The rise of the progressive aristocracy

Inside the assault on meritocracy

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In the pre-modern world positions in society were largely inherited. Some people were born with saddles on their backs and others booted and spurred to ride them — “The rich man in his castle / The poor man at his gate / God made them high or lowly / And ordered their estate,” in the words of the Victorian hymn. The meritocratic idea was the dynamite which blew up this view of the world and provided the materials for the modern era. But its reign is threatened as never before.

The 1960s and 1970s brought a…

In the pre-modern world positions in society were largely inherited. Some people were born with saddles on their backs and others booted and spurred to ride them — “The rich man in his castle / The poor man at his gate / God made them high or lowly / And ordered their estate,” in the words of the Victorian hymn. The meritocratic idea was the dynamite which blew up this view of the world and provided the materials for the modern era. But its reign is threatened as never before.

The 1960s and 1970s brought a wave of attacks on the meritocracy, starting in Britain with criticisms of the workings of the 11-plus exam and then broadening into denunciations of social hierarchy and social mobility. Egalitarians argued that meritocracy replaced a proper socialist idea — equality of results — with equality of opportunity. Radical activists argued in favor of collective rights (based on gender or skin colour) rather than equal opportunity for all based on ability.

Under the new hierarchy, the more oppressed groups that you belong to, the more moral virtue you possess

The first black studies department was founded at San Francisco State University in 1968 and the first women’s studies department in San Diego State University two years later. Michel Foucault and like-minded thinkers on the far left questioned every imaginable distinction — between the sane or the mad, the criminal and the non-criminal — on the grounds that they were expressions of the sinister workings of power.

The assault on the meritocracy paused for a while at the highest level of UK politics, though not before doing the immense damage of destroying grammar schools. Margaret Thatcher argued that the real engine of meritocracy is not the well-organized state but the market. Tony Blair embraced league tables and academic schools. But now we are confronted with a new wave of attacks on the meritocratic idea that is far more serious than the one that occurred in the 1960s.

The British right has renewed its assault on meritocracy in the form of populist rage rather than High Tory worry about social mobility. A section of the Brexit right rails against the educated elites on the grounds that they are airy-fairy liberals who don’t know the price of a pint of milk. Middle-of-the-road philosophers have also turned against the idea, as seen in two newish books — Michael Sandel’s The Tyranny of Merit and Daniel Markovits’s The Meritocracy Trap.

The radical left is now presenting a critique of meritocracy that is far more extreme than anything that has gone before it, but which also wields far more cultural heft: a woke assault on meritocracy. It starts by repeating standard leftish complaints about meritocracy: that it protects social inequality by dressing it up as cognitive inequality, thereby adding to the already intolerable pressure of modern life. Then it throws the explosive question of race into the heart of the debate. This rests on the demeaning claim that the best way to promote members of ethnic minorities is through “equity” rather than “excellence.” It also makes it far more difficult for ordinary people to discuss the subject dispassionately and far easier for radicals to engage in demagoguery and polarization. Even more importantly, it creates a new hierarchy of virtue at the heart of society. We are thus moving to a more ambitious stage in the left’s long social revolution: from simply dismantling meritocracy to creating a new social order based on virtue, rather than ability.

Meritocracy is “racist” and “the antithesis of fair,” pronounced Alison Collins, a former commissioner of education in San Francisco. And the old idea of judging people as individuals? That’s the white man’s game of divide and rule. “Colorblindness” — what we used to regard as the absence of discrimination — is dismissed as a con, designed to draw a veil over millennia of exploitation. The entire machinery of meritocracy is rejected as a legacy of the eugenic movement or imperialism. Or, perhaps, the “white” way of looking at the world. “The use of standardized tests to measure aptitude and intelligence is one of the most effective racist policies ever devised to degrade black minds and legally exclude black bodies,” writes Ibram X. Kendi, author of How to Be an Antiracist and Antiracist Baby.

The woke revolution does not simply aim to remedy past injustice. “The only remedy to racist discrimination,” writes Kendi, “is antiracist discrimination.” The idea is some groups by virtue of their history of marginalization and exploitation are wiser and more moral than others. The belief that racism is not confined to intentional acts of discrimination but woven into the DNA of society implies white people are automatically guilty of harboring racist thoughts and seeing the world through racist eyes. Racial minorities inevitably enjoy a higher moral status than whites but they also enjoy something equally important — greater access to understanding and moral wisdom. This is why the woke habitually invoke “lived experience” and “my truth.” Conversely, white people are guilty of original sin until they do what the kulaks were supposed to do and abolish themselves as a class. “Abolish whiteness!” says Cambridge academic Priyamvada Gopal. “White lives don’t matter. As white lives.”

