Power Elite Redux

I tend to complain about meritocratic myths on this blog because it strikes me as a smokescreen for the perpetuation of preexisting social relations. The pretense is that capitalism provides a level playing field, when in fact it serves to provide conditions for capitalists to continue to accumulate capital at the expense of workers — middle class people who haven’t seen wages increase in several generations, for instance. Meritocracy myths tend to attribute merit to individuals after the fact based on social standing, but encourages us to see that merit as a causal agent retroactively. Similarly, merit tends to get redefined based on the context; it becomes whatever it needs to explain the status quo as a fair arrangement. And the institutions of power transmission and conservation — elite universities — like to cloak themselves in quasi-meritocratic procedures, like their nontransparent admission processes, to justify their esteem in a putatively democratic society. Perhaps the most pernicious assumption in meritocracy is that individuals’ merit requires no social support, as though individuals can fulfill their potential entirely on their own, with no support or collaboration whatsoever. (This is the quintessential problem with Randian dogma.) Whatever “human capital” one might have in terms of innate talent is bound to be squandered without an adequate portion of “social capital” to activate it, make it actually efficacious in society. You can’t be meritorious in a vacuum. In practice, merit is a product of organizations or, if you prefer, it emerges from networks, the members of which can then assume personal credit for its achievements. America is full of myths of the individual succeeding through raw effort and ability, but real success stories always hinge on having the right sort of access to money and support and publicity at the critical moments. Success stories are generally about knowing how to network; we do a disservice to children if we teach them otherwise, if we lead to them to believe that ability can be abstracted from association.

Anyway, this is all preference to calling attention to David Brooks’s critique of meritocracy from a very different angle. He seems to be arguing that meritocracy is confusing to the plebes and peasants because they don’t know who they are supposed to be deferential to anymore, and it makes them trust institutions less when the same white men who have always run them aren’t always in charge anymore.

Here’s the funny thing. As we’ve made our institutions more meritocratic, their public standing has plummeted. We’ve increased the diversity and talent level of people at the top of society, yet trust in elites has never been lower.

That there should be elites is never to be questioned, naturally. The problem is that the “new” elites lack what Brooks calls “empathy,” but would better be described as comfortable familiarity with the entitlement of domination, so that they can make it palatable to those dominated. He rolls out this defense of noblesse oblige: “If you were an old blue blood, you traced your lineage back centuries, and there was a decent chance that you’d hand your company down to members of your clan. That subtly encouraged long-term thinking.” Now though, those selected for their merit — for having more talent than social capital — have to prove their worthiness by short-term results, lest the blue bloods kick them out of the seats of power. Another problem is “transparency,” which has revealed the unpleasant mechanisms of domination in the power struggles among elites. Better to have a uniform group of elites who rule as a class, an aristocracy, rather than this unseemly fight for power.

Brooks is not necessarily wrong about all this; if elite hegemony was more uniform, there would less discontent and more resignation, apathy and acceptance of the “natural order” of social hierarchy. If you rule out social mobility altogether, of course society is more stable. If in nearly all cases, birth assigns you to your station in life, there is little space for disruption. But hereditary class has proven an untenable principle for social organization, and incompatible with the requirements of capitalist ideology. Social mobility justifies its exploitative practices.

Brooks ends by shrugging his shoulders and disavowing the conclusion he has been building toward in the column: “This is not to say that we should return to the days of the WASP ascendancy. That’s neither possible nor desirable. Rather, our system of promotion has grown some pretty serious problems, which are more evident with each passing day.”

Chris Lehmann at the Awl is understandably unhappy about this column. Correcting Brooks’s abuses of Wright Mills’s The Power Elite, Lehmann makes the useful point that today’s power elite may not look uniformly WASPy but is nevertheless homogeneous in that they derive power from controlling key institutions in the modern corporate-capitalist state. “Hence the overlapping directorates of the military, the corporations, and the government served, in Mills’ view, as the most critical forcing beds of plutocratic interest. Mills’ power elite got its marching orders from the impersonal mandates of the government contract or corporate board—not via the exchange of sly winks and elbow nudges at the Harvard Club.” Aristocracy, that is to say, has dissolved into pseudo-meritocratic institutions, which depersonalizes blue-blood connections. In practice, the capitalist state transforms social capital by depersonalizing it, making it seem more meritorious in the form of state power, direct corporate control, or plain old cold, hard cash.