Twilight of the Meritocrats

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By:Ralph Berry | August 12, 2019

“The liberal idea is obsolete,” said President Putin in a recent interview with the Financial Times (27 June 2019), “it has outlived its purpose. When the migration problem came to a head, many people admitted that the policy of multiculturalism is not effective and that the interests of the core population should be considered.”

Of that striking passage, the most explosive words are “the core population,” a phrase which would be banned in British discourse were it there to be banned. How could the authorities sanction a term which would imply that the English formed the core, while some newcomers, above all Muslims, were peripheral? And that “one nation,” a Tory ideal once in the van of fashion lately favored by Theresa May, is now entering the zone of oxymoron?

Putin praised the rise of populism in Europe and its share in the nationalist uprisings of recent years. They constitute an existential threat to the liberal hegemony which has ruled the West since 1945.  The most important evidence rests on two linked events of 2016, the UK referendum on leaving the European Union and the victory of President Trump. Few pundits saw this double coming or bet on it.  And yet the signs had long been there. People were opposed to certain aspects of liberal democracy as they had evolved over the years and had realized that they could do nothing about them with the main centrist parties. The often hysterical response of the liberal establishment to the twin blows illustrated what the people were objecting to, the divine right of liberals to shape the laws and values of society: the people moved towards a nationalism based upon the remembered values and identity of the nation state. National populism raised issues that millions want to discuss but the elite does not, hence some key phrases from nationalist leaders: “the people’s army” (Nigel Farage), “the silent majority” (Donald Trump), “the forgotten France” (Marine Le Pen). Those who thought along those lines were dismissed and ridiculed as “hillbillies,” “rednecks,” “Little Englanders.” Hillary Clinton described half of Trump’s supporters as “a basket of deplorables.” For David Cameron, UKIP supporters were “loonies, fruitcakes, closet racists.”

And yet, national populism all over Europe is based on deep-rooted factors that are not about to disappear. Liberal elitists had missed deep-rooted societal shifts, destruction of nation’s identity, deprivation (meaning relative deprivation as a result of rising inequalities of income and wealth), de-alignment: “many people are no longer strongly aligned to the mainstream.” These aspects of the contemporary world were forensically examined in National Populism: The Revolt Against Liberal Democracy by Roger Eatwell and Matthew Goodwin (2018).

The book was favorably noticed by Toby Young in the Spectator (3 November 2018). And they link with a famous work written by his father, published in 1958 and never out of print: The Rise of the Meritocracy by Michael Young. Toby Young insists that the book is no kind of paean of praise to merit. Michael Young’s intent was satiric; he did not like the idea of society ruled by those of superior intelligence, wealth and inherited power, as in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.  Such a society is in effect an oligarchy. Toby Young takes a more guarded approach, but cites “the extent to which the electoral upsets of the past five years have been fueled by resentment against the meritocratic elite.” He wonders if the disenfranchised masses will rise up and overthrow their masters, perhaps in 2033.

“Merit” is always debatable outside certain skills. In the many organizations that are hierarchic in structure, “merit” means a capacity for advancement via intrigues, well-understood techniques of self-promotion, and a total commitment to the house value-system.  The outcome is not exactly the triumph of merit, but the organization is impregnable. Education itself, a key indicator of advancement, is routinely bought by well-placed parents. The less wellborn are statistically unlikely to reach the upper levels of society. After seven decades of peace and prosperity, present trends are entrenched and irreversible. So what does “meritocracy” mean, other than the self-congratulation of the elite? Can it be the guise under which our old friend Plato sidles forward? Do not his views appear daily in his house journal, The Guardian ?

My time in academe persuades me that many people do not favor meritocracy. They reckon that there is nothing in it for them. If this view grows into a widespread political conviction, this can mean the coming of hard times for the liberal elite. My view is that President Putin is on to something.

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