Twilight of the Middle Class: The Myth of Meritocracy
By Eddie J. Girdner
Christopher Hayes, Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy. New York: Broadway Paperbacks, 2012, 292 pages, $16.00.
Looking at the comments which have been made about Twilight of the Elites, by Christopher Hayes, one is led to expect a penetrating and enlightening critique of American society. It is a New York Times bestseller. Glowing comments have been made about the book. “A powerful critique of the meritocratic elite that has overseen one of the most disastrous periods of recent history,” says The American Conservative. “…[T]his cogent social commentary urges us to reconstruct our institutions so we can once again trust them,” writes Publisher’s Weekly. “…A provocative discussion of the deeper causes of our current discontent…” according to Kirkus Reviews. Katrina Vanden Heuvel writes in The Nation, Hays suggests “… important and unconventional ideas as to how to reconstruct and reinvent our politics and society.” And Thomas Frank, author of Pity the Billionaire, is quoted as saying, “If you want to understand the world you are living in, you will have to read this book.”
Well, I did want to “understand the world” I was living in, so I read the book. Unfortunately, long before the end, I began to wonder if maybe there were some things the author, himself, did not understand about the world. One can easily get lost in the thick haze of arguments. In fact, the reader must search diligently for what the author is actually saying. Sometimes the book does not flow very logically. One must first discover the central argument of the book and then see if this actually helps us to understand the world. Or rather understand the United States of America, since there is only the faintest reference to any other country.
Summary of The Argument:
The author sets out to tell us what is wrong with America and the cause of the malady. The first decade of the Twenty-First Century was the “fail decade.” Many things went wrong, such as the Iraq War, the corporate scandals, the financial crisis, baseball doping, the sex scandal in the Catholic Church, and continued global warming. With family incomes declining among the middle class by some seven percent, Americans were losing faith in their institutions. They no longer trusted the government, Congress, the press, the church, science, the banks, or universities. They no longer trusted in the elites who held power. Trust in banks was only 22 percent and only 31 percent trusted the media.
This all came about, according to Hayes, because in the sixties the US embraced meritocracy in place of the old White Anglo- Saxon Protestant (WASP) establishment. The demands of the social movements of the 1960s were incorporated and opened doors to women and racial minorities. Over time, American society achieved liberation from the unjust hierarchies of race, gender, and sexual orientation. America established an “aristocracy of talent.” (p. 22)
This commitment to meritocracy, however, accelerated extreme economic inequality. This embrace of inequality produced “self-dealing elites” (p. 22) who were responsible for institutional failure and a crises of authority. They brought about the failure of the War in Iraq, the financial crises, the corporate scandals and so on. They caused people to lose faith in the science of global warming. Thousands of Americans lost their jobs and their homes.
Hayes argues that the idea of meritocracy is so well established in America that almost everyone believes in it. He gives the example of Hunter College High School in New York, an elite school where entry is established by passing a single exam based upon intellectual talent and potential.
Hayes then traces the origin of the ideology of meritocracy. The concept comes from a book published in Britain in 1958, The Rise of the Meritocracy by Michael Young. In Young’s imaginary society, Britain abandons its caste ridden traditional society and turns to a meritocracy which is administered by a Labour government. Meritocracy is justified because it gives everyone what they deserve and it is more efficient. No talent in society is wasted. However, the meritocracy becomes a dystopia, when the new classes of elites which have risen to the top become entrenched.
For Hayes, this illustrates what he believes also happened in America. A meritocracy is certain to increase inequality of outcome in society, he says. It doesn’t matter if equality of opportunity for minorities is increased, inequality of outcome will increase resulting in more inequality. There are many authorities who seem to lend support to this argument. Thomas Jefferson believed in a natural aristocracy. C. Wright Mills showed that the US was an oligarchy in The Power Elite in 1956. Vilfredo Pareto predicted the inevitable emergence of an aristocracy. Robert Michels suggested that there was an Iron Law of Oligarchy, every organization becoming dominated by an elite.
