Class Mates is the second of two essays questioning the equation of ability with merit and entitlement (see The Merit Illusion). It asks whether meritocracy is fundamentally different from previous hereditary class systems and suggests that the change in class structure from pyramid to diamond increases the pressure on those at the bottom.
Individual merit is today the reference point from which almost all else is mapped – education and career trajectory, income and status, aspiration and self-image and even, to some extent, health and longevity.
Unlike the templates of the past – whether aristocratic lineage, gender, ethnic origin or physical prowess – ability as currently defined has no very obvious signature. It is developed and identified instead by a series of sieves and filters that grade individuals via examinations, assessments, interviews, CVs, qualifications that gradually mould the life we lead, the privileges we enjoy, and the ways in which we speak, dress, behave, and relate to others.
It is of course true that society has always had its differences in status and reward, and it is no doubt preferable for these distinctions to be based on merit rather than on an accident of birth. Meritocracy appears manifestly ‘fairer.’ It also promotes progress because, by and large, it puts the ablest people in positions of leadership and responsibility.
This does not mean, however, that there is no going forward. Social progress has not come to an end with meritocracy any more than history has come to an end with the neo-liberal economic consensus.
An earlier essay, The Merit Illusion, has argued that the notion of equating of ability with merit, and merit with reward, is flawed in principle. But it is also possible to argue that it is creating a new kind of class system which combines many of the worst aspects of previous class systems with new elements that are likely to make it far more durable.
First of all, meritocracy has much in common with previous class systems in that it is based on a hierarchy of status, influence and reward that has the appearance of being normal and natural – just as the dominance of the aristocracy, or of males, or of whites , was once presented to the world as being normal and natural.
But there are also important differences. First, the class structures of the past, however natural and immutable they might have appeared at the time, lacked foundations in reality. Instead, they had to make do with buttresses of violence and the fear of violence and their cheaper alternatives – appeals to divine authority, propaganda, ritual, ceremony, myth and mystique, along with self-interested notions of ‘blue blood’ or one’s place in the ‘Great Chain of Being’. Such buttresses have, in the main, been bulldozed in the last hundred years, toppling feudal and aristocratic class systems to make way for a new class system that has foundations in something that is real – the differences in ability between different individuals.
This new system can make an apparently plausible claim to have done away with the injustice and inefficiency of inherited privilege. In practice, it is likely to lead to a new kind of hereditary caste system that is much more durable than anything that has preceded it. For unlike myths such as ‘blue blood’ or the superiority of those with aristocratic lineage, the qualities which secure status and reward in today’s class system are genuinely heritable in some significant degree.
Ability and heredity
The evidence for the ‘heritability of ability’ arouses strong passions and fierce opposition. But no one seriously challenges the idea that an individual’s characteristics and personality traits are influenced by the genes they inherit. Similarly, there is no doubt that genetic inheritance and its expression is influenced, in extraordinarily complex ways, by the interaction between that genetic inheritance and the environment in which it is nurtured. And there is no reason to think that the traits which add up to what we call ‘ability’ are any different.
Equally evidently, most industrial societies are now well-embarked on the process by which people are increasingly likely to choose their partners not from their own social or birth class, as in the past, but from within a stratum that corresponds broadly to their own level of ability and education. The result of this trend is that any genetic advantage predisposing to ‘high ability’ is more likely to be carried forward into the next generation. There is of course no certainty that the offspring of two highly able parents will be similarly able; but that’s the way to bet. And just as assortative mating, as this process is known, has been a significant factor in rising inequality of household incomes (as highly qualified high income individuals tend to marry each other), so it also raises the possibility of increasing inequality in genetic potential. (‘Assortative mating’ was foreseen by Michael Young in his 1958 satire The Rise of the Meritocracy which used the term ‘intelligenic marriage’.)
It is perhaps too early to say, but the initial results of this process may already be evident in the much-commented-upon slowing of progress in social mobility.
