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dissertation by a scholar in the year 2034, The Rise of the Meritocracy imagines a world in which social class has been replaced by a hierarchy that places at the top those who could advance educationally through rigid testing standards.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


“McMansion Boy” in McMansion satire

McMansions are often treated with derision but how about a satirical approach? Here is one example from the Outer Banks:

The Cooper family of Piscataway, NJ was holding a reunion in the home over the weekend of July 4. Fifteen children from eight different families led to some confusion over which child belonged to which set of parents. As Dallas Cooper, Jr. explained, “There were so many kids running around that eventually we stopped worrying about it and just kind of communally watched over them all: feeding, supervising swimming and games, and bedtimes.”

Evidently, nobody claimed the twelve-year-old boy who wore a tattered T-shirt from the rental company and a pair of dirty blue board shorts every day, nobody remarked where he went at bedtime, and nobody except the other kids noticed that he hoarded extra food at every meal…

Nobody probably would ever have found out, either, had family patriarch Austin Cooper not realized that he had left his glasses on his night stand. The rest of the family had already left the house, but when Austin drove back to retrieve the glasses he found the boy later dubbed “McMansion Boy” cleaning the leftover food from the refrigerator. Mr. Cooper at first thought that one of the other Coopers had left him behind, but upon questioning the boy panicked and disappeared up the stairs.

Authorities later found the boy in an unfinished section of the attic: “He had built quite a den up there,” reported Officer Sleem. “He had a small bed that he had dragged up there from one of the bedrooms, a mini-fridge that he apparently found somewhere beside the road, and a large larder of junk food pilfered from vacationers. He had run an extension cord up there for electricity and a hose for water.”

While the story is about “McMansion Boy” finding plenty of space to blend in within a giant house, there is also some commentary here about those who rent such homes.

Satire: Hamptons residents tear down McMansions to build mini-mansions

This is unlikely to happen anytime soon:

The latest thing in the Hamptons are Mini-Mansions. People everywhere are tearing down their 15,000-square-foot McMansions and replacing them with little three-bedroom houses of 2,000 square feet. This trend is unprecedented in America. But here in the Hamptons, it’s the latest craze.

Alice Henderstreep did this. She’s married to the steel magnate Charles Henderstreep and they tore down their McMansion in Quogue for a Mini.

“It’s wonderful,” she said. “Some friends of ours in East Hampton did this. I call my husband, he’s in the next room and comes. We’re never far away from one another. And I love it. The dog runs around underfoot. The kids are in the kitchen. It’s family. And the room we now have on our five acres is just phenomenal. We have huge lawns, we now have tennis courts. The kids have parties in our new pool house. We even built a baseball diamond.”…

“This is the way the original settlers lived,” Fred said when we called. “We followed the plans for a saltbox pictured in the historical museum. And so did the Henderstreeps in Quogue. It’s not like that old split level that was here we tore down for the McMansion. This is a recreation of the early settlers. Hand-hewn beams. Wavy old glass in the windows. It wasn’t cheap. In fact, it cost more than the McMansion we tore down.”

The only way I could imagine this happening is if downsizing becomes the new marker of luxury. It would be the opposite of conspicuous consumption: you can afford to downsize your vacation home and live small for a few days. Or, the tiny house movement could go upscale, perhaps with gratuitous use of innovative yet expensive technology. Of course, such claims might be followed up by a pricey trip to another mini-mansion in another wealthy vacation spot…