02 December 2021


Christopher Lasch
The Revolt of the Elites (1995)

Meritocracy is a parody of democracy. It offers opportunities for advancement, in theory at least, to anyone with the talent to seize them, but "opportunities to rise," as R.H. Tawney points out in Equality, "are no substitute for a general diffusion of the means of civilization," of the "dignity and culture" that are needed by all "whether they rise or not." Social mobility does not undermine the influence of elites; if anything, it helps to solidify their influence by supporting the illusion that it rests solely on merit. It merely strengthens the likelihood that elites will exercise power irresponsibly, precisely because they recognize so few obligations to their predecessors or to the communities they profess to lead. Their lack of gratitude disqualifies meritocratic elites from the burden of leadership, and in any case, they are less interested in leadership than in escaping from the common lot—the very definition of meritocratic success.
(p. 41)

The educational reforms of the twentieth century "enabled the clever child to leave the lower class . . . and to enter into a higher class into which he was fitted to climb." Those who were left behind, knowing that "they have had every chance," cannot legitimately complain about their lot. "For the first time in human history, the inferior man has no ready buttress for his self-regard."
(quotes from Michael Young, The Rise of the Meritocracy, 1870-2033)

If memory serves, Richard Sennett has said something very similar.
It should not surprise us, then, that meritocracy also generates an obsessive concern with "self-esteem." The new therapies...seek to counter the oppressive sense of failure..while leaving the existing structure of elite recruitment...intact. ... As Young observes, people on the left (like their opponents on the right) are happiest when attacking hereditary privilege. They ignore the real objection to meritocracy—that it drains talent away from the lower classes and thus deprives them of effective leadership—and content themselves with dubious arguments to the effect that education does not live up to its promise of fostering social mobility. If it did, they seem to imply, no one would presumably have any reason to complain.
(pp. 43-44)

[For James Bryant Conant,] Democracy did not require a "uniform distribution of the world's goods," a "radical equalization of wealth." What it required was a "continuous process by which power and privilege may be automatically redistributed at the end of each generation.


The only way of "restoring social mobility" was to make the school system a substitute for the frontier.


It would be hard to find a better example than Conant's essay ["Education for a Classless Society: The Jeffersonian Tradition"] of the paltry view of democracy that has come to prevail in our time. In the name of the "Jeffersonian tradition," which envisioned a community of intelligent, resourceful, responsible, and self-governing citizens, Conant proposed merely to ensure the circulation of elites. ... His program...contained the additional irony that although it presupposed a rigorous separation of manual and mental labor and a hierarchy of social status in which those who worked with their hands ranked at the bottom, it was conceived as a way of achieving a classless society. ...

Historically the concept of social mobility was clearly articulated only when people could no longer deny the existence of a degraded class of wage earners tied to that condition for life—only when the possibility of a classless society, in other words, was decisevely abandoned. The notion that egalitarian purposes could be served by the "restoration" of upward mobility betrayed a fundamental misunderstanding. High rates of mobility are by no means inconsistent with a system of stratification that concentrates power and privilege in a ruling elite. Indeed, the circulation of elites strengthens the principle of hierarchy, furnishing elites with fresh talent and legitimating their ascendancy as a function of merit rather than birth.

The truth is that our society is at once "highly stratified and highly mobile," in the words of Wendell Berry. There is little evidence that rates of vertical mobility have declined. On the contrary, a vast body of social research points fairly consistently to the conclusion that rates of mobility have remained more or less constant ever since the Civil War. ...
(pp. 75-77)

Berry's interrogation of [Justin Smith] Morrill defines the most important choice a democratic society has to make: whether to raise the general level of competence, energy, and devotion...or merely to promote a broader recruitment of elites. Our society has clearly chosen the second course. It has identified opportunity with upward mobility and made upward mobility the overriding goal of social policy. The debate about affirmative action shows how deeply this pathetically restricted notion of opportunity has entered public discourse. A policy designed to recruit minorities into the professional and managerial class is opposed not on the grounds that it strengthens the dominant position of this class but that it weakens the principle of meritocracy. Both sides argue on the same grounds. Both see careers open to talent as the be-all and end-all of democracy
Earth to Hanna Rosin...
when in fact, careerism tends to undermine democracy by divorcing knowledge from practical experience,
devaluing the kind of knowledge that is gained from experience,
...but be careful here, anti-positivists, because no one's "experience" is comprehensive. Of course it would be great to have BOTH both book- and street-smarts, in whatever proportion depending on the field. What's stopping us?

Anyway, earth to both the positivists and the anti-positivists.
and generating social conditions in which ordinary people are not expected to know anything at all. The reign of specialized expertise—the logical result [of all this]...—is the antithesis of democracy as it was understood by those who saw this country as the "last, best hope on earth."
(pp. 78-79)

Racial integration might have been conceived as a policy designed to give everyone equal access to a common civic culture. Instead it has come to be conceived largely as a strategy for assuring educational mobility. ... The misplaced emphasis on professional careers, as opposed to jobs and participation in a common culture, helps to explain the curious coexistence, in the postsixties politics of race, of a virulent form of cultural particularism with strategies having the practical effect of undermining particularism in its concrete expression in neighborhoods.
(p. 135)

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