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