Meritocracy is one of the great fictions of late capitalism in the US, a shiny chrome paint job obscuring the gutted interior and rusted out chassis of society. Our collective allegiance to the myth that wealth and power are doled out on the basis of individual merit, rather than inheritance, nepotism, and structural advantages, keeps us grinding away for longer hours and shrinking wages – even as the GDP rises and new billionaires are made. The carrot-and-stick nature of meritocratic ideology rewards winners with wealth, influence, and power, while punishing the losers with diminished opportunities, increased vulnerability to violence, and shorter life expectancies. As the wealth gap increases, our visceral reactions to this polarized binary become more extreme as well. We celebrate and elect people that we perceive to be most qualified because we hold it to be self-evident that the wealth, influence, and power they hold are the result of individual striving – hard work and gumption ftw. At the other end of the binary, we pathologize, criminalize, and actively hate poor people because we are enchanted by the delusion that such social failure could only be the result of an individual making shitty life choices. You cheer breathlessly in the school yard while the bully beats the crap out of the weakling, hoping that your sycophantic applause will protect you from being the bully’s next victim – after all you are a half inch shorter than the weakling and you have asthma…it’s not your fault, you think. Don’t hate the player, hate the game.
“Wages have stagnated since the 1970s for everyone but the rich” is one of the most useless arguments I have made in my many attempts to get fellow weaklings to recognize that they have more in common with each other then the bully. It is a historical fact that wealth of the richest 1% of the population has exploded since the 1970s while wages for the rest of us have been stagnant, but that truth is obscured by the clamoring call-and-response of meritocracy whereby we are all enrolled in the project of upward redistribution of wealth. We think that it’s the conservatives’ fault that this is happening, what with their insistence on blaming immigrants and welfare queens. We think that it’s the liberals’ fault, what with their free-trade agreements and failed social engineering experiments. But the reality is that the forces of globalization, privatization, deregulation, and financialization that have lead to our stagnant wages were unleashed by people with such extraordinary wealth that their party affiliation is moot – I keep thinking of that picture of the Trumps and Clintons living it up at the same Jeffrey Epstein party. Our investment in the ideology of meritocracy has kept us blindfolded in a circular firing squad. Instead of fighting to protect the power we did have when organized in labor unions, we bought into the idea that we were better off negotiating with our employers as individuals, that it was somehow unpatriotic to deny shareholders whatever profit they demanded. Instead of seeing labor unions as a tool with which we could unleash our own power, atomized workers came to resent the ever-fewer organized workers for getting benefits they felt were undeserved.
Did the labor unions in this equation fuck up sometimes? Absolutely, they are made of fallible humans after all, vulnerable to all the worst impulses of human nature and situated within pre-existing structures that reward and normalize those impulses. But collective action has always been the only way that those of us without power could push back. A cynical campaign of racist backlash against the Civil Rights Movement was melded to the emergent individualism of the hippies to firebomb the unions and deregulate industries. And yes, I’m blaming this pathetic capitulation entirely on *white* baby boomers who made up 61.5% of that generation and handed victories to Ronald Reagan and other “silent majority” politicians after him (1). When I or anyone else who came of age after the 1970s utter the phrase, “OK Boomer,” we are venting our barely-contained rage that a generation born into such vast opportunity and progress would sell-out its grandchildren for a few crumbs of glittering white privilege and the dubious opportunity to die rich (2). It was this bipartisan consensus that empowered their leaders to destroy the social safety net and create the conditions whereby American workers had to compete for jobs with workers overseas. Between 1980 and 2000, the US lost 2 million manufacturing jobs as Japanese productivity surged and the US began deregulating its economy. But it wasn’t the white baby boomers that suffered the most from these or the 5.5million more manufacturing jobs the US lost since then – it was the blacker, browner, and younger workers with less seniority, whose wages and benefits had been negotiated away to protect boomer pensions.
Instead of recognizing their unique industrial and economic position as workers in the post-World War II era and coming to terms with the horrors of colonization and slavery in a meaningful way, white baby boomers continued with their spiritually impoverished program of protecting their own interests and pulling the ladder up behind them, without a shred of self-awareness or compassion for the fates of those affected – even their own children. These evangelicals were praying hard at the altar of meritocracy and speaking in segregationist tongues when their political leaders tossed them “law and order”, “the immigrants are stealing the jobs”, and a large dose of Cold War paranoia. They outsourced our collective struggle for dignity and better wages to poorer workers in less-developed countries, engaging in a reverse-geoarbitrage that allowed the richer boomers to have vacation homes, boats, and plastic surgery while enabling the rest to access a few luxuries via consumer debt. Unable to wrangle a movement strong enough to aim at the root causes, boomer reformers and those that came after them attempted to blunt the consequences through compromise and solutions that reified these consequences as individual failings. The shift away from the sense of collective struggle and collective responsibility that defined the generation that lived through The Great Depression and fought Nazis was complete. The age of capitalist realism had begun.
Capitalist realism refers to the worldview adopted by all the people born in the West since the boomers (I continue to focus primarily on the US, however, because that is the country of my birth and the nation I know best). I watched the Berlin Wall come down on the evening news as a child, unaware that the fall of the Soviet Union signaled the death of any debate over the best way to organize an economy. Margaret Thatcher, the UK’s Prime Minister for all of the 1980s, summed up this new epistemology with her oft-quoted slogan: there is no alternative. The next generations ascended and came of age marching in-step as we sought to make our own way as empowered individuals competing in a now global marketplace. We bought into the logic and indebted ourselves with student loans, armed with the belief that we were the captains of our own destiny; any obstacle in the way of fulfilling that destiny was to be vaulted over and achieved-past. Competition was our birthright and failure to succeed was proof of an individual’s inherent worthlessness. We treaded turbulent waters as public investment in education, infrastructure, and healthcare disappeared beneath us, no matter which politicians we voted for. There is no alternative became the very rhythm of our beating hearts as we watched the water rise around ourselves and our friends.
