In The Reactionary Mind, Corey Robin makes a convincing case that reactionaries are largely driven by a desire to silence and repress anyone they consider their inferiors, with violence if needed. This partly from a strong belief that ‘such people’ have no right to speak (or to be heard); partly because they fear loss of personal status and privileges; and partly from a conviction that society can only function properly when everyone 'knows their place'. Over the years, I've found this a pretty useful insight, and it made me wonder whether it was possible to similarly summarize the views and values of the '(center-)left' (called liberals or sometimes 'progressives' in the US, liberal or social democrats elsewhere). Because it was clear that they didn't subscribe to the ('radical') egalitarianism, inclusiveness and pro-emancipatory solidarity that forms the core of left politics (and to me, of being human).

Next, David Graeber's Debt helped me realize that it isn't just reactionaries who think this way, and that it would be more accurate to speak of a reactionary mindset, that people activate depending on the context and relationship with the other.[1] Yet it wasn't until I read Listen, Liberal that I realized that most progressives, no matter how progressive they may seem on a personal level, nevertheless embrace ('merit-based') elitism that is every bit as indefensible as that favored by conservatives and reactionaries. With them also believing in the desirability of institutionalized inequality and oppression (if preferring neglect and exclusion), although they use different metrics of merit than reactionaries do (such as book learning, intelligence, your line of work, which sector you work in, whether and what diplomas you have, whether you have creative ability, 'high' cultural tastes, and so on).

The advantage of this is that this makes it easier to understand the emergence of institutional arrangements that we'd normally think of as categorically different, due to how violent and reactionary and hierarchical they are (such as the British-Indian caste system, plantation slavery, colonial occupation, feudalism and fascism). Because you can also understand those structures to be highly inflexible and violent forms of meritocratic organization, in which it is considered normal to violently maintain status and wealth inequalities (and inheritance thereof), with the oppression being 'justified' by referencing stable traits like skin color or 'race', sex, gender, caste status, ethnicity and so on, coupled with circular arguments (for instance, saying that colonized peoples shouldn't be 'granted' self-rule because they are too 'dumb' or 'uneducated', when it's because of their exclusion from education that they aren't).

But modern 'fair' meritocratic institutional structures are equally part of the problem. Because if you object in principle to institutionalized oppression and discrimination, then it doesn't matter how inflexible, how violent, or which metrics are used, but whether the institution or organization contributes to, or builds on, discrimination or oppression.

On meritocracy as an idea(l)

Meritocracy is normally understood to mean 'rule by the most capable' (or the most credentialed), and is usually contrasted with hierarchy, nepotism and 'failing upwards'. A second and more vague definition has societies counting as 'meritocratic' when they are dominated by a large, affluent professional/managerial cohort, part of which is said to have 'come from nothing', with ‘the meritocracy’ being the cohort that 'won'. People who use this definition generally see 'meritocracy' as a kind of game that you can 'choose' to participate in, but don't have to, by 'choosing' to embrace 'middle class' (i.e., 'lower and unremarkable, but okay') status.

As I see it, all of these definitions either miss the point or are misleading. But because they're artfully vague, and bleed into one another, while sounding vaguely unobjectionable and reasonable, most people -- including most of the left -- consider ‘meritocracy’ appealing enough that they don’t object to it in principle, or to its invocation as a descriptor of a future (better) society. As a consequence, we only really see people objecting to ‘meritocracy’ during times of crisis. As such, it's only now that inequality has reached historic levels, while high status positions mostly go to obvious incompetents, and people once again only rise to the top if they belonged to it already, that we've started seeing criticism, including (especially since 2015) quite a few books and articles (and even entire blogs ;-) ) on the topic, and its limits and discontents.

The problem with these objections is that they never go beyond complaining society isn't 'actually' meritocratic, or that 'money and inheritance still play too much of a role'. Left unasked are questions such as why it is so easy to confuse ‘meritocracy’ with capitalist hierarchies, and whether meritocratic societies are attainable at all so long as we allow most of the money to end up in the hands of a very small minority that wants to maintain its position. And beyond those two, questions like how -- and by who -- the 'metrics of merit' that you have to excel in get picked, and how tests are administered. Never even mind questions like whether we should have or support societies that require inequality in order to function.

