The concept of ‘meritocracy’ is today generally understood as a positive one, meaning equality of opportunity for all individuals in society. However, Michael Young’s The Rise of the Meritocracy, published sixty years ago, foresaw it as substituting one form of inequality for another, and undermining democracy along the way. It is now widely recognised that economic and social inequalities in our society have been increasing in recent decades, while political scientists have traced a steady decline in political participation by our citizens – at least until the rise of UKIP and the Brexit referendum. A re-evaluation of Young’s analysis is surely a good starting-point for exploring how our society’s resources are shared out, and whether a more equal society is possible.
Yet it is no easy matter to relate Young’s analysis to our present-day circumstances. The book was a polemical intervention in the fierce debate over whether secondary education should be selective or not, which was eventually resolved by the creation, across most of the UK, of a comprehensive school system offering equal access to all. The polemic took the form of a research dissertation, supposedly written in 2033, that charts how our education system evolves following the rejection of comprehensives. Young envisages that selection on the basis of merit becomes increasingly rigorous through the refinement of IQ testing so that by 2033, there is the prospect of using radiation to induce genetic mutations in the unborn in order to increase their intelligence.
In our actual 2018 IQ tests are regarded much less favourably as a measure of potential ‘ability’ than they were in 1958, although recent research has been published on the relationship between genetic endowment and exam performance, co-authored ironically by Michael Young’s son Toby (Smith-Woolley et al 2018). Nonetheless, although overall the history of secondary schooling since 1958 has significantly diverged from Young’s account, there is a great deal of evidence today that the comprehensive system has failed in its original ambition to bring about genuine equality of educational opportunity .
There is, however, another big divergence between Michael Young’s ‘future history’ and the social changes of the last 60 years. He saw many of the key features of the post-1945 settlement – an independent nation-state, a stable world order, universal welfare rights, a large public sector, multi-party politics and historically low inequality – as broadly continuing as a sort of benign social-democratic collectivism right through to his 2033 present, although it is by then faced with multiplying sources of disorder and revolt. Instead, as we know, that settlement was radically and successfully challenged by the resurgence of (neo)liberalism from the late 1970s. A key element in our present variety of capitalism is the replacement of a collective approach to social problems by one based on individual responsibility and the ‘entrepreneurship of the self’ . This in turn explains why meritocracy is now taken to mean equality of opportunity, and generally regarded as a good thing.
Although social changes since 1958 have thus diverged a great deal from Young’s predictions, there remains a clear parallel between the revolt against meritocracy in his fictional Britain, and the rise of populist politics in our own times: in both cases, it is the distribution of outcomes, not opportunities, that is increasingly seen as unfair. Economic and social inequalities have certainly become a major focus of policy research, but maybe we should follow Michael Young’s speculative method. He considered how the radical adoption of selection by merit might change society. Perhaps it is time for us to speculate even more radically, to consider what a fully equal society would look like.
The usual response from social scientists is that this would be a utopian fantasy, not a scientific inquiry. However, Ruth Levitas has argued in Utopia as Method that our efforts to analyse the society we live in today are inextricably linked not only to how we understand the past, but also to the changes that we want to see in the future . Utopian fiction, from More’s original Utopia to Ursula LeGuin’s modern classic The Dispossessed , merely makes explicit what sociology does every day without noticing it.
What do we mean by a fully equal society? In Homage to Catalonia George Orwell writes: ‘The thing that attracts ordinary men to Socialism … is the idea of equality; to the vast majority of people Socialism means a classless society, or it means nothing’ . In this view, equality is not about differences in income or wealth between individuals, but about the social relations of production in capitalism: Orwell’s idea of equality as ‘classlessness’ corresponds to Karl Marx’s vision of ‘a community of free individuals, carrying on their work with the means of production in common’ .
