The surprising socialist origins of meritocracy

A great irony with the notion of meritocracy is that it is now used in a way contrary to its original, critical, intention.

In an unusual move, British sociologist and Labour Party activist Michael Young adapted his 1955 Ph.D. thesis into a dystopian novel set in 2034. His intention was to satirize educational tracking: at the time, British students were tested and divided into three different types of schools based on early testing (e.g., grammar schools for the classics, technical schools for the sciences, and modern schools for everyone else). The book is written as a sociological essay by a fictional Michael Young of the future who describes the consequences of such a system including the rise of a meritocratic elite and the decline of the lower classes. The system seemingly works for a while, but as the narrator writes, it is increasingly challenged by discontent from the Populist Movement.

The unrest arises from the lessening of social mobility as “the top of today are breeding the top of tomorrow to a greater extent than at any time in the past. The elite is on the way to becoming hereditary; the principles of heredity and merit are coming together” (Young, 2002: 166). (And where it does not, black markets provide for the trading of “smart” children from the lower-classes for the dowried “dumb” children of the elite).

Despite the protests of the Populists (dissident technicians led by a faction of “bizarre” elite women), the fictional Young is confident that meritocracy will prevail. This confidence is misplaced by an editor’s note at the end of the book noting that Young (fictional) had been killed in social unrest.

The real Young wrote this satire so as to caricature and critique a society shifting from a class-bound nepotistic order to one in which “I + E = M,” that is, “Intelligence combined with Effort equals Merit” (Littler, 2013: 57). Alan Fox, a socialist writer, similarly used the term as critique. Fox (1956: 13) argued against social inequality, which remains even when “the gifted, the smart, the energetic, the ambitious and the ruthless are carefully sifted out and helped towards their destined positions of dominance.” Increasing access to opportunity by way of meritocratic education did not further social equality; rather, it is one of “bigger and better ‘sieves’ (‘equality of opportunity’) to help the clever boys get to the top and then pile rewards on them when they get there.”

Despite Young’s intention, meritocracy lost its satirical connotation and was instead associated with “equality of opportunity.” Decades later, Young (2001) confessed that “I have been sadly disappointed” that the notion was favorably spoken of in the United States and appeared in the speeches of Tony Blair at home. “The book was a satire meant to be a warning…” Young lamented that “meritocracy” had become the means by which the ruling class reproduced itself while depriving the working class “of those who would have been their natural leaders, the able spokesmen and spokeswomen from the working class who continued to identify with the class from which they came.” Those left behind “easily become demoralised by being looked down on so woundingly by people who have done well for themselves.” That is, “It is hard indeed in a society that makes so much of merit to be judged as having none. No underclass has ever been left as morally naked as that.” In Young’s view, the new underclass was worse off than even their predecessors as the meritocrats 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.”

Fox A (1956) Class and equality. Socialist Commentary, 11–13.

Littler J (2013) Meritocracy as plutocracy: the marketising of ‘equality’ within neoliberalism. New Formations, 52–72, Available from: (accessed 21 January 2015).

Young M (2001) Comment: Down with meritocracy politics. The Guardian, Available from: (accessed 21 January 2015).

Young M (2002) The rise of meritocracy. New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers.

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