Why isn't democracy better than meritocracy?

Editorial: End of Meritocracy

Don't let anyone say they haven't been warned. The British sociologist Michael Dunlop Young predicted the uprising against the elites more than 50 years ago - admittedly only for the year 2034. Young called his novel "The Rise of the Meritocracy". In his opinion, the allocation of life opportunities on the basis of “merits” - that is, intelligence and competence - would lead to the rule of a “meritocracy”, which would be unbearable precisely because it was exercised with a clear conscience. In contrast to earlier forms of rule, the elite would be demonstrably more productive than the lower classes. Those who are left behind would, of course, have a weapon against the top performers: democracy.

According to Young, our meritocratic society is the first to show everyone where they stand in the hierarchy of ability and achievement thanks to compulsory school attendance. Anyone who misses the class goal in spite of "cozy education" and support programs, as a child and adolescent, is certified every day that his or her place is downstairs. Not because he's not an aristocrat or a bourgeois. Not because his dialect or gender, religion or race speak against him. But because he lacks the intelligence or the will to perform, which - as Hollywood, politics and teachers suggest - are the keys that unlock the world of his dreams. Every ascension story shows him: It is your own fault that you are down.

This depressing realization particularly hits those who are not immigrants, not a minority, not disabled, not women. So who cannot attribute their failure to discrimination. White men from the lower class, who are less and less able to draw their self-confidence from their class consciousness and the solidarity of the workers' quarters - they are the vanguard of the revolution against top performers. You vote for Donald Trump. You voted for Brexit. They march against immigration. Not because the elites failed, but because the elite made the failure of the masses a part of their agenda.

It is ironic that a Thilo Sarrazin could become the hero of the anti-meritocrats. Because Sarrazin is actually the ideologist of the top performers. “Germany is abolishing itself” because the women academics and managers have too few children, so that the gene pool of the intelligent cannot prevail against the genes of the lazy and stupid. As is well known, Sarrazin has nothing against immigration, but only against immigration of people who are allegedly not so intelligent.

While the top performers think and act internationally, advocate free trade and freedom of movement, see immigration as an opportunity - also for recruiting into the new class - and welcome technical progress because it makes their specific skills even more valuable, those who are left behind want to go back to hierarchies: we against them. "Americanism, not Globalism," as Donald Trump proclaims. Locals against “strangers to space and culture”, as Alexander Gauland calls people like Boateng. Westerners against Muslims. “Real men” against gays, “do-gooders” and emancipated women. Families versus singles. "Values" versus intelligence. Sentiment against "experts" attacked by Brexit proponent Boris Johnson. Honest work against "big commercial banks", which the Ukip boss Nigel Farage branded as beneficiaries of the British stay in the EU.

Of course, no society can exist in the long term that gives the majority - or even a large minority - of its citizens the feeling that they do not belong. Just a few years ago it was part of the mantra of European apologists for meritocracy to point to America, where inequality is not only accepted but welcomed. And now there is Trump leading a crusade for "the forgotten men and women". Tony Blair even used the term “meritocracy” to describe his vision of a new Britain. Theresa May is now promising “a Great Britain that works for everyone”. And while EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said that he “didn't care” who signed the free trade agreement with Canada, Angela Merkel recognized the signs of the times and called for national parliaments to have a say.

Because those who are left behind have nothing on their side except democracy. You catapulted the UK out of the EU. You have paralyzed the political process in many European countries. The meritocracy no longer works.

We don't know what could replace it. Nobody seriously believes they can return to the state-regulated nation-states of the 1970s, where every worker was guaranteed a job to support his family. This is how the world of work no longer works, in which robots replace assembly line workers and computers replace secretaries. A world no longer works like this in which China and India are questioning the supremacy of the West. It is perhaps no coincidence that China is not a democracy and that India has a caste system.

If our most important achievement, democracy, is not to turn against us, we must moderate the meritocracy and broaden its basis. It's time to rethink the criteria for school success. Not only math and German, computer skills and IQ are important. Music and art, cooking and handicrafts, soccer and boxing, social intelligence and gardening must become just as important as academic subjects. School failure must be a thing of the past. At the same time, much more needs to be done to promote intellectual skills in early childhood, in daycare and in school.

The meritocracy cannot become an aristocracy either. Social envy is bad, inherited and undeserved privileges are worse. It is one thing that there was performance somewhere at the beginning of these privileges; that there are blatant inequalities that have nothing to do with performance, another. Performance must pay off again, and our concept of what performance is must change. The achievement society can only be saved if the meritocracy changes. We have until 2034.

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