How to Justify a King:

The counter-revolutionary myth of meritocracy

Corey Robin, in his magisterial study of conservatism, The Reactionary Mind, defines its theoretical essence as counter-revolution. It bursts into life at the point where existing social hierarchies are threatened. But this impetus is not an unthinking reflex, and not necessarily defensive. Burke castigates the ancien regime almost as much as the Jacobins. And it’s tough to argue Friedman and Hayek did not possess a radical, constructive vision. It’s restorativism is concerned primarily with the transhistorical dynamic between the rulers and the ruled, a relation that transcends social categories and institutional modalities. If it is seen fit to dispense with the decadent apparatus of the ancients to preserve the Order of Things, they will do so — the test of time be damned. Only one tradition — stratified order — is necessary. The rest are ornamental.

The point Robin takes care to emphasise in this argument is that conservatism is not a ‘knee jerk’, shallow political philosophy. It is deeply reflective and adaptable, capable of co-opting it’s opponents discourses and passions and reshaping them to its own ends. This preemptive element enables it to avoid the rut of its counter-positioning; that is, frees it from being perennially on the back foot. Take Thomas Hobbes’ The Leviathan, an innovative defence of absolute monarchy in the wake of the English Civil War. Hobbes, in a move that drew him much ire from fellow monarchists and even repression from the state, dispensed with the traditional narrative of a ‘divine right of kings’. Such a justification had reached its twilight, liberalism on its heels. People were demanding self-rule. And if they were to be placated, they must see, rationally, why it is this desire was foolish. Suddenly, political hierarchies had broken from the realm of religious naturalisation into one subject to critique and contingency, and thus — if conservatism was to outpace this mobilisation — it’s defenders too had to make this leap, to steal the tongue in which it had been delegitimated.

Fear is the protagonist of The Leviathan, not the state; that ‘artificial person’ is only the tool. It’s from our horror at equal vulnerability that the Leviathan becomes animated. The product of a covenant where we trade barbarian freedom for the safety of civil society, it is not made between the rulers and the ruled. Domination, at least in this respect, is shunted from the story. It is made between us; a contract, organically and autonomously emerging. Hence Hobbes’ vital notion of the Leviathan as comprised from us, the bundle, amalgamation of our wills, reflected in the giant made of the numerous faces of its subjects that adorns its original frontispiece. We are the author of its acts; it speaks them on our behalf. As Robin writes, the people were brought on stage, only to be kept effectively powerless. We, collectively, freely, alienate our autonomy, thereby legitimating — in such a way suggestive of the demands of popular representation — domination. With that, our scene is over. Leave stage right.

Two things are crucial here. First, that the people, the ruled, are incorporated into the story; their interests, identities attached to that of the Leviathan. In this particular case, they are constructed as prime movers, and as the constituent parts of an all-powerful actor, somehow simultaneously the ruled and the ruler, their wills fused. Second, that Hobbes felt it necessary to develop this theory of the social contract. Prior to this, kings were obeyed because god demanded it be so. Egyptian slaves slogged cubes of stone across gravel to build the pyramids because the Pharaoh was literally a God. You cannot question the divine. It’s self-defence mechanism is built in, the nature of its very being. What is interesting is to note the break — from automatic legitimation to attempted rationalisation — and the meta-continuity underneath — that of a largely identical structural hierarchy. The Reactionary Mind is thus an intellectual history of these breaks, their specificities and contradictions lyrically scrutinised, thread through by this meta-continuity: the inescapable commonalities of creative counterrevolution against egalitarian movements from below.

