In the previous article, “The vicious circle of wealth concentration“, we described the mechanisms of accumulation through which economic power not only accelerates its appropriation of income, but also, because of its dominant position, remains unscathed from traditional methods of wealth redistribution (businessmen vs. wage-earners; tax collection vs. private income), thus increasingly restricting room for manoeuvre when it comes to improving real wage levels, the profitability of small and medium enterprises, and the fiscal balance of the State. But in order to sustain this brutal transfer of income it’s necessary to divide in order to conquer, to convince the victims that they’re responsible for their misfortune, and in the cultural war to impose the values of individualism by installing the belief that accepts meritocracy as something that brings order to society. All this is based on a certain deep-rooted moral belief that judges as fair that everyone earns in proportion to their effort and dedication, and therefore accepts the meritocratic argument as logical and true, but now we will expose some of the lies that this hides which even deceive the devotees of individualism themselves.

The most frequent question focuses on the lack of equal opportunities, a sine qua non for attributing different results to individual efforts. The old liberals have always spoken of equality of opportunity as a requirement for a meritocratic order, but as capitalist societies mutated towards plutocracies, such a requirement took a convenient back seat. In his book “Freedom to Choose”, Milton Friedman, the ideologist of Neoliberalism, appeals only to  examples that fit his purposes when he sets out the difference between equality of opportunities and, what he calls, equality of results, while minimising the disproportionate and obvious advantage that accumulated capital possesses compared to the virtues and potential of individuals.

However, despite the obvious inequality of opportunities, an important sector of the population not only believes that all millionaires are millionaires by their own merit, but also considers it natural that the result of such merit be transferred to all their descendants, forming dynasties whose opportunities grow in inverse proportion to the way they diminish for mere mortals. Neoliberal propaganda has been concerned with highlighting the wonders of competition, while sweeping inequality of opportunities under the carpet. At the same time state education, the last hope of the underprivileged for improving their opportunities, is attacked and deteriorated to be replaced by private education, not only because it’s good business, but also because it’s better suited to the meritocratic model. More expensive and prestigious schools for the winners, state schools for the losers, further crystallising differences and preventing upward social mobility. This is often well seen in aspirational middle sectors, who consider that their children’s opportunities should be proportional to their effort to pay for a private school, and if other children do not have opportunities because they are poor, it will be because their parents did not make an effort, as if children were a mere extension of their parents.

This cultural battle waged by neoliberalism to impose meritocracy as common sense serves the process of wealth concentration as vast sectors of the population are marginalised or go into debt in order to maintain their level of consumption. Then it’s very easy to make the whole of society believe that those who are impoverished are responsible for not making enough effort. As wealth is concentrated, the competitive logic is reduced to an increasingly limited field, because economic power takes the largest part of the cake and everyone else competes for a smaller and smaller portion; but while that struggle is waged using the rules of meritocracy, everyone believes that the little they achieve is as a result of their dedication. The old proverb is well known: “give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime”, and to all of us it seems true. However, if someone were to own the rivers and the seas, and the rest of us only had a small lake left to fish in, no matter how hard we try, there’ll never be enough fish. Suppose that in this competition there is equality of opportunities (the same lagoon for all, and we all have a small boat and a fishing rod), possibly someone who tries a little more or who is more skillful will be able to catch two or three fish, others will catch only one, and many will not catch anything, simply because there’s not enough for everyone. But imbued with the “competitive spirit”, each person’s results can be explained by the proportion of an individual’s merit, we will be convinced that the distribution was fair and that meritocracy works, but no one will wonder why we only had a small lake at our disposal on such a large planet.

Let’s look at an everyday example. If we were to calculate what we spend our income on per household, we’d see that most of it is used to consume the products and services of large companies. Electricity, gas, water, TV, internet, telephone services, all of them generally provided by monopolies or cartels. We buy vehicles and spend money on fuel and tolls, all handled by corporations. Food, drink and other daily consumer goods are supplied by hypermarket chains that impose their conditions on the producers who supply them. If we buy clothes of well-known brands, these are supplied by multinational companies and we acquire them in internationally renowned commercial premises. And even when we go out to eat, we often do so on the premises of a franchise chain. More and more goods are produced by big players in the market, and there is less and less room for manoeuvre for an entrepreneur to become a supplier as they have less resources with which to compete. Of course, there are also other goods, especially in the area of services, which continue to be an option for entrepreneurs and workers and new alternatives may always arise that do not depend on concentrated power, but what we’re saying is that they must survive in a shrinking terrain, because the market’s big players have appropriated everything to do with mass consumption, operate with high rates of profitability and generally handle goods with less elastic demand.

This progressive reduction of social income available to apply to the consumption of goods and services of small companies, which do not form part of the value chain of large companies, reduces the expectations of  meritocratic competition to the level of survival, and in that competition the “less effective” are simply squeezed out of the system. But the curious thing is that as long as that competition has followed the rules of meritocratic competition, everyone will assume that they are in the place they deserve to be in. Through media manipulation we are shown, a few models of the “self-made man” who, starting from the bottom, reached success, thus making the aspirational middle sectors look at themselves in that mirror and participate in a savage competition in which the losers are looked down upon with contempt. But life isn’t a sporting competition in which there is necessarily only one champion, a podium for two more, and the rest go home; in economic competition the losers are marginalised with precarious jobs or are unemployed.

In short, the story of meritocracy is based on the premise of individual effort, which, a priori, seems true but is false because of the inequality of opportunities and, above all, because of the progressive reduction of the fishing quota available to the majority. If we truly believe that economic growth and development will be enhanced through the liberation of productive forces, which means providing opportunities for everyone to make the best effort they can, then we must guarantee equal opportunities and dismantle economic concentration by opening the game to all. It’s clear that none of this will be done by the market, which tends towards concentration, but by the State to the extent that it represents the interests of the majority. Surely to achieve this, it will be necessary to have clear public policies around financial, tax and labour issues, facilitate deconcentration and achieve more space for small and medium enterprises; but above all, it’ll be necessary to strengthen public education and fight the cultural battle by unveiling the lies hidden behind the neoliberal meritocratic model.

Translation Pressenza London