Two preliminary lines of defense

An oft-heard defense of meritocracy as a system is, 'although we're currently insufficiently rigorous in picking fair and just metrics, we'll get there some day'. A related line of argument is that so long as the minimal living standards are 'acceptable' (and presumably somehow insulated from the political process), there's nothing inherently wrong with organizing society along meritocratic lines. I have two main problems with these arguments. To start, a hope 'that we'll get there some day' cannot be invoked as support for what one knows to be 'fake meritocracy' and terrible living standards and highly exclusionary policies in the present. Secondly, and more importantly, both of these arguments presuppose the legitimacy of classifying and treating some people as being 'more deserving' of material comfort and equal treatment than others.

A stronger counterargument is that the issue isn't meritocratic reasoning as such, but the fact that we accept it or look away when see those that we we look down on, or that we judge deserve to 'have it worse,' so that it's fine or good that they are harmed or oppressed. While this is strictly the case, it's important to recognize that humans find it nearly impossible to object to or defend people from violence in such cases. This is especially true when the violence is seen as 'measured' or 'normal', i.e., when we're talking institutionalized violence such as police and prosecutorial harassment of demonized 'minorities', chattel slavery, or people not receiving help because they live in 'backwards' or 'poor areas' (like reservations), and so on. Consider how few people respond to news of harm coming to 'vagrants', or when learning of the violence inflicted on the animals whose bodies or milk they eat, skin they wear, and so on. Even though we all know that every animal (human or no) values their own life, most people simply shrug when they hear that ('yet') another houseless or indigenous person has died, while most of us in fact reward others for harming animals. Such disinterest is completely indefensible, yet it's pervasive, and it has immense consequences for how our societies are organized.

In sum, the above argument puts the cart before the horse. Judging people as lesser, or feeling that we deserve to have it better, are thoughts and behaviors we are taught to engage in, while living in societies that are premised on inequality and oppression. We learn to blame others for inflicting (real or imagined) harms on us (e.g. 'not treating us with the respect we are due') in large part because the resulting feelings of indignation make it easier to hurt them 'back', and to oppress others. We blame victims because we don't want to address their victimization, and because we've swallowed all kinds of 'scientific' lies about how inequality is good (e.g. because it boosts 'competition', and/or technological or economic development that we're attached to).[6] As such, I'm convinced that until we actively reject thinking of some people as inferior, or of others as superior, we will continue to accept the use of violence towards others. Only if we actively reject this, will others be unable to teach us to hate those they wish to harm or oppress, or those they wish to divide. (Consider how during the Middle Ages, elites legalized rape of 'regular' women both to harm and subjugate them specifically, and to weaken the peasant movements, by encouraging and effacing violence against one part of them). Therefore, we must challenge and change both of these convictions and behaviors in ourselves as well as those around us and society more broadly, difficult though this will be.

More on deserveocracy's two formulations, and why we must reject both

Luckily, a large part of why most people embrace the meritocratic moral logic is that they only associate it with its positive formulation, 'those who are or do better, deserve more,' without considering its corollary, the (Social-Darwinist) notion that those who 'are' inferior (or bad), 'deserve less'. This seems to me hopeful, because it means that even though this way of thinking and of organizing institutions is pervasive, most people still recoil when asked to embrace it, given how obviously it allows you to 'justify' just about anything. Nevertheless, its' important to keep in mind that although a majority will reject the negative formulation if you put it to them like this, most people and organizations constantly act like this, and constantly defend policies that build on this logic, especially when the targets are people they don't like or care for, or who they hold responsible for something negative.

For example, take someone who easily labels others as enemies, or who is very quick to take offense, and who carries grudges. Most adults who are friends with someone like that understand that these are signs of emotional immaturity or instability,[2] and won't accept their friend's judgments at face value (and they may even criticize their friend for it). Still, they usually accept it when their friend decides to revenge themselves on their enemy for a perceived slight, at least so long as their plans don't sound too 'extreme' to them.

