Richard emphasizes that one need not be some kind of egoist or a pinched individualist unable to value a common enterprise to think this. ~Will Wilkinson
That’s probably true. It just happens to be the case that a lot of the people who think this tend to be egoists or pinched individualists unable to value a common enterprise, or more to the point they tend to be people who think that a community is a “common enterprise” rather than a group of people who share some fundamental things in common that they did not choose and that these shared things actually matter. They don’t tend to believe that community is something that creates obligations to which they never consented and which they cannot rightly cast aside. It is instead something that oppresses and drags down. But if communities never served other functions they would cease to exist and no one would keep reproducing them.
I cannot think of anything worse for meritocracy than to insist that it must be opposed to solidarity and community. This is actually to reinforce the very worst conceivable kinds of community solidarity (and, yes, there are both healthy and unhealthy kinds of this), according to which merit and accomplishment are the marks of the sell-out and meritocracy is the preserve of the deracinated individual. In many communities, such a stark opposition will lend support to the most self-defeating rejection of upward mobility by making success appear to be betrayal. The idea that you could go out into the world, advance by merit and accomplishment and then return home to contribute what you have gained to the people in your community evidently frightens the critics of solidarity. What is rather oppressive is the assumption that community loyalty must be expressed through discouraging achievement. This is simply false, but it is a useful caricature of community loyalty and communitarianism that allows the critic to reject these things while claiming that he is protecting meritocracy in the process. Prof. Fox said it well:
it is not as though being authentic to one’s race or ethnicity or community permanently sets one apart from any system of economic responsibility and success.
Indeed, depending on the culture of the community, solidarity will facilitate the economic responsibility and success of the members of that group and provide opportunities that might not have been available. One need only consider the experience of Diasporan Armenians around the world as one example of this, or the experience of Chinese in various southeast Asian countries and in the West, or the real, if sometimes stereotyped and exaggerated, “desi connection.” Community self-help, rather than giving the impression of “each man for himself,” represents a better path to improving conditions in any given community.
The world is a big place, and we needn’t limit our attention to the little corner of it that we’re born into.
No, no one is making us do this, but why wouldn’t we be most concerned with bettering our little corner? More to the point, if “self-chosen communities” have value, as Chappell says, why would anyone interested in encouraging meritocracy not want to encourage people to choose to remain in the communities to which they did not originally consent to belong? There are unchosen obligations that you can run away from or try to ignore, but there seems to be a problem mainly when people respond to these obligations as if they were onerous tasks. Why not choose to fulfill those obligations? Your community and your tradition make you who you are, even if you reject them or move away from them. Is that what bothers these critics so much? That their identity is ultimately bound up with things beyond their control? If so, why not embrace your community and then make the best of it on your terms?
Then there is this:
We should want as many people as possible to join the creative classes — to vacate the working class and its culture, not hold people there and reinforce it.
Isn’t this simply a roundabout way of saying that “we” want people who tend to have stronger communitarian and solidaristic sentiments to become more like “us,” which is to say to have much weaker sentiments of this kind? But this is not even to call for embourgeoisement of an earlier kind because, as Prof. Lukacs noted in the April Chronicles, “[w]e now live in a largely classless society.” He continued:
Hundreds of millions of isolated individuals, men, women, couples unsure of where they belong or should belong, unaware of their neighbors and of the community where they temporarily reside. These conditions of lonesomeness and impermanence include a breakdown of real communications between people who are otherwise told that they live amid the marvels of the Information Age.
This has, and will have, enormous consequences not only in the arts and in literature but in the very assets of people, including their families and their homes. Family, house, home–the meaning of each of these words has been leached out from the minds of so many people. More than 200 years ago, Samuel Johnson was–and remains as almost always–right: “To be happy at home is the end of all human endeavor.” (Dr. Johnson, too, regretted the lives of people who are “afraid to go home and think.”) To be happy away from home is now the aim of much American endeavor–surely of the young and, alas, of so many adults, too. A centripetal tendency–and part and parcel of the disappearance of a once estimable and recognizable middle class.
Instead of encouraging people to stay at home or return home, those speaking on behalf of meritocracy seem intent on telling people to flee. There ought to be some way to make it possible to have some reasonable possibility of upward mobility without modern nomadism and rootlessness, but to start we would need to stop resisting the idea that what Prof. Luakcs calls “lonesomeness and impermanence” are actually desirable things.