The dystopian sociological origins of the concept of meritocracy

What exactly meritocracy means requires going back to the origins of the term in the 1950s:

As the tech writer Antonio García Martínez pointed out, “It’s worth recalling that the word ‘meritocracy’ was coined as a satirical slur in a dystopic novel by a sociologist.” Martínez is referring to The Rise of the Meritocracy, 1870–2033, published in 1958 by the British sociologist and politician Michael Young. Young’s work was indeed intended as a social satire, positing a future in which trends in the British educational system were carried out to their absurd conclusions.

Written in the style of a doctoral dissertation by a scholar in the year 2034, The Rise of the Meritocracy imagines a world in which social class has been replaced by a hierarchy that places at the top those who could advance educationally through rigid testing standards. But those standards simply end up reinscribing the old class system, leading to a popular revolt.

Writing in The Guardian in 2001, a year before his death, Young looked back ruefully on how the irony of his coinage had been lost on the likes of Tony Blair, who was then making “meritocracy” the keystone of the Labour Party’s educational policy. “I have been sadly disappointed by my 1958 book, The Rise of the Meritocracy,” he wrote. “I coined a word which has gone into general circulation, especially in the United States, and most recently found a prominent place in the speeches of Mr Blair.” His book, he added, was “a satire meant to be a warning (which needless to say has not been heeded).”…

But our friend Throgmorton didn’t simply see meritocracy as some sort of Platonic ideal—he jingoistically claimed that the United States was already a meritocracy, and the world’s only example of it. Not only did he overlook the peculiarly British irony in which Young couched the term, he also missed out on an irony much closer to home: In 1959, five years after the Supreme Court outlawed segregation in public schools, African Americans were still being systematically denied equal access to education across the South.

It sounds like people wanted the idea of meritocracy to be true or they could justify their existing ideologies with such a term. And then the concept simply takes on a life of its own separate from its origins. It is hard to imagine a ruling class – whether there by wealth or educational achievement or battle – that does not have an ideology that justifies their presence there and rise to that position. At what point will meritocracy fail to provide enough justification? And, if meritocracy is at some point no longer defensible, what ideology comes next to explain those in power?

This origin story also may serve as a reminder that satire is difficult to present to the public. It is a relatively lesser-known genre and can easily be misunderstood. Plenty of recent examples suggest satire is often taken as truth (think incidents with The Onion or the Babylon Bee) until a respected source goes out of their way to point out the original point.

 

The Chicago Tribune in 1968 and conservatives today: sociologists excuse rioters

In an overview of Martin Luther King Jr.’s final months, the Chicago Tribune quotes its own take on urban riots:

King’s opponents saw his proposed march as an invitation to rioting. In the 1960s, one inner city after another had exploded in deadly and destructive riots. King explained the violence with a metaphor: “A riot is the language of the unheard.”

The Tribune rejected that argument in a Jan. 21, 1968, editorial: “Every time there is a riot in the streets you can count on a flock of sociologists rushing forward to excuse the rioters.” King’s “nonviolence,” the Tribune added, “is designed to goad others into violence.”

Simultaneously, King was under attack by a younger generation of black militants who rejected his pacifist philosophy as weak. Their conclusion was echoed by Adam Clayton Powell Jr. “I don’t call for violence or riots, but the day of Martin Luther King has come to an end,” said Powell, a longtime U.S. congressman from New York.

Lest the Tribune let this idea of sociologists excusing riots be swept into the dustbin of history, this idea exists in recent years as well. In 2013, the conservative Canadian Prime Minister said we should not “commit sociology” when addressing terrorism. Conservative columnist George Will used a similar phrase in 2012 when discussing the shooting in Aurora, Colorado. Of course, explaining social phenomena is not the same as excusing or condoning it.

Now that I have seen this sort of explanation multiple times, it is clearly less about sociology and how social science works and more about political ideology. Sociologists, by a wide majority, are liberals. Those who tend to disparage sociology in public phrases like these are conservatives. The implication is that sociologists and liberals are willing to allow violence and disorder if it serves a particular political end. And, this may have just enough of a grain of truth to be a repeatable claim.