Then there are the people who takes this logic one step further, such as bullies. These of course are people who are quite happy to harm others in order to 'provoke' them, if they think their target deserves it (for instance when the latter has engaged in what they frame as objectionable behavior, like 'showing weakness'). Bullies also tend to attract other people to them, who encourage or praise their behavior, with all of them at some level believing 'might makes right'. Note also that these patterns occur especially in meritocratic institutions like prisons, schools, and workplaces.

But even when we reject individuals behaving this way, there's also the issue of how we treat institutions who do so. Take France, for instance. After a failed attempt at reconquest and re-enslavement, it imposed a huge fine on Haïti for freeing itself, which included the cost of their attempted invasion. And they of course received support from the other European powers (and the USA), with lasting consequences for Haitians. Or consider how the US responded to the attack on the Twin Towers by militarily invading and occupying two entire countries, causing the deaths of at least a million people as 'collateral damage', plus of course widescale disruption and destruction of those societies. Or how even though nobody would defend starving ordinary Americans to oust Donald Trump, Madeleine Albright, as Secretary of State, felt free to argue that '500,000 dead Iraqi children' [5] were an 'acceptable price' of an attempt to oust Saddam.

Or to take more everyday examples of institutional violence: consider how in the US today there's a long-standing practice of incarcerating children to motivate them to do their homework (thereby teaching them the reactionary lesson that if you have power over others, you can use this to make them obey). Likewise, whenever the state refuses to seriously investigate the rape or death of marginalized people like 'vagrants,' sex workers or criminals, this is done because there's an idea that their deaths and suffering matter less, because they live 'in the margins' and 'encounter violence frequently'.

What all of these examples illustrate not only that institutions and organizations (very much including parts of the state) constantly act this way, but also that when they do, most of us accept this, because we don't know any better, while many of us engage in victim-blaming because this is policy. (Of course, it doesn't hurt that corporate and state media tend to wage huge propaganda campaigns to encourage this.)

Worryingly, even when we do decide that this behavior is undesirable and unhealthy, we tend not to ponder the broader ramifications, but to instead accept the friend's (or 'our' nation's) behavior 'in this instance', because we know they are 'a good (or 'on the whole' not a bad) person'. (And while this thing is generally true, it follows that it also is wholly irrelevant.)

As I see it, any disinterest or complacency we experience in response to people or institutions acting this way is part of the problem, reflecting our own lack of awareness that it's not okay to harm people just because we see them as bad or evil, or because they -- or people 'like them' -- treated us in a way we disliked. It illustrates that at some level, we don't understand that two wrongs do not make a right, and that such beliefs cannot justify 'return violence'. The fact that the kinds of actions discussed above consistently fail to lead to protests -- let alone to more powerful forms of organizing -- illustrates that we are comfortable with, or at least used to, equal needs being ignored depending on considerations like nationality and ethnicity, and with some people only mattering to the extent that, say, outrage over their starvation and death is politically useful. And the fact that most of these events are forgotten within weeks or months (due to actions of this sort happening constantly, and cases like the 'War on Terror' only standing out due to the number of people affected), indicates that there is something terribly wrong with how we learn to reason in general, and with liberalism and capitalist institutions in particular.

Hopefully, the above convinces you that this is a real problem. All that said, while the problems with the negative formulation may at least be clear to most, we can only escape the meritocratic moral logic by rejecting both formulations, while also taking a different stance on the rightness of the use of violence. But convincing people of this is quite a feat. Because of this, it seems to me useful to briefly ask ourselves why people are so attached to the positive formulation, that some people deserve to have 'more' than others, and that society should foster inequality in order to facilitate this.

A first part of the explanation is the point I mentioned earlier: that we like to comfort ourselves with the thought that today's problems are caused by our not (yet) being ruled by 'the most capable' or 'best' (as determined by the educational and class systems), and that we'll only be able to outgrow parochialism and chauvinism once society becomes 'truly meritocratic'. Here it helps that most people do believe that those 'most capable' people necessarily want to do 'good' -- i.e., to act in the (true) interest of the group.

