Meritocracy is on the surface a thing that seems indisputably good. The idea that people should be appraised and awarded positions on competency alone seems obvious to us today. However this assertion, on closer inspection, belies the increasing narrowness that defines the competencies that we value as a society. The fact that these things we value are largely determined by those who have such attributes or means in abundance is also generally taken for granted. We use the language of merit but on consideration this sounds very close to the idea of an aristocracy.

I recently listened to an interesting discussion on the subject which was helpfully condensed in the brief article entitled ‘The New Aristocracy‘. The article in question draws on the novel ‘Animal Farm’ in which one set of elites is overthrown by a group which eventually takes up the same role as those they overthrew.

The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.

George Orwell, Animal Farm

In our own settings these new elites take the form of those who assert that their possession of unique sets of skills and insights position them as qualified to discern and represent the will of the majority in society. The means to obtain these skills, and their associated values, over time become stratified, hardened and protected through a mix of education, breeding and accreditation. This is nothing new in many ways but the distinguishing aspects of these elites is their cosmopolitan makeup and advocacy of what they refer to as liberalism. There are different kinds of liberalism of course but what is advocated today is of a very particular kind. Ross Douthat expands on this in a recent piece in the New York Times..

Genuine cosmopolitanism is a rare thing. It requires comfort with real difference, with forms of life that are truly exotic relative to one’s own. It takes its cue from a Roman playwright’s line that “nothing human is alien to me,” and goes outward ready to be transformed by what it finds.

The people who consider themselves “cosmopolitan” in today’s West, by contrast, are part of a meritocratic order that transforms difference into similarity, by plucking the best and brightest from everywhere and homogenizing them into the peculiar species that we call “global citizens.”

This species is racially diverse (within limits) and eager to assimilate the fun-seeming bits of foreign cultures — food, a touch of exotic spirituality. But no less than Brexit-voting Cornish villagers, our global citizens think and act as members of a tribe.

They have their own distinctive worldview (basically liberal Christianity without Christ), their own common educational experience, their own shared values and assumptions (social psychologists call these WEIRD — for Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic), and of course their own outgroups (evangelicals, Little Englanders) to fear, pity and despise. And like any tribal cohort they seek comfort and familiarity: From London to Paris to New York, each Western “global city” (like each “global university”) is increasingly interchangeable, so that wherever the citizen of the world travels he already feels at home.

They can’t see that paeans to multicultural openness can sound like self-serving cant coming from open-borders Londoners who love Afghan restaurants but would never live near an immigrant housing project, or American liberals who hail the end of whiteness while doing everything possible to keep their kids out of majority-minority schools. They can’t see that their vision of history’s arc bending inexorably away from tribe and creed and nation-state looks to outsiders like something familiar from eras past: A powerful caste’s self-serving explanation for why it alone deserves to rule the world.

Ross Douthat, The Myth of Cosmopolitanism

What he describes reminds me in many ways of a Magpie, a bird who collects baubles of exotic or interesting items in order to construct its nest. The nest in this instance might be the mind of the cosmopolitan in question. The fundamental underlying structure however, the worldview, of the nest doesn’t change, in fact the collection of baubles from elsewhere is one of its defining characteristics. In this light the provincially minded individual is more accepting in that they recognise the existence of radical differences to their own way of life which are outside themselves, the cosmopolitan in comparison possesses a will to mould all it encounters into its own image, a colonial outlook. Douthart’s assertion of this worldview being akin a ‘liberal Christianity without Christ’ I think was particularly adept and for better or worse made me think of the liberal wings of the Anglican church today.

The idea of a cosmopolitan aristocracy isn’t new but perhaps its global scope is. We could say ‘accept it, embrace it and reform it‘ and to be honest I know little alternative. The alternative does seem to be a form of localism, a particularism of sorts. I’m conscious that I am found in a subset of this cosmopolitan class and when abroad have previously espoused a ‘ich bin ein berliner’ attitude about the cultures I encountered, which did no favours to those cultures and in reality I think distanced me from encountering them as they really were. However over time I have become acutely aware of what I missed about England and my place in it. I realise now that whatever I do I’m British, and it isn’t a decision its just a plain fact. It may not seem that much of a revelation, but it was to me. Before this I assumed everyone was ‘British’ in a fashion and we just differed on the details.

