It is 64 years since Michael Young’s satire, The Rise of the Meritocracy was published. It was, no doubt, a response to the aspirations around the post-war expansion of education. The school leaving age had been raised, and an expansion of grammar schools provided a route for working class kids to access higher education. This social mobility had been accompanied by geographical mobility too, as kids from the old industrial regions of the UK went off to study in the affluent university towns of the south of England, and then later stayed there when they found work.
Britain never was a meritocracy, of course. The very presence of a Royal Family with a direct lineage back to the Norman Conquest and beyond, let everyone know that hereditary privilege was alive and well. Indeed, for all of the benefits of a grammar school education for those working class kids who passed the eleven-plus exam, there is little evidence for the levels of social mobility often claimed – the proportion of working class kids going on to university remained the same. It is just that the post-war economy required more graduates across the board.
Meritocracy though, was a tacit aim of a Labour Party which had, de facto, abandoned any appetite for the socialist utopia. Rather than the pursuit of equality, the post-war Labour Party sought only equality of opportunity. In education, this was quickly thwarted by Labour’s own middle class activists, who provided the strongest support for the abolition of the distinction between grammar and secondary schools. The abolition of the eleven-plus exam was a classic example of the way in which middle class self-interest is presented as a concern for social justice. The exam itself had no pass mark, but instead was based on the number of grammar school places available in any year. This meant, for example, that kids could pass the exam in one year with a lower mark than those who had “failed” in the previous year. More politically contentious though, was the reality that working class kids from the local council estate could earn a place at the grammar school, thereby pushing out the middle class kids from the leafy suburbs.
Once the system of comprehensive education had been implemented, the middle class parents could use class advantage to ensure that their kids fared better than the working class kids – paying for extra tuition, buying up-to-date books, and simply better understanding how the exam game was played. Suffice to say that Young’s book was not an examination of something which existed, but rather a critique of the policy if it had ever been successfully implemented. And the broad point – which would have been visible to him in the late-1950s – was that given the opportunity, the salaried classes will always seek to pull the ladder up behind them.
This, of course, is precisely what the neoliberal governments of Bill Clinton and Tony Blair sought to do in the 1990s. Not that the USA or the UK were meritocracies, but rather they created a system which allowed those in the twenty percent or so of the population still prospering after the economic vandalism of the 1980s, to become a self-replicating “class for itself” – ensuring its own offspring maintained their privileged position while the offspring of other classes were excluded.
By the time Blair returned his iteration of the Labour Party to government in 1997, even the pretence of socialism had been purged. While leading Labour figures were engaged in a “prawn cocktail offensive” to win the support of the City of London bankers, Britain’s working class were told that they were on their own. The best they could hope to get from a Labour government was “education, education, education” – in effect, to take on swathes of student debt, often in exchange for a degree which was largely worthless. This was because Blair’s version of higher education was a cargo cult – it was based on the logically flawed assumption that if Britain created an army of degree-educated people, an equivalent number of high-paying degree-level jobs would surely follow. Wishful thinking indeed. Economies simply don’t work this way. And so, the expansion of education resulted in massive qualification-inflation, as employers offering roles which would previously have been filled by people with a good GCSE grade could choose from a surplus of people with bachelor’s degrees. Meanwhile, the genuinely academically talented were required to take on even more debt and spend more time obtaining MSc and PhD qualifications for employment roles which had previously been taken by BSc graduates with a first or a good 2:1.
The self-replicating part of the process was that almost all of the genuinely graduate-level roles still went to the graduates of the old, top-tier universities. Meanwhile, the majority of the working class kids went off to second and third tier colleges whose post-graduation employment record has been far more patchy. Indeed, in purely financial terms, those working class kids who stayed at home and learned trades like plumbing, carpentry and electrics, tend to earn more than those who went off to a third-tier university.
