Why Socialists Need To Master The Discourse Of Meritocracy

24th October 2016 / United Kingdom

By Thomas Helm – It has become increasingly common to separate socialism from meritocracy on the grounds that they cannot co-exist, that one, somewhere, along the track of its consciousness, negates the other.

What is happening is that certain voices labelled as socialist accuse meritocracy of being a farce, a rigged lottery, which perpetuates unnecessary suffering, while certain liberal voices that supposedly speak in the name of meritocracy accuse socialism of trying to pull the carpet out from beneath its feet, of that utterly sinful phrase in contemporary jargon: limiting potential.

The Jeremy Corbyn versus Thesesa May debate on grammar schools is a case in point. “I remind you, Mr Corbyn, that you are where you are today because of the grammar school system,” says Theresa May. Corbyn’s response is to assert that it is unfair to segregate children at such a young age on the account of an arbitrary intelligence test, that the grammar school system contributes to the maintenance of an elitist system.

This is an argument, essentially, about who will maximise the potential of the next generation, executed in the manner of the Punch and Judy show of Prime Ministers’ questions.

The same notion allows those who earn vast sums to believe they must be extraordinarily clever, daring, and superior; otherwise, they wouldn’t be doing so well. This reassuring conviction seemingly justifies not only their great wealth but also their high status in society. They would prefer not to view their money as winnings in an economic contest over whose rules they and others like them have disproportionate influence. Presumably they would prefer the public not to see it that way, either.

Those who earn vast sums believe they must have superior skill sets otherwise, they wouldn’t be doing so well. This reassuring conviction seems to not only justify the gain of overt materialism but wealth and societal high status. Of course, these same people would prefer not to view their money and assets as winnings in a game over whose rules they and others like them swing huge disproportionate influence in what is now the representation of nothing more than a rigged economic contest.

This debate illustrates two important points. Firstly, that contemporary socialism is very much invested in meritocracy, but desires to establish a level playing field. Secondly, that conservative liberalism, in the guise of Theresa May, is very conscious of the popular prejudice that socialists are essentially bumbling fools who know nothing of the secrets of the neoliberal economy (to which, they, like the acolytes beholden to the pharaoh in Ancient Egypt, are the trusted gatekeepers of that arcane knowledge). I remind you, Mr Corbyn, that you yourself, benefited from the system, says Theresa May. The point she is making is that even your dubious potential would not have been realised without the grammar school system.

Meanwhile, the Earth, according to scientists, has entered its sixth mass extinction phase. The last time this happened the dinosaurs disappeared. Inequality is accelerating. The middle class, especially in the younger generations, the so-called millennials, has disintegrated. Rampant and unregulated capitalism, the extremities of which contemporary socialists claim they wish to curtail (and their claims are highly resonant for many, hence the rebirth of the left in Europe and elsewhere), is winning. What, then must socialists do to capture the heart and soul of the voters?

My response to this question is a cynical one. As right wing populism and propaganda increasingly seeks to colonise the discourse though not the economics of the left, socialists need to colonise the discourse of the right, while remaining completely faithful to the left wing economic agenda, i.e. closing tax havens, improving workers’ rights, both at home and abroad, providing affordable housing for all, regulating financial institutions.

What this boils down to is mastery of the discourse of self interest and the fulfilment of the dream. Like it or not, in the context of globalisation, the atomization of society is a reality, and people grow up in the culture of personal dream fulfilment quests and the allure of the great career.

Socialists need to point out that they do not wish to destroy capitalism but merely alter its structure, to make it fairer, to make it more meritocratic, and to emphasise repeatedly that neoliberalism is, in fact, the real enemy of meritocracy.

Their arguments are many. Neoliberalism creates housing bubbles. This means even if you work really hard you will still not be able to afford to buy a house, a material reflection of all that work, unless your parents already have one. This is clearly very un-meritocratic. High rents keep people out of the parts of the world where there is greatest opportunity for dream fulfilment. London is a case in point. High University tuition fees make education, once again, the preserve of the wealthy. Low wages and job insecurity make working lives much more stressful and precarious, and do not provide adequate rewards for labour.

This is a bold, but glaringly obvious point. It is neoliberalism, and not socialism, that is killing meritocracy, and yet the more mild mannered socialists, frightened of the word individualism, seem to skirt round this issue. If socialists desire to gain power in right wing propaganda saturated countries such as Britain, they need to master this issue, even it means appealing, at a discourse level, to that most sacred of conservative grounds: self-interest.

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They need to repeat this mantra: conservatism is killing meritocracy, we are your saviours. And then once, in power, they need to materialise their humanitarian and reformist agenda in concrete policies. That is to say, they need to become the party of both the individual and the community.


Thomas Helm is a writer and journalist with special interests in globalisation, human rights, social issues, Latin affairs and inequality. Thomas also writes for Spanish newspaper La Vanguardia.

Visit his website thomasdhelm.wordpress.com

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