Meritocratic thinking devalues all work: Job Talk series, part 3
On April 14, 2016, fast food workers around the USA walked out on strike. Protesters gathered outside the McDonald's restaurant at University Avenue and Marion Street in St. Paul, Minn., and called for a $15 per hour minimum wage, paid sick days, and union rights. Within the last year, the cities of Seattle, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and New York have raised the minimum wage to $15 per hour. | Fibonacci Blue/Creative Commons

This is part three of a three-part series titled, ”Job Talk,” which investigates aspects of work and society. Part one: “What makes a quality job?” Part two: “Work is more than a job.”

As I’ve been stressing throughout this series, the way we talk about work as a culture powerfully influences how we value the work we do and also how we understand our relationships with one another.

One concept that forcibly shapes our language and thinking about the work we do, in ways we have come largely to take for granted, is that of meritocracy. As I spelled out in an earlier piece I wrote for People’s World, the story of meritocracy goes like this: On the basis of their talents, abilities, and efforts, people deserve more or less access to social resources in the form of housing, medical care, educational access, food, clothing, etc.

I say that, as a culture, we largely take the justness and legitimacy of this concept for granted because few people question why a doctor, lawyer, politician, or banker earns a higher salary than a custodian, postal worker, grocery store cashier, fast food worker, social worker, or teacher. Certain work, the belief goes, deserves a higher remuneration than others.

In short, according to the story, people get what they deserve. This belief in meritocracy thus enables us to justify poverty, people not having access to proper health care, not being able to afford college, not being able to afford food or housing, and so forth.

With their thinking shaped by this framework, it has just come to make sense to most Americans, even if we are all performing socially necessary labor that makes all of our lives possible, that some people on the basis of what they do deserve to live in nicer neighborhoods, own larger houses, eat healthier foods, have access to better education, and drive better cars.

To each according to their needs

When I critiqued this concept as a chief cultural narrative enabling and justifying inequality in U.S. society, I was surprised by a response to my critique that came from a writer who allied himself with a Marxist worldview. The author, Laurent Ross, argued that the concept of meritocracy is “important for any Marxist analysis of society.” Against my critique, he justified meritocracy, arguing, “Doctors, lawyers, politicians, and bankers all add more social value to society than do custodians, postal workers, and fast food workers.”

The response surprised me because it seemed to justify meritocracy on Marxist grounds, and one Marxist principle that stands out most strongly for me is one made famous in The Communist Manifesto which Marx reiterates in his Critique of the Gotha Program, namely the idea, “From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs!”

With this key articulation, Marx and Engels are in fact attempting to transform our social value system to produce an economy designed to meet human need rather than prioritizing the production of profit.

In any case, the formulation strikes me as one profoundly antithetical to the meritocratic idea that one’s remuneration is directly proportional to what one contributes. In Marx’s and Engels’ view, you don’t get what you deserve; you get what you need.

They also ask us to re-think what we mean when we talk about what people deserve.

In Critique of the Gotha Program, for example, Marx re-thinks value to such an extent that he even challenges the idea that people doing the same work should be paid the same. The concept of need rather than any concept of merit, whatever that might mean, becomes for him the ruling priority for a right and just society.

He explains, “Further, one worker is married, another not; one has more children than another, and so on and so forth. Thus, with equal performance of labour, and hence an equal share in the social consumption fund, one will in fact receive more than another, one will be richer than another, and so on. To avoid these defects, right instead of being equal would have to be unequal.”

Even if I’m doing the same work as another, our remuneration will be based on what we need, not based on what we do.

While certainly Marx’s writing here tries to transform fundamentally the way we think and talk about work and its value, challenging the concept of meritocracy, there are also other issues we can take up with meritocratic thought.

How do we measure social value?

First, how do we determine the social value of work to decide that doctors, lawyers, and politicians really do add more social value than fast food workers, custodians, and postal workers? What is the measure? Does a professional athlete or a stockbroker add more social value than a teacher, landscaper, a fieldworker, farmer, or plumber? Does the market really determine “social value” in the most effective way?

