Critiquing the American Dream — McNamee and Miller’s The Meritocracy Myth

Published online 1 April 2007.

This is a review of McNamee and Miller’s (2004) book The Meritocracy Myth, proposed as an antidote to the individualism that plagues thinking in American society, and as a first step to the recognition of class stratification in same said society.  Its writing was prompted by an amusing confrontation that occurred in one of my frosh composition classes last week.

Last Wednesday I argued with my students about the role of the “social structure” and of “individual self-reliance” and “responsibility” in the context of an educational system which is being slowly made into a privilege of the already-well-off for the sake of an expanding prison-industrial complex.  Previously, I showed them a movie (“USA INCarcerated“) about said complex made by Critical Resistance, a group dedicated to alternatives to imprisonment.  The point was to show how political and economic decisions (such as the vast expansion of prisons and prisoners since 1980 and the corresponding decline in educational systems) structure the alternatives open to those who pass through the K-12 educational systems.

Some of them thought I was defending the right of people to commit crimes, horrible crimes, and in response I pointed out that as of 1996 60% of the folks in the system were there for nonviolent drug offenses and it hasn’t changed much since then.  You know, you’ve got people in California getting 25-to-life for shoplifting offenses (that being the third offense) and such, and the main beneficiaries of all this imprisonment are the corporations who use cheap prison labor.  It’s certainly not the taxpayers who pay for all this, at $42,000/prisoner/year.

What are the ideologically-permissible solutions to all this evil crime, our understanding of which is mainly based on TV news?  I suppose, as suggested by some of my students, we should execute all those murderers on Death Row (especially the innocent ones who didn’t receive adequate counsel, and definitely not the rich ones who plea-bargained out).  Then we could hold a victory parade for having solved 0.1% of the actual crime problem.  And what is to be done about those legions of small-time crooks doing 25-to-life?  Couldn’t they all join the construction industry and build houses nobody can afford?  Maybe just the young mothers who have committed crimes could work in the construction industries?  And is it true that folks need to deal drugs in order to get the money to get out of the ghetto?  (In the end, I suggested, systemic change might deal with the crime problem itself as well as with the problems of the prison-industrial complex.  Some sort of effective rehabilitation alternative, combined with better education and more jobs.  I have no idea if I persuaded anyone.)  They definitely wanted to know, for sure, why the criminals couldn’t just pursue the American Dream like everyone else, and just work hard and be good citizens.  I suggested to them that perhaps the opportunities for criminals, like those for everyone else, weren’t as expansive, nor the rewards as great, as they had perhaps imagined.

As regards the student ideology I confronted Wednesday, I suspect that what is needed is a series of necessary book reviews, to cover the books which America needs to dig itself out.  One of these books might be Stephen J. McNamee and Robert J. Miller (Jr.)’s The Meritocracy Myth.  In The Meritocracy Myth, the authors take on the claims of the American Dream:

In the image of the American Dream, America is the land of opportunity.  If you work hard enough and are talented enough, you can overcome any obstacle and achieve success.  No matter where you start out in life, the sky is the limit.  You can go as far as your talents and abilities can take you.  (1)

So the American Dream, for McNamee and Miller, is predicated upon the ideology of meritocracy, the principle that the deserving get ahead and the undeserving fall behind:

In industrial societies such as the United States, inequality is justified by an ideology of meritocracy. America is seen as the land of opportunity where people get out of the system what they put into it.  Ostensibly, the most talented, hardest working, and most virtuous get ahead.  The lazy, shiftless, and indolent fall behind.  You may not be held responsible for where you start out in life, but you are responsible for where you end up.  If you are truly meritorious, you will overcome any obstacle and succeed.  (5)

Upon further examination, however, McNamee and Miller show how a variety of qualities position one’s achievement of “success,” the most important of which is the prior class standing of one’s parents.  As McNamee and Miller show, then, America is a society based on class stratification, the notion that there are stable social classes in which the positions of individuals varies little between birth and death.

The authors begin their book (after the introduction, labeled Chapter 1) with an examination of what this American Dream labels the “right stuff,” the personal qualities typically deemed necessary for success.  The notion of “innate intelligence” is debunked through an examination of the premises upon which Herrnstein and Murray’s The Bell Curve was written.  Athletic ability looks irrelevant to success upon a factual examination of how many high-school athletes (very few, of course) actually make it into professional sports.  Research on “having the right attitude” and the “culture of poverty” is deemed inconclusive: “a particular combination of attitudes and orientations might be ‘right’ for success in one occupation but not for another.” (32)  Working hard is not directly relevant to wealth:

In most jobs in America, compensation is more directly related to levels of responsibility and authority than it is to “hard work” per se.  Further, those who have the most may actually expend the least amount of effort.  The really big money in America, as shown in the following chapter, does not come from working for a living at all but from ownership of property – especially the kind of property that produces additional wealth, such as stocks and bonds, real estate, businesses, and so on. (36)

Moral character might even be counterproductive to wealth-acquisition, as well:

we suspect that the overall effect of integrity is to suppress rather than enhance upward mobility.  We suspect that not cheating, not stealing, and choosing not to get ahead at the expense of others restricts social mobility and the accumulation of wealth. (38)

So things don’t look so bad for the criminals, I suppose — but, of course, they have to be upwardly mobile criminals to benefit, really………

The myth of the “most qualified applicant” is punctured by an examination of what actually goes on in hiring processes.  Thus Chapter 2 goes a long way toward establishing the book’s ostensive goals; much of what it says could be even further fleshed out, with potentially dramatic effect.  The best thing about this book, IMHO, is the ideological balloons it deflates so well, using the statistics and sources of social-scientific research.

