The Rise of the Meritocracy – Michael Young

I’ve long been fascinated by Michael Young. He singlehandedly wrote the 1945 Labour Party manifesto and was instrumental in sweeping the party into power in that year’s election.

He founded the Open University, the University of the Third Age, the Consumers’ Association, the National Consumer Council, and many more organisations — but for more information, look here.

I’ve yet to read Asa Briggs’s biography of him (it’s sitting by my bed now), but I have read Family and Kinship In East London (of which more another day) and, finished today The Rise of the Meritocracy.

TROTM is a fascinating book on may levels. It’s essentially a satire, written from the perspective of a future in 2034 where the metrology of Francis Galton (a relative of Charles Darwin) has, essentially, been elevated to the state religion. Everyone regularly has their IQ tested, and the dystopian society which results is based on the results of these IQ tests. The elite are the “meritocracy”, who, with immense arrogance, believe that their superiority over the other castes of society is fully justified by their superior test scores.

In a sense, Young can’t get it wrong. Since this is a satire, any of the prophecies he makes for 2034 have either come true (in which case – well done, Michael!), or they have failed to become true, presumably because we have heeded the warnings of the book (well done again, Michael!).
Interestingly, the Prime Minister in 2034 makes speeches from Kircaldy (although he appears to be Conservative. You can draw your own conclusions (Gordon Brown at 83?).

The key reason the book is remembered is that in it, Young coined the word “meritocracy”, a term which he intended to stand alongside other negative “-ocracies” like gerontocracy,  kleptocracy,  plutocracy and theocracy.  The main arguments against this are derived from the questions (1) how can one determine merit?; and (2) who gets to set the criteria as to what is meritorious or not?. Meritocracy has the unfortunate side effect of giving the ruling caste intellectual justification as to why they are superior, (and why the proles/plebs/epsilons are, therefore, inferior). The book ends in the (bloody, we assume) death of the narrator at the hands of the revolting plebs.

Anyway: themes relevant today:

1. Obsession with data collection and its use as a means of social engineering;
2. Economic analysis being the most important factor in determining the effectiveness of a state/society.
3. The corollary of social worth and money.
4. Women and careers vs. childcare.

There is also an interesting section on the decline of the labour movement, which from a certain angle, can be seen as prophesying the rise of Thatcherism (and the necessity of the Labour party to embrace the middle classes in order to retain power, a la New Labour).

Finally, in a heartbreaking act of staggering gracelessness, George Steiner delivered a lecture to inaugurate the fledgling Young Foundation which lambasted The Rise of the Meritocracy, and even attempted to refute Young’s coinage of the word. Young was a fellow of Churchill College, Cambridge, and Steiner still is. I assume they overlapped, and that the regularly used to beat the buggery out of each other in the shadow of Barbara Hepworth’s Four Square Walkthrough. I also note that Young’s papers are in the Churchill Archive centre. I just hope that the librarian is wary about letting Steiner have the key.

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2 Responses

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