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Judge it on its merits

Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy
by Christopher Hayes
Crown, 314 pages.

Twilight of the ElitesOur understanding of the world has some catching up to do. The big political themes, ideas and experiments of the 20th century — socialism, the welfare state, nationalism, communism, free marketeering, deregulation, big government, small government, civil rights, human rights, globalisation and free trade — these are all ways of making sense of a world that is quite different to the one we live in today.

Clearly we need new ideas, but first we need to understand why the old ones no longer work.

Two signature characteristics of our times are the emptying of public discourse of questions of the good, and the pervasive lack of faith in basic social institutions. The two are obviously related, but we are still awaiting a scholar who can tell that story persuasively.

Chris Hayes’ book Twilight of the Elites focusses on the latter problem — what he calls the ‘crisis of authority’ in which trust in the ‘pillar’ institutions of society has eroded to dangerous historical lows. Hayes is writing about America, but much is transferrable to the other advanced Western democracies.

Taking stock of just the last decade, Hayes begins by reminding us just how much institutional failure we have seen — the US presidential election that took six weeks to declare a winner and was eventually decided by a bizarre Supreme Court ruling, the collapse of Enron in what was then the largest corporate bankruptcy in history, the Iraq war prosecuted on grounds of weapons of mass destruction that never existed, Hurricane Katrina and the ensuing social disaster, the Catholic Church child sexual abuse scandal, widespread substance abuse scandals in sport and the worst financial disaster in 80 years.

What links all these institutional failures together? Many will find Hayes’ answer here surprising. He wants to point the finger not so much at the elite class, but at the process by which they are produced — the meritocracy.

Meritocracy is in many ways the essence of the American Dream. It offers the promise that with hard work and enough talent, you too can be successful, no matter where you started from. It is the promise of social mobility, which is not at all concerned with equal outcomes but which is deeply concerned with equal opportunities. It’s ok to have a class of the rich and famous, the stylish, successful and fabulously well-off, provided they’ve earned it. Not an aristocracy by birth or of wealth, but of merit.

Hayes’ book then is really a study of American meritocracy. Perhaps not surprisingly, he finds that America’s elite class is precisely an aristocracy of birth and wealth, and that opportunities are far from equal. But, crucially, he says the majority of people believe social standing is based on merit, whether it be the elites themselves who are convinced it is their hard work and intelligence that got them where they are, or the aspiring working and middle classes who hope one day to join the ranks of elite. Most perverse of all of course is when success in itself becomes evidence of meritocratic virtue — the people at the top must deserve to be there, how else would they have got there? And its inverse formulation — the poor must be lazy and undeserving otherwise they wouldn’t be poor.

Hayes is quite methodical in his research and provides several case studies to support his argument, including the banking and finance industry, the baseball league and the US government. But the most engrossing chapter of the book is about a New York public school that selects its students purely on a meritocratic basis and deliberately sets out to avoid favourable treatment for any reason — ‘if Michael Bloomberg’s daughter took the test and didn’t pass, she wouldn’t get in.’ It is here where Hayes’ critique of meritocracy is at its sharpest, as he shows how despite its best efforts, the school cannot help but end up with a cohort that represent means rather than merit. In a stunning moment of clarity, we hear from one student of the school who has worked all of this out for himself and who announces as much at a graduation speech in front of the whole school, its staff and the families of its students.

Meritocracy then turns out not to be so meritocratic after all. But what exactly is the crisis of authority? Hayes is suggesting that the deep lack of faith in social institutions comes about when enough people begin to suspect that the social ‘contract’ is rigged, or at least seriously broken. By contrast, what is currently the most trusted institution in America? The military. Here is an institution whose values are perceived as more or less intact, where meritocratic conviction still persists.

When it comes to solutions, it becomes clear that Hayes is a better diagnostician than physician. He wants to make meritocracy more meritocratic, and has rightly observed that equal opportunities can only be possible with a certain degree of equal outcomes. But all he can really do is reach weakly for a certain set of progressive liberal policies that seem unlikely to gain any traction in the US.

That Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy peters out somewhat towards the end is not to undermine its larger achievement, which is to ask serious questions about the health of American society, and, more importantly, identify a lever by which the answers might be pulled into focus.

It is now an urgent task for other social thinkers to design a new meritocracy, or something better. I say urgent because there is already much fine work by historians who have documented how a deep and widespread crisis of authority marks an imminent societal collapse. ◾

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