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The Birth of a New American Aristocracy — by The Atlantic

Is meritocracy good for us? What’s the cost of “moving up”—if I can (and want to) at all? If I knew more about the system I’m playing to win, would I still play by its rules?

According to The Atlantic’s Matthew Stewart, chances are—if you’re reading The Atlantic (or this)—you’re already a part of a widening class problem made worse by its capacity for denial. In this podcast of his June 2018 text, Stewart charts the making of The Meritocracy: the group of US Americans that is steadily growing into a powerful class of its own with all the features of an aristocracy, and seemingly little of the self-awareness.

The insights travel far and wide outside the US––to wherever hard work is believed to be the only determinant for “success”.

None of this is to devalue the effort and sacrifice taken by individuals to lift themselves and their families out of oppressive structures anywhere in the world —but it is to caution against becoming so individually defensive that we make the mistake of “assum(ing) that if our actions are individually blameless, then the sum of our actions will be good for society,” Stewart identifies. 

What must happen? What about hard work, progress and justice for those who came before us? What about self-care and representation in systems that never saw us? These questions, and the quests for freedom and security they go with, are not denied in “The Birth of a New American Aristocracy.” What is offered, in narrative, data-driven detail is context.

How is the idea of “hard work” used for and against us?
When is a struggle for “progress” legitimate, and when is it “thuggish”? On whose timetable is “justice” determined?

In all of this, how is the language of progress used to advance the goals of a protected few?

Here’s an extract:

“By any sociological or financial measure, it’s good to be us. It’s even better to be our kids. In our health, family life, friendship networks, and level of education, not to mention money, we are crushing the competition below. But we do have a blind spot, and it is located right in the center of the mirror: We seem to be the last to notice just how rapidly we’ve morphed, or what we’ve morphed into…But history shows quite clearly that, in the kind of game we’re playing, everybody loses badly in the end.

We are the 9.9 percent.

...We’re a well-behaved, flannel-suited crowd of lawyers, doctors, dentists, mid-level investment bankers, M.B.A.s with opaque job titles, and assorted other professionals—the kind of people you might invite to dinner. In fact, we’re so self-effacing, we deny our own existence. We keep insisting that we’re ‘middle class.’

The demographics are changing slowly enough to preserve hierarchy, but meaningfully enough to make us chant “progress” despite an inconvenient consequence of the merit-based economy:

“One of the hazards of life in the 9.9 percent is that our necks get stuck in the upward position. We gaze upon the 0.1 percent with a mixture of awe, envy, and eagerness to obey. As a consequence, we are missing the other big story of our time. We have left the 90 percent in the dust—and we’ve been quietly tossing down roadblocks behind us to make sure that they never catch up. “

With some sobering economic data, it looks (and feels) like we’re hurtling towards a world in which education, healthcare, public services, and professional growth become luxury goods for a few—where love itself becomes conditional on social standing and “economic potential”. For those on the outside looking in, there will be a few spots in the Corporate Social Responsibility machine—but those will continue to be reserved for only the very well-behaved, the market-friendly and the exceptionally talented. 

In examining the Orthodox Church of Meritocracy and its repercussions for goals like socioeconomic justice and gender parity, The Birth of a New American Aristocracy implores us to take a long, hard look at ourselves and the systems we’re playing to win—and, at the very least, to know the difference between self-care and selfish-care.

Read the full text here.
Watch a summary down here.

  Read more from Matthew Stewart at The Atlantic here.