But I suspect that the main reason why we find it difficult to reject is that it's completely ingrained. As such, we simply don't see the harm in the notion that some people -- 'who contribute more to society' -- may be 'rewarded' for this by giving them more material goods, and privileged access to social services. This is just too normal and 'logical', at least outside times of extreme scarcity or hardship. Nevertheless, we must interrogate the idea that e.g. 'doctors' deserve more creature comforts than 'nurses', or that people with the power to directly affect others' lives like CEOs or state functionaries deserve to have nicer lives than, and to be treated with deference by 'their employees' and 'ordinary citizens'. Especially because we know that any wealth and status differences increase over time, if only because parents tend to want their kids to have it easier than they did, and because it's simply so very alluring and convenient to have others doing your work for you, especially once they're convinced to accept that their having it worse than you is okay, or even 'as it should be'. Which of course provides a strong motivation for those who have to ensure that 'those without property' don't gain political control, and 'rob' them of their well-earned advantages.

Take a phrase like 'undeserving poor', still very common. What does it mean? That some people are undeserving of being poor? Or does it mean '[rightly] poor, because undeserving' (a conviction that many members of marginalized groups have internalized, to rationalize their treatment as second-class citizens)? To me, the fact that these words can be read both ways, with the second reading being circular, means that we shouldn't be using them, given that most people simply accept 'they deserved it' as an argument, rather than as a conclusion used to justify, cheer on or dismiss the relevance of (im)material rewards granted, or harm or violence inflicted or suffered.

On education and socialization

This raises the question where we learn to think of people in terms like good, bad, lesser, better, deserving of rewards and punishments, as having higher or lower social status, and thus deserving more or less voice? None of us have taken classes where we are taught to think this way, let alone that we are explicitly taught that this just, or 'morally indefensible but necessary' (etc.). Nevertheless, we're quite good at reasoning this way, because we've been taught the rules by osmosis: by watching and interacting with the people around us, pretty much from infancy. And this isn't just taught by individuals: just about every public and private institutional structure embodies and reinforces these beliefs and habits of mind, starting with the family, the school system, governmental bureaucratic institutions including but far from limited to the military, as well as where we work for 'the boss'.

And what are we taught there? At a basic level, to respect authority (i.e., to obey those with institutional power) and to accept their beliefs as true. To work towards goals identified and chosen almost exclusively by others, in exchange for extrinsic rewards (including punishment and punishment avoidance). And to silence or ignore our intrinsic motivation and interests, especially to the extent our interests don't overlap with the ones thought desirable by the structures and by those with power over us.

In this way, we are prepared for a lifetime of more of the same. Namely, doing things that don't necessarily interest us, and which may even actively go against our values (though this mostly goes unmentioned, given that we've been taught to leave our values 'at the door'). In exchange -- if we 'prove ourselves,' of course -- we gain access to a stable source of income, a chance at different (often a "higher") roles, social status, and so on. And note that this applies regardless of whether we are a high-level manager, judge, politician, lobbyist, soldier, salesperson, customer service rep, or a nurse or teacher; the interaction with the patient, client, customer, or student (or with the other employees) is secondary, and what matters most is whether and how well we embody the institutional values, and how much we contribute to the organizational goals. (More on this here.)

In sum, we are all forced to function within these incentive structures, and for most of us this is the only conceivable way of functioning, because people have been taught not to think outside the box. That said, it's worth noting that the more unquestioningly someone accepts the rules, and the greater the overlap between someone's personal interests and the ones that are fostered and favored by the institutional structures and those with power, the more motivated that person will be to try and succeed (by pursuing high grades and other accolades, pay, and credentials) and the more likely it is that they will (and that they won't object to society being organized this way).

Of course, the more people go through this funnel, and the longer they're inside, the larger the group of people who have trouble connecting with their intrinsic motivation and values, because of how they will have internalized the notion that people's actions only have value to the extent they please others (especially those with institutional power). And the less likely they are to (want to) change the rules and structures, and to believe in notions like decent living standards for all, rather than decent living standards for those who deserve it (especially when the 'experts' say that 'decent lives for for all' is unfeasible or counterproductive). This because of how this system encourages them to see rewards and punishments as being the result of fair determinations of merit.

