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Meritocracy (David Samuels)

Par David Samuels
Publié par Clifford Armion le 06/11/2015
“Meritocracy” is the comic honorific that the American elite has awarded to itself in recognition of its accomplishments since the end of the Cold War. The coinage has proved to be a lasting and significant one because it does so many kinds of necessary work at once. “Meritocracy” assuages the inherent tension that exists between the terms “elite” and “popular democracy” by suggesting that the new American elite has earned its position in an entirely democratic way. Yes, we do have an elite, the word admits, as other nations do: but our elite merely consists of the most “meritorious” members of our democracy, and so any potentially troubling contradiction dissolves in a pleasurable way that both the early Puritans and their plutocratic descendents might easily recognize. The fortunes of the founders of Google and Facebook provide us with reassuring proof that the more we have, the more deserving we are.


“Meritocracy” is the comic honorific that the American elite has awarded to itself in recognition of its accomplishments since the end of the Cold War. The coinage has proved to be a lasting and significant one because it does so many kinds of necessary work at once. “Meritocracy” assuages the inherent tension that exists between the terms “elite” and “popular democracy” by suggesting that the new American elite has earned its position in an entirely democratic way. Yes, we do have an elite, the word admits, as other nations do: but our elite merely consists of the most “meritorious” members of our democracy, and so any potentially troubling contradiction dissolves in a pleasurable way that both the early Puritans and their plutocratic descendents might easily recognize. The fortunes of the founders of Google and Facebook provide us with reassuring proof that the more we have, the more deserving we are.
What seems most significant about the word “meritocracy” is the high degree of tension that the coinage signals in an age where a smaller and smaller percentage of the American population controls a larger and larger share of the national wealth. Doesn’t the formation of a super-rich elite wielding outsized economic and political power pose a threat to American political institutions? What about the fact that America is no longer a society where any significant degree of social mobility is achievable for any large number of people?
In place of the myth of the American Dream, or the shared in-group knowledge and experience of the old Eastern WASP elites, the “meritocracy” provides its members with a thin gruel of easily falsifiable assertions about the universal longing for American-style freedoms and electoral practices, the infinite malleability of human nature, and the absolute wrongness of legal discrimination based on gender, race and sexual preference. More significantly, it provides them with the opportunity to pass on their advantages to their children, who are prepared from birth to negotiate a system of elite university applications and tests. Applicants who can’t follow the proper cues but whose parents went to Harvard and Yale receive significant preferences, as do those whose families make significant donations to the university treasuries. Applicants who significantly flatter the self-regarding myths of the test-makers and application-vetters – like the self-taught boy who read Plato under the stars and ran barefoot through the Nevada canyons – are used as ideological window-dressing for a system that excludes a far greater percentage of the population from access to political and economic power than at any time since the days of Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller, the Silicon Valley moguls of 150 years ago. 
The flip side of “meritocracy” is the inherent suggestion that the vast majority who are not holders of degrees from elite universities like Stanford and Yale, and do not enjoy easy access to other credentials and skills that largely determine access to the sweet spots of the information-age economy, are themselves at fault – not because they are playing a game that has fewer and fewer winners, but because they lack merit. Their failing is a personal and a moral one. It does not take any radical belief in the possibility of equalizing the prospects of all humankind to find this implication entirely obnoxious.

Pour citer cette ressource :

David Samuels, "Meritocracy (David Samuels)", La Clé des Langues [en ligne], Lyon, ENS de LYON/DGESCO (ISSN 2107-7029), novembre 2015. Consulté le 18/06/2018. URL: http://cle.ens-lyon.fr/anglais/litterature/entretiens-et-textes-inedits/meritocracy-david-samuels-