Mmmmmmm…Sweet, cold, refreshing meritocracy…
Everyone seems to love the idea of a ‘fairer society’. Even the Conservative party, whose latest ‘new’ idea is the increased presence of selective grammar schools.
The richer and more right-wing among us predictably argue that only ‘competition’ and ‘meritocracy’ can create an environment of fairness and excellence. This works extremely well when trying to play to the selfishness and overconfidence in all of us, particularly when appealing to the exaggeration inherent in a parent’s love for their child.
It only falls down when you point out that any level of inequality (which is impossible to completely eradicate) generates a permanently uneven playing field.
The less-rich and more left-wing (equally predictably) argue that only ‘redistribution’ and ‘extra support’ can balance the scales of that uneven playing field. But don’t worry they say, this won’t damage the progress of those with natural talent. This works extremely well when trying to play to the bitterness, the mediocrity and, to be fair, the compassion that’s in all of us.
Those who are more honest on either side will see both approaches as suspiciously flawed and self-serving.
If you happen to be one of those people who has actually experienced ‘social mobility’ in action you will have a different insight into what it means in practice.
It means being envied by those you leave behind.
It means being looked down on by those who it threatens the status of.
It means feeling guilty about those who can’t come with you and angry at those who try to keep you down.
It means losing acceptance from your old world and being rejected by your new one.
It also means an uphill battle with odds stacked against you, no matter how ‘meritocratic’ the competition you find yourself involved in. There is no such thing as fair, and prejudice, snootiness and nepotism will always play a role in any rise to the top.
And at the end of it all what do you win?
A life where you voluntarily exclude yourself from the community you came from, where despite your success someone is always better off and far more keen to demonstrate it in a world with far more heightened sensitivity to the ruthless nature of competition.
Being part of the ‘elite’ is an odd desire that haunts us all. Yet what it really entails is a subscription to a culture and a way of life that defines itself by the way that it excludes others.
“Fine” you might say, but here’s the hidden cost:
‘Exclusive’ is a term that nowadays brings to mind nothing but bright and happy imagery. But when you compete for power as an end in itself then all it does is to isolate you and your kind in an ever more distant world, detached from everyone else.
This ivory tower used to be a cold unpalatable vision of a treasure that wasn’t worth having. Now, thanks to the delusions of modern ‘fame’, we are packaged a form of the same product that promises us not just superiority (and exclusive VIP access to a members-only club) but also the sense that we can have intimacy and adulation while we’re at it. After all, once you’re rich and successful, you can always rub it in everyone’s faces by turning them green on Instagram.
Yet basing your life on access to the higher echelons will likely only bring you a feeling of being the pauper on the front doorstep of someone else’s palace. The sense of yearning for access to the platinum lounge when all you can afford is gold doesn’t go away until you’re the richest soul on earth. And then you’ve got to stay on your toes lest someone else grows richer.
To actually have power that is wielded for a purpose (other than vanity) is to win the trust of the many and not the few; it is to work together with people of all kinds, backgrounds and abilities and reap the rewards of playing a role in a myriad of other lives.
Those who want to build something, to make and create what is valuable to the world and those around them will put themselves amongst that world and involve themselves willingly in the lives of others. They will connect you with the people, ideas and dreams that make you better, wiser and happier than you were. They will use all they have to bring out the best in us.
And they’ll do all this because they can; which rightfully grants them honour.
These are the people that we should want to rule our nation.
These are the people that we need to lead our world.
And splitting them up at 11; to show them how separate and different they deserve to be treated, does not sound like a recipe for producing that kind of leader or that kind of human being.
There is a point to meritocracy and it isn’t an expensive and abstract sense of righteousness or a certificate of approval for those who win a 100 metre race with a 90 metre head start.
It’s that the greatest responsibility should go to those with the greatest ability to handle it; and that should benefit us all. Simply put, the only reason why we should allow leaders or divisions of power to exist is not to privilege the sainted few or as a way of persecuting the rest but because they make teams and groups of people perform better. Otherwise, quite rightly, there’d be no reason for everyone else to put up with it.
Yet guess what? We do: because, by and large, it works!
Whether the way we allocate power and choose our leaders is the best way is certainly up for debate and so too is the level of opportunity we are prepared to make each other pay for everyone to have. But surely starting off with inescapable facts and a shared underlying goal instead of false idealism and BS is a surer way to go about it.
I’m aware this may be a drink that some find hard to swallow, but caught between ‘Diet Communism’ and ‘New Plutocracy Zero’ it might just be the best product on the market.
Photo credits: The Prime Minister’s Office, e.c.johnson, DocChewbacca