Meritocracy Agonistes

On elite anxieties and the instrumentalization of education.

Meritocracy Agonistes

Whoever wishes to experience the truth of immediate life, must investigate its alienated form, the objective powers, which determine the individual existence into its innermost recesses.

Theodor Adorno


Reimagining collective life means destroying the meritocracy and the tentacular, “elite” institutions that support it. To remake the world in a more just way, we have to engage in revolutionary “blue sky” thinking currently monopolized by tech bros. If we want to confront the climate crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic, we have to revive a sense of collective responsibility to each other, we must abandon the neoliberal nostrum of “even playing fields” and the fiction of equality of opportunity. Equality, formal and substantive, must be our most cherished collective goal. Any plan for restructuring higher education must put the welfare of the majority of Americans, ordinary working-class and poor people, front and center. Liberal proposals, like Joe Biden’s, to support community colleges and free public universities for working-class families do not go far enough in undoing meritocratic institutions that relegate poor and working-class students to vocational training. In the arguments that follow, we argue that American education must be remade from the ground up as a critical public good and a crucial piece of public infrastructure, not a luxury good enjoyed by the few and resented by the many.

The authors of this article are mother and son, professor and university student. We are both children of immigration and our lives have been formed and deformed by the American meritocracy and familial expectations of social mobility and cultural assimilation. We grew up in suburban New York and California respectively, our experiences of public high school separated by a continent and three decades of politically motivated attacks on working-class people and American labor, accompanied by the unravelling of social safety nets, escalating costs of higher education and real estate, the rise of Silicon Valley, and the Great Recession and its aftermath. We have been witness to the strengthening of neoliberalism and its austerity policies. We are participants in a system designed to destroy working-class life worlds, depriving ordinary people of being able to imagine living lives of stability and dignity. In different historical and psychological contexts, each of us internalized the meritocracy’s judgments of our value: in Catherine’s case, to satisfy her immigrant parents’ craving for legitimacy; in Leo’s case to satisfy his parents’ ideas of academic achievement and success. Even as the rewards for some meritocrats have grown more copious, we have also been witness to the diminishing agency and imagination for upper middle-class and elite youth that has accompanied the material destruction of worker power and working-class life worlds. If critical thinking is indeed one of the values promulgated by education in a democracy, then it is our obligation to turn our powers of critique on the structures of education in which we have all been immersed.

The American meritocracy is a structuring fantasy and myth of American-led globalized capitalism. Without substantial, systemic changes to the way in which American higher education is organized, criminal investigations, earthshaking recessions, and global pandemics will not unseat an institution that naturalizes inequality, promotes fig leaf solutions to systemic racism in the form of socially engineered diversity programs, magnifies the allure of the free market and its reward systems, all while teaching young people that there is nothing better to aspire to than self-exploitation and the commodification of personhood. At this point, the meritocracy perpetuates a sadistic class system. The educational infrastructure it has produced devalues historical knowledge while instrumentalizing scientific and intellectual curiosity. Meritocracy creates Thomas Piketty’s class of supermanagers, whose salaries are based on their willingness to devalue the labor and lifeworlds of ordinary people. Ordinary people, on the other hand, are left to hustle a livelihood under a dark horizon of underemployment and social disintegration.

The meritocracy is not a good system for mass education. It has fractured the polity in America, where a volatile vein of anti-science skepticism and contempt for scientific method have been marbled into the substrata of the nation’s political identity: in the name of “freedom,” the Right encourages anti-science in the cases of climate change and COVID-19. Pseudo-populists have weaponized conspiracy theories in their revolt against reason. Let’s not blame the Internet for these neo-feudal, xenophobic, irrational, and superstitious attitudes about the political and physical worlds: it is capitalism and its devaluation of a public sphere shaped by knowledge and research, applied for public good and not private interests, that has has created a petri dish of anti-democratic, anti-modern politics, reminiscent of European Fascism, but sporting distinctly American characteristics. Adorno wrote that Nazis hated their school teachers because they represented authority without physical power. Today’s American reactionaries hate teachers because they are poorly paid public employees, trying to represent science and reason to ordinary students whose economic prospects are increasingly grim. Public school teachers have been one of the most militant segments of the American workforce because the effects of austerity on their profession have been devastating.