In his work Homo Deus, Isreali historian Yuval Noah Harari observes the profound tendency of humans toward a notion of fairness as equality. Via a jaunt through various psychological studies, he reveals how this idea of justice appears to be hardwired into our nature. Nevertheless, it’s presence is not deterministic. Because you possess a tendency does not mean it is always predominant. Through this broad concept of ‘intersubjective fictions’ — a heuristic Harari uses to tie together social constructions like money, corporations, states, and philosophies, defined, essentially, as shared stories — he notes how, so long as we are convinced any inequality is justified, we no longer maintain it is an injustice. A right to rule, in this sense, is only an inegalitarian social relation doused with a discourse of legitimacy. Pharaoh Khufu sustained his slave empire long enough to construct the tallest Pyramid of Giza because, again, his underlings — despite possessing that innate human tendency to be repulsed at the rancid inequality they experienced — shared in a story that he was a deity, cosmically endowed with an unassailable right to tyrannise them.

Liberalism displaced this story. A whole bunch of people began demanding, in such a way that chimed with this impulse for justice, that each and every individual is, at core, equal; and thus possesses equally a number of inalienable rights that should be respected and endowed within a political community. Of these rights, self-determination and self-rule — i.e., liberal democracy — was the most incendiary. Aside from a few promising apprehensions here and there, though, the failure of liberalism was to stop at the gates of the state. That is, it declared all these righteous, universal principles — of liberty, justice; a general antipathy toward concentrated power and faith in ordinary human capacity — and refused to extend these to economic power. There are perfectly understandable historical reasons for this. Elizabeth Anderson’s book Private Government deals with them in depth, situating Smith and the Levellers as allies in the fight against restrictive state monopolies and brutally rigid feudal hierarchies, the market envisioned as an instrument of individual liberties that would shorn millions of serfs from their masters, sent forth into a relatively level playing field of ingenuity and industriousness. Capitalists barely existed; the division of labour had barely asserted itself; market concentrations had yet to fester. Smith’s pin factory was almost unrecognisable through the thick smog emanating from Blake’s imperial satanic mills decades later. By the time Marx was writing the Communist Manifesto, the state had shrivelled in relation to the vast power of capital, those industrial magnates, becoming little more than ‘a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie.’

Indeed, this is how best to conceptualise socialism as a political theory; a sort of successor to liberalism, one that isn’t afraid to carry its principles forth to their logical end. It makes a number of solid claims about the nature of capitalism, not merely as an economic system, but as a social relation: i) that the relation between boss and worker — or bourgeois and proletarian, in Marxist terminology — is robustly analogous to that between king and subject, lord and serf, pharaoh and slave. These are different forms of class relations, systems of institutional hierarchy that give profound power to those at the top, and almost none to those at the bottom. ii) that money is a material condensation of power, which is to say that, when a homeless person dies of cold because they can’t afford a home, or a groom to be dies after rationing his insulin because they can’t afford healthcare costs, this is not a matter of individualised ‘affording’, but a matter of power preventing them from getting access to these necessities. The fact that healthcare is a matter for private consumption in the US and public provision in the UK is evidently not an essential component of healthcare (if it was, these differences would be unexplainable), but is dependent upon the very political choice each polity has made ways in structuring access to certain goods. If power can be defined most simply as the ability to do something in the world, or as making someone do something they otherwise wouldn’t, then we can identify the ghastly power relation involved in the owners of pharmaceutical corporations, due to their pathological pursuit of profit, hiking the price of a drug so high that a man is forced to dance with death just so that he may live. More broadly, this is a conflict between two ways of structuring access to the earths resources: the commons, i.e., that no-one technically owns it and thus all have access, and private property, where a line is drawn in the mud and enforced by the threat of violence, stopping you from felling trees, grazing grass, feeding your daughter or regulating your insulin levels. And, iii) that if this is so, if money is a matter of power, of acting in the world, then concentrations of money are concentrations of power. The power that Jeff Bezos has at a net worth of $110 billion is startling. He could cure world hunger in an instant; pocket presidential candidates; win any lawsuit; purchase a small country; build an absurd cylindrical space colony with regions redolent of Earth, dotted with deers and waterfalls and cities, that rotates to generate centrifugal gravity. We even have a colloquialism that accepts the truth that capitalists and liberals do not (or at least, refuse to recognise the full implications of): money is power.

