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Meritocracy and its limits: from theological category to economic dogma

At a certain point in Western civilization a new and unpredictable idea appeared: a meritocratic society was finally possible and it took the shape of the business community

By Luigino Bruni

Published in Corriere Buone Notizie 19/12/2019

Meritocracy today is the ethical legitimization of inequality. In the 20th century, in Europe, we fought inequality as something evil; in the 21st century, it was enough to change its name (meritocracy) to transform inequality from vice to public virtue. A most bizarre fate, if you think about the fact that meritocracy was and still is presented as a means of fighting inequality – made all the more bizarre if you consider that this is the very reason that fanatics of meritocracy are actually people who in good faith really wish to pave the way for a better and fairer society.

The words spoken by German philosopher Walter Benjamin a hundred years ago are true for meritocracy as well: «During the Age of the Reformation Christianity turned into capitalism». Before meritocracy, before becoming an economic dogma, it was mostly a religious and theological category. «To earn or obtain merits», «to earn paradise» and other similar expressions speak of themes that have been at the centre of Christian piety for centuries, and continue to accompany the life of Catholics today. A similar idea of the nature of ​​merits was already present in the Bible, but it was the encounter with Greek and Roman ethics that transformed part of Christianity into an ethics of merit and virtues, to the point that in order to be declared a saint a Christian had to prove that he or she had practiced a number of heroic virtues. Biblical and evangelical ethics were different, excellence was not to be found in virtues but in agape, which does not form part of stoic or Aristotelian virtues. For some years now meritocracy has emerged from the debates in the classrooms of the faculties of theology, forgetting the doctrinal disputes of Paul, Augustine, Pelagius and Luther along the way, and entering the most elegant and modern classrooms of business schools around the world, where these issues are addressed without any theological competence.

Meritocracy has ancient and deep roots. A deep vein of human civilization has always thought that somewhere somehow there must be some sort of order, that would reward each and everyone one of us on the basis of the merits we had acquired while punishing us for the faults committed and accumulated. In general this order was conceived as supernatural and postponed to a future life, since it was too evident that on earth such an order did not exist and never existed. At a certain point in the evolution of Western civilization, however, a completely new and unpredictable idea appeared, according to which a meritocratic society was finally possible here and now. Simply because such a community already existed, the business community, of which large companies and banks were the most mature expression. Here, merits were perfectly quantifiable, measurable, sortable on a scale, so that each person got his or her due, no more no less. His or her due in terms of merits and, of course, but also in terms of faults and demerits. An act of promise that has since convinced many, because it presented itself and continues to present itself as a superior form of justice (compared to the ordinary and common one). And so within a few years meritocracy has now migrated from the business community to the entire civil society, from politics to school, from left to right, from the health sector to the non-profit sector, and has also begun to undermine ecclesial communities. A great ideological operation, among the largest of our time, which is based on ethical and anthropological deception, as evident as it remains unspoken: that our merits and demerits should stay evident, easy to see in order to classify them, measure, and then reward.

Another, arbitrary, hypothesis is then to believe that the market is capable of correctly rewarding our merits, thus keeping a fundamental virtue of the market and an essential trait of a good entrepreneur, quiet, that knowing how to live with outcomes and success not directly associated to one's own or others’ merits and faults is essential. A serious defect in the market is in fact to demand that one's results should only be tied to one's own merits and not to what others, with whom we interact, are willing to recognize and give to us. But there is more. We know that our most precious merits are discovered by facing an illness, a mourning, a separation. Precious few of these real merits pass through the economic sphere, as companies are not really interested in our deepest and truest merits. They do not want our humility or our gentleness, they want us «winning» and invulnerable; they do not want our mercy or our compassion, virtues and beatitudes which they do not understand, or if they do they fear them. Not that they would ever tell us, but companies want very little from us, because deep down they perceive that if they asked for a lot we would give them too much, we would in fact become so free that we would no longer be manageable or directed by company objectives. Finally, meritocracy is also an ideological mechanism that frees us from any responsibility towards the poor. A necessary consequence of meritocracy is in fact the interpretation of poverty as guilt. Because if talent is primarily a merit (the great axiom of meritocracy), the lack of talent becomes a demerit, and therefore poverty a source of guilt and blame. The last residue of European welfare will be wiped out when we finally let ourselves be convinced that the poor are guilty of their own poverty. We will leave them to be blamed for their misfortune, and we will sleep peacefully on our own merits and irresponsibility.

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