The Eclipse of Equality

The idea of equality, formal and substantive, the kind of radical Enlightenment equality that generations of human beings from Haiti to Moscow to Tehran fought and died for, is no longer an animating ideal for social organization in the United States. With the Anglo-American world leading the way in the 1980s-1990s, the ideal of equality for all was replaced by the market based principle of “equality of opportunity.” Equality of opportunity as a political philosophy perpetuates a caste system not based on birthright, but based on “ability”: as long as everyone in a society has an equal opportunity to receive their “desert”, then society is functionally equal. In reality, focusing on “equality of opportunity” rather than strengthening formal and substantive equality has allowed for the most brutal forms of exclusion upon which our present class system is based. To rephrase Lasch, neofeudalism has no honor.

John and Barbara Ehrenreich named the increasingly dominant class that worked to promote “equality of opportunity” vs. radical equality the “Professional Managerial Class” (PMC). The PMC curried the favor of those above them in the caste system by gatekeeping elite universities, inventing new forms of speculation and finance, extracting profit by downsizing American companies, laying off blue- and white-collar workers, and reducing wages of the working and middle classes, all in the name of short-term profits and stockholder interests. Its New Economy leaders suggested that astronomical profits earned by startups came at the expense of no one. Ordinary Americans used more and more easily-available credit to pay medical bills and college tuition. Their consumption habits were sustained not by salary increases but by cheap manufactured goods, Made in China or other cheap labor countries. Then came the economic crisis of 2008, when debt-saddled homeowners defaulted on their mortgages and rising real estate values could no longer make up for the wages that ordinary Americans earned.

As austerity policies, de-industrialization and globalization really take hold in the U.S., a bachelor’s degree has become increasingly indispensable for anyone who wants to escape routine and physical labor to do even the most basic white-collar work. The overwhelming majority of students in the United States do not even think of applying to the Ivy League. What do students with average test scores do in the face of credential inflation? Ordinary people, when faced with the decision of whether to accept their “inadequacy” as defined by the system of measurement, may try to redefine and reconfigure themselves as meritorious, or more reasonably reject education and expertise altogether. When they do decide to compete, however, they have to see themselves as the possessors of slightly inadequate human capital. They can either identify with other forms of value, familial or religious, or they have to accept the fact that they can only operate as disadvantaged individualized individuals, hoping, coping, doping and shopping on an uneven playing field. Under capitalism, education has become the site where solidarity with the struggles of others are shattered.

Abolishing tuition and private university endowments and instituting open admissions policies already in place at community colleges will most effectively render both cheating and the competition for elite college admissions null and void. A wealth tax will allow us to pay school K-12 teachers a salary that enables them to live with dignity. Research, expertise, and knowledge should be used not for self-advancement, but for the public good, to preserve traditions and solve massive social and economic problems using science, statistics, and public will. If we do not see educational institutions as a site of massive wealth redistribution, we will continue to be unable to deal with social crises that require renewing public trust in policy makers. We need to educate a whole new cadre of politicians and scientists, doctors and demographers, epidemiologists and engineers who place the public welfare first. Only then can the public begin to trust experts, politicians, and science-based political decisions that can coordinate collective action against climate change and global pandemics.

Meritocratic Doping

The college admissions cheating scandal revealed by “Operation Varsity Blues” reflects the desperation of wealthy parents of ordinary children. College admissions cheating might best be understood as a form of “doping” described by Wolfgang Streeck. For Streeck, doping is normalized and facilitated by the structures of competitive institutions like professional sports (and in our case meritocracy) that reward the extraordinary few while abandoning the ordinary many. The Reagan-era attacks on the social safety net gave the middle class and its upper reaches, the Professional Managerial Class, a bad case of what Barbara Ehrenreich calls “the fear of falling.” This 1980s cultural and psychological phenomenon was not just about fear of the real possibility of falling down the social caste system during a time when the divergence between rich Americans and ordinary Americans widened; fear of falling also had to do with fear of psychological demotivation, or the falling into anti-authoritarian, countercultural hedonism, and out of the competition altogether.

