Kenan Malik, The Guardian:
Privilege, though, is a quality that desires not to speak its name. No one wants to have their accomplishments attributed to their background. Talent and hard work, we like to believe, are the brokers of success in a meritocracy.
So entrenched as a social aspiration has meritocracy become that we often forget that the term was coined in mockery. In his 1958 satire, The Rise of Meritocracy, the sociologist Michael Young told of a society in which classes were sorted not by the hereditary principle but by the formula IQ + Effort = Merit.
In this new society, “the eminent know that success is a just reward for their own capacity”, while the lower orders deserve their fate. Having been tested again and again and “labelled ‘dunce’ repeatedly”, they have no choice but “to recognise that they have an inferior status”.
Young’s dystopian meritocracy doesn’t (yet) exist, but we have something perhaps worse: the pretence of a meritocracy. The pretence that talent will achieve its just rewards in a society in which class distinctions continue to shape educational outcomes, job prospects, income and health.
As western societies have become more technocratic, so there has developed, the political scientist David Runciman observed, “a new class of experts, for whom education is a prerequisite of entry into the elite” – bankers, lawyers, doctors, civil servants, pundits, academics. Once knowledge has become “a prerequisite of power, then it no longer speaks for itself” but “appears to speak for the worldview of the people who possess it”.
Education, in other words, has come to be a marker of the values one holds and the place one possesses in society.
Today, we simultaneously deride poshness and want to be seen as having the common touch (hence Dimbleby’s outrage at being called posh), while also showing contempt for those who are deemed too common and whose commonness exhibits itself in the refusal to accept the wisdom of expertise and in being in possession of the wrong social values.
Trump supporters, wrote David Rothkopf, professor of international relations, former CEO of Foreign Policy magazine and a member of Bill Clinton’s administration, are people “threatened by what they don’t understand and what they don’t understand is almost everything”.
Opposition to populism has too often turned into scorn for the ability of ordinary people to take important political decisions. “It is unfair to thrust on to unqualified simpletons the responsibility to take historic decisions of great complexity and sophistication,” the biologist Richard Dawkins observed. The right to vote, many insist, should be restricted to those with sufficient knowledge.
“Today, we frankly recognise that democracy can be no more than aspiration,” Young wrote in his 1958 satire, “and have rule not so much by the people as by the cleverest people; not an aristocracy of birth, not a plutocracy of wealth, but a true meritocracy of talent.” The trouble is, such a view is no longer seen as satire.
“Class distinctions,” as Richard Hoggart, the cultural studies pioneer, once observed, “do not die; they merely learn new ways of expressing themselves.” Posh like the upper classes we may no longer want to be. Contemptuous of the lower orders too many remain.