by Kevin Carson

I recently reread The Revolt of the Elites, by Christopher Lasch – one of my favorite writers. One of the most important themes in the book is his contrast of the Jeffersonian democratic ideal to the meritocratic ideal that replaced it.

Under the old, populist conception, what mattered was the class structure at any given time. The ideal was the wide diffusion of property ownership, with the great majority in the producing classes having a material base for economic independence. The advocates of the democratic ideal, as it existed through the first half of the nineteenth century,

understood that extremes of wealth and poverty would be fatal to the democratic experiment…. Democratic habits, they thought – self-reliance, responsibility, initiative–were best acquired in the exercise of a trade or the management of a small holding of property. A “competence,” as they called it, referred both to property itself and to the intelligence and enterprise required by its management. It stood to reason, therefore, that democracy worked best when democracy was distributed as widely as possible among the citizens.

The point can be stated more broadly: Democracy works best when men and women do things for themselves, with the help of their friends and neighbors, instead of depending on the state.

The average member of the producing classes should rest secure in the knowledge that he would be able to support himself in the future, without depending on the whims of an employer. The purpose of education was to produce a well-rounded individual. It aimed at the wide diffusion of the general competence needed by ordinary people for managing their own affairs, on the assumption that they retained control over the main forces affecting their daily lives.

When Lincoln argued that advocates of free labor “insisted on universal education,” he did not mean that education served as a means of upward mobility. He meant that citizens of a free country were expected to work with their heads as well as their hands…. Advocates of free labor took the position… that “heads” and “hands” should cooperate as friends; and that [each] particular head, should direct and control that particular pair of hands.

The meritocratic philosophy, on the other hand, holds that the functions of “hands” and “head” should be exercised by distinct classes of people, with the “head” class managing the “hands” class. “Social mobility” means simply that members of the “hands” class should have the opportunity to advance into the “head” class if they’re willing to go to school for twenty years and abase themselves before enough desk jockeys.

The shift from the democratic to the meritocratic ideal reflected the transition from a middle class based on widespread small property ownership, to a New Middle Class (described in an earlier post) based on position within a large organization.

The meritocratic philosophy, as Lasch described it, called not for rough equality of condition, but only for social mobility (defined as the rate of “promotion of non-elites into the professional-managerial class”).

The new managerial and professional elites… have a heavy investment in the notion of social mobility–the only kind of equality they understand. They would like to believe that Americans have always equated opportunity with upward mobility…. But a careful look at the historical record shows that the promise of American life came to be identified as social mobility only when more hopeful interpretations of opportunity had become to fade.

Through most of the nineteenth century, Americans viewed as abnormal both a large class of propertyless wage laborers, and the ownership of economic enterprise by an absentee rentier class that lived entirely off the returns on accumulated wealth. Such things were associated with the decadence and corruption of the Old World.

Lincoln denounced as the “mud-sill theory” the idea “that nobody labors unless someone else, owning capital, somehow, by the use of that capital, induces him to it.” He contrasted to this the small-r republican ideal, that “a large majority are neither hirers nor hired.”

One of Lasch’s most telling comments on meritocracy was this:

Social mobility does not undermine the influence of elites; if anything, it helps to solidify their influence by supporting the illusion that it rests solely on merit. It merely strengthens the likelihood that elites will exercise power irresponsibly, precisely because they recognize so few obligations to their predecessors or to the communities they profess to lead.

This attitude was demonstrated, in spades, by one of Joe Bageant’s correspondents:

In your essay “Sons of a Laboring God“, you wrote: “Anyone who actually believes that all these poor working puds can beat this system, lift themselves up by their bootstraps, is either a neo-con ideologue or the child of advantage.” I grew up on welfare. I had no central heat, our well ran dry most summers for up to a month, and at one point I only had two pairs of ripped, ill-fitting jeans and five stained T-shirts to wear for several months.

I starved my way through college and am now making $75,000 a year — and I’m only 27. I made it through by the skin of my teeth, fearing every moment that I wouldn’t make tuition, that I’d be kicked out of the dorms and have nowhere to live. When they gave me my diploma, I was crying so hard I couldn’t see. I forgot to shake the dean’s hand. It wasn’t easy, but with a little sacrifice it was possible. Upward mobility in the U.S. is neither a myth nor a pipe dream.

