enrich themselves even as the global economy collapsed: AIG executives insisted on receiving their annual bonuses despite the fact that the taxpayer had been forced to rescue the company from bankruptcy. The hangover from that financial crisis is with us still. Britain’s Institute for Fiscal Studies predicts that average living standards won’t reach the level that they were at before the financial crisis until the mid-2000s.

The same pattern of over-reach can be seen in the European Union. The EU unwisely introduced a common currency before it had the other prerequisites of a currency union such as a common tax system. The EU keeps insisting that the ‘four freedoms’ are indivisible, as if they were written on tablets of stone and handed down by God, and despite the fact that North America enjoys the benefits of free trade in goods and services without free movement of people. Indeed, freedom of movement is whipping up opposition to the other freedoms that might eventually result in the destruction of the entire edifice. The Brussels elite seems to think that repeating a phrase constitutes an argument and that sticking to your guns regardless of the evidence is proof of courage rather than stupidity.

The final problem is self-interest: the meritocrats have a remarkable ability to fix the rules to suit their own purposes, either by disguising self-interest as the common good or by rewriting the rules to save their own bacon. Many of the greatest 19th-century novelists such as Charles Dickens and Gustave Flaubert railed against the sheer hypocrisy of the Victorian middle class. But the Victorians were mere pikers compared with today’s meritocratic elite.

Take the question of immigration. Meritocrats benefit hugely from immigration because it provides them with cheap servants to raise their children (a necessity when two parents are pursuing their careers) as well as cheaper goods and services. For non-meritocrats the calculation is much more complicated: immigration frequently represents a direct challenge to their jobs or, at a minimum, a downward pressure on their wages. But meritocrats have done a brilliant job of presenting support for immigration as a moral imperative rather than as an economic calculation – and in implying that people who are opposed to immigration are moral imbeciles.

Or take the notion that the new division in global politics is between ‘open’ and ‘closed’. This is becoming axiomatic in meritocratic circles. But it is saturated with self-interest and self-adulation. The terms used to describe the division are highly emotive: proponents of the division contrast good things such as openness and cosmopolitan values with bad things such as nativism and being closed-minded. The old division between left and right at least had the virtue of being value-neutral. They are also highly misleading. The supporters of ‘openness’ are much less open than they like to pretend. They carefully protect their interests with all sorts of barriers to competition such as licenses, closed shops (try becoming a British barrister) and informal protections.

The meritocrats are adept at marking their own homework: most financial regulators have a background in the financial services industry for example. Senior corporate managers sit on each other’s boards and determine each other’s salaries. For some reason those salaries keep going upwards.

The meritocrats are also adept at changing the rules when they turn against them. The most infuriating example of this is the banking crisis. For decades financiers preached the virtues of competition red in tooth and claw. Remove barriers to competition! Pay people what they are worth! Let people eat what they can kill and only what they kill! But as soon as the market collapsed these adamantine capitalists suddenly became bleeding-heart socialists.

The danger is that meritocratic elitism and populist rage will become self-reinforcing. The meritocrats will double-down on their elitism in response to populist criticism. The populists will get ever angrier and more extreme.

This is already happening. America’s universities have become ever more preoccupied with identity politics, and more willing to shout down conservative speakers, in response to Trump’s policies. The world’s global institutions are also doing more to insulate themselves from the unwashed masses and their reactionary views. Liberal globalists have even taken to advancing a radical new notion of where sovereignty lies: not with the people, as the Americans have always argued, or with the state, as the French maintain, or with parliament as the British insist, but with a universal collection of rights, existing in a Platonic world beyond the reach of politics, that empanelled experts can discover and implement. The populists are replying in kind.

The populists are becoming more belligerent. In Britain, the Daily Mail denounces ‘Remoaners’ – those who voted to remain in the EU and who complain about the referendum result – as ‘traitors’ and called High Court judges ‘enemies of the people’. In America right-wing blogs proclaim that their aim is to make ‘liberal heads explode’ (‘It’s really funny to me to see the ’splodey heads keep ’sploding,’ says Sarah Palin). Under George W Bush, the conservative movement boasted a counter-establishment of conservative think tanks, high-brow journalists and policy intellectuals. Today they have been sidelined by an entertainment complex of shock jocks, cable news presenters and professional bigots who make their living by mocking the educated elite. Irving Kristol and William F Buckley have given way to Ann Coulter. The American Enterprise Institute has passed the torch to Fox and Friends.

It is time for responsible meritocrats to step in and restore some semblance of sanity. They bear a disproportionate share of the responsibility for the mess we’re in at the moment. They let their arrogance and self-regard get the better of them. They promised universal prosperity and produced turbulence and stagnation. They owe it to the world to repair the mess that they have created.

This essay originally appeared under the title ‘Meritocracy and the rise of populism’ in ‘Knowledge and Information: Perspectives from the Engelsberg Seminar’, Bokförlaget Stolpe, in collaboration with Axel and Margaret Ax:son Johnson Foundation, 2018.


Adrian Wooldridge