When people talk about the “myth of meritocracy,” they’re usually referring to the fact that so-called meritocracies rarely work as promised. These arguments claim that instead of doling out rewards and punishments based on someone’s merit, i.e. their inherent abilities, decisions are made on the basis of race, gender, class, and so on. However these critiques, as much as they can be helpful for pointing out existing inequities built into the system, often assume that something called “individual merit” really exists, and that it can be separated from other aspects of a person’s identity, background, and social context. They assume that a “true” meritocracy is the ideal, and that the current system is a broken and dysfunctional version of that ideal, a pale shadow of the perfect form. Few arrive at the conclusion: “What is merit, exactly, and do we really want merit to serve as the basis of our imagined, ideal society? Is this really what we should be striving for?”
In their article, The Meritocracy Myth, Stephen McNamee and Robert Miller state that merit is “generally viewed as a combination of factors including innate abilities, working hard, having the right attitude, and having high moral character and integrity.” They then go on to examine each of these qualities in turn, questioning what, if anything, is inherent, innate, or individual about abilities, hard work, having the “right” attitude, or having high moral character and integrity. Aside from pointing out that these qualities are often vaguely defined—what do we mean by the “right” attitude, exactly?—the authors also note that each of them is ultimately inseparable from the social context and experiences of the person whose abilities are being “measured,” as well as those of the people doing the measuring. Talents, attitudes, and morals are never recognized or developed in a void; they are as much a product of the society we live in as anything else in this world.
At this point, many people fall back on biological arguments—the idea that some people are “naturally” better at performing certain tasks thanks to genetics or other biological factors. This argument is flawed in two ways. First, it relies on an artificial division between “nature” and “culture,” human society and the natural world. Just because we treat biology and sociology as two separate fields of study, organizing them into disciplines and departments, doesn’t mean that this separation exists in reality. Even a person’s physical characteristics are influenced by socially-conditioned factors, such as their mother’s diet, stress levels, and access to quality care during pregnancy, which is in turn tied to issues like poverty, food sovereignty, working conditions, the chronic underfunding and privatization of healthcare institutions, and so on.
Secondly, even if we accept that there are certain biological differences that are “natural” and therefore outside the realm of human influence, we’re still left to wonder why we would want to accept a social order that discriminates on the basis of genetics or other biological traits, particularly given the bloody legacy of so-called “scientific racism.” Referring to something as natural, and then using that as a basis for normative arguments about how things “ought” to be, is known as the naturalistic fallacy, and is often used to reinforce the status quo.
Morals, meaning socially-held assumptions and norms that separate people, objects, or behaviours into categories such as right and wrong, good and bad, are also a product of our society. While McNamee and Miller stick to debunking the myth that moral integrity and wealth are closely aligned, pointing to corporate ethics scandals and white collar crimes like insider trading and tax fraud as evidence, the argument that the rich are not so noble or pure as they’re often made out to be is hardly a revolutionary idea at this point, even in the birthplace of the American dream. Instead, we could go one step farther and say that morals are themselves the product of a society disproportionately controlled by and organized in favour of the rich and the powerful. This is how you end up in a world where ultra-rich capitalists like Bill Gates are put on a pedestal and praised for “giving back,” while their “charities” buy shares in Monsanto and Cargill, companies responsible for innumerable human rights violations and widespread environmental destruction. This also explains why Black Lives Matter activists are criminalized and imprisoned for protesting police brutality and racism.
What we consider to be right and wrong, good and bad, has been shaped over generations. Far from being natural or universal, these values and morals are the product of our collective interactions with institutions like schools, the criminal justice system, the Church, the job market, and the media. Together these institutions create a system of rewards and punishments that we internalize over time. Eventually we no longer need to be told that failing a test is bad, or that arriving to work on time is good. We learn that our survival is dependent on pleasing those people who have power over us, the people in positions of authority, whether they are our parents or teachers or bosses or bureaucrats. We also learn to suppress the fact that we ever learned these lessons in the first place. From a young age we’re told that it’s considered rude, taboo, or just plain depressing to talk about power, inequality, and social control in any direct sense. In order to get by in this environment, we unconsciously accept the things that are rewarded as good/right, while rejecting the things that are punished as bad/wrong. This allows us to continue believing that we’re free, even when we have very little power or autonomy, while still conforming to social norms: “I didn’t clean the kitchen because my mother told me (and demonstrated through her actions) that that’s what women are expected to do in our society, I cleaned it because it was dirty and I wanted it to be clean,” or, “I did it because it was the right thing to do.”
