Introduction

In The Reactionary Mind, Corey Robin provides a compelling answer to the question what drives reactionaries (though the people he discusses are usually called conservatives). Namely, a desire to silence and repress (or, as academics like to say, deny voice to) others. In this, they are motivated either by a strong conviction that their putative "inferiors" have no right to speak (or be heard), or by fear of the personal and political consequences of their being heard and organizing. And they tend to justify this stance, and their actions, by suggesting that the world only functions if people know their place (and submit or obey).

I found Robin's argument quite thought-provoking, and it led me to wonder what analogous desire and world-view might animate those who in the media are called 'the (center-)left' -- and who in the US self-identify as liberals, elsewhere as liberal or social democrats --, but who don't subscribe to the ("radical") egalitarianism that I see as the foundation of left politics and democracy.

Some time afterwards (thanks mainly to David Graeber's Debt), I came to realize that the tendency/conviction Robin identifies exists not just in conservatives, but in nearly everyone, and that it would be much more accurate to speak of a reactionary mindset, than mind. And that the main question with respect to one's political identification being how broadly someone applies it -- e.g., only to nonhumans, or also to the "un- or less educated" and "indigent", women, people of color, non-nationals, (differently) religious people, those with a different ethnic background, sexual preference, gender expression, etc.

Still, that insight too only got me part of the way there, as I was still missing the obvious. And it wasn't until I read Tom Frank's Listen, Liberal that I realized that I had embraced certain meritocratic beliefs about less intelligent and 'less educated' human beings (see Plato's allegory of the cave) that made zero sense and weren't defensible, while my 'training' in (liberal) political philosophy had normalized the notion that the rule of law may trump basic needs (and that institutionalizing unequal access to resources was morally defensible so long as the 'procedures' were 'fair' and 'democratic'). As such, I'd missed the elephant in the room, namely that conservatives and liberals don't differ in world-view, but only in its justification, and in their answer to the question what would be a proper measure of desert (e.g., wealth, education level, intelligence, gender, skin color, ethnicity, etc.). And, connected to this, that the organizational form that we call 'hierarchy' (which we mainly associate with conservatism and feudalism), is just a special case of meritocratic organization, in which the legitimacy of inheritance of wealth and power goes unquestioned, as does the notion that we may use violence to maintain the status quo (while liberals generally favor bureaucratic organization, and more rigorous testing of "merit").

I am convinced that if we want to create a world in which the use of (institutionalized) violence (with the exception of protective use of force, and violence as a last resort) is no longer allowed, we must help each other to stop thinking that moral value may depend on character traits, beliefs or behaviors. It is my hope that this blog will contribute to that process, by addressing the following three clusters of questions. First, I'll be discussing how meritocratic organization affects different domains of life, in order to help people think about whether we should continue organizing society along these lines. Second, how and why we are taught to accept all of this in the first place, and how we can recognize and unlearn our automatic acceptance of the idea that some "deserve" or "merit" less (security, status, safety, etc.) than others, as this conviction is completely intertwined with the meritocratic logic. And last, how (institutional) violence fits in.

The meritocratic logic in action

Luckily, a large part of the reason why we accept this moral logic is that it we only consider its positive formulation, while ignoring its corollary -- the (Social-Darwinist) notion that those who "are" lesser (or bad), "deserve" less. Because I hope it is clear this this logic can serve to justify pretty much anything, given how good we are at finding sticks that others will accept as a justification for violence or unequal treatment.

Now, you might respond that the issue merely is that we currently simply are insufficiently rigorous in picking fair and just metrics, but that we'll get there some day. Or that this way of thinking is fine so long as we establish "reasonable" lower limits with respect to living standards, and then somehow insulate these from the political process. Leaving aside that this wouldn't justify continuing until we get there, I do not believe that this can work, precisely because it doesn't get us away from reasoning in the way that allows us to see people as "undesirables" or "inferiors" in the first place. Lastly, you might argue that this way of thinking is fine, and that all we need is a principled rejection of the use of violence. Leaving aside there's no way to maintain today's societies without frequent resort to (the threat of) violence, I'd counter that institutional violence (denial of services, unequal treatment) actually causes much more harm than the physical violence inflicted by (riot) police and even most armies. More fundamentally, it's problematic because this still presupposes the legitimacy of unequal treatment of equal needs.

Now let's get back to the issue of subjectivity. With respect to (easily) labeling others "enemies", and taking those thoughts seriously, most of us recognize such behavior as a sign of emotional immaturity or instability. As a consequence, we generally won't really take such judgments seriously ourselves (at least not once we reach adulthood), though we may allow our friends to use said judgments as reasons to hurt or harm the person they have the feelings towards. I would suggest that this complacency is a symptom of the problem. Because even though it should be blatantly obvious that this way of thinking, especially when coupled with the conviction that we may harm those who are bad is morally odious, we generally don't really object to it, or even feel much surprise when someone feels or behaves this way. Moreover, even when we do realize that thinking this way is problematic, we tend to avoid thinking about the broader ramifications of that insight, preferring to wave it off, or to accept the behavior 'in this instance' because we 'know the actor is a good (or 'not a bad') person'.