Don’t forget that American residents can collectively help decide what houses mean for Americans

Kate Wagner of McMansion Hell ends a commentary piece several months ago by arguing Americans need to redefine the meaning of the home:

We need a cultural re-examination of what a home should do for us. Are we building our homes to cater to the communal needs of a family or to accommodate items or signifiers that will impress others? Will a home inspire its inhabitants to spend time with one another or isolate themselves in myriad rooms? Are we building a home to live in, or are we preoccupied with the idea of selling it even before the first brick is laid? Do we want to remodel or redecorate, or do we feel we have to because we’re constantly flooded with content that makes us feel inadequate if we don’t?

It’s time we as space-inhabiters break this unsustainable, unnecessary, and wasteful cultural cycle of consumption and reclaim our homes as our proverbial rocks, the spaces that make us feel safe and content. Who gave industry-funded media like HGTV or Houzz the right to dictate the proper and best ways to inhabit our spaces, to ridicule or diagnose as wrong those of us who lack the desire or the means to constantly consume in precisely way they want us to? A home isn’t an investment vehicle where cash goes in and more cash comes out, or the “After” segment of a television show. A home is, above all, an intimate, personal place; a haven where our intricate lives as human beings unfold. Grey paint be damned.

This names several actors who are defining what Americans want in homes. This includes:

-Media like HGTV.

-The housing industry.

Both certainly have power and influence. The housing industry through the National Association of Home Builders has a powerful lobbying presence. Just see their actions in the latest debates over the mortgage interest deduction. For decades, various media outlets have pushed the image of single-family homes filled with consumer goods; they needs advertisers after all. HGTV has a limited audience but their viewers may be the same upper-middle class Americans that feel like they are not doing well and are very vocal about this.

But these are not the only actors influencing what Americans think of homes. This list should also include:

-The government.

-American residents.

Histories of how the American suburbs developed in addition to overviews of federal housing policy (see this recent example) suggest that federal government in the last century or so is set up to help people obtain homes in the suburbs.

Often missing in these analyses is the role of American residents themselves. What kinds of homes do they truly want? More Marxist analyses suggest Americans have been duped or led into wanting large homes in a capitalist system. Thus, we should help Americans find homes that truly fit their needs rather than mindlessly giving in to what the housing industry and government want them to have. (Wagner’s paragraphs above sound very similar to Sarah Susanka arguments in The Not-So-Big House.) “Re-claim our homes” could involve fighting back against the capitalist system that insists our homes are true markers of who we are (and distracts us from the real issues at hand). In contrast, historian Jon Teaford suggests these sorts of homes are what Americans do truly want because they highly value freedom and individualism. Others like Joel Kotkin have made similar arguments: Americans keep moving to the suburbs because they like them, not because they are forced into them or are not smart enough to fight the system.

Regardless of where these ideas about homes came from (and it includes a mix of institutions as well as ideologies), American residents still have the ability to reject the typical narratives about single-family homes. They do often have options available to them. What kind of home they chose is a very consequential decision. And, perhaps even better, this does not have to be an individual effort or solely about personal empowerment: Americans could collectively vote for candidates and parties that would have a different image of housing. But, oddly enough, housing rarely comes up in national politics and local politics seems full of zoning and housing disputes but few large-scale efforts to provide alternatives. If Americans want housing options to change, they do not have to just turn off HGTV; at both the federal and local level, they should vote accordingly and/or insist that political candidates talk about these issues.

Ideologies and behaviors regarding housing do not just happen: they develop over time and involve a multitude of actors. To have a new vision of housing in America will likely take decades of sustained effort within multiple structures and institutions. These are not new issues; those opposed to McMansions today are related to those opposed to the mass suburbs of the 1950s and to the social reformers of the early decades of the 1900s who promoted public housing. The efforts can be top-down – changes need to be made at the highest levels – but could be more effective if they start at the bottom – with average voters – who demand change of businesses and governments.

Nixon’s liberal economic policies and other reminders that the major political parties can change

Media discourse about political parties as well as the public pronouncements of politicians tend to reify that certain policy positions are fixed between the two political parties. “Republicans always want to help the wealthy with their tax cuts.” “Democrats always fight for non-white residents.” And so on.

