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What Merit in the Meritocracy?

“A narrative is emerging. It is that the new meritocratic aristocracy has come to look like every other aristocracy.”

— David Brooks, “The Strange Failure of the Educated Elite,” The New York Times, May 29, 2018

“The meritocratic class has mastered the old trick of consolidating wealth and passing privilege along at the expense of other people’s children.”

— Matthew Stewart, “The Birth of a New American Aristocracy,” The Atlantic, June 2016.

We have a system by which many fallen behind at the start face conditions created by a meritocratic elite and the top .1% they serve (not small, owning 38% of the nation’s wealth) which make their rise either in terms of salary and wealth, education, health and fitness, net-working opportunities, safe neighborhoods, retirement security and adequate leisure time improbable.

Our meritocracy has created a permanent underclass, within which we can include all those who find some comfort in describing themselves as middle class. What is needed now to assume that title is a smartphone, the more apps the better, tablet and video game system for your kids, a huge flat screen TV, an SUV and credit cards not yet confiscated. Being able to announce your existence on social media also seems to do much to preserve the illusion of being middle class.

What seems to be real, however, is that meritocrats need artisanal food, fitness trainers, nannies and au pair assistance, bright and smiling servers, golf clubs and membership, speech manners ranging from ethnic mimic to an upper-class “honk,” bespoke everything, including pets, high end product erudition, curated knowledge sources, guarded gates and surveillance video, extreme sports excursions and spa visitations, high end gear, and the brightest children.

In a must read article in The Atlantic, the June issue with the infant in a Yale onesie on the cover, entitled “The Birth of a New Aristocracy,” Matthew Stewart defines the ways of being rich beyond money as a measure: “Family, friends, social networks, personal health, culture, education, and even location are all ways of being rich, too. These nonfinancial forms of wealth, as it turns out, are not simply perks of membership in our aristocracy. They define us.”

This new aristocracy, this “cognitive elite,” also needs to keep a distance between themselves and those who do not share the “same interests.” But those others must also somehow remain present so that the fullness of one’s own special difference can be witnessed but also, paradoxically, not witnessed. In fact, these losers should disappear, at least out of your sight.

There’s about 90% of the population in the U.S. now who serve as a reference point on the scale of well-being for the .1% who can buy elections and the 9.9% who can arrange it for them One cannot, in other words, fully enjoy one’s special state unless those who do not are both present and absent. You want the loser to remind everyone what your winning amounts to but at the same time you do not want that loser anywhere near you and your family. Your merit demands that lives without merit are there to make it clear what your merit entails.

Those frozen in place and melting downward into a permanent underclass are victims of a kind of genocide slyly and covertly enabled by our form of meritocracy.

What might it be then that we have arrived at such a miserable state?

I see it as a phenomenological issue: we are conscious of or intend toward a certain notion of merit.

If you look at a mythos of merit, you see that in the New Testament’s Beatitudes, Christ is defining a certain kind of merit to be aspired and subscribed to. “What does it merit a man to gain the whole world and lose his soul?” Mark asks in the Gospels. The stoic, Marcus Aurelius, found merit in a moral drive and not in reputation, which Shakespeare also ridiculed: “Reputation is an idle and false imposition,” while the Buddhist notion of merit resides on purity and goodness.

For all this elevated discourse on merit, it remains a default discourse in a materialist society.

It is the arsenal of hypocrisy, every mogul, politician and financial adviser wrapping theirs and your avidity in noble garb. It seems that when we preach an extension of what merit is beyond money and things and people it can buy, we offer nothing. In fact, nothing is what we offer, rather like just say no to drugs or counter sexual desire with abstinence or unemployment with “Start a business.”

There is nothing present, real or responsive here but rather only absence. We understand real merit in fame and fortune and we understand the nature of the competitive game to achieve this. But there is only absence and emptiness, denial and abstinence in not accepting this competitive game of what merit is, how it is achieved, recognized and rewarded.   “I don’t care about money and reputation, fame and fortune and I don’t care who and how others have achieved it.” This is no more than a position we are left with, no more than a nihilism that does indeed mean nothing and therefore serves the resident notion of merit within the narrow scope of a private good calculated as an acquisition of goods, from good houses and good jobs to good schools and good locations.

So, tying the pursuit of merit to something that is less ugly than the joy of the guy who finally wins in Monopoly is not an easy matter because we at once run to the anti-materialism best left to the pulpits and an anti-capitalism already historically defeated in the minds of many. Although Gallup has polled millennials as 69% in favor of socialism, it is difficult to discern whether they recognize the contradiction in socialism’s economic equality aspirations and the “throw the dice” nature of a free market economy, which 64% of millennials favor. What seems to be clearer here is that as millennials earn more, their socialism decreases. So it seems that nothing is offered to counter our present fame and fortune meritocratic game plan. Whatever challenges such a system remain perfect cannon fodder as well as front and alibi for the winners.