There are two paths to the elite aristocracy in America, for Hayes. The path of education and the path of money or business. Both are part of the meritocracy. A great burden is put upon education to help level the playing field and provide social mobility. On the other hand, one who has more money is accepted as one who is smarter and more meritorious.
At this point in the argument, Hayes then writes: “In reality our meritocracy has failed not because it is too meritocratic but because in practice it isn’t very meritocratic at all.” (p. 53) Up to this point, it seems that Hayes really believes that America is a meritocracy. Suddenly, he comes to doubt that status and wealth in America is really achieved by meritocracy. Is the idea of a meritocracy in America just a myth, a plank of the false American ideology? But if that is the case, then what threw up the failing American elites? Hayes has told us that it was the meritocracy. But now he suggests it was not really so much of a meritocracy. If not a meritocracy then inequality must have stemmed from some other pre-existing feature of society. Rather than helping one understand the world, this discussion seems certain to confuse the reader.
To have a meritocracy, there are two rules, Hayes tells us. The “Principle of Difference,” the belief that people are different and that there is a natural aristocracy. Secondly, the “Principle of Mobility,” the idea that performance must be rewarded. The poor must be able to rise to positions of power and prestige through their own hard work and effort. But increasingly, people are staying in their economic class all of their lives, in America.
After laying out the failures of the elites in detail, in subsequent chapters, Hayes reveals his solutions. First, since it is meritocracy which “produces inequality,” it has to be rethought. America has achieved equality of opportunity, but this is not good enough. But America has not achieved equality of condition. The solution, then, is to make America more equal in practice. (p. 218) The solution is simple, he believes, and is well known. Impose more taxes on the rich. There have been two policy periods in the US since World War II. Up until 1970, inequality in family income decreased. The lowest twenty percent of families gained. After 1970, inequality in incomes has increased by leaps and bounds. Using taxes is the straight-forward method to level equality of condition.
The first step is to persuade the public that the ideology of meritocratic achievement stands in the way of social progress and public policy must be concerned with greater equality of outcomes. It would not be as radical as Mao’s China, which just led to a morally bankrupt ruling class and immiseration, in his view. Most people do support higher taxes on the wealthy and greater equality, while at the same time thinking that CEO’s deserve to keep their high pay and super bonuses.
Hayes argues that the only class capable of correcting the problem is the upper middle class those top forty percent just below the rich one percent. They must be convinced that the system is not sustainable. This newly radicalized upper middle class is now seeing that the game is rigged and that they are losing out to the top one percent. So if reform comes, it must come from this class. (p. 232) How such a coalition would come about is unclear to Hayes, since the Tea Party right wing sees taxing the rich as class warfare. The politics of class has no tradition in American politics, he says. However the coalition between left and right can be formed somehow, he believes, and the key institutions of the educational system, the government, the national security state and Wall Street confronted and reformed. “Power must be distributed against the tooth, nail, and knife opposition of those who wield it most closely and those who benefit from it most exorbitantly.” (p. 240)
Critique: Sit Down My Son
After reading the book, I am tempted to say: “Sit down my son. Have you ever heard of capitalism? Have you heard of neoliberalism? Have you heard of American imperialism? Do you know who owns the American Government? Have you ever thought about the historical position of the United States as a mature capitalist country on the down side of history, as the American empire weakens? Forget about all this meritocracy business. The ills of America are not surprising. The condition of the people and the country has been designed by the capitalist ruling class for their own benefit and profit since the 1970s. The wealthy have not been feeling any pain in the last decade, but rather rolling in the dough and laughing all the way to the bank. Forget all that stuff you learned in Econ 101, my son. If you really want to understand the world, you’ve got to take a hard look at the real world.”
Hayes lays America’s ills in the first decade of the twenty-first century at the feet of something called “meritocracy.” Everyone is supposed to get what they deserve. He seems to believe that America has worked something like this since the l960s, yet he doubts that the system has been very meritorious. Well, of course it hasn’t because the idea of America as a meritocracy is a myth, a part of the American ideology. It is useful for Americans to believe in, but does not explain anything about the real world.
