After Meritocracy

I was intrigued by Christopher Hayes’ new book, Twilight of the Elites, based on book reviews, because he discusses, among other things, cheating in baseball. I’m glad he ties PEDs in the sport to cheating in so many other venues of life. I remember being outraged when Congress brought baseball players in to attack them for cheating. A bunch of incumbent “representatives” who never lose re-election because they’ve gamed the system and have so much more money than their opponents, taking the moral high ground with athletes for trying to do the same thing in another arena with drugs. Sports…it’s like life, and everyone from politicians to high school kids are cheating. Plus, any book that takes Jose Canseco seriously is a book worth taking seriously.

Unfortunately, there isn’t much in here about sports, and if you like sports, there isn’t anything in here you haven’t already read about. Which is ok, because Hayes has bigger fish to fry–the idea of meritocracy in America. And he is totally right that the idea of meritocracy is in need of critique. It’s a mantra of its own construction in America and its hegemonic position is harmful for something it pretends to equate with, equality or even true merit. Meritocracy does not equal equality. And merit itself is grounded in false abstractions–it’s supporters create tests that are supposed to equate with intelligence and skill, but are instead artificial and biased. It’s one of the reasons I like sports so much–even though many of its rules are biased in different ways, there’s some sense of a level-playing field that doesn’t exist in the rest of life. And, no matter how much certain players are falsely-loved, at the end of the day there is an opportunity for an outcome. The best players get their chance to show it (PEDs aside, refs aside, agents aside, racism aside, etc., etc., you know what I mean).

Hayes is also totally right with how the branding of meritocratic means testing further enables the continuance of vast inequalities and legitimates those inequalities with a false sense of righteousness. Meritocracy pervades so many reform movements today, and someone needs to point out that meritocracy doesn’t lead to equality. Bravo to Christopher Hayes for making this point.

Despite all this promise, the book is problematic and often irritating. At times, I wondered if Hayes is writing an incredibly sophisticated self-parody, a la Baudrillard. But he definitely isn’t.  The book is so so serious, so so incredibly earnest, that he clearly does not recognize the potential satirical brilliance of an upper-middle class ivy league white guy from Park Slope with his own national television show that he secured about 5 years out of college “boldly” (unlike the 5000 other books written on this topic) criticizing the failures of meritocracy. Does he recognize the absurdity of getting praised by others in his crowd of elite friends (like Rachel Maddow who blurbs the book and who helped get him a show or the various NYC blogs/friends who are labeling him courageous) for criticizing the process of how elites detach from others and entrench themselves through an “iron law of meritocracy?”

This is where MSNBC needs to learn from Colbert. The only way to effectively make this kind of critique from the position that Hayes comes from is with complete over-the-top self-parody. Stephen Colbert gets it. He praises himself, gives himself awards, and utterly mocks and exposes the whole system as a sham. Bono did this on the Zooropa tour–creating a fake character and constantly admiring himself in the mirror. Once you are an elite, the only way to attack elitism and success is to attack yourself. They get that. (Or disappear to a mountain hut in the middle of nowhere like Bon Iver). MSNBC’s current lineup does not get it. They sanctimoniously criticize the system while trying to win at the same game. And it’s so annoyingly earnest, it’s not clear any of them even recognize it. Rachel, just give us a wink, just once, to let us know that you are in on the joke!

Two other problems with Hayes’ book. First, he argues that there is a “new elite” that comes out of the political changes in the 1960s. However, isn’t the problem mostly just elites?  He makes no effort to distinguish new elites from old elites. Is the issue meritocracy, or how elites continue to maintain power over long swaths of time (like all of American history)? A lot of the people he refers to as part of the 1 percent, from financiers like the Koch brothers to Catholic bishops, were in power before the supposed meritocracy revolution of the 1960s (the time that he claims this ‘new elite’ came into power). Why is this elite any different than Mill’s power elite of a half century ago? Indeed, is meritocracy even in the top 5 reasons for the vast inequalities in today’s society? There are lots of reasons–decline of unions, cutback of regulatory policies, globalization and trade acceleration, race, campaign finance laws….where does meritocracy fit in here? We last had this type of inequality in the 1920s, supposedly (at least according to Hayes) prior to when the ‘meritocracy era’ came into being.

The second problem is what he wants: which is for people like him and Rachel Maddow to reform/overthrow/critique but maintain (it’s not clear which he wants exactly) the meritocracy by pointing out that it leads to inequality. As such, he calls for ‘a radicalized upper-middle class’ to point out what’s wrong with the system. Meaning, he is entitled to point out what’s wrong with the system, and we should all buy his book so he can continue to succeed.

I’m being snarky, but I’m not making this part up. He ties the argument to pseudo-Marxist thinking that it’s the group just below the elite that rises as the revolutionary because they are in the best position to see what the current elite has and what they are missing–which makes some sense, maybe. Or maybe it’s better tied to the Progressive Era, another time of upper-middle-class unrest? Either way, this is unsatisfying. Isn’t this why Park Slope liberals should be worried that they are perceived by others as elitist? Isn’t this why Sarah Palin ends up being appealing to more economically suffering Americans than Rachel Maddow? Hayes is ruining OWS. The 99% needs to banish him with their hand gestures as fast as possible.

I prefer the Irish response to meritocracy. Their football/soccer team is emblematic. They know they have no chance with meritocracy. So drink a lot, have fun, and give it one hell of a competitive try. Realize that you lose 999 out of a thousand, but sing songs about that one time and watch Robbie Kean do drunken cart-wheels.

I also prefer our professional sports response to meritocracy. Constantly redistribute the wealth in order to reign in those who (over) achieve via meritocracy.  Allow the loser in a meritocratic system to have the first pick in the next draft. Let Seattle have Durant and Cleveland have LeBron because they competed in a meritocratic system and sucked. And why? Because it’s good for the sport/it’s good for everyone if we let the losers more effectively compete. That’s a novel and promising idea.

——

OK…this was on tv while I was writing….Arguably up with the greatest single games ever (ties Koufax for 14ks in a perfect game).

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