I recently reread The Revolt of the Elites, by Christopher Lasch – one of my favorite writers. One of the most important themes in the book is his contrast of the Jeffersonian democratic ideal to the meritocratic ideal that replaced it.

Under the old, populist conception, what mattered was the class structure at any given time. The ideal was the wide diffusion of property ownership, with the great majority in the producing classes having a material base for economic independence. The advocates of the democratic ideal, as it existed through the first half of the nineteenth century,

understood that extremes of wealth and poverty would be fatal to the democratic experiment…. Democratic habits, they thought – self-reliance, responsibility, initiative–were best acquired in the exercise of a trade or the management of a small holding of property. A “competence,” as they called it, referred both to property itself and to the intelligence and enterprise required by its management. It stood to reason, therefore, that democracy worked best when democracy was distributed as widely as possible among the citizens.

The point can be stated more broadly: Democracy works best when men and women do things for themselves, with the help of their friends and neighbors, instead of depending on the state.

The average member of the producing classes should rest secure in the knowledge that he would be able to support himself in the future, without depending on the whims of an employer. The purpose of education was to produce a well-rounded individual. It aimed at the wide diffusion of the general competence needed by ordinary people for managing their own affairs, on the assumption that they retained control over the main forces affecting their daily lives.

When Lincoln argued that advocates of free labor “insisted on universal education,” he did not mean that education served as a means of upward mobility. He meant that citizens of a free country were expected to work with their heads as well as their hands…. Advocates of free labor took the position… that “heads” and “hands” should cooperate as friends; and that [each] particular head, should direct and control that particular pair of hands.

The meritocratic philosophy, on the other hand, holds that the functions of “hands” and “head” should be exercised by distinct classes of people, with the “head” class managing the “hands” class. “Social mobility” means simply that members of the “hands” class should have the opportunity to advance into the “head” class if they’re willing to go to school for twenty years and abase themselves before enough desk jockeys.

The shift from the democratic to the meritocratic ideal reflected the transition from a middle class based on widespread small property ownership, to a New Middle Class (described in an earlier post) based on position within a large organization.

The meritocratic philosophy, as Lasch described it, called not for rough equality of condition, but only for social mobility (defined as the rate of “promotion of non-elites into the professional-managerial class”).

The new managerial and professional elites… have a heavy investment in the notion of social mobility–the only kind of equality they understand. They would like to believe that Americans have always equated opportunity with upward mobility…. But a careful look at the historical record shows that the promise of American life came to be identified as social mobility only when more hopeful interpretations of opportunity had become to fade.

Through most of the nineteenth century, Americans viewed as abnormal both a large class of propertyless wage laborers, and the ownership of economic enterprise by an absentee rentier class that lived entirely off the returns on accumulated wealth. Such things were associated with the decadence and corruption of the Old World.

Lincoln denounced as the “mud-sill theory” the idea “that nobody labors unless someone else, owning capital, somehow, by the use of that capital, induces him to it.” He contrasted to this the small-r republican ideal, that “a large majority are neither hirers nor hired.”

One of Lasch’s most telling comments on meritocracy was this:

Social mobility does not undermine the influence of elites; if anything, it helps to solidify their influence by supporting the illusion that it rests solely on merit. It merely strengthens the likelihood that elites will exercise power irresponsibly, precisely because they recognize so few obligations to their predecessors or to the communities they profess to lead.

This attitude was demonstrated, in spades, by one of Joe Bageant’s correspondents:

In your essay “Sons of a Laboring God“, you wrote: “Anyone who actually believes that all these poor working puds can beat this system, lift themselves up by their bootstraps, is either a neo-con ideologue or the child of advantage.” I grew up on welfare. I had no central heat, our well ran dry most summers for up to a month, and at one point I only had two pairs of ripped, ill-fitting jeans and five stained T-shirts to wear for several months.

I starved my way through college and am now making $75,000 a year — and I’m only 27. I made it through by the skin of my teeth, fearing every moment that I wouldn’t make tuition, that I’d be kicked out of the dorms and have nowhere to live. When they gave me my diploma, I was crying so hard I couldn’t see. I forgot to shake the dean’s hand. It wasn’t easy, but with a little sacrifice it was possible. Upward mobility in the U.S. is neither a myth nor a pipe dream.

The reason these people you talk about can’t move up in life is nobody’s fault but their own…. There’s no reason they can’t go to college. They just don’t want to.

This “anyone who’s willing to work hard enough on pyramids can grow up to be Pharaoh” argument is, of course, a classic fallacy of composition: Bageant claims it’s impossible for “all these poor working puds” (emphasis added) to advance in the meritocracy, and the correspondent thinks an example of one person doing so proves Bageant wrong.

You can’t read an editorial page or a mass newsweekly without seeing some version of the argument for education, education, and more education as the cure for all of our class disparities. It’s regurgitated alike by technocratic liberals, and by neoconservative intellectuals (and if you scratch one of the latter, you find a technocratic liberal). Bageant quickly demolished it.

Look at it this way: The empire needs only about 20-25% of its population at the very most to administrate and perpetuate itself — through lawyers, insurance managers, financial managers, college teachers, media managers, scientists, bureaucrats, managers of all types and many other professions and semi-professions.

What happens to the rest? They are the production machinery of the empire and they are the consumers upon the empire depends to turn profits. If every one of them earned a college degree it would not change their status, but only drive down wages of the management class, who are essentially caterers to the corporate financial elites who govern most things simply by controlling the availability of money at all levels, to to bottom, hence your hard struggle to pay for college in an entirely capitalist profit driven economy….

Clawing down basic things like an education in such a competitive, reptilian environment makes people hard. And that’s what the empire wants, hardassed people in the degreed classes managing the dumbed down, over-fed proles whose mental activity consists of plugging their brains into their television sets so they can absorb the message to buy more, and absorb themselves in the bread and circus spectacles provided them through profitable media corporations operating mainly as extensions of the capitalist state’s propaganda system….

Right now we are seeing the proletarianization of college graduates, as increasingly more of them are forced to take service and labor jobs. (Remember that it only takes a limited number to directly or indirectly manage the working masses, which these days includes workers like hospital technicians, and a thousand other occupations we have not traditionally thought of as working class.)

This entry was posted on Friday, March 28th, 2008. 

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