The Little Meritocracy

Once upon a time, people managed to get the goods and services they needed by trading what they had for what they needed. While this system often resulted in some people having more to trade than others, people were all mostly able to feed themselves and provide shelter for themselves and their families and friends. But lurking in the shadows of this barter-based utopia was a Capitalist System, who was basically an evil bastard. And the Capitalist System thought, this is all very well, I’m sure it’s nice and all that nobody actually dies of starvation or is forced into homelessness, but some of these people work harder than others. Some of them are smarter, or stronger, or faster, while some of them are slow, or ill, or old, and can’t contribute as much. Yet these slow, ill, old people are still taken care of. Surely the people who work the hardest deserve to be rewarded more than the ones who can’t?

So the Capitalist System went to the harder working people and said, “Have you thought of exchanging a symbolic form of currency for your goods and services, instead of concrete goods and services? It would make it easier to put exact and consistent values on your work, and you would get paid more for working harder.”

At first, the harder working people were confused. It wasn’t the fault of those who were slow, or ill, or old, after all. They couldn’t be expected to work as hard as people who were faster, or stronger, or younger. But some of them started to wonder if maybe it was fair to expect to be paid more for doing more work. They would still take care of the people who couldn’t work harder, but since they did more of the work, maybe they could expect more in return.

The Capitalist System said that it was only fair to have a system based on merit, instead of one where anyone could expect to be supported without doing much work. The harder workers agreed, and introduced something called ‘money’ to the other people, who were suspicious. But the Capitalist System explained that if everyone just did a little more work, they could get as much money as they wanted, and that those people who worked the hardest would be able to have LOADS of money. Of course the slower, sicker, older people didn’t think this sounded like a good idea, but the Capitalist System ignored them, and it didn’t take long before the others were convinced.

And so the Capitalist System introduced the Meritocracy, and promised that anyone who worked hard enough would grow rich and have all their dreams come true.

Provided they were white, cishet, able-bodied, neuro-typical, young, weren’t poor to start with, and had a marketable skill. And everyone lived shittily ever after because the Capitalist System was a lying liar whose pants were always on fire and there is no such thing as a Meritocracy.

Well hello there, fellow humans and others! Welcome to Fun Story Time With Cam, The Ruiner Of Innocent Dreams. Today we are talking about how the Meritocracy is a myth created by wealthy people in order to maintain their wealth at the expense of literally everybody else! Isn’t that just the funnest? Okay, but seriously, the idea that we live in a meritocracy – or in anything even closely resembling one – is one of the most persistent myths of the capitalist West, and in order to tackle people like Trump, Turnbull, and whoever the hell is currently in charge of England (kidding, I know it’s Theresa May, and I didn’t have to Google that at all, shut up, it’s been a very weird year in politics) we need to break it down.

Firstly, and most obviously, the idea that we live in a meritocracy is patently false. For goodness sake, look at the kind of people who are getting wealthy these days: movie stars, musicians, reality TV stars, arseholes who inherit family wealth and then use it to poison the planet (lookin’ at you Gina Rinehart), Donald Trump, and that’s just the short list. Sure, some of those movie stars are decent enough people, but what have they really done to deserve being squillionaires while my neighbour, who is one of the best people on the planet, is barely getting by? Answer: nothing. Seriously, nothing. And even ignoring that glaring evidence, there’s the fact that people are constantly disadvantaged for things over which they have no control, regardless of how hard they work or how great they are. Quick list of examples:

  • People of colour who don’t have Anglicised names are more likely to be turned down for jobs even when they have exactly the same qualifications as a white person with an Anglicised name.
  • Studies have found that students and teachers will judge a woman’s written work more harshly than a man’s, even when the work is exactly the same work.
  • People with mental or chronic illness, or with physical disabilities, are more likely to be turned down for employment than able-bodied people, regardless of their ability to do the actual job.
  • Trans people, people of colour, disabled people, and single mothers (although this, too, is impacted by race etc) are routinely turned down by landlords regardless of credit history or income.

