During the same week in September 2016, Teresa May in the UK and Hillary Clinton in the USA made interesting and revealing statements. May on the need to ‘improve access to the meritocracy’ in Britain; Clinton on stereotyping half the supporters of Donald Trump in the United States of America as a ‘basket of despicables’. Both these opinions were met with a considerable degree of media surprise in their respective countries. Yet the only thing that was really surprising was the fact that these two opinions were openly articulated by members of the political elite who were both alpha-females. Otherwise these views were just modern versions of an age old elite prejudice arising from the division of societies into two great classes.
Lower class citizens, who don’t follow the wishes or dictates of the ruling elite have always been considered troublesome or despicable. Elites can never imagine ordinary people as having ‘merit’ or being capable of self-governance. They automatically assume we need them to guide us. In the ancient world societies were split into Patricians and Plebians, Despots and Helots, etc., the latter catagories being frequently described as troublesome or despicable. During the Feudal mode of agricultural production the predominant class divisions within societies were between the Aristocracy (power originally gained by the sword) who owned and controlled the main means of production (land) and the peasants who were forced to work for them upon it.
The peasants were frequently unruly (there were many armed peasant revolts) and some were so routinely disruptive they were classed as ‘rogues’ and ‘sturdy beggars’. They would not always do as they were told. These latter categories were the medieval version of Clintons ‘basket of despicables’. There was no merit by education back then. For centuries the aristocrats, prior to the bourgeois revolutions, had been an hereditary ruling class. With very few exceptions, aristocrats were predominantly born into the elite and even most of the exceptions were admitted into it by the actions of an hereditary monarch. So the ordinary peasants (including the despicable rogues and sturdy beggars) could be under no illusion that whatever efforts they made and however amenable they made themselves, they could never rise into the ranks of the elite.
In contrast to the medieval period, the representatives of the capitalist mode of production, by means of a political and economic revolution, introduced the domination of a capital-owning meritocracy. It was this new class which became the economic elite and came to own and control the dominant means of production (land and industry) and created a working class who supplied the labour to operate them. The bourgeois mode of production, based upon the ownership and control of capital, created the possibility (and consequently a widespread illusion) that things could be different under this new mode of production. That particular illusion was (and still is) promoted in the form that; ‘we can be whatever we want to be’.
Supporters of the capital dominated mode of production claimed that by individual and family effort, ordinary working people could become part of the elite. It was further suggested that this would require considerable effort in the areas of thrift and educational attainment. By this logic an illusion was created that by unrelenting application of these characteristics, the old barriers of class could be overcome for anyone who wanted it enough. Eventually Grammar schools and the new universities in the UK and their equivalents in Europe, the USA and elsewhere, became the educational conduits for a few members of the working class and many members of the middle classes through which they could rise above their birth status and find a place in the ranks of the meritocratic pyramid. Without success in these areas they were not considered fit for anything other than wage labour.
It is to rectify an estimated decline in blue and white – collar working class access to this meritocracy, which ostensively lies behind the 2016 proposal of Teresa May and her neo-liberal supporters in the British Conservative Party, to promote a greater role for grammer and other forms of selective schools. More probably, this group of Conservatives reason that significant numbers of parents from these sectors of the working class will vote for the Conservative form of bourgeous rule if they dangle this particular carrot. The motivation of some parents being the hope that their children will be able to escape the increasingly degenerating economic and social conditions of working and lower middle-class life.
And some working class parents are still prepared to sacrifice almost everything and pressure their children to succeed educationally for exactly that reason. However, the scope for such opportunities, never great, is now rapidly dwindling. Neither the right-wing form of bourgeios rule (Conservative or Republican) nor the left-wing petite – bourgeoisie form (Labour or Democratic) or their analogues elsewhere, can halt the structural changes taking place within the capitalist mode of production. The shrinking size of the capitalist welfare state and the globalisation of skilled labour have depressed opportunities for all those not already ensconced within the privileged elite. As small capital is squeezed out by large capital and the economic role of the middle-class declines, a future of meritocratic advancement and career security is becoming an obvious mirage. Tens of thousands of graduates (or more) are already unable to find employment at any secure level of economic life and already many more thousands are in the pipeline. However, there is more than one fundamental illusion attached to the concept of meritocracy.
Bourgeois and petite-bourgeois reasoning assumes that creating a meritocracy is both an adequate way of governing modern societies and also the best possible way. For at least two or three generations, this meritocratic process has been in operation within most advanced capitalist countries, their ex-colonies and in the previous state-capitalist countries of the Soviet Union and China. Having said this, it ought to be recognised that family, religious, or political influences have still played an important part in distributing the definite benefits of entry into this international meritocracy. So even in so-called meritocratic democracies, this method of choosing the elite who own, control, govern and administer the capitalist mode of production is not as fair as it tries to make out. Someone who has been coached through elite schools and universities such as Eton, Harrow, Oxford and Cambridge in the UK, with family connections, are certain to become higher placed than those who went to Tyldesley County Primary and then Bolton or Bradford Universities. Someone who has inherited considerable capital will be at the front of the queue to join the elite compared to someone who has not. A similar advantage is gained in the rest of the world.
The meritocratic con trick.