Not that it ended there. With the expansion of education, and a far larger pool of graduates to choose from, organisations in the cultural and political heights of the economy were able to introduce retrogressive unpaid internships as the first rung on the career ladder. In practice, this meant that only those graduates whose parents were affluent enough to pay their expenses for a year could get on the career ladder… or at least get a head start. The next rung on the ladder might be open for applications from non-interns, but only an imbecile would believe that a known, tried and tested intern would not fare better.
The counter-intuitive outcome of this, anything but meritocratic system, is that its beneficiaries simply pretended that it was. As Thomas Frank was to write of the Clinton Democrats – which Blair’s Labour copied:
“Every time our liberal leaders deregulated banks and then turned around and told working-class people that their misfortunes were all attributable to their poor education, that the only answer for them was a lot of student loans and the right sort of college degree… every time they did this they made the disaster a little more inevitable…
“In an article he [William Galston, a DLC insider and neoliberal guru] co-wrote in 1998, he told Democrats that ‘the new economy favours a rising learning class over a declining working class.’ To keep up with ‘new realities,’ he wrote, Democrats needed to understand that labour was in decline, that the New Deal generation was dying, and that the future belonged to a certain group of affluent, well-educated people. The rest is history. New Democrats did indeed defeat populism. High-minded Democratic centrists did indeed abandon their traditional identification with working people in favour of the ‘learning class.’ And Democrats started finding it ‘difficult’ to take action on matters of basic economic fairness.”
What was beginning to emerge at this point – and what has grown to a truly species-endangering extent since – is not just a denial of reality, but a genuine hatred of anything which reminds the technocracy that, when all is said and done, their pretend “self-identifying” lives are as bound to the material realities of Planet Earth as are everyone else’s. The very presence of ordinary working people – those whose work turned out to be “essential” when SARS-CoV-2 arrived in 2020 – doing such menial things as growing and harvesting food, driving trucks and delivery vans, working in water treatment plants, providing healthcare in hospital wards, and all of the other things which allow most of us to enjoy lives which don’t require hours gathering dirt beneath our fingernails, is abhorrent to a class that wishes to believe that it is where it is solely by its own doing.
In the 2020s, it is no longer possible to talk about the Western states as democracies – from the Ancient Greek “dēmos” the people, and “kratia” power or rule – when those who enjoy the commanding heights of the culture, politics and economies are now positively hostile toward ordinary people. Rather, we have a system of rule that the Greeks called “tekhnekratia” – a technocracy in which power and influence rest upon – in our case an imagined – technological and intellectual excellence. This flaw in democracy was well known to the ancient Greeks. Socrates put the problem this way. Suppose you had to take a sea voyage which would involve sailing through dangerous currents and past jagged rocks. Would you choose to crew your ship with experienced mariners and navigators (tekhne) or would you choose a crew which was representative of the wider population (demos)? Only someone with a death wish would choose the latter. The former is the only sensible option, even though it is undemocratic. The issue this poses is whether it is possible for the captain to ensure that the crew act in the interest of the wider population… and if so, how?
One answer concerns “interests.” It is – or at least was – the case that technocratic organisations didn’t so much act against the interests of the people, than that they only pursued those interests which happened to correspond to their own and those of the wider ruling elite. This though, was much easier to do during the boom years after the Second World War than it has been during the slow-motion train wreck of the past half century. The harder economic times have become, the more technocratic self-interest becomes a stick with which to beat down the interests of ordinary people… “trust the science, pleb!”
Our technocracy is worse than mere rule based on the right qualifications and internships though. Today’s technocrats are what has been disparagingly – but not erroneously – referred to as “trust fund kids.” They are the inheritors of wealth and privilege. People who have never worked on the factory floor, nor have they ever had to meet a wage bill. And while we might hope that people with such a weak grasp on how the real world works might have developed a considerable degree of humility, the opposite is true. The technocracy has gone out of its way to pretend that its privilege was earned on merit. And this self-delusion rapidly gave way to graft. As the technocracy has emerged as what Marx called “a class for itself,” so the graft, which had always existed to some degree, has grown – increasingly visibly – to epidemic proportions… (read more)
As you made it to the end…
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