Yet no matter how obviously unpalatable the negative formulation may be, hardly anyone is willing to reject the positive formulation. And this is a problem, because the only way to escape from the meritocratic moral logic is to reject both prongs (and to take a different stance on the rightness of the use of violence). Which raises the question: what gets in the way of our being willing to reconsider it, let alone dump it?

One part of it is that people are loath to take on the notion that even though basically all humans wish to contribute to others' lives, much of what we do is morally odious (and it's worth noting that most who recognize the latter issue resort to cop-outs like misanthropy). Another is that we find it comforting to think that the problems facing us today are caused by our not (yet) being ruled by "the best" (as mediated by the educational system). A thought which is popular not least because most of us do think that these 'best' people would necessarily also only do 'good' (which is to say, because the wording can be interpreted multiple ways, it's easy to believe in the principle and see it as a healthy ideal).

But I suspect that the main issue is that most of the time, we don't even notice that we're doing it, because reasoning this way is second nature, while the vitriol and violence usually are (respectively) subtler and less harmful than declaring someone part of an "Axis of Evil" or "member of a terrorist organization", and an outlaw who may -- or must -- be killed. Nevertheless, while the more subtle versions may seem harmless, they're hardly sensible (as well as a distraction). Take a phrase like "undeserving poor", which is quite popular in the US. What does this mean? That they are undeserving of being poor? Or does it mean [rightly] poor, because undeserving (which is basically another way of saying "we don't count you as fully human")? Sadly, though, circular and subjective though this may be, this way of thinking about others is the norm -- blaming rather than focusing on what's bothering someone, focusing on people and their characteristics ('female', 'black', 'religious', 'queer') rather than actions; and never asking the question what we would like people's reasons to be for acting differently.

The school system

So, where on earth do we learn to think of people in terms good, bad, lesser, better, "deserving" of rewards or punishments, lower or higher social status, more or less voice? None of us have taken classes in which we are taught to think this way, never even mind classes in moral theory in which we talk about why it's right to think this way, or what benefits thinking this way has even if it isn't right. In point of fact, we largely learn these rules by osmosis: by watching and interacting with the people around us, starting in childhood. Because just about every public and private institutional structure embodies and reinforces these beliefs and habits, including the family, our schools and workplaces.

And what we learn, at a basic level, is primarily to respect 'authority' (i.e., those with institutional power), to work towards goals identified and chosen almost exclusively by others, to work for extrinsic rewards (and to avoid extrinsic punishment), and to silence or ignore our intrinsic motivation, especially to the extent our interests don't overlap with the ones thought desirable by the institution.

In this way, we are prepared for a lifetime of more of the same: to do things that don't necessarily interest us, or even actively go against our personal values, in exchange for rewards (an income, and an employment contract) -- though this is something that we generally don't even think about, as we simply leave our values at the door. And note that this is true whether we are a CEO, a salesperson who convinces the elderly to sign up for services that they have no use for, or a customer service rep, nurse or teacher who is discouraged from taking the time they need to actually help the person requesting their assistance, because 'targets' must be met (which are requirements for continued employment, for gaining rank, get raises, etc). 

It should be clear that the more unquestioningly someone accepts these premises, and the greater the overlap between their interests and the ones that are encouraged and favored by the institution or those who rule it, the more motivated they'll be to succeed in their eyes (and to receive high grades, accolades, pay, and credentials), and the more likely they are to succeed socioeconomically, by gaining high social status, and influential positions. Conversely, the more of us go through this funnel, and the longer we're exposed to this logic, the more difficult we'll find it to connect with our intrinsic motivation and values, and the more deeply we'll have internalized the notion that our actions only have value to the extent they are pleasing to others (and especially those with institutional power).

In addition, the more we internalize these values, the less likely we are to (want to) upset the institutional status quo (which is different from hoping to displace incumbents), and the less likely we are to believe in notions like decent living standards for all (especially when the 'experts' on that subject say is that this is unattainable).

In sum, going through the school system has consequences for someone's receptivity to calls for social, but especially economic solidarity, because of how we are trained to see rewards and punishments as resulting from fair determinations of merit. (By way of illustration, notice how, even though most professionals at the very least pay lip service to the notion that everyone has equal moral value, and even though many self-identify as 'social liberals', only a fraction of them (still) believe that the institutional structures of public and private institutions should embody solidaric principles, while most passively or actively endorse developments in the opposite direction.)

(Note that none of this is to deny the emancipatory power of learning, the joy that comes from grappling with new ideas and concepts, or its importance to social movements. Obviously, I think this is extremely important. Also, it's not for nothing that reactionaries hate education and freedom of information, and have worked hard to make the school system much more rigid than it was in the 1960s and '70s. It's just that I think it is essential to be aware of the contradiction between the content of what we learn, and the structure in which we are taught, because when you recognize this, a lot of apparent contradictions melt away. Similarly, it's not accidental that a lot of the (re)thinking and re-learning that we associate with earlier social movements happened outside the school system, in movements that were usually organized very differently.)

