THE MERITOCRACY TRAP - A REVIEW
Updated: Feb 1
‘The Meritocracy Trap’ by Daniel Markovits is a book that is bound to irk several but inspire in equal measure. This book reveals how the principle of ‘meritocracy’, which was once regarded as the panacea to an unjust distribution of rewards in society, has taken an oppressive shape and is the root, rather than the solution to the social evils of today. This book aims to dismantle a system where the primary impediments to justice are disguised as the most appropriate ideals to adhere to. The book does not point out the flaws in merely one aspect of our socio-economic system, rather, it shows how the entire system is built on an intrinsically flawed principle. It strikes at the roots of our society and challenges the status quo. Markovits explains how a seemingly fair proposition, that inequality after equal opportunity is justified, has dire consequences. Meritocracy, according to Markovits, is not merely a principle that guides economic distribution but is also an overarching philosophy that influences every facet of social life - from family to electoral politics. Since meritocracy replaced the aristocratic hegemony, drastic changes have been observed in the social structure of the world. However, this new order has failed to usher in an age of egalitarianism, as was intended. Instead, it is implications are even more ominous than what its first critics had foreseen. A modern ‘caste’ system has replaced the aristocratic class divisions, in light of which equal opportunity and social mobility is a chimera. Juxtaposed to the aristocratic hegemony, where the elite or wealthy class lived a life of leisure and contentment, meritocracy has created a situation where a sense of alienation is common to both the rich and the poor.
Throughout the book, Markovits contrasts America at mid-century, during the ‘Great Compression', with the present scenario. He refers to an exchange between Fitzgerald and Hemingway when Fitzgerald remarks “the very rich … are different from you and me”. Hemingway’s response is precise but telling. He states “Yes, they have more money”. What Hemingway alludes to is that inequality was merely quantitative. Markovits agrees with Hemingway’s notion of inequality at midcentury. His observation of how differences in wealth did not impede social solidarity are intriguing to me: from my lived experiences and the socio-economic conditions I have witnessed around me, I never realized that this was a possibility. Today, it is almost unfathomable that the wealthy and middle class are largely unified in their social attitudes and enjoy the same ‘life chances or opportunities. The wealthy and middle class seem to stand on either side of an unbridgeable gulf. Meritocracy has created ‘two nations’, a term Markovits borrows from Victorian politician Benjamin Disraeli, even though it was first used to describe a different system.
One of the most significant ideas that has been put forth in the book is that of ‘superordinate' labor. This states that inequality occurs not when capital replaces labor, but when ‘superordinate’ or super skilled workers replace sub-ordinate labor. The author explains the arcane mechanism behind how the production process becomes skewed to value these super skilled workers. An elaborate process of training and conditioning determined based on inheritance, creates human capital. To me, the idea of the ‘burden of human capital’ is the most profound contribution of the book. An individual is forced to fashion themselves in a way that is most conducive to the accumulation of profit. When their capabilities and knowledge are what make them valuable to an employer, they are pushed to exploit themselves. They cease to have individual liberty when they must forge their mind to increase productivity . Markovits quotes Chekhov, who wrote in ‘The Cherry Orchard,’ that the quest for profit “devours everything in its path and so converts one kind of matter into another”. This quote originally referred to land but aptly describes how individuals are converted to human capital. The author draws a parallel between Marx’s description of the exploitation of the proletarian worker in the 19th century and that of the elite worker today. However, the ‘twist’, as the author puts it, is that today the worker is both the agent and victim of their exploitation. Markovits writes that the individual becomes a ‘means’ rather than an ‘end’ when they exploit their own potential. This reminds me of Aristotle’s conception of happiness: an act done for the sake of itself, and not as a means to something else, will bring true happiness. This speaks volumes about how self-actualization and fulfilment are sacrificed in the pursuit of merit.
The spread of meritocratic ideals has cataclysmic impacts on politics. Today’s rancorous political environment is a result of the massive gulf that exists between the elite and the rest. Markovits explains how the elites undermine democracy by using their hegemony over fields like law and finance to exert influence and gain impunity. A paradox is revealed on studying the political behavior of the meritocratic elite. They vehemently oppose discrimination on non-meritocratic grounds. However, their moralism is selective. Their sympathy does not extend to discrimination that cannot be cast in terms of identity politics. While they condemn bias based on race, gender, etc., they are contemptuous of those who fail to break into their ranks. They use meritocratic ideals to justify the disadvantages suffered by the bulk of the population. The birth of populist movements that are aggressively anti-establishment and anti-elite is explained as a natural consequence of meritocratic inequality. Demagogues promising economic emancipation convince the masses to exonerate them of seemingly insignificant faults to attain their larger goal. Markovits argues that this is how meritocracy resulted in the victory of Donald Trump. As I anxiously watched the live coverage of the US (United States) Elections on 4th November, Markovits words echoed in my mind. As I heard the analysis being presented on American news channels while the counting was underway, it became alarmingly clear that support for Trump and Biden was not divided along race or gender lines. The manifestation of meritocratic inequality in the existence of elite vs. non elite or ‘backward’ areas explain the manner in which support for the two candidates is divided. Despite Trump’s mishandling of the covid crisis, tax fraud committed by him, his blatant racism and failure to condemn white supremacists, the economic decline during his Presidency, his almost being impeached, and all his other misdeeds, why has almost half the American population still voted for him? This book provides an extremely pragmatic answer to this question and what has transpired in the United States since polling began and is evidence of the gravity of this book.
