When merit became myth

Although merit is an age-old idea, the West's post-60s culture of narcissism reshaped it in novel ways, spurring the rise of smug meritocrats.
British hairdresser Vidal Sassoon creates a long bob with a soft fringe for actress Janette Scott. Credit: M. McKeown/Express/Getty Images
British hairdresser Vidal Sassoon creates a long bob with a soft fringe for actress Janette Scott. Credit: M. McKeown/Express/Getty Images
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It’s not an entirely new concept.

Vespasian, the founder of the Flavian dynasty and builder of the great amphitheatre later known as Colosseum, could plausibly be labelled the first middle-class Roman emperor. And Napoleon was a second-generation immigrant from the rough backwaters of France who lacked a real grasp of the language. He still made his way. Merit has never been unimportant, even in the most aristocratic or autocratic societies. But meritocracy – making talent, effort and achievement the only legitimate tenders for advancement – is something else. 

 There are a few early formal bows to the idea. To dig where I happen to be standing: Axel Oxenstierna, who in the seventeenth century more or less single-handedly created the foundations of Swedish government, stressed ‘ability,’ not ‘friendship,’ as the sole basis for government employment. In the Swedish constitution of 1809, the king was said only to consider ‘merit and proficiency,’ not station, when promoting civil servants. And in Sweden, as in most Christian countries, the Church has always taken smart kids in dismal circumstances and put them on the path to success. I once met a high-ranking economist at the IMF, originally from eastern Africa, who, until a priest recognized a rare mathematical gift in him at age 12, was destined to be a goatherd. Some communist parties in Eastern Europe worked the same way: always on the prowl for talent, wherever it may be found.

 But still, to harvest talent is one thing. To hand over society to the Becky Sharps among us, another.

When Toby Young’s father, Michael, invented the term in 1958 he did it to highlight not the merits, but the problems, of meritocracy. He saw a future of smug winners and disillusioned losers, not entirely unlike the world today, you might add.

Michael Young’s timing was spot on and, simultaneously, totally off. It was spot on, because the decade ahead – the cataclysmic sixties – would give meritocracy a boost of a very particular kind. We’ll get back to that. It was totally off, because Young’s misgivings about meritocracy were lost on a world eager to get rid of any restraints for its self-fulfilment.

 It didn’t take long before ‘meritocracy’ was perceived as something more or less synonymous with ‘fairness’, and the opposite to oppressive class-based society and corruption.

 Who could possibly want anything else?

 By the nineties, meritocracy had become a byword across the political spectrum, and it stayed there. ‘New Labour is committed to meritocracy’, Tony Blair told the British people, right before his landslide election victory in 1997. Twenty years later, Conservative prime minister Theresa May chipped in: ‘I want Britain to be the world’s greatest meritocracy.’

There were a few dissenters. The year before New Labour swept into power Christopher Lasch’s The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy was posthumously published. A few years later George Walden published The New Elites: Making a Career in the Masses. Both Lasch and Walden, much like Young, saw the smugness and pitilessness of a meritocratic elite as a major problem.

What happens to your sense of duty and compassion if you’re convinced your elevated place in society is entirely your own doing? What if you don’t even recognise you are part of an elite class that itself pretends elitism is an outdated concept in a meritocratic society where everyone has an equal shot at rising to the top?

 As anyone who has read David Goodhart’s recent Head, Hand, Heart: The Struggle for Dignity and Status in the 21st Century will realise, meritocracy comes in many guises. For one thing, a lot depends on what is considered to be of merit. One of Goodhart’s arguments is that our meritocracy has become too simpleminded. It only cares about intellectual talent, and tries to reshape society in that vein. Activities and skills that are practical or focused on caring have to beat themselves into an intellectual form to be recognised. Everyone needs to go to university, or be proclaimed losers, or even deplorables. 

It’s a meritocracy void of imagination. It’s a kind of machine trying to mould people into standardised shapes; for creating Michael Young’s dystopia. It creates an elite with a very weak sense of obligation, and bewilderment, even a streak of contempt, for those who haven’t made it to the top. And below, it creates a sense of neglect followed by strong feelings of resentment. This is a type of meritocracy that to a large part is the driving force behind ‘polarisation,’ ‘culture wars’ and a number of other catchphrases of the day. Which brings us back to the sixties.

The shape of our meritocracy was really hammered out in that decade. It’s a product of the ‘me generation’s’ strife for liberation. It’s hard to blame them. Few of us would stand the stifling Truman Show of the fifties for more than the length of a feature film, but the driving force behind liberation was, to a large extent, narcissism. The sixties turned into the seventies – the ‘me decade’ according to Tom Wolfe – and then into Gordon Gekko’s eighties. Before he entered the stock market, Gekko could plausibly have been George Berger – Treat Williams’ character in Hair – they are both all about self-realisation, only at different points in time.

If you look at meritocracy from an ahistorical point of view, you may simply see a fair principle of discrimination – maybe the only fair principle of discrimination – between people. But, if you look at the particular form we see today as something created in the sixties, it’s hard not to see meritocracy as a celebration, not of fairness, but of self. It’s the perfect principle, and the perfect excuse, for narcissistic self-realisation.

 Michael Young was on to something. It was just his timing that was flawed.

Johan Hakelius

Johan Hakelius is the political editor-in-chief of Fokus, Sweden’s leading current events weekly. He has written several books on English eccentrics and British social history. He should currently be working on his next book - tentatively on the social scene in Manhattan from the end of the civil war to Trump - but the garden, a puppy and his first grandchild always seems to get in his way.

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