I could go on, but you get the idea. Our society is built around a bunch of oppressive systems, and these have genuine practical effects on whether or not people’s ‘merit’ is recognised. As always, it’s far easier to be a mediocre white man in our society than it is to be an amazing literally anyone else, although white cis women are starting to catch up IN SOME AREAS. And even if race, disability, neorodivergence, sexuality and gender weren’t an issue, we still live in a capitalist society, and that put anyone not middle class or higher at a significant disadvantage.

I was forcefully reminded of this only recently. For those who don’t know, I’m currently studying my Bachelor of Arts, with the aim of eventually getting a PhD and becoming a lecturer in Gender Studies and Social Science. I’ve won prizes for my work, I’m a member of an Honors Society (basically a group for snobby arseholes who get high grades, which I guess makes me a snobby arsheole, big surprise there), I have a GPA of nearly 6.5, all of which I’ve managed while writing my own stuff and raising three kids alone. Yup, I’m tooting my own horn in a big way, and I’m not even sorry. I work my arse off, but there is a more important point here. I work my arse off while living below the poverty line. Because I am a single parent and full time student, I don’t have time to do paid work as well (and writing doesn’t pay… yet…), so I rely on a pension. This keeps us fed and housed and reasonably healthy, because we live in Australia.

But there are a ton of opportunities that would really help my future career prospects, and I can’t access them because I have literally NO spare money or time. I was nominated for an International Scholars Laureate Program recently, which would have been an amazing learning experience, and would have looked AWESOME on my resume. I couldn’t go, because it was in South Africa, and cost over $3000 BEFORE flights. I’m currently relying on the possibility of scholarships to be able to do the post-grad study I’ll need to do in order to become a lecturer one day, because I won’t be able to support myself and my kids without it. But a lot of those scholarships rely on things like extra-curricular activities, or strong research backgrounds, and because I’m a single parent, I simply cannot do those things (and that’s without even getting into the limitations of being autistic and having PTSD). Also, because of my current financial situation, it’s likely I won’t ever be able to own a house. I may have to work into my 70s and 80s (admittedly, I think I’ll want to do that anyway) just so I can afford a retirement. These are things that wealthy people, or even middle-class people, don’t need to consider. My whole future depends on luck, even more than my hard work, and no matter what I do, my hard work won’t get me as far as someone else’s money will get them. My ‘merit’ only gets me so far.

But here’s the thing. We haven’t even come close to destroying the barriers created by racism and white supremacy, heterosexism, cissexism, or ableism. My ‘merit’ still gets me a hell of a lot further than, say, an Indigenous woman in the same situation, especially one with strong ties to her nation and community. She will face barriers I will never comprehend, simply because of her race – not only because of the existing prejudice that exists today, but because of the legacy of centuries of oppression that leaves so many Indigenous nations in poverty, at higher risk of violence, incarceration, police violence, lack of access to education, lack of access to health care… I could go on.

Even if an Indigenous woman were to live exactly the same life as me, she would quite likely find things far more difficult, even when you leave out overt racism that she would most likely face on a regular basis. She might have been refused the cheap rental property I’m lucky to have, simply because we have stereotyped ideas about what Indigenous single mothers are like. She might have found it more difficult to access uni in the first place, if it meant travelling a long way from her community. She might have more trouble with Centrelink, which is sadly full of people who might question her right to claim the same benefits as I have, which I’ve claimed with hardly any trouble at all. She might have more trouble speaking up in class, or making friends with lecturers, particularly if she has a less ‘white middle class’ accent than I do – yes, judging people for speaking differently, even when they speak ‘perfect’ English, is a real problem in Australia. So ‘merit’ has fuck all to do with this situation. I struggle because I’m currently living in poverty, but my whiteness and my able-bodiedness protects me from a hell of a lot more struggle.

But supposing we erased the difficulties created by race, class, income, sexuality and gender, wouldn’t that mean we COULD have a meritocracy?

