Class Consciousness and a New Aristocracy

07.19.18
Columbia Pictures
Culture + Religion /19 Jul 2018
07.19.18

Class Consciousness and a New Aristocracy

As Samarth notes, issues of class and social mobility have re-entered the zeitgeist as we try to understand new social structures that have arisen from a new global economy. Many people have perceived the existence of new class alignments and dynamics, but there is not a lot of agreement on the details. Part of the reason for the lack of agreement is a general inability to isolate class issues from popular social causes — typically income inequality. Another part of the problem is the ideological hyper-confidence of our time, especially the prevailing cultural superiority of progressive political views, whose social dominance and claims to enduring, absolute truth block its adherents from recognizing that system of views as one of its own cultural products, and thus its own class-based system of manners and beliefs.

Class concerns, like those expressed by Matthew Stewart in “The Birth of the New American Aristocracy,” are closely tied to our sense of fairness and justice, and occasionally can access deeper republican concerns about civil and social equality. In the U.S., we intuitively understand that civil equality should result in a meritocracy — a society ordered around merit, where people are rewarded according to their abilities and contributions, rather than their wealth and social connections. In this sense, complaints about oligarchy, aristocracy, or diminishing social mobility, all reflect problems with the meritocracy: the general sense is that our society is growing less meritocratic. But meritocracy’s conceptual proximity to justice makes it easy for many to confuse meritocracy with other justice-adjacent concepts, primarily everyone’s favorite: egalitarianism. We see this in Matthew Stewart’s article, where the author attempts to highlight the lives of the top 9.9% of society — “New Aristocrats” — by showing how nice their lives are in comparison to others. The top decile in the U.S. live in exclusive and pleasant zip codes, send their children to the best schools, and generally enjoy good health, food, and family.

Highlighting inequalities won’t work for diagnosing what’s wrong with our meritocracy, though, since there’s no reason a society can’t be meritocratic and simultaneously deeply unequal — it just requires individuals to make unequal contributions. Exceptionally talented people can receive exceptional amounts of money. And when people get money, they tend to spend it on good things (in fact, exchanging that money for good things may even have been the main reason they worked to get the money in the first place). We can’t have an economy that rewards people with money, but then prohibits them from spending money on anything good.

Failing to recognize that the most meritorious people will get better access to good things can lead to some perverse complaints about parents who give their children excellent educations, and educated people who have fulfilling marriages, and healthy people who take care of their bodies. Stewart supposes, “good parenting and good citizenship are in conflict,” while others have complained about, for example, the unfair disadvantages of children whose parents read to them. This focus on egalitarianism can’t help in a discussion of new aristocracy — it gets the problem backwards, and produces answers that are silly or utopian.

Conflating meritocracy with egalitarianism also misdiagnoses the risks of a failing meritocracy. As Stewart notes, societies that are unequal also tend to be unstable, and this is the author’s frequent, but uncritically accepted, contention as he warns against a new aristocracy. But people aren’t angered by inequality only. Many people are willing to accept massive inequality if they feel there is some fairness in the distribution, i.e. if merit is rewarded somewhat fairly. Injustice is much more difficult to abide . I am personally more upset by the political opportunities of wealthy people (like Trump) and by the financial opportunities of politically connected people (like Hillary) than by the massive accumulations of athletes and artists, whose wealth is more clearly tied to their ability . Instead, the risks of a failed meritocracy seem to be self-dealing and waste — in the form of bureaucrats and public figures diverting public resources and opportunities to themselves and favored entities — as well as incoherence and a lack of introspection. This last risk can be seen in a Democratic party that has become an echo chamber that now sees no contradiction, or at least no trouble, in demanding free universal healthcare and open borders.

Instead of focusing on equality, then, we should focus on merit. This is the true problem of a new aristocracy — the way in which merit is increasingly replaced by class signifiers as the characteristic of successful people. Accordingly, if there is something wrong with our meritocracy, we will see evidence of its failure not in our inequality, but in our diminishing social mobility and our failing institutions.

