Academic journal article New Formations

Meritocracy as Plutocracy: The Marketising of 'Equality' under Neoliberalism

Academic journal article New Formations

Meritocracy as Plutocracy: The Marketising of 'Equality' under Neoliberalism

Article excerpt


We are building an Aspiration Nation. A country where it's not who you know, or where you're from; but who you are and where you're determined to go. My dream for Britain is that opportunity is not an accident of birth, but a birthright.

David Cameron, Conservative Party Spring Conference, March 2013

The UK Prime Minister David Cameron and Chancellor George Osborne have repeatedly evoked the image of Britain as an 'Aspiration Nation': as a country in which all people, no matter where they're from, have the opportunity to climb the ladder of social mobility. (1) This is the language of meritocracy: the idea that whatever our social position at birth, society ought to offer enough opportunity and mobility for 'talent' to combine with 'effort' in order to 'rise to the top'.

Meritocratic rhetoric is not confined to the UK. In the US, for instance, President Obama's 2013 inaugural address proclaimed that 'we are true to our creed when a little girl born into the bleakest poverty knows that she has the same chance to succeed as anybody else'. (2) Meritocracy has deep and varied historical lineages; in the UK, it can be connected back to the Victorian self-help tradition, and in the US to the emergence of the idea of aspirational consumerism as defining the 'American Dream' in the early twentieth century. Today, in many countries across the global North, the idea that we should live in a 'meritocracy' has become integral to contemporary structures of feeling: assumed by both right-wing and leftwing political parties, heavily promoted in educational discourse, and animating popular culture, meritocracy has become an idea as uncontroversial and as homely as 'motherhood and apple pie'. (3) Why should issue be taken with such an apparently innocuous concept, one whose potency lies in its investment in the conception of social mobility, pitted against 'older' forms of inherited privilege?

In this essay I argue that we should pay close attention to meritocracy because it has become a key ideological means by which plutocracy--or government by a wealthy elite perpetuates itself through neoliberal culture. It is not, in other words, merely a coincidence that the common idea that we live, or should live, in a meritocratic age co-exists with a pronounced lack of social mobility and the continuation of vested hereditary economic interests. (4) Meritocratic discourse, as I show below, is currently being actively mobilised by members of a plutocracy to extend their own interests and power. Contemporary meritocracy operates to marketise the very idea of equality and can be understood in the light of Foucault's formulation of neoliberalism as a state in which competitive markets are not conceptualised as the 'natural' order of things (as they were under classical liberalism), but as entities that need to be produced. (5) This helps explain some of the tenacity of the power of meritocracy, despite its clear contradictions, and how it works as a mechanism to both perpetuate, and create, social and cultural inequality.

This essay explores this argument by sketching partial but hopefully nonetheless revealing genealogies of meritocratic discourse. Discussions of meritocracy have largely either taken place around education or have been empirical analyses of whether or not the meritocratic nature of existing social institutions can be verified. (6) Reflecting on the cultural politics of its genealogy can add to our understanding of meritocratic ideas and the worlds they have shaped. In this article I pursue this analysis through three sections. The first brief section of this paper considers what might be wrong with the notion of meritocracy. The second traces some key points in the travels of the concept within and around academic social theory, moving from Alan Fox and Michael Young's initial, disparaging use of the term in the 1950s, to Daniel Bell's approving adoption of the concept in the 1970s, and on to its take-up by neoconservative think tanks in the 1980s. …

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