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Review: Christopher Hayes, Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy

Christopher Hayes, Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy (Crown Publishers, 2012)


Twilight of the Elites is a book intended to influence progressive understanding and action and has been positively received as such by influential progressive celebrities among others. Such positive evaluations are quite at odds with my assessment of what Hayes has wrought. Although I allude in passing to certain other flaws, my main intent is to identify and criticize the core political thrust of his discussion.

Hayes is evidently an engaging, intelligent young man (see, e.g., the discussion at http://www.thenation.com/video/168407/chris-hayes-and-katrina-vanden-heuvel-conversation), out there waging the struggle on the ideological terrain. But he is only one of a now sizeable cast of progressive political commentator/entertainers. He is therefore part of a contemporary social phenomenon about which, as with every social phenomenon, one should ask questions. How, for instance, is it determined who will be given such a prominent role? And what might be the political consequences of that phenomenon?

The answer to the first question may be found in Hayes’s book itself: the processes of meritocracy elevate a chosen few. Since his publisher’s publicity material, which presumably Hayes approved, describes him as “A proud product of the meritocracy himself,” I imagine Hayes would have no quarrel with this explanation of his rise to relative prominence. The problem is, however, as his book again instructs, there is no guarantee that those whom the processes of meritocracy are elevating are truly worthy of our trust. Hayes exposes the flaws of a great many who have been so elevated. Are we to assume that the media, including the progressive media, are exempt from the same systemic problems?

With respect to the second question, leaving aside the tendency for the progressive political commentator/entertainer elite to form a mutual admiration society, though that is surely one of the ways meritocracy constitutes and maintains an elite, it seems to me at least arguable that this phenomenon of our times, this progressive political commentary/entertainment, may often actually be politically harmful. What is offered may too often be little more than entertainment. And we? Only an audience which as it listens, and watches, and laughs, vicariously imagines it is storming barricades. Let me, nevertheless, give Hayes’s book the critical attention it deserves as an intervention in today’s politics, no matter that such success as it enjoys may flow in part from the fact that he is a ‘progressive celebrity.’ I will say little of his style, which understandably is journalistic, but which also involves many sweeping statements about crucial matters which deserve more careful presentation. An example:

Whether we think about it much or not, we all believe in meritocracy. It is embedded in our very language: to call an organization, a business, or an institution “meritocratic” is to pay it a high compliment (p. 31).

“We all”? Is it really so, that meritocracy is not contested in the United States? I certainly know many people, myself included, who hold meritocracy in quite low esteem. Is this assertion–are the similar assertions about meritocracy Hayes scatters throughout his book–politically innocent, or is its perhaps unconscious function to shape readers’ perceptions, to lead them to see the world as he sees it?

I will also quickly pass over his parochiality, by which I mean his too narrow focus upon the United States. Hayes himself acknowledges, when he makes a point by referring to Janine Wedel’s book, Shadow Elite (p. 175), that there is a global elite out there of which the American elite is a part. But at no point does he consider how that might be relevant to what is going on here or how it might affect future developments here, including how it might affect the outcome of challenges to the present state of things. (Unfortunately, Hayes is far from being alone where this sort of parochiality is concerned.)

Hayes is parochial in another troubling way. To be sure, he does mention the injurious inequalities experienced across the American social spectrum. But they are not interpreted as the consequence of underlying, deeply hidden processes. As he seems to see it, these injurious inequalities arise among a fragmented, structureless mass dominated by the 1 percent (or is it by the 0.01 percent, or the 0.0001 percent, in a society where “fractal inequality” reigns? (p. 156)). The injuries people now suffer arise, in part, from the increasing maldistribution of power, which is itself the consequence of the increasing maldistribution of wealth. But  for Hayes that is only part of the problem. For him, the real problem, the truly vexing problem, is that wealth and power have more and more been falling into unworthy hands: “three decades of accelerating inequality have produced a deformed social order and a set of elites who cannot help but be dysfunctional and corrupt” (p. 16), elites among whom “destructive intelligence flourishes,” and a “fractal” society in which these disorders are replicated at every level from top to bottom (pp. 168-175). Turning from the actual injuries to their evaluation, the recent setbacks suffered by the fairly well-to-do non-elite seem to count at least as much with Hayes as does the suffering of those who have lived a lifetime of injury; he certainly regards them as politically much more significant–I return to this point.

To this disordered American system Hayes juxtaposes two preceding ‘eras of equality.’ During the first, post-WW Two, era, material and cultural well-being became more widely distributed (pp. 218-9). But some, for various reasons, were left behind. And that, Hayes suggests, brought on the second era, during which “the legal and cultural structures that regulated and enforced [the] brutal inequalities of race, gender, and sexual orientation” were reformed (p. 220). It is noteworthy that of this second era he has already observed,

The areas in which the left has made the most significant progress . . . are battles it has fought in favor of making the meritocracy more meritocratic (p. 48).