First, I am one American who has never really thought of the US as a meritocracy. I have always thought that class and race are pretty basic in determining what one gets in life. And certainly ideology is important. The spectrum of tolerated political opinion in the United States is very narrow. One must buy into the mainstream party line to advance to positions of power in American institutions. The US tried opening up the universities to the lower classes in the l950s and expanding student aid, but then shut down much of this as it almost caused a revolution in the l960s with the opposition to the Vietnam War.
Secondly, one must look at the failure of the elites in a dialectical way. It is not their “twilight.” They are not about to pass out of existence. The decade that Hayes discusses has not been a failure for them. Rather it has been a roaring success. Wall Street made their millions, turned around and got the people to bail them out, and they are now doing it again. It is similar with other institutions. The Iraq war was a disaster for the soldiers, taxpayers, Iraqis, and so on, but US corporations made their hundreds of millions. George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and all the other neocons who ran the war are doing great. Iraqi oil contracts are going into the hands of multinational corporations, most of them American.
What about the corporate scandals and the financial crises? The elites in the system were practicing what is known as capitalism, using all the tools of the market to make more profits. More particularly, after 1970, neoliberalism and the financialization of the American economy took hold. The ruling elites were doing what they had to do. Otherwise, they would have been sacked and replaced by others.
What created the soaring inequality in the US after the l970s? It was surely not meritocracy, but capitalism, and particularly the current manifestation, neoliberalism. The system worked as it was supposed to work and collapsed as predicted, but as long as the people bail out the banks, the banks have no problem with that. Capitalism as a system always tends toward crisis. This is well known and should not be surprising to anyone who has been paying attention.
Hayes says that the press failed during the Iraq War. Of course, the press failed to inform the people about the reality of the war, which is what a free press should do. But that is not the purpose of the corporate press. The purpose of the corporate press was to get the people on board for the war and in doing that, they have to feed them all the lies and deceptions coming out of the White House. It has to cheer lead for business and ensure their profits. In the mainstream press reporters must fill this function or they will be sacked. To that extent, the press did its job admirably. Of course there were alternative presses which did what a real press should do, but their voice was marginal. One can understand this very well by reading Noam Chomsky.
In terms of the Iraq war, the whole system of American Empire is missing. Hayes never discusses America as a global empire carrying on the historical tradition. He never mentions oil. The Iraq war was a function of the needs of the global empire. Elites who run the system have no choice but to fill those needs. The empire would have no use for them if they did not. It is the function of the people in the government to carry out those tasks. Sure there are a few dissenters, but they do not make much difference to the way the system works. George W. Bush and his colleagues were out for power and oil. That is what the US Empire does. They had big ideas about making over the Middle East to serve the needs of US and Israeli capital. Hayes apparently does not have a clue about this international dimension. The project failed quite predictably, but there are huge continuing profits for corporations.
One wants to say, “the game, my son, is Texas wild capitalism.” That system was deliberately imposed upon the American people. They are being taken to the cleaners as capitalist accumulation jumps by leaps and bounds. This was precisely what was supposed to happen. They exported jobs. They used the credit system to allow people to buy the cheap goods coming in from China. They built up household debt to fantastic levels. They kept the people in fear. They crushed any dissent, such as the Occupy Wall Street Movement that challenged neoliberal capitalism. It was capitalism, my son, that created inequality. Forget meritocracy.
His solution is higher taxes on the rich. There is a problem with this, of course. In reality, Washington is owned by the big corporations and they do not want more taxes. They escape the minimal tax burden today by using offshore havens. And all of this is taught in business schools. Those who are going to join the firms have to practice these standard procedures or get sacked. It is simply their job. Enron Company officials, gaming the market, and causing people’s electric bills to go sky high were just practicing what they had learned to do in business school. Maximizing profits, performing. That was seen as superb, as long as the company did not collapse. Anything for a profit. The business and political elites now own America lock, stock and barrel. So how does one get the tax rates up? Congress is bought and the President knows his job. President Obama knows what is politically possible.