Varsity Blues exposed the criminal activities of Newport Beach, CA based Rick Singer, a college admissions consultant to the rich and famous. In return for hefty fees and donations to fake charities, Singer liaised with corrupt coaches, helped his clients’ children cheat on ACTs and SATs, and invented faked athletic records for the children of movie stars, hedge fund managers, and real estate moguls. Felicity Huffman, Lori Loughlin and the other less famous but wealthier parents investigated in Operation Varsity Blues were terrified that their children would fall out of the elites and the privileged lives to which they had become accustomed. Rather than let their children attend universities where they could legally gain admission, wealthy parents went on a shopping spree, buying test scores, fake athletic records, and access to Universities through contributions to phony charities.

“College is what you make of it.” “There are smart people at every institution of higher education.” “Don’t let others tell you your worth.” “Resilience and grit are important to any successful person.” These catch-phrases are supposed to heal the flesh wounds produced by meritocratic rejections and exclusion, reinforcing in disappointed teens a confidence that the meritocracy will eventually work out of them. “Hoping” is a kind of soft discipline that in the end guarantees that nobody steps out of line to question the justice or the efficacy of the sorting process.

For the millions of teenagers across the world who are coming into contact with an educational bottleneck characterized in recent years by an increasingly black-and-white delineation of success and failure, not making it simply isn’t an option. For them, subjectivity has not just been damaged by this particular moment in late capitalism. It has been fully attuned to the requirements of meritocratic gatekeepers and the needs of the market. The devaluation of history, the disruption of solidarity, and the full commodification of human ability have made it so that an entire generation of high-achieving young people, radicalized or not, cannot even imagine an alternative to hegemonic definitions of meaningful work, leisure, prestige, and their own value in society. In a series of interviews conducted with nine of his college peers from around the globe, Leo found that the purpose of higher education was unanimously associated with this pursuit of prestige and all of its attendant accoutrements—a high salary, professional identity, and a lasting legacy. The cultivation of selfhood and the development of human capacities were regarded with amused skepticism as relics of a different age.

The Globalization of Meritocracy

Rampant self-instrumentalization and reification of human capacity is not just an American problem. Meritocracy is one of the United States’ most important exports: it threads itself through Appadurai’s “Scapes” and creates an increasingly homogenous globalized conception of what success is and who deserves it. The only space for idiosyncrasy and difference lies in subcultural details. Globalization has allowed the American notion of the market and market-based education to run riot, unchallenged by alternative forms of social and economic organization and governance, except perhaps in the case of religious identity. In recent years, South Korea and China have become critical research sites for understanding global attitudes towards education, modernization, and social mobility. Despite having vastly different relationships with the United States, both countries eagerly adopted the values of the American meritocracy. A history of civil service exams in feudal China, Eastern philosophy, and Confucian-inflected Asian family values served as the perfect substrate in which the meritocracy enzyme could operate. A deeper discussion of the imbrication of meritocracy and Confucianism is beyond the scope of this article: what we would like to focus on, however, is how the interaction between the global and the local both changed and amplified certain parts of late capitalism’s market-based education system in two countries that will play increasingly important roles in the global economy.

China and South Korea have both adopted extreme versions of standardized testing for their college admissions process. A once-a-year, multiple subject, all-day test determines a single score that can be used to qualify and disqualify students from entire tiers of universities. Uncertainty about admissions criteria is replaced with uncertainty about how one’s test preparation will translate into performance on the day of the exam. For good reason, this one day becomes the focus of student and family life. It is common practice for students to spend multiple years retaking the test until they have achieved a score that enables them to get into an adequately prestigious university. This whole process allows the developing economies of South Korea and China to “leapfrog” liberal Enlightenment ideals of bourgeois self-cultivation straight to neoliberal self-actualization as the highest form of free market competition. Striving South Korean and Chinese families assume “the burden of self-development,” accept the “contingencies of cultural capital,” and aspire to “class and cosmopolitan striving,” through the massive expenditure of money and time on their children’s education.

