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The Tryhards

Photo by Thomas Prior

These are tough days for the liberal imagination.

The election of Barack Obama was, for many conventional progressives, the culmination of a long, hard walk through the valley of politics as usual;  the years since, a lesson in the limits of what politics as usual can do for the left-wing cause. If today’s liberals are defined equally by the directness of their moral convictions and the circuitousness of their incrementalist tactics, the Obama candidacy was a perfect summation of the two: Candidate Obama used the soaring rhetoric of radical reform to express a vision safely within the confines of mainstream politics. Marrying the rhetoric of revolution to the platform of moderation is no novelty, but the Obama campaign melded them in a way that deftly played on both the ambition and defensive caution of the American left. And he won.

But being elected and governing are two separate challenges. Even the most dedicated supporters of the Obama administration would admit that his first term has been a difficult slog. The problem with revolutionary rhetoric is that your supporters become disillusioned by your results; the problem with conventional platforms is that our convention is corruption and failure. In the wilderness of political exile, the two conflicting impulses of revolution and incrementalism could coalesce without problem, but with the Democratic party in power, their fundamental tension threatens to drive the coalition apart. Nothing is likely to satisfy the revolutionaries; nothing is likely to calm the anxieties of the incrementalists.

But perhaps this disappointment represents opportunity. More than ever, conventional American progressives are pondering ideas previously considered radical and unseemly: universal basic income, support (albeit tepid) for street protests like Occupy, and frank discussion of the plain fact that America’s democracy has been captured by the wealthy. The humanitarian disaster of the continuing economic doldrums and the structural threat of permanent American decline has finally led the cautious to contemplate more thoroughgoing change. Increasingly, the question that animates American politics is not “What is to be done?” but “Who will decide what is to be done, and how will they be empowered to do it?”

The fundamental questions, then, are not matters of policy but of process. Who will lead? And from what will their legitimacy stem? Extremists on both sides speak bitterly of a conspiracy at the top, a concert of elites designed to rob and marginalize the common man. Such talk invites critique of the firmament of our system—how we choose our ruling class. If those who posit American plutocracy (as I do and must) are to produce an alternative, we must identify the root causes; our system of reward and empowerment must undergo an autopsy. Who killed our egalitarian dream?

It’s this question that one of America’s most prominent and principled liberals has recently pondered. Christopher Hayes, a longtime writer for the Nation and, more recently, a weekend morning host on MSNBC, has in his book Twilight of the Elites indicted our system of personal, financial, professional, and political advancement. Hayes writes of a culture suffering from its fanatical embrace of a terribly misconceived system of personal advancement and power relations. Meritocracy, a kludgy term for a kludgy purpose — defending aristocratic privilege under the cloak of human fairness — is coming undone. It is defined, in the idiom of cheery fantasy that composes much of our national conversation, as rule by the best. It is marked these days by its tendency to produce the worst. Our betters are failing us, and loudly. Hayes wants to find out why.

It’s an important story and typically well-told, yet the book is a curious, kludgy affair, one that finds its arguments in constant struggle with one another. Hayes looks out at a burning house and with true moral conviction and unsparing vision, describes it. He then proposes solutions that amount to washing the windows while the building is engulfed in flames. He is, in other words, a thoroughly conventional American liberal: all Karl Marx in description, all Tom Daschle in prescription.

Early in Twilight of the Elites, Hayes claims that there are two principal assumptions of the meritocratic ideal: that people are substantially different in their inherent talents, and that those with the most talent deserve to enjoy both more power and more money. The first is an empirical claim, and the second a normative claim. The popularity of meritocracy suggests that most assume that the second claim follows from the first, but Hayes argues that both are unhelpful or unfair.

The tension in Twilight of the Elites lies in Hayes’s uncomfortable relationship with the ideals and institutions of meritocracy, the churning machinery of status in America that speeds dead-eyed tryhards to their lives of influential, well-remunerated spiritual death. When discussing the current state of meritocracy, it’s necessary to separate three lines of inquiry: Are we meritocratic? Should we be? Can we be? At its best, Twilight of the Elites, acknowledges that these three questions are different and separates them, but at other times, Hayes’s method is less sure, and the basic argument becomes confused. Though he assails meritocracy, he can’t help but reveal a certain anthropological longing, a romance for the rule of a benevolent elite.

The book struggles with the question of whether meritocratic ideals and institutions are failing because they have been disrupted or undermined, or because they were poorly conceived to begin with. At times, he’s caustic about even the hypothetical meritocracy that could establish perfect equity between what one deserves and what one receives. At other times, he’s almost naïve in his depiction of “good” meritocracy.

