Meritocracy has several definitions, one being “a system structured around advancement of people who are selected on the basis of individual achievement” (Littler, 2018, p. 24). The ideal meritocracy is one where leaders are determined based on the successes they achieved through hard work and perseverance. Although meritocracy has histories all around the world, its development is often tracked within Western countries.
Like any other system, meritocracy has undergone several developmental stages, from egalitarian government to sarcastic insults against the system to socialist, democratic, and modern meritocracy. One genealogical foundation is socialistic meritocracy, where income, property, education, and occupation are considered when determining one’s societal position (Littler, 2018). In the socialist system, only tangible qualities are investigated to determine if a person is worthy of leading. The socialist phenomenon is different than many Eastern variations of meritocracy, where spiritual enlightenment is the true goal of life, rather than monetary status (Littler, 2018).
Another type of meritocracy was social democratic meritocracy. In the social democratic version, high intelligence and maximized effort lead to worthy merits. This type was utilized as satirical judgement, where critics like former British Prime Minister Tony Blair would question the merits earned by the upper class, especially male subjects (Littler, 2018). Citizens under the social democratic meritocracy critiqued the system, claiming that women were not allowed equal opportunities to exhibit their talent and gained no merits. To fix the gendered quality of meritocracy, a heteronormative nuclear family was posed as the solution, where men earn their merit in the outside world and women displayed their strengths in the domestic realm (Littler, 2018).
The gendered quality of meritocracy has impacted women for generations. Previously, a woman’s merit was based on her ability to maintain a household and take care of the children. Intelligence was not necessary, only the ability to properly cook, clean, and nurture family. This domestic agency was extremely abundant before the 1960s, when women remained home and held little socioeconomic power. Meanwhile, males were sent into schools and acquired jobs, where their work ethic and wit determined their worth and merit. In this system, a family could only rise in social status by relying on the father, whose achievements and social-climbing elevated the entire family’s status.
Social mobility is a key concept in the Western premise of meritocracy. Social mobility states that a determined, savvy intellectual can use their wits to rise in class status, no matter their original starting point. Part of social mobility is attached to equality of opportunity, where people find apt work that coincides with their own talents. A person would then use those talents to rise and become the leader of that societal section.
To experience social mobility, physical and mental capabilities are now the determining factors for all sexes in the current neoliberal meritocracy. Neoliberalism is where societal development relies on individual entrepreneurial freedoms and economic power (Harvey, 2005). A government that enables open markets and private freedoms allow individuals to utilize their own intelligence and techniques to gain economic and social authority (Harvey, 2005). In this meritocratic system, the individual with intelligence and effective techniques would acquire enough economic and social power to rise to the top. If a high-achieving person is placed at the top of a nation, that leader can then implement their capabilities to improve the entire nation. The United States President, for example, is a position created for a successful person who could lead America to a bright future.
Neoliberalism is hyper-individualistic, which applies to the meritocratic principle of self-made achievements. A person’s hard work leads to success, and the success is then used to decide if they should experience social mobility.
Actions that count as success are classified by the society’s common sense. Neoliberalism’s endeavor for freedom influences social products by determining what actions are best to promote private entrepreneurial liberty. One social product influenced is common sense. According to Harvey (2005), common sense is a set of ideals derived from long-standing tradition that leads to popular consent. These ideals are altered by their current environment. Consequently, one’s interpretation of success, achievement, and worthiness of social mobility in a meritocratic society is influenced by the common sense in that period.
Although social mobility is present in an ideal meritocracy, it is not accounted for in the current, imperfect representations of meritocratic governments. In fact, the very roots of meritocracy is inequitable and questionable, as seen with their metaphors and ideas associated with meritocracy. For example, one twisted metaphor utilized in regards to meritocracy is the ladder of opportunity. The ladder of opportunity is supposed to symbolize a person starting at the bottom of social classes before making their way to the top. As one would expect, the climbing is done with a person’s individual aptitude. In an ideal world, those who have the wit and skill needed to thrive will climb the ladder, become a leader, and then guide their nation to success.
For example, the American public grading system and its corresponding job offers are a meritocratic system. In a typical grading system, students’ homework, class participation, miniature assignments, and finals all culminate into their overall grade. If a student works hard, they will achieve a high grade point average, also known as GPA. High GPAs then determine who leads in the school, as seen when class officer positions or summer internships often have a minimum GPA requirement. If a student has a low GPA, that classifies them as lazy, apathetic individuals who did not work hard enough. The public school grading system then works as a meritocracy where a hardworking intellectual can achieve more.
Although meritocracy and grading systems are useful in a utopian world, their application is imperfect in reality. The ladder of opportunity metaphor, for instance, is an imperfect meritocratic symbol. A traditional ladder is tall and narrow, meaning that a select few can fit at the top. A narrow ladder is seen when corporations have a few managers who are paid the most—CEO and CFO—while everyone working under them acquires less income. There is also the issue of people who have reached the top of the ladder choosing to hand down their privilege, rather than making their children work within the neoliberal world.
The GPA example also has limitations. A student’s GPA does not take into account mental disabilities or students having talents in one course but not another. The systems—meritocracy and GPA—are classist, where they are based on the assumption that everyone has access to the same resources. In schools, digital assignments or practice problems are hard to achieve when a low socioeconomic student does not have a computer at home. In the workforce, marginalized or poorer citizens do not have the same options as higher class people, thus restricting their ability to move up the ladder.
Meritocracy appears not only in grading systems, but also in filmic culture. Many Western films have focused on a main character working hard to improve their social status and gain happiness. These movies include The Thinning (Michael Gallagher, 2016) which emphasized mental capabilities, The Hunger Games (Gary Ross, 2012) where physical and mental excellence meant survival, and more.
One such film is Sorry to Bother You (Boots Riley, 2018). Sorry to Bother You follows Cash Green as he utilizes a “white voice” (Riley, 2018) to propel his position from ordinary telemarketer to power caller, which promises more income and privilege. In the movie, many minorities—like African Americans and Asian Americans—were ordinary telemarketers, who worked on the bottom floor and were paid the least. Power callers, who were drastically fewer in number than telemarketers, worked on the top floor and acquired a higher income. This allegorical movie even utilizes the image of a golden elevator to represent social mobility. A telemarketer can only become a power caller through hard work; they are then elevated dramatically in socioeconomic status. If the golden elevator is not enough, Sorry to Bother You also included a video montage to exhibit Cash climbing the social ladder. The montage depicts Cash’s home, where he migrates from living in his Uncle’s garage to owning a white, pristine apartment. Cash achieved this upgrade by changing his voice and behaving differently on the phone. Sorry to Bother You points out how entering the golden elevator meant having a white persona and no sense of individual identity.
As such, one can see that meritocracy, although perfect in an ideal situation, is discriminatory in the actual world. Yet, it remains prevalent and is taught to future generations.
Harvey, D. (2005). A brief history of neoliberalism (pp. 39-63). New York: Oxford University Press Inc.
Littler, J. (2018). Against meritocracy: Culture, power, and myths of mobility (pp. 23-47). London and New York: Routledge.
Image Attribution: “Home Baking Made Easy” by Tengrain is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0
Image Attribution: “The Ascent” by tomi.maxted is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Image Attribution: “Elevator Door, Toronto” by Ray Ordinario is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Written by Tamia Williams, 2019