Again, this is not, perhaps, just a stray, careless remark, though it may be an unconscious reflection of his own worldview. And so it needs be challenged: while it may be true that some who participated in the various struggles of the 60s and beyond were only seeking access to the meritocratic competition, that was by no means true of all. Certainly, the left was not fighting merely to make the meritocracy more meritocratic. The outcome of these struggles should, however, remind us of William Morris’s admonition, that what we fight for will turn out to be not what we meant and that we’ll have to fight for it again under a different name.

So where precisely does Hayes stand in the struggle now underway? By and large he has no problem with meritocracy so long as it’s the right kind of meritocracy. Consider the view of the human world with which he begins his argument:

On all things auto-related, your mechanic is an authority. In public life, our pillar institutions and the elites who run them play the mechanic’s role. They are charged with the task of diagnosing and fixing problems in governance, the market, and society. And what we want from authorities, whether they are mechanics, money managers, or senators, is that they be competent . . . and that they not use their authority to pursue a hidden agenda or personal gain (p. 13)

Socrates argued pretty much the same sort of thing in the course of constructing his Ideal Republic. But Hayes does not mention Plato, who might be termed the first theorist/advocate of meritocracy. He does, however, quote Aristotle, another early meritocrat:

So then: What makes the elite the elite? “From the hour of their birth,” Aristotle once observed, “some are marked for subjection and some for command” (p. 139).

(Hayes did not, by the way, go to Aristotle himself, but to Will Durant’s summary of the notorious chapter on slavery in Aristotle’s Politics and to Durant’s rendition of Jowett’s translation of that particular passage [see Hayes, note 139, p. 263]. Similarly, when quoting Pareto he went to Joseph Femia’s account of Pareto and Political Theory rather than to Pareto himself [see note 45, p. 250].) Although noting that “modern democracy represents the single most durable challenge to this immutable logic” (p. 139), Hayes also does seem to accept Aristotle’s view of humanity, for not only does he term it “immutable,” he continues, “For nearly all of human history the former [i.e., those marked for subjection] have vastly outnumbered the latter [i.e., those marked for command].” Again, his failure to distance himself from such an extreme view of human nature is, perhaps, inadvertent, but would not that in itself be a reflection of–and a reflection upon–his own meritocratic beliefs? But perhaps I am being blind to his irony?

Consider next his discussion of two possible justifications of meritocracy, justifications which he takes to be “compelling.” First,

The moral justification . . . is straightforward: the meritocracy gives everyone what he or she deserves (p. 51).

He asserts that the force of this principle derives from its “[appeal] to some of our most profound moral intuitions about justice and desert” (p. 51) and that it requires that we be able to distinguish between an individual’s contingent and essential features. To appeal to such profundities is, of course, problematical. How our “profound moral intuitions” arise, what they may be founded upon, these are surely things about which philosophers disagree. I see nothing compelling as a justification in a ‘principle’ that is, at best, the beginning, but only the beginning of an argument. But in some respects this is beside the point since Hayes goes on to observe that the distinction between the contingent and the essential is so blurred in practice that it becomes difficult to ascertain who actually deserves what (pp. 51-2). (Which some of us might say is precisely the moral point.)

His second, and to his mind even “more compelling” justification for meritocracy “is not that it is necessarily fair, but rather that it is efficient” (p. 52). As a principle, he clearly takes this to be unexceptionable. In practice, however, “The most fundamental problem with meritocracy is how difficult it is to maintain it in its pure and noble form”–which is where, he suggests, “Michael Young’s prophecy got it wrong” (p. 53). Has he forgotten that only a few pages back he told us that Young wrote his book, The Rise of the Meritocracy, “to conjure a grim dystopia,” and that Young himself had said of it that it “was a satire meant to be a warning” (p. 42)? Since Hayes has described in detail just such a grim dystopia, how can he now he present Young as getting wrong some prophecy about something “pure and noble”? Hayes concludes this section of his book thus:

In reality our meritocracy has failed not because it’s too meritocratic, but because in practice, it isn’t very meritocratic at all (p.51)

We’re back in a way, I suppose, to Plato again, to that part where Socrates explores the fall of the Ideal Republic. The wrong sort of people, that’s the problem. We are also here being given a glimpse of Hayes’s own political project. Hayes spends much of his book lamenting just how awful is the society impure, ignoble meritocracy has created. As to why meritocracy has failed “to live up to its ideals,” Hayes’s explanation follows from the principles he presents as fundamental to a meritocracy that “live[s] up to its ideals”:

The. . . Principle of Difference. . . holds that there is a vast differentiation among people in their abilities, and that we should embrace this natural hierarchy and set ourselves the task of matching the hardest working and most talented to the most difficult, important, and remunerative tasks (pp. 56-7).

Again, I see no sign that Hayes anywhere distances himself from this most illiberal notion of human nature, nor would I, in fact, expect “a proud product of the meritocracy” to find any fault with it. Still, Adam Smith was, I think, much closer to the truth when he opined that “The difference of natural talents in different men is, in reality, much less than we are aware of,” and that it is only “the vanity of the philosopher” that allows him to imagine that he is intrinsically different from “a common street porter” (Wealth of Nations, Bk. 1, Ch. 2).

But back to meritocracy’s foundational principles:

The . . . Principle of Mobility [holds that] there must be some continuous competitive selection process that ensures that performance is rewarded and failure punished (p. 57).