Of course saying that the elite have a disproportionate influence on the rest of society isn’t the same as saying that they’re the only influence. If that were true, critiques of racism would probably never have developed or become part of our moral landscape. People who are exploited, enslaved, and oppressed have a tendency to push back, and in the process, morals shift and change, becoming a site of struggle and resistance. You can see this happening right now in the debates over sexual assault on college campuses, which include arguments about what “counts” as sexual assault, and who should be held responsible. Similar to the fight to include non-consensual sex with a spouse (i.e. marital rape) under the legal definition of rape in 1983 in Canada, this push to establish new moral (and legal) norms is coming mostly from people who are harmed and disempowered by the status quo.
Perhaps one of the most deeply ingrained moral norms that exists today is the importance of hard work. Insults like “a waste of skin” and “good-for-nothing” often connect a person’s value as a human being with their productivity, while terms such as industrious, entrepreneurial, active, and diligent are considered compliments. There’s nothing worse than being seen as lazy or unable to work in a society that valorizes hard work, particularly if you’re poor or racialized. Aside from the fact that it’s often difficult, if not impossible, to determine exactly how “hard” someone is working, there’s also the question of why hard work is so valuable, and for whom. What exactly are we working for, and who benefits from all this hard work? Most people need to work to survive, but when we start to see the act of working hard as valuable in and of itself, such that working hard becomes a central part of our identity, we open ourselves up to whole new forms of exploitation.
It’s no coincidence that the notion of a “strong work ethic” has emerged and developed within a capitalist system that depends on maximizing profits through lowering pay, increasing productivity, and extending the length of the working day. While it’s possible to coerce people into working harder through threats of violence or deprivation, it’s even more effective to encourage workers to self-police, especially in industries that rely heavily on intellectual and creative labour. Teach people to think of “hard work” as a positive trait, as something they can brag about to their friends or carry around as evidence of moral fortitude, and you no longer need to hold a gun to their head.
This isn’t to say that arguments for the value of certain forms of labour aren’t useful when they’re made strategically. Care work and domestic labour have historically been devalued alongside the women and people of colour who most often perform these tasks, and it makes perfect sense to fight back against that trend. But problems arise when we stop connecting these arguments to actual, material conditions, such as when we fail to recognize that people are working harder and longer for less pay, because the joy of working at a job you love is assumed to be its own reward.
And where does merit fit in all of this? In some ways, merit functions as a smokescreen for the social and material relations that make up our society and determine our place within it. Merit is the simple story that we tell ourselves to explain away all the societal factors and influences that authority figures refuse to account for directly. The reason we have so much trouble separating merit from “non-merit” factors is because there is no separation, not really. And yet throughout our school years and our working life, our value is constantly being measured and quantified in relation to something called merit. If we fail to get the job, get a low grade, or get paid less than other people, we’re told that it’s because we just don’t have what it takes—we lack merit—which also implies that we don’t deserve to have what other people have: we don’t merit it. Since merit is supposedly the property of an individual, we’re told it’s our own responsibility if we fail according to these measures. Merit, by focusing the gaze inwards rather than outwards, both naturalizes the status quo and cuts short any attempt to examine the collective effect of these structures and systems that determine who is rewarded, when, why, and how. It becomes about our own personal failure, our own inadequacies, rather than the inadequacy of a system that values some lives above others.
Merit is a constant source of insecurity, stress, and anxiety, but it can also act as a source of pleasure for those who find themselves on the winning side. I work in videogames and academia, two areas where the concept of merit is very deeply embedded. In mainstream gaming culture, competition and demonstrations of skill are highly valued, often under the assumption that what distinguishes games from “real life” is that games present players with an even playing field. Equal opportunity is seen as an essential component of any “real” meritocracy, however it’s unclear where exactly the equality begins and ends. If the only thing distinguishing players is their skills, then should players not also have an equal opportunity to acquire those skills? If one player has 60 hours a week to practice, and the other only has 5, can it still be called an even playing field? What about players who have different physical abilities due to an accident of birth or circumstance? What about players who don’t speak the language or are bullied or harassed due to their race, sexuality, or gender presentation? Who exactly is this “even playing field” for, and who is being invisibly excluded by our reluctance to challenge the concept of merit?
You might expect academics to “know better,” however academic institutions have the dubious honour of being both the source of many of the critiques of meritocracy, and a place where the concept of merit is systematically reinforced through grades and performance metrics, honorifics and degrees, grant committees and various other forms of gatekeeping.