Twilight of the Elites is a good example of a nonfiction book written in the shadow of the blogosphere, by an author who operates in a media landscape that assumes near-instantaneous access to information. The problem is one of prerequisite knowledge. Hayes’s main argument is interesting and novel, but to construct it he is forced to retell stories most of his audience knows by heart: the subprime mortgage fiasco, the Iraq war disaster, the fraud at Enron. When telling the particular story he wants to tell, Hayes is assured and concise; when he is retelling tales he knows his readers already know, he is less so. The book is brief, yet a considerable portion is devoted to telling stories few in the likely audience need to be told.

Hayes’s audience, we can surmise, is in large measure that species of connected media obsessive to which I belong, fattened on an informational diet of blog posts, Twitter, long-form magazine articles, cable news, podcasts, Charlie Rose. To suggest that this condition engenders knowingness rather than knowledge is cliché; I would merely point out that most of Hayes’s readership will skim his talk of financial crises and steroids in baseball the way one gazes over the summarizing in a TV recap.

That is not say the time is wasted. Familiarity, Hayes seems to fear, has bred complacency, so he takes it upon himself to recount these stories with alarm, so as to rattle readers. His effort is powerful. For example, most of us are aware, in a vague way, that the U.S. political system is full of the fabulously wealthy, to pick one example. But Hayes lays out in great detail the degree of this problem, and the cozy relationships between corporations and Congressmen, government officials, and the Obama administration. The effect is frightening, even for the jaded.

But the need to scare readers leads Twilight of the Elites to frequently tell too simple a story about advantage and ability. In media appearances to promote the book, Hayes has often told the story of his elite public high school, a tale that opens Twilight’s main argument. At Hunter College High School in New York, students are selected from all five boroughs based on two high-stakes entrance exams and nothing else. There is, according to Hayes, no preferential treatment for the rich or powerful; he claims that Michael Bloomberg’s children would have no better chance of getting into Hunter than your child or mine.

So Hunter is supposed to be a gleaming symbol of the meritocracy: Entrance is based entirely on your intellectual aptitude, provided we accept the dubious notion that the entrance exam is a valid and reliable assessment tool for intelligence. And in its history, Hunter has indeed attracted an impressive diversity of students in terms of race, ethnicity, and economic class. But Hayes claims that this onetime haven of equal opportunity has been corrupted by the rise of the for-profit test-preparation industry, which offers New York City parents the opportunity to spend vast sums to better their children’s odds of getting in to Hunter. Meritocracy subverted.

Hayes likes the simplicity and narrative power of this story, but in constantly casting blame on the test-prep industry—the Princeton Review, Kaplan, sundry smaller companies— he finds a specific and obvious culprit for inequality when the real culprits are multiple, vague, and diffuse. Educational outcomes are dictated by a vast number of factors uncontrollable by students, parents, or educators, and the lines are never as bright as “took a test prep class/didn’t.” If it’s anything like the SAT and most other standardized tests, the Hunter exam is undermined by sociocultural factors that condition our metrics for intelligence.

The students who take Hunter’s exam — students like the young Chris Hayes — are constrained by sociocultural conditions that they have absolutely no control over. Rich students enjoy significant and measurable advantages over poor ones even when they have not received formal test-prep training. In my own field, writing and literacy education, we know that consistent early exposure to syntactically rich language, oral and written, is essential for later literacy tasks and academic performance. But the levers to create those conditions are hard to push, because “early” here means very early, with the critical period (if indeed it exists) beginning perhaps as early as six months, with some researchers claiming that the most important period for later literacy ends as early as 30 to 36 months, well before children begin formal schooling. Since syntactic maturity tends to be heritable from one generation to the next (through behavior, not genetics), in many cases the parents had essentially no control over what they bequeath to their children. Given these buffeting forces, how could such a test be considered “fair”?

To put it simply, the Hunter system never was “purely meritocratic,” even before the test-prep industry. Where Hayes suggests a new and different kind of subversion, I see simply a particularly obvious version of a common, even ubiquitous form: the replication of educational and intellectual advantage from one generation to the next. Hayes’s digestible narrative risks obscuring the complexity of inherited disadvantage and thus increasing the difficulty of combating it.

It’s not that I think Hayes is unaware of this or is naive about how disadvantage persists generationally. But often he lapses into a false nostalgia for a fairer past. The reality is that meritocracy has never existed in anything like the theoretical form that people in America believe in, and there’s no use sugarcoating the achievement systems of the past.

 

***

As Hayes points out, we believe in meritocracy because we must. We have no vocabulary for what might possibly replace it. The normative eats the empirical: Faced with evidence that points to an unthinkable rejection of a cherished set of norms, the evidence is ignored, denigrated, or suppressed.

A similar mechanism is at play in our discussions of education. A vast discourse about our education system exists, but remarkably little of it considers an elementary facet: the possibility of failure. Our education discussions exist in a strange theoretical world, one lacking the basic adult recognition that failure is always an option, that we often must sort between least bad options, and that human ambitions are constrained by the rational. Across the broad landscape of the education debate, commentators from across political aisles and intellectual divides agree to speak and reason as if educational outcomes are constrained only by our national will.