A crucial distinction between America and Asian countries pertains to the national rhetoric and ideology surrounding development. For China and South Korea, where the attitude of “catching up to the West” has dominated discussions around the value of educating the populace and the ultimate purpose of economic growth, the instrumentalization and commodification of human capacity is galvanized by the idea of a national mission of modernization and development. It is tempting to say that these countries prove that neoliberal attitudes of individualized self-development can be collectively mobilized by a strong sense of anti-colonial nationalism. However, Park, Chiang, and Ablemann demonstrate in their articles that national identity is no match for the hegemonic powers of capital. By supporting feudal inheritance of prestige and C. Wright Mills’ Power-Elite positions (technocrats and government officials in the case of China, and mega-corporation executives in the case of South Korea), the meritocracy reproduces the economic and material conditions that serve as justifications for a rigid hierarchy and its perpetual reproduction. Discourses of national success through national struggle, coupled with neoliberal attitudes about the purpose of education, have led the People’s Republic of China and South Korea to produce a self-perpetuating system of inequity. Less motivated by nationalism and nation building, American students are instead animated simply by a fear of falling. The result, nevertheless, is the same: both East Asian and American students are confronted with an environment where they are encouraged to be more individualistic, more obsessed with the accumulation of prestige and capital, and more focused on the instrumentality of education and human capacity than ever before.

Liberal Western media coverage of the Chinese gaokao system loves to condemn the “decimation of creativity” and the “elimination of life outside of school” that this system promotes. In exposing the rigidity of the Chinese regime of testing, they reassure Anglo-American educators that they serve the superior meritocratic system. Both American and Chinese systems, however, find a way to damage adolescent subjectivity while simultaneously justifying it as a necessary and positive result of market-based education that through the threat of exclusion, motivates young people to see themselves as dynamic, self-exploiting competitors. Cultural differences between East and West engender conflict in the form of trade wars and disagreements about non-holistic, strictly numbers-based college admissions, but capital and the free market continue to homogenize attitudes about education.

Machines with Bellies

The 2008 crisis put to death ideals we might have still harbored about aesthetic and critical education as proper for full intellectual development. The principle subtending the world view of German idealists like Schiller and the early Marx that all human beings had the right to aspire to wholeness beyond the coercive pressures of raw survival died a quiet death in the wake of that crisis. Adorno’s reflections on the demise of philosophy’s role and the disappearance of any collective consideration of the ‘good life’ have been realized in the post-crisis, pandemic world. Financialization, loss of worker power, and the destruction of social safety nets all contributed to elite anxiety about economic decline.

The rush to STEM in elite universities proves that it is upper middle-class and wealthy students who are doing the most to instrumentalize education in order to preserve their positions of economic dominance. It is the most elite students, the meritocrats, who are rejecting education for education’s sake and who are being rewarded for their rejection of the idea of autonomy, wholeness, and solidarity. They are teaching the rest of us that school is a place where we learn to operate by self-interest and calculation.

Elite workers willingly reduce themselves to an abstraction, perfectly adapted to operate as a part of a machine. In the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, Marx describes the degradation of the factory worker to a fragment of the production process, attached to a “belly” that needed to be fed. Who will fight for the rights of workers to be more than a belly or an abstract, partial appendage to capital’s processes of production and reproduction? Do not count on meritocrats: they will appear as seductive peace makers in the silent class war.

Leo Krapp is a third year student in Anthropology at University College London. He is a contributing author in the culture section of Pi Magazine, the largest UCL publication, as well as in the Anthropolitan, the UCL Anthropology magazine. In addition to being a cofounder of a political non-profit, a writing tutor, and a research assistant at UCL, he is also a collegiate athlete and member of his University tennis team. He has lived in Irvine, California for most of his life.

Catherine Liu is a Professor of Film and Media Studies at the University of California, Irvine. In addition to publishing articles on psychoanalysis, the intellectual history of critical theory and Taiwanese cinema, she has published in the Los Angeles Review of Books and Jacobin and is the author of American Idyll: Academic Anti-Elitism as Cultural Critique (University of Iowa Press, 2011) and The Professional-Managerial Class: A Short Introduction (forthcoming University of Minnesota Press). She has also published a novel, Oriental Girls Desire Romance (Kaya Press, 1997, 2011) and an unpublished memoir, Panda Gifts.