Why is the idea of meritocracy – the idea that society should be organised so that anyone can rise to the top of the social pile, if they work hard and activate their talent – so normalized, so familiar, so ‘common-sense’?
In part it is undoubtably because it holds within it some vivid elements of fairness. It is surely right that everyone should have a chance to progress and develop themselves, and to work in fields they are capable of working in, regardless of their background. It is right that establishments should not contract and ossify to keep the privileged inside their golden gates of power. It is right that people should not be discriminated against. All these points, which are generally part of the package of meaning that is meritocracy, are irrefutable.
Meritocracy is also part of our common-sense because it has been used consistently in the service of a right-wing agenda, which not only hinders democratic goals but relentlessly works to secure their exact opposite. Over the past few decades, narratives of meritocracy have been vigorously and inventively used to perpetuate entrenched privilege and rapidly extend inequalities. The notion of meritocracy has been deployed, in shape-shifting fashion, as perhaps the core alibi for neoliberal capitalism. It has done so in a variety of guises, both socially liberal and conservative-authoritarian.
A key part of the problem is that meritocracy has always involved those who ‘succeed’ and rise to the top of the social hierarchy being given copious financial rewards. This element makes meritocracy a structural impossibility, as it creates the exact opposite of a level playing field. The co-existence of meritocracy with dramatic economic inequality was always a problem for those on the Left, from the moment meritocracy became a word in the mid-1950s. (And indeed, even before it was coined as a term, the idea had plenty of traction as a discourse, from ‘pulling yourself up by your bootstraps’ in the US to Victorian self-help treatises ). In what is, to date, the first recorded use of the term, by the industrial sociologist Alan Fox in 1956 in Socialist Commentary (a journal described by Clement Atlee as a ‘useful corrective to the New Statesman’), the word is unproblematically a slur. ‘Why would you heap prodigious economic benefits on the already gifted?’ asked Fox, incredulously .
Unlike ‘equal opportunities’, ‘equality of outcome’, or ‘anti-discrimination’, the concept of meritocracy has always been inseparable from capitalism, as noted in the 1950s by social theorists and philosophers including Fox, Hannah Arendt and Raymond Williams. Meritocracy was also a problem, more notoriously, for the polymath Michael Young, for whom it became a way to lambast sectarian educational policies advocating grammar schools. In Young’s scathing 1958 fictional bestseller The Rise of the Meritocracy, which depicts past democratic progress and future social dystopia, meritocracy is also clearly a bad thing, leading through dangerous social division to a soulless, black market trade in brainy babies. Yet at the same time, in Young’s entertaining yet often fairly obtuse text, the clearer socialist critique of meritocracy (which, to be fair, was never elaborated extensively at this time) was also obfuscated.
By the 1970s Young’s friend Daniel Bell had begun to promote meritocracy as a potential engine of the knowledge economy. Advocating greater social competitiveness probably did not seem to many as if it would hurt at a time when the welfare state was still flourishing. But by the 1980s, at the beginnings of the political implementation what we now call neoliberalism in the UK, the idea was being energetically deployed by right-wing think tanks as a possible conduit through which greater marketisation could be produced and collective provision could be dismantled. The ways in which meritocracy could be used as a destructive fiction and ideological tool, to gain consent for policies for increasing competition and destroying forms of collective or socialized resource, had been identified by Raymond Williams in 1958. Reviewing Young’s book, he noted that meritocracy went hand in glove with individualism, which ‘sweetened the poison of hierarchy’ and ran counter to solidarity and the task of common betterment.
The ideological function of meritocracy – as legitimation for contemporary neoliberal capitalism – has proved to be remarkably supple, as I track in my book Against Meritocracy: Culture, Power and Myths of Mobility . For Thatcher, the language of meritocracy was a way to stick two manicured fingers up to the old Establishment of ‘the Great and the Good’, and to galvanise white working and middle-class aspiration and support for selling off public assets including council houses and the railways. The social conservatism – the racism and sexism – of this period was roundly rejected by New Labour, who ushered in a new language of socially liberal meritocracy, in which anyone could ostensibly ‘make it,’ no matter their ethnicity or sexuality; and which sought to protect the very young through SureStart programmes and an emphasis on reducing child poverty.