I’m a professor, and people tell me all the time how I change lives. No doubt, I have contributed to some extent to helping many students develop skills that further their success in the world and enable them to contribute meaningfully to the world as productive citizens. Should I make as much as a medical doctor or a lawyer?

On the other hand, I could not possibly do my job without the custodians who keep the classrooms, offices, bathrooms, and overall buildings clean; or without the folks working in the admissions office or enrollment services or the cafeteria and so on. When I write an article, I rely on the library and its staff and on the people in university technology services who keep my computer going. Put simply, my work cannot be valued or understood in isolation from that of others; it must be understood as part of a collective process.

In this sense, meritocratic thinking is too narrowly individualistic. It erases the social and collective character of the work we do. How can I declare my work more important and believe I am entitled to consume more social resources because of the work I do, when I am dependent on many others without whom I could not even do my job?

Meritocracy–rooted in narrow individualism

The concept of meritocracy is rooted in the very damaging conceptualization of the self, typically referred to as possessive individualism.

Growing out of the Enlightenment thinking of John Locke, the theory of possessive individualism states that as individuals we own ourselves and our talents and abilities, and it is our right to sell them—bring our labor freely to market—for our own profit and benefit.

Again, this theory is rooted in a narrowly individualistic vision that misapprehends the reality of the individual’s embeddedness in social relationships.

Whether we know it or not, or like to admit it or not, many of us are not products of ourselves but products of social investments. I, for example, was educated in the public school system. Many people’s taxes contributed to my education (arguably this is true of those privately educated as well, as private schools often receive some government funding).

We have public education, such as the land grant universities, because we recognized our mutual interdependence and the necessity of meeting collective need together. I might not want to farm, but I sure as heck want somebody to get educated in farming so I can eat. Thus, we pay taxes to ensure we as a society are educating people to be able to do the work to produce energy to keep our houses warm, to figure out how to feed us, to educate us, entertain us, etc. We are all, to some extent, products of social investment. Arguably, society can expect some return on that investment.

Now, Ross contends, as do many, that without the incentive of a higher salary, people won’t seek these jobs that require years of education. From a Marxist perspective, though, people have a desire to fulfill themselves, and our natures—what he calls our species-being—drives us to be creative and productive, especially in consonance with social purpose. Won’t people seek different kinds of work without financial incentive? Marx suggests they will.

The bigger issue, perhaps, we need to deal with when we talk about meritocracy and the way we value work is the way we decide what people don’t deserve, especially when we accept as a culture that people don’t deserve to have basic needs met.

Paramedic rewrites the story

Sometime ago, I read the following rant on Facebook from a paramedic. Writing after some fast food workers had just won their fight for $15 in New York, he challenged typical ways of valuing and talking about work. He wrote:

Fast food workers in NY just won a $15/hr wage.

I’m a paramedic. My job requires a broad set of skills: interpersonal, medical, and technical skills, as well as the crucial skill of performing under pressure. I often make decisions on my own, in seconds, under chaotic circumstances, that impact people’s health and lives. I make $15/hr.

And these burger flippers think they deserve as much as me?

Good for them.

Look, if any job is going to take up someone’s life, it deserves a living wage. If a job exists and you have to hire someone to do it, they deserve a living wage. End of story.

This paramedic, Jens Rushing, just re-wrote our story of meritocracy. He doesn’t exactly argue we all deserve the same pay, but he certainly pushes us to re-think how we value and talk about work and what people deserve.

At a minimum, Rushing makes us think about how we value the work others do without which we could not live.

Whatever we decide, Rushing’s questions and his story have to be addressed in a serious interrogation of how we determine value and how we decide to distribute goods and services to meet basic human need—or not.


Tim Libretti
Tim Libretti

Tim Libretti teaches in the English Department at a public university in Chicago where he lives with his two sons.