No, of course we couldn’t, because that would make you happy and you know I can’t allow that.

The problem with a meritocracy is that it’s ALWAYS going to be unjust. No matter who decides what counts as ‘merit’, there will be someone left behind, because humans are all different, with all different abilities. Say we valued intelligence as a form of merit. What does intelligence even mean? Why is intelligence a good thing? What about people with intellectual differences or disabilities? How do you measure intelligence anyway? Is it an ability to read and write? But what about people who didn’t have access to quality education? What about people who speak English as a second language? If we counted intelligence as a merit, I’d be pretty well off, because the things I’m interested in match up with popular ideas of intelligence. But that doesn’t mean I’m objectively more intelligent than a bunch of people whose intelligence ISN’T financially or socially rewarded (as mine will be once I’m qualified, as lecturers are decently paid and well respected). Just because society approves of my choices and interests, doesn’t mean I’m worth more or have the right to a better income and more comfort than, say, a nurse, or a childcare worker, or a retail worker, or that person pushing trolleys at Woolies in the rain. My ‘intelligence’ was built on my education, upbringing, natural ability, and a whole bunch of other stuff over which I had zero control, so how is that a ‘merit’? You see the problem here?

Okay, say we leave intelligence, what about hard work? Well? How do you measure that? What about people with chronic illness, who literally can’t work, or who can only do certain types of work, or who can sometimes do a full five days’ of work, but who then can’t work for a fortnight? What about people who have other commitments? What jobs count as ‘work’? Is caring ‘work’? How do you decide who is counted as ‘working hard’ and who isn’t? Sure, I work seven days a week, and I don’t sleep much, but I not only CAN do that, I CHOOSE to do that. Why is that worth more than, say, someone who works four days a week caring for children? Or stacking shelves? Hint: it’s not. All of us deserve to have enough resources to feed, clothe, house, and take care of ourselves and our families, not because of how hard we work, but because we’re human. (Under the current system, none of us listed above have these resources, so…)

Okay, okay, so we can’t count hard work or intelligence as merit, what about… um… not being a shitty person? Actually, this one I like. This one can count as ‘merit’. But you know what? Could we maybe NOT reward being a decent human being financially? I feel like this should be something we just do because it’s the right thing to do, and not because someone will give us something for it.

When it comes down to it, the Myth of the Meritocracy exists to make us feel better about living in a capitalist nightmare. It makes us feel like we can hope for something better, because it tells us that if we want something enough, and work hard enough, we’ll be able to ‘achieve our dreams’. It also lets the bastards in charge off the hook, because it tells us we’re responsible for our own fates. It makes it easy to look down on people who don’t ‘succeed’ (ie: people who are poor), because in a meritocracy, they obviously deserve it for not working hard enough. It allows people who are advantaged to feel good about themselves and do absolutely fuck all to help anyone else, because after all, this is a meritocracy, and by god, if you’re a millionaire, you must be a pretty great person. (If you think this is true, I invite you to look at Gina Rinehart or literally any conservative politician.)

The meritocracy not only doesn’t exist, it’s a tool to keep us so busy working that we don’t notice how our government and the wealthy 1% take advantage of us and our work to keep themselves rich. It is a system in which only some people are CAPABLE of possessing merit, and others are automatically disqualified from the competition by virtue of race, language, class, ability, sexuality, gender, or some other uncontrollable aspect of themselves. It is a system in which only some people are counted as People, and the rest are either Workers or a Drain on Resources. For some of us, being a Drain on Resources lasts only a short time, until we ‘earn’ the ‘right’ to call ourselves People. For others, being a Drain is the only option they’ll ever have.

So next time someone tells you we live in a meritocracy, I would politely invite them to explain that to my 6.5GPA and then shove it where the sun does not shine, because the Myth of the Meritocracy is an idea that cannot die too soon.

Misandrist Buzzkill out!


All Rights Reserved to Cambrey Payne 2017. Acknowledge sources when sharing and do not repost without original source.

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