VIEWPOINT: The Rise of the Meritocracy: on speculation and sociology

VIEWPOINT: The Rise of the Meritocracy: on speculation and sociology

Lisa Garforth

Michael Young’s The Rise of the Meritocracy is now mainly remembered for popularizing the idea it critiques. The book’s anti-utopian vision of a meritocratic state serviced by social science expertise is largely forgotten. Young returned to the text in the early 2000s to try and rescue his concept from the New Left’s celebratory politics of social mobility. Its moment had passed; however, and in an era of neo-liberal meritocracy (Littler) we are now even further from the world of technocratic bureaucracy, collective welfare and national planning that informed The Rise of the Meritocracy’s future vision.

Young’s book was not just an interrogation of meritocratic conceptions of social order. It was also a reflection on sociological knowledge, its value, epistemological commitments and capacity to intervene in policy and politics. The Rise of the Meritocracy takes the form of an academic essay written in 2033 to analyse the coming to power of a meritocracy – the rule of those with the most talent and capacity for hard work.  Its author is a self-proclaimed (and self-satisfied) historical sociologist in a future society where the social sciences have become a powerful tool for managing a cruel and rigid system of social engineering.  A footnote to the essay explains that its fictional author has been killed in a populist uprising against the meritocratic system, and notes that ‘[t]he failings of Sociology are as illuminating as its successes’ [1]. The book, then, invites us not only to imagine a new kind of social structure, but also to consider the role of experts in its emergence and management, and the position of sociologists within their own societies.

The meritocratic system, as the narrator describes it, is relatively simple. If scientific intelligence tests show you to be clever, you receive an excellent education in a generously funded state school. You go on to take your occupational place in the managerial, technical or professional elite.  Particularly clever children are picked out and trained for that most respected and privileged of professions, sociology. If your tests show a low IQ you can expect a life of menial work and minimal opportunities to change your fate, although an extensive welfare state ensures that all are materially looked after. That welfare state is a product of the prosperity that meritocracy brings about through industrial efficiency and national competitiveness.

Young’s book was an exploration of the supposed utopia of a meritocratic system: a speculative story about its rise, its contradictions, and its fall. As Ruth Levitas has observed, Young’s approach of using a utopian heuristic and fictional device to reflect on emerging socio-political dynamics, and to contest those developments in the name of a more free and fair future, is nearly unique in British sociology [2]. The Rise of the Meritocracy was both the product of and a response to a moment in British sociology characterised by the rapid institutional rise of a newly scientific expert discipline, and by sociologists’ increasing sense of themselves not just as ‘commentators on social change’ but as part of a national project to create ‘a new rational modernity’, as Savage explains [3]. It was also the product of a qualitative and humanistic sociological tradition, rich in biographical specificity and infused with narrative; a tradition that Young himself had pioneered as co-author of Family and Kinship in East London [4].

So The Rise of the Meritocracy is not just a story about meritocracy. It is also a reflection on two very different models of sociological knowledge. It imagines a powerful but narrow positivistic social science in the service of a rigidly hierarchical and crushingly unfair social system. It also expresses Young’s hope that a textually sophisticated, formally innovative and humanist critique of meritocratic ideas might persuade social scientists and the educated, Penguin-reading, public of the dangers of social engineering.

The state-managed meritocracy that the book invented never came about, and social scientists have not in the main become IQ test-administering facilitators of technocratic oppression. But Young’s book did not prevent the flexible and seductive idea of meritocracy from proliferating in political discourse. ‘Meritocracy’ broke from its post-war association with the technocratic state. It was appropriated for reformist Blairite visions of social inclusion and modest social mobility, then rethought under the sign of a neoliberalism of individualised aspiration and dessert.  So what might we learn about the ‘failures of sociology’ from The Rise of the Meritocracy? What might it tell us about our disciplines today as we try to understand the present, anticipate probable and possible futures, and even contribute to building better ones?

