Meritocracy Is Liberalism’s Shadow

Meritocracy is one of the great fictions of late capitalism in the US, a shiny chrome paint job obscuring the gutted interior and rusted out chassis of society. Our collective allegiance to the myth that wealth and power are doled out on the basis of individual merit, rather than inheritance, nepotism, and structural advantages, keeps us grinding away for longer hours and shrinking wages — even as the GDP rises and new billionaires are made.

The carrot-and-stick nature of meritocratic ideology rewards winners with wealth, influence, and power, while punishing the losers with diminished opportunities, increased vulnerability to violence, and shorter life expectancies. As the wealth gap increases, our visceral reactions to this polarized binary become more extreme as well. We celebrate and elect people that we perceive to be most qualified because we hold it to be self-evident that the wealth, influence, and power they hold are the result of individual striving — hard work and gumption ftw.

At the other end of the binary, we pathologize, criminalize, and actively hate poor people because we are enchanted by the delusion that such social failure could only be the result of an individual making shitty life choices. You cheer breathlessly in the school yard while the bully beats the crap out of the weakling, hoping that your sycophantic applause will protect you from being the bully’s next victim — after all you are a half inch shorter than the weakling and you have asthma…it’s not your fault, you think. Don’t hate the player, hate the game.

“Wages have stagnated since the 1970s for everyone but the rich” is one of the most useless arguments I have made in my many attempts to get fellow weaklings to recognize that they have more in common with each other then the bully. It is a historical fact that wealth of the richest 1% of the population has exploded since the 1970s while wages for the rest of us have been stagnant, but that truth is obscured by the clamoring call-and-response of meritocracy whereby we are all enrolled in the project of upward redistribution of wealth.

We think that it’s the conservatives’ fault that this is happening, what with their insistence on blaming immigrants and welfare queens. We think that it’s the liberals’ fault, what with their free-trade agreements and failed social engineering experiments. But the reality is that the forces of globalization, privatization, deregulation, and financialization that have lead to our stagnant wages were unleashed by people with such extraordinary wealth that their party affiliation is moot — I keep thinking of that picture of the Trumps and Clintons living it up at the same Jeffrey Epstein party.

Our investment in the ideology of meritocracy has kept us blindfolded in a circular firing squad. Instead of fighting to protect the power we did have when organized in labor unions, we bought into the idea that we were better off negotiating with our employers as individuals, that it was somehow unpatriotic to deny shareholders whatever profit they demanded. Instead of seeing labor unions as a tool with which we could unleash our own power, atomized workers came to resent the ever-fewer organized workers for getting benefits they felt were undeserved.

Did the labor unions in this equation fuck up sometimes? Absolutely, they are made of fallible humans after all, vulnerable to all the worst impulses of human nature and situated within pre-existing structures that reward and normalize those impulses. But collective action has always been the only way that those of us without power could push back. A cynical campaign of racist backlash against the Civil Rights Movement was melded to the emergent individualism of the hippies to firebomb the unions and deregulate industries.

And yes, I’m blaming this pathetic capitulation entirely on *white* baby boomers who made up 61.5% of that generation and handed victories to Ronald Reagan and other “silent majority” politicians after him. When I or anyone else who came of age after the 1970s utter the phrase, “OK Boomer,” we are venting our barely-contained rage that a generation born into such vast opportunity and progress would sell-out its grandchildren for a few crumbs of glittering white privilege and the dubious opportunity to die rich. It was this bipartisan consensus that empowered their leaders to destroy the social safety net and create the conditions whereby American workers had to compete for jobs with workers overseas.

Between 1980 and 2000, the US lost 2 million manufacturing jobs as Japanese productivity surged and the US began deregulating its economy. But it wasn’t the white baby boomers that suffered the most from these or the 5.5million more manufacturing jobs the US lost since then — it was the blacker, browner, and younger workers with less seniority, whose wages and benefits had been negotiated away to protect boomer pensions.

Instead of recognizing their unique industrial and economic position as workers in the post-World War II era and coming to terms with the horrors of colonization and slavery in a meaningful way, white baby boomers continued with their spiritually impoverished program of protecting their own interests and pulling the ladder up behind them, without a shred of self-awareness or compassion for the fates of those affected — even their own children. These evangelicals were praying hard at the altar of meritocracy and speaking in segregationist tongues when their political leaders tossed them “law and order”, “the immigrants are stealing the jobs”, and a large dose of Cold War paranoia.

They outsourced our collective struggle for dignity and better wages to poorer workers in less-developed countries, engaging in a reverse-geoarbitrage that allowed the richer boomers to have vacation homes, boats, and plastic surgery while enabling the rest to access a few luxuries via consumer debt. Unable to wrangle a movement strong enough to aim at the root causes, boomer reformers and those that came after them attempted to blunt the consequences through compromise and solutions that reified these consequences as individual failings. The shift away from the sense of collective struggle and collective responsibility that defined the generation that lived through The Great Depression and fought Nazis was complete. The age of capitalist realism had begun.

[Excerpt from Hard Bones. Originally written in Fall 2020, when I was a lot more angry about the state of the world. I am less attached to my fear these days.]


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Originally posted in Medium.