Social mobility — a measure of the fluidity with which people traverse social classes — has, by most accounts, decreased over the last few decades. But it isn’t clear that social mobility is directly related to fitness for particular positions (i.e. merit). After all, merit is very complicated and is affected not just by the opportunities provided by an aspirational, egalitarian society but also by geography, hereditary traits, social networks, education, and blind luck. We can add to those personal factors the increasing efficiency with which people in modern societies are sorted. It may be that the decreasing social mobility is actually a reflection of a society that has improved its ability to recognize merit, and which places people in suitable positions or on tracks to certain positions with greater accuracy. Social mobility seems important for an egalitarian society, but without knowing more about the needs of the economy, we might need a better measure.

Institutional health is also a measure of a meritocracy for the straightforward reason that enterprises are more successful if leadership and influence are distributed rationally, according to merit. Institutional health also serves as a market failure check: we should always be careful of theories that presume massive market failures, since the organic nature of most large markets makes such massive failures unlikely. For example, popular theories of a “gender pay gap” typically assume, but do not explain, a significant market failure. If the gender pay gap is indeed caused by discriminatory practices and not by free choices of women, then a company with a largely male workforce could simply replace all its men with women, pay the women seventy-eight cents on the dollar, instantly cut its labor costs by 22% and dominate the market by underselling competitors whose misogyny condemns them to higher labor costs and lower profit margins. In that case, the actions of the market undercut the theory of discrimination.

In the same way, if the world is getting less meritocratic, but our institutions were working well, that would imply a market failure. It would mean that our institutions had been overpaying for merit for a long time, when they could have gotten away with a less-meritorious, and cheaper, workforce while maintaining the same level of competence.

If we claim to no longer live in a meritocracy, the presumed market failure is crystal clear: entities that select employees on some basis other than merit shouldn’t function very well. If businesses and institutions are functioning well, on the other hand, it could be a sign that our idea of merit is wrongly conceived. For example, if I lost a lawyer job to some well-connected Ivy League backslapper, even though I had better grades and experience, and the law firm is successful, then what grounds would I have to say that the firm was not being meritocratic? I can argue about my own ideas of merit, but it is possible that some institutions function better when they’re staffed by aristocrats. Since the only reliable measure of merit must be based on success, our idea of merit must be based on the actual, rather than idealized or probable, requirements of a position at a successful institution.

Stewart, however, doesn’t seem interested in interrogating “merit” in our economy. He even writes that New Aristocrats, in the same way their children are taught to ace standardized tests, would “perfect the art of raising shuffleboard wizards” if elite parents thought such skills would help their children’s careers. But of course, shuffleboard skills will never result in excessive meritocratic compensation for anyone. Shuffleboard is, for Stewart, a tongue-in-cheek example of fake merit: the kind of skills that elites use to assess each other’s suitability for a position, but which is not the kind of skill that is rationally related to success in that position. As a distributional model, fake merit may not be as equitable or just as “real” merit, but fake merit makes as much sense as every other distributional model that isn’t based on real merit. A random lottery, in terms of equality, is as good a distributional model as any aristocracy masquerading as a meritocracy. Surely, though, the positions occupied by the top decile of society have some requirements, and those requirements are what make the institutions work. So evaluating institutional health avoids Stewart’s mistake, which is to assume, without serious analysis, that he can detect failures within the meritocracy without an understanding of what is meritorious.

Unfortunately, recent evidence abounds of widespread and serious institutional failures. The #MeToo campaign revealed hundreds of indecent and criminal men in elite positions in entertainment, media, universities, politics, and business. Massive child sexual abuse scandals have hit several major universities, in which misconduct by university employees was hidden and excused by top administrators. Universities also are dealing with crises relating to sexual assault and due process and massive student debt. The presidential election of 2016 featured the two least-liked and most ethically compromised candidates in our history, featuring simultaneous FBI investigations of both campaigns. In the business community, tech companies have mined our personal data and lied to us about it, and now seem prepared to exercise their massive corporate power in the service of fashionable political theories. In 2018, institutional failure and declension might be the only thing everyone can agree on.

