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Trump: A Resister’s Guide

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American Nightmare

By Wesley Yang

The term “meritocracy” became shorthand for a desirable societal ideal soon after it was coined by the British socialist Sir Michael Young. But Young had originally used it to describe a dystopian future. His 1958 satirical novel, The Rise of the Meritocracy, imagines the creation and growth of a national system of intelligence testing, which identifies talented young people from every stratum of society in order to install them in special schools, where they are groomed to make the best use possible of their innate advantages.

In the novel, what begins as a struggle against inherited privilege results in the consolidation of a new ruling class that derives its legitimacy from superior merit. This class becomes, within a few generations, a hereditary aristocracy in its own right. Sequestered within elite institutions, people of high intelligence marry among themselves, passing along their high social position and superior genes to their progeny. Terminal inequality is the result. The gradual shift from inheritance to merit, Young writes, made “nonsense of all their loose talk of the equality of man”:

Men, after all, are notable not for the equality, but for the inequality, of their endowment. Once all the geniuses are amongst the elite, and all the morons are amongst the workers, what meaning can equality have? What ideal can be upheld except the principle of equal status for equal intelligence? What is the purpose of abolishing inequalities in nurture except to reveal and make more pronounced the inescapable inequalities of Nature?

I thought about this book often in the years before the crack-up of November 2016. In early 2015, the Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam published a book that seemed to tell as history the same story that Young had written as prophecy. Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis opens with an evocation of the small town of Port Clinton, Ohio, where Putnam grew up in the 1950s — a “passable embodiment of the American Dream, a place that offered decent opportunity for all the kids in town, whatever their background.” Port Clinton was, as Putnam is quick to concede, a nearly all-white town in a pre-feminist and pre-civil-rights America, and it was marked by the unequal distribution of power that spurred those movements into being. Yet it was also a place of high employment, strong unions, widespread homeownership, relative class equality, and generally intact two-parent families. Everyone knew one another by their first names and almost everyone was headed toward a better future; nearly three quarters of all the classmates Putnam surveyed fifty years later had surpassed their parents in both educational attainment and wealth.

When he revisited it in 2013, the town had become a kind of American nightmare. In the 1970s, the industrial base entered a terminal decline, and the town’s economy declined with it. Downtown shops closed. Crime, delinquency, and drug use skyrocketed. In 1993, the factory that had offered high-wage blue-collar employment finally shuttered for good. By 2010, the rate of births to unwed mothers had risen to 40 percent. Two years later, the average worker in the county “was paid roughly 16 percent less in inflation-adjusted dollars than his or her grandfather in the early 1970s.”

Young’s novel ends with an editorial note informing readers that the fictional author of the text had been killed in a riot that was part of a violent populist insurrection against the meritocracy, an insurrection that the author had been insisting would pose no lasting threat to the social order. Losing every young person of promise to the meritocracy had deprived the working class of its prospective leaders, rendering it unable to coordinate a movement to manifest its political will. “Without intelligence in their heads,” he wrote, “the lower classes are never more menacing than a rabble.”

We are in the midst of a global insurrection against ruling elites. In the wake of the most destructive of the blows recently delivered, a furious debate arose over whether those who supported Donald Trump deserve empathy or scorn. The answer, of course, is that they deserve scorn for resorting to so depraved and false a solution to their predicament — and empathy for the predicament itself. (And not just because advances in technology are likely to make their predicament far more widely shared.) What is owed to them is not the lachrymose pity reserved for victims (though they have suffered greatly) but rather a practical appreciation of how their antagonism to the policies that determined the course of this campaign — mass immigration and free trade — was a fully political antagonism that was disregarded for decades, to our collective detriment.

A policy of benign neglect of immigration laws invites into our country a casualized workforce without any leverage, one that competes with the native-born and destroys whatever leverage the latter have to negotiate better terms for themselves. The policy is a subsidy to American agribusiness, meatpacking plants, restaurants, bars, and construction companies, and to American families who would not otherwise be able to afford the outsourcing of childcare and domestic labor that the postfeminist, dual-income family requires. At the same time, a policy of free trade pits native-born workers against foreign ones content to earn pennies on the dollar of their American counterparts.

In lieu of the social-democratic provision of childcare and other services of domestic support, we have built a privatized, ad hoc system of subsidies based on loose border enforcement — in effect, the nation cutting a deal with itself at the expense of the life chances of its native-born working class. In lieu of an industrial policy that would preserve intact the economic foundation of their lives, we rapidly dismantled our industrial base in pursuit of maximal aggregate economic growth, with no concern for the uneven distribution of the harms and the benefits. Some were enriched hugely by these policies: the college-educated bankers, accountants, consultants, technologists, lawyers, economists, and corporate executives who built a supply chain that reached to the countries where we shipped the jobs. Eventually, of course, many of these workers learned that both political parties regarded them as fungible factors of production, readily discarded in favor of a machine or a migrant willing to bunk eight to a room.

Four decades of neoliberal globalization have cleaved our country into two hostile classes, and the line cuts across the race divide. On one side, college students credential themselves for meritocratic success. On the other, the white working class increasingly comes to resemble the black underclass in indices of social disorganization. On one side of the divide, much energy is expended on the eradication of subtler inequalities; on the other side, an equality of immiseration increasingly obtains.

Even before the ruling elite sent the proletariat off to fight a misbegotten war, even before it wrecked the world economy through heedless lending, even before its politicians rescued those responsible for the crisis while allowing working-class victims of all colors to sink, the working class knew that it had been sacrificed to the interests of those sitting atop the meritocratic ladder. The hostility was never just about differing patterns in taste and consumption. It was also about one class prospering off the suffering of another. We learned this year that political interests that go neglected for decades invariably summon up demagogues who exploit them for their own gain. The demagogues will go on to betray their supporters and do enormous harm to others.

If we are to arrest the global descent into barbarism, we will have to understand the political antagonism at the heart of the meritocratic project and seek a new kind of politics. If we choose to neglect the valid interests of the working class, Trump will prove in retrospect to have been a pale harbinger of even darker nightmares to come.

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