Thursday, August 06, 2009

Against meritocracy

Laurie Penny criticised Harriet Harman's suggestion that at least one of the top two positions in the Labour Party should always be filled by a woman:

"Since Harriet seems pathologically unable to properly explain herself right now, let me: if we were a truly meritocratic society, this wouldn’t be a problem at all. If we had a truly meritocratic system that picked its leaders on the basis of ability and competence, one of the two top jobs would usually go to a woman – if not both."

Laurie seems to think that a 'truly meritocratic system' would be a good idea. I think it would be a very bad idea.

In a truly meritocratic system, power would be wielded by an elite of those who were judged to be most able and competent. So what makes a politician "able" and "competent"? Experience of campaigning against injustice? Ability to overcome prejudice and disadvantage in their personal lives? Understanding of political history? Experience of the private sector and creating wealth? Experience of making public services run more efficiently? Experience of a "real world" job not connected with politics?

These are all reasonable definitions of "merit", and yet they would give us a ruling elite of, to take a few examples, Peter Hain, David Blunkett, Gordon Brown, Lord Sugar, Steve Bundred and Jacqui Smith.

Unlike, say, football or medicine, there is no objective way of deciding who has "merit" and who doesn't. There is already too much meritocracy in politics, not too little. The problem at the moment is not that the political class is devoid of merit - it includes many talented people. A far greater problem is that politics is increasingly the preserve of a professional elite separate from, and with different interests to, the majority of people.

Both Harman and her critics share the idea that the key task is to select the right people to be our leaders - whether through gender quotas or selection based on merit. But I'm with Eugene Debs on this,


"I don't want you to follow me or anyone else. If you are looking for a Moses to lead you out of the capitalist wilderness you will stay right where you are. I would not lead you into this promised land if I could, because if I could lead you in, someone else could lead you out."


Laurie is an excellent writer, and I normally agree with just about everything she argues for. But in this case, I think she's advocating a kind of 'Great Man' view of politics which isn't really true to her values.

Even the greatest leaders can achieve nothing without the people they represent. Winston Churchill didn't win the Second World War single handed, and Nye Bevan didn't create the National Health Service on his own, in both cases the real work was done by millions of ordinary people, few of whom would have prospered in a meritocracy. Instead of a 'truly meritocratic system', we should be striving for a truly democratic system, in which power is held by all the people, with all their different abilities and merits.

3 Comments:

At 10:51 am , OpenID alunephraim said...

I reckon that around 99% of people who use the word "meritocracy" have never actually read "The Rise of the Meritocracy"... or even heard of it, maybe...

 
At 3:30 pm , Anonymous kensington and chelsea said...

That is because you are making up what people mean. When most people use the word meritocracy they mean something different to what you mean, so you are creating a straw man to argue again.
I support a meritocracy, but not in the sense that you have claimed it to be.

 
At 4:50 pm , Blogger Dave Semple said...

I suspect, Kensington and Chelsea, that you either can't or won't grasp what the Don is saying. I notice that in your accusation that the Don is debasing what meritocracy means, you don't offer a counter definition.

Let us refer to the trusty OED:

"Meritocracy. Government or the holding of power by people selected on the basis of merit, specifically in a competitive educational system; a society governed by such people or in which such people hold power; a ruling or influential class of educated people."

The problem is, as the Don outlines, that this definition can easily be expanded to encompass the people we have now, or the people we'll have after the next election, none of whom are likely to perform any better than what we've got. Indeed, as the Don also outlines, the very idea of what makes people meritorious is fluid.

So in what sense, Kensington and Chelsea, do you support a meritocracy, or do you have no idea what you're talking about?

 

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