Mayritocracy: Neoliberalism with new borders
‘I want Britain to be the great meritocracy of the world!’ proclaimed Theresa May at the Conservative Party Conference. Not since Tony Blair has the M-word been wheeled out on the British political stage with such force. Since becoming Prime Minster in July, May has spun a powerful image of the Conservative Party as more ‘ordinary’ and less privileged than before, and of the country remaining reassuringly ‘secure’ under her control. She is the headmistress of the Home Counties, policing our national and psychological borders.
The idea that you can activate your talent through hard work and achieve social success ‘on your own merits’ has a long been used as a legitimating narrative for capitalism. But in the 1950s when the word meritocracy was first spoken in English it was used as a wholly negative critical term. In its very first recorded use, the socialist and industrial sociologist Alan Fox simply asked: why would you already heap greater financial gain on those already prodigiously gifted with natural talent? Meritocracy was also – more famously – a problem for the social democratic polymath Michael Young, who was prompted by the social divisiveness of the 1950s grammar school system – that form of educational apartheid that Theresa May now wants to resurrect – into writing a gently comic critique of meritocracy, one depicting a fictional dystopia in which brainy babies are traded on a black market. Meritocracy was also a problem for the philosopher Hannah Arendt, who wrote in 1958 that it ‘contradicts the principle of equalitarian democracy no less than any other oligarchy’. (Hannah Arendt (2006) Between Past and Future: Eight exercises in political thought, Penguin Books, pp176-7.)
However, since the late 1970s, under neoliberalism, the language of meritocracy has become an alibi for plutocracy, or government by a wealthy elite. It has become a key ideological term in the reproduction of capitalist culture. The ideology of neoliberal meritocracy has been characterised by two core features. Firstly, by the sheer extent of its attempts to atomise society into individuals who should compete with each other to succeed, by extending entrepreneurial behaviour into the nooks and crannies of everyday life. Secondly, it has gained much of its power by drawing on the movements for greater equality that have grown stronger in the global North over the twentieth century. We have been encouraged to believe that if we try hard enough we can make it: that ‘race’ or class or gender are not, on a fundamental level, significant barriers to success. Registering human possibility whilst blindsiding social inequality, this has been the ‘postracial’, ‘postfeminist’ neoliberal meritocratic dream that, in their very different ways, Thatcher, Blair and Cameron have offered.
In many crucial ways May is an heir to this recent tradition of neoliberal meritocracy and works within it. Most importantly her government activates the narrative of individualised empowerment, of ‘giving everyone a chance to succeed’, whilst perpetuating privatization and aggressively creating new hierarchies. For example, the ranking of universities into ‘gold’, ‘silver’ and ‘bronze’ institutions will further entrench existing divisions in higher education. However, May’s language is also different from that of her predecessors. Her early speeches as PM have not only included expressions of righteous sympathy for the ‘ordinary working-class’ (a phrase rarely heard spilling from the lips of Conservative MPs) but also the unequal injustices faced by a variety of constituencies, from black people through women and the youth to the mentally ill. In part this is symptomatic of the early compassion of conservative Prime Ministers (just think of Cameron’s promise to hug hoodies and huskies). But it also moves far beyond it.
Theresa May is directly addressing what I think of as ‘the meritocratic deficit’: the idea that disadvantages of gender, ethnicity and class need to be dealt with to some degree (at least at a gestural level) before we embark on ‘fair’ forms of savage meritocratic competition. Forty years of neoliberal capitalism – eroding the public sector and its collective provision, welcoming international finance capital whilst slicing pensions and working conditions, increasing debt and pushing a norm of marketised competition into all realms of life from education to transport – has resulted in grotesque levels of inequality. These inequalities are particularly marked for those unable to draw on existing reservoirs of social privilege. The inequalities of gender, ‘race’ and class form a meritocratic deficit for many people even before they start trying to compete and elbow each other out of the way. Fifteen years ago these inequalities were bypassed through the message: anyone can do it! Just try harder! Under Cameron, meritocratic discourse took a more savagely moralising tone: you were either a ‘striver’ or a ‘skiver’. This idea, like the idea that we have a ‘level playing field’, became increasingly ridiculous at a time when white public schoolboys dominate feature films and parliament, when everyone knows that food banks not only exist but are proliferating, and it’s hard to ignore the widely circulated figure that sixty-two people own the same wealth as half the world.
The ‘Mayritocracy’ registers some of these inequalities. The prescription, however, is not collective forms of state provision or a halt to privatisation. It primarily offers a corporate justice narrative: it acknowledges social injustice, flags it up, foregrounds it and yet prescribes capitalism, competition and authoritarian nationalism as the best way to deal with it. The solution for inequality is better inequality. Commentators are debating whether it is ‘neoliberal’ or not, as Brexit’s borders promise to disrupt the flows of international finance capital as well as people’s citizenship and personal lives. But at present this formation mainly constitutes a kind of neoliberalism with borders: its policies on target to produce more privatisation, inequality and individualisation, its collectivism not built around sharing the wealth but through capitalism, newly competitive hierarchies, moral distinction and a militarily-empowered nationalism.
Theresa May’s language of meritocracy has, then, been marked to date by three features: first, it is self-consciously presented as inclusive, whilst offering competitive opportunity; second, and intimately connected to this, it recognises, at a rhetorical level, the fact of inequality and post-recession difficulty; and third, it is wrapped in the flag, through the constant reiteration of ‘Britain’ as a signifier to appease those who voted for Brexit. This is a particularly nationalistic iteration of meritocracy. We are in a new era of grammar schools, army cadets, resurgent racism and emboldened borders. Firms being told they might have to draw up lists of foreign workers provide uncomfortable resonances of Nazi Germany and the Second World War the best part of a century ago (that time when ‘we’ fought against the rounding up and persecution of people by national and ethnic origin). More socially liberal than Thatcher, yet equally nationalistic; and more classically Conservative than Cameron, this Daily Mail-inspired version of Middle England meritocracy yokes together capitalism, xenophobia and a dream of ordinary aspiration within a security state. But in the gap between its rhetoric of collectivity and the reality of how it continues to hand over collective provision to private interests, and in the work of extending competition and hierarchies into all corners of our lives, the continuities it has with forty years of neoliberalism are just as significant as the breaks it makes from it.
Jo Littler is a member of the Soundings editorial collective and a contributor to Neoliberal Culture (Lawrence & Wishart 2016). Her new book Against Meritocracy: Culture, Power and Myths of Mobility will be published by Routledge in 2017.