Meritocratic Rhetorics: Merit, Performance and Hard Work

Meritocratic Rhetorics: Merit, Performance and Hard Work

Anselma Gallinat

At the conference ‘Merit or Meritocracy?’, which preceded this special issue, David Civil asked us what we would be talking about if Michael Young’s book had not been published. Would the term meritocracy circulate so widely in society? The German counterpart to meritocracy is the ‘performance society’, which emphasises the idea of just reward for individuals’ contributions to society through labour. Does this offer a different way into questions of equality, social mobility and the relation between society and the individual than meritocracy?

The performance society
Comparison is central to anthropology as an academic discipline in its goal to explore what is universal for humanity, or at a smaller scale what are shared issues in certain societies, and which cultural practices or notions are more distinctive or particular. Below I highlight key aspects of the notion of meritocracy and of the British context through comparison with German debates about the performance society.

The notion of merit that is central to meritocracy differs from the German notion of performance that is invoked in the performance society (‘Leistungsgesellschaft’). In the latter, performance is an ongoing activity that implies a degree of struggle, while merit sounds like something you have, something that, once achieved, remains. Performance however has to be brought about continuously. The performance society thus entails a sense of proving oneself, time and again, in a competitive environment. This sense of competition is encapsulated in the notion of the ‘elbow society’ that also circulates in German discourse. This in turn paints a picture of a society where individuals (have to) fight for themselves, ‘elbowing’ each other out of the way to make it up the career ladder, just like in the final stages of a bike race’s sprint finish.

This sense of an ongoing struggle is illustrated in recent discussions of the performance society in Germany, which focus on individuals’ journeys into and through the labour market by exploring questions of labour market conditions on the one hand (Kaufmann, 2017; Obermeier, 2002) and of family inheritance on the other (Götz, 2017). Contrastingly, the sense of merit as an achievement that remains in place is mirrored in British debates about meritocracy that focus on schooling and educational achievement, but rarely take a longer view.

The German term ‘performance society’ is, moreover, based in an understanding of making a contribution to society through ongoing performance, for which one is then rewarded. This has long meant a view that professions which require many years of training, such as in medicine or law, should offer a more rewarding pay than jobs that require less knowledge or training. What a contribution to society constitutes has however been defined in economic terms, so that the CEOs of large companies for example receive higher pay than nurses or cleaners. This raises questions of what kind of contribution counts and who decides (Kaufmann, 2017). It seems then that while the German discourse differs slightly from the British one, with its emphasis on the wider picture of society, the outcome of who stands to benefit is not all that different.

The performance society and the labour market
The German notion of the Leistungsgesellschaft stems from the 1960s, a very similar time to Young’s work. Both German and British ideas strongly reflect their post-WWII context, but in Germany the discussion explicitly concerns the labour market. In the UK, because the notion of meritocracy is so closely intertwined with one individual, the focus has rather been on Young’s political position and his role in developing the post-WWII welfare settlement.

The German discourse emphasises that due to the losses of WWII and the economic miracle in West Germany the labour market of the 1950s and 60s was characterised by a much greater openness than it is today. I remember a western German family friend telling my parents that in those days it was possible to rise to the top if you were intelligent, because so many men had perished in the war that the country needed young people (or rather men!) to fill these posts.

Critiques of the performance society today argue correspondingly that the labour market is now far too competitive for the idea, that the most able will achieve if only they work hard, to still apply (Götz, 2017). A highly crammed labour market means that additional capital is needed to ‘rise to the top’, which in Germany, some argue, comes for example through inheritance from the very generation that was able to benefit from the economic miracle of the 1950s. Or it comes from belonging to the small elite of the ‘big bourgeoisie’ where taking up the high positions runs in the family (Obermeier, 2002).