The rest of the book deals with less-mythologized causes of wealth and success.  Chapter 3 discusses inheritance; chapter 4 discusses social capital, exemplified by the phrase “it’s not what you know but who you know.”  These, of course, are the big determinants of wealth.  Chapter 5 is about education and mobility, in which the following conclusions are drawn:

We conclude that education in America, including higher education, is not governed by strict principles of meritocracy, but instead reflects, legitimizes, and reproduces class inequalities… Being bright, working hard, and getting more education do help people get ahead.  But there is more to it than that.  First, the competition for success is structured by an educational system that does not provide equality of opportunity.  Second, quite independent of individual ability, the demands of a complex and changing corporate economy condition opportunities and the likelihood for success.  (112-113)

Thus there is enough of a meritocratic character in the existing system to justify it to its participants along the ideological lines of meritocracy, while at the same time the main determinant of success is one’s position in a stratified class system.

Chapter 6 shows why “luck” is an important determinant in success: “Although more Americans are getting more education, the economy is not producing enough jobs with good pay, good benefits, security, and opportunities for advancement commensurate with the higher levels of education attained.  In essence, many American workers are all dressed up with no place to go.” (133)  The American obsession with education as a form of welfare, so thoroughly documented in Hochschild and Scovronick’s book The American Dream and the Public Schools, has created a society of hyper-educated and under-employed people.  (Also see D. W. Livingstone’s The Education-Jobs Gap.)

Chapter 7 details the decline in self-employment and the corresponding rise of corporate domination of the economy, Chapter 8 discusses the roles of racism and sexism in determining opportunity in America, and Chapter 9 talks about the various other forms of discrimination, many of them petty (“looks-ism,” etc.) in American society.

Chapter 10, the conclusion, discusses the “long wage recession” which has been going on since 1973 – it is a well-cited fact that average wages in America are still not at 1973 levels.  Americans are working more hours and generating greater debt.  Here solutions are offered.  Affirming affirmative action is suggested as a positive, yet ineffective action.  Noblesse oblige is considered as a beneficial ideology: the rich could give to the poor out of the purity of their hearts.  “Soak the rich taxation” is unlikely given the predominance of the rich in political contests.

At the end of their book, McNamee and Miller condemn the “myth of meritocracy” because it “provides an incomplete explanation of success and failure, mistakenly exalting the rich and unjustly condemning the poor,” (208) while at the same time they themselves offer insufficient alternatives to meritocracy.  After all, one might reason, there has to be some sort of guiding myth to keep people motivated to struggle individually within a system based on class stratification and the limitation of opportunities to “get ahead.”  To keep them, in short, complacent with a system that establishes an expanding prison-industrial complex for its biggest losers so that the public can blame them for their own misdoings.  In this regard, McNamee and Miller really only consider the possibility of individual, and not collective, action, without questioning the systems of property and money which stabilize the social classes per se.

If we, as teachers and political workers, are to promote a future that is in any way different from the long wage recession cited in The Meritocracy Myth (and, indeed, in most non-Thomas-Friedman-based histories of neoliberal economics), we will have to come up with real solutions to the problem of class stratification in American society.  A reality-based consideration of this problem will have to take into account the role of public uprising in changing the nature of social systems in America.

Kees van der Pijl’s Transnational Classes and International Relations, once again, provides a meaningful theoretical framework for understanding basic systemic changes in capitalism, especially in its American context.  In changing from agricultural capitalism to industrial capitalism, from industrial capitalism to consumer capitalism, and from consumer capitalism to neoliberalism, public uprisings played important roles.  Public uprisings against slavery played an important role in its end, thus in the demise of agricultural capitalism.  Public uprisings in the 1930s played an important role in convincing the elites to institute Keynesian economic guarantees into the American economy, most notably after the total mobilization of World War II.  And the public uprisings of the 1960s may have ended the Vietnam war, but they also catalyzed the elite rebellion that brought neoliberalism into being.

We can, then, expect the end of the “long wage recession” to be accompanied by some form of public uprising.  There certainly is enough out there to rise up about; now we just need to make it into tomorrow’s history books.  McNamee and Miller’s book, though it does not think in those terms, certainly goes a long way toward demonstrating the limitations of the individualism that guides the thoughts and actions of young American students.  Perhaps its reading would help prepare the ground for public acceptance the notion that something else than the go-getter mentality will be necessary to make the American Dream meaningful again, or perhaps to establish a new, more ecologically sustainable, American Dream.


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