Much to the pride of many Americans, the United States has always had a reputation for being a country where success is based on merit, hard work, and individual initiative (personal responsibility, creativity, etc).
Indeed, aside from (re)introducing democracy (of a sorts), the United States’ other claim to fame was the development of an alternative to the then-prevailing system of aristocracy: meritocracy, by which our elites – businessmen, politicians, even religious leaders – earned their prestige and influence not through birthright, noble titles, or wealth, but through their own personal merits.
It seemed like the perfect combination: a society in which people had a voice in government while having access to the means of improving their condition. It was political, economic, and personal freedom all at once, which would in turn lead to the sort of synergy that made America exceptionally well-suited to innovation, creativity, and growth (witness our considerable cultural, technological, commercial, and scientific output, still among the highest in the world, albeit by a lesser margin).
Unfortunately, this proven formula for success is being threatened, and may very well already be waning (in fact, some would argue that it’s been in decline for decades now).
To most American’s general agreement, this country is at a point where nothing seems to be going right: every system – education, healthcare, and infrastructure, to name a few – seems to be failing. Our economy is in a seemingly permanent state of malaise, while our political system seems woefully inadequate in addressing any of these issues, (or doing anything right at all for that matter). Meanwhile, big businesses are racing to the bottom in terms of wages and benefits, and corrupting the public sphere with seeming impunity.
Even if you find these perceptions to be a bit hyperbolic or shortsighted, I think you’re still asking what most Americans are: where is the leadership? The wisdom? The vision? Why have are elites failed us, in spite of their purported skill and intelligence? They’re elites for a reason, after all: isn’t it because they earned their place at the top, and thus have the skills and knowledge needed to run things?
Christopher Hayes from The Nation has written an excellent piece that discusses the origins of this woeful lack of top-level leadership in this country. Unfortunately, though perhaps to no one’s surprise, his assessment is that the deficiency stems from systemic problems – and perhaps even from the very nature of meritocracy itself.
Hayes begins by describing the erosion of meritocracy in his own previously meritocratic alma mater, Hunter College, and wondering why his university – like so many across the country – is becoming increasingly elitist and inaccessible.
How and why does this happen? I think the best answer comes from the work of a social theorist named Robert Michels, who was occupied with a somewhat parallel problem in the early years of the last century. Born to a wealthy German family, Michels came to adopt the radical socialist politics then sweeping through much of Europe. At first, he joined the Social Democratic Party, but he ultimately came to view it as too bureaucratic to achieve its stated aims. “Our workers’ organization has become an end in itself,” Michels declared, “a machine which is perfected for its own sake and not for the tasks which it could have performed.”
Michels then drifted toward the syndicalists, who eschewed parliamentary elections in favor of mass labor solidarity, general strikes and resistance to the dictatorship of the kaiser. But even among the more militant factions of the German left, Michels encountered the same bureaucratic pathologies that had soured him on the SDP. In his classic book Political Parties, he wondered why the parties of the left, so ideologically committed to democracy and participation, were as oligarchic in their functioning as the self-consciously elitist and aristocratic parties of the right.
Sound familiar? The same has certainly be said about the Democrats, and from what I hear, leftist parties in many other countries suffer from similar problems. How do these presumed advocates for the little people morph into the very elites they claim to fight?
Michels’s grim conclusion was that it was impossible for any party, no matter its belief system, to bring about democracy in practice. Oligarchy was inevitable. For any kind of institution with a democratic base to consolidate the legitimacy it needs to exist, it must have an organization that delegates tasks. The rank and file will not have the time, energy, wherewithal or inclination to participate in the many, often minute decisions necessary to keep the institution functioning. In fact, effectiveness, Michels argues convincingly, requires that these tasks be delegated to a small group of people with enough power to make decisions of consequence for the entire membership. Over time, this bureaucracy becomes a kind of permanent, full-time cadre of leadership. “Without wishing it,” Michels says, there grows up a great “gulf which divides the leaders from the masses.” The leaders now control the tools with which to manipulate the opinion of the masses and subvert the organization’s democratic process. “Thus the leaders, who were at first no more than the executive organs of the collective, will soon emancipate themselves from the mass and become independent of its control.”
All this flows inexorably from the nature of organization itself, Michels concludes, and he calls it “The Iron Law of Oligarchy”: “It is organization which gives birth to the dominion of the elected over the electors, of the mandataries over the mandators, of the delegates over the delegators. Who says organization says oligarchy.”
This doesn’t bode well for the future. If oligarchy and neo-aristocracy are the inevitable, long-term consequence of the very systems intended to combat them, where do we go from there? Are the anarchists on to something when they suggest eliminating any sort of hierarchy altogether, in favor of a voluntary, consensual, and horizontal power structure?
Some may argue, rather distressingly, that elitism of some kind or another is intrinsic to human nature. Could it be that we’ll always gravitate towards bureaucracy and hierarchy? Is it something about our psychology and evolution that makes us incapable of dispassionate meritocracy?