From society to the individual in neo-liberal discourse
In Young’s book, meritocracy was supposed to have been adopted for economic development in an envisioned great ‘battle for survival’ between the nations, an idea that has almost imperialist overtones. In this view the role of the individual was to support national productivity. This focus on the nation – and on society – has in British discourse of recent years been replaced by an almost exclusive focus on the individual, seen in economic terms. Indeed Margaret Thatcher, one of the key proponents of neo-liberalism, explained in the 1980s that ‘there is no such thing as society, only individuals, and their families’. Applying pseudo-economic principles to almost all spheres of life, such as education, civil service, even welfare, neo-liberalism values entrepreneurial spirits. They are not only seen as potentials existing at the grass-roots of society, where they would flourish into markets if freed from bureaucratic controls, but also located in each person. The accompanying view of individuals as self-actualising agents and rational choice-makers assumes that everyone can succeed, if only they work hard enough and make the right choices.

Effort, performance and success
In recent British discussions about merit and success the notion of hard work has primarily been enunciated when it is seen as lacking. The argument is that certain people’s lack of success in education, in the labour market, in life, is a sign of their lack of hard work. However, that IQ plus effort (Young) or ongoing performance in the Leistungsgesellschaft (may) bring(s) about success, does not mean that lacking success –however defined – is a sign of lacking effort. This is exactly the point that some recent discussions in Germany make, when noting that a concept that worked in a post-war labour market, buoyed by the economic miracle, cannot be expected to work today.

The argument in Britain is based on a faulty logic that treats a deficient outcome as evidence of a deficient base. Because for some people, or at some historic moments, hard work enabled success, it is assumed that hard work is a/the only precondition for success. Not only does this logic overlook the role of wider social structures in social mobility, but it becomes a justification for social inequality when taken to the faulty conclusion that, therefore, if there is no success this is because there was no hard work. This is similar to arguing that if a cyclist did not win a race this is because, and only because, they did not try hard enough. This assumption is not only faulty but also potentially damaging in contexts where competition for jobs is so high that strong educational performance no longer guarantees a place. It may put a youngster into the race – but it will not guarantee that he or she wins it.

Classed performance and exclusion
Part of the problem here is a rhetorical valuing of ‘hard work’ in the abstract. Another part of the problem is that neoliberal debates about performance, merit and entrepreneurship present these qualities as class-less when in fact they are classed. Neo-liberalism itself has been identified as a middle-class project, in German terms even as a project of the ‘big bourgeoisie’ who benefit from the free market dogma (Clarke, 2008). Entrepreneurial characteristics of drive, adaptability, flexibility, dexterity (Payne) are moreover not innate characteristics but skills that need to be honed and a vocabulary that needs to be learned. This honing requires space, quiet and stability, which affluent middle-class families can provide. The vocabulary that accompanies these skills and that has to be displayed in covering letters and at job interviews, is taught more frequently in some schools than in others.

If the entrepreneurial, driven, flexible self is more likely to be middle-class then we need to return to the question of who is left out, who is excluded, who might be working hard without the reward of strong school results or a career. These are those who lack a stable and secure base, where daily struggles to get on with life disrupt routines from the outset. There are those who lack access to schools that care as much about individual students’ refined skills as about their attendance and in-class behaviour. These issues are prevalent in the UK, as this special issue shows, to the same degree as they are in Germany (Hurrelmann, 1993). So although rhetorics may differ, the social problems these discourses touch on are very similar in these two complex, post-industrial, capitalist societies. Better approaches to these problems are not be found in models that economise and atomise individuals however. Rather there is a need for a return to thinking about the wider picture of society, fair reward and equality – not in institutional mission statements, but in and for everyday lives.


Anselma Gallinat is a social anthropologis, at Newcastle University, with interests in post-socialism, East/eastern Germany, memory and history-writing, narrative and rhetoric. She is the author of Narratives in the Making (2016, Berghahn) and co-editor of The Ethnographic Self as Resource (2010, Berghahn). She used to cycle competitively.

Image: MoBikeFed (Creative Commons)