When Harari discusses intersubjective fictions in the context of power struggles, the concept can be replaced by the more specific notion of ideology. Ideology is a loaded and contested term, but for now it should suffice to take Terry Eagleton’s thorough definition: ‘the medium in which [people] fight out their social and political battles at the level of signs, meanings and representations’, so that discourses are marshalled to promote or legitimate the interests of a particular social group colliding over the ‘reproduction of social power as a whole.’ The concept of meritocracy functions in this way. It mystifies the power relations essential to capitalism so as to perpetuate the wealth of the elite, legitimating such a hierarchy in a manner firmly within the meta-continuity of counter-revolution that stretches from the Pharaohs to Hobbes’ Leviathan.

Meritocracy is the idea that existing distributions of wealth are the product of hard work and personal talent, such that if you are poor, or rich, or middling, your position in the economic hierarchy is by definition where you should be; the just desserts of your awfulness, excellence or mediocrity. Insofar as it attaches the interests of the subaltern classes with those of the dominating, so that we come to see ourselves in them, spectacular and deserving, it performs the same ideological function as Hobbes’ Leviathan. It enacts two quite profound sentiments: in the first case, that those who are rich, that wield immense power over our lives and inhibit our individual flourishing, deserve to be exactly where they are. That oppression experienced as 40% of our income is siphoned into the pockets of a landlord who waits for his assets to accrue in value, or at the payday lender that forces a mother into suicide, or with that boss that pays poverty wages and treats their labourers like dirt, is not, in fact, oppression. It is the legitimate outcome of the competitive arena. All is as it should be. Once we gave our alms to the gilded priest because God commands us to; now we pay our rent because our landlord deserves it. Perhaps if we were as brilliant as him, we could be charging him for the roof over his head. Perhaps if we were all as tough-willed as Bezos, we would bask in billions like he. This perennial self-doubt and comparative ethos gets us to the second sentiment: that ‘meritocracy’ conditions us to take account of our own situation, not as largely the product of structural asymmetries that systematically privilege some over others, but as solely indicative of our individual failings. The inverse of the rich deserving their wealth is that the poor deserves their deprivation.

Being an ‘aspirational’ voter is the phrase political commentators use to denote those people most attached to this myth of meritocracy. (It is telling, if we take aspirational to mean what it is, a desire to better ones life, that union organisers and tenet’s associations are not considered ‘aspirational’. Collective action premised exactly on that same impetus in not recognised to be so, precisely because being ‘aspirational’ really functions as an ideological keyword for individualised class competition.) Many people, whose material interests are in fact inverse from those they seek to defend, nevertheless consider policies that attempt to curb the power of billionaires as unjustly punitive. Wealth taxes on immense fortunes, of which they would never realistically be subjected to, are agonised over, castigated for their stark injustice. ‘But they worked hard for their money!’, they protest — as the next interest payment is insidiously extracted, pushed into debt last year after their boss downsized to boost share prices.

Indeed, this promise is the most pernicious part, and one that prior rationalisations were unable to employ. Meritocracy mitigates against challenges to the hierarchical power of capital not only because it conceals it — that is, weaves the story that it is personal grit, not structural power, that is responsible — but more because it dangles a carrot, smeared across TVs and phones, of riches that can be obtained so long as you just work hard enough. Its this relative malleability in regards to who may obtain the top positions that makes the hierarchy of capital unique.

It is in some sense accurate to say that anyone could be rich, putting aside the factors (wealth of parents; conditions of home; superior schooling; starting capital; class connections, etc) that make some considerably more likely to be wealthy than others. If you were born a serf in feudal times, the almost racialised class structure meant you were always a serf. Rags to riches was impossible. Your poverty, your powerlessness, was seen to be inscribed into your very DNA. Under capitalism, this is categorically not the case. This is the kernel of truth in the meritocratic narrative. Ideology, despite some of its orthodox uses, is not solely about ‘false consciousness’. It often operates on real, existing dynamics. It is possible for Larry Ellison to be born a slum-kid and die a billionaire.