Yet, political parties change positions fairly regularly and often do so for political, rather than ideological, considerations. Here are two examples I found while reading American Sociology: From Pre-Disciplinary to Post-Normal by Stephen Turner.

Nixon proposed such things as minimum income rights and a national health care policy: both were rejected by the Democrats on the grounds that they should be more generous, and in the hope that they would be able to gain power and enact policies more to their liking. In any event, they got neither minimum incomes nor health care guarantees. Ted kennedy, the principal obstacle to the health care compromise offered by Nixon, later regretted his failure to accept it. (p. 55)

And an earlier example:

Race was a problem for reformers: on the one hand they were sympathetic to uplifting the Black masses; on the other they were inclined to regard them as in need of civilizing. The Progressive Party platform makers, including Jane Addams, were persuaded by their presidential candidate Theodore Roosevelt to omit any references to improving the conditions of Blacks, on the ground that this would cost the party politically – this was at a time win which the Republican Party, from which Roosevelt was splitting, was the party of Blacks. (p.24)

It might be easy to write this off as being in the past – anything past even just a few years ago is very difficult to discuss in media settings – but these two examples provide a reminder that political parties can indeed change dramatically. What Democrats and Republicans look like today is not the same as they were decades ago nor will they necessarily be the same ten or twenty years from now.

Translating communism into urban design principles

Here is a look at how the Soviet Union designed cities:

With this assumption, Soviet planners made some logical steps to promote density. They built nurseries and preschools as well as theatre and sports halls within walking distance to worker’s homes.   Communal eating areas were arranged. Also, wide boulevards were crucial for marches and to have a clear path to and from the factory for the workers. The goals of the “socialist city” planners were to not just transform urban planning but human behavior, helping such spaces would breed the “urban human”…

Alexei Gutnov and his team set to create “a concrete spatial agenda for Marxism”. At the center of The Communist City lay the “The New Unit of Settlement” (NUS) described as “a blueprint for a truly socialist city“. Gutnov established four fundamental principles dictating their design plan. First, they wanted equal mobility for all residents with each sector being at equal walking distance from the center of the community and from the rural area surrounding them. Secondly, distances from a park area or to the center were planned on a pedestrian scale, ensuring the ability for everyone to be able to reasonably walk everywhere. Third, public transportation would operate on circuits outside the pedestrian area, but stay linked centrally with the NUS, so that residents can go from home to work and vice versa easily. Lastly, every sector would be surrounded by open land on at least two sides, creating a green belt.

Gutnov did acknowledge the appeal of suburbia — “…ideal conditions for rest and privacy are offered by the individual house situated in the midst of nature…”, but rejected the suburban model common in America and other capitalist countries. Suburbs, he argued, are not feasible in a society that prioritizes equality, stating, “The attempt to make the villa available to the average consumer means building a mass of little houses, each on a tiny piece of land. . . . The mass construction of individual houses, however, destroys the basic character of this type of residence.”

The author is insistent on comparing these to current planning practices but let’s be honest: all urban planning is based on some sort of ideology. Many Americans may prefer suburbs to these Soviet cities but suburbs have their own logic based around private property, individualism, and local control. In other words, neither Soviet cities or American suburbs “just happen”; there are a series of historical events, decisions made by key leaders (often in government and business), and meanings that contribute to particular spatial landscapes.

Debate the data: are millionaires leaving New Jersey in large numbers?

A new report suggests some millionaires have left New Jersey:

New Jersey lost roughly 10,000 millionaire households, but those affluent families who remain still account for 7 percent of the whole state, the researchers said…

A high tax rate for top earners may have led to some migration out of the state, according to David Thompson, the lead researcher.

By losing those 10,000 millionaire households, the Garden State returns to third, where it was ranked from 2010 through 2012. Since the last report, Connecticut lost only 1,000 millionaire households, as it vaulted to the second spot, the group said.

And alternative interpretations:

“If millionaires were truly trying to flee NJ’s top income tax rate, we probably would have lost a lot more when the rates were higher,” Whiten said. “But during the 2000s NJ almost doubled the number of tax filers above $500K at a time when the tax rate was increased on them, twice.”Wealth has been reported leaving the Garden State before, however. In 2010, a Boston College team found that in a five-year period some $70 billion in total wealth left for other parts of the U.S.

