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The Fall of the Meritocracy

A 1958 dystopian novel by a British sociologist contains eerie parallels to our present dysfunction and the crisis coming to a head.
Lord Young

The Covid-19 pandemic is so complex, so vast in scale, that I doubt any single future historian will be able to tell a unified story about the crisis and the global response to it. And any journalist or scholar attempting a synthesis today will find his work hampered by the fog of war that clouds many aspects of a still-“live” world-historical event. Yet if there’s one central thematic thread deserving urgent attention, surely it’s the question of meritocracy.

To wit: How did the West’s meritocratic elites, with all their scientific-technological prowess, end up driving their societies into a ditch of distrust, rancor, and division? What led the meritocracy to badly overplay its hand on lockdowns, masking, social distancing and, above all, vaccine mandates, triggering explosive popular uprisings like the one in Canada? It won’t do for the meritocracy’s apologists to blame the unenlightened and irrational mass of people who refuse to comply with what’s good for them, which would amount to circular reasoning: The whole promise of meritocratic governance is that the ruling class’s sheer intelligence and ability can overcome the messy antagonisms of “ordinary” politics—yet that, evidently, has not be the case.


We’d do well to turn to Michael Young, the British sociologist, Labour party peer, and author who coined the word “meritocracy” in a dystopian novel first published in 1958. The novel, The Rise of the Meritocracy, proved enormously influential on our side of the pond, especially among such heterodox thinkers as Christopher Lasch and Michael Lind. And deservedly so, for Young masterfully grasped trends underway in his time and projected them into the future.

Surprising for a sociologist’s attempt at fiction, The Rise of the Meritocracy is also a work of literary genius. Our narrator, for starters, is unreliable in the most hilarious fashion. He’s a “future” sociologist attempting to explain the turmoil that has engulfed meritocratic Britain in the early decades of the 21st century—right about now in our timeline.

A dutiful apologist for his regime, the narrator only just hints at what’s afoot: riots, labor walkouts, the “destruction of the atomic station at South Shields.” The prime minister blames “administrative failings,” and our narrator accepts the official line, only adding, “We also have to explain why administrative miscalculations, that in an ordinary year would have passed almost unnoticed, should on this occasion have provoked such fierce and concerted protest….”

Along the way, Young/the narrator describe fictional developments whose verisimilitude nearly 65 years later is downright astonishing. The oppositional ferment to the meritocratic regime, for example, is concentrated among the lower orders in the north of England, who direct their “hostility to London and the South.” The class geography pits working-class somewhere people in the north of England versus the anywhere meritocrats in the cosmopolis—which is to say, exactly along the lines that the actual Brexit vote shook out in 2016.

Long before Charles Murray published his Coming Apart, moreover, Young foresaw social polarization along the axis of I.Q. There were class distinctions in the past, our narrator tells us, but intelligence was evenly sprinkled among the classes. But ever since the mid-20th century, “the nature of the classes has changed. The talented have been given the opportunity to rise to the level which accords with their capacities, and the lower classes consequently reserved for those who are also lower in ability. The part is no longer the same as the whole.” Later: “The top of today are breeding the top of tomorrow to a greater extent than at any time in the past.” Indeed, the meritocrats use I.Q. tests and genetic histories to match couples and predict their babies’ intelligence; blessedly, we aren’t quite there yet.

We hear in the narrator’s most florid paeans to his society echoes of our own arrogant elites: “Civilization,” he proclaims,

does not depend upon the stolid mass, the homme moyen sensuel, but upon the creative minority, the innovator who with one stroke can save the labour of 10,000, the brilliant few who cannot look without wonder, the restless élite who have made mutation a social, as well as a biological, fact. The ranks of the scientists and technologists, the artists and the teachers, have been swelled, their education shaped to their high genetic destiny, their power for good increased. Progress is their triumph; the modern their monument.