In a discussion of gaming ostensibly meritocratic systems, Hayes mentions the widespread cheating scandals, such as those in Washington D.C. and Atlanta, arguing that cheating generally flourishes under two conditions: when people lack the ethical foundations and socialization that would preclude them from cheating, and when there are no systems in place to discourage cheating and encourage honesty. But it seems to me that there’s a third condition: when the goals people are expected to meet can be accomplished in no other way.

Reformers such as Michelle Rhee use the rhetoric of harsh accountability and sweeping change in service of a privatization movement that hopes to wring profit out of nonprofit public schools, asking teachers to achieve what is impossible given the parental, sociocultural, economic, and (yes) genetic factors that contribute to our reductive conceptions of education and intelligence. The penalty for teachers if they fail to meet these impossible standards is lower pay or firing. Under such conditions, cheating is not merely understandable; it is inevitable.

The connection between these cheating scandals and the broader mechanism of our system of social and economic advancement is neither minor nor idle. It speaks to the grand delusion contemporary liberals, conservatives, and libertarians all share, that through time, a “quality” education, and good old American can-do, all people can be raised to a certain level of performance captured in our crude educational metrics.

Why this delusion? Because our system now depends on the idea that children are universally capable of being educated to certain necessary levels to benefit our economy. Globalization and neoliberalism — the basic economic consensus of policy elites — destroyed working-class jobs and incomes and sparked a furious attack on labor’s ability to unionize and collectively bargain for better conditions. Yet the neoliberal policy apparatus still needs a mechanism to improve wages for those at the bottom, in part to improve their living conditions and in part because the economy requires them to be consumers as well as producers. Having cut the legs out from underneath the traditional mechanisms of social mobility for uneducated Americans, the necessary step becomes plain: educate all of them. Questions about whether everyone can be educated to the necessary level cannot be countenanced, to say nothing of whether this system breeds zero-sum competition for limited “skilled” jobs.

Our vexed arguments about education reform stem from our refusal to acknowledge that we are constrained by reality, regardless of the needs of our economic system. But what drives that system in the first place? Why have we decided that there is no such thing as enough prosperity, enough money, enough stuff? Hayes refers to C.S. Lewis’s concept of the inner ring, the feeling that, as we come closer and closer to social or economic success, there is always another, more exclusive group that finds us unworthy. Lewis said it was like cutting into an onion: rings all the way down. Hayes echoes Lewis in saying that this phenomenon makes corruption inevitable. As long as there is one more level to climb, there will be striving, and as long as there is striving, there will be cheating and rationalization. The inner ring, Lewis argued, tantalizes more the closer one seems to get, but never permits a feeling of true accomplishment. Hayes asks, “What is the meritocracy if not an endless series of inner rings?”

But then, what is capitalism, if not the same? Hayes recognizes this clearly: “Because competition is the central engine in the model of both the meritocratic and capitalist achievement, affection for it and acclimation to its spiritual and psychological demands are inculcated from a young age. To be successful, one must never be satisfied, and so one never is.” Yet rather than draw the natural conclusion that this produces spiritual death and a culture of omnipresent anxiety, Hayes marries this accurate criticism of capitalism to a moderate, capitalism-sustaining set of policy proposals.

Liberal critiques like Twilight of the Elites inevitably lead to the elementary failures of the capitalist model, but the professional political commentator’s first axiom is that alternatives to capitalism are beyond the realms of acceptable discussion. Still living in the supposed bad old days of ‘70s-era radicalism, liberals forever fear a new Reagan revolution, forever blame their failings on the quasi-mythical old guard of Stalinists and boutique anticapitalism. Liberal commentators are thus haunted by specters, compelled by reality to perceive radical failure but constrained from presenting a response sufficiently radical to meet this failure. Chris Hayes is about as far to the left as a prominent politico can be; that he has nationally televised news show is something of a miracle, in the best sense. Yet his prescriptions for solving the massive problems he identifies in the book are the typical incrementalism that has constrained the American left for over 30 years.

Therefore I find the book’s diagnosis of the ailment more convincing than its recommended cure. Hayes speaks of balancing fundamental trust of authority with undermining it, of redistributing our way to a more just and equal world, of repairing the social fabric by making it more horizontal, of creating a culture that stops treating intelligence as the only criterion for human quality. Do I disagree with these ideas? I do not. Are they remotely sufficient to solve the problems Hayes has described? No.