Hayes has also missed the historical dimension. America is a mature capitalist country on the downside of the Kondratiev wave. It cannot compete in manufacturing in a global economy. It is embedded in the global economy and globalized. Things do not look bright for America, but the elites are fine for the time being. They will keep milking the goose that lays the golden egg until they kill the goose. Nobody believes in revolution now.
The book is certainly weak on political economy. With seven research assistants and two years to write the book, Hayes should have been able to do better. The book is useful in covering some of the major things that happened during the decade, but one who has been reading the news has a pretty good idea of them.
Does Hayes make his case for “elite malfeasance and elite corruption?” I am tempted to say that the argument is naïve. Hayes believes that the institutions are there to serve the people. In fact, that is just part of the ideology. Their real function is to serve the needs of capitalism and imperialism. If the elites in these institutions do not go along, they get sacked, because they are not doing their job. Why does Obama talk like the people when he needs votes and serve capital with the power he has as President?
In laying the blame on meritocracy for America’s ills, Hayes misses the real causes: American style capitalism, neoliberalism, the needs of US imperialism, the global economy and US decline, and a government owned by corporate capital. He overlooks these most obvious causes of America’s ills, an empire on the decline.
Elites in America:
How does one become part of the elite in America? What qualifies as merit? Hayes fails to see that what qualifies as “merit” in America is not merit as such, but that which serves the needs of the US system of neoliberal capitalism and imperialism. That is the primary form that so-called meritocracy takes in America.
A Marxist intellectual may excel in graduate school, write brilliant books, and get a job teaching if lucky. But his salary will always be very small potatoes to the business major who joins the financial sector and has millions in bonuses. Why are the guys on Wall Street so much more meritorious than the brilliant Marxist scholar? Of course, the myth of meritocracy is useful in making the country look free and fair. A Presidential election is useful in looking free and fair. Both work in a similar way. As long as elections cannot change anything, they are praised as fine and democratic. As long as meritocracy cannot change anything then it can do no damage. The George W. Bushes and Sarah Palins, who could scarcely pass their classes in the university, go on to become rich and powerful. In the system they are far more meritorious than the dissident intellectual, as they serve the needs of the ruling class.
How did the meritocracy treat Norman Finkelstein? He wrote many books, but could not get tenure because he challenged the interests of Israel and the ruling class. Noam Chomsky’s merits yield a decent living but small potatoes compared to the bankers. Few in the US even know who he is, but everyone knows about Sarah Palin. She got rich and famous selling stupidity. She is meritorious because she serves the needs of the ruling class.
Even if one’s ideas follow the correct ideology, meritocracy runs up against the reality of class which has become more hardened in American society. Whether one’s father is a senator or a factory worker makes a difference. The burden cannot be put upon education. Hayes does not seem to realize that the purpose of education is not to change society but to reproduce class society as it exists. Some tinkering takes place, as in the sixties, when it is safe, and profits are good. But when the crunch comes, neoliberalism presses down its iron heel. Gains are rolled back.
Expanding equality of opportunity in terms of race, gender and sexual orientation does little to challenge the distribution of wealth and power. Post-modernist identity politics seems to divide more than it unites for radical reform.
That the upper middle class in America is going to change the system for greater equality seems like a dream. Sure, some tinkering could help. The twilight of the elites does not seem to be on the horizon. Those elites who keep serving capital and the ruling class will continue to rise as long as the system survives.
Meritocracy in America is a myth. Capitalism is a system that is designed to fail for the majority. America is based upon a ruling oligarchy of wealth. Money is everything. Education is small potatoes. What Hayes sees as elite failure is only one side of the dialectic. American capitalism is doing exactly what it is supposed to do: succeed for the one percent and fail for the vast majority. It is not the twilight of the elites, but rather the twilight of the middle class. There is nothing at all surprising about this result. It is the heart and soul of neoliberal capitalism today.
September 8, 2013
Eddie J. Girdner, Professor in the Department of Political Science, Girne American University in Cyprus.