Theme: Political Ideas | Content Type: Digested Read

Meritocracy: How Did a Nightmarish Vision of the Future Become so Influential?

David Civil and Joseph J. Himsworth


Martins Zemlickis

| 6 mins read

Sixty years after its publication, Michael Young’s The Rise of the Meritocracy remains one of Britain’s most influential, yet widely misunderstood, political texts.

Young’s fictional vision of a meritocratic society explores the consequences of a society where each citizen is judged according to the formula ‘I.Q. + Effort = Merit’. The successful meritocrats hoard ever‐greater rewards for themselves, crystallising into a rigid and repressive elite who rule over an increasingly powerless and depressed underclass.

While the concept has evolved and adapted, the language of meritocracy is one of the great survivors of postwar British politics. In an age characterised by the rise of populist leaders and movements, as well as a backlash against educated ‘liberal elites’, revisiting, reinterpreting and re‐evaluating the concept of meritocracy has never been more important.

How did Young’s nightmarish vision of the nation’s future become the organising principle for postwar social democrats and conservatives alike? A special issue in the Political Quarterly journal brings together diverse perspectives and approaches. Our contributors analyse the origins of Young’s enigmatic text, explore the concept’s often perplexing history, and debate the benefits and costs of meritocratic policies.

The Rise of the Meritocracy

Michael Young was a polymath, but he will be best remembered as a pioneering sociologist. He valued the traditional working class for its egalitarian social relations, organic support networks and the emphasis its members placed on the values of solidarity, kinship and, above all, community flourishing. For Young, the rising meritocrats threatened to destroy his idealised vision of the stable, ordered working class family and community.

In the book, Young’s fictional author highlights how the concept of meritocracy became hegemonic, with the tacit agreement of both conservatives and socialists. Young embraced ambiguity, and the book highlighted both the desirability of removing hereditary privilege while simultaneously alerting readers to the danger of taking this too far, smothering the values of decency and fraternity which he held dear and solidifying a self‐perpetuating, closed, and intolerant elite.

A deliberately satirical format, The Rise of the Meritocracy hardly encouraged clarity, and the term was bound to be misunderstood.

Yet meritocracy’s remarkable trajectory, from its dystopian origins to its positive connotations under political leaders as diverse as Harold Wilson, Tony Blair and Theresa May, obscures an important distinction between the word and the concept.

While Young may have coined the word, his vision of the concept was only one among many. By 1958, the concept of meritocracy had already been embraced by social democrats and conservatives alike.

The genealogy of a concept

The concept of meritocracy has a history all of its own. Meritocracy’s long global history has been traced back to the examination system in imperial China. In Britain in the decades after the second world war, meritocracy offered a rationale for the role of elites in a liberal democracy.

The late 1950s and early 1960s can be characterised as a meritocratic golden age, where white, educated men, imbued with a professional, rationalist ethic, would rise up the social ladder to selflessly serve the collective in the cause of efficiency, growth, and justice.

But by the end of the 1960s, the shared vision of a meritocratic future was assailed on all sides. The 1968 generation challenged the meritocracy to deliver on its promises, to offer equality of opportunity to women and people of colour. The teleological faith in economic growth disappeared, and with it the notion that distributive questions could be resolved painlessly.

As the miners brought down the Heath government in 1974, the vision of a classless meritocratic future appeared a distant memory. As Guy Ortolano has argued, over the course of the 1970s and 1980s “the market displaced merit as the liberal polity’s preferred explanation for persistent inequalities”.

The politics of Thatcherism emphasised those values – hard work, thrift, ambition, and so on – which would find reward in the market, and it was the market which would now determine the worth of each citizen. While the rhetoric of meritocracy returned with a vengeance under Tony Blair, the word had become little more than a synonym for equality of opportunity.

Meritocracy’s continued influence

The idea that the reward and status owed to each individual could be rationally assessed and distributed has vanished. Yet the language of meritocracy continues to infuse a diverse range of social, cultural and political institutions, from the work of the Social Mobility Commission to the Arts Council England’s Next Ten Years Strategy, to the Conservative Party’s 2017 general election manifesto.

Meritocracy, appears as a seemingly neutral concept. As Young highlighted, however, a meritocracy can be a profoundly unequal, unstable and unhappy society in which to live. The likes of David Goodhart have utilised Young’s dystopia to show that at the heart of the ‘anywhere–somewhere’ divide, and the anti‐elitist, populist challenge which characterises the contemporary political moment, lies the perception that the meritocracy is out of touch, self‐serving and irresponsible.  It is time to revisit and reinterpret this most cryptic of concepts. 

Read the full article on Wiley

Need help using Wiley? Click here for help using Wiley