The Right Turn

Listen, Liberal helped me understand two things. First, why so many self-identified progressives who entered politics from the mid-late 1970s onward were largely disinterested in (economic) solidarity with those who aren't their class mates or peers -- who aren't fellow "knowledge workers" (etc.) --, and where their disinterest came from. Because although I'd long been troubled by the role played by the substance of the education people receive in business and economics courses, and the related rise of managerialism, I'd never really considered the question what role a half-decade to a decade of additional exposure to the meritocratic value system that's implicit in the school system might've played. Or how that ties in with the now-pervasive notions that everyone must earn their quality of life and economic (in)security, and that it is completely appropriate that we must each individually merit our deserts. (Note that while Frank only covers the US case, the same trends can be found in every country where access to tertiary education was democratized.)

And second, why these 'fake' -- anti-egalitarian -- progressives could so easily co-opt the Democratic Party: in part because they possessed the credentials, but at least equally importantly, because they subscribed to the same meritocratic value system that the large donors and party elites subscribe to. Because the latter made them much more palatable -- and far less threatening -- to the Party leadership.* As such, while I'm sure elites at the time were worried sick, and absolutely hated the social and cultural change that did occur, in my view the educational system largely did its job in disciplining and domesticating people, and broadening support for this latest meritocratic counterrevolution.

(Of course, many other factors also contributed. To name a few that strike me as particularly relevant (following Harvey and Chomsky): the rise of indebtedness, in the form of student and mortgage loans, and the rising living costs, caused by the waves of privatizations and mergers, and the cuts to taxation and public spending. Technological and demographic changes, like the entry of women and more people of color into the the labor force, and the invention of containerization, which allowed Asia to become much more important as a manufacturing center. And equally important, treaties like NAFTA (and the enlargement of the EU) would also help employers, by making it much easier to move production abroad, and to threaten employees with outsourcing and offshoring unless they accepted whatever demands they came up with. All of these developments had similar consequences for Western labor power,** and over the long term, they would turn the two-income household into a necessity, and force people (especially in the US) to work more than 40 hours per week (again), leaving them with ever less time and energy for other stuff, including political organizing.)

Looking around the internet today, I see very few people talking about this. I'd say that it's high time that we start.

Countering the neoliberal counterrevolution

So how to counter this reactionary counterrevolution? As I see it, we need to start paying much more attention to the questions why we do what we do, and think the way we do, and that we should become aware of the extent to which our thoughts and actions are informed by meritocratic attitudes, and change this. Only once we start challenging those attitudes in ourselves and in those around us, and helping each other understand the costs, and why this matters, do we stand a chance of effecting more than superficial change -- such as "non-white" capitalists, "shattering the glass ceiling" so that equally meritocratic female leaders can become CEO of "defense" contractors, "revolutions" achieved through violence, and so on. All such change misses the point to the extent that it leaves the organizational and institutional structures intact, the goals the same, the means the same, and the value system intact. That is, to the extent it doesn't encourage us to abandon the meritocratic logic in favor of an egalitarian one.

If we want to get there, we must apply this both to our private lives, publicly, and to the parts of our lives that we spend working for or inside institutions (which have their own rule set, which we are asked to absorb, or at least respect, no matter our personal values). Now of course, there's no way to address or change all of these things at the same time and overnight, or on our own. This way of thinking and operating is simply too deeply ingrained in everything we do. And there obviously are personal risks and costs involved. But unless we start challenging and helping ourselves and those around us to change, nothing will change. I hope that this blog will contribute to that process, by becoming a collection of useful resources, and by providing a platform on which we can provide one another with support, suggestions and encouragement. :)

I hope this blog will contribute to that awareness, and show people that no matter how widely shared beliefs concerning the justice of unequal treatment of equal needs are, and how normal it is to do so, it is never okay to dismiss or devalue others, or to use (structural or physical) violence in pursuit of these goals, or to maintain a status quo. Because it's long past due that we move beyond meritocracy

PS. As you may have noticed, I'm still in the process of finding my voice, and figuring out how to explain this in a way that makes sense and works for people. This post is likely rather longer than will become the norm, but I need to lay some groundwork, and connect a few dots before I can move on to writing shorter, perhaps more accessible posts. As Chomsky has pointed out, concision is only possible when you're regurgitating established truths; alternate histories, and big lie demolition, take much longer (in part because it takes more work to identify mutual ground as a starting point). So I hope that everyone who finds this blog will bear with me. Feedback and questions are very much appreciated, as is just saying hi. :)

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* If you are interested to learn what values the elites surrounding Carter held, see e.g. this talk.

** Note that I obviously am in no way opposed to the social and economic development of the non-western world. I just think they should be allowed to do so for their own reasons, rather than because it suits us that they're willing to produce stuff for us, really cheaply. Will write more about this later.

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