In France, where the extraordinarily unpopular Emmanuel Macron presides over a country roiled by populist protests, a leading politician of Macron’s centrist party was asked in a televised interview what policy mistakes his peers had made: “We were probably too intelligent, too subtle,” he told the interviewer, whose eyebrows danced with disbelief.
Around the same time a Hungarian newspaper ran an interview with Radek Sikorski, the former foreign minister of Poland and a member of a centrist party that has been swept aside by the populists who currently rule in Warsaw. Asked to explain the chaotic European situation, he cited a recent Atlantic essay by his wife, Washington Post columnist Anne Applebaum, which portrayed populism as, in part, a revolt by the resentfully unsuccessful against “meritocracy and competition.” The centrist alternative to populism, he suggested, was embodied by Macron, who won the French presidency on “positive ideas” rather than “what is worst in us.”
“Macron’s poll numbers are breaking negative records,” the interviewer dryly noted.
While I read both of these exchanges, my Kindle was open to “The Rise of the Meritocracy,” written in 1958 by British civil servant Michael Young. The book coined the term in its title, and Young’s neologism was soon adopted as a compliment, a term of praise for a system of elite formation that relied on SAT tests and resumes and promised rule by the most intelligent rather than the well-bred.
But Young had something more dystopian in mind. His book, a work of fiction that purported to be a work of history and political analysis written in the middle of the 21st century, envisioned a world whose classes were increasingly segregated by talent and intelligence, in which the brainy, standardised-test-acing elite became an increasingly intolerable version of the old aristocracy, leading eventually to riots and populist revolutions in the then far-distant future of 2034.
I went back to Young’s book because I’ve been writing recently (to some controversy) about the faults of our own meritocracy. What I found there was a prophecy that fit the contemporary Western political landscape remarkably well, even if the populist revolts have arrived a little early.
The book’s fictional author is a pompous sociologist who believes absolutely in the meritocratic system, which has produced an elite “more brilliant” than any in the past. He also believes in its essential stability, because the nature of meritocracy itself ensures that the populists threatening revolt simply aren’t as smart or as capable as the new elite that rules them:
Behind the shift and turn of current politics is the underlying fact with which I opened my essay. The last century has witnessed a far-reaching redistribution of ability between the classes in society, and the consequence is that the lower classes no longer have the power to make revolt effective. For a short moment they may prosper through an alliance with the odd and passing disillusion of a section of the upper classes. But such déclassé people can never be more than an eccentric minority — the Populists have never been more than that as a serious political force — because the élite is treated with all the wise distinction that any heart can desire. Without intelligence in their heads, the lower classes are never more menacing than a rabble, even if they are sometimes sullen, sometimes mercurial, not yet completely predictable. If the hopes of some earlier dissidents had been realised and the brilliant children from the lower classes remained there, to teach, to inspire and to organise the masses, then I should have had a different story to tell. The few who now propose such a radical step are a hundred years too late.
His point here, expressed with maximal elitism and arrogance, is that meritocracy essentially co-opts the talented people who in a different world would be leaders in their local communities, their regions, their social classes, pulling them all up into a national elite and weakening every rival power centre in the process.
Because Young is a satirist, this authorial pride gets its comeuppance: We learn in a postscript that the author of the book was killed in a populist riot, leaving his manuscript unfinished.
But the book doesn’t tell us if the populists are able to prove its writer wrong by making their revolt “effective” — if they’re able to take power as well as instigate violence, and if they can actually govern once they’ve overthrown the pompous mandarins.
The evidence of our own era suggests that they might not be so capable. It suggests, in fact, that when meritocracy loses credibility and legitimacy, the result is a political impasse. The official elite becomes too arrogant and self-deceiving and unpopular to govern effectively, but the populist alternative is much as Young’s narrator describes — disorganised, ill-led, susceptible to snake-oil salesmen and vulnerable to manipulation by factions within the upper class.
In this situation, which is ours, the meritocrats have no mandate and no sense of why the public hates them — believing, with Sikorski and the Macron apparatchik, that their governance was wise and just and there’s nothing wrong with meritocracy that can’t be fixed with more of it. But the populists have no competence and no coherent program, and so all their revolt can win is stalemate.
Different versions of this impasse exist in Britain, France and the United States. In the British version, the forces of populism won a stunning victory in the Brexit referendum, but lacked real leaders (save hacks and opportunists) and a clear plan for pushing forward (save implausible promises). The result is Theresa May’s shambolic attempt to deliver the impossible, a job she’s graced with because nobody else wants it — save Jeremy Corbyn, whose left-populism seems entirely unready for power in its own way.
In France, the “gilets jaunes” protests have brought populist fury from France’s peripheries into the heart of Paris and wrecked Macron’s centrist-technocratic plans. But as a political force, the protest movement remains essentially inchoate, now pulled toward the far left and now toward the far right, awaiting leadership and vision. Which, judging by the equally dismal approval ratings of Macron’s rivals, is something that French politics is unlikely to supply.
In the United States, the populists theoretically hold the White House, under a president who promised to be a traitor to his class. Except that these promises were mostly just a con job, the Trump inner circle is a parliament of opportunists, and his administration’s policy agenda has been steered by the Republican Party’s business elite rather than by the voters who elected him.
Each case is a variation on the same theme, a slightly different intimation of the meritocratic endgame that Michael Young foresaw 60 years ago. A governing class that has vaulting self-confidence and dwindling credibility, locked in stalemate with populist movements that are easily grifted upon and offer more grievances than plans.
In theory, the impasse can be overcome. That’s what statesmanship is for — to bridge gaps between complacent winners and angry losers, to weld populism’s motley grievances into a new agenda suited for the times, to manifest an elitism that is magnanimous instead of arrogant.
But can the system we have really produce such a statesman? The next one we find will be the first.
© 2018 New York Times News Service