Today I am giving over my blog to Patricia Kaszynska FRSA as part of a conversation we have been having about social mobility. We’re hoping other people will join in too…
‘ Thanks, Matthew, for starting this conversation. We began talking because we both felt that there was something unhealthy about the prominent consensus on social mobility in current political discourse in the UK.
Championing social mobility has become a badge of honour to be worn proudly and ostentatiously by politicians of all parties and ideologies. In one way or another we can expect each Party leader to assert the commitment to equality of opportunity in their forthcoming conference speeches. It is an item in all political manifestos that voters glance over without much surprise or excitement. This begs a question. Given what would actually be involved in pursuing an aggressive policy of promoting greater movement up and down the social class hierarchy, why is it that talking about social mobility does not cause more anxiety in the public sphere?
There are two possible answers. Firstly, no one feels threatened by talk of social mobility because it will never happen – for example, the measures proposed in a recent Coalition strategy, while perfectly commendable, are unlikely to make any more than a marginal impact (something I will explore in subsequent posts). Secondly and less cynically, because the debate is cast in terms of the spurious thought that ‘we can all be winners’.
The problem, I suspect, is that few of us have sat down to reflect on what having a meritocratic, socially mobile society would entail; but the authentic pursuit of a true meritocracy is, I would like to suggest, not nearly as inoffensive as people are accustomed to believe.
While extolling the idea of social mobility, politicians and commentators rarely grapple with the objections to the ideal of meritocracy described by the author of the concept, Michael Young. Far from being a policy goal, he saw a meritocracy as a dystopia in which the self-satisfied elite ruled the underserving masses with the heart-felt conviction that their dominance is justified by the superiority of their kind. Indeed, greater social mobility is entirely compatible with steep hierarchy and oppression.
In a meritocratic world, individuals are seen as the makers of their own success. The meritocratic elite, unlike the old class of noblesse oblige, does not rule in virtue of their blood ties. Meritocratically ‘selected’ rulers don’t owe anything to anybody; with no sense of debt, they feel no obligation to represent the interests of those lower down. The meritocratic Leviathan does not identify with its subjects. The verdict is passed: the lowly members of the underclass have only themselves to blame for not being talented and diligent enough to succeed.
Could the meritocratic ruling elite even be more morally indifferent than the establishment of a more rigid and traditional hierarchy? This takes us to the question of how is ‘merit’ defined? Is merit to be spelled out purely as a set of qualities that allows one to rise to power and stay in power? What if the individuals ‘on top’ define merit in self-referential terms; in their image and likeness? Not only does this raise the problem of intellectual conformity and on top, it pre-empts the possibility of subversion.
Indeed, a meritocratic society could prove to be surprisingly static and rigid. On the one hand, because we tend to think of merit as a fair measure of achievement, we are likely to consider meritocratic hierarchies as more legitimate than those premised on the accident of birth and nepotistic privilege. On the other hand, once in place the meritocratic elite is well placed to preserving itself in power by pre-empting opposition. Meritocracy prevents criticism by co-opting its possible critics and appropriating any one smart enough to overturn the existing status quo. The temptation to rise up the social ranks is irresistible for potential revolutionaries, with the effect that all possible centres of opposition are stripped of leaders before they pose any danger. Those very few who get co-opted and come from the bottom to penetrate the upper echelons leave the debilitating and unworthy context of their birth behind to pursue a solitary life of self-fulfilment away from ‘cumbersome’ community ties. They end up looking back not so much with anger, but with disdain.
For those stuck in the middle of the meritocratic social hierarchy, the world is ridden with anxiety. By definition being in the middle means that one can go either up or down. It might be not as much the desire to move to the front of the social mobility ‘queue’, as the fear of coming down that motivates the constant urge to do better that one’s neighbours. Those in the middle are obsessed with the pecking order and relative advantage. This quasi-Hobbesian framework of a ‘competition’ of all against all erodes trust, reciprocity and empathy; it leads to the atomization of communities and an unhealthy proclivity for Schadenfreude.
As for those at the bottom, the dominant world-view fosters contempt and self-loathing. We accept the meritocratic claim with respect to failure; that the unsuccessful have only themselves to blame. There are psychological studies which demonstrate that activating meritocratic beliefs increases the extent to which individuals justify status inequalities, even when those inequalities are disadvantageous to the self; ‘priming meritocracy leads members of a low status group to justify both personal and group disadvantage by decreasing perceptions of discrimination and increasing the extent to which they stereotype themselves’. Self-doubting and robbed of future leaders, those at the bottom are likely to stay put. Thus the tragic irony of meritocracy (both in principle and in practice); its ideology legitimises precisely the hierarchical inequity it claims to subvert.