Winners & Losers: Fuck false meritocracy
In my lifetime I’ve seen free market economics being applied to everything.
This creates a false meritocracy, where only popular or successful cultural artefacts (and, indeed, people) are deemed worthwhile. Blindly, the majority of us accept this — even those who make culture, even artists.
To be financially unsuccessful means you are a failure. To be popular is evidence of quality. What total, utter bullshit. We have internalised these feelings, along with a glut of shame around wealth, status, class and concpicuous consumerism. We enforce it on one another.
It is time to unpick a few stitches in this awful tapestry.
You cannot judge the arts by how much profit they make. If you could, Mrs Brown’s Boys would be automatically more worthwhile than the work of Chekhov. That’s a blunt comparison, but it holds true. Anyone who wants to argue that there is quantatively more ‘joy’ brought about by Mrs Brown’s Boys is welcome to the argument — it’s up to you whether you want to equate laughter with enjoyment, or contemplation with boredom. A popularity-driven culture tends towards blandness because it avoids creative risk-taking. To take creative risks, you must be willing to fail and learn. We reward repetition; we merely tolerate innovation.
You cannot judge NHS departments by their profitability, either — this leads to cutbacks to essential services and the disenfranchisement of service users who have a right to the best care available. America’s health system is a financialised genocide enacted on the poor, and applauded by the majority on the grounds of social Darwinism. That is what free market economics promised us, and it was one of Gideon’s major policy initiatives to deliver it. If you want fair access to health care, you must be prepared to pay for it from the public purse — free market principles should have nothing to do with it.
You cannot judge music by record sales — otherwise it would be widely acknoweledged that Justin Bieber writes better music than Mozart. Yes, I am using a sledgehammer to crack a walnut. The comparisons here are reductio ad absurdum. That is because you need an absurd comparison to hammer home the absurdity of the premise of the free market — that the ‘cream will rise to the top,’ and that something which loses money or performs inefficiently is no good. I think a great many of us know this to be specious bullshit, yet we have been conditioned to accept it.
If anyone gives you this argument, resist it. Most of all, resist it in yourself. When you hear those voices telling you your lack of celebrity or wealth or esteem in the eyes of your peers matters, you must find a way to fight back.
Fight it we must. The idea that a competetive market is the best solution for all endeavours is utterly toxic. Subjecting things like health, education and the arts to the rigours of competition-dependent funding produces this false meritocracy — a culture where financial success or failure is the only metric by which a project can be judged. It also accounts for a managerial culture in universities, galleries, museums; in hospitals, GP surgeries, schools. Everything measured in terms of ‘efficiency’ not ‘efficacy’.
Then there are the so-called ‘old boys networks’ — vast, interconnected webs of privilege which serve as barriers to entry for those ‘othered’ by mainstream society. Not only is competition stacked against a great many of us, access to that unfair competition is limited; doled out spitefully and in small amounts. In order to be anything — a painter, a doctor, a teacher — you must play the game. Know the right people. Act the right way. Enter the competition. And that means aceepting the terms.
We have — nearly all of us — blithely accepted this, because to do so is pragmatic. The market is accepted as ‘post-ideologoical’ — a non-political force. The vagaries of capitalism, the triumph of the bland that results from false meritocratic thinking, the ruined lives which fall through the cracks of our newly ‘efficient’ public systems, are no longer part of political discourse — they are the will of the market.
The market is that which, according to the popular narrative, ‘triumphed over socialism’ when the Berlin wall fell. What the market wants, it gets. What it doesn’t know it wants? Well… that can be taught.
We must challenge this logic, first and foremost in ourselves. I am sure you do not need to be told the stakes, but our adherence to competetiveness and profit is literally killing us. The solutions suggested usually attempt to ameliorate the effects of capitalism, rather than radically reimagining it. This is not enough.
The big problem with people accepting this and changing things is partly to do with our having internalised the values of an older generation. The baby boomers’ acquisitive, greed-based approach to liberalism castrated the future. It has resulted in the slow death of critical thinking, and has produced not a meritocracy, but blind populism. For good or ill, these are the values of our parents’ generation, in sum if not in intent. And it is not easy to silence their voices amongst our own internal chatter.
You must forgive them. Their expansionist dreams were born in a world with just 3 billion humans living on it. The idea of growth seems natural to them, normal. For someone of my generation, limitless growth is a thing to be viewed with horror. Of course they want to ‘fix’ or ‘manage’ capitalism — it is the central narrative of their identity, one which centres self-expression. Their cultural revolution achieved many milestones, but in the final analysis, the Boomers were prepared to bargain down to mere moderation and reform of the market and of society. We, as a generation, are arguably far more experienced and equipped to deal with what we face — capitalism’s collapse. We have seen our own narratives, assumptions and dreams collapse before our eyes.
And yet, their voice is strong in our heads. So many of my own inner narratives are framed in terms of ‘growth’ or ‘progress’ — so many of my achievements self-defined as ‘failures’ because they did not deliver the things that older generations took for granted, like security, stability, growth, or progression. These are myths to many my age. We must stop trying to attain them. We must stop wanting them.
Hierarchical structures and hegemony are what led to this false meritocracy — the free market is just the instrument. And yet its values permeate us so perfidiously that we completely internalise them, we judge ourselves by their metrics. If we are to transcend this era of competetive shaming, we must kill the cop inside our heads.
What is the alternative? Merely existence. A belief that the right to be here, to exist, is enough. That human life has some dignity, some meaning, even when it has no goal, no outcome, no proof if its magnificence. When it cannot be monetised. That art can be an expression of that beauty without being a marketable commodity. That all should be entitled to dignity, and health, and self-respect.
We must do away with ‘earning’ and ‘attainment’ and ‘success’. Competitiveness may be in our nature, but nature can change. It evolves. We aren’t defective — we are mutants. We were born under a philosophy of competition, but that is not all we can be. We were also born to collaborate. We were born to invent. Born to dream.
Go out and get your hands dirty.