Meritocracy Disguises Inequality That Supports A Growing Oligarchy

The idea that the mind plays an active role in structuring reality is called Kant’s Copernican revolution, because like Copernicus who turned astronomy inside-out by claiming the Earth moved around the sun (instead of the other way), Kant argued we must reformulate the way we think – theorizing that objective reality depends on the mind rather than the other way round (compared to Empiricists who held that all ideas, hence the entire mind comes from experience.) Kant claimed the structure of the mind shapes all sensory experience and thought. The mind has an active role in producing our conception of reality by acting as a filter, an organizer, an enhancer. Now it is important to avoid the massive cognitive bubble created by the Internet. This creates a situation where individuals will accept a myth over facts because these myths feed into a deeper truth that we believe about the world. Myths, which are ideas that are believed by many people, but are not true, were created by early civilizations to make sense of the world around them.

The Copernican revolution was a paradigm shift triggered by the publication of the Nicolas Copernicus treatise, the Revolution of the Celestial Spheres. This was a publication of a new view of the world as a heliocentric model, rather than the Earth stationary at the centre of the universe. With this the reassurance of the cosmology of the Middle Ages were gone, and a new view of the world, less secure and comfortable, came into being. The Copernican mode was loaded with Polemic luggage, such as, the planets moving in a circular motion around the sun. The observations of Galileo Gaililei of Venus in 1609 provided proof that Venus could be on the opposite side of the sun – disproving the Ptolemic Theory further. Using astronomer Tycho Brahe’s pre-telescopic observations, Kepler was able to trace out the elliptical patterns of the planets as they orbit the sun. The Copernican Revolution fundamentally changed the way we think about our place in the world.

Isaac Newton combined mathematics of axiomatic proof with the mechanics of physical observation and established a coherent system of verifiable predictions in his Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica (1687). The Age of Reason sought to establish axiomatic philosophy as the foundation of stability. Enlightenment philosophers tend to have a great deal of confidence in humanity’s intellectual power both to achieve systematic knowledge of nature and to serve as an authoritative guide in practical life. The faith of the Enlightenment is that the process of enlightenment of becoming progressively self-directed in thought and action through the awaking of one’s intellectual powers, leads ultimately to a better, more fulfilled human existence. Because the established discourses of the Enlightenment are more or less arbitrary, they can be changed; and because they more or less reflect the interests and values of the powerful, it is necessary to think for oneself, to employ and rely on one’s own intellectual capacities in determining what to believe and how to act.

The Enlightenment occupies a central role in the justification for the movement known as modernism. After the end of World War II Enlightenment tradition re-emerged as a key organizing concept in social and political thought and the history of ideas. Postmodernism is a Western philosophy, a late 20th-century movement characterized by broad skepticism, subjectivism, or relativism; a general suspicion of reason; and an acute sensitivity to the role of ideology in asserting and maintaining political and economic power. In turn, postmodernism-counter enlightenment appeared. Michel Foucault (1926-1984) critiques the tendency of the Enlightenment tradition to explain everything according to a dominant mega-theory, so that everything must fit the master-narrative. He saw truth as more subjective and all disciplines created by elites who control the system. These elites determine, often based on self-interests, the standards of normality. Once one method has been selected over others, alternatives become deviant. This creates tension between the elites and the masses.1

The term metaphor derives from the Greek ‘metaphorá’ which means to transfer the quality of one entity to another. Modernist thinkers describe metaphors as mere ornaments of language and not a constitutive part of language and understanding. Postmodern scholars suggest that metaphors are basic to understanding, and consequently that they are not so much a form of speech but rather a fundamental form of thought. Metaphors can actually function as a constitutive part of communication as well as scientific inquiry. When viewed as a constitutive aspect of language, metaphors actively contribute to our understanding of experience rather than merely being mirrors that reflect reality. Thus postmodern scholars suggest that perceived realities may change as the metaphors used to explain reality change. One of the most dominant metaphors of the past 60 years has been meritocracy. Today it means people earn and realize opportunities due to hard work and commitment to improving oneself.