The reason these people you talk about can’t move up in life is nobody’s fault but their own…. There’s no reason they can’t go to college. They just don’t want to.

This “anyone who’s willing to work hard enough on pyramids can grow up to be Pharaoh” argument is, of course, a classic fallacy of composition: Bageant claims it’s impossible for “all these poor working puds” (emphasis added) to advance in the meritocracy, and the correspondent thinks an example of one person doing so proves Bageant wrong.

You can’t read an editorial page or a mass newsweekly without seeing some version of the argument for education, education, and more education as the cure for all of our class disparities. It’s regurgitated alike by technocratic liberals, and by neoconservative intellectuals (and if you scratch one of the latter, you find a technocratic liberal). Bageant quickly demolished it.

Look at it this way: The empire needs only about 20-25% of its population at the very most to administrate and perpetuate itself — through lawyers, insurance managers, financial managers, college teachers, media managers, scientists, bureaucrats, managers of all types and many other professions and semi-professions.

What happens to the rest? They are the production machinery of the empire and they are the consumers upon the empire depends to turn profits. If every one of them earned a college degree it would not change their status, but only drive down wages of the management class, who are essentially caterers to the corporate financial elites who govern most things simply by controlling the availability of money at all levels, to to bottom, hence your hard struggle to pay for college in an entirely capitalist profit driven economy….

Clawing down basic things like an education in such a competitive, reptilian environment makes people hard. And that’s what the empire wants, hardassed people in the degreed classes managing the dumbed down, over-fed proles whose mental activity consists of plugging their brains into their television sets so they can absorb the message to buy more, and absorb themselves in the bread and circus spectacles provided them through profitable media corporations operating mainly as extensions of the capitalist state’s propaganda system….

Right now we are seeing the proletarianization of college graduates, as increasingly more of them are forced to take service and labor jobs. (Remember that it only takes a limited number to directly or indirectly manage the working masses, which these days includes workers like hospital technicians, and a thousand other occupations we have not traditionally thought of as working class.)

4 responses to “Meritocracy

  1. Good, insightful stuff.

  2. Crumbs what’s going on ! I’ve only done a brief appraisal of this site, but first impressions are depressing. It really pisses me off that so many contributors seem to have suffered the worst kind of abuse. Dig out the abusers or if dead dig ’em up.

  3. Most people, even Jefferson’s time, were servants, or other paid employees – or tenant (not owner occupyer) farmers.

    And I am not counting the slaves in his native Virginia – I mean in England and other settled lands.

    Nor was property “distributed” (under civil assocation, a free society, income and wealth are not “distributed” – see Oakeshott, “On Human Conduct” on this point).

    Jefferson did have a fond notion of expanding into the unclaimed lands of the West (unclaimed if one does not count the Indians of course).

    However, a policy of homesteading was suitable for some areas – but not for others.

    When applied to Ohio or Indiana it worked well enough – but further West (with different soil and different climatic conditions) it was very unwise to try and divide the land into family farms (much bigger enterprises, such as great ranches, were simply a better use of the land – and, whatever rules were passed, this is what tended to evolve especially in the South West).

    Of course even in Ohio and Indiana land ownership becomes rarer (and more unequal) over time. This is a natural process – but still instructive.

    Instructive because some people claim the fact that most people do not own family farms (and what not ) in England is caused by the Norman Conquest (or what not). In reality most people would not own family farms in England even if there had been no Norman Conquest – just as most people do not own family farms even in Indiana.

  4. On the specific point of education….

    Of course Li8ncoln himself practiced as a lawyer without any formal legal education – something that would be illegal today.

    The pre freedom position is indeed that someone should be able to offer any service (even legal and medical services) as long as they do not pretend to have qualifications they do not have – and as long as associations (guilds) of lawyers, doctors (or whatever) are allowed to advertise saying “do not go to unqualified people – you will die horribily” (and so on). People should be able to opt for lower prices (for example legal services offered by a railroad worker like Lincoln) at the risk of going to a unqualified person (as long as they know they are unqualified – as long as no deception is involved).

