Justly Unequal

The unlikely history of our greatest delusion

By ACHAL PRABHALA | 1 March 2013

AMONG THE FLURRY OF COMMENTS MADE LAST month over what Ashis Nandy is alleged to have meant or not meant at the Jaipur Literature Festival, none were more mystifying than his own subsequent explanations. At Jaipur, where it all began, he started with what seemed like an intelligent if badly phrased challenge to middle-class myopia around corruption, a myopia that had generated many months of chest-beating on the streets and in the newsrooms. This is what he originally said: “It is a fact that most of the corrupt come from the OBCs and the Scheduled Castes and now, increasingly, Scheduled Tribes, and as long as this is the case, the Indian republic will survive.” This is what I thought he meant: an upper-class person has cultural capital, and a phone call to Daddy’s old friend will fix things; the only way a working-class Dalit person can avail of the same privilege is by paying for it; and ‘ending corruption’ will merely close this window of Dalit mobility, while giving well-bred people a free pass to carry on doing each other favours.

Then, in an interview to the New York Times blog, India Ink, Nandy gave a fuller account of what he meant, patronisingly outlining how the poor are different from you and me.

I believe that their corruption is less harmful than the corruption of the super rich. Corruption of the rich and powerful is based on greed; corruption of the weaker section arises out of desperation.

We should look at their corruption as a by-product of a very iniquitous system. We should see it with some degree of leniency. It’s a bit like the urban riots in the United States, many of which are started by the coloured. There is an implicit, unstated consensus in the United States that their past and their sufferings in the past have made them especially prone to anger and a sense of humiliation and that they are reacting to that.

In spite of the flaws in his construction, the substitution of race for caste could have yielded a very useful analogy; there is a rich historical connection between the American civil-rights movement and the Indian freedom struggle, and Dalit activists today find close resonance in the African-American experience. Instead, Nandy used the opportunity to explicitly lay out what he may only have been hinting at before: Dalits, like African-Americans, are prisoners of their past, rendered inchoate by their rage, as if unable to plunder the coffers of high corruption simply due to a chronic inability to network. Accessing high corruption is a privilege, his remarks seemed to suggest, a skill Dalits cannot be expected to have.

On the face of it, Nandy was pointing to a self-evident fact: Indian society is not a level playing field. On account of the imbalance, he was asking us to set Dalit corruption apart from elite corruption, and to seriously consider the difference—call it visible corruption versus high corruption, if you will. And his argument might have been fine, except that the logical conclusion of his distinction between two ‘classes’ of corruption is the assumption that Dalits are shut out of high corruption not only because they lack the social and cultural capital to access its spoils, but also because they lack the ability to work it.

Paradoxically, therefore, Nandy’s remarks seemed to be holding up corruption itself as something of a level playing field: an arena in which one advances according to one’s ability. So, the privileged win at corruption because they are rich and sophisticated and own the right shoes, and the poor lose because they are psychologically damaged and naïve, and also too busy throwing television sets through shop windows to swing by the Rotary Club at cocktail hour.

The very notion of a level playing field is a conception rooted in an insidious and irresistibly self-affirming belief that lurks in the minds of the great, the good and the ordinary—the belief that there is such a thing as a meritocracy. It’s the same spirit that inspires righteous claims of ‘reverse racism’ when white South Africans and Indian Brahmins are confronted by affirmative action, it’s the same feeling that makes middle-class folk apoplectic by the welfare state’s intrusion into private schools, and it’s the same misguided notion that allows television anchors to treat the effects of Muslim vitriol in India as exactly equivalent to the effects of Hindu hate speech.

The lasting achievement of this line of thinking, perhaps, has been to create a seductive symmetry between people at opposite ends of the power spectrum, a symmetry that puffs up the powerful and punches the powerless. As long as society’s scale is not weighted for power, people who have none will take outsize blame. (The flip-side to ignoring power imbalances is the tendency to totalise the imbalance, reducing the powerless to something less than human in the bargain, as Nandy seemingly did when he indulged visible Dalit corruption by describing it as merely inept.)

Power is the differentiator. Parity is the illusion. Meritocracy is the haze that hides the difference and builds the illusion. For 55 years, this concept has hurtled through the dullest minds and highest offices on the planet like a crazy-ball strapped with dynamite, setting off explosions, leaving deep craters in its wake, and virtually defining the terms of utopia—never mind that it began life as a marker of dystopia in a futuristic work of fiction that has been ignored, misinterpreted and distorted ever since it was published.

In 1958, the British sociologist Michael Young wrote a hefty little book called The Rise of the Meritocracy, 1870-2033. It was an unusual scholarly exercise, narrated in the form of a letter from the future—AD 2034 to be precise—in which one "Michael Young" reports the outcomes of his society’s 163-year-long obsession with merit. Young laid out a quietly subversive argument as to why a system ruled by meritocracy, though seemingly fair and just, would end up being more dangerous and unequal, not to mention harder to undo, than any other form of hierarchy we have known thus far.

