CNBC reported recently of powerful Bahraini banker Khalid Abdulla-Janahi’s call for a “culture of meritocracy,” an appeal accompanied by the assertion that “[c]apital needs stability,” to be provided of course by the state. He added that meritocracy was consistent with the people’s desire for “dignity,” that the goal was to “restore confidence” in the financial system. The words of this magnate of the Arab financial establishment reveal more of the foundational fallacies of statism than perhaps he realized, hinting at what the state’s “meritocracy” really means.
Although entirely defined by and dependent on the use of force, the state survives by taking advantage of the lie that its system is one of voluntary relationships and rewarding hard work. “Meritocracy,” then, becomes the explanation for the class structure that exists today, allaying the concerns of those who bother to consider the division of wealth (the “have”/“have not” divide) at all.
We can all rest assured, we’re told, that our enlightened bosses know best and that their decisions are based on careful deliberation of technical specifics that we simpletons couldn’t understand anyway. The substance of American meritocracy, though, does not match its attentively cultivated reputation.
In Organization Theory, Kevin Carson quotes Joe Bageant as maintaining that, in spite of America’s meritocratic mythos, “[t]he empire needs only about 20-25% of its population at the very most to administrate and perpetuate itself.” That class of managers is made up of the “caterers” to the rarified top of the corporate heap, while the remainder of the populace comprises “the production machinery of the empire.”
Carson goes on to demonstrate that, rather than genuinely educating, the state’s school system, from kindergarten through graduate school, manufactures disciplined, uncritical cogs in the state-corporate machine.
The class composition of the state has always been based on what is popularly called “the Noble Lie,” an idea famously illuminated in Plato’s masterwork of political philosophy, The Republic. Plato held that the good or ideal society, the one that would provoke the proper virtues, had to be based on an “ingenious falsehood” that would protect the purity of the ruling class and keep everyone content in their place in society.
After setting out the three classes to be established by the lie, Plato explained that there would be a few from each level of stratification who could experience social mobility, either upward or downward. Still, he warned against the possibility of members of the lowest class — born with “copper or iron” in their souls — ascending to power; “there is an oracle,” he wrote, “which declares that the city shall then perish when it is guarded by iron or copper.”
We’re taught the same today, that society would crumble around us if not for the watchful stewardship of the state and its elites. Nothing frightens the Middle East’s ruling class, those relying on the Noble Lie, more than the class awareness implicit in recent popular movements; it is necessary for them to undermine the idea that a society can be exploitative of the laboring class, can allow a small elite conquest through coercion, while nonetheless allowing a level of “social mobility.”
Free market anarchists regard the meritocratic credo of the state capitalism as an integral organ of that oppressive system not because we see all people as possessed of the same abilities, but because it is not through any ability worth having (i.e., ingenuity, perseverance, conscientiousness, etc.) that the power elite now rule. Even granting the ridiculous premise that proper virtue did lead them into their positions of power, those positions in and of themselves are no more justifiable, no less dependent on aggression.
And it is those dominant positions from which an idle few conscript us into the army of toil, and that anarchists hope to excise from society forever. The Middle East’s masters will do everything they can to prop up their warped notion of meritocracy in order to vindicate their continued theft from working people. The people of Bahrain and of the entire region should look with skepticism on pleas for meritocracy, the flimsy coverings of a monopoly system nothing like a free market.
Translations for this article:
- Spanish, La “Meritocracia” en Medio Oriente.