In the case of academia, it can be tempting to replace merit with “intelligence” in an attempt to dodge the issues I’ve raised above, however the concept of intelligence also needs to be unpacked. There is a long history of separating the body from the mind (or soul) in Western philosophy and science that I won’t get into here, except to say that the process of assigning the body to a lower status has served to naturalize a social order where the ruling classes, who are free to engage in “higher” pursuits like education, politics, and the arts, are viewed as innately superior, while the lower classes, who are typically forced into manual labour and are more likely to be preoccupied by basic, bodily needs like food and shelter, are seen as inferior, crass, vulgar, and unfit to govern their own affairs. The concept of the mind, and everything that follows from it, has important social and political implications, lending power to some groups while disempowering others; however it is also, itself, shaped by those relations of power. This comes through in the devaluation and erasure of indigenous knowledge by colonial powers, as well as the selective application of terms like “genius” and “madness,” concepts which are closely linked to prevailing social norms.
The argument that intelligence is not about what you know, but about your ability to learn, does not erase the fact that the development of any skill, learning included, is highly dependent on free time and access to resources, something that is rarely taken into account by academic structures. When I’m grading students, I’m asked to assess them based on the work that they’ve produced, without giving any consideration to the context in which the work was created, or the background of the student who made it. To give you an idea of just how much this leaves out, here’s a partial list of some of the things that instructors aren’t expected to think about when giving grades to undergraduate students:
Were they working full time? Do they have children or other dependents they need to care for? Are they sick and/or suffering from mental health issues but won’t reveal this to me because of social stigma? Do they have a safe and quiet place to work? Are they taking the class simply because they need the credit and the structure of the university left them with no other options? Are they put off by the fact that my course outline consists entirely of work by white men, which doesn’t reflect or even directly discounts their experiences? Is the content forcing them to relive past trauma, which is affecting their ability to work? Is English their first, second, third, or fourth language? Has their attendance dropped because they were abused by other students in the class? Are they living with high levels of debt and stressing out about their future? Are their family or friends supportive of their decision to go to university? What else is going on in their lives?
There’s no room for any of these questions in a system dominated by GPAs (grade point averages), especially when that system is also expanding the size of classes, reducing the number of staff, demanding more work for less pay (often under precarious conditions), eliminating essential support structures like health services and benefits, and generally screwing teachers and students alike in the name of “cutting costs” and “improving efficiency.” In this context it’s difficult—if not impossible—for instructors to provide the individualized attention and care that students need. Students are reduced to a series of letters and numbers on a page, as are the instructors, and most of us are too tired to do anything about it.
Despite these obvious problems, many people work to protect and reinforce the status quo, because they’ve come to identify their own self-worth with that system of letters and numbers. Whether it’s gamers protesting the “casualization” of their favourite series or genre while pining over the “good old days” when games were really, really hard and only real men… ahem, I mean real gamers, could rise to the challenge, or professors reminiscing about the sleepless nights they spent desperately trying to get through the 5 million books they were expected to read as graduate students, the old guard vigorously defends the rituals and barriers to access—the “rites of passage”—that also function as the source of their own legitimacy. “Why should they have it easy, when I suffered so much?” “I worked hard to get where I am today.” “This generation is so coddled and self-centered.” This is the inevitable outcome of a system organized around the concept of individual merit. When your own worth depends on the exclusion of others, on your capacity to succeed where others fail, then equality and access will appear to work against your personal interests, rather than for them. This is why we are so hostile to the notion of privilege, because it runs counter to the idea that we worked hard and suffered for what we have, that we “deserve it.”
Merit is ultimately about deserving, and about legitimizing private ownership and inequality. It is ideological through and through, perhaps even more so than the things we typically think of as “ideological,” because it often works subconsciously and involves strong emotional responses. When we’ve invested so much in the current system, through our own blood, sweat, and tears, it can be hard to let go. I think we must let go, but to do it, we also need to support each other, to find new ways to invest in one another and in ourselves. We can’t strip away a person’s sense of self-worth, replace it with nothing, and expect them to simply let it happen. That void needs to be filled, somehow.
We can start by telling the people around us that we care about them, that they matter to us, that they are worth so much more than their productivity or their ability to “succeed” in a fucked up system based on “merit.” We can start by guiding each other through the process of deconstructing that system, helping each other to ask the tough questions, and standing by each other in moments of despair and desperation. We can start by questioning our own investments, and the way we punish or reward people based on their behaviour. We can start by listening to the people challenging inequality, wherever it exists, and instead of tearing them down, recognize that all our struggles are connected. We can start by organizing new systems and new structures that can replace the old, and by changing the ones we currently occupy. We can start by imagining something better than a “genuine” meritocracy. We can start by practicing solidarity. We can start by believing that another world is possible, and that we have what it takes to get there.