Of course, there are losers, “casualties of progress,” bitter clingers, deplorables, Trumpers, Brexiteers, the rebellious truckers in Ottawa. The narrator rebuffs their resentments with the cool condescension of a Dr. Fauci: “Let us still recognize that those who complain of present injustice think they are talking about something real, and try to understand how it is that nonsense to us makes sense to them.”

The grievances of the low must be met, yes, but not with democratic give-and-take. “Today we frankly recognize that democracy can be no more than aspiration, and have rule not so much by the people as by the cleverest people; not an aristocracy of birth, not a plutocracy of wealth, but a true meritocracy of talent.” And things “work,” for a while. So where do they go wrong?

Our sociologist tracks the ruthlessness of the regime—though, of course, he doesn’t cast it in such normative terms—to a one-two punch dealt to the traditional family and traditional authority by a combination of capitalism and leftism. The pre-capitalist feudal order, he notes, upheld inheritance above all: of lineage, stability, wealth and prestige. Then came industrial capitalism, the machine that dislocated millions beginning in the 18th century and especially into the 19th. Capitalism weakened the family. Then the left, by promoting the principle of equality of opportunity against what remained of older structures, paradoxically inaugurated “an aristocracy of talent.”

The rising meritocrats then went to work on school curricula:

The private schools…gave too much attention to Athens and too little to the atom. Until the 1960s the Common Entrance Examination for public schools still covered Latin! But no science! The classical education received by the hereditary social classes of Britain was part of their undoing. It led them to overvalue the past, Rome and Athens as well as their own history.

That is to say, the meritocracy prizes practical science while deemphasizing history—with its humbling lessons, elegiac sensibility, and keen awareness of the limits of human mastery. Without those lessons, the social order begins to take on a truly sinister character.

For one thing, workplace “competition had to last for life.” Any measure of security in old age is lost. Hungry young strivers have no respect for seniority, time done, dues paid. “The union leaders claimed, in the interests of their members, that a man who had ‘come up the hard way’ by working his passage upwards was inherently superior to others of purely academic education.” But “there was no harder way of coming up than the grammar school.” Constant I.Q. testing unsettles social rankings: A bad score could throw life into a tailspin: “The managing director had to become an office mechanic in someone else’s firm if not his own; the professor an assistant in the library.”

Automation and “intelligent” management render vast multitudes redundant: “More and more was demanded of the skilled men, less and less of the unskilled, until finally there was no need for unskilled men.” Eventually, employers become “fully conscious of the need to reduce labour costs to a minimum, and, until then, they did not know how heavy was the load of passengers they were carrying on their payroll.” As a result, the class distinctions are far sharper than those that prevailed under feudalism: “Under the new dispensation the division between the classes has been sharper than it used to be under the old, the status of the upper classes higher, and that of the lower classes lower.”

Eventually, there is a complete separation of the classes:

What can [the ruling classes] have in common with people whose education stopped at sixteen or seventeen, leaving them with the merest smattering of dog-science? How can they carry on a two-sided conversation with the lower classes when they speak another, richer, and more exact language? Today, the élite know that…their social inferiors are inferiors in other ways as well—that is, in the two vital qualities, of intelligence and education, which are given pride of place in the more consistent value system of the twenty-first century. Hence of our characteristic modern problems: some members of the meritocracy…have become so impressed with their own importance as to lose sympathy with the people whom they govern, and so tactless that even people of low calibre have been quite unnecessarily offended.

You can probably guess where this is going. The pace of the labor strikes, violent clashes, acts of terrorism and sabotage, etc. accelerates. Yet to the end our narrator retains his “scientific” equipoise. The masses, he insists, pose no systemic threat. “Without intelligence in their heads, the lower classes are never more menacing than a rabble, even if they are sometimes sullen, sometimes mercurial, not yet completely predictable….”

Then comes Young’s brilliant ending, in the form of a footnote reporting that “since the author of this essay was himself killed in [an uprising] at Peterloo, the publishers regret that they were not able to submit to him the proofs of his manuscript…. The failings of sociology are as illuminating as its successes.”

Qui habet aures audiendi, audiat.