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Book Review: Twilight of the Elites: America after Meritocracy

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Book Review: Twilight of the Elites: America after Meritocracy

Author: Christopher Hayes

Publisher: Crown Publishers, NY

Date of Publication: June 2012

As a reviewer with not so few pretensions to objectivity, I'm not supposed to say that I loved the book. That's how adolescent boys and girls begin their journey on the path to self-destruction through making declarations of boundless love. I did indeed love the book though. It is written with a certain passion as if in response to the need of a time -- " the increasing inequality, compartmentalization, and stratification of America in the post-meritocratic age" (212) -- that I found particularly appealing.

There are books that are written well without saying much and there are books that say a lot but make demands on the reader when it comes to the cumbersome style of the author. This book is both a highly intelligent one as well as eminently readable embodying the best in American traditions of serious prose writing where you express a complex thought in the most elegant way possible. Hayes combines the joy of reading a book with the joy of learning something new. He takes a moderate, expository tone often carefully understating his point as if he were a defense lawyer talking to the jury in a law court -- in this case, of course, the jury being the readers. The deadly irony of what he is trying to say can hardly be missed.

One central thesis that guides the book is: " unequal outcomes make equal opportunity impossible" (57). The entire work is a meticulous substantiation of this one statement to devastate the false logic upon which meritocracy has been instituted as norm in the United States. Neither should merit be an ideal nor is merit a reality, at least the former never translated into the latter -- this is what I concluded upon reading the book. "The conviction that in America those at the top and those at the bottom are equal in the eyes of the law is one of our most fundamental and cherished national creeds. But nearly everywhere you look, this basic principle of fairness is ignored or violated" (70). This is also in fact how American propaganda represents the United States to the world -- that, it is a fair country and not that some are fairer than others (the pun intended).

Meritocracy has become a globally popular argument owing to the influence of American notions of what democratic politics mean in practice. One of the faces of western-capitalist notions of democracy is consumerism as can be viewed in the rise of the ultimate commodity which in a sense runs through the phrase "personal choice." It is a phrase that journalists and politicians use with hidden contempt and common Americans use with innocence that is more like fear coming from deep-seated insecurity and is puzzling more than anything else. That merit is a matter of personal choice and anyone and everyone can get to the top is sincerely consumed as fact by most Americans. People are not born with personal choices and they are privileges granted by a "system of reality" (a phrase from James Baldwin); it is this system of reality that makes sure that some stay at the top and many are condemned to remain at the bottom. In this system of reality, the emphasis by the powerful who sustain it is more on the "real" than on the "system." The reality however is that there is no merit that justifies why those at the top are at the top just as there is no reason to believe that those at the bottom have made a "personal" choice to be there. It is a system of "true lies" made to look natural and one that is effectively maintained by a philosophy of fraudulence or what we call plain cheating. "When cheating becomes an accepted norm within an institution, it produces a distinct and dangerous psychology in those who rise to the top. They come to view themselves as ubermensches and begin to hold in contempt those not in on the secret" (98). The system of reality is in fact a system of illusions where those at the top view themselves as "ubermensches" and they want the others to believe in exactly the same things that they do. The inequality aspect is what Hayes emphasizes throughout the book sometimes with profound indignation. "Our system is supposed to reward the virtuous and punish the vicious, and yet everywhere you turn, it seems the vicious are living high off the hog" (101). A vicious system keeps the inequality viciously alive. In one of the most powerful passages in the book Christopher Hayes makes a case for the "fundamental inequality of accountability."

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"Along with all of the other rising inequalities we've become so familiar with -- in income, in wealth, in access to politicians -- we confront now a fundamental inequality of accountability. We can have a just society whose guiding ethos is accountability and punishment, where both black kids dealing weed in Harlem and investment bankers peddling fraudulent securities on Wall Street are forced to pay for their crimes, or we can have a just society whose guiding ethos is forgiveness and second chances, on in which both Wall Street banks and foreclosed households are bailed out, in which both inside traders and street felons are allowed to rejoin polite society with the full privileges of citizenship intact. But we cannot have a just society that applies the principle of accountability to the powerless and the principle of forgiveness to the powerful. This is the America in which we currently reside." (102)

