In the old days, I hear, people generally understood themselves as belonging to a great chain of being. God was on top, angels and assorted spiritual beings in the middle, then people – appropriately subdivided – followed by animals, plants, and minerals. There was no particular shame in being either a King or being a peasant: you were born into it, like your father was, and society required people in both roles to continue. For many weary millennials, there’s even a bit of appeal in the idea of never having to undergo another anxious job search or climb a corporate ladder with all due speed, lest one gets branded as a loser. If job security means having to start work on the family farm at age 4, sign me up.
The great chain of being had little chance to survive intellectually after Darwin gave a sharp reply to the wiseguy who first asked, “If Kings evolved from peasants, then why are there still peasants?” Of course, material changes of the 18th-19th centuries, such as the enclosure of common land, sale of land and titles, and shift from agrarian to industrial economic bases in Western nations had the greater impact of changing the makeup of society’s elite. Without the divine placement of gods to confer them legitimacy, the wealthy were in need of a new myth. Presidents and parliaments were able to point to some notion of democratic will, but what of those who held a different kind of power? Neoliberalism, as the slickest program-cum-ideology yet to accompany capitalism, settled on meritocracy.
“The cream will rise to the top.” “The people at the top must be the hardest working and most deserving.” This new way, as you may know, is marked by uncertainty and the idea that social mobility is possible. Now, men have been prone to anxious disorders throughout history, but were not diagnosed as “hysteric” for political or social reasons. Some doctors were surprised to see the nervous symptoms of what they called hysteria cropping up in men who worked and rode the newly created railroads of their century. Without the celestial chain calling the shots, people had to grapple with questions of “living authentically” and status anxiety and similar things. Do I follow security with a steady job or pursue my artistic interest? Should I neglect my home life to rise faster in the ranks at work? Even if you have the relative luxury of making these choices freely, it will likely end in your designation as an innate loser for failing to ruthlessly accumulate your way to the top.
In the words of Wikipedia-quoted sociologist Laurie Taylor:
The hideous thing about meritocracy is it tells you that if you’ve given life your all and haven’t got to the top you’re thick or stupid. Previously, at least, you could always just blame the class system.
It doesn’t take a single mother to know that the people who work the hardest don’t always end up on top. Unfortunately, due reverence for the radiant Fortuna has been replaced by the worship of a total misunderstanding of this dipshit.
Marx stuff starts here
Marx made a number of observations that can help us understand the uneven shift from feudal to capitalistic economies. Understanding this material shift helps us see how the myths of desert (as in “deserving”) are connected and similarly post hoc. He saw capitalism as an inherently global system even before it spread out from Europe to all continents, breaking down barriers to trade and marginalizing superstitions that dare stand in the way of the profit motive. As most invocations of the “invisible hand” metaphor makes obvious, capital has the unstoppable, divine, and seemingly capricious power that was once attributed to God. Among the changes it would bring to the world would be the end of the feudal system’s beliefs and practices. Marx’s letter to Abraham Lincoln commending him for waging war on the South spells out clearly enough that slavery was one of the pre-capitalist formations which Marx was eager to see dropped in the dustbin of history. Slavery was of course assumed be to a part of the “natural order” – slaves just naturally fit below slaveholders, who were naturally closer to angels, on the celestial chain. To be sure, supporting all holdovers of feudal society, simply because they undermine the brutal system of capitalism, would lead to perversion. Practices need to be considered not only for how they have appeared in the past, but for how they might adapt if they were to last into a post-capitalist arrangement.
Attacks on religious expression are an example of a program undertaken by left-leaning individuals without thought for how this may be a part of capital’s larger approach to destroying sources of meaning outside of itself. Zizek, certainly not the best launching point for discussions of multiculturalism, nevertheless illuminates the issue here:
The problem of pseudo-choice also demonstrates the limitations of the standard liberal attitude towards Muslim women who wear the veil: acceptable if it is their own free choice rather than imposed on them by husbands or family. However, the moment a woman dons the veil as the result of personal choice, its meaning changes completely: it is no longer a sign of belonging to the Muslim community, but an expression of idiosyncratic individuality. In other words, a choice is always a meta-choice, a choice of the modality of the choice itself: it is only the woman who does not choose to wear a veil that effectively chooses a choice. This is why, in our secular liberal democracies, people who maintain a substantial religious allegiance are in a subordinate position: their faith is ‘tolerated’ as their own personal choice, but the moment they present it publicly as what it is for them—a matter of substantial belonging—they stand accused of ‘fundamentalism’. Plainly, the ‘subject of free choice’, in the ‘tolerant’, multicultural sense, can only emerge as the result of an extremely violent process of being uprooted from one’s particular life-world.
Capital is a jealous god which does not tolerate the worship of what it may register as false idols. Strong religious allegiance, then, is one example of a thing it will continue to marginalize and diminish. On the contrary, Marx and Engels never saw some sort of “defeat of religion” as a necessary condition for moving society forward. Engels wrote in his Principles of Communism: “All religions so far have been the expression of historical stages of development of individual peoples or groups of peoples. But communism is the stage of historical development which makes all existing religions superfluous and brings about their disappearance.” The distinction between this “withering away” and the foolish, ahistorical view that sees religion as the only form myth may take and a major impediment to Progress(? Whose? To what end?), such as Dawkins or Hitchens or another latter-day sophist might espouse, cannot be overstated.
The Marx stuff is over
Religious demands to dominate and control bodies, especially women’s bodies, are the sort of feudal holdover that deserve serious concern. The failure of capital’s custodians to dispose of this relic in a timely manner is a reminder of their priorities. Contemporary expressions of feudalism are permitted and even encouraged if it makes the work of accumulation run more smoothly. When traditional families request even small accommodations, well, they’re not guaranteed to win. Maintaining the chain of meritocracy helps to keep the system running and internalizes a measure of desert over their station in life. You have no one to blame for yourself. People who have no one to blame but themselves don’t go around blaming other people, let alone guillotining them. If others are to be blamed, a suitable Other is sure to be found.
For all our talk of rationality and worship at the altar of Neil Degrasse Tyson, we are still dominated by a type of celestial myth. It does not come bearing a crown and Sovereign’s Orb, but decontextualized test scores and a signed copy of “Lean In.” The next great advance in human civilization, the one we will hope to see, will have to be accompanied by a new paradigm. It is rewarding to internally and externally reject the myth of meritocracy and consider and champion new ways – or old and untested ways – people can relate to their fellow humans, animals, and the world around them. We have nothing to lose but our chains of being.