Mobility, meritocracy and other myths

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At the American Enterprise Institute, Mark Perry (“Yes, America’s middle class has been disappearing… into higher income groups,” Dec. 17) justifies the shrinking middle class and growing economic inequality by citing the finding of a recent Pew Institute study that of the 11% shrinkage in the American middle class, 7% have gone to the top and only 4% to the bottom.

First, movement between strata doesn’t legitimize stratification if the structure itself is illegitimate. Meritocracy is a legitimizing myth created to distract people from the question of whether the system of power those meritocratic functionaries serve is just. As Chris Dillow, an unorthodox British Marxist economist, observed (“Beyond social mobility,” Stumbling and Mumbling, Dec. 19):

“Imagine a dictator were to imprison his people, but offer guard jobs to those who passed exams, and well-paid sinecures to those who did especially well. We’d have social mobility — even meritocracy and equality of opportunity. But we wouldn’t have justice, freedom or a good society. They all require that the prisons be torn down.”

Also note that what’s called the “upper class” in the study includes not only the super-rich rentier classes and people in the C-Suites with million-dollar salaries, but also most of the larger managerial stratum. There’s a good reason this stratum has expanded from 14% to 21% of the general population. As David Gordon argued in Fat and Mean, it was the neoliberal decision in the ’70s to cap real hourly wages and shift a greater share of income upwards to rentiers and cowboy CEOs that resulted in increasing internal authoritarianism in the corporation and a need for a larger class of overseers to monitor the (understandably) increasingly disgruntled work force.

And despite the increased income of the managerial classes, the great bulk of them are still salaried employees whose income depends on the ongoing approval of their superiors. That 14-21% of the population is more or less what Orwell, in 1984, called the “middle” stratum (represented in the story by the Inner Party to which Winston and Julia belonged). Here’s how Orwell described the same general type in the corporate England of his day in another novel, Coming Up for Air:  “in every one of those little stucco boxes there’s some poor bastard who’s never free except when he’s fast asleep…”

Not only do these people continue to collect their managerial salary at the good pleasure of the senior oligarchs of the corporate hierarchy, but to even have a shot at that management pay in the first place they’ve got to put themselves in a position of student debt peonage that will likely eat up a major part of that increased income for years (along with a mortgage that means they’ll really be renting their house from the bank into old age). Add to that the long hours middle management types have to work coupled with the endless bureaucratic toadyism and sycophancy required of them, and the ongoing precarity of their position.

Getting back to the issue of legitimacy, there’s also the fact that the functions exercised by most of these managerial types are illegitimate and would be unnecessary absent an exploitative class society. They are, in anarchist anthropologist David Graeber’s famous phrase, “b***s*** jobs.” They exist because the American state, in league with corporate capital, has cartelized the economy under the control of bureaucratic hierarchies many times larger than the point of declining returns in efficiency, and because the authoritarian nature of those hierarchies and the rent-seeking nature of their management creates a conflict of interest that necessitates intensified surveillance and control.

The late Joe Bageant aptly described the nature of the work these people perform: “The empire needs… about 20-25% of its population… to administrate and perpetuate itself — through lawyers, insurance managers, financial managers, college teachers, media managers, scientists, bureaucrats, managers of all types and many other professions and semi-professions.”

When workers own the firm and manage their own work, as in the recuperated enterprises of Argentina, not only can workers be trusted to use their own superior knowledge of the work process but what little coordinating costs remain are a small fraction of U.S. corporate administrative costs. In fact eliminating all those management salaries solved the unit costs problem at one stroke.

The upper quintile is growing in size and income because all the value created by actual productive workers in the lower quintiles gets extracted by those at the top. When the top classes rob everybody else, they need a lot more guard labor to keep their stolen loot secure.

And whether or not there’s been an increase in the real income of the lower four strata, production workers’ loss of control over the work force and increased precarity is even worse than that of those middle managers in the top 21%. Whether for production workers or middle management, stress correlates directly with powerlessness.

We don’t need meritocracy. We need justice.

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