Unfortunately, I don’t have the time to reflect on this any more than I already have in the past – thus I’ll leave you to decide. Hayes doesn’t offer much of a solution either, and I’ve yet to read of any viable way to fix creeping elitism other than to rally the masses to remake the system and change up its entrench favoritism – a solution that itself is difficult to implement.
Hayes article is long but well worth the read, so I encourage you to check it out in its entirety. The following are just a few of the excerpts that stood out most in my mind.
- At least one third of the students at elite universities, and at least half at liberal arts colleges, are flagged for preferential treatment in the admissions process. While minorities make up 10 to 15 percent of a typical student body, affluent whites dominate other preferred groups: recruited athletes (10 to 25 percent of students); alumni children, also known as “legacies” (10 to 25 percent); development cases (2 to 5 percent); children of celebrities and politicians (1 to 2 percent); and children of faculty members (1 to 3 percent).
This doesn’t even count the advantages that wealthy children have in terms of private tutors, test prep, and access to expensive private high schools and college counselors. All together, this layered system of preferences for the children of the privileged amounts to, in Golden’s words, “affirmative action for rich white people.” It is not so much the meritocracy as idealized and celebrated but rather the ancient practice of “elites mastering the art of perpetuating themselves.”
- One of the most distinctive aspects of the rise in American inequality over the past three decades is just how concentrated the gains are at the very top. The farther up the income scale you go, the better people are doing: the top 10 percent have done well, but they’ve been outpaced by the top 1 percent, who in turn have seen slower gains than the top 0.1 percent, all of whom have been beaten by the top 0.01 percent. Adjusted for inflation, the top 0.1 percent saw their average annual income rise from just over $1 million in 1974 to $7.1 million in 2007. And things were even better for the top 0.01 percent, who saw their average annual income explode from less than $4 million to $35 million, nearly a ninefold increase.
It is not simply that the rich are getting richer, though that’s certainly true. It is that a smaller and smaller group of über-rich are able to capture a larger and larger share of the fruits of the economy. America now features more inequality than any other industrialized democracy. In its peer group are countries like Argentina and other Latin American nations that once stood as iconic examples of the ways in which the absence of a large middle class presented a roadblock to development and good governance.
- This is evidence that the Iron Law of Meritocracy is, in fact, exerting itself on our social order. And we might ask what a society that has been corrupted entirely by the Iron Law of Meritocracy would look like. It would be a society with extremely high and rising inequality yet little circulation of elites. A society in which the pillar institutions were populated and presided over by a group of hyper-educated, ambitious overachievers who enjoyed tremendous monetary rewards as well as unparalleled political power and prestige, and yet who managed to insulate themselves from sanction, competition and accountability; a group of people who could more or less rest assured that now that they have achieved their status, now that they have scaled to the top of the pyramid, they, their peers and their progeny will stay there.
- This kind of corruption is everywhere you look. Consider a doctor who receives gifts and honorariums from a prescription drug company. The doctor insists plausibly that this has no effect on his medical decisions, which remain independent and guided by his training, instincts and the best available data. And he is not lying or being disingenuous when he says this: he absolutely believes it to be the case. But we know from a series of studies that there is a strong correlation between gifts from pharmaceutical companies and doctors’ willingness to prescribe their drugs.
This basic dynamic infects some of our most important institutions. Key to facilitating both the monumental housing bubble and its collapse was the ratings agencies’ habit of giving even extremely leveraged, toxic securities a triple-A rating. The institutional purpose of the rating agencies (and their market purpose as well) is to add value for investors by using their expertise to make judgments about the creditworthiness of securities. Originally, the agencies made their money from the investors themselves, who paid subscription fees in exchange for access to their ratings. But over time the largest agencies shifted to a model in which the banks and financial entities issuing the securities would pay the agencies for a rating. Obviously, these new clients wanted the highest rating possible and often would bring pressure to bear on the agencies to make sure they secured the needed triple A. And so the ratings agencies developed an improper dependence on their clients, one that pulled them away from fulfilling their original institutional purpose of serving investors. They became corrupt, and the result was trillions of dollars in supposedly triple-A securities that became worthless once the housing bubble burst.
- In her book Shadow Elite, about the new global ruling class, Janine Wedel recalls visiting Eastern Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall and finding the elites she met there—those at the center of building the new capitalist societies—toting an array of business cards that represented their various roles: one for their job as a member of parliament, another for the start-up business they were running (which was making its money off government contracts), and yet another for the NGO on the board of which they sat. Wedel writes that those “who adapted to the new environment with the most agility and creativity, who tried out novel ways of operating and got away with them, and sometimes were the most ethically challenged, were most rewarded with influence.”
This has an eerie resonance with our predicament. We can never be sure just which other business cards are in the pocket of the pundit, politician or professor. We can’t be sure, in short, just who our elites are working for.
But we suspect it is not us.