#1 What lies beyond the meritocracy? By Yvonne Roberts

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To mark the 60 years since Michael Young’s seminal work ‘The Rise of the Meritocracy’ was published, we invited some writers and commentators to answer the question: What lies beyond the meritocracy?

Yvonne Roberts, journalist, The Observer:

It is the 60th anniversary of The Rise of the Meritocracy 1870-2033. Michael Young, Lord Young of Dartington, social co-inventor of among other organisations the Consumer Association and the Open University, is the book’s author and the prince of prescience. So much of what he warned would come about in his fictional account of a non-utopia, is now with us.

Young argued in his satire that a meritocracy should be avoided at all costs. Instead, it has become the desired goal of many a politician including Tony Blair, tests, exams, and league tables viewed erroneously as the key to unlocking social mobility. Young warned that a costly price would be paid – and six decades later, he continues to be right.

In the book, the narrator, a sociologist, describes how a system in which status accorded by birth had been replaced by a society in which the classes are reconstituted in the basic formula, IQ plus Effort = Merit. The belief in a common good and a flourishing civic life is corroded. “If the meritocrats believe…that their advantage comes from their own merits,” Young wrote. “They can feel they deserve whatever they can get.”

In the process, the lower orders are culled, losing their best and brightest, and left leaderless and devalued. Young wrote at a time when he was particularly incensed by what he saw as the discarding of thousands of children to the dustbin of education by the 11-plus exam. Then, at least, the working class did still have their advocates and representatives in office, understanding the lives they lived. Ernest Bevin had left school at eleven and rose from farm boy and drayman to become Labour’s foreign secretary in the radical 1945 Labour Government. Now, the working class MP is in danger of extinction. “No longer is it so necessary to debase standards by attempting to extend a higher civilization to the children of the lower classes,” Young wrote.

In the book, the inevitable rebellion occurs in 2033 – climaxing at Peterloo – led by dissident meritocrats. In 2016, a rebellion of sorts, some might argue, came about in the Brexit vote – the vast majority of those who voted out had few qualifications and did not see their needs reflected in Westminster’s priorities. Such large-scale division indicates that the fictional formula for the 20th century that became a very real driving force for New Labour – IQ plus Effort = Merit – has failed to create a vibrant, productive, socially just democracy, so what formula might?

How do we create a society in which every individual – from fragile to robust, productive and non-productive – is treated not as a human resource, his or her value to the market dictated only by IQ but, instead, as potentially active citizens, each entitled to the opportunities to develop what economist, Amartya Sen called “capabilities” – the right to feel of value, to engage in society, to have the resources to live a thriving life, not merely survive?

Ten years ago, in ‘The Rise and Rise of the Meritocracy’, edited by Geoff Dench, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Young’s book, I contributed a chapter on marginalised young black men. For many, the meritocracy had stripped them of everything except “respect”. They valued it so highly, they were prepared to lose their own lives and kill in its name. Little has changed, as witnessed by the current spate of tragic knife deaths. The meritocracy piles up causalities.

As Young’s book predicted, opportunities to accrue social capital, the springboard that allows the middle classes to leap ahead, have been drastically reduced for those at the bottom of society even as, contrary to one of Young’s predictions, the rich have grown wealthier with 10% owning 40% of this country’s wealth. Investment in early years is disgracefully poor, vocational learning degraded and the marketisation of education with free schools creaming resources and “good” school catchment areas available only to the most affluent having a cumulative impact. Add to that the ferocity of the cuts to youth and public services and benefits, the lack of investment in social infrastructure such as the care industry, impacting mostly on women and children and the rise of zero hours and the gig economy – and the welfare state is shrinking and becoming dangerously threadbare.

Democracy does not require perfect equality but it does require that citizens share a common life,” philosopher Michael J Sandel writes in ‘What Money Can’t Buy’. “What matters is that people of different backgrounds and social positions encounter one another, and bump up against one another, in the course of everyday life…this is how…we come to care for the common good.”

In contrast, meritocrats, some willingly and others reluctantly, (and, of course, the oligarchs and uber-rich) increasingly reside in their own silos – small plush neighbourhoods, “top” schools, private police forces, private health and private social care while life for the rest crumbles and the communal spaces – parks, libraries, community centres – we should all share reflect the diminishing value we place on those whose talents have been ignored, their skills sidelined, their right to live a decent life, denied.

Sandel asks if we want a society in which everything is up for sale. Meritocrats might say, “Yes”. As Young pointed out all those years ago, the ability to buy what it wants when it wants is one way in which the meritocracy proves its “worth” – at least to itself. Or are there certain moral and civic goods that markets do not honour and money cannot buy? “The movement of protest has a long history,” Young writes in the concluding pages of the book. However, he adds in his patrician way, the “populist” mass “without intelligence in their head” – echoes of the metropolitan view of Brexit again? – has been turned into an ineffective rabble. This 2033 revolution is over before it’s begun.

The formula IQ plus Effort = Merit, in fiction and fact, may deliver for the few, but it doesn’t stop trouble. It doesn’t cope with a future in which robots may provide both the IQ and the effort so that even a slice of the meritocrats may find themselves displaced, without value.

So, what new fairer formula is required? How do you heal a deeply fractured society?

It is not enough to succeed,” Gore Vidal declared, in a mantra for the meritocracy. “Others must fail”. But fail at what? Not all wish to be alpha males and females; big spenders; conspicuous consumers, status seekers – alternative ways of living can also count as success, although with increasing difficulty in a highly materialistic, narcissistic world.

Alternative definitions of success for those not burdened by driving ambition and/or exhibitionism arguably require a person to have a sense of agency and control over his or her own life – a belief that what they do, how they behave, does make a difference plus a chance for their abilities to be recognised and realised, unhampered by poverty, debt, rotten housing and poor expectations from teachers, employers and, ultimately, themselves.

Facing an uncertain future, what new formula has social justice at its core and a flourishing civic life for all as at its goal?

To share your thoughts too, visit our competition page. There are cash prizes and a Young Foundation Fellowship up for grabs! Deadline for submissions is 14 September 2018.  

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