On the topic of Social Stratification in the Agricultural Sociology course, I usually invite students to leave the classroom and play in the field. The method is simple: in the middle of a hot day, I take them to a race, with a bottle of cool drink waiting on the Finish line for those who arrive first. However, this running race has terms and conditions. As everyone lined up on the Starting Line before running, I asked him a few questions: Are you from the city? Do both of your parents work in the office? Did you take tutoring during high school? Do you have laptops? Do you have a private vehicle? For each question, students who answered Yes were given the opportunity to take a step forward. At the end of the questions, the starting order is not the same. Those who fall behind try to run as hard as they can, but year after year, the winners are always those who are at the very front of the Start line. This class simulation arguably reflects the essence of the book The Meritocracy Trap, by Professor Daniel Markovits from Yale University, USA.

Daniel Markovits is a Professor in one of the best law schools in the world, which is in one of the best universities in the world as well. Although he attended public schools (in the United States, the upper class would attend private schools), Daniel admitted that he also had the privilege of being brought up by an educated middle class, where both parents were academics.

The fact that he himself is at the discretion of the middle class does not stop him from providing a harsh criticism of our educational and social systems which so much value competition and achievement. The book he wrote and released towards the end of 2019, The Meritocracy Trap, became a best-seller and garnered the attention of various groups – academics, economists, journalists and the general public.

The Meritocracy Trap tells the story of how our social system works in the 21st century. Merit is defined as a certain quality in a person that makes him worthy or valuable in society. I have a hard time finding the equivalent of the word in Indonesian – appropriate, right? Meritocracy is a system where power is given to people who have a certain level of worthiness based on their achievements, competencies and good qualities. So, simply put, meritocracy sees that people who work harder than others are entitled to a higher position and power than other people.

In competitive democratic countries like the United States, India and Indonesia, the value attached to meritocracy has become the norm – so much so that it is inappropriate for us to question this value critically. Since childhood, we are taught that this world is a place where we compete to be the best. Children are asked to hang sky-high ideals, to compete healthily with peers, to excel in all fields. We are taught that the world belongs to those who work earnestly. Of the millions of children in Indonesia, only a handful can go to the best schools, and even fewer can enter the best universities. This system is considered to be the fairest, because everyone is basically seen as equal, but those who excel (in science, professional skills, or political levels) will increase their rank compared to others.

Daniel certainly doesn’t just talk about the education sector. Meritocracy permeates various sectors of our modern society. Companies implement meritocracy on various fronts. Incentive-based work schemes are provided for employees who can show superior performance. In the new business model, employees are required to compete with each other for more appreciation. The government applies this model to boost the performance of the State Civil Service (ASN) and filter public officials who are competent and experts in their fields. Even in the agricultural sector, farmers are starting to be required to compete and show their best performance, becoming local champions, in order to get more incentives and support from the government.

There is nothing fundamentally wrong with an appreciation of ability and quality. In fact, for many things, meritocracy is desirable. We don’t want to have leaders who are incompetent in managing state affairs, do we? We want employees in our company to work seriously and perform their best for the company’s growth. We hope that the generations to come will always be better in quality and more competent than ours. The problem, according to Daniel, is that meritocracy is never completely meritocracy. To understand this, Daniel invites us to first understand how the previous social system worked.

In the days of feudalism, society worked in an aristocratic system, where power was held by certain elite classes who were born with a higher social status in society. In sociology, we know this as ascribed status: kings and queens, and aristocrats. What accompanies this social status is of course asset, which symbolizes and strengthens the status of these aristocrats, be it the kingdom, a vast amount of land and the loyalty of their servants, who become the ‘source of investment’ for the aristocrats to live life according to the demands of their status. In fact, in a democratic system like today, we still commonly see aristocrats who can use their symbolic capital, in Pierre Bourdieu’s terms, to gain votes in regional elections or develop their businesses.

Since the French Revolution and the various upheavals that occurred in all parts of the world (both before and after), people are aware that everyone has the same right to try with his sheer will and mind to achieve a better life. In the United States, the Declaration of Independence states that everyone is equal before the law, and that nothing should prevent humans from living, freedom and the pursuit of happiness.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” (Preamble, US Declaration of Independence, 1776)

Back to Daniel Markovits. According to Daniel, in the context of modern society, the spirit to acquire a better life for everyone and their children and grandchildren is translated through the re-investment of assets (say, savings, land, or housing) towards education for their families. Human resources (human capital) is one thing that is taken into account in this economic system. Although this is normal for us, we need to be aware that in the past few centuries, society did not work like this. Granted, aristocrats could use their inherent privileges to attend top universities, but for most people, higher education was not even an option. Farmers will always be farmers. Factory workers who worked during the Industrial Revolution would not have enough assets to attend university, nor would it occur to them, because it was of no use to them: the factory work system never gave them more incentives if they could attain higher education. In the terms of Karl Marx, workers sell their energy which is calculated as the rupiah value per unit time.

The early generations in the meritocracy might indeed have struggled from ground zero. Daniel gave an example of immigrants who came to the United States without anything, but then cultivated existing natural resources, worked hard, seized opportunities, to be able to achieve success in life. They then send their children to the best schools up to the highest level so that their children can live better lives. In Indonesia, we often hear of farm families who have to sell their buffaloes or their land so that their children can attend well-known universities in big cities. What needs to be underlined is that such a thing is possible because the system in our society allows everyone to receive higher education as long as they have the capacity (and capital) for it.

