Meritocracy simply means kicking away the ladder
A new political party has popped up in the Western Cape. They call themselves The Cape Party.
That would be cute if it were not divisive.
Actually, divisive is much closer to the truth.
The Cape Party has an eye towards declaring the Western Cape as a sovereign and independent state with “meritocracy” as a cornerstone public policy.
Let’s forget the virtual insanity of The Cape Party that is so apparent in the party’s online video of the ritual slaughter of a watermelon on the beach ... It’s the idea of meritocracy that is a bit disturbing.
Meritocracy is one of those concepts that have a nice ring. Like “realism” or “progress” or “enlightenment”.
If you question “realism” you are assumed to be “unreal” or you’re accused of believing in unicorns.
Oppose “enlightenment” and you are accused of wanting to remain in the dark ages.
By the same token, any opposition to merit-based democracy, or meritocracy, suggests, incorrectly, that one cares nought for rewarding excellence and that you’re opposed to mobility or advancement based on merit.
It’s all rather tedious, but people actually cling to power and privilege based on original injustice, and would imagine that all decisions (after they are embedded) be made on the basis of merit.
Under rules of meritocracy, someone is rewarded on the basis of ability and effort.
On this basis, success would follow naturally. This is the basic assumption.
What this approach ignores is the way that a range of intervening variables, like race, gender or ethnicity or immigrant status, can and do affect outcomes.
One study produced by Emilio Castilla of the MIT Sloan School of Management examined the way that human resource practices, like pay-forperformance, actually pan out in the workplace.
In one case study, Castilla examined about 9,000 workers employed as support staff in a service-sector company.
The company prided itself on diversity and established a merit-driven compensation system that rewarded high-level performance, and all employees equitably.
The outcomes were especially non-meritocratic.
Women, ethnic minorities and immigrant workers received smaller increases in compensation compared with white men – notwithstanding the fact that they did the same work, under the same conditions with the same performance score.
And so, despite the stated objective that “performance” was “the primary basis for all salary increases”, the reality was that women, ethnic minorities and immigrants needed “to work harder and obtain higher performance scores in order to receive similar salary increases to white men”.
While embedded and privileged individuals in positions of power and influence within institutions are often wedded to the idea of meritocracy, politicians – mainly those on the right of the spectrum – drive this merit-based system from a macro-level.
In September 2016, Theresa May insisted that Britain was committed to meritocracy.
Donald Trump drove home the point that immigration into the US would be based on “merit”.
The problem with this strict “merit-based” approach is that it conceals inequalities and injustices in the original position.
I would love to run a race against Usain Bolt, but I cannot do so on merit alone.
I would need at least a 50% head start.
But in meritocratic systems, inequality is not recognised.
Privilege in the original position, and then handed down to generations, is ignored. A binary is drawn.
If you’re not successful, it is all your own fault. You should simply work harder.
This exhortation to work harder and longer is rubbish.
If hard work were all it took to be wealthy, prosperous and successful, the women working 12-15 hours a day in fields across Africa, Asia, Latin America, Eastern Europe and Russia would be stupendously wealthy.
It is indeed in the workplace where inequality is reproduced. Research results underscore the point that people who are in positions of power and influence make decisions on whom to employ and on mobility on the basis of gender, ethnicity or age.
This tends to advantage dominant groups, or groups already in positions of power and influence – who may, in the first instance, have achieved their own status precisely through the exercise of privilege, nepotism or cronyism.
In this way, meritocracy tends to exacerbate inequality.
Simply by stating principles of meritocracy makes people believe that they are doing things and making decisions on the basis of merit, or fairly, or in the interests of excellence.
And so, when The Cape Party, or those liberals (and other colleagues and compatriots) now express their commitment to meritocracy, we always have to ask (if we’re allowed), how, exactly, did you get your position of power and influence?
Who helped you along the way?
Like the rest of South Africa, the Western Cape is profoundly unequal.
This inequality runs along racial lines.
A new-fangled meritocracy will not change that.
At least not for as long as decision-making is not directed at the organic causes of inequality.
I am pretty sure that the advocates of meritocracy did not have much difficulty climbing the ladders of success – and now they are simply kicking away the ladder...