Arthur wrote to me to critique a recent post:
I wonder if “fundamentalist meritocrat” quite captures it. Merit has nothing to do with what they have in mind, unless “merit” means the achievement of being born. I would call it fundamentalist leveling, in the old-fashioned sense of the 17th-century “Levelers,” that extreme Puritan sect that, interestingly, anticipated today’s snow-flake fascist-egalitarians in calling for the abolishing of all social distinctions–except the invidious distinction between themselves and those who weren’t Puritan Levelers. “Merit” is precisely what the BLM and their supporters can’t stand. The standards of merit used to be things like academic achievement. The fact that these standards have been systematically lowered to meet those unprepared for college or university isn’t enough. They have to be lowered further, and students should be the dictators of what is taught: interestingly, what they want to be taught is the specialness of themselves and the oppressive micro-aggressions of anyone who disagrees with them. Merit is conferred on you in the form of moral superiority because you are a victim–or a distant ancestor was perhaps a victim of slavery.
All this is a grotesque perversion of the idea of merit. Lowering intellectual standards and turning universities into day-care centers for the emotionally arrested is not what Emerson had in mind when he used the word “democracy.” To him it meant opportunities for people to raise themselves up to the highest level. What we have now, in the name of democracy or social equality or social justice, is a “race” to the bottom and proto-fascist mob rule in the name of political correctness.
Well, that’s the distinction I’m trying to make, between theory and practice. In theory, they’re meritocrats because they’re absolutely obsessed with trying to abolish any “unearned” advantages. If they were fixated on economic power like old-school Marxists, they’d be demanding that anyone they deemed rich relinquish their assets to be distributed among the needy. Instead, they’re fixated on social capital. Soft power rather than hard cash. But “privilege” can’t be quantified and redistributed like cash can, so there’s little they can do but shriek incoherently and lay guilt-trips on people who are deemed to have too many advantages they didn’t “work” for or “earn” on their own merit. They act as if they truly believe that people could be raised in a perfectly sterile, objective, neutral environment so that, once entering the adult world, anything they do or achieve can be accurately said to be due to their abilities and efforts, rather than the unfair result of funding through some type of inherited social capital. This seems to imply a strange belief in some inner essence, almost like a soul, that belongs to you as an individual and no one else, and that is responsible for what you make of your life.
(It’s interesting to note how strange it is that they seem so inclined to view human relations in these market-oriented terms; you’d think that would be anathema to their social-democratic hearts. I have yet to see anyone else tease out those interesting implications. Must I do everything myself?!)
Trotsky infamously said in Literature and Revolution:
“It is difficult to predict the extent of self-government which the man of the future may reach or the heights to which he may carry his technique. Social construction and psycho-physical self-education will become two aspects of one and the same process. All the arts – literature, drama, painting, music and architecture will lend this process beautiful form. More correctly, the shell in which the cultural construction and self-education of Communist man will be enclosed, will develop all the vital elements of contemporary art to the highest point. Man will become immeasurably stronger, wiser and subtler; his body will become more harmonized, his movements more rhythmic, his voice more musical. The forms of life will become dynamically dramatic. The average human type will rise to the heights of an Aristotle, a Goethe, or a Marx. And above this ridge new peaks will rise.”(my bolding)
This, of course, is one of those ideas so profoundly, staggeringly stupid that only a brilliant intellectual could possibly take it seriously. I don’t have the lung capacity to greet it with the uproarious laughter it deserves. Our junior-varsity Jacobins today would love to think that everybody could be equal in excellence, whatever the fuck that would even mean. (Seriously, what are we saying, construction workers are going to go home and write better novels than Goethe when they’re not doing amateur scientific research or coming up with new theories of color? Janitors on their lunch breaks are going to invent new categories of logic like Aristotle? What kind of gibbering moron thinks that the creative, artistic side of human life is cumulative in the same way that the sciences are? What the fuck would it mean to be ten times the composer Beethoven was? How would you exponentially “improve” on Mozart or Shakespeare?) But in practice, this is impossible. Individuals can raise themselves up to the highest level, but there’s no way for everyone to attain the highest level at the same time, which is what the JV Jacobins condemn as inherently unfair. You can’t possibly elevate millions of schlubs to the level of Goethe and Aristotle. What you can do is make everyone equal by dragging Goethe and Aristotle down off their pedestals, smashing their spectacles, and forcing them to labor in the fields like everyone else. Much more timely and efficient that way, as the Khmer Rouge could tell you.