But why should all citizens, given their different interests and capabilities, treat each other as worthy of equal participation in this community? In his 1949 lectures on ‘Citizenship and Social Class’, T. H. Marshall argued that in the history of capitalism, citizenship was defined initially on the basis of the individual citizen’s legal rights in relation to the sovereign, and then (through the 19th and early 20th centuries) was extended to include political rights through the extension of the vote, eventually to all citizens regardless of wealth or status. Citizenship is only later extended to include social rights, by which he means the provisions of the post-1945 welfare state coupled with a common social and cultural heritage. Later, Marshall argues that the embedding of these social rights requires a compressed range of incomes, an extensive common culture and stable and agreed status differences based on education and occupation .
Marshall was writing at a time when two world wars and the Great Depression between them had forced substantial concessions upon our ruling class. In more recent times, we have seen growing economic inequality, coupled with a widening of cultural and status differences summed up in the 1990s concern with social exclusion; in short, a weakening of universal social rights as Marshall defined them. But perhaps the problem lies precisely in those ‘agreed status differences’ arising from education and work that he explicitly accepts. Suppose that we go further than Marshall, and imagine what it would take to eliminate those status differences through a radical joint transformation of these worlds?
In Michael Young’s vision of a meritocratic society, as in our own society today, there is a wide range of occupations. Historically, competition and the profit motive have encouraged an ever more specialised occupational division of labour in the production of goods and services, and the subordination of detailed tasks to close supervision by managers or machines. This is just as true in knowledge-intensive sectors and in services as it is in manufacturing. The manual and mental skills required for these very varied occupations, together with the extent of autonomy and authority allocated to them, generate a sharply differentiated hierarchy of status, power and income, within which the great majority of workers have little opportunity for creativity or fresh challenges. In a classless society, however, the distribution of tasks and decision powers can be designed around the principle of sharing out both the familiar and the new, the humdrum and the exciting, and above all, the direction of production and its execution. Ironically, in mid-20th-century capitalism, when corporate management was less financially constrained, experiments in ‘job enrichment’  offered a glimpse of such possibilities.
A world of work in which there was broad equality of job satisfaction, status and income would in turn require a radically different system of education. At present teachers at every level pursue outcomes that enable their institutions to compete for the brightest entrants, so that pupils, teachers and schools can all acquire competitive advantage. We could instead transform education away from relentless competition for access to privilege, towards the principle of equipping everyone to participate in society on an equal footing. We could recognise ‘ability’ as something far broader than abstract reasoning skills, based also upon communication, socialisation and a sense of belonging. More imaginative ways of stimulating learning within disadvantaged communities are readily available to reverse the current return to rote learning, endless formal testing and the insistence on status competition between schools and individual pupils.
Transforming the worlds of work and education in this way would create the foundations for an equal and classless society, in which the rights of citizens would indeed be universal. We could at last transcend the dilemmas that Michael Young set out sixty years ago.
 Reay, D. (2017) Miseducation. Bristol: Policy Press.
 Dardot, P. and Laval, C. (2013) The New Way of the World: on Neoliberal Society. London: Verso.
 Levitas, R. (2013) Utopia as Method: the Imaginary Reconstitution of Society. London: Routledge.
 Le Guin, U. (1974) The Dispossessed: an Ambiguous Utopia. London: Harper & Row.
 Orwell, G. (1938) Homage to Catalonia. London: Secker & Warburg, p.104.
 Marx, K. (1967) Capital: A Critique of Political Economy. Volume I, Capitalist Production. London: Lawrence & Wishart, p.78.
 Citations in Marshall, T.H. (1963) Sociology at the Crossroads and Other Essays. London: Heinemann, pp74, 121.
 Walters, R. (1975) Job Enrichment for Results: Strategies for Successful Implementation. Boston, Mass; Addison-Wesley.
Hugo Radice taught political economy from 1972 to 2008. He is currently a Life Fellow in the School of Politics and International Studies, University of Leeds
Image: Moren Hsu from Unsplash