Once we’ve established that our institutions aren’t in peak condition, we can only connect that failure to the failure of the meritocracy if we think those institutions are mistaking, to some degree, what is meritorious. We’ve already discussed the difficulties in producing an idea of merit without close knowledge of how a particular set of responsibilities relates to a particular skill set. Instead of a general affirmative concept of merit, though, a general negative concept is less treacherous. I’ve already confidently identified “shuffleboard skills” as never related to merit. If shuffleboard were required, for example, to gain entrance to medical school, we would immediately recognize that as a non-meritorious requirement, whose purpose is to assist the prospects of the children of rich people. Are there any other instruments of self-perpetuation that enable New Aristocrats to lock up favorable positions for their children, but which aren’t obviously related to merit?

I can think of one.

Stewart writes about the various forms of affirmative action for rich people, like legacy admissions and athletic scholarships at prestigious universities, which can help perpetuate a hereditary aristocracy. Recently though, progressive belief systems have been adopted by a majority of people at elite institutions of education, journalism, and entertainment, and have become a kind of social code that privileges the children of that same elite.

That the Progressive class sees its views as tied to merit is almost inarguable — from #MeToo, to Trump’s cabinet hearings, to Obama’s “that’s not who we are,” the Left sees identity and merit in largely the same terms. But when “merit” is conceived largely in terms of identity, it perpetuates hereditary opportunities because identity is so closely tied to family. In this way, progressive manners stand in for otherwise forbidden caste markers. Progressive politics — and its linguistic requirements — can be inserted into any evaluative process and will generally select for proximity to government, party politics, and especially to universities and cities.

We start selecting for this class at a young age. Unpaid undergraduate internships, study abroad, and Ivy League admittance are practically pre-requisites for the top 9.9%, but those are better metrics of one’s geographic ties to progressivism than they are of actual merit. When I was in law school, career counselors told everyone to include “study abroad” and unpaid undergraduate summer internships on their resumes. As a relatively modest Midwesterner, I didn’t have an opportunity to study in another country or to not work during my college summers and the counselors told me, on the other hand, “I don’t want to see restaurants on your professional resume ever again.” My employment prospects, like my resume, turned out largely empty. Presumably, if I had grown up in wealthy and 95% Clinton-supporting, Washington DC, I would not only have had the right political views, but my resume would also have included the experiences that people with those political views typically have.

Progressive sympathies can also make or break college admission decisions. Now ultra-prestigious Swarthmore apparently starts admissions interviews with the question “how are you involved in social justice?,” as though any 17-year-old without money or university connections or residence in a large urban area could be meaningfully involved in changing a society that they’ve barely participated in. Unpaid internship applications these days might ask about a favorite meme, or periodical, as a way of asking about social class. Even the ideas of “involvement” and “leadership” are difficult to explain without presuming some progressive first principles: is there a conservative organization or movement that gives opportunities to teenagers and which would recommend an applicant to Vassar? Apparently you can get into Stanford with a personal essay that only repeats “Black Lives Matter” a hundred times, but what are the odds a Catholic applicant could gain admission by sending in the Nicene Creed?

Maybe progressive views are the best views, and all institutions should be encouraging them, but using these views as a method of selection, rather than a goal for students to attain, privileges the students who have family connections to governments, universities, and other cultural centers of power. The student whose daily life can communicate the vast differences between “people of color” and “colored people,” between “transgender” and “transgendered,” and the litany of eternal stereotypes of which it is forbidden to refer. Frankly, some of the New Left’s ideas are so counter-intuitive that it might require the demonstration of successful aristocratic life in order to swallow it.

Like a lot of concerned liberals, Stewart sees that the social codes of the aristocracy are a mechanism for self-perpetuation, but still can’t connect those codes with his own automatic critiques of Donald Trump’s “flagrant racism.” The people who voted for Trump were responding not just to their own alienation, but also were rejecting the aristocratic manners that require particular public expressions of aristocratic morality, i.e. progressivism. If progressivism is the moral code of the elite, it makes as much sense to reject that code as it does legacy admissions at Harvard. It might make more sense, because the manners of the gentility were always the last line of defense against the nouveau riche, the bourgeoisie & the alt-right.

Each instance of this political type of selection favors the New Aristocracy and blocks rising stars coming from the deplorable underclass. Hillary Clinton was happy to equate wealth with moral value in a recent speech in India. Whether they realize it or not, most of our elite institutions agree with her. Broad tolerance of a wide range of political views, especially in industries or institutions that aren’t expressly political, is the best way to return to merit and reject the New Aristocracy.

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