Only, sad to say, “the Principle of Difference will come to overwhelm the Principle of Mobility (p. 57).” Those who rise will try to ensure that they and theirs always rise, never “trickle down.” The “Iron Law of Meritocracy” ensures that a society based on meritocracy “will grow both more unequal and less mobile” (p. 59).  But I fail to see how these two principles alone give rise to this “iron law.” There has be some other principle at work here, some other aspect of human nature driving them on to preserve and pass on their privilege, only Hayes does not say what that might be. Perhaps it is too obvious to mention? Selfishness? Our ‘selfish genes’?

But then there is so much that Hayes does not deign to mention. No suggestion as to what might be the nature of the complex economic, social and cultural structures that people move through as the operations of meritocracy direct; no suggestion that we inhabit anything other than a neutrally organized and functioning space. For Hayes, it would seem, meritocracy and meritocracy alone defines both our political predicament and its solution. But before I conclude with his views on that, on how “the meritocratic dream,” as he terms it (p. 63), might be saved from its “slow death,” I must put one more piece of his thinking on the table, for it is a key part of his political project. It has everything to do with what he terms “the paradox of meritocracy”:

It can only come to flower in a society that starts out with a relatively high degree of equality. So if you want meritocracy, work for equality (p. 221)

This claim he justifies by painting a rather idealized picture of post-WW Two Britain interwoven with a too uncritical acceptance of Tony Judt’s rather uncritical delight in his own education (p. 221). Since I underwent a somewhat similar education to Judt’s, governed by the same principles and at about the same time, let me note that what Hayes refers to as “the rigor and seriousness of [Britain’s] ancien educational regime” came with a lot of baggage. Partly by design, and partly, perhaps, from some failure on the part of the educational reformers to perceive and do something about education’s hidden dimensions, the education we, the meritocratically selected five percent of our age cohort, received was, in my judgement, deeply conservative. It certainly did not encourage us to think deeply and critically about our society; it did not, for example, encourage us to care that much for the other 95 percent, the children among whom we’d grown up, our childhood friends, who were being cast aside. (Michael Young had something to say about all this.) And since Hayes has made the British connection, it is surely not amiss to note that what he advocates is terribly “New Labour,” isn’t it?

To be sure, Hayes vigorously asserts that it is equality of outcomes, not just equality of opportunity, that must be struggled for. But it seems very evident that he desires a more equal society of the sort he fancies Britain had in its “meritocratic honeymoon period,” which I actually experienced as painfully unequal, because he wants the United States to cease to be a perversion of a meritocracy and become an authentic one. Remember, if you want meritocracy, work for equality (p. 221). Perhaps he thinks it unrealistic to want anything better? Meritocracy corrected of its excesses is the goal of the struggle he is urging people to join (p. 218). But ever the meritocrat–or am I again failing to perceive that he is being ironic–he does not see that struggle for equality as something everyone is fit to join. His agents of change are those whom meritocracy has selected:

In order to actually effect deep and lasting change, those opposed to the current social order must locate another base of power that can credibly challenge the power of incumbent interests. I think the answer lies in a newly radicalized upper middle class . . . people with graduate school degrees, homes, second homes, kids in good colleges, and six-figure incomes (p. 230).

 –seemingly no one other than the well-to-do non-elite is going to be invited to the party, a point emphasized a page or so later when he talks about the need to build “a potent coalition of the radicalized upper middle class” (p. 233)–not, note, a coalition with such people. The coalition he envisions is one linking the liberal and conservative elements of that upper middle class (pp. 230-233). But why should we expect the ‘purer,’ ‘more noble’ meritocracy they create to serve any interests other than their own?–though with an eye to system maintenance, their enlightened self-interest might cause them to throw some crumbs at those much less fortunate than themselves. Besides, why should we expect that sort of meritocracy not to succumb too, almost immediately, to that iron law of meritocracy? Hayes expresses some hopes, but does not explain. The cycle will be repeated (p. 240).

The progressive personalities who praise him seem so overwhelmed by delight to see so well recounted in cognate fashion so many of America’s recent scandalous ills that they fail to consider critically the diagnosis and the cure they are being proferred. But when one clears away the underbrush, all the ambient corruption and the viciousness and the stupidity that we didn’t really need Hayes to tell us about, for it’s all pretty stale stuff by now, his political project can be seen standing clear: not to repudiate “our shared social ideal,” “our [foundational] meritocratic ideal” (pp. 42, 51);  to rescue the system, not replace it. And so, despite the praise he has received, I hope that project will come to be seen for the non-progressive, decidedly non-left thing that it is–unless, that is, progressivism and leftism have become as debased as everything else in this meritocratically debased age. Or is it that, all appearances to the contrary and in a fashion that escapes me, Hayes has written another satire on meritocracy, another warning?


PS. For an interesting review, written in 2048 C.E., of the original warning satire by Michael Young, which also reflects on this era, the early 21st Century, see http://home.uchicago.edu/~aabbott/barbpapers/barbmerit.pdf


Robin Melville formerly offered classes in politics at a liberal arts college in Wisconsin. Retired, he now lives in California.


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