On meritocracy and the Varsity Blues scandal

I was a guest on WNYC’s On the Media, direct from a recording studio in Lisbon (thanks Dizplay Soundlab!), to talk about the scandal of meritocracy. Meritocracy is a particularly strange keyword, because it was originally coined by Michael Young as a satirical mockery of a fantasy it has now come to earnestly represent: social mobility through education and innate talent. Instead of gaining access to wealth and power through an accident of one’s birth (as in an aristocracy), in a meritocracy you gain access to wealth and power through your access to the elite institutions that reproduce wealth and power. Which you mostly gain access to by an accident of birth.

Thus, paying $500,000 to cheat your kid into Yale the meritocracy.

As I try to say here, though, the real scandal of college admissions in the United States isn’t how it works when people are cheating. It’s how it works when people aren’t cheating. Access to the “meritocracy” is guaranteed in most cases not by breathtaking bribes to con artists, but through more mundane, perfectly legal advantages: being born in the right public school district, to the “right” parents, and with the “right” posture, skin tone, gender identity, accent, etc.: in short, all the other sorts of advantages that are in general rewarded by elite higher education.

In other words, when we’ve finished laughing at Aunt Becky, USC will still cost $50,000/year.

New Keywords review published

Thanks to Oliver Eagleton and Counterfire for this insightful review of Keywords.

I appreciated Eagleton’s serious engagement with the book, and for this critique in particular:

While Williams chose to analyse words which could be reclaimed for the left, his inheritor seem to think that ‘the new language of capitalism’ must be rejected wholesale. His introduction urges us to argue ‘for free time, not “flexibility”; for free health care, not “wellness”; and for free universities, not “the marketplace of ideas”’ (p.19), all of which sounds unobjectionable. But Leary loses something by simply pitting one vocabulary against another, or contrasting the old with the new. He ignores the extent to which the dominant lexicon can generate values and ideas which undermine its own foundations.

This was always a worry of mine, that the project would become a list of “bad words” or office jargon to avoid. But at the same time, I don’t know what good can come from reclaiming “flexibility,” given how insidiously it already preys upon a desire for freedom. Yet I also think Eagleton’s basic comparison with Williams’ project is correct: the original Keywords was a lexicon of modern society in its contradictions, and so it included words, like “city” and “labor,” whose political ramifications were either ambiguous or potentially socialist. In this way my Keywords is different: words like “wellness,” “flexibility,” or “innovation” are blockages, words we use when we really mean something else. When we say “human capital,” for example, what we are really describing is “labor.” And to get to the bottom of that word, we have Raymond Williams’ Keywords.