Here is an interesting point. Because our educational style encourages competition, the process of finding the best education leads us to a vortex of meritocracy that negates the essence of meritocracy itself. The next generation of immigrants, for example in Daniel’s case, is investing even more in the education of his children. To get into the best tertiary institution, a child must attend the best high school, and for that s/he must be able to attend the best junior high school, and so on. This is not only because the schools are of good quality, but also because these schools are filled with children who are nurtured by their parents with a variety of good resources: books, information sources, facilities, tutoring, private lessons, etc., in such a way that the learning atmosphere that is built is much different from the small schools in the suburbs. With high competition and the increasing population, this process continues to shift to a younger age level. In my childhood, as far as I can remember, there was no such thing as a favorite kindergarten or elementary school. Now, my daughter has to compete with hundreds of other kids to get into our favorite kindergarten, imagine that!

Here you may already understand the gist of this book: the meritocracy that exists today occurs not only because of the abilities and qualities of the child, but precisely because the middle-class families involved in this vortex already have more advantages and a different starting point from the urban working class families and rural poor in the world. A study conducted by Daniel shows that in the US, middle to lower economic class parents experience various life pressures (let’s say: low salaries, high divorce rates), which cause attention to children and the process of re-investing in the quality of human resources fail to occur optimally. These wicked problems render these marginalised groups to be increasingly eliminated from the vortex of competition for a “better life”. In Indonesia, we see something similar. The concept of equality needs to be questioned: Yes, we are born the same, but we seem to have been raised differently.

The concept of investing for self-improvement discussed in The Meritocracy Trap is by no means something new. Michel Foucault, in his book The Birth of Biopolitics (1979), tells the story of how the free market in operation in the United States causes economic logic to extend to areas outside the market: education, domestic life and social relations. Remember above, when I touched on the concept of labor as promoted by Marx? According to Foucault, the idea that what workers do is to exchange their labor for wages is no longer relevant in many lines of work today. The fact that people can earn multiple incomes (some much higher than others) can be explained when we look at humans as an enterprise. Instead of seeing labor as capital, Foucault sees a person (with everything that is inherent in him/her: energy, intelligence, skills, etc.) as a business unit that invests capital into themselves to be able to obtain added value income. This is what Foucault means by biopolitics – that even our bodies have become economic objects.

Daniel, on the other hand, provides a more practical analysis (after all, his book is a popular work for public consumption). One thing that is the highlight of The Meritocracy Trap is that this meritocracy system not only eliminates the lower class people from the “search for happiness”, but also traps the middle class people who enter the vortex. This is how he explained. We understand that the middle class, with all their privileges, have access to higher education. However, because the competition also increases, these kids have to keep working hard all the time. There shouldn’t be the slightest mistake in life, he said. These children must continue to make achievements without flaws, because when they let their guard down (for example: if they decide to enjoy high school life with rock ‘n roll), the other kids will go faster and take the opportunity. This is even worse today than it was 20 years ago. Daniel remembers that, in the past, some people living in New Haven were able to talk to the Chancellor of Yale about getting accepted into university. Currently, admission to Yale and other Ivy League campuses is so tight that acceptance rates can be very low (6.8% of total applicants in 2018).

This race and hard work doesn’t stop at university. After graduating, this millennial will compete with their peers for good employment positions. Their salaries might be quite high, but their workloads are also huge. If you thought that after working, this generation could enjoy a more relaxed life for a great reward, think again! A competitive working climate requires employees to always be more productive – this pattern is adopted by companies to anticipate competition from other companies that apply the same working climate. This generation is unconsciously bringing their work ethics from campus to the professional world, and sometimes even imposing this ethos upon the lower class society (Daniel gives an example of an online taxi startup that applies a meritocracy model to its drivers, without providing any basic rights as it is for office employees or factory workers). This is a logical consequence of Biopolitics. If we invest in land or stocks, we can enjoy life while letting money (read: other people) work for us. But if we invest in our own bodies, there is no other way but to continue working and being productive. The conclusion of The Meritocracy Trap is that such a system of society becomes a double-edged sword: it excludes the poor and ensnare the rich.

What is the solution offered by Daniel? For one thing, he believes that this system must change and open up opportunities for more people, regardless of class, to access education and be treated equally in the economic system. He must change before he reaches the tipping point (Daniel refers to the history of civilization in which systems with high social inequality eventually collapsed following the overthrow of power). The 21st century may be a little different for one thing, as illustrated by Daniel: the people who have been excluded from the system for the above reasons, are then crammed with meritocracy narratives (that your failure is part of your inability to compete), which finally leads to despair and deeper anger. These embers were blown by the demagogue, enough to transform itself into a social crisis.

The government has a share to break this cycle. I am not an education expert, but it seems reasonable to see that education, including higher education, should be accessible to everyone regardless of social class. In criticising the education system in the US (and perhaps also for Indonesia), Daniel encouraged large campuses to increase the number of seats for students and stop building exclusivity. The government needs to devise ways to ensure equal quality of public schools. In various sectors that are not fully connected to the market, the government must reduce this merit-based scheme and focus more on meeting basic needs and rights. So, instead of subsidising top performing farmers, the government might be able to reallocate the budget for basic infrastructure and better public facilities. Or, maybe (again, maybe), the government could provide direct social assistance to its citizens, instead of being trapped in the narrative of providing job seeker skill sets, which will further push our world of employment into an endless vortex of meritocracy.

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