Having disagreed with Roy Hattersley a couple of weeks ago in these pages, I now turn to salute him. In today’s Observer he has made what the paper is calling a “savage attack” on Tony Blair, using the relatively shrewd method of pointing out that his leading “ideas” are objectionable and that they contradict the traditional values of the Labour Party.
In particular, he does the useful work of pointing out the trouble with meritocracy, Mr Blair’s latest buzzword — the latest in the succession of “social-ism”, “stakeholding” and “the Third Way”. Hattersley isn’t the first to do this, and Francis Wheen made many of the same points with his usual flair in a Guardian column earlier this year. But in the present climate, the argument can’t be reiterated often enough, that (i) the word “meritocracy” was invented in 1958 by Michael Young — who also wrote the Labour Party’s 1945 election manifesto — to describe the dominant ideology of an imagined dystopian future, and that (ii) meritocracy above all concerns the justification, and not the abolition, of inequality (which might not be a problem in itself, except that the justification it offers is a scandalously poor one). Hattersley:
Meritocracy removes the barriers to progress which block the path of the clever and industrious. But the notion of social mobility on which it is based is… a cruel joke. A Labour government should not be talking about escape routes from poverty and deprivation. By their nature they are only available to a highly-motivated minority… Meritocracy only offers shifting patterns of inequality. The term meritocracy was invented by Michael Young in a fable which ‘aims to present both sides of the case’. It contains an equation which lies at the heart of the argument about what sort of society we want to see: IQ+effort=merit. Both intelligence and enthusiasm are inherited characteristics. So Young concludes, as all socialists should, that ‘being a member of the lucky sperm club confers no moral right to advantage’. Yet that is what meritocracy aims to provide. To them that hath, more shall be given.
The “debate” about meritocracy has reminded me for a while now of a passage in the Introduction to the Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, where Marx says this:
“It is not the radical revolution, not the general human emancipation which is a utopian dream for Germany, but rather the partial, the merely political revolution, the revolution which leaves the pillars of the house standing. On what is a partial, a merely political revolution based? On the fact that part of civil society emancipates itself and attains general domination; on the fact that a definite class, proceeding from its particular situation, undertakes the general emancipation of society. This class emancipates the whole of society but only provided the whole of society is in the same situation as this class, e.g., possesses money and education or can acquire them at will.”
The last clause makes it clear that he is writing about Mr Blair’s Britain, where the focus on education, and “access” to education is even more intense, based on the link between education on the one hand and money on the other. And the rest of the passage isn’t too bad as a description of the dynamics of New Labour, either.