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The Liberal Version of Individualism: Meritocracy and “Equal Opportunity”

The Liberal Version of Individualism: Meritocracy and “Equal Opportunity”

By Dennis Loo (12/11/13)

This is Part 2 of a series. The first installment “Individuality and Individualism” can be found here.

The spectrum of political opinion in the U.S. is customarily depicted as that between conservatives and liberals. In most people’s minds those ends of the spectrum are at least roughly equivalent to the Republican Party (conservatives) and the Democratic Party (liberals). The span between the two perspectives is the scope for what is considered legitimate and realistic differences of opinion – if you are outside of those parameters, then your views are seen as either too extreme or outside the pale and not to be taken seriously.

What is not well understood is just how much the GOP and the Democrats actually share; what the two of them share is far and away greater than what they differ on. I am speaking here principally of the leaders of both parties rather than the rank and file membership and particular individuals’ party affiliations and registration. Most people in this country align themselves with one or the other party or are Independents and while there are some significant differences among them (e.g., over gender and race), the underlying premises of conservatives, liberals and Independents share a substantially common origin.

As much as the two ends of this really very small spectrum might dislike the other, conservatives and liberals share altogether a great deal in common in their views about individualism. As I discussed in Individuality and Individualism,” individualism actually interferes with the fullest expression of individuality. Individualism is an ideology that celebrates individuals in opposition to the group, a recipe for profound problems both for individuals themselves and for the group. Individuality, on the other hand, is a readily recognizable fact: individuals differ from one another in temperament, taste, abilities, and so on.

What I am going to focus on in this installment are the particular features of the politically liberal version of individuality and how much it shares in its premises with the conservative version of individuality. Viewed from that perspective, liberals and conservatives are more at one and the same end of the ideological spectrum, with yes, some gap between them, but fundamentally they are at the same end in contrast to the view on the other end of this political spectrum that individuals and the group are inextricably bound together. As I wrote in the Preface to Globalization and the Demolition of Society, summarizing key points in the book:

Using market forces and individualism as the organizers for economic and political affairs is a recipe for ever-expanding inequities and the shredding of the social fabric, leading inevitably to myriad disasters on the individual, regional, and global level. It will not do to attempt to mildly modify this [neoliberal/free market fundamentalist] invasion, gesturing and gesticulating at the margins. The response to this assault that is occurring on every conceivable level requires an equally comprehensive retort, an alternative vision for our society.

Where liberals and conservatives differ is in how they see the status quo: conservatives view social inequality as due to individual merit. If you are higher in the social hierarchy, then you deserve it and if you are lower on the social ladder, you also deserve that. Where one is and where one ends up over one’s life are entirely up to one’s own doing. Thus, conservatives oppose any measures that are designed to mitigate the impact of social structures on individual life chances. For example, they oppose governmental assistance to anyone in need, regarding this as the illegitimate intrusion of public services into the workings out of social Darwinism’s “survival of the fittest.”

Liberals, on the other hand, acknowledge the impact of social factors such as racism, nativism, and other forms of structural discrimination such as sexism and homophobia. They support governmental measures such as affirmative action, assistance to the poor, and public subsidies to help to alleviate institutional discrimination and historic disadvantages. The underlying logic of liberalism is that there should be a fairer “footrace” in which individuals are not hampered by forces outside of their personal control and are allowed as much as possible to compete as individuals on equal terms with others. As Emile Durkheim, himself a political liberal, put it,

“[The division of labor] not only supposes that individuals are not consigned forcibly to performing certain determined functions, but also that no obstacle whatsoever prevents them from occupying within the ranks of society a position commensurate to their abilities. In short, labour only divides up spontaneously if society is constituted in such a way that social inequalities express precisely natural inequalities.”[1]

What Durkheim means by “spontaneously” is that to the greatest degree possible, no barriers should interfere with individuals finding their most appropriate slot in the occupational hierarchy. Because he believes that individuals are not equally endowed, the greatest social harmony will be achieved if individuals feel that they have been given an equal chance at finding the “position commensurate with their abilities.” The way to ensure this is to eliminate as much as possible any obstacles such as class discrimination so that the best people may rise to the top and so that people will feel that they have not been unfairly blocked. If obstacles such as discrimination are minimized, then a) individuals will accept the division of labor and social inequality because they feel that they are where they belong after having been given a fair chance, and b) true merit will operate in allotting people to their appropriate station in life as opposed to being determined by nepotism or other forms of discrimination.