These race-based arguments bring with them the exhumation of the pre-modern habit of judging people based on group characteristics rather than individual achievement. History is repeating itself as both tragedy and farce at the same time.

Rather than progressing towards a post-discriminatory future, we have a pyramid structure once again, but this time it’s inverted. Rather than the upper classes sitting at the top and the lower classes as the bottom, the former outcasts occupy the commanding heights. Under the new hierarchy, the more oppressed groups that you belong to, the more moral virtue you possess. Similarly, the more privileged characteristics you hold, the lower you are on the moral scale and the more you have to do to make amends for the past.

Being born into an oppressed group is not enough in itself. Indeed, minorities who don’t share woke beliefs are treated with particular disdain (as black conservatives have long known and gender-critical feminists are painfully discovering). You must have faith. That means more than just subscribing to a set of beliefs. It means having a heart that has been awakened through a process of conversion and ceaseless struggle. An aristocracy of faith is superimposed upon an aristocracy of caste: struggle can change your place in the caste system, though people who are born into a privileged caste will obviously have to struggle much harder than those who have the privilege of being born unprivileged. Whatever you think of Prince Harry, he is clearly “doing the work.”

This aristocracy of faith is hypervigilant and hyperactive — forever discovering signs of racism in even the smallest things and forever organizing demonstrations and cancellations. At the same time, it’s also extremely patient. The woke aristocracy’s march through the institutions is an exercise in long-term social change that should put short-term conservatives to shame.

This aristocracy of faith is hyper-vigilant — forever discovering signs of racism in even the smallest things

The old notion of IQ is being replaced with WQ — a woke quotient. This phenomenon is at its most advanced in the US, particularly at its universities. University students are selected for their WQ as revealed by their personal statements and extracurricular activities (“I spent my vacations fighting racism in Guatemala”), as well as by their academic grades. Indeed, a growing number of universities are reducing the weight placed on standardized test scores while increasing their emphasis on more subjective criteria. Aspiring professors are required to submit diversity statements when they apply for jobs as well as conventional academic resumes.

Yale now has as many academic administrators as it does tenured staff. Many of them have titles which include the word “diversity,” as in “chief diversity officer” and “deputy chief diversity officer.” Chief diversity officers have become such a familiar part of the university scene that one executive recruitment firm, Hunt Scanlon, gushes they occupy “one of the most important positions for shaping the vision, culture and very face of institutions of higher learning from coast to coast.”

It’s a golden rule of academia that what US universities do today British universities will do tomorrow, but in a secretive and cut-price manner. A commitment to diversity is increasingly used as a tiebreaker in making academic appointments. When making applications for grants — the bane of the British academic’s life — candidates know that they have a much better chance of success if they explore woke themes. Some subjects — all those “studies” — are predicated on the assumptions of the inverted pyramid of virtue. Others, such as history, have replaced the old history of progress and promise with a new one of oppression and guilt.

British universities may not have access to the same gargantuan bureaucracies as their US cousins, though the bureaucrats they have are cut from the same ideological cloth. But they have got into the habit of relying on pressure groups to do some of the work for them. Stonewall stands ready (for a fee) to certify whether our seats of learning are LGBT+ friendly by measuring them against a diversity index and then enrolling them in its Diversity Champions scheme. Universities cannot receive research grants, the lifeblood of academia, unless they employ Athena Swan accredited “leads” who use Athena Swan accredited measures to show they are inclusive employers. The organization’s definition of diversity and inclusion involves hitting goals to increase the hiring of minorities, even if minorities constitute a majority of employees, and submitting employees to unconscious bias training.

The global business elite is also screening people for their WQ not just by using “diversity” as a criterion for selection but by soaking everything it does in woke ideology. Business schools devote far more effort to teaching about DEI (Diversity, Equity and Inclusion) than about maximizing shareholder value. Bain, the management consulting firm, celebrates “Womxn’s History Month.” The consultancy McKinsey talk about “equity,” conveniently ignoring that its business model depends on shoveling money into the pockets of partners while new recruits do all the grunt work. HSBC’s advertisements tell a rapturous story about our multicultural future. The ever-expanding list of companies that sponsor the annual gay pride celebrations include BAE, an arms manufacturer.

