A bastardised understanding of meritocracy has become part of bling self-indulgence

Ed Smith's "Left Field" column.

Last winter, I bumped into the masterly Indian batsman Rahul Dravid at a charity dinner in Sydney. Dravid gave a speech and in a question- and-answer session showed why he is a gentleman as well as a champion. He was asked how he stayed so motivated, even in his late 30s. Dravid replied that as a schoolboy, he noticed that many kids had at least as much desire to play professional cricket as he did. But you could tell – from just one ball bowled or one shot played – that they simply didn’t have the talent. “I was given a talent to play cricket,” he explained. “I don’t know why I was given it. But I was. I owe it to all those who wish it had been them to give of my best, every day.”

Instead of peddling the meritocratic fantasy that he had little natural talent and dragged himself to the top through hard work alone, Dravid interpreted his genetic good fortune as innately bound up with his responsibilities. Too often talent and opportunity are excised from the story of great lives for fear that they might detract from the “deserved success” that apparently follows from sweat and tears. I remembered Dravid’s words this week, reflecting on the wonderful speech given by Ben Bernanke to Princeton graduates. It may be too early to judge how well Bernanke has done as chairman of the Federal Reserve. But we can give him an “A” for moral philosophy.

Whatever you think about quantitative easing, it’s hard not to raise a cheer to that. Yet Bernanke’s speech has not lacked detractors. Matthew Syed, writing in the Times, dismissed the speech as “deeply flawed, not just in its philosophical terms but in its psychological consequences”. His reasons why we should not believe in luck provide an excellent summary of conventional wisdom. He argues, “If we believe that another person’s success is solely a matter of social and genetic good fortune, are we not likely to resent it?”

Bernanke didn’t say “solely” but let’s still deal with Syed’s objection that Victoria Beckham deserves to be eulogised for her hard work. Syed also worries that, “If our own failure has nothing to do with us – it’s the useless genes endowed by our parents and the hopeless school we attended – doesn’t that give us an excuse to sit and fester?” Bernanke didn’t say that either but the wider point still warrants a rejoinder.

Believing in luck does not lead to a surfeit of jealousy and resentment. The sociology of luck demonstrates quite the reverse. Helmut Schoeck’s book Envyshowed how the idea of luck ameliorates social divisions. In contrast, tribes and societies that lack a concept or word for luck find it hard to develop enterprise and aspiration. Nor does believing in luck thwart individual ambition. Even Kerry Packer, the brash, highly driven, alpha-male Australian tycoon, once told a friend of mine: “When you meet a successful person who doesn’t believe he’s been lucky, you know you’ve just met a complete jerk.” Arguing that we will only try hard if we pretend that effort is the sole determining factor reduces all human beings to the psychological level of toddlers.

Nor is the idea of luck politically simplistic. The left, it is true, may interpret the question of luck through the prism of opportunity and injustice. But thinking about luck should lead even the most sceptical Conservative, opposed to any kind of utopian thinking, to reflect on his social responsibilities.

Where luck is underestimated, meritocracy has suffered from theoretical overshoot. Advances in meritocracy in real life have prompted wildly overstated advances in theory. While it is true that no one any longer inherits a rotten borough, it doesn’t follow that modern life is perfectly meritocratic.

Michael Young coined the term as a satirical warning in his book The Rise of the Meritocracy, published in 1958. The idea was quickly misinterpreted and misappropriated. Much later, writing four years into New Labour, Young revisited the idea: “If meritocrats believe, as more and more of them are encouraged to, that their advancement comes from their own merits, they can feel they deserve whatever they can get. They can be insufferably smug . . . So assured have the elite become that there is almost no block on the rewards they arrogate to themselves.”

A bastardised understanding of meritocracy has become part of bling self-indulgence. I earned it, I deserve it, I owe no one, thank nobody. It is all justified by the convenient theory that success follows simply from “hard work”. The crucial point is missed: hard work is necessary but not sufficient. Many people work hard. Only a very few have the ultimate good fortune: their hard work interacts with luck and opportunity and ends in serious success. Quite simply, there are more deserving people than there are seats at the table.

It is hard to improve on Bernanke’s reference to the Gospel of Luke: “From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded”.

Rahul Dravid. Photograph: Getty Images

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

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How the Democratic National Committee Chair contest became a proxy war

The two leading candidates represent the Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders factions.