By way of example, consider how even though most professionals pay lip service to the notion that everyone has equal moral value, and even though many of these professionals self-identify as 'social liberals' or 'progressives', only a fraction of them actively advocate for a decent minimal living standard, while most of them pursue or support developments in the opposite direction.

(To be clear: none of this is to deny the emancipatory power of learning, or the joy that comes from grappling with new insights, ideas and concepts. I also -- obviously -- concur that learning (together), and researching events is an essential part of successful social movements. That's real, and reactionaries are correct to consider learning a threat, and to try to undermine it by making the school system more rigid, bureaucratic and expensive. My point here is that there is an important yet largely unacknowledged contradiction between the progressive values that we associate with liberalism, and the theories but especially the structure of the institutions in which we are taught and teach. And that this has a lot to do with why e.g. the generation of '68 fizzled, a topic which I've discussed in more detail here.)

The Right Turn

One question that puzzled me for a long time was why 'the left' had lost ground so quickly starting in the 1970s. Mainstream economists tend to explain this fact by saying that the left didn't have a solution to the issues of declining profit rates, rising oil prices and 'stagflation'. These explanations didn't strike me as very convincing, because of how they treated the economic considerations as leading and 'inevitable'.

The first compelling explanation of this that I found was by David Harvey, in his excellent Enigma of Capital, which I'll say a little bit about below. It has a pretty good 'short history of the socioeconomic and demographic developments since 1945. Listen, Liberal however forms a useful addition, because it tells us what happened inside the Democratic Party, and how the new generation sold -- and forced -- the rightward turn. Because as I've said before, I'd never really considered that making higher education more affordable would serve to undermine working class solidarity and egalitarian tendencies, by creating a huge group of people with a professional or managerial background, who'd learned to look down on, and expect higher salaries and social status than, 'the uncredentialed'. With the attendant issue that these 'progressive yuppies' would be very succesful in taking over the party (and left parties generally). This of course in part due to their educations, but largely because they subscribed to the same value system of party bosses and capitalist elites, which made them much less radical, as well as intrinsically motivated to combat and marginalize the left wing of the party. [3]

Of course, many other factors also contributed to this rightward turn, hardly all brought about by the ascent of 'anti-egalitarian left' as such. To name a few, largely following David Harvey: union cooptation, the imposition of mass(ive) indebtedness, mainly in the form of mortgage and student loans; the rising cost of living due to privatization, deregulation, and cuts to safety net programs. Technological and demographic changes, like the entry of women, more people of color, and migrants (and in Europe, the introduction of so-called 'guest workers') into the labor force, and the invention of containerization (which made it possible to start to integrate Asia into the capitalist world as a production center). The disappearance of the Soviet Union as a existing alternative to capitalist development. And last but far from least, treaties like NAFTA and the WTO (and the creation and enlargement of the EU), which made it much easier for businesses to move production to other areas, and to circumscribe the state's role in the economy. All of these developments had negative consequences for the bargaining power of workers. And in the US in particular, it led to the two-income household becoming a necessity for everyone, while forcing many workers to once again accept working well over 40 hours per week, leaving them with ever less time, energy and hope.

So while I'm sure business owners and social elites were worried sick about the '68 generation, and hated the social and cultural change that did occur, I'd say that the educational system successfully tamed channeled and domesticated people to embrace capitalist liberalism, by fostering pro-capitalist norms and expectations, and by encouraging them to invest most of their energy in their careers, while granting them some leeway to do 'volunteer work' during their off hours.

The road ahead

If we want to establish democratic, egalitarian, emancipated societies, in which oppression and inequality are not (silent) policy goals, and in which use of force only serves a last resort, rather than as a normal part of everyday life for those 'at the bottom', then we cannot accept any form of institutionalized discrimination and oppression, and we must convince others to do the same. (In other words, we need to reject the notion of merit- or deserveocracy.) And at least as importantly: we will have to organize each other, to change institutions and organizations that promote, embody or contribute to those beliefs, behaviors and outcomes.

