Tag Archives: Eugene Debs

Book review: Against Meritocracy. Culture, Power and Myths of Mobility by Jo Littler

Book review: Against Meritocracy. Culture, Power and Myths of Mobility by Jo Littler
by Ian Sinclair
Peace News
December 2017-January 2018

The concept of meritocracy – “a system structured around advancement of people who are selected on the basis of individual achievement” – has been a powerful idea in post-war industrialised societies, especially in the more economically unequal US and UK.

From Margaret Thatcher to Tony Blair and now Theresa May, meritocracy – and its close cousin ‘equality of opportunity’ – “has become the key means of cultural legitimation for contemporary capitalist culture”, Jo Littler, a Reader in the Department of Sociology at City, University of London, argues in her wide-ranging volume. This neoliberal-friendly dogma has a strong grip on the general public, with a 2009 Joseph Rowntree Foundation survey finding 69% of respondents agreed with the statement “Opportunities are not equal in Britain today, but there is enough opportunity for virtually everyone to get on in life if they really want to”. Just 14% disagreed.

In her impressive introduction Littler highlights a number of key problems with this dominant ideology that both justifies increasing levels of inequality and obfuscates decreasing levels of social mobility. First, “it endorses a competitive, linear, hierarchical system in which by definition certain people must be left behind”, she notes. “The top cannot exist without the bottom.” In addition, it pushes a socially destructive ethic of self-interest and individualistic thinking, tends to view talent as an innate characteristic, uncritically valourises certain professions and forms of status, and downplays structural inequalities that mean ‘climbing the ladder’ is simply much harder for some people than others.

Today, the culture of meritocracy has absorbed the language of equality and identity politics that grew out of the 1960s social movements, she notes. This has important ramifications for activism and resistance, with Littler arguing this appropriation “has created lonely forms of selective empowerment, ones profoundly ill-equipped to deal with the wider structural causes of sexism, racism, environmental crisis and economic inequality.” As she discusses in the book’s second half, a lot of popular culture perpetuates the meritocratic myth – The Apprentice and the 1990s sitcom Sex In The City, for example – while TV shows such as The Wire, Breaking Bad and Lena Dunham’s Girls provide smart critiques.

Surely the definitive study of the subject, Against Meritocracy is very much an academic work with bags of references and footnotes, though one that is broadly accessible to the general reader. With Jeremy Corbyn’s belief in collective aspiration presenting a real challenge to capitalist-compatible meritocracy and the British plutocracy more broadly, the book has an important role to play in informing the growing movement working to sweep away the Tory government. As the US socialist Eugene Debs said “I would be ashamed to admit that I had risen from the ranks. When I rise it will be with the ranks, and not from the ranks” – an egalitarian sentiment Littler would support, I’m sure.

Against Meritocracy is published by Routledge, priced £29.99.

The problem with praising football as “the last bastion of social mobility”

The problem with praising football as “the last bastion of social mobility”
by Ian Sinclair

Morning Star
20 May 2016

Football “remains one of the last bastions of social mobility, creating working-class millionaires by the bucketload”, Guardian columnist Marina Hyde heralded a couple of months ago.

The idea of ‘working-class-boy-done-good’ runs through a lot of British footballing popular culture and folklore, from the Roy of the Rovers comic strip to the 1996 film When Saturday Comes and modern day heroes like David Beckham and Wayne Rooney. Globally, footballing greats Pele and Diego Maradona are well-known to have grown up in poverty, with the former supposedly playing with either a sock stuffed with newspaper or a grapefruit as his family couldn’t afford a ball. And it’s certainly true that working-class and ethnic minorities are over-represented in UK professional football, with the average salary in the Premier League over £1.5 million a year, according to number crunching done by the Daily Mail in February 2016.

However, these well-known and oft-repeated facts hide a number of complicating and inconvenient analyses that seriously problematize the idea of football as a site of social mobility.

First, it is important to remember the extraordinary pay in the top flight is an outlier. As the Daily Mail report noted, while Premier League pay has soared, “lower-league salaries have remained close to ordinary family incomes.” In addition, the Danish academics Sine Agergaard and Jan Kahr Sorensen note in their 2009 study of ethnic minority footballers and social mobility that “a sports career is often without financial security or structure, injuries can result in retirement as well as loss of income and even disability, and the career is short.” While the national retirement age is set to increase to 67 years old, the average retirement age for a professional footballer is 35.

To gain a deeper understanding of the relationship between football and social mobility, we need to consider why professional football teams are dominated by players from the working-class and ethnic minorities.

In Making Sense of Sports, Professor Ellis Cashmore, an academic who has spent his career studying the sociology of sport, argues “racism and racial discrimination have worked to exclude blacks from many areas of employment, restrict their opportunities and, generally, push them toward the ‘marginal’ or least important areas of the labour market”. In contrast, throughout history black men have been allowed – encouraged even – to follow two routes out of their often impoverished circumstances: through sports and entertainment. “Weighing up the possibilities of a future career, many opt for a shot at sports”, Cashmore writes, as “it can be demonstrated time and again that black people can make it to the very top and command the respect of everyone”. Cashmore’s concern here is ethnicity, though it is clear society imposes similar social and economic limits and obstacles on young working-class people.

If one buys into this explanation, the key point is this: the over-representation of ethnic minorities and the working-class in professional football, while good news for the individual players, is an outcome of low social mobility, inequality and discrimination in wider society. Sport “remains a source of hope and ambition for blacks only as long as those [wider] inequalities remain”, believes Cashmore. Therefore, if a good level of equality was achieved in society, Cashmore’s analysis suggests the number of ethnic minority and working-class players in professional football would likely decrease.

In addition, it could be argued those top footballers from poor backgrounds unintentionally create a powerful illusion. As the American writer Jack Olsen noted in his 1968 book The Black Athlete, “At most, sport has led a few thousand Negroes out of the ghetto. But for hundreds of thousands of other Negroes it has substituted a meaningless dream.” Agergaard and Sorensen make a similar case: “In the long run only a tiny proportion of the ethnic minority youths who dream of social mobility will make a decent living out of sports”. Cashmore quotes figures from the 1994 US basketball documentary film Hoop Dreams: each year 500,000 boys play high school basketball in the US, with 14,000 progressing to college level. Of these select few, only 25 percent end up playing one season of professional basketball. So just 1 in 143 high school players end up as a pro. This is not a problem in itself but the question is how many young people have ruined or, at the very least, curtailed their broader educational and career prospects by focussing all their energy and time on pursuing a professional sports career?

Hyde’s ‘football as a promoter of social mobility’ argument plays a similar role to the self-made man myth – to normalise and justify social and economic inequality by focusing on relatively rare instances of individual success. Two assumptions come hand in hand with this focus on social mobility: first, that the status quo is a working and efficient meritocracy, and therefore should be maintained, and second, that success – and failure – is largely down to individual effort, or lack of it.

More broadly, the assumption behind Hyde’s argument is that social mobility is the height of a good society, that moving out of one’s family and community circumstances is a positive and desirable outcome. A more radical understanding would arguably focus on greater equality and raising everyone’s position in society. “I would be ashamed to admit that I had risen from the ranks”, US socialist Eugene Debs said in 1917. “When I rise it will be with the ranks, and not from the ranks.”