    After all Milton Friedman exposed (more than a half a century ago) that doctor licenseing (which spread from State to State due to producer, basically union, influence) was not about protecting people from “quacks” (that was a side issue), it was about the control of medical education by producer (union) interests. And the medical question is certainly more disputed than the legal question – it is very hard indeed to defend the de facto union monopoly of Bar Associations.

    As for education generally…..

    There are really two questions here.

    Firstly would people get a basic education without the state?

    There is a vast amount of evidence (from Britain and the United Startes and many other countries) that voluntary efforts to educate the young (and the not so young) were vastly more successful than the traditional account (the account pushed by the present education establishment) would suggest. Indeed as E.G. West (“Education and the State”) pointed out almost 50 years ago, bringing the government did not (repeat not) increase the speed of the expansion of education in England and Wales (if anything the rate of expansion slowed down).

    No doubt there would be gaps in voluntary efforts – but there are gaps under the government tax financed system now. It is not hard to find people (large numbers of people) who can not read or write – in spite of (or because of) the taxing away of resources by government and the saturation of everything by regulations (such as the “teacher training” laws – which insist that people spend time and money being taugh Saul Alinksy’s “Rules for Radicals” and Bill Ayers’ “Social Justice Education” and on and on).

    “Without the state people would not be able to read and write” – go to Chicago (a wildly high spending, high wage for teachers, union dominated city) – it is easy to find people who can not read or write in Chicago. The argument that taxing away resouces and concentrating them in the hands of the government will produce better results, just does not pass the smell test.

    But there is also the second area of debate – university level education.

    I doubt that all but the most fanatical statists would claim that there would be any shortage of scholarships and other such for subjects like engineering – the idea that government taxing resources away from manufacturing companies “for their own good” so that more people can be taught practical knowledge (that they, supposedly, would not be taught without government intervention) is clearly absurd.

    However, what about the “liberal arts” – some scholarships (and so on) would exist (even statists do not deny this) but it would as many young people go to university and study the “liberal arts” (the humanities and social sciences) as do today?

    Firstly government intervention has vastly increased costs – the explosion of tuition costs comes along with the government backing for student loans and so forth (yet the establisment turn their heads away from the obvious connection – as they do with the introduction of such things as Medicare and Medicaid and the explosion of health costs).

    When a young Ronald Reagan wanted to go and study economics (it is often forgotten that Ronald Reagan was the only President in American history with a degree in economics) he could finance himself by working as a lifeguard. That would not work now – as costs have exploded, and they have exploded because of the very government interventions designed to “help people”.

    However, for the sake of argument, let us say that fewer young people would go and study the social sciences and humanities without government intervention. Would this really hig social mobility?

    Leaving aside Kevin Carson’s attack on the very idea of social mobility (his reasoning reminded me of a certain bird in the British film “Carry On Up The Jungle”), it is true that most people in senior government jobs or senior private jobs have a college degree (and normally their studies concentrated on the arts and social sciences). But this was not always the case……

    In the past (as recently as before World War II) many people in very senior positions had not been to college. Indeed in some industries (such as American railroads) there was actually a dislike of “college boys”, who were thought to come with a set of beliefs and attitudes that were not helpeful (indeed were positively unhelpful) in relation to work.

    It is only became the norm for managers to have a university education (and a university education concentrating in the arts and social sciences) when it became normal for vast numbers of people to go to college.

    Are companies really better run because senior managers now tend to have four years education in the humanities and social sciences?

    Are German companies (where senior managers tend to be promoted from within – and where their education tends to be concentrated on such subjects as engineering and the physical sciences) really worse run than American and British companies? Is Switzerland (where an university level education is less common than it is in Britain of the United States) really a poorer country?

    No – the idea that the taxpayers must be forced to pay for vast numbers of people to go to university and study the humanities and social sciences, is just nonsense.

    And, by the way, I speak as someone with two university degrees – both in non practical subjects (politics and history).