Capitalism and the Logic of DeservingnessUnderstanding Meritocracy through Political Economy

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Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy

Original languageEnglish
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Award date2021
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Abstract

Since its first use by British sociologists in the 1950s as an object of critique, the term "meritocracy" has received considerable attention in the social sciences. However, the deeper roots of the idea and its relationship to capitalism remain under-theorized and poorly understood. This thesis pursues the following research question: How might we understand “meritocracy” as a problem of political economy? Through close readings and immanent critiques of key political economic theorists in the classical liberal, black radical, and libertarian traditions, I locate the logic of deservingness within theories of capitalism. I define meritocracy as an achieved hierarchy, predicated upon the idea of “equal opportunity,” and organized by a logic of deservingness according to labor contribution. To explore the political economic contours of meritocracy, I rely on three dichotomies throughout the thesis: achieved hierarchy versus ascriptive hierarchy; methodological individualism versus social holism; and moralizing
judgement versus immanent critique. With its emphasis on achieved hierarchy and moralizing judgement of the individual, meritocracy affirms a logic of deservingness. Nonetheless, meritocracy is haunted by the specters of what it denies: ascriptive hierarchy (with an ambivalent emphasis on excellence as a feature of innately superior individuals, and colonial tutelage as a remedy for cultural inferiority); individual dependence on the social whole for determining what counts as valuable labor; and a view of society which rationalizes individual behavior, precluding our ability to judge morally. Understood from Marx’s socially holistic view of capitalism, I argue that meritocracy is rendered an incoherent organizing principle in the context of market society. Yet, it remains a deception that sustains capitalism.