Of course there were plenty of successful people, many of whom achieved wealth and status beyond what the boomers could have imagined possible as the advance of information technology opened up new markets for both highly-specialized workers and those with enough disposable income to invest. For the rest of us, this unquestioning loyalty to meritocratic ideology has kept us on a treadmill, running less because we are confident that it will lead to economic stability and more because we are terrified of the social consequences of failure. Suffocating under debt that we cannot hope to pay off in our lifetimes, vulnerable to eviction, foreclosure, and sickness, isolated by our shame and fear – our mental health deteriorated and our expectations for life reduced to a faint shadow of those that animated our second-grade selves – we wonder what even is the point of it all?? Is this what Marx meant by alienation?
Alienation, we type wearily into the search bar of Google, Instagram, and YouTube – any app whose maternal blue light cradles us when we awake in the middle of the night. We find some articles, some discussion, some pithy memes: arguments in the comments. Our unrequited desire for connection makes us wonder about these mythical ideas about the collective; we fantasize about community, safety, and stability. Before we can pursue that line of inquiry any further, we are enticed by a beautiful influencer down the rabbithole of personal improvement. – a much softer yet more insidious narrative that affirms what we always already knew: We are responsible for our success as well as our failure. Like adults whose sense of self was warped by a childhood of abuse and neglect, we run back into the arms of our abuser, confusing familiarity with connection and pain with love: there is no alternative.
The individual as both the subject of continuous improvement and object of comparison in our hyper-competitive hyper-commodified world is central to upholding the meritocracy myth, ensuring that everyone from your communist university professor to your local bartender are busy with the unpaid work of exploiting whatever competitive advantages they can muster. It’s as if we have all internalized the idea that our economic success or failure is directly correlated to the intensity of our individual “grind” and attitude – a just-world fallacy lingering below the surface of every influencer competing for your attention. For those of us born into poor and working class families – an experience disproportionately shared by Black, Indigenous, and other people of color in the US – this idea of a perfectible self is especially destructive because prevents us from seeing clearly all the ways that racial capitalism kneecaps our own opportunities and inhibits our empathy for others going through it too. In Coming Up Short: Working-Class Adulthood in an Age of Uncertainty, written a few years into the last recession, Jennifer M. Silva uses the appellation “mood economy” to describe how working class young adults in the US are “privatizing happiness” in the absence of economic stability or traditional markers of adulthood. Instead of focusing on income inequality or debt, we instead tell stories that center “healing” from past trauma, abuse, and addiction to craft our adult identities.Together, these meritocractic and therapeutic narratives co-create an individualism that is both defensive and offensive: “We live in a world where our jobs and relationships are tenuous, and if we want stability and order, we have to make it ourselves. Both economically and emotionally, we have only ourselves to rely on.”
In the ten years since Silva carried out her interviews and millions of people occupied public spaces, student loan levels doubled, the gig economy ascended, the effects of climate change became more visible, rental housing prices increased 150%, and 1 in 4 renters now pay more than 50% of their income on rent. As of late-2019, “the bottom 50% of wealth holders [62 million households] saw their total wealth double from $976 billion during the recession to $2 trillion in 2019. But the top 1% [19 million households] of wealthiest households saw their wealth grow from $18 trillion to $34.7 trillion”. The household wealth of Black and Latino Americans is significantly smaller than the average within the bottom 50%, and of course if you separate the top 0.1% out the wealth concentration becomes even more extreme. Covid-19 arrived as wealth inequality in the US was greater than it had ever been in history.
Apart from some higher-earning healthcare workers, the bulk of essential workers in the US and across the world come from the bottom rungs of the income distribution – nursing assistants, environmental services workers, EMTs, farm workers, postal workers, security guards, laborers, nursing home workers, grocery store workers, food service workers, and delivery drivers – pretty much any occupation that makes the lists of poorest paying jobs in the US. These jobs are held by people who don’t have much ambition or “grit”, according to the meritocracy narrative. These workers could have chosen to be corporate professionals, or journalists (lol j/k), or advertising executives, or hedge fund managers, or the meritocracy’s all-time favorite – a successful entrepreneur! – if they would have just put their heads down, practiced self-discipline, and cultivated a good attitude. And yet all of the professionals still lucky enough to be working from home could not work or live without these ostensibly unmotivated members of the underclass. It’s the same rationalization that allows us to celebrate ourselves as individuals while regarding the vast ocean of humans toiling in outsourced industries, displaced from land and objectified in their “underdevelopment”, as cheap inputs lacking subjectivity and lagging evolutionarily. I believe our lives are worth more than that.
(1) Frey, William H. “Diversity defines the millennial generation.” Brookings, June 28, 2016, https://www.brookings.edu/blog/the-avenue/2016/06/28/diversity-defines-the-millennial-generation/. Accessed 11/18/2020. As of 2015, the population 55-years-old and older, which includes most Baby Boomers, is “whiter” than the country as a whole (75 percent vs. 61.6 percent) and, among them, blacks are the largest racial minority. Those in the 35- to 54-year-old age group, including Gen Xers and the tail-end of the Baby Boom generation (at 61.5 percent white, 17.6 percent Hispanic and 12.5 percent black).
(2) Yes, I realize that #notallwhiteboomers became Reaganites, that some continued to fight for civil and economic justice for the rest of their lives. I know several of them myself and even count some as friends. But they were a very small minority.