Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Toby Young on Meritocracy

From How to Lose Friends and Alienate People:

I remember one occasion, not long after I arrived [at Vanity Fair] when [coworker] Aimee Bell showed me a "hilarious" spoof that purported to be the diary of a grubbing freelance hack named "Josh Freelantzovitz." Did I think it would make a good column in the "Vanities" section? I read it through and told her I didn't think it would. It was unseemly, I argued, to poke fun at people who were struggling to obtain the professional status that Vanity Fair's contributors had achieved. Satire was supposed to be a weapon with which the disenfranchised attacked the Establishment, not the other way round. The author of this piece, I said, holding up the offending article, is a snob, wanting to kick away the ladder that he himself has climbed so no one else can follow.

After I'd delivered this little sermon, Aimee patiently explained that Josh Freelantzovitz was in fact her husband, David Kamp, a staff writer on GQ. Needless to say, "The Diary of Josh Freelantzovitz" soon became a regular column in "Vanities".

. . . .

The various setbacks I suffered at the end of 1997 brought home to me the extent to which New Yorkers judge you according to how well or badly you're doing. When I'd first arrived and people had asked me what I did at parties, a noticeable change would come over them when I said I worked at Vanity Fair. They'd stop looking over my shoulder for a second and give me the once over. Occasionally, they'd even talk to me. Evidently, I was someone worth knowing. However, after I was taken off the masthead I vanished from the radar screen. Being neither rich, successful, good looking, nor well connected, I wasn't worth bothering with. No sooner had the words "I'm just a freelance hack" come out of my mouth than the person I was talking to was hastily backing away, wondering how they could politely ask for their business card back. It was a sobering experience. I'd assumed that people liked me for who I was, not what I did, but in Manhattan you are what you do.

Why do New Yorkers attach such importance to the state of your career? To a certain extent, they define each other according to the usual demographic categories -- gender, ethnic origin, religious background, etc. -- but these things pale into insignificance beside the jobs they do. It's as if there are no alternative sources of identity. In particular, they don't define people according to what class they belong to. New Yorkers are more interested in where you're going that where you're from. They make no bones about this. If you're in a position to help them, they're more than happy to help you, inviting you to parties, introducing you to their friends, plugging you into their networks. But if you have nothing to offer in exchange you might as well not exist.

For Tocqueville, the absence of class distinctions was one of the chief differences between Britain and America and while he generally approved of this he worried that it could lead to excessive significance being attached to things like professional status:

In democracies, where citizens never differ much from one another and naturally find themselves so close that at each instant all can come to be intermingled in a common mass, a multitude of artificial and arbitrary classifications are created, with the aid of which each seeks to set himself apart, out of fear of being carried away into the crowd despite himself.

Of course, in the eyes of most New Yorkers this is a small price to pay for living in a classless society. In contemporary America, according to the journalist and author Nicholas Lemann, meritocracy occupies the status of a "sacred first principle" and Manhattan is frequently held up as a shining example of it. Indeed, this accounts for why New Yorkers judge people according to how well or badly they're doing. Unlike in Britain, where the class system impedes social mobility, there's nothing to prevent the hardworking from rising to the top or the indolent from falling to the bottom. This belief is particularly strongly held by Manhattan's most successful residents since it implies that they've got where they are purely on their own merits. They even refer to themselves as meritocrats." In their eyes, just as those who are doing well deserve to be praised, those who are doing badly only have themselves to blame.

I've always been rather ambivalent about meritocracy -- and not just because I'm a beneficiary of England's class system. During my spell in New York I enjoyed shocking people by telling them that the word "meritocracy" had originally been coined for the purposes of damnation rather than praise. They would always dispute this until I played my trump card: my father, Michael Young, invented it.

He coined it to describe a nightmarish society of the future in his 1958 bestseller The Rise of the Meritocracy. In my father's view, equality of opportunity is a snare and a delusion since it makes it less likely that equality of outcome, the"hard" form of equality he believed in, will ever come about. If everyone starts out on a level playing field then the resulting distribution of wealth, however unequal, will be regarded as legitimate. According to him, a meritocratic society is no better than an aristocratic one since it is just as hierarchical. Indeed, it is considerably worse since the richest segment of the population don't suffer from any feelings of guilt. Unlike those who have inherited their wealth, they think their good fortune is thoroughly deserved. In my father's book, a work of fiction that purports to be a Ph.D. thesis written by a sociology student in 2030, the absence of noblesse oblige in the meritocratic society of the future eventually results in a bloody revolution in which the workers overthrow their new masters.

In contemporary America, those who've reached the top are every bit as pleased with themselves as the doomed ruling class in The Rise of the Meritocracy. Their self-satisfaction is exhibited in all sorts of ways. For instance, the residents of New York, Washington and Los Angeles refer to the rest of the country as "the fly-over states" and describe themselves as belonging to John Adams's "natural aristocracy." They believe they've made it because they've been blessed with an abundance of talent and think of those poor creatures who live outside the trifecta as belonging to an inferior species. At Vanity Fair, my colleagues frequently made fun of those who live in the fly-over states, claiming that they age faster, become balder sooner and are more likely to succumb to cancer.

One sure sign that America's plutocrats don't suffer from any feelings of guilt about their wealth is that they're completely shameless about flaunting it. You only have to visit the Hamptons to witness bourgeois triumphalism at is most naked. As you watch a succession of millionaires glide past in their Porche 911 convertibles, each chariot containing a more beautiful blonde than the last, you get the impression that it's only a matter of time before these Masters of the Universe tattoo their net worths on their foreheads. According to Tom Wolfe, the Hamptons exists primarily to provide New Yorkers with an opportunity for this kind of display. "The first great advantage of summering in the Hamptons," he confided to a journalist from The Sunday Telegraph, "is simply to tell everyone else in the office that you will be there and not here."

Before moving to Manhattan I'd always been rather suspicious of the tendency of Britain's top dogs to play down their privileged status. Why should modesty and understatement by synonymous with good taste? My view -- not particularly original -- was that this utilitarian style had originally been developed by the British aristocracy as a way of minimizing the resentment caused by their prosperity. At a time when power was restricted to members of the lucky sperm club, the aristocracy had prudently adopted a set of manners that prohibited the flaunting of their good fortune. It was one of several cunning ploys they came up with to avoid the fate that had met their cousins across the Channel. Of course, the British aristocracy's power has long since dwindled, but their social code has proved remarkably resilient, influencing the behavior of their bourgeois successors.

However, now that I'd seen the alternative -- a ruling class that regarded its wealth as completely legitimate -- I began to think again. Whatever its historical origins, wasn't self-effacement more attractive that self-advertisement? It certainly seemed that way to me at the end of 1997.


PeterW said...

Can we disentangle the ideal of a "meritocracy" from the present reality of a system that is still somewhat aristocratic? His anecdote about the dinner party implies that if you're doing well, you will get opportunities to do better, via social connections. How much of his disdain for the meritocratic elite is due to this insularity, and how much of it is due to the fact of inequality?

Φ said...

Good question! Toby does, in fact, believe that our "meritocracy" has become a hereditary caste, and cites anecdotes of how the progeny of New York's rich and powerful are given the entry level jobs in "cool" industries, like publishing, fashion, and the like, that used to be available to kids from nowhere. It's the kind of thing Sheila Tone has written about.