Review of Jo Littler, Against Meritocracy: Culture, Power, and Myths of Mobility (Routledge 2017)
236 pages £29. 99
Reviewed by Diane Reay
Meritocracy: Symbolic Violence for Neoliberal Times
Against Meritocracy is a meticulous and much needed critique of meritocracy tracing the genealogies of the concept before presenting case studies that demonstrates its continuing ideological power. This review looks at Littler’s analysis within the context of wider understandings of meritocracy and social mobility. It concludes that Littler’s compelling argument of the damage, both ideological and material, caused by the workings of meritocracy needs to be heeded.
Meritocracy has been a long-standing delusion that under our current neo-liberal hegemony operates as a 21st century opium of the masses. We hear it everywhere – the endless babble that we can all be anything we wish with enough hard work, ambition and effort. And it is nearly always accompanied by judgment, the incessant judgement of those who lack privilege by those who have it. Among the consequences of the wide-spread view that the unmotivated lumpen-prolertariat have only themselves to blame for their growing poverty are low public regard, and a battery of oppressive policies to remind them that they are both ‘undeserving’ and ‘a barrier to progress’. Meritocracy is the flimsy sticking plaster patching up a ‘rotten public realm’, a civil society that is no longer civil or particularly social. Yet, it has now become the mechanism for how we achieve a fairer society replacing progressive educational policies, tax redistribution, or a supportive welfare state. Individuals are now expected to do it for themselves, what Jo Littler describes in her eloquent and convincing book Against Meritocracy as ‘entrepreneurial self-fashioning’ (190).
Those of us who have been socially mobile from poverty to privilege are writing in growing numbers (Reay 2017; Lawler 2017) about the myths of meritocracy and the myriad ways they obscure the real challenges facing society – the increasing gap between the rich and the poor, social and educational segregation and polarisation, and the valorisation of competitive self-interest, that following Thatcher’s ‘there is no such thing as society’ sees only the family, and the individuals within it, as worthy of protecting and investing in. In this Faustian pact between hyper-individualism and the self-preservation of the elites, meritocracy becomes the main justification for ever growing inequality. As Littler incisively demonstrates, ‘the stories of those who made it are packaged into parables of progress through which to shame the rest’ (59). A survey of 2009 found that for ‘getting ahead in life’, British people believed that meritocratic factors (like hard work and ambition) were much more important than non-meritocratic factors (like coming from a wealthy family). The Fabian Society survey reported that 69% of people agreed that ‘Opportunities are not equal in Britain today, but there is enough opportunity for virtually everyone to get on in life if they really want to. It comes down to the individual and how much you are motivated’ (Bamfield and Horton 2009). Despite Britain being a country with relatively low social mobility among comparable countries, we British share a relatively high belief that we are meritocratic.
Yet, inherent merit is almost always the direct result of privilege accrued over time within advantaged families. Apart from a tiny and diminishing number of Bourdieu’s ‘miracles’, (those of us working classes who got very lucky), merit in unequal societies is never merit but accumulated privilege. In highly unequal societies like the UK merit becomes the embodiment of a mixture of wealth, and what Lareau (2005), in the US context, calls concerted cultivation, the process by which middle and upper class parents concentrate resources on their children and thereby cultivate their children’s competencies and expand their skills and talents. As a result, privileges associated with class origin are ascribed in a new, and even more successful way. No wonder the working classes rarely get to display merit when the middle and upper classes monopolise its manufacture in a range of privileged settings from elite private schools to kumon maths classes.
In Against Meritocracy Littler excavates the historical trajectory of the concept, starting with Alan Fox’s uniformly negative perception through to Michael Young’s more ambivalent but still largely critical understanding to today’s unquestioningly positive notion of meritocracy as the holding of power by people chosen on the basis of merit (as opposed to wealth, social class, etc.). As Littler points out, when Fox, and later Young, started writing about the concept of meritocracy in 1950s, it was intended as a warning: if society were viewed as meritocratic, there might be no sympathy for the poor, who would be assumed to deserve their fate and so it has come to pass. Yet, as Littler tracks with genealogical precision, there has been a dramatic shift in how meritocracy is understood. Goldthorpe and Jackson (2006:4) describe this recent history of positive conceptions of meritocracy, explaining how, in the wake of an enthusiastic embracing in the US, it returned to Europe to:
become a key element in the ideology of various centre‐left political parties, following the lead given in Britain by New Labour. Meritocracy, or, more precisely, education‐based meritocracy, appears as a highly attractive ‘progressive’ goal to which centre‐left parties can commit themselves,
What Young had not foreseen when he wrote The Myth of Meritocracy in 1958 is that the enduring plutocracy did not even require a veneer of merit to persist and flourish. Over the following fifty years political parties of the Left as well as the Right would increasingly lose a sense of connection and empathy with their grassroots working class constituency. Rather, over that period working classness became increasingly correlated with stupidity and lack of merit while the wealthy and famous were seen to embody merit simply through dint of their social status and prominence.
Meritocracy sanctified inequality by associating wealth and success as a just reward for effort, and ability. But, as Littler graphically illustrates through a range of celebrity examples, merit fell out of the picture, inviting us merely to admire and worship the rich and famous.
