Thoughts on Class Conflict and Meritocracy

Chesterton, “Slum Novelists and the Slums,” in Heretics:

Next to a genuine republic, the most democratic thing in the world is a hereditary despotism. I mean a despotism in which there is absolutely no trace whatever of any nonsense about intellect or special fitness for the post. Rational despotism–that is, selective despotism–is always a curse to mankind, because with that you have the ordinary man misunderstood and misgoverned by some prig who has no brotherly respect for him at all. But irrational despotism is always democratic, because it is the ordinary man enthroned. The worst form of slavery is that which is called Caesarism, or the choice of some bold or brilliant man as despot because he is suitable. For that means that men choose a representative, not because he represents them, but because he does not. Men trust an ordinary man like George III or William IV. because they are themselves ordinary men and understand him. Men trust an ordinary man because they trust themselves. But men trust a great man because they do not trust themselves. And hence the worship of great men always appears in times of weakness and cowardice; we never hear of great men until the time when all other men are small.

The notion that all political belonging is predicated upon the conflict between classes comes to us originally not from Marx, but from Machiavelli. That order at the level of the whole—the city, state, empire, whatever—emerges from irresolvable conflict on the ground is one of the first lessons of modern political philosophy, and so too is the understanding of politics as a means for reconciling this conflict. The modern ruler is not the first principle from which the being of the political body flows, but rather a glorified judge. One can see how the liberal state follows quite neatly from this rewriting of the ontology of the body politic.

If you think liberalism is bad, you might decry this overturning of classical political ontology. Perhaps you wish for an ideal state ruled by a righteous monarch, to whom all subjects turn in awe and reverence as sunflowers to the dawn. But from a different perspective—such as that adopted by Hobbes and later, by Marx—even in such a scenario, the deference of the subjects is precisely what authorizes the ruler: the ruler has authority only inasmuch as that authority is recognized and legitimized by the ruled, whether through reverence or fear. In other words, a la Marx (Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right): “The state is an abstrac­tion. The people alone is what is concrete….Democracy is the truth of monarchy; monarchy is not the truth of democracy.”

This new vision of the state as a site of ongoing struggle makes it impossible for aristocrats and their fellow travelers to maintain their traditional detached antipathy toward the lower classes. In the modern state, classes are rivals—and being locked in a struggle means having to pay attention to the strategies and goals of your adversary. Machiavelli recognized with a keener eye than any other that this class conflict is productive: the tumult that arises from this permanent antagonism, when mediated by the legal and judicial institutions of the state, results in stability at the level of the state (Nassim Taleb, I believe, would call this “antifragility”) and a kind of harmony between classes as they negotiate (however noisily) their conflicting interests. Class conflict can never be overcome, but it can be managed well or poorly by a governor. The former promotes flourishing; the latter, decadence and decline.

If class conflict is necessary for political flourishing, then abrogating it might be a bad idea. This is precisely what is sought in “meritocracy.” Meritocracy is far more than a heuristic for leadership-selection: it is a story a community tells about itself, a strategy for political self-understanding. At its heart, it is the eternal aristocratic myth dressed up for a new, knowledge- and technique-obsessed civilization: it is a way of reading backwards the story of how the privileged achieved the good things they have, and why they are deserving of them. It is, in essence, a way of neutralizing class antagonism. A community that collectively repeats the story of meritocracy begins to believe that just as those at the top earned their place there, whether by wit or industry, so too are those at the bottom deserving of their place on account of their lack. Like Chesterton’s “rational despotism,” the myth of meritocracy holds that prestige and privilege follow from natural superiority—and since those who are not naturally superior could never perform at the same capacity as the meritocratic victors, there’s no use in contesting the position of one’s superiors. Victory would only end in disappointment and failure; struggle would be futile.

Classes that are not in conflict are castes. Meritocracy seeks the reestablishment of rigid formal hierarchies without the fear of dispossession by those at the bottom.

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