Monday, July 06, 2009

Meritocrats and spending cuts

Steve Bundred, the head of the Audit Commission, wrote an article on Sunday calling for a freeze in public sector wages as a 'painless' [sic] way for the government to make savings.

There are a number of excellent criticisms, pointing out the unfairness of this, that it would be bad for the economy, that it shows a complete lack of political judgement, and that Bundred is abusing his position.

I was trying to work out what Bundred's article reminded me of. At one level, it is just the latest example of a particular sort of class warfare, where wealthy and powerful people call for middle and working class people to suffer financially and get worse services. There will be a lot of this in the run up to the next election, and it is not a great surprise to see the head of a quango choosing to repeat Conservative Party talking points in order to curry favour with the people who may be responsible for deciding whether he keeps his job next year.

But an even better explanation was provided more than 50 years ago, in a book called 'The Rise of the Meritocracy'. This book predicted the rise of people like Bundred, those who owe their vast income and power to their intelligence and effort, and whose lives are totally separate from the majority of the people. As one review explains: 'It is part satire, part a look into the future, and part a warning about where we are.

This book is written in a future Britain 2033 - which in many regards does not look that different from the present day. There are no real differences between the parties. The Labour Party as we understand it has been abolished. Education is everything in terms of getting on. Tests and measuring ability are the governing credo.

And yet this future world is not a fairer or happier place. Instead, those who are the winners in this world do so because of a narrower and narrower notion of 'ability' and 'merit' - which they see as virtuous and because they are somehow better. Seeing their individual success as a validation of their skills they see their lifestories as a success, and those who do not make it a failure.

Funnily enough, power, money and politics congregate around this 'new class', while the excluded majority are leaderless and have no political party to represent them in the way the working class was once represented by Labour.'

When Bundred refers to wage freezes as 'painless', he isn't thinking of cleaners or nursing assistants struggling to afford the weekly food shop, he is thinking, as meritocrats do, about numbers on a spreadsheet.

And when he writes about how wages have stagnated for many workers in the private sector, the underlying aim is to turn the 'little people' against each other depending on who their employer is - it doesn't begin to occur to him that wage freezes and job losses are the direct responsibility of his fellow meritocrats, and that maybe it is they who should bear a greater burden for helping the economy recover.

The 'Rise of the Meritocracy' is by far the most prescient of the dystopian novels from the middle of the last century. We're not at war with Eastasia or Eurasia, society isn't sorted into alphas, betas and so on, and Big Brother is a telly programme, not our leader (and no one loves it any more). But we are governed by an elite which think of themselves as having got to the top thanks to their intelligence and effort, and government ministers openly proclaim the aim of making Britain into a 'meritocracy'. The key thing to remember is that what is good for the meritocrats isn't the same as, and is often the opposite of, what's good for the rest of us.


At 8:37 pm , Blogger pregethwr said...

You write really well Dan.

At 10:40 pm , Blogger Praguetory said...

Meanwhile in the private sector wages have been falling for the last 8 months. My only criticism is that a pay freeze doesn't go far enough.

At 8:01 am , Blogger Quinn said...

Not true, Praguetory. Some private sector wages have been falling, some haven't.

At 2:54 pm , Blogger John B said...

With GDP down 4% and public sector wages and employment not yet falling, we can fairly safely suggest that the majority of pain so far has indeed been borne by the private sector.

However, given that Don addresses that point above ("the underlying aim is to turn the 'little people' against each other depending on who their employer is"), it's not really worth dwelling on here.

At 3:55 am , Blogger JoJo said...

I'm socialist-leaning myself, don, but I'm unsure as to whether there is a better principle to organise a distribution of wealth around than meritocracy, besides full blown communism, which at the moment I don't think that's an achievable project.

I agree that the excesses of meritocracy leave humanity behind, and that we definitely need higher minimum acceptable standards of living than we have now (worldwide), but to abandon the concept of meritocracy entirely seems premature. What's your beef with it?

At 2:21 pm , Blogger Miller 2.0 said...

JoJo, the problem isn't meritocracy as a system, the problem is that it tends to be defined by the currently successful, who do not necessarily possess the merit they claim they do.


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