How meritocracy is working and how we imagine it to be now seems closely allied to our cultural divide and to the worst features of that divide. I see the connection to gentrification, as no more than a kind of invasion and occupation by the meritocratic elite of real estate and ways of living, a dispossession by the dividend receiving class of the wage earner. The dispossessed are not marched to reservations but they do disappear, in the way those who never vote, never litigate, never lobby, never live on interest but always pay it, never see their retirement in full health do.

It is odd in every way, even funny odd but also tragic odd, that we rise in our meritocracy through our literacy. It’s odd because we now do a great deal to escape reading and writing as we escape to the cave dweller type pictorial and oral expressiveness of our social media, sentences replaced by videos, “I’m on the bus” texting, tweets, and emoji meanings, coding and not cursive writing, video gaming and not reading. Whether or not we eventually alter our ways of judging merit to accommodate these new competencies, what we see now is a rise in an alternative form of societal, one more solipsistic than societal, a solipsism nurtured by a cyberspace responsive to us in ways that the real world is not. Ironically, the more time we spend in cyberspace pursuing our own designs, the more we feel we are interconnected by our social media.

While we recognize these new competencies, this new literacy in the marketplace, we are not yet adjusting our entry to the meritocracy to accommodate such. The same old same old gatekeepers of educational advance, which involve not opining but critical interpretation and understanding, are yet in force. The hurdles remain the same although a rising, new set of players are absorbed elsewhere, on different playing fields of their own design, disinterested in the hurdles in place.

This state of affairs may be a foundational reason as to why we have a failing system of education. There is no interest in being led to knowledge of anything when we each can easily lead ourselves by our own lights with our own smartphones. We are losing our cognitive skills and yet call ourselves a “cognitive elite” led by a click of our apps.

Meanwhile, back to a future still in play, an elite few are doing what their elite forebears have always done: become literate enough to get into the elite schools, going on to professionalize in fields that establish and guard their own rewards and compensation, and continuing to establish an inheritable elitism.

Whether or not education expands into a self-guided, self-designed tour online or contracts into a classroom, learning environment with a teacher and assigned texts, or whether or not that expansion has already been locked in, we measure results not whimsically but by standards of judgment in effect.

What does insure continued elite status to the elite is recognition of these standards and an instilling of such in their young. What elite, private schools provide are venues for these prepared young to accomplish on a widely recognized domain of high merit. At a price. They are prepped to follow the path of their successful forebears. Those not reared in similar conditions, perhaps not encouraged by word or example cannot be denied the merit of their own minds and ambitions. But they are denied the finances to attend Trinity School at $47, 965 a year or Collegiate at $47,500 a year. Regardless of the fact that students who attend New York City’s public elite school come from families whose income exceeds the city’s average, private schools of equal quality are outside the financial reach of the 90%.

For this reason, Mayor De Blasio’s proposal to do away with the Specialized High School Admissions Test” because, as he states it “isn’t just flawed — it’s a roadblock to justice, progress and academic excellence” would make such elite education available only to the legacy wealthy.

His aim here is to “reflect the city better” by having the eight elite high schools, including Bronx High School of Science, Stuyvesant and Brooklyn Tech, admit the same racial, ethnic and gender proportion as in the whole city. This goal of equitable justice ignores the reality of our very economically inequitable society. Rather than advancing academic excellence it leaves the opportunity to achieve such to a minority wealthy who attend institutions who maintain elite standards without worry about how equitable such an opportunity might be.

It makes no sense to level the quality of education for every class but the wealthy whose private institutions are not bound by any egalitarian values.

Our plutocracy secures its own future through elite education, fashioning a coalition of the well credentialed and well off. This is a club those less well off but well educated thanks to their admission to schools like Stuyvesant may struggle to join or, as history shows us, are more likely to be critical of our aristocracy of money at the heart of American society today.

When those able to contribute significantly to the public discourse are educated alongside those also unaffiliated with and not beholding to a resident wealth class, we shape a counter-plutocracy faction, an elite of a different but necessary kind.

Our countering discourse has eroded since the working class, wage earner intellectual whose income did not admit any affiliation with an elite top 10%, now mate with other middling income earners and find their interests, and their portfolios, no longer aligned with the wage earner. We are thus in desperate need of a prosperous class aligned with the 90% and not the 10%.

It follows then that we must resist attempts to end the 90 per cent’s access to an education that challenges our best minds to reach toward their fullest potential. The only way to create a challenging meritocracy is to continue access by the wage earner class to our public elite schools.

I see no reason to ask the Have Nots, at least in comparison to the top 10%, to settle into a level of understanding achievable by a classroom that reflects the city better when no such demand can be placed upon a wealth class that finds such Liberal goals amusing.

