But Seriously part 2: “Because I earned it” False Gods of the Meritocracy.

Following on from my previous post’s thoughts on Rutger Bregman’s book Utopia for Realists, if we accept Bregman’s assertion that our welfare system is based on dividing people up between ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ then we must consider what our definitions are. What are the merits that society prizes and make a person deserving?

I remember very clearly where I was one May night in 1997. I had a flat in Docklands and I was sitting on the balcony, looking out at the Thames, the doors open and the TV on. I was drinking a beer when I saw that Tony Blair had won the election and that the Tory dominated world I had known for most of my life was over. I remember the thrill, the joy, the sense of uplift that this was going to make all the difference. Now things were going to really turn around.

Of course twenty years and four series of the Thick of It later, we all know how they had just pulled off one of the greatest confidence tricks of the 20th century politics. That the difference between Blair’s politics and Thatcher/Major’s was in fact wafer thin. Bregman, in Utopia for Realists states that

“politics has been watered down to problem management. Votes swing back and forth not because the parties are so different but because it’s barely possible to tell them apart.”

Both the contemporary left, right, centre, up and down are signed up to a political philosophy that is so pervasive it’s barely ever challenged. We think of it in absolute terms such as ‘truth’ and ‘right’. Yet not only is it almost certainly a giant myth, it’s not even a myth that we should be pursuing. It is the meritocracy.

The word meritocracy comes from the Latin mereo (to earn) and -cracy (power). You have “it” (be it power, wealth or those Chloe boots) because you earned it. If you didn’t earn it, then you don’t deserve it and you feel guilty. Or you simply never have it.


I have the knock-offs at 10% of the price. I only earn 10% of the cost…

Our commitment to the meritocracy is at the root of the deserving poor philosophy. The same philosophy that, Bregman suggests, keeps people trapped in poverty and yet still costs us a fortune.

Recently there was a Radio 4 Programme in which people debated the merits of the meritocracy against those of the lottocracy (in which a government and positions of power are assigned by lottery).  The contributors seemed determined to conflate the specific definition of lottocracy with the idea of the aristocracy (people gaining power through an accident of birth). Whilst the contributors all agreed that we lived in a mixture of these political philosophies, they all also agree that the one we should be seeking is the meritocracy. But should we?

The meritocracy is based on a pyramidal structure that relies on some people being deserving of all the power and also all the rewards. In order for these rewards to be of value they must be scarce and elusive. After all, if everyone has access to them, what’s the point in working for them? Therefore, the rewards are available on a decreasing scale down the pyramid until we reach the bottom, where vast numbers of people have no access to the wealth and rewards at all.  In the Old World, this wealth and power was handed down through an accident of birth. But although the meritocracy offers a different route to the top, there is still a top. The meritocracy embeds inequality into our society. And I agree with the philosophers who say this inequality is the root of dissatisfaction, unrest and revolution.

Furthermore, the route to the top is not as clear cut as it seems. To begin with, the meritocracy is considered a myth by many social commentators (these pre-Brexit articles are interesting reads in the New Statesman and The Independent ). Furthermore, we only have to briefly consider the vagaries of MP’s or perhaps think of Sir Philip Green on his yacht or bring to mind an image of Simon Cowell’s hair, to recognise that not everyone at the top really deserves to be there. “Merits” such as thrusting ambition, a malleable social conscience and rhinoceros-hide skin are often more successful than the merits we might state we prefer such as compassion, erudition and thoughtfulness.

If we accept that society will always be unequal and choose meritocracy as our chosen political philosophy then surely the first thing we must do is have a through discussion on what the merits we value are. Many of us think the merits are obvious but the Brexit vote last year was such a shock to so many because it revealed that we actually have wildly differing opinions on what social merits are. Religion and the social conventions that accompany it used to provide the answers but no longer does for many of us.

But deciding on the merits seems a divisive and miserable approach to me. And what happens when, as on November 9th 1938 in Germany, the merits suddenly and violently change? personally Id prefer us to jettison the meritocracy wholesale and replace it with …

OK, it’s a tricky one. So that is tonight’s homework. What could we replace the meritocracy with?

For our last ‘Serious Week’ post: Katniss won Brexit (or how has our obsession with dystopian fictions affected our real life political decision making?)