From Robin Di Angelo:

“Individualism holds that we are each unique and stand apart from others, even those within our social groups. It reinforces the concept that each of us is a unique individual and that our group memberships – such as race, class or gender – are irrelevant to our opportunities. Individualism claims that there are no intrinsic barriers to individual success and that failure is not a consequence of social structures but comes from individual character.

It ignores privilege and disadvantage. Our race, gender, class and other positions profoundly shape our life chances in ways that are not natural, voluntary or random. Opportunity is not equally distributed across society.”

Meritocracy: the myth of treating people with fundamentally unequal backgrounds as superficially the same can be a practice that ignores and conceals the real advantages and disadvantages unevenly distributed to different segments of an inherently unequal society which ultimately perpetuates this fundamental inequality.

From Jo Littler:

“Meritocracy today entails the idea that whatever your social position at birth, society ought to offer enough opportunity and mobility for ‘talent’ to combine with ‘effort’ in order to rise to the top.

We have been encouraged to believe that if we try hard enough we can make it: that race or class or gender are not, on a fundamental level, significant barriers to success.”

Meritocracy is regularly symbolised in popular and political culture by the image of a ladder. “Making a ‘ladder of opportunity’.”… the ‘ladder of success’ are phrases regularly used by politicians.. In the early 2000s, it was a catchphrase so frequently used by an Australian politician that he became known as ‘Lord of the Rungs’.

Symbolically it offers the opportunity to climb but is a device which can only be used individually. It weakens community and the task of common betterment. It promises opportunity while producing social division.

Problems with meritocracy:

  • It endorses a competitive, linear, hierarchical system in which by definition, certain people must be left behind. It requires people to be in a permanent state of competition with each other.
  • It frequently assumes that talent and intelligence are innate. It primarily assumes an ability which is inborn and either given the chance or not to succeed. Sounds like modern day eugenics.
  • It ignores the fact that climbing the ladder is simply much harder for some people than others.
  • It ranks particular professions in a hierarchy and which are afforded a particular status but with no clear reasoning – why should the role of a singer or entrepreneur be more aspired to than a vet or a nurse?
  • It functions as an ideological myth to obscure and extend economic and social inequalities. ‘Effort’ is over-valued while social and economic location are ignored.