This word particularism to describe an alternative to modern cosmopolitanism is something which today has a poor reputation. Such discussion locally might turn thoughts to Football Hooligans, White Vans, the English flag, the British National Party and alcoholism. Giving a fair summation of the ‘particularly British’ is a difficult task which I won’t do here. More so because in the last century Britain has undergone dramatic changes which have left it radically different in its values and makeup on one end compared to the other. Particularism then is being used to describe a preference for the area in which you have a shared history and embrace the local narrative as part of your own. Not just the people in it but the place itself. This is generally seen as ‘provincialism’ by some when used in a rural setting but I think the same thinking is at work in the London regarding the current state of Brixton, Camden, NewhamNotting Hill and Tower Hamlets and their gentrification. It isn’t just an economic act of replacing one set of people with another, its the erosion of the character and history of place which local individuals have little to no say in. Particularism then favours giving agency to the people within the area they live and the responsibility to care for the land so that both are sustainable. It also operates with an understanding that the two are deeply connected and unique.

1939 enlistment poster – this is how the government chose to inspire people to fight.

Particularism is reflected quite strongly in the work of J.R.R Tolkien and his depiction of the Shire in contrast to Mordor. This is particularly highlighted in the ‘The Scouring of the Shire’ found in the closing pages of the Lord of the Rings narrative. In it the wizard Saruman takes over the Shire and instead of ransacking it begins a process of administration that tears down the old landscape, pollutes the rivers and takes control of the resources in the area to be administered out as Saruman sees fit. The Hobbits as species survive but the disaster is that they have been dispossessed of their relationship with the land and external agents have robbed them of their agency as a community and character. Tolkien, its assumed, wrote this inspired by his own experience of returning to his childhood home..

[On the occasion of driving his family to visit relatives in Birmingham:] “I pass over the pangs to me of passing through Hall Green – become a huge tram-ridden meaningless suburb, where I actually lost my way – and eventually down what is left of beloved lanes of childhood, and past the very gate of our cottage, now in the midst of a sea of new red-brick. The old mill still stands, and Mrs Hunt’s still sticks out into the road as it turns uphill; but the crossing beyond the now fenced-in pool, where the bluebell lane ran down into the mill lane, is now a dangerous crossing alive with motors and red lights. The White Ogre’s house (which the children were excited to see) is become a petrol station, and most of Short Avenue and the elms between it and the crossing have gone. How I envy those whose precious early scenery has not been exposed to such violent and peculiarly hideous change

Excerpt from the diary of J.R.R Tolkien written in 1933 found in Humphrey Carpenter’s  “J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography”

Tolkien’s envy is directed towards those whose environment hasn’t been uprooted in the same way as his own. Yet the administering that brought about those changes did so at the instigation of people who genuinely believed they were doing the right thing.

Meritocracy is a popular idea which at first has little to be objected at, but in practice provides a means for a new, more invasive, aristocracy to supplant its predecessors. Governance by meritocracy has fed cosmopolitanism resulting in an a decidedly narrow and overbearing attitude at the heart of much of contemporary politics and popular social values. This thinking denigrates local knowledge and direct investment in a community in favour of increased bureaucracy. This hinders our understanding of our own local communities, our neighbours and leads to our alienation from the land itself. We outsource our responsibilities and our environmental and social ills become someone else’s problem. We solve problems increasingly through several degrees of separation from the issues themselves and no longer abide long enough, if at all, to see their consequences.

We have a God who is called Emmanuel, God with us, he came into our world and lived, suffered, died and rose again amongst us. He wasn’t far away and even now has left his spirit with us. Our God is particular, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Among other things, perhaps the rise in this homogenising attitude is that we as a nation have forgotten this.

2 thoughts on “Meritocracy and Cosmopolitanism

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