Meritocracy today involves the idea that whatever your social position at birth, society ought to offer enough opportunity and mobility for `talent' to combine with `effort' in order to `rise to the top'. This idea is one of the most prevalent social and cultural tropes of our time, as palpable in the speeches of politicians as in popular culture. In this book Jo Littler argues that meritocracy is the key cultural means of legitimation for contemporary neoliberal culture - and that whilst it promises opportunity, it in fact creates new forms of social division.
Against Meritocracy is split into two parts. Part I explores the genealogies of meritocracy within social theory, political discourse and working cultures. It traces the dramatic U-turn in meritocracy's meaning, from socialist slur to a contemporary ideal of how a society should be organised. Part II uses a series of case studies to analyse the cultural pull of popular `parables of progress', from reality TV to the super-rich and celebrity CEOs, from social media controversies to the rise of the `mumpreneur'. Paying special attention to the role of gender, `race' and class, this book provides new conceptualisations of the meaning of meritocracy in contemporary culture and society.
Jo Littler is a Reader in the Centre for Culture and Creative Industries in the Department of Sociology at City, University of London. She is the author of Radical Consumption: Shopping for change in contemporary culture (2009) and co-editor, with Roshi Naidoo, of The Politics of Heritage: The Legacies of `Race' (2005).
List of illustrations Acknowledgements Introduction: Ladders and Snakes Meritocracy as plutocracy What's wrong with meritocracy? Five problems Meritocracy as social system and as ideological discourse How this book is organised Part one: Genealogies Chapter one: Meritocracy's genealogies in social theory Never start with the dictionary Early genealogies, histories and geographies Ladders and level playing field Socialist roots and critique Social democratic meritocracy The critique of educational essentialism `Just' meritocracy? The beginnings of neoliberal meritocracy Meritocracy in the neoliberal meritocracy Chapter two: `Rising up': gender, ethnicity, class and the meritocratic deficit See where your talent takes you Partial progression and painful ladders: mid century welfare Pulling rank: problems with welfarist `rising up' Selling 1968 Parables of progress: luminous media fables Not so cool: unequal employment Selling inequality: post-feminism, post-race....post-class? Neoliberal justice narratives The egalitarian and the meritocratic deficit Chapter three: The movement of meritocracy in political rhetoric Meritocratic feeling Thatcherism in Britain Major meritocracy Blairism and beyond Aspiration Nation Tragi-comedy: Bojo's `hard work' Blue-collar billionaires: Farage, Trump and the destabilisation of merit Theresa May and the Middle England meritocrats Aspiration for all? Meritocracy vs. mutuality Part two: Popular parables Chapter four: Just like us? Normcore plutocrats and the popularisation of elitism Meritocracy and the extension of privilege The 1%, the new rentiers and transnational asset-stripping Normcore plutocrats Normcore aristocrats The kind parent Luxury-flaunters The new rich are different Chapter five: #Damonsplaining and the unbearable whiteness of `merit' #Damonsplaining and externalised white male privilege Post-racial meritocracy The racialization of merit: people The racialization of merit: products The racialization of merit: production Trying to shut women up Calling out the myth of postracial meritocracy Externalised and internalised neoliberal meritocracy Chapter six: Desperate success: Managing the mumpreneur Doing it all Child labour Desperate success Entrepreneurial Man Magical femininity The mumpreneur and the branded self Disaggregation and alternatives Conclusion: Beyond neoliberal meritocracy Failing to convince The journeys of meritocracy What's the alternative? Changing the cultural pull of meritocratic hope Alternatives to the ladder Index