Because the meritocratic logic operates at every level of human action, from the personal to geopolitical institutions and treaties, this will ultimately mean a societal revolution. This will obviously involve a huge amount of effort, especially reorganizing society. Let me say a little bit more about this now.

With respect to our thinking, it requires us to unlearn our disinterest in the oppression of others -- especially the institutionalized forms. Towards this end, a few starting suggestions: Familiarize yourself with nonviolent communication. Reconsider your support of the various sacred cows of Lockean liberal, imperialist capitalism by working your way through the reading suggestions that'll show up using this tag, and the other pieces in this group. Stop using the other animals. Hopefully, the reading material will help you to challenge meritocratic attitudes in yourself and in those around you, and in figuring out how we can help and work with others who see that we need to think about and organize society very differently.

But equally as important is that we organize ourselves, to embody and express this solidarity, and to emancipate ourselves from those who impose hierarchies to divide us. At a macro level this means working to end imperalism, (neo)colonialism and class exploitation, for the purpose of realizing an actual democratic republic, without us repeating earlier mistakes. But as we work our way up to that, it also means addressing 'smaller-scale' forms of discrimination and oppression of so-called 'minorities', and people with few credentials or 'societal success'. For instance, ending the criminalization of drug use and sex work; organizing to end the exploitation of 'illegals' and migrants (and workers generally) in our workplaces and regions; and so on. Plus: treating 'children' and students differently, in school and outside of it; democratizing the workplace, where most employees have little to no say in how the organization is run, and who are hired and fired; and helping those with a greater need for assistance, who are constantly harrassed and humiliated by government workers hoping to discourage them from applying for assistance supposedly because there's no more money. (And so on -- this is in no way intended to be an exhaustive list.)

Of course, there's no way to address or change all of these things at the same time, overnight, or on our own. This way of thinking and operating is deeply ingrained in everything we do, and most of our social theory. Furthermore, there obviously are personal costs involved in trying. But there's also no defensible alternative to challenging and helping ourselves and those around us to change. Because simply 'living our own lives in the best way we know' is far too costly to those currently at the receiving end and at the bottom, common though that attitude may be. (Also, it could cost us the planet.)

I hope that this blog will contribute to that change, by becoming a collection of useful resources, and by providing a platform on which we can provide each other with support, suggestions and encouragement. <3


PS. As you may have noticed, I'm still getting used to writing clearly, so I hope you'll bear with me, and excuse any awkward formulations or paragraphs that are a bit messy. Feedback, questions and suggestions are very much appreciated, as is just saying hi. :)

[1] As an aside, this also suggests a different way of thinking about political (self-)identification, namely as a function of how a., how broadly someone applies this logic -- e.g., only to the other animals, or also to the 'un-' or 'less credentialed,' the 'indigent', non-nationals, women, people of color, (differently) religious people, those with a different ethnic background, sexual preference, gender expression, and so on. And b., how much inequality and violence someone is okay with, and where they place the floor when it comes to minimal living standards.

[2] And note that the this is just a more extreme form of the utterly mundane "they hurt me, so it's okay/fair for me to hurt them back, or to let harm come to them that I could've easily prevented."

[3] If you are interested to learn what values the elites surrounding Carter held, see e.g. this talk.

[4] Which had taught me meritocratic reasoning by osmosis, because authors I read reasoned that way, and because the institutions that provided me with that education were organized on those principles.

[5] Note that the accusation only mentions children, because 'children' are the only people who are automatically 'innocent', while their adult family members, friends and acquaintances are not.

[6] This conviction of course is particularly important for the rich and powerful, who use their material wealth and social power to create and maintain structures that promote this way of thinking, as they have a strong interest in encouraging us to think that many people don't deserve nice lives, because only so long as people believe that, do they not get together to combat inequality and private hoarding and control. These structures include media corporations, think tanks, elite societies, private schools, and many more besides.

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Bureaucracy Liberalism Inequality Hierarchy Education Main

Permalink - Published on Apr 10, 2019, 8:00:00 AM

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