Some have reacted with surprise to the fact that increasing equality of opportunity does not seem to be increasing social mobility. But it is perhaps as relevant to ask ‘why would it?’
In the early stages of evolution towards a merit-based class system, a significant increase in social mobility is to be expected as many people with high ability – including many who in previous centuries would have been kept ‘in their place’ – are allowed to move up and assume a position more closely corresponding to their abilities. But if they are then able to confer upon their children a combination of genetic and environmental advantage, then by and large their offspring will also tend occupy the upper echelons of the merit-based class system. In this way, the greater social mobility witnessed in the early stages becomes not a permanent feature of meritocracy but a stage, a process of re-classification on the way to what is likely to become an even less fluid class structure. In this way, increasing equality of opportunity – the professed aim of politicians on both right and left – is likely in the end to lead not to more social mobility but to less.
Put another way, one of the hidden characteristics of pre-meritocratic societies was an approximately even distribution of ability among and between the different classes. Excepting only the effects of malnutrition and disease in childhood, there was simply no reason for ability not to be distributed evenly. Under a meritocracy, by definition, ability is no longer evenly distributed. The whole point is to concentrate ability at the top. But once equality of opportunity has brought this about, social mobility is almost bound to decline because the abilities that secure advancement are no longer evenly spread.
This would matter less if the distribution of ability were randomised again with each new generation. But for reasons already noted, this is not likely to be the case. The children of ‘assortatively mated’ high-ability parents have a greater likelihood of being high ability themselves as well as an obvious likelihood of environmental advantage.
Hence we arrive at the paradoxical situation by which societies are apparently concerned about increasing inequality and lack of social mobility whilst continuing to embrace the idea that equality of opportunity is the answer to these ills.
From pyramid to diamond
Finally, it should be noted that the new class system being created is not only likely to be more durable than its predecessor but also very different in shape and structure.
Most previous systems, whatever they were based on, were pyramids with relatively small elites at the apex and the great majority at the base. Meritocratic societies, on the other hand, have morphed into something more resembling a diamond with a minority at the top and bottom and the majority somewhere in the middle. In a 2010 YouGov poll, for example, the proportion of the UK population defining itself as middle class was approximately 70%.
This change has come about because the structure of a merit-based class system will, by definition, come to represent the normal distribution of ability in a society. The diamond as described above is therefore just another image for the statistician’s bell-curve with the great majority occupying the middle part of the distribution and a minority ‘tail’ at both ends.
This change, already well advanced in most industrial economies, has weighty political implications.
Until comparatively recent times, one of the few sources of strength and protection for those at the bottom of the socio-economic pyramid has been demographic dominance. Even in pre-democratic times, fear of the mob occasionally served to restrain the exploitative tendencies of their masters. But once those at the bottom succeeded in winning trade union and political representation this protection became gradually more systematic and secure as their numerical strength meant that their needs and rights could no longer be ignored. That political advance ensured decades of real and relative progress for the poorest and the most disadvantaged in all democratic societies. But as the pyramid changes into a diamond, putting on weight around the waist as society overall becomes more prosperous, this source of strength and protection has largely disappeared. If a political leader or party can command the support of the middle class majority, then it may not be electorally necessary, or even wise, to pay attention to the minority at the bottom of the diamond. Indeed it becomes possible to ignore or blame them for their lack of ‘merit,’ to condescend and castigate, to dismiss them as ‘chavs’ or to make voyeuristic ‘reality entertainment’ out of their lives.
To make matters very considerably worse, equality of opportunity is also the means by which those at the bottom of the pile have tended to be deprived of their most able members – including many of those who in the past have been the ones to articulate and fight for their rights of those at the bottom and to represent them in political and social debate struggles.
In conclusion, all such processes represent broad long-term trends within which there will be many exceptions and counter-currents. But the long-term direction is surely clear. A merit based and partly hereditary class system is becoming ever more deeply entrenched. And what this means is that the most universally agreed-upon political slogan of our times – ‘equality of opportunity’ – is, taken on is own, a pathway to increasing inequality of outcomes.