The failure that The Rise of the Meritocracy foregrounds is that of the sociologist whose fictional thesis constitutes the book’s text. As the narrator’s account of the rise of the meritocratic system approaches his present time, he notes signs of popular uprisings. But he dismisses rumours that clever women have rejected the system to live among and foment resistance within the ‘technical’ classes. He blithely predicts that any rebellion will be trivial, no more than ‘a few days’ strike and a week’s disturbance, which it will be well within the capacity of the police…to quell’ [5]. The narrative culminates in the ultimate dramatic irony: the writer is killed by social forces that he has not been able to see, let alone understand – but which the reader is able to perceive at work behind his back. We grasp the messy dynamics of the sociologist’s world better than he does.  He is the privileged but blinkered product of a meritocracy that recognises only the benefits of rational social engineering, not the costs. He has been trained in a reductive sociology of management and prediction, which fails to comprehend the pain, hostility and powerful anger of those locked out of it.

Young uses fiction here not just to extrapolate a possible future but also to gesture at a different way of understanding the social. The Rise of the Meritocracy suggests creative and qualitative ways of knowing that are left out of the narrator’s discipline. Utopian fiction can work to estrange the reader from their taken-for-granted world and invite them to feel what it might be like to inhabit a different social system. Young’s speculative text indicates some of the painful and oppressive consequences of putting a meritocratic blueprint into practice.

But there are interesting failures too in The Rise of the Meritocracy that Young did not intend.  Young’s fictional meritocratic social system reflected much from his own time: the heavy, intrusive state of the post-war welfare settlement, extensive government control over educational and occupational infrastructures, centralised national economic planning.

It could not foresee the hyper-individualistic disciplinary discourse of today.  Like all speculative and utopian texts, Young’s was caught by the impossibility of prediction and by the blind spots of its own historical present (Radice).  But utopian and dystopian fictions do not fail if they are not predictions. They are not blueprints or prophecies. They are heuristic and interpretive, expressive and critical. They succeed if they vividly play out possible social dynamics or animate political values by imagining the texture of life in a different kind of society.

At their best, utopian and other speculative fictions offer a distinctive form of qualitative sociological knowledge, which is cognitively and affectively developed, as the reader engages with rich description, lively characters and gripping plots. Young’s text, although clever, often funny, and formally innovative, does not really embody these powerful ways of knowing. Read as fiction, the book is didactic and descriptive. It closely mimics the rather turgid reading experience of the elaborate essay it presents as. The text relies too much on dramatic irony to persuade us that the experiences of the technical classes really matter. We never meet them or encounter their worlds, their pleasures, their hopes and fears. Their struggles remain offstage. Young’s book made the idea of a meritocracy visible and laid out a plausible logic for its development; but it did not offer much idea of what it would be like as lived experience.

Young’s failure is in a way I think also the failure of imaginative interpretive sociology. We have inherited the heuristic, qualitative and critical strands of his sociology. We have become very good at sympathetic, critical and nuanced accounts of the way things are. But although sociology has been powerfully critical of the claims of meritocracy in recent years, it has not been able to offer much to contest and untangle its tenacious, multi-stranded grip in contemporary culture, politics and public life; and it has not helped us to look ahead and imagine alternatives.  Sociology now is credited with much reduced powers to manage the present or predict the future. But this is not an argument to return to the social science of rational management, to defend a narrow realism, or to stop trying to imagine otherwise. In fact I think we will need more  – more imagination, more utopianism, more fiction – if we are going to help to loosen the hold that neo-liberal meritocracy has over contemporary institutional orderings, cultural narratives and common sense.

[1], [5] Young, M. (1961) The Rise of the Meritocracy, Harmondsworth: Penguin, pp190, 188.
[2] Levitas, R. (2013) Utopia as Method, Basingstoke: Palgrave, p155.
[3] Savage, M. (2010) Identities and Social Change in Britain since 1940: The Politics of Method, Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp112; 117.
[4] Young, M. and P. Willmott (1957) Family and Kinship in East London, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.


Lisa Garforth lectures in Sociology at Newcastle University on utopia and the sociological imagination. Her research explores environmental futures and future-making discourses in social theory and fiction. Her book Green Utopias was published by Polity in 2017.

Image:  Patrik Göthe from Unsplash