In that way, then, in practice, yes, they could never be anything other than levelers. In the meantime, though, given that they are highly unlikely to ever have the rubber of their lunatic ideals meet the road of political power, they can afford to pretend that they would merely elevate everyone to the same level of excellence that the elite currently monopolize.
On a related, interesting note, I just read the book The Almost Nearly Perfect People: Behind the Myth of the Scandinavian Utopia, by Michael Booth, a British expat married to a Danish woman and living in Denmark. This section concerning Sweden seems apropos of our topic here:
Everything I read about the Swedish Social Democratic government of the last century suggested an organization that was driven by one single, overarching goal: to sever the traditional, some would say natural, ties between its citizens, be they those that bound children to their parents, workers to their employers, wives to their husbands, or the elderly to their families. Instead, individuals were encouraged — mostly by financial incentive or disincentive, but also through legislation, propaganda, and social pressure — to “take their place in the collective”, as one commentator rather ominously put it, and become dependent on the government.
Berggren has a slightly different spin on the Swedish state and its role in its citizens’ lives: rather than meddling and controlling, in his provocatively titled book Is the Swede a Human? he and his co-author Lars Trägårdh argue that the real aim of the Swedish government was to liberate citizens from one another, to set them free and allow them to become fully autonomous, independent entities in charge of their own destinies. Far from being the collectivist sheep their neighbors perceive them to be, Berggren and Trägårdh argue that the Swedes are “hyper individualists” — more so even than the Americans — and that they are “devoted to the pursuit of personal autonomy”.
“The point we are making is not to be confused with being unconventional, or to do with independent thinking,” explained Berggren. “We are talking about autonomy in terms of not being dependent on other people.”
“The Swedish system is best understood not in terms of socialism, but in terms of Rousseau,” he continued. “Rousseau was an extreme egalitarian and he really hated any kind of dependence — depending on other people destroys your integrity, your authenticity — therefore the ideal situation was one where every citizen was an atom separated from all the other atoms… The Swedish system’s logic is that it is dangerous to be dependent on other people, to be beholden to other people. Even to your family.”
…”But,” I wondered, “doesn’t this just replace one dependency with another — the state — which takes us back to those concerns about totalitarianism?”
“We are not arguing that people are totally independent, because they are dependent on the state. One take is your totalitarian take, but I don’t buy that. I think it’s a rather even trade-off. You can get an awful lot of autonomy by accepting a democratic state is actually furnishing you with the means to be autonomous in this way, and reach a certain self-realization. I wouldn’t take it to its extreme, too far and you do end up with a totalitarian state. For Americans and Brits the state is such a bogeyman, such a horrible menacing thing, and in the States now they can’t even have a health system because they are so scared of the state. But the point here is not that the state is saying this is how you should live your life, but it is providing you with the support structure. Society is unequal and people don’t have the same opportunities, but we are trying to lift everybody to the same level so they can achieve the same kind of freedom and self-realization, which only a small group could do previously.”
Burke’s “little platoons” versus Rousseau’s “social contract”. It’s funny that we’re still working within the rhetorical and conceptual boundaries laid down by those two. It’s a different sort of funny that anyone would think it’s an improvement on socialist theory to rebrand it as Eau de Rousseau. Eh, time will tell with the Swedish experiment, but as long as it’s an open question, I’ll side with the Irishman here. Honestly, though, to paraphrase Churchill, if the argument were between Rousseau and the devil, I’d at least be favorably inclined toward the latter.