“[I]f the institution of classes or castes sometimes gives rise to anxiety and pain instead of producing solidarity, this is only because the distribution of social functions on which it rests does not respond, or rather no longer responds, to the distribution of natural talents…”[2]

Durkheim, liberals, and conservatives hold that the distribution of natural talents is unequal and that this inequality either entirely explains social inequality (as conservatives believe) or all would be well with the world if certain barriers were lowered that interfere with that equivalence between natural inequality and social inequality (as liberals believe).

While natural inequality in the distribution of talents is apparent, talents do not explain social inequality. How can anyone realistically claim that the richest 497 individuals in the world are so much more talented and meritorious than the rest of the world that they should enjoy between the 497 of them, more than half of the world’s wealth? These 497 individuals have more wealth between them than half of the world’s population, over 3,000,000,000 v. 497. [Since this was written the richest individuals in the world who own more than the bottom half of the world's population has been revised from 497 to 85. And the trend for even more concentrated wealth continues...]

Moreover, most of the super rich’s wealth came about because they were talented enough to choose their parents well. What kind of talent is that?

Durkheim tacitly admits that the class structure in capitalist societies does not reflect the range of natural talents in this passage:

If one acquires the habit of contemplating vast horizons, overall views and fine generalizations, one can no longer without impatience allow oneself to be confined within the narrow limits of a special task. Such a remedy would therefore only make specialization [the division of labor and existence of classes] inoffensive by making it intolerable and in consequence more or less impossible.[3]

He consequently advised against a higher education (being exposed to “vast horizons, overall views and fine generalizations”) for most of the working class because it would make them unwilling to remain within the “narrow limits” of working class jobs.

If the working class were too dumb to understand those “vast horizons, overall views and fine generalizations” then what would be the harm in exposing them to it? The harm, as he implicitly admits, is that they would in fact recognize the importance of those “vast horizons, overall views and fine generalizations” and rebel against their status as cogs in the machine. They would recognize this because they are, in fact, smart enough to realize the value of it and that is why it should not be done for the sake of social harmony and preserving the existing unequal distribution of resources. The foremost advocate for functionalism and its celebration of social inequality tacitly admitted, in other words, that a central tenet of functionalism is wrong.

Durkheim was not consciously aware that he was undermining his own theory’s justifications for social inequality with this admission. But in fact he was indirectly acknowledging a fatal flaw. This requires some further explanation.

One distinction that should be made here is that between natural inequality and social inequality. Individuality exists and individuals have different talents. Some of us are better looking and more athletic, musical, artistic, and so on. Some of us can sing beautifully and some of us should confine our singing mainly to the shower. We are all different. But those differences do not principally explain social inequality.

Functionalists claim that the differential incomes for occupations are attributable to the social importance of the jobs: those who do more socially important work are remunerated more. This argument, however, overlooks the fact that salaries and benefits are determined by subgroups of varying power and that exploitation rather than shared responsibilities and benefits characterize the division of labor. Those at the top of the social ladder set their own salaries to benefit themselves, regardless of their actual performance, and those below them are obliged to work for those above them rather than for the whole society. Should employees and civil servants confuse those two roles, those above them will quickly remind them of the difference through reprimands, demotions, and firings. The functionalist argument also treats material incentives as the sole incentive rather than the more universally applicable non-material incentives, a point that I elaborate more on here and that is discussed in some depth here.

The AMA keeps the quantity of those who get to go to medical school in the U.S. artificially low in order to enhance the value of those who do get M.D.’s. The reason why Organic Chemistry is part of the pre-med school curriculum is also for the same purpose: to artificially weed out some of the applicants because O Chem isn’t really necessary for you to become a fine physician. While not everyone would or should become a physician, there are many more who could be fine physicians were the AMA not regulating the numbers. Salaries for physicians outside of the U.S. are not as different from other occupations as they are in the U.S. This is not because people in the U.S. value physicians more than elsewhere. Instead it has to do with the AMA’s power and the larger cultural and economic norms.

Yet another distinction is helpful at this point: the difference between area specific knowledge and skills and more general awareness. When you are trained in area specific knowledge as, for example, in medical school, you are learning things that those who do not receive this training largely do not know. Your knowledge of that area is greater than that of others as a result. Even if hypothetically we exposed everyone to medical training, not everyone would acquire the same level of knowledge and skill as a result of that training. Some individuals would be better at this than others and some individuals would have a knack for this and others would not. Likewise, learning how to be a carpenter draws upon a different skill set and some of those who would make good physicians would not make good carpenters, and vice versa. And so on.