It took him several years and 11 rejections to see the book in print, and even though it went on to become a bestseller, his central argument was obliterated by an avalanche of support for a single word, ‘meritocracy’: a neologism he had invented to name a system he feared. Young’s unintended gift to societies and governments the world over was snatched up by elites waiting for confirmation that they truly deserved every bit of their success; he had set it free, and apart from dashing off angry missives to the British press to clear up the misunderstanding—in which he persisted, decade after decade—there was little Young could do to take it back.

Perhaps it is only fitting that the 21st century’s overarching goal should have its roots in satire and science-fiction. To fully appreciate the irony of Young’s legacy, however, you may have to imagine a special screening of Dr Strangelove at the UN General Assembly, after which world leaders conclude that nuclear weapons are the surest way to world peace.

In hindsight, it is hard to imagine an alternative course for meritocracy. It appeared in the world in 1958 as a perfect crystallisation of elite consciousness of the time. Communism was 40 years old and growing; fascism had not been dead for long; and democratic Western capitalism had just begun its long march. The Austrian economist and philosopher Friedrich Hayek had been teaching and writing in Europe for three decades before Young was published, and his work, in many ways, predicted the perpetual motion-machine of self-satisfaction that Young’s neologism would become— though not in the way he intended.

This is Hayek, the thinking person’s Ayn Rand, in his beautifully written libertarian classic, The Road to Serfdom, published a decade and a half before The Rise of the Meritocracy:

To make a totalitarian system function efficiently, it is not enough that everybody should be forced to work for the same ends. It is essential for the people to come to regard them as their own ends. Although the beliefs must be chosen for the people and imposed upon them, they must become their beliefs, a generally accepted creed which makes the individuals as far as possible act spontaneously in the way the planner wants.

Of course, Hayek was invoking the force of total belief to criticise his favourite bugbear, the cult of collectivism. But as Young discovered early and independently, and as history bore out in the final quarter of the 20th century, towards the end of Hayek’s life, a self-affirming belief that reinforces the cult of the individual, and what’s more glosses it with the sheen of fairness, can be a far more compelling social force than anything socialism is capable of dreaming up—especially since its fan base consists of people who already run the world. Aristocracy renders its subjects unjustly unequal; meritocracy promises to render them justly unequal, and the enduring genius of the concept is that it makes the resulting inequality appear like justice.

Despite their tremendous influence, Hayek’s appeal is somewhat limited to adherents of neoclassical economics, and Rand is regarded as something of a joke. And yet the concept that could well have been of their coining has journeyed far beyond their reach, first from satire to libertarian theory, and then from the right-wing to every wing.

Politicians who wouldn’t be caught dead quoting Hayek or Rand have no problem pitching for meritocracy. A year before Young died, he tore into Tony Blair for wilfully misunderstanding his book and dangerously rewriting state policy in service of the misunderstanding.

“It is good sense to appoint individual people to jobs on their merit,” he wrote in The Guardian in 2001, making it clear that he wasn’t dismissing the value of the idea out of hand. “It is the opposite when those who are judged to have merit of a particular kind harden into a new social class without room in it for others.” He described this new social class witheringly. “They can be insufferably smug, much more so than the people who knew they had achieved advancement not on their own merit but because they were, as somebody’s son or daughter, the beneficiaries of nepotism. The newcomers can actually believe they have morality on their side.”

Not a day goes by in India without members of this hardening social class confirming that they have morality on their side. And nowhere is the credo of meritocracy more in play than in the new economy of cities like Bangalore, where whole vaults of helpful history and providential circumstance have been locked up to give room to everyone’s favourite creation myth: that the information technology phenomenon emerged ex nihilo.

Listen carefully, and you can hear the future. They say: we want to live in a meritocracy. They mean: I did it all on my own, why can’t you? Communists excepted, politicians of every stripe—upstanding left-leaners included—spout the concept as often as possible, not necessarily because they believe they can achieve anything close to an ideal state of affairs, but because they know that we know an ideal society has arrived—and meritocracy is where it’s at.


Achal Prabhala is a writer and researcher in Bangalore. He is a co-editor of the The Best of Quest (Tranquebar 2011) and Civil Lines 6 (HarperCollins 2012).


156 thoughts on “Justly Unequal”

This Ashis Nandy fuss aside, this is the first time I ever heard this kind of ideology. “Meritocracy”, very interesting.

Ooooh. Rich prejudiced Yale-educated Brahmin tells us………tells us what? Oh that meritocracy is a bad thing. Listen up everyone.

As someone who participated, willy-nilly, in the anti-Mandal commission agitation, I can testify to the seductiveness of Meritocracy. Having then worked through the corporate sector, I can now see the limitations of meritocracy in practice : a large number of people who simply thrive on their upper class origins and connections, and hope to perpetuate the system through their children.

This essay has an interesting analogue. If we look back on President Obama’s campaign for re-election, he made the argument for supporting people who were not well off to begin with. His opponents seized upon “You did not build that” to claim that he was anti-capitalism, but the broad point was that many who have made it have benefited from the infrastructure that was built before us, and should not pull up the ladder after us.

I like the reminder to the ITES/BPO folks – it is now received wisdom that they grew in spite of the government, not because of it. However, without the investments in higher education (perhaps at the cost of primary education, an error which still haunts India) and the hordes of “engineers” that come onto the job market every year, these successes would not have been possible.

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