Where we may object is that, first, we simply do not live under largely meritocratic conditions. There are a number of structural levers and resources which produce observable statistical regularities in who will become rich, regularities that are thus not explainable in terms of subjective, individual variations in aptitude. Such an argument makes a number of interrelated claims: i) that poverty is hereditary, both in terms of maldevelopment (there’s strong evidence to suggest that the frontal cortext of poorer children is physically smaller, damaging behavioural control and strategic thinking, due to stresses of poverty) and lack of oppurtunities (live in poor, dangerous area; parents can not afford childcare; low quality education; no access to economic or social capital, i.e., lack of Bank of Mum and Dad and no uncle with a cushy business.) ii) That poverty is structural, in the sense that people are often plunged into hardship through no fault of their own (unemployment from markets ‘creative destruction’, as Schumpeter termed its restless tendency to innovate; recessions; poor corporate practice.) If this wasn’t the case, if it was all down to individual merit, you wouldn’t be able to observe society wide patterns of poverty that correspond to these factors. iii) that wealth is hereditary, in the inverse of those inhibitors above (connection to vast social and economic capital; private schooling; nurturing home environment, etc.) iv) that wealth is structural, in that it depends on the distribution of ownership rights (i.e., who has a right to profits of business — is it only shareholders? In which case, why? Without labour, you have no value whatsoever; you are left merely with a bundle of capital factors — land, machinery, raw resources — with nothing to activate them, so to speak. Labour needs capital to function; capital needs labour to function. Why do profits only accrue to one at the expense of the other?), macro fluctuations in markets, what is designated as a commodity (whether people, land, healthcare, and so on are commodities to be bought and sold on the market, and thus generate wealth for those who own their productive means, is a strictly political question), oppurtunities for rent seeking (i.e., restrictive patenting laws; monopolies; landlordism; speculation). Core point here is that both power and luck are larger factors in the distribution of wealth than individual merit. Until this is not the case, meritocracy is nothing but an aspiration itself.

Second, and perhaps more interestingly, just because anyone (in principle) can be rich, it does not follow that everyone can. Concentrated wealth is reliant upon the work of others elsewhere. If everyone was well-off, this relation could not hold. This is important because, as I say above, when we’re talking about wealth under capitalism, it is just as well talking of power. Hierarchical pyramid structures depend on their being significantly fewer people at the top than at the bottom; indeed, the power of those at the top derives from the relation of subordination to those at the bottom. Capitalism, then, is structurally dependent on the disempowerment and impoverishment of over 90% of the population for the wealth of the top strata. And even under perfectly meritocratic conditions, is there not something about the content of economic hierarchy, the presence of this relation of domination and submission, that makes it morally impermissible, irrespective of the internal permeability of its ranks? Exclusion from the fruits of your labour and autonomy over production; deprivation from the necessities to live, unless you prostrate yourself to one who owns it; and marginalisation in the face of concentrated political and social power, is deplorable whether or not the people enacting such exclusion, deprivation, and marginalisation are the most ‘skilled’ people to be there. I say skilled in inverted commas here because its worthwhile interrogating exactly what is meant by this. What traits and capacities is ‘meritocracy’ selecting for? It seems to me that what we mean when we discuss success in such a context is precisely ones capacity to enact exclusion, deprivation, and marginalisation, so that the issue is not, on the one hand, some mechanism that allows people from humble beginnings to climb their way to the top, and on the other, a deleterious, impermissible structure of hierarchy that precludes human flourishing for the majority. Rather, these mechanisms are linked; more often than not, they are one and the same.

