We allowed it all to happen on our watch!
In trying to better understand the Trump phenomenon, I’m reading the book Twilight of the Elites by Christopher Hayes. A must read for those of us who want to know more about what is behind the headlines.
In it, Hayes has a chapter “The Iron Law of Meritocracy”, which lays out some theories from a 19th century scholar, Robert Michels who wrote the book Political Parties. Hayes explains Michels with the following qoutes:
Michel’s grim conclusion was that it was impossible for any party, no matter its belief system, to actually bring about democracy in practice, oligarchy was inevitable. “the most formable argument against the sovereignty of the masses”. Effectiveness, Michel’s argues convincingly, requires these tasks be delegated to some kind of permanent full-time cadre of leadership.
As this system of representation develops its bureaucratic structure, it imbues a small group of people with enough power to delegate tasks and make decisions of consequence for the entire membership. “Without wishing it.” Michels says, there grows up a great gulf which divides the leaders from the masses. The leaders now control the tools with which to manipulate the opinion of the masses and subvert the organization’s democratic process. “Thus the leaders, who were at first no more than the executive organs of the collective, will soon emancipate themselves from the mass and become independent of its control.
Those who are able to climb up the ladder will find ways to pull it up after them, or to selectively lower it down to allow their friends, allies, and kin to scramble up. In other words “Whoever says meritocracy says oligarchy.”
Over time, a society will grow both more unequal and less mobile as those who ascend its heights create a means of preserving and defending their privilege and find ways to pass it across generations. And this as it turns out, is pretty spot-on description of the trajectory of the American economy since the mid-1970s.
A deep recognition of the slow death of the meritocratic dream underlies the decline of trust in public institutions and the crisis of authority in which we are now mired. Much of the enduring value of Michel’s analysis of political parties come from his prophetic understanding of the end point toward which certain socialist parties were heading. In our own case, the endpoint is nowhere near as violent or dire, we might ask what kind of social order would result.
It would be a society with extremely high and rising inequality, yet little circulation of elites. A society in which the pillar institutions were populated by and presided over by a group of hypereducated, ambitious overachievers who enjoyed tremendous monetary rewards as well as unparalleled political power and prestige and yet who managed to insulate themselves from sanction, competition and accountability, a group of people who could more or less rest assured that they have achieved their status now that they have scaled to the top of the pyramid they, their peers and their progeny will stay there.
Such a ruling class would have all the competitive ferocity inculcated by the ceaseless jockeying within that produce meritocratic elites, but face no actual sanctions for failing at their duties or succumb to the temptation of corruption. It would reflexively protect its worst members, it would operate with a wide gulf between performance and reward and would be shot through with, rule-breaking, and self-dealing as those on top pursued the outside rewards promised for superstars. In the way the bailouts combined the worst aspect of capitalism and socialism, such a social order would fuse the worst aspects of meritocracy and bureaucracy.