Area specific knowledge and talents, however, are not the same as the kind of general awareness that everyone would benefit from if they were trained for that. This is the general awareness that Durkheim is referring to when he advises that a liberal arts education should not be given to most of the working class.

If everyone, through the institutions of higher learning and/or through mass media - a radically different mass media than the currently existing mass media – received a general education about how things actually work in the political and economic arenas, then the existing division of labor would have to break down and be utterly transformed. If people learned how political and economic power were actually exercised, then they would not tolerate the gross inequities that now exist and are fostered. If political decisions were actually made through a process of real transparency and full consultation and debate, not just between the party bureaucracies’ designated spokespeople but through the entire society in mass meetings and smaller groupings everywhere, then the society would be radically altered.

In any population of people, it is true, there are going to be those who are better at specific things than others. Having incompetents handling critical matters such as medicine, or people in charge of disaster prevention and relief who know nothing about emergency management, violates most people’s expectations of a good society. Not everyone can become a physician, and only qualified individuals should take key posts. But this obviously sensible policy differs from excluding the working class, oppressed minorities, and/or women from learning about the grander vistas that humanity has achieved. To understand how the political system really works, to be exposed to the best in art and science, to be introduced to humanity’s key philosophical questions, the varying answers to those questions historically, and to be steeped in history and its lessons and so on in this fashion should be the norm for virtually everyone in a society regardless of what they end up doing as an occupation. Specialized skills and area specific knowledge are not the same as these kinds of lessons. It does not take exceptional intelligence or talents to benefit greatly from that manner of education.

So why exclude people from these arenas? The only reason can be that the existing division of labor and hierarchy of prestige demean and diminish many people in comparison to their capabilities and the regard they deserve as human beings. Were this not the case then there would be no necessity to conceal so many arenas of knowledge from people. The problem here, in other words, lies with the stratification of society and the differential material and non-material rewards attached to the different strata. The shortcomings here do not lie mainly with the people; the populace’s ability to understand exceeds the capacity of a highly stratified society to accommodate them and their fullest roles. (Globalization and the Demolition of Society, Pp. 311-312)

What the liberal version of individualism does is cast a wider net of eligibility for elite status than does the conservative version. But they both share individualism as a core tenet of their beliefs. In neither case are they challenging the propriety of having a class stratified, exploitation-based society. Though they celebrate the virtues of individual abilities, their adherence to individualism as an ideology actually undermines the full flowering of the contributions of individuals, in all of their diversity. In so doing they also defend a system that not only crushes the potential within much of the population and consigns almost everyone to powerlessness in the political arena, but uphold a system that is rending the social fabric and destroying the planet itself.

The political career of Barack Obama is an example in microcosm of this: liberals still largely support Obama on the grounds that he represents a step forward because of his color. Yet Obama only became the darling of key elements of the Democratic Party leadership and larger ruling class power structure because he is willing to sell out those among the oppressed and those who emphasize with the oppressed who see Obama as their champion. White House policy under Obama is only rhetorically different from what a McCain or Romney White House would have been. Indeed, things that Obama has gotten away with without massive protest, for example, keeping Guantanamo open, refusing to prosecute torturers such as Bush and Cheney, deporting more immigrants than Bush did, using preventive and indefinite detention, bailing out the big banks responsible for the economic crisis of 2007/8, signing the NDAA, prosecuting twice as many whistleblowers as all prior presidents combined, spying on everyone, and assassinating thousands with drones, including hundreds of children, a Republican president would have faced far more popular resistance for doing. When Obama first ran for the presidency in 2007/8, Wall Street recognized the difference between his seemingly populist tone and his real views: they gave him at least $20 million in donations for his campaign more than they gave John McCain. He has proven them right.


[1] Emile Durkheim, “The Division of Labor in Society,” in Classical Sociological Theory: A Reader, ed. Ian McIntosh (New York: New York University Press, 1997), 204.

[2] Emile Durkheim, The Division of Labor in Society, cited in Laura Desfor Edles and Scott Appelrouth, Sociological Theory in the Classical Era (Thousand Oaks: Pine Forge Press, 2005), 104.

[3] Emile Durkheim, “The Division of Labor in Society,” in Classical Sociological Theory: A Reader, ed. Ian McIntosh (New York: New York University Press, 1997), 200.

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