‘We are not an island. We are part of something far, far bigger’ HSBC advert in Birmingham, May 2021 (Getty)

Human resources departments are expanding their role in corporations from old-fashioned bread-and-butter questions — making sure that everyone is on PAYE, for example — to shaping the workforce. These diversity champions find it just as natural to employ a woke framework in making appointments as the old gatekeepers found it natural to employ an academic or professional framework. “Do our latest hires help us to hit our diversity targets? What can we do to eliminate the ever-present danger of discrimination? Are we being inclusive enough? What if our older employees harbor all sorts of unconscious biases?” The assumption is always the same: that members of ethnic minorities will not be able to make it on the basis of their own merits, but need a helping hand from a virtuous bureaucracy.

The public and charitable sectors are even more prone to such thinking. The National Health Service employs “lived experience” czars on £115,000 ($144,000) a year despite the health service’s dire financial state. Oxfam recently found the resources to publish an inclusive language guide that included convoluted arguments about when you can use the term “womxn” and when you can’t. (“Some trans people object to the phrase on the basis that trans women are women and the use of ‘womxn’ might suggest otherwise.”)

All this is not only changing the criteria whereby people are selected for elite positions; it is changing the people who are doing the selecting. This is not merely a struggle between the educated elite and regular people for control of the culture. It is a struggle within the educated class, with a new class of woke bureaucrats seizing power from the traditional gatekeepers of professional society, taking advantage of a combination of moral power (nobody wants to be accused of being a racist) and the growing self-absorption of professionals (many academics are more interested in publishing research than taking part in time-consuming admissions processes).

The return of inverted-pyramid thinking is replacing the concept of “inclusion” with something more sinister. It is becoming commonplace for US campuses to offer racially segregated orientation programs, dormitories, graduation ceremonies and social events. “People of color need spaces without white people,” proclaims Kelsey Blackwell, a writer, teacher and certified Somatic coach. The University of California at Santa Cruz not only has a Social Justice House but a LGBTQ&A floor within the house. Goldsmiths University in London has hosted events which debar white men from attending. A 2018 Young Labour Equalities conference excluded people who were not “diverse.” Sir Keir Starmer is doing his best to muzzle such thinking in his party in order not to frighten Middle England, but we can be sure that such ideas will return with force if he wins the next UK election.

The return of inverted-pyramid thinking is replacing ‘inclusion’ with something more sinister

The morality of all this is up for debate. (Though I personally find the return of race-based rights deeply worrying, I realize that many profoundly moral young people disagree with me equally strongly.) But the morality of replacing the old aristocracy of talent with an aristocracy of woke also needs to be weighed against two practical consequences. The first is that it will reduce economic efficiency, as we stuff more square pegs in round holes. Meritocratic societies and institutions are much more productive than non-meritocratic ones. Singapore is a more productive society than Sri Lanka (the two had roughly the same GDPs in 1960 before Lee Kuan Yew pioneered Singapore’s meritocratic revolution). The Nordic countries are more productive than Greece and Portugal. Public companies are more productive than family companies (unless family companies bring in professional managers or subject the younger generation to a vigorous weeding-out process).

The brain drain only flows in one direction: from the non-meritocratic to the meritocratic world. This process will be self-reinforcing. One of the most reliable laws of social affairs is Rowse’s law (named after the great historian A.L. Rowse), that without first-rate people to pull in the right direction, second-raters will always appoint third-raters and fourth-raters and so on in an accelerating avalanche of mediocrity.

Reducing your economic efficiency is a foolish thing to do at the best of times, because it condemns our children to a lower standard of living than we have enjoyed. It is suicidal at a time when an increasingly belligerent China is rediscovering the virtues of meritocracy, but this time by producing scientists and technologists, not Confucian scholars.

The second is that it politicizes the distribution of opportunities and jobs. One of the virtues of meritocracy is that it takes some of the heat out of job allocation: people with power try their hardest to give jobs to those who deserve them and people who are disappointed can take comfort from the fact that the system tried to be objective. But once you say there is nothing to the distribution of jobs and opportunities but the raw exercise of power, you encourage a free-for-all. And once you start deliberately privileging some groups over others on the basis of race, you reinforce ethnic enmity and reward ethnic power politics.

The new woke elite, if it continues to gain strength, is destined to rule over an increasingly divided and embittered society as people advance their interests through collective agitation rather than individual effort, and as economic growth becomes a thing of the past. Perhaps we should think a little harder about replacing the aristocracy of talent with the aristocracy of woke.

This article was originally published in The Spectator’s UK magazine. Subscribe to the World edition here.