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Meritocracy & Feudalism
A re-examination of power
More than a decade ago, I mastered a technology that allowed me to be rented out to various corporate entities at about $300 per hour. I was reminded of this when a friend visited last week. We recalled those days fondly. When I reached that plateau, I realized I was at the point of mastery. What I wanted was a bunch of young assistants to help build the practice. Unfortunately, what we did was rather obscure and marketing money was not forthcoming. Still, I looked at the operations of consultancies in the context of service. After all, we software engineers are in a service industry.
So I wrote up a manifesto called The Way of the Servant and I believe I captured the essence of my industry dynamic and something even more than that. After all, it was very satisfying for me to have reached mastery after 4 short years. In reviewing that document now I have mixed feelings about the certainty with which I can consider the idea of meritocracy outside of the context of feudalism.
We like to give credence to what Jefferson called The Aristocracy of Merit in the context of the ideals of a liberal democratic society. I’m beginning to believe this is wishful thinking. I have a notion that a deeper consideration of our evolutionary psychology makes us permanently vulnerable to something more fundamental. It is hierarchical power. That’s a bit more raw than what we are used to telling ourselves.
Consider the ridiculous reigns of our past three Presidents. While Obama’s demeanor was certainly comforting, and it gave us a lot of warm fuzzies to know at least one black American can do the job (twice), we should all know that the popular vote is a very squishy arbiter of merit. For me, the election of Obama marked the beginning of American populism in which the parties essentially lost the ability to sway the public with rationality, but primarily with sophisticated and dirty tricks. My point is not that Obama was anything but competent, but that he destroyed the Democrat’s choice, Hillary Clinton.
In the current book I’m reading comes a striking dialog:
Q. By what right do you take control of this office?
A: Let’s get real. I don’t need any right. I have the power.
Reconciling that with my elaborated Way of the Servant reminds me of the time when all gentlemen of the realm would sign their letters with something to the effect of ‘your humble and obedient servant’. Even in the nascent democracy, this was the manner - a holdover from the world of kings and sovereigns. It is something of a curiosity. Without kings were we supposed to be serving each other as equals, as comrades in democracy? Jefferson’s excuse came in quite handy because of course he thought of himself as the most intellectually gifted man of his time. Not many pretenders to that throne. If the Democrats had the power, they would have appointed Clinton, but for better or worse in meritocracy, the people had their fanatic say, as they had for Trump to follow.
In my forming the idea of the Peasant Theory, I’ve had plenty of respect for the functioning meritocracies after the three aims of America’s three functional classes. The Rulers aim to rule and they fight amongst themselves in a way few of us have the stomach to bear. The Geniuses aim to demonstrate their skills to those triumphant Rulers, or to their rivals on the basis that extreme competency (in a fair competition) will win out. The Peasants aim to avoid the elephantine footfalls of the beasts fighting above their heads demonstrating their survival skills in uncertain times. But the Peasants above all should be most wary of their tenuous grip on any real meritocracy.
Or to put it more bluntly, picking someone from the Andover-Harvard-McKinsey assembly line isn’t going to help you deal with Pasthun tribesmen in Afghanistan (or anything outside of the elite bubble really), because they’re just hoop-jumping gunners with little in the way of civic virtue or intellectual breadth. To elevate a certain kind of analytical smarts, which happen to work well in a technologically-enabled society of consumerism and transactionalism, as the absolute measuring stick of merit is one-dimensional and, frankly, obtuse.
For most of human history and across many cultures, what defined either moral or civic virtue included a portfolio of qualities, including but not limited to loyalty, earnestness, honesty, steadfastness, abstemiousness, industriousness, grit and many more. Even hard-nosed Machiavelli with his princely virtù stipulated that the ideal leader should possess traits of bravery, skill, forceful dynamism, and a willingness to undertake anything to secure the interests of the state (qualities seemingly absent from our current crop of ‘meritocrats’). Does the SAT or the current batch of fashionable extracurriculars measure any of that, you think?
Worse, the sham meritocracy provides moral justification for whatever feedback loop of nepotism and credentialism ends up locking in what’s now at best an oligarchy.
So it’s feudal. It’s hierarchies all the way down. Let us assume that going forward, and for this we also need to recall this:
Rights are gifts of the strong.
And so every charitable act is what it is. Take the opportunity and let it pad your belly. For the self-righteous thin and muscled bastard will remind you as a cold matter of fact that there will be blood. He will drink your milkshake. All you can hope is that he believes in God, perhaps there is a miracle of mercy he might respect, if a miracle of your salvation just so happens to occur.
Or to put it as a Peasant:
Merit is the virtue of survival.
What else is there? Today everything seems comfortable, so we pretend that civilization such as it is with its inconveniences and first world problems can continue on. Maybe. Do you really understand what existential cans are cynically kicked down the road? I don’t. I just know that common virtue is uncommon and that we swim in a swamp of Orwellian doublespeak. I don’t want to be one of those people who are surprised that global warming isn’t the clear and present danger we thought it would be, and who knew about this new crisis we are facing? What can go wrong? Anything allowable by the laws of physics.
So what of meritocracy? Is it something bourgeois Americans should expect and take somewhat for granted? I say no today because I’m not entirely pleased with the integrity of the people and institutions I’ve been serving. Maybe I need my own little mafia crew. Maybe we all do. Maybe we’re all better off accepting the term ‘regime’ rather than assuming we serve meritocracies, even when skills matter and we are being properly respected and managed. There’s always a bigger fish. There are always people who answer in the language of power rather than that of right. This is the thing to never forget whether you are Ruler, Genius or Peasant.
Obligatory Seriousness on Affirmative Action
Well what obvious thing is there to say vis a vis the recent SCOTUS declarations? Firstly that the world doesn’t revolve around the Ivy League bubble, and there are disasters awaiting those who expect it to. We should, where possible, pay attention to treatment effects rather than selection effects. In other words if the farmer only teaches his smartest child rather than setup a situation in which all of them must learn, then the family starves. Affirmative action is just selection. The fact that it has cherry picked for decades is demonstrably true. So a skewed racial definition of merit stacked on top of a skewed blue blood definition of merit generates a gold-plated mediocratocracy, or as I used to call it, an edumacation. That Andover-Harvard-McKinsey axis is very much an AI generative thing. It makes for the most socially acceptable hallucinations. Our problem is that we keep asking it for answers.
So I conclude with the following adapted story with the pretense that it was actually me.
I went to this fabulous party in the Hamptons, invited as I was by a good looking woman I happened to met in Brooklyn. So I manage to take a train and a cab to this ridiculously manicured house in Gigazansett or some such and I kind of tiptoe around the big lawn until I find my friend. She introduces me while I keep my hands behind my back, lest someone identify my $100 Fossil watch. After a sip of champagne I get to meet one of the people who takes me around the house showing off the furniture and paintings. After a minute of being shown my place I say, but I bet I’ve got something you don’t have. In fact, you may never get it. Enough.