Take Steven J. Schaub. Schaub founded Yes Communities, a trailblazing upstart of the ‘manufactured housing industry’ that provides over ‘56,000 mobile home sites in 215 trailer parks across eighteen states.’ As Whitney Curry Wimbish writes in The Baffler, Schaub’s business instincts allowed him to rise ‘from the humble background of state school attendee to the owner of a $5.7 million home with thirteen bathrooms who enjoys accolades from one of the largest investment banks in the world.’ He is, in many ways, the quintessential meritocrat. How did he do it? The manufactured housing industry is the final buffer before homelessness, and the waves of foreclosures and job lossess and aneamic income growth since the Global Financial Crash has meant business is booming. It has not only bucked the trend of real estates decline since 2000, but is thriving thanks to the felicitous stream of private equity funds flowing in. ‘Under his lordship,’ Wimbish elucidates,

‘Schaub has imposed hefty rent hikes on lot fees and fines for minor sins like failing to keep lawns at regulation height, while refusing to fix potholes or provide other basic maintenance. At Florence Commons, a Yes Communities trailer park near Nashville, the homes are sinking into the ground, the park needs streetlights, and trash goes uncollected. If your double-wide is coming apart at the seams, do not expect help. If you can’t afford a 30 percent lot fee increase, too bad.’

Of course, given the freedom of contract intrinsic to capitalism, his underlings could simply up sticks and leave. Grinding and grovelling for the top-hat in his fuedal manor is no longer part and parcel of our now liberated lives. But this freedom is, for so many, illusory. The residents of Yes Communities cannot ‘afford to leave, which is what makes mobile home parks such a good investment for someone willing to squeeze.’ Power, once again, is not simply a matter of legal prohibitions, the naked force of the truncheon or royal decree. It is far more insidious than that.

Now, a common riposte to all this is that such people are bad apples, pariahs, and rightly so. They are deviations from Good, Honest, Capitalism. But this view is far too sanguine. Time and time again, the same dynamic reappears: the instrumentalisation of workers, tenants, consumers, suppliers, and any one else caught underneath them, all to maximise profits. Such deviations are nothing of the kind; they are the logical consequence of a system that prioritises profit over people. There is a common practice in the American rental markets. If you’re late to pay your rent, your landlord hits you with, say, a $50 late fee, and a $50 court fee. The next month you pay your rent on time, but the landlord takes that $100 penalty out of your rent, claiming that you once again missed the rent payment. This process snowballs on and on, the penalties getting larger and larger; the landlords pins late rent notices on the doors as ‘scarlet letters’. As one journalist, who investigated the tranquil sounding occupancies of Cove Village, Baltimore, puts it: “The goal is not really to evict people. You want to squeeze as much money out of them as you possibly can through the threat of eviction.” It is so common, in fact, that there is an industry term for it, the repulsively named ‘churning.’ The owner of the Cove Village is JK2 Westminster L.L.C. The owner of JK2 Westminster is the proprietor of the New York Observer, and the son-in-law of the President of the United States, Jared Kushner. Schaub, for his part, was crowned one of Goldman Sachs 100 “most intriguing entrepreneurs” at their ‘Builders+Innovators’ summit in California in 2019. He was not shunned, but lionised. If this is how they treat the bad apples, I’d like to see what they do for the good ones.

Is Schaub an innovative genius? Is he a model entrepreneur? Not quite, Wimbish argues bluntly: ‘All you need is to get a lot of money — and don’t worry, there are rich investors clamoring to provide it. And you need to not care who you’ll hurt.’ The journal Psychology, Crime and Law once ‘tested 39 senior managers and chief executives from leading British businesses’ for their psychopathy scores, comparing them with the ‘results to the same tests on patients at Broadmoor special hospital,’ a mental institution for the criminally insane. What they found is that, for many ‘indicators of psychopathy, the bosses’s scores either matched or exceeded those of the patients.’ These executives — the lodestars of meritocratic capitalism — were literally as, if not more, pathologically selfish and amoral than patients incarcerated with psychopathic personality disorders.

Now, I am not a psychologist, but it strikes me as more than a little unwise for our most central social institutions to select for psychopathy. What does it say about our system that it runs on misanthropy? What kind of ‘meritocracy’ is this? As one of Schaub’s residents told The Washington Post: “They’re taking advantage of — I wouldn’t say poor people — but working people. Where do you think their profits come from?”’