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dissertation by a scholar in the year 2034, The Rise of the Meritocracy imagines a world in which social class has been replaced by a hierarchy that places at the top those who could advance educationally through rigid testing standards.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.