But, apart from constantly being misrecognized, merit is a minefield in another equally troubling sense. In The Myth of Meritocracy, Michael Young was clearly defining merit as intelligence + effort (I +E =M page 94). But what do we mean by the intelligence in merit’s equation of intelligence plus effort? The notion of intelligence in understandings of merit is frequently misconstrued as innate rather than forms of acquired intellectual skill or knowledge that are rewarded in academic assessment. As Littler asserts, the very logic of meritocracy assumes that intelligence is innate. Yet recent research identified economic hardship as the root cause of cognitive differentials between social classes (Schoon et al 2012). The research maintained that cognitive function has an environmental basis, or rather, that academic ability is malleable and mediated under particular environmental conditions, and can be modified by life experiences. In contrast , most meritocrats see ability as a relatively fixed genetic trait, a view which serves to justify existing inequalities as rooted in innate biological differences as opposed to external factors such as poverty, inadequate housing and diet.
As Littler argues, rather than meritocracy, we have plutocracy, government by a wealthy elite with the fantasy of meritocracy as its key governing characteristic. Perhaps the most fantastical aspect of meritocracy is that many of us still believe it exists in the face of an enormous welter of evidence it does not. The mantra of ‘If I can do it so can you’ seems to be on the lips of every successful athlete, pop star, actor, musician and business man. Littler provides us with many vivid examples including that of the entrepreneur, Duncan Bannatyne. Bannatyne’s book Anyone Can Do It charts an heroic rags to riches story of a rise from ice cream salesman to multi-millionaire, and claims that anyone can achieve similar success if they really want to. Yet, the statistics demonstrate conclusively that Bannatyne and other celebrities are wrong. For example, in 2016, the percentage of privately educated British sports people taking part in the Rio Olympics rose to 28 per cent, compared with 20 per cent in 2012. This is four times the percentage of the population attending private schools (Pells 2016). As Little tellingly points out, among a general dearth of social mobility in the UK, it is the ultra-rich who are the main social group experiencing an upward trajectory and rapid increases in wealth (120). In a chapter entitled ‘Just like us?’ Littler maps the popularisation of elitism, arguing that what is new in relation to contemporary elites is their pretence they are not an elite at all:
What is notable is the prominence of a generation of wealthy elites who insistently present themselves as hardworking and meritocratic in order to keep the idea of social mobility churning (129).
Littler is very explicit about the type of social mobility meritocracy endorses, ‘meritocracy offers a ladder system of social mobility, promoting a socially corrosive ethic of competitive self-interest which both legitimates inequality and damages community by requiring people to be in constant competition with each other’ (3). Social mobility is a lonely individualised process. As Littler insightfully points out, our current aspirational meritocracy positions itself against any investment in collective provision (90). For most of us socially mobile, you go up the ladder alone, leaving your family and working class community behind, causing a breach that can rarely be healed. Meritocracy is primarily about what the individual can achieve for themselves. There are, however, hopeful glimpses of a different sort of aspiration. At the Labour party conference in 2017 Jeremy Corbyn argued the need to build a still broader consensus around priorities, making the case for both compassion and collective aspiration. The Labour party position under Corbyn is that it is only collectively that aspirations can be realised. Littler discusses the prospects this offers for a different sort of meritocracy, pluralising aspiration and ‘disconnecting it from emulation of the rich and reconnecting it to the redistribution of wealth (102).
As I was writing this review Michael Young’s son’ Toby Young, a free school pioneer, was embroiled in a political scandal. In the furore it emerged that, in a chapter he wrote for a book called The Oxford Myth (1988), he described working class grammar school boys who secured places at Oxford as ‘universally unattractive’ and ‘small and vaguely deformed’. He recounted how the arrival of the ‘stains’, as working class students were known, had changed the university. He wrote “it was as if all the meritocratic fantasies of every 1960s educationalists had come true’. But then as now meritocratic fantasies remained just that –fantasies. The grammar school boys have not taken over the establishment any more than the working classes are flooding into the Russell group universities. Against Meritocracy is an important and timely book that reminds us it is time to abandon meritocracy as elitist, inequitable, and well past its sell-by-date. There are far better ways to gain consent and cohesion in society than through an ideological tapestry of lies.
Bamfield, L and Horton, T (2009) Understanding attitudes to tackling economic inequality An exploration of the underlying ‘drivers’ of public attitudes towards economic inequality and welfare policy. London: The Fabian Society.
Goldthorpe, J.H., and M. Jackson. 2006. Education based meritocracy: The barriers to its realization. Paper presented at the EQUALSOC conference, 2–3 December 2005, in Mannheim.
Lareau, A (2005) Unequal Childhoods LA: University of California Press.
Lawler, S (2017) Social mobility talk: class-making in neo-liberal times in S Lawler and G Payne (eds) Social Mobility for the 21st Century: Everyone a Winner? London: Routledge.
Pells, R (2016) Private school students have a better chance of being Olympic champions, claims Sir Steve Redgrave The Independent.
Reay, D (2017) Miseducation: Inequality education and the working classes Bristol: Policy Press.
Schoon, I., Jones, E., Cheng, H. and Maughan, B. (2012) Family hardship, family instability and children’s cognitive development. Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, 66, 716–722.
Young, M (1958) The Rise of the Meritocracy London: Thames & Hudson.
Young, T (1988) Class in R Johnson (ed) The Oxford Myth London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson.
Diane Reay grew up in a working class, coal mining community before becoming an inner city, primary school teacher for 20 years. She is now a Visiting Professor at the LSE and Emeritus Professor of Sociology of Education at the University of Cambridge. Her main research interests are social justice issues in education, Pierre Bourdieu’s social theory, social mobility, and cultural analyses of social class, race and gender. Her most recent book is Miseducation: Inequality, Education and the Working Classes Policy Press, 2017.