Wealth redistribution was not on the agenda, though, which meant that although attempts were made to protect children, a battery of moral education parenting techniques were also launched to try to offset the continual effects of inequality . Meanwhile, adults were encouraged into competitive individualism as the privatization agenda became ratcheted up through Public Private Partnerships and Private Finance Initiatives. Post-New Labour, the Conservatives became ever more punitive, moralizing about ‘strivers and skivers’ and attacking what they depicted as a ‘bloated’ welfare system.
Crucially, neoliberal meritocracy also gained its traction from cultural, social and media discourse across a variety of realms from schools to dating to work. Neoliberal meritocracy is characterised by the extension of competitive individualism into ever more areas of life: from enforcing rankings between, and within, universities through TEF and REF (the Teaching and Research Excellence Frameworks), and of schools and children through league tables and SATS exams (Standard Attainment Tests); to the reinvigoration of the talent show format under the auspices of reality TV, where people elbow each other out of the way to be the top apprentice or baker or singer, and to competing online to be the last one living and flossing in the computer game Fortnite.
In the process, neoliberal meritocracy has also been characterised by drawing, highly selectively, on the language of social justice – particularly anti-racism, feminism and gay rights – which expanded from the 1960s and by flipping it on its head. Anyone can make it, we are told, and we are offered parables of progress in the form of luminous media examples of the few who actually manage to ‘make it’ and travel up what is a really long social ladder.
And it is those who are least privileged and most affected by what we might call a ‘meritocratic deficit’ who are the most intensely incited to work hard and to believe in achievement, that nothing stands in their way but graft and self-belief (Chapman). Women are encouraged to ‘lean in’, mothers to solve the work/childcare problem themselves by becoming mumpreneurs who set up their own businesses from home, and underprivileged young people to hustle and be ‘entrepreneurial’. This is the ‘meritocratic’ way: to make the ever-lengthening ladder harder to access in the first place, and to instruct the least privileged to blame themselves rather than tackling the structures that continually fail them.
In its current form, neoliberal meritocracy shows how the judgements about who has ‘merit’ and privilege can, in stratified and unequal systems, not only become increasingly contentious (Payne) but open to extreme abuse. Donald Trump uses and exploits the language of merit to validate who he will let enter the US and who he will lock up. His actions show how the struggle to maintain power co-exists with a language of merit and worth, to racist, sexist, abusive and inhumane effect.
Meritocracy is an obfuscatory neoliberal mantra which has been used for decades to powerful effect, providing a key justification for increasing privatization and inequality in the interests of a few. It has provided crucial ideological ballast to the process of extending capitalism further and further into our social, material, psychological and environmental lives with devasting consequences. Neoliberal meritocracy should be challenged, dismantled and replaced with genuine egalitarianism: including economic redistribution, robust anti-discrimination policies and initiatives, and free education. Instead of neoliberal meritocracy we need policies and cultures which prioritise care, common ownership and collective development of our shared natural, physical, cultural and psychological resources  rather than fostering the lonely empowerment of individuals towards goals which, ultimately, both diminish and threaten us all.
 Todd, S. (2015) The People: The Rise and Fall of the Working Class, 1910-2010. London: John Murray.
 Fox A (1956) ‘Class and equality.’ Socialist Commentary. May (1956): 11–13.
 Littler, J. (2018) Against Meritocracy: Culture, Power and Myths of Mobility. London: Routledge.
 Jensen, T. (2018) Parenting the Crisis: The Cultural Politics of Parent-Blame. Bristol: Policy Press.
 Raworth, K. (2017) Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st century Economist. London: Random House Business.
Jo Littler works on the politics of culture and society. She is a Reader in the Department of Sociology at City, University of London, a co-editor of the European Journal of Cultural Studies and part of the editorial collective of Soundings: A Journal of Politics and Culture. Her book Against Meritocracy: Culture, Power and Myths of Mobility (2018) is out now with Routledge.
Image: Rosie Kerr on Unsplash