The economy of the 1950s and 1960s was about an unprecedented rise in middle class jobs: there was more room at the top. In 1958, Michael Young wrote a futuristic novel, The Rise of the Meritocracy, a satire on a society stratified by merit. Young coined the term, formed by combining the Latin root “mereō” and the ancient Greek suffix “cracy”, in his essay to describe and ridicule such a society. The story was intended as a warning: if society was viewed as perfectly meritocratic, then disproportionate awards are showered on the elite, and contempt is increasingly shown to those on the bottom. Young mocked the existing education system in Britain, arguing it was simply a centuries-old class system in sheep’s clothing. Typically lacking the best schools, underprivileged children routinely did badly on exams – the standardized intelligence tests that consequently determined their social position.2

Although all concepts are metaphors invented by humans (created by common agreement to facilitate ease of communication), Nietzsche observes, humans forget this fact after inventing them, and come to believe they are ‘true’ and correspond to reality.3 In the 1980s the word meritocracy was being used approvingly by a range of new-right think tanks to describe their version of a world of extreme income difference and high social mobility. From the efforts of these writers the word flipped its meaning. Meritocracy was adopted into the English language with none of the negative connotations. Neoliberals have promoted meritocracy as an Utopian system of fairness – but ‘merit’ has been manipulated to privilege the wealthy. For the past forty years meritocracy has been used as a smokescreen to justify policies that increase inequality. Donald Trump won the 2016 election with this proposed solution to inequality: meritocracy, capitalism and nationalism.

When did the change in beliefs from theories of 1500 to theories of 1700 cause a change in reality (with planets beginning to orbit the sun)? When did the meaning of meritocracy change between 1950s and 2000s (with social systems rewarding through wealth)? Do we construct realities? The distinction is between humanly-constructed realities (theories, paradigms, convictions) and human-independent realities (electrons, planets, social privilege). A humanly constructed theory claims to describe and/or explain reality. When we make claims based on a theory we are making truth-claims about the reality of what is happening now, or did happen in the past. Our truth-claims are true if they are correct, if they correspond to the truth of what actually is happening (or did happen) in reality; and our truth-claims are false if they are wrong, if they do not match the truth defined by reality.

Did reality change? Did the motion of planets change from earth-centred (in 1500) to sun-centred (in 1700)? Did meritocracy change from a social system in which the economic elite is favoured, (in 1958) to social system in which everyone is favoured (in 2008)? No. Did the truth change? No. Because truth is determined by reality – what was true in 1500 (the earth and the planets really moved around the sun) was also true in 1700, and what was true in 1958 (the social system favoured the economic elite) was also true in 2008. Did our truth-claims change with respect to planets? Yes. But with the respect to the reality of meritocracy, truth-claims did not change. This discordance is reflected in the population. This creates what Guy Standing in 2011 called the dangerous class – a group working below their capabilities precisely because they have no other option. This group is susceptible to rhetoric from politicians with simplistic solutions, which results in the election of politicians like Donald Trump.

The social and political contexts of meritocracy, which have been created through forty years of neoliberalism, now justify policies that increase inequality. Meritocracy has become a rationalization that allows the rich to abrogate any sense of duty to those less fortunate. In fact, meritocracy serves to justify the status quo – perpetuate the existing upper class – merit can always be defined as what results in success, thus whoever is successful can be portrayed as deserving success, rather than success being predicted by criteria for merit. If wealth accrued based on merit, one would expect wealth to be distributed according to the bell-shaped curve, which it is not. Meritocracy supports a growing oligarchy as demonstrated by the growth in income inequality and a reduction in economic mobility. Meritocracy is sustaining a myth that disguises economic inequality in North America and prevents progressive government initiatives to address the issue. The answer is a more equitable tax system in Canada and the US to distribute wealth more evenly.

1 Age of Enlightenment: Postmodernism

2 Fox, Margalit. (25 Jan 2002) Michael Young, 86, Scholar; Coined, Mocked ‘Meritocracy’.

3 Paul, Glenn. (Dec 2004) The Politics of Truth: Power of Nietzsche’s Epistemology. Political Research Quarterly 57(4):576b doi 10.2307/3219819

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2 Responses to Meritocracy Disguises Inequality That Supports A Growing Oligarchy

  1. Ike warned us says:

    This post is the sharpest summary of the western assumption that all people end up where they end up based solely on their own effort and endeavors– very well written! Thank you for sharing your research. I look forward to your posts each month.

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