This is a kind of battle field recognition by which I mean that we are not at all close to giving up our fame and fortune view of what is meritorious in life nor are we close to giving up our “war of all against all” in order to achieve any of this.

While I would like to see us fashion a meritocracy in which there is equal merit in labor and capital, in glorifying natural resources of the planet rather than exhausting them, in studying what is best for all as well as the planet and putting other values besides what’s cheaper into play, and creating ungated neighborhoods of mixed economic status, and so on, such thinking ignores the present surround.

Before we can be totally transformative in regard to what merit is and how a meritocracy should work for the benefit of all, we must produce through our public education minds that can lead challenging, cogent, erudite arguments against our plutocratic status quo.

Right now, we cannot even summon an unquestioned exposure of our president’s assertions of infallibility based on his own assessment of his genius. “Fuck Trump” and throwing his press secretary out of a restaurant and so on is not a challenging discourse.

We need also to recall that Trump took advantage of an opening Liberals left him, namely losing track of their constituency, something FDR did not do. If you trace the interests of the Democratic Party going back to Clinton in 1992, what you will see is the increasing cultural, “soft power” affiliation of that party with the wealthy mainly because the ruling members of that party had closer ties to the Haves than the Have Nots. As the representatives of that party themselves became part of the Dividend Class, wage earners had no party to turn to for surely Neoliberals and the Republican Party never pretended to serve anyone but the Dividend Class.

That Republican Party service would serve wage earners, if not immediately at least soon. Every boat would be raised. And so on. Soon clearly became never, frustration, resentment, anger mounted and Trump, like a good salesman of his own bullshit, came on the scene.  Trump’s fame and fortune, figures unknown but grandiosity amply displayed all over the world, remains attractive to many because fame and fortune are the most meritorious acquisitions in our society.

Five months from the Congressional elections, Trump remains a Winner in the American Dream and the stock market has increased the fortunes of both Democrat and Republican dividend recipients. A Liberal administration’s promise to turn back to regulations, preserved entitlements and a restored Affordable Health Care, as well as increased Medicaid and anti-poverty efforts and so on, computes this way in the minds of those equating Trump with good fortune: a Democratic Congress may push the economy back from a 5% growth to the lackluster growth of the Obama years.

Once again, we hold merit in acquisition, not on its restraint.

It seems likely then that the Dividend Recipient class, who owns the discourse of both parties, avowed or not, may vote their portfolio in November. There is a greater fear that an unharnessed financial sector will once again plunge us into a repeat of 2007 Great Recession than a fear that Mueller’s investigations will come up with anything harmful to portfolios. The great hope is not anything greater than getting out of the market before it tumbles.

I summarize all this simply to show that we need public intellectuals not owned by the present elite meritocracy. Retaining the quality of our elite public schools, in New York and elsewhere is how we can once again establish working class intellectuals not bred to serve a plutocratic order and not lost in the moshpit of a public education system plutocracy must first destroy before it can be reborn for profit.

The fight for this educational opportunity for the 90% is not only very tough but not many know it is being fought. Unless we first establish an effective intellectual advance against the foundations of our growing plutocracy, we cannot expect to achieve that equal representation and opportunity that Mayor De Blasio envisions. This Liberal need to campaign for equity for all now, even of mind, is not helpful here and is as obstructive as the Neoliberal’s drive to make market profiteering on education a reality.

Our public schools are now targeted as a new marketing frontier. Our economic system sees much profit in owning the schools and being paid to do so with Federal tax money, some 68 billion dollars in 2016. I question whether our plutocratic order, which relies on the stochastic, casino-like dispensations of a market rule, can deliver anything but such a self-serving faith in students. If the only mission of profit making is profit then whatever turns out to be the most saleable in terms of education and its delivery will become the standard.

When education is subverted at its very beginnings and intellectually challenging high schools are also a “back in the day” affair then what clearly remains is a plutocratically designed order of merit, one that only those enjoying the fruits of such plutocracy will be recognized. We are not very far from that at this moment. We must do all we can to stop the deterioration of the working/wage earner, dissident intelligentsia, or, more accurately, its formation. “The deterioration of the intelligentsia is as much a symptom of disease as the corruption of the ruling class or the sleeping sickness of the proletariat.” Arthur Koestler wrote that in 1945 but it remains apt.

We cannot redefine merit in such a way as to enable all to earn power, the root meaning of “meritocracy,” if we acquiesce to the stifling of young minds without the legacy credentials of a ruling class or to the exploitation for profit of a public education, which is the finer legacy of our democracy.

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Joseph Natoli has published books and articles, on and off line, on literature and literary theory, philosophy, postmodernity, politics, education, psychology, cultural studies, popular culture, including film, TV, music, sports, and food and farming. His most recent book is Travels of a New Gulliver.

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