April 28, 2008


Smarty-pants summit short on substance (David Burchell, April 28, 2008, The Australian)

CASTING about for something to explain the spooky unease that crept over me during the 2020 Summit, I happened upon British Labour thinker Michael Young's old futuristic satire The Rise of the Meritocracy.

The premise of Young's book - published 50 years ago - is that all previous societies distributed talent more or less randomly among the classes. But in the 20th century the professional middle classes wrested the education system out of the hands of the old elites, and reorganised the ladder of social success according to their own preferred criteria: those of academic cleverness.

The outcome in 2036 was the most oppressive social system of all: an aristocracy of self-defined merit, made unbearably smug and patronising by its distinctive combination of smarty-pantsness and success.

Young had a lot of difficulty getting his book published: few high-brow publishers seemed to enjoy the joke. And when it did go into print, the book suffered a predictable fate. People forgot it was a satire, and took meritocracy to be a virtue. In the 1990s, Tony Blair went so far as to declare his goal to be the creation of a meritocratic Britain. Young (who was no political neophyte; he had been the author of the 1945 Labour manifesto) wrote to the newspapers, trying to point out the error. But in vain. Meritocracy had become a new Labour core value.

On the evidence of the last fortnight, Australian Labor is in some danger of falling into the same trap. After all, what was the 2020 Summit if not a celebration of the triumph of the meritocracy, a ritual homage to the best and brightest, in all their ceremonial glory? A celebration fuelled, moreover, by the meritocrats' new-found sense of liberation from the banal horror of the Howard years, a time when, so we're told, the best and brightest were ignored, or even silenced, and mediocrity ruled in the halls of power.

At times the summit had the savour of one of those official festivals dreamed up by the French revolutionaries to persuade themselves that theirs really was a revolution by the people, not just in their name.

Posted by Orrin Judd at April 28, 2008 10:10 AM

HOW MANY BRIGHTS DOES IT TAKE TO SCREW UP A COUNTRY?: Not many, unless you have a bunch of unmovable bitter people who cling onto guns and religion.

Posted by: ic at April 28, 2008 2:36 PM