Last year, a report by the Morristown-based Regent Atlantic wealth management firm released a report entitled “Exodus on the Parkway” that claimed so-called “tax migration” began in 2004, with the state’s passage of the “millionaire’s tax.” The report found that a couple with an income of $650,000 who moved to Pennsylvania would save some $21,000 per year in taxes, adding up to $1.65 million over 25 years, if invested. Most families with incomes of $500,000 per year or more were departing New Jersey for either the Keystone State or Florida, the Regent Atlantic authors added.

“The phenomena is there, that people are leaving – but people in New Jersey have high incomes,” said Joseph Seneca, professor of economics at the Edward Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University.

My interpretation: no one really knows whether 10,000 millionaire households leaving is a big number or not. If the true figure was 5,000, might those who oppose higher taxes still argue that taxes are pushing a large number to leave? And if the true number was 15,000, would this be enough evidence that taxes really are making a difference? Because this appears to be an ideologically laden debate, each side can look at the 10,000 figure and make a reasonable interpretation.

Here are two ways around the issue that both make use of comparisons. The first way would be to compare the New Jersey leavings over the years. Is the 10,000 figure more or less than years past? The second would involve comparing the leaving rate across states. This new report looks at millionaires per capita across states but why not compare the leaving rate per capita across states? Then, people in New Jersey could decide whether they are concerned with having similar or different rates compared to states with other policies.

A sociologist discusses the political leanings of Katniss Everdeen

Would Katniss fit in with political progressives, the Tea Party, or libertarians? One sociologist weighs in:

“I was convinced to read them by a vegan radical historian I knew from Japanese camp,” she says. While reading it in the context of the growing income gap, and the frustration that was causing, in the States, Armstrong-Hough recalls that it was impossible not to notice the social commentary, nor to untie the strands of it from the plot. And yet, particularly given the flipped switch of Mockingjay, wherein the revolutionaries show their own capacity for cruelty and depravity, she says, “I don’t think the franchise is promoting any particular kind of society.”Instead, according to Armstrong-Hough, it’s a model of total resistance. “We see politicking, corruption, and unjustified violence from both the guardians of the status quo in the Capitol and the architects of the rebellion,” she says. “Katniss, whom we naturally align ourselves with, rejects both these systems.”

This double rejection feels timely, Armstrong-Hough notes. “So many Americans are disenchanted with politics itself, not just one side of the aisle or the other.”

“What I did see, though, was a sort of theory of social change that I found surprisingly sophisticated,” she says, adding that the books remind her of the ideas of James C. Scott, a Yale-based social and political theorist. An influential, self-described “crude Marxist” professor who lives on a farm and raises animals in between publishing tomes about anarchism, Scott is a figure of interest to people on both ends of the ideological spectrum. The New York Times called one of Scott’s books “a magisterial critique of top-down social planning that has been cited, and debated, by the free-market libertarians of the Cato Institute… development economists and partisans of Occupy Wall Street alike.”…

Beyond just advocating personal resistance to forces of political control, she says the books put forth the idea that “violence breeds docility.” “I don’t mean that threatening people with violence makes them docile, because it doesn’t. I mean that teaching people to be violent and consume violence makes them docile,” she explains. “The Games institutionalize a political docility not so much because they threaten violence to the districts’ children, but because they create a society in which people think they must choose survival over solidarity. I think a lot of people, regardless of their political affiliation, feel like there has been a lot of being forced to choose survival over solidarity going around in the US.”

So The Hunger Games is a Marxist critique where the games distract everyone from the oppression from the Capitol? Or is it at the end primarily about not giving into revenge and instead establishing a stable society (since Katniss shoots Coin rather than Snow)?

The book ends like a lot of these kinds of stories often do: the heroine returns home, troubled by all the conflict, settled into “normal” family life. In fact, there isn’t much vision at the end of what Panem has become. We are told that kids are taught about the Hunger Games. But, what kind of government do they have? How do all the districts get along? The story isn’t terribly concerned with all of this; much of the energy of the series is about fighting the long battle, not about depicting the better society.