Why the meritocracy is not viewed as a legitimate ruling class
Preaching equality while creating inequality
The bourgeoisie did not invent the division of society into classes, but by cloaking that division in an ideology that renders it illegitimate, they tinged it with suffering.
– François Furet
In my last post I expressed an interest in the upside of having an hereditary aristocracy, prompted by reading the very good novel A Gentleman in Moscow. Understandably, I got some objections. We are democrats, after all. Readers of Archedelia may have noticed that I sometimes make noises in the direction of populism, no less.
To recap and expand, I suggested that in an aristocratic society, the preoccupation of the nobles with upholding standards – of courtesy, for example – ties them to the common good, because standards ennoble all who aspire to meet them. The world must be kept in order. By virtue of education in the liberal arts (as against the “servile” or mechanical arts), they are acquainted with those higher things that properly concern all people, but which require leisure to cultivate. Less subject to the necessities of bare life, they are the caretakers of a common culture. They owe their prestige to a distant past that they cannot take credit for, so they are keen that it should be remembered. Their awareness of birth and lineage makes them prone to regard their position in society like an office: something they occupy for contingent reasons, with a duty to pass on undiminished in the great chain of begetting.
I am offering an ideal character type here, not a realistic ethnography of feudal society. Stay with me.
The nobleman may be contrasted with the meritocrat, who occupies his station by virtue of his intelligence (as certified by gatekeeping institutions) and his hard work. He is emphatically an individual. Nobody handed him anything. He doesn’t own land and isn’t tied to any particular place; he may have been plucked from the hinterlands by the SAT test and groomed to enter the labor market of the global, managerial economy. He may or may not have children. If he does, he will try to pass on every advantage to them, but this is done primarily by accumulating enough money so his children will have a shot at entry to those same gatekeeping institutions. After that, they are on their own. He passes on to them an open-ended opportunity, not a definite form of life. The meritocrat owes nothing to those who came before, and likely finds it hard to imagine what shape his children’s lives will take. Living within the horizon of his own life, likely thousands of miles from the place of his birth, it is perfectly natural that he should not feel any special responsibility to sustain a culture. He may even work in the machinery of culture-replacement, as it pays well.
The figure I have called the meritocrat is named “the bourgeois” by François Furet, the pre-eminent historian of the French Revolution. His account is worth reproducing here at length, and not only because it helps to illuminate a contrast between the world of the Count and that of the meritocrat. In his final book, The Passing of an Illusion, Furet turned from his deep, lifelong study of the French Revolution to the 20th century, finding it too marked by “the revolutionary passion.” This passion is something we have been getting reacquainted with during the great upheavals of the last dozen years.
Crucially, Furet traces the revolutionary passion to a contradiction at the heart of bourgeois society. First we need to grasp what is distinctive about this new creature on the historical stage, the bourgeois. Italics indicate quotes from Furet.
The bourgeoisie is a synonym for modern society. The word designates the class that gradually destroyed, by its free activity, the old aristocratic society founded on a hierarchy of birth. … The feudal lord was assigned a very precise measure of domination and subordination, which defined his place in the hierarchy of mutual dependencies. The bourgeoisie, however, has no assigned place in the political order, in other words, the community. The bourgeoisie is defined entirely by economics— a category it invented itself with its emergence in the world — in its relation to nature, labor, and the accumulation of riches. The bourgeoisie is a class without status, without a definite tradition, without established outlines; its title to dominate is owed to a single, fragile thing: wealth. Wealth is fragile because it can belong to anyone, and the rich man could as easily have been poor as the poor man rich.
Furet goes on to note that as a social category defined by economics, the bourgeoisie really is the bearer of universal values, as it claims to be.