When some of the elites, who have previously escaped the wage-labour slavery of their parents, tell the rest of us they made it through their own hard work and dedication, then this statement may well contain a small element of truth. However, when they go on to add (during school or college assemblies or on television broadcasts) as the govenor of the Bank of England recently did, that any one listening or watching can do the same if they try hard enough, they are consciously (or unconsciously) promoting a fiction. It is a fantasy founded upon a few exceptions. It is the same bourgeous capitalist trick as is pulled by the organisers of lotteries or gambling and gaming machines. ‘You have to be in it to win it’ as these missionaries of mammon routinely preach. Of course they fail to add that for someone (or some few) to ‘pay to win’ money this way, millions or several millions are required to lose money. Not everyone can be a winner precisely because it is deliberately set up so the vast majority have to ‘pay to lose’ in order for there to be a large enough pool of money available for the winners and the organisers.
It is the similar with access to the elites within societies. It is true there are thousands of elite positions within modern countries, from the highest paid in business, commerce, finance, politics, education, social work, health work, military, police, state civil service, church, sport and entertainment and down to the middle and lower paid ranks of this meritocracy. Nevertheless, these numbers are relatively low (and shrinking) compared with the populations at large. For example, if there were 50,000 elite jobs in any country and ten million eager adult employable citizens then it is clear that if every one of the ten million had worked equally hard, saved and gained comparable educational qualifications, then there would still be nine million, nine hundred and fifty thousand (9, 950, 000) who could not become part of the elite – no matter how hard they worked or how high their qualifications had become. Selection would still have to be made – but on the basis of an escalating set of criteria. They would still be stacking shelves, serving tables or cleaning toilets.
It would not matter what size the population or the ratio of elite job numbers to citizens, was (whether greater or lesser) it would not change the essential outcome. It would still, therefore, be a deliberate sowing of illusions to assert that everyone who worked hard enough and wanted it enough, could eventually achieve elite status based upon any criteria of merit. It is bourgeois ideological nonesense to advocate and promote such social and political illusions. Sadly some people will always be taken in by the meritocratic mirage and aspirational parents will be in the vanguard of welcoming any such new measures. They will be the most eager to attempt to propel their offspring into to one section of the elite or another.
However, as noted earlier, access to the meritocracy is already loaded against the white and blue collar working classes of whatever skin colour or gender, but that is not the most damaging criticism which can be levelled at the past, present and any future meritocracy. The most damaging criticism is the condition of the countries governed by two or three generations of meritocracy and the now appaling state of the planet. These meritocracies, complete with their 20th and 21st century miserly quotas of working class, female and non-white members, in full knowledge of the facts and probabilities, has steered the world into racist colonial expansion, two previous world wars and has brought to the 21st century, global economic, financial, social, ecological, and environmental Armagedon.
So how good are the meritocrats?
How well meritocracy has served humanity can be judged by the record of it in every country of the world, whether of the most advanced or of the less advanced. Whether we judge the actions of the national meritocratic elites of the Near East, the Far East, Africa, South America, North America, Europe, Asia or Oceana, the record is dire if not catastrophic. Whether organised in the form of left or right dictatorships or so-called democracies, the meritocracy in each and every country, unashamedly govern and administer systems of systemic corruption, oppression, exploitation, pollution, military aggression, injustice and rabid inequalities of class, gender, race and disability.
And these are not the worst activities perpetrated by members of the meritocracy, many of whom in addition to the above, also authorise, torture, assassinations, indiscriminate bombing and gassing while yet others pocket their stipends and not wanting to ‘rock the boat’ turn a convenient blind eye. The collective organisations of these meritocratic elites are no better. Whether we judge the actions of the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund, the European Economic Community, the Organisation of African States, the G20 or any of the dozens of other such elite organisations, the results are depressing if not downright disgusting.
In every country and within every collective organisation, international or otherwise, the meritocracy are good at ensuring they have extravagant levels of pay, wonderful living conditions, excellent pensions, generous expenses, luxurious banquets, first class travel, top level limousines and numerous bodyguards – all paid for by the efforts of others. But that’s all they are really good at. Outside of these privileged elite protected bubbles, and under their administration and governance, the world is falling apart, ecologically, environmentally, socially, economically, financially and morally. Yet they show no shame!
In addition, the vast majority of the intellectual section of the national and global meritocracy, staffing the universities, education departments and financial institutions of the world haven’t fully understood or comprehensively criticised the contradictions of the mode of production from which they derive their inflated salaries and pensions. The numbers who predicted the last financial crisis of 2008 or really understood it when it happened could be counted on one hand. And there is still hardly any recognition among the intellectual meritocrats of the gathering momentum of the next one. How credible is that?
Also in the UK this month (September 2016) members of the political meritocracy via a parliamentary committee concluded that the military effort in Iraq “is bearing fruit” (?) whilst the military strategy in Syria was considered “necessary but not sufficient” because it lacked an adequate political dimension. A member of same committee publishing the report complained that there had been only 65 aircraft strikes on Syria by the UK! He wanted more! The same month the military meritocracy mistakenly killed innocent citizens and soldiers of their own alliance. Such blunders and self-serving delusions and justifications are so typical of the national and international political and military meritocracy that they are now routine. There was not one mention from these meritocrats, that unrequested military intervention in foreign countries such as Iraq, Afghanistan, Lybia and Syria has caused devastating problems. The prior lessons of the Vietnam war suggest that military invasions are probably not a good idea in the first place. Failing to learn from numerous past failures – how meritorious is that?
Bearing all the above in mind, if any group of human beings should be described as ‘a basket of despicables’ it is surely this entire global elite of multi-disciplined, meritocratic parasites. Meritocracy and the capitalist mode of production are not the solution for the working classes and suffering humanity, they are in fact the fundamental problem. And the impending ‘decline and fall’ of the empire of capital will not be arrested or transformed by a few more underprivileged individuals being allowed to try to shoulder (or sycophant) their way up the national and international meritocratic pyramids of shame.
Roy Ratcliffe (September 2016)