I would've concluded the passage by saying, "This is the world in which we currently reside." However, in all fairness to Hayes, the criticism is context-specific and meant to comment on the meritocracy that destroyed the possibility of an equal society in the US -- all in the name of the most abused of words, "merit." The myth of merit haunts us each day of our lives. Are some people born to sing and dance and others born to write and paint? My answer is "yes!" Neither is Hayes denying this aspect of difference. The worst face of meritocracy is when we see that the sons and daughters of powerful people whether they are actors, politicians, sports people, lawyers or doctors -- they enjoy access to the "merit" only because they have the advantages of wealth and privilege. We really don't know whether the poor are capable of all the attainments we see among the privileged because we are not giving them the similar opportunities the rich possess to discover themselves. An ideal meritocracy (if ever something like that is possible outside the domain of argument) ought to open the doors equally to everyone irrespective of class, power or status. That however is never the case. The meager opportunity given the poor is usually in a top-down manner which barely responds to the social and economic conditions of the underprivileged. Equating democracy with meritocracy has been the biggest globally perpetuated illusion in the past fifty years because it makes it look like the poor are down there despite a more or less just system that gives them a chance to make it to the top through hard work and industry. When we use the word haves in a strict sense, we are talking about those who have the money and power to make the difference. "In attempting to get a handle on the elite, income serves as a useful proxy for power more broadly because it allows us to quantify what is otherwise abstract" (143). Hayes further adds: "Once a member of the elite has sufficiently monetized his or her power, that money can be traded for other kinds of power, which in turn can be invested and reap its own kinds of rewards" (152). Basically, the meritocracy is nothing but an elite clique that perpetuates itself. "That's because while money, political power, platform, and network power may be distinct conceptually, they are tightly correlated in practice"The members of today's elite have never been farther from the median worker and closer, in the literal sense, to their fellow meritocrats" (149). The crisis of the present American social and political order is exactly this:  an utter failure of the meritocracy in living up to its own false image of itself. "The cascade of elite failure has discredited not only elites and our central institutions, but the very mental habits we use to form our beliefs about the world" (106).

The failure of meritocracy is the failure of merit as a parameter around which we build a social order instead of justice or equality. " Justice being taken away, then, what are kingdoms but great robberies?" (112) Saint Augustine declares in The City of God. Saint Augustine is not talking about merit because he is aware that a just society gives people the chance to pursue the gifts that nature has endowed each one of us with. It is an unjust society that needs merit as an ideal in order to disguise social and political inequalities. Therefore Hayes adds: " As American society grows more elitist, it produces a worse caliber of elites" (155). The meritocracy is not creating particularly honest doctors or brilliant engineers or committed teachers or visionary writers. Unfortunately we see some of the worst floating around -- and all supposedly products of merit -- without sometimes even basic human qualities that define what a person should be like. The insensitivity bordering inhumanity and arrogance that goes into the principle of merit is one of the worst outcomes of meritocracy. Using concrete instances from the real life of sports and politics, Hayes demonstrates that some of the most corrupt people we ever get to see are actually among the so-called meritorious. In his book Politics Aristotle says that " whenever some, whether a minority or a majority, rule because of their wealth, the constitution is necessarily an oligarchy, and whenever the poor rule, it is necessarily a democracy" (79). He further adds:

"The first democracy, then, is the one that is said to be most of all based on equality. For the law in this democracy says that there is equality when the poor enjoy no more superiority than the rich and neither is in authority but the two are similar. For if indeed freedom and equality are most of all present in a democracy, as some people suppose, this would be most true in the constitution in which everyone participates in the most similar way. But since the people are the majority, and majority opinion has authority, this constitution is necessarily a democracy" (110).

From an Aristotelian perspective, the modern meritocracy is an oligarchy of elites who are able to " rule because of their wealth ." While Aristotle views democracy as perversion of "constitutional government," he probably never imagined democracies degenerating one step further into meritocracies. Therefore, we don't live in a real democracy but a chimera of one. The laws meant for the poor don't apply to powerful people. This is because the poor have no share as participants in their own governance. An inconsiderate society is the direct consequence of this situation. As Hayes says:

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"Democracies will always struggle to protect the rights and interests of minorities from being swallowed up by majority rule. Along the way, democratic societies will engage in brutal and, in hindsight, indefensible ignorance of the plight of those who are in its darkest corners. So it was with gay men facing the AIDS crisis in the 1980s, the infirm and careless residents of New Orleans, and subprime borrowers." (214-5)

The complete abandoning of marginal groups -- the true minorities and "the wretched of the earth" as Fanon calls them -- to the mercy of their own fates in the face of dire poverty, life-threatening illnesses and natural calamities is a prominent feature of the meritocratic version of democracy. Hayes reiterates his fundamental point when he says: "But my central contention is that our near --religious fidelity to the meritocratic ideal comes with huge costs. We overestimate the advantages of meritocracy and underappreciate its costs, because we don't think hard enough about the consequences of the inequality it produces. As Americans, we take it as a given that unequal levels of achievement are natural, even desirable" (218). The success of the propaganda machine is where inequality is made to look "natural" and "desirable" simply because we refuse to imagine an alternative to it.

"The first step of obstacles has to do with public opinion, or at least, perceptions of public opinion. It is a widely held view that America's less egalitarian social structure is a manifestation of a certain kind of exceptionalism, a shared cultural belief that with enough pluck and gumption anyone can end up on the top. Politicians and advocates feel they must frame their egalitarian arguments within the confines of the meritocratic framework -- equal opportunity, level playing field, a fair shake for those who work hard and play by the rules -- rather than the straightforward language of social solidarity." (227)

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Prakash Kona is a writer, teacher and researcher who lives in Hyderabad, India. He is currently Professor at the Department of English Literature, The English and Foreign Languages University (EFLU), Hyderabad.

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