‘Merit is a sham.’ This was the first line I read of ‘The Meritocracy Trap’. A notion that initially shocked and intrigued me is an idea that is reiterated at the end of the book, in the form of a conclusion. The allure of merit is proven to be illusory, for it rests on prior inequalities. The difference in my reaction to this idea at the beginning and at the end emboldens me to say that I believe the author has been successful in making the reader question an ideal that is regarded as sacred. While some call Markovits’ view of society dystopian, I would argue that it propagates an optimistic view of human nature. It explains how meritocracy beguiles both the haves and have-nots. Even those members of the elite who lament inequality find themselves unable to reject meritocracy because of how intuitive it has become. On the other hand, those who support demagogues and engage in xenophobic rhetoric do so because of the alienation meritocracy brings. Those on either side of the divide are rendered powerless in the face of an oppressive system. Their vices are not inherent. An online review of this book said that if it had been published in Revolutionary France, the author would have been exiled. While I agree with this reviewer’s estimation of the revolutionary brilliance of this book, the ideals enshrined in it are no longer seen as radical and instead are being embraced by revered intellectuals. One such scholar is Michael Sandel, whose book ‘The Tyranny of Merit’ echoes Markovits primary arguments. ‘The Meritocracy Trap’ has put forth a groundbreaking interpretation of socio-economic changes and proven it in a manner that makes it extremely difficult for us to dismiss his claims. The already crumbling facade of merit has been entirely eviscerated. How much longer must the people endure injustice for us accept the veritable truth this book contains and reform a broken system?
F. Scott Fitzgerald, “The Rich Boy,”London: Hesperus Press Limited, 2003 Quoted in Daniel Markovits, The Meritocracy Trap (Page 47), Penguin Books Ltd,2019 Ernest Hemingway, “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” Esquire, 1936 Quoted in Daniel Markovits, The Meritocracy Trap (Page 47), Penguin Books Ltd, 2019  The rest of the quote is “two nations; between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy; who are as ignorant of each other’s habits, thoughts, and feelings, as if they were dwellers in different zones, or inhabitants of different planets; who are formed by a different breeding, are fed by a different food, are ordered by different manners, and are not governed by the same laws.” Benjamin Disraeli, The Two Nations, Henry Colburn, 1845  “And rising economic inequality mostly stems not from capital’s increasing dominance over labor, but rather from these superordinate workers’ increasing dominance over middle-class workers.” Daniel Markovits, The Meritocracy Trap (page 18), Penguin Books Ltd, 2019  The inheritance referred to here has a different connotation from a regular inheritance, it alludes to Markovits idea of the ‘meritocratic inheritance’. “Even as meritocracy abolishes the hereditary privilege that sustained aristocratic dynasties, it embraces in education a new dynastic technology of its own. The new elite receives a meritocratic inheritance that transmits privilege, and excludes the middle class from opportunity, as effectively as the old elite’s birthright used to do.” Daniel Markovits, The Meritocracy Trap (page 115), Penguin Books Ltd, 2019  This idea is elaborated upon in the section titled ‘The Burden Of Human Capital”. Daniel Markovits, The Meritocracy Trap (page 35), Penguin Books Ltd, 2019  The author writes- “The very idea that a person might be capital treats the person as a means and so invites alienation: it trains the profit system’s devastating appetite on the people whose human capital produces rents.” Daniel Markovits, The Meritocracy Trap (p. 37), Penguin Books Ltd, 2019 Anton Chekhov, The Cherry Orchard in Anton Chekhov, Plays, trans. Elisaveta Fen, New York: Viking Penguin, 1959  “Where elites overdo the politics of personal identity, Americans outside the elite embrace nativism. And where elites valorize the credentials and institutions that constitute meritocratic success, Americans outside the elite lash out against the establishment and embrace populism.” Daniel Markovits, The Meritocracy Trap (page 63). Penguin Books Ltd,2019  “Daniel Markovits has written in “The Meritocracy Trap” such a frontal assault on the meritocratic system that undergirds and sustains today’s US society that, were the book on a similarly self-sustaining ideological rationale written in pre-revolutionary France, or Brezhnevite (let alone Stalinist) Russia, the book would have been burned and its author sent into exile or worse”. Branko Milanovic, ‘Ban this Book! A review of Daniel Markovits’s “The Meritocracy Trap”’, Global Policy Journal, ‘GP Opinion’ Column, 2020
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About the author: Naisha Khanna is in her second year of Jindal School of International Affairs' B.A. Global Affairs Program. She has a keen interest in political science, philosophy, and sociology