While in the UK this week attention has been fixed on the by-elections in Stoke-upon-Trent and Copeland, in the US political anoraks have turned their eyes to Atlanta, the capital city of the state of Georgia, and the culmination of the Democratic National Committee chairmanship election.

Democrats lost more than a President when Barack Obama left the White House - they lost a party leader. In the US system, the party out of power does not choose a solitary champion to shadow the Presidency in the way a leader of the opposition shadows the Prime Minister in the UK. Instead, leadership concentrates around multiple points at the federal, state and local level - the Senate Minority and House Minority Leaders’ offices, popular members of Congress, and high-profile governors and mayors.

Another focus is the chair of the national party committee. The Democratic National Committee (DNC) is the formal governing body of the party and wields immense power over its organization, management, and messaging. Membership is exclusive to state party chairs, vice-chairs and over 200 state-elected representatives. The chair sits at the apex of the body and is charged with carrying out the programs and policies of the DNC. Put simply, they function as the party’s chief-of-staff, closer to the role of General Secretary of the Labour Party than leader of the opposition.

However, the office was supercharged with political salience last year when the then-chair, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, was exposed following a Russian-sponsored leak of DNC emails that showed her leadership favoured Hillary Clinton as the party’s presidential nominee to Bernie Sanders. Schultz resigned and Donna Brazile, former campaign manager for Al Gore in 2000, took over as interim chair. The DNC huddled in December to thrash out procedure for the election of a permanent replacement – fixing the date of the ballot for the weekend of February 24.

The rancour of the Democratic primaries last year, and the circumstances of Schultz’s resignation, has transformed the race into a proxy war between the Clinton and Sanders factions within the party. Frontrunners Tom Perez and Keith Ellison respectively act as standard bearers for the respective camps.

Both are proven progressives with impeccable records in grassroots-based organizing. However Perez’s tenure as President Obama’s Labor Secretary and role as a Hillary booster has cast him as the establishment candidate in the race, whereas Ellison’s endorsement of the Sanders campaign in 2016 makes him the pick of the radical left.

The ideological differences between the two may be overblown, but cannot be overlooked in the current climate. The Democrats are a party seemingly at war with its base, and out of power nationwide.

Not only are they in the minority in Congress, but more than a third of the Democrats in the House of Representatives come from just three states: California, Massachusetts, and New York. As if that weren’t enough, Democrats control less than a third of state legislatures and hold the keys to just sixteen governors’ mansions.

Jacob Schwartz, president of the Manhattan Young Democrats, the official youth arm of the Democratic Party in New York County, says that the incoming chair should focus on returning the party to dominance at every tier of government:

“The priority of the Democratic leadership should be rebuilding the party first, and reaching out to new voters second," he told me. "Attacking Donald Trump is not something the leadership needs to be doing. He's sinking his own ship anyway and new voters are not going to be impressed by more negative campaigning. A focus on negative campaigning was a big part of why Hillary lost.”

The party is certainly in need of a shake-up, though not one that causes the internecine strife currently bedevilling the Labour Party. Hence why some commentators favour Ellison, whose election could be seen as a peace offering to aggrieved Sanderistas still fuming at the party for undermining their candidate.

“There's something to be said for the fact that Ellison is seen as from the Bernie wing of the party, even though I think policy shouldn't be part of the equation really, and the fact that Bernie voices are the voices we most need to be making efforts to remain connected to. Hillary people aren't going anywhere, so Ellison gives us a good jumping off point overall,” says Schwartz.

Ellison boasts over 120 endorsements from federal and state-level Democratic heavyweights, including Senator Sanders, and the support of 13 labor unions. Perez, meanwhile, can count only 30 politicians – though one is former Vice-President Joe Biden – and eight unions in his camp.

However the only constituency that matters this weekend is the DNC itself – the 447 committee members who can vote. A simple majority is needed to win, and if no candidate reaches this threshold at the first time of asking additional rounds of balloting take place until a winner emerges.

Here again, Ellison appears to hold the edge, leading Perez 105 to 57 according to a survey conducted by The Hill, with the remainder split among the other candidates.

Don’t write Perez off yet, though. Anything can happen if the ballot goes to multiple rounds and the former Secretary’s roots in the party run deep. He claimed 180 DNC supporters in an in-house survey, far more than suggested by The Hill.

We’ll find out this weekend which one was closer to the mark.

Louie Woodall is a member of Labour International, and a journalist based in New York.