The Simulacrum of Meritocracy


The Trigger

A few weeks ago, I was teaching ‘Managing Change’ at a premier business school in India – a batch of fifty odd young consultants from one of the big 5 global consulting firms, to my shock and dismay indulged in rampant cheating, colluding, and copying from each other in every assessment process – be it classroom quizzes or individual assignments.

I witnessed a group of bright, well-heeled, intelligent, extremely articulate, and immensely aspirational bunch of ‘millennials’ –men and women, displaying neither remorse nor self-doubt while choosing to break every norm, rule, and protocol in the book with an intent to ‘crack’ high grades.

This experience left me quite depressed. This incident was not taking place in a derelict high school or a ramshackle college in Bihar or UP (backward regions of India traumatized by poverty, caste and class politics) but in an elite business school, and being enacted by the social elite. This was the trigger to enquire deeper into the myth of ‘meritocracy’, and how it obfuscates and denies what it seeks to eradicate…

Meritocracy has been used rampantly in the corporate sector – HR professionals, Business Leaders, and Management theorists seem to swear by it. Roles and Job Profiles are being re-drafted with an urgency so as to resonate with Merit and Meritocracy. It is time that we examine this and challenge some of the notions around this new-age dharma.


Meritocracy – the Roots

It was Michael Young in 1958, who in his satire on the tripartite education system in UK in his work – ‘The Rise of Meritocracy’, coined the term – meritocracy – as condemnation of how modern society in UK was preparing for the future. The tripartite system was an attempt by the British to institutionalize an education system where the IQ test was used as a determinant to sort out students across the three tiers of education: each was designed with a specific purpose in mind, aiming to impart a range of skills appropriate to the needs and future careers of their pupils.

  • Grammar Schools – these formed the elite institutions and intended to teach a highly academic curriculum, teaching bright students with the highest IQ to deal with abstract concepts, with a strong focus on intellectual subjects, such as literature, classics and complex mathematics.
  • Secondary Technical Schools – These institutions were designed to train children adept in mechanical and scientific subjects. The focus of the schools was on providing high academic standards in demanding subjects such as physics, chemistry, advanced mathematics, biology to create pupils that could become scientists, engineers and technicians. However in the caste system of schools – education was not seen as classic and replete as the Grammar schools.
  • Secondary Modern Schools – these institutions were for the hoi polloi and would mainly train pupils in practical skills, aimed at equipping them for less skilled jobs and home management.

(Source – Tripartite System – Wikipedia)

Young questioned the simplistic assumptions of this new caste system in terms of what was ‘merit’, the nature of its casualties as a social system, as well as the legitimacy of selection process – he anticipated the rise of the ‘restless and creative elite’ who would be powerful and rule the society inevitably.

Young was famous for the phrase – “Every selection of one is a rejection of many”.

The most poignant as well as vituperative attack was on the meaning of ‘Merit’ and how it has got reduced to mere skills and competencies.


Why is Meritocracy celebrated today?

Meritocracy has, with all its celebrated purpose, become another totem to promote instrumentality and reinforce the notion of the Homo economicus – for it looks at only skills and competence – the latter which is scalable, explicit, measurable and easily trainable. In many ways this reductionist notion of looking at human capabilities leaves no room for mystery, magic, faith and transformation.

The Homo economicus runs the risk of becoming the ill fated, self serving, competency driven consumerist with no real substantiveness and no real soul.

Of course the purveyors of Merit have expediently let go of IQ and are more beholden with EQ and other aspects that augment the original criterion of filtration. It is not surprising that EQ still becomes more associated with those who wield power with dignity, equanimity and restraint. Many of the components such as self awareness do not necessarily and not naturally get learned by the commoners who are sitting on tremendous anxieties and pressures.

While EQ and now recently SQ (Spiritual Quotient) are tom-tomed about as necessary for the uppermost meritocracy – it is very rare that the rich and powerful display the same and consistently too.

However Meritocracy is celebrated – and as most ritualistic celebrations go – very few really go deep into either exploring what it may imply in a post-industrial society and how it is sustained in modern society. It is much more tempting to link it with branded campuses that students come from, or expensive degrees.

Meritocracy & Transformation

I believe that the current deployment of Meritocracy goes against the notion of Transformation – for the proponents of Merit seek to discern, contain, and classify the human being in the present. Even the categorization of high potential has very little validation as to what it may imply given the current performance of the human being. My argument is that currently meritocracy is dealt in a way that leaves a large majority of employees and students – with despair and regrets as they get measured by the immense juggernaut of Standards, Testing, and Evaluation.

Without a sense of transformation and the magic around it – all inner quests to grow and evolve become meaningless and empty goals towards merely gaining skills and displaying competencies. I see many professionals in search of the latter and in disdain or in ignorance of the former. It is difficult for people to dream any longer – and much easier to acquire skills / knowledge / emotional maturity.

It is also sad that in this race of becoming meritocratic (and appeasing self esteem) – it is the real self worth that takes a beating – no wonder the onset of depression and suicide know no class and no competency…

One of the biggest threats to the modern era is how the Human Resource Manager has climbed on to the bandwagon of Meritocracy sometimes without the scantiest idea of what constitutes merit, its assessment, and most importantly its potential for reducing the human being to being the Instrument.

AI – the new threat!

The third school of the tripartite system was to create supply of industrial labor – basic skills that would enable workers to do the mundane, repeatable jobs with immense drudgery and oppression. However AI and robotics seem to be promising the capitalist / modern shareholder with the gold under the rainbow – and it is this part of the system that is getting threatened today.

However it is not just this section that gets threatened – all skills and competencies that were deemed complex and scientific including surgery are being threatened. If all of this were to happen – the rhetoric of meritocracy would perhaps not be relevant at all in the times to come.

Hence it is my belief that under the movement / banner of meritocracy where there is a sustained defining and recalibrating all competencies and knowledge – there is also a collective will towards automating it, or even replacing it with AI / robotics. The key question is – Who will benefit from all this?


Which takes me to the trigger anecdote …

Behind all this hyperbole of meritocracy, what lays hidden is how class politics continues to re-invent the masks and the veils that hide it in the first place. While there can be a few instances and anecdotes – window dressing a claim for the modern organization to be open and meritocratic, the shadows that lurk beneath are equally palpable and restrictive.

The hypocrisy of the modern meritocratic system – organizations, performance management practices et al is perhaps more dangerous for it seeks to create an impression of fairness, openness, and freedom – without really wanting to change the inherent class system.

It is not that I am not a part of this upper-class system – it is just that as an insider – I am really exhausted with this hypocrisy and this simulacrum that surrounds it…

As Jean Baudrillard put it – the first stage of the simulacrum in its lifecycle is to connote the phenonena – and there comes the third stage where the signifier perverts the phenomena, and lastly there comes the fourth stage where the signifier has no connect with the original phenomena.

It is my take that Meritocracy as a symbol and as a text (signifier) is somewhere between the 3rd and 4th stage…


Those who liked this blog may refer to earlier blogs of mine on Simulacrum and Homo economics …


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