More troubling is the sense that Hayes, while quite critical of his class, is not quite willing to let authority go. He advocates for a newly radicalized upper-middle class, playing on fantasies I’ve encountered among dissatisfied Ivy League graduates that they will lead a great proletarian vanguard against the system. It is a cruel trick to embed in a book with such anti-elite convictions the argument that only the slightly-less-elite elite can lead. The upper-middle class, according to Hayes, “feels most keenly the sense of betrayal, injustice, and dissolution that the Crisis of Authority has ushered in.” I can only say, with respect, Go fuck yourself. The upper-middle class is dealing with the loss of assumed privileged and permanent access to power. In this very book, Hayes writes of a major American city that was swallowed by a hurricane, leaving thousands dead and thousands more impoverished and adrift. I will take talk of betrayal and injustice in a far less figurative form.

Perhaps, though, that’s simply the nature of the beast. For while Hayes’s book is about the educated and affluent elite, it is also for them. It flatters their preconceptions and speaks in their idiom. Hayes writes for a class of people who generally believe that most anyone with an opinion has, like them, attended an elite college. But the world is made up of people who haven’t. Even among the college educated, competitive schooling is rare; there are more than 4,000 two- and four-year colleges and universities in the U.S.; perhaps 125 reject more students than they accept. A significant majority accept essentially any students that apply.

 

***

Hayes writes from rarefied territory. The problem is that people like him enjoy the view, and they are not likely to volunteer to give up their privilege, even if such a thing was possible. (Can you voluntarily surrender your class rank? Many have tried. The result is, typically, vulgar and ugly.) Revolution must come from elsewhere. But if Hayes’s solutions are unsatisfying, what better prescription instead?

Hayes’s nuanced and passionate consideration of his conflicted feelings about meritocracy  represents the book’s greatest strength. There’s no similar conflict for me, though: I reject meritocracy because I reject the idea of human deserts. I don’t believe that an individual’s material conditions should be determined by what he or she “deserves,” no matter the criteria and regardless of the accuracy of the system contrived to measure it. I believe an equal best should be done for all people at all times.

More practically, I believe that anything resembling an accurate assessment of what someone deserves is impossible, inevitably drowned in a sea of confounding variables, entrenched advantage, genetic and physiological tendencies, parental influence, peer effects, random chance,  and the conditions under which a person labors. To reflect on the immateriality of human deserts is not a denial of choice; it is a denial of self-determination. Reality is indifferent to meritocracy’s perceived need to “give people what they deserve.”

For this and other reasons, my desire is to live beyond reciprocity, to escape the notion of trade and equality in effort and reward. Though rarely entertained by the ranks of the “serious,” it is a natural extension of the elementary morality that so many share and is entirely inimical to meritocracy, real or imagined. I find the concept of equality of opportunity morally insufficient, ideologically confused, and worst of all, unattainable given the fog of limited human perspective. How would we know equality of opportunity when we’ve reached it? Though distinguishable in theory, in practice there is no distinction possible between ability, effort, and circumstance, and without it equality of opportunity is impossible. Any such easy, romantic belief falls to pieces with the barest reference to empiricism, to the scramble of real life. Meritocracy is oligarchic society’s ongoing excuse.

The only alternative to an oligarchic society then is a radical leveling, a forever jubilee. The details of this become irrelevant if the outcome is assured: no false diversity in resources or power, only the teeming difference of all things human. No notion of human deserts, no thoughts of reciprocity, no assumption that exchange is beneficial or proper, no anachronistic concept that one can justify one’s conditions through reference to their behavior. And the leveling must be enforced by all means necessary. Today’s liberals love to debate regulation against redistribution. When you’re facing a man with a loaded gun, what’s the difference?

I think again of Hayes’s contention that it will take the upper-middle class — people like him — to solve our crisis. “The most militant and effective political mobilizations of our last decade were, for the most part, upper-middle-class uprisings…. They gained their momentum from specific class origins.” Those capable of reforming the system, to Hayes, are only those within it, and to them, abandoning it must seem an act of sociopathy. I can think only of what a profound convenience this is for Hayes, as he wanders the halls of elite media power. He might think of himself as a lefty with a word processor. But when you regularly step in front of a television camera at a national network, you are in rarefied territory, indeed.

The reification of privilege and power in the transition from Exeter to Harvard to Goldman Sachs is gross, obvious. The kind transferred over beers and jokes is another level of danger altogether. The social transfer of influence — and with it, the promise of remuneration and power — is seductive, natural, and ubiquitous. It is practiced by this very publication and its marketing.

We must dismantle not just the existing spheres of influence and also their reason for being. The effort is impossible but simple: dismantle all the relationships that causes us to hand out and to seek favor, erase the notion of what is owed, render farcical the very idea of acknowledgments. An idealistic notion, yes, but I am just cynical enough to point out that this book of elite-bashing contains a pages-long acknowledgments section where Hayes pays due deference to a murderer’s row of wealthy, connected elitists. With each person he thanks, I can see the invisible lattice of patronage and nepotism, so archly dissected in the main text, spiral out and off the page.

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