Tyranny of Merit: Reading Michael Sandel

Tyranny of Merit: Reading Michael Sandel

Meritocracy results in a politics of humiliation wherein those who are left behind, the losers, are forced to accept that they are complicit in their misfortune

Michael J. Sandel, a world renowned contemporary American political philosopher, has an uncanny but nevertheless an extraordinary penchant coupled with an unparalleled insight to uncover the hidden philosophical, political and, most importantly, the moral tensions and perplexities underlying the activities and processes supposedly thought to be purely mechanical, procedural and in a Weberian sense purely rational in character. Unlike most other philosophers for whom doing political philosophy is more of an academic pursuit rather than an active field of enquiry and investigation into the pressing moral and political problems encountered by a society, Sandel stands for embarking upon an intellectually enriching but challenging project of making political philosophy the very cardinal principle of our public and political life.
One of the constant themes of Sandel’s books has been a lament over the moral and spiritual vacancy of contemporary politics, which leads to a drainage of moral and civic energy from the public discourse and its overtaking by a kind of “managerial politics” led by technocrats who believe and propose a nonjudgmental stance towards the values that lie at the very heart of human relationships.
Sandel’s lucidity as a writer and his Aristotelian paradigm of looking at contemporary political and moral issues faced by the world at large and by American and European societies in particular, has earned him worldwide acclaim in the form of titles like, “The world’s most relevant living philosopher” (Newsweek), “A star philosopher” (Diane Coyle) and “The indispensable voice of reason” (John Gray). In his previous book, “What Money Can’t Buy”, Sandel tried to educate his readers about what he termed as “market triumphalism”, a term which for Sandel encapsulated the growing intrusion of markets in those realms of human life which traditionally were supposed to be too “sacred” to be up for a sale or for a commercial transaction.
To counter this pervasive reach of markets, Sandel proposed an immediate rigorous public debate where moral limits to the reach of markets in human lives could be discussed and debated. In his new book, “The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good”, with the Brexit and 2016 populist backlash in America as a context, Sandel continues his lifelong intellectual struggle against the libertarian and free-market notions of isolated individualism and technocratic republicanism. The book attempts a detailed philosophical, political and moral critique of free-market orthodoxy and the new bourgeois shibboleth of merit and meritocracy.
“The Tyranny of Merit” subjects to vehement criticism the notion and value of “Age of merit” and highlights the disastrous effects it has led to on the notion of common good by dividing the sections of society based on the logic of merit between winners and losers. At the centre of the book lies the discourse of equality, a sharply contested concept in political philosophy, analysed by Sandel in the light of dominant modern and contemporary western political philosophies like egalitarianism led by John Rawls, libertarianism led by Hayek and Nozick, Utilitarianism led by Bentham, and Communitarianism led by Michael Walzer and Sandel himself.
Sandel in this book argues against all these philosophical frameworks except that of communutarianism for their intellectual negligence or more appropriately, their intellectual arrogance, to recognise the lethal moral pitfalls of this “meritocratic ethic” and the devastating effects it has led to on the social fabric of contemporary European and American society. For Sandel, the darkest side of this meritocratic ethic and what he calls as “the rhetoric of rising”, “the slogan that those who work hard and play by the rules should be able to rise as far as their talents will take them”, is that it leads on one hand to a “meritocratic hubris”, “the tendency of winners to inhale too deeply of their success, to forget the luck and good fortune that helped them on their way”, and on the other hand to a denigration of the losers even in their own eyes.
Rather than being a perfect alternative to deepening inequality, for Sandel meritocracy results in a politics of humiliation wherein those who are left behind, the losers, are forced to accept that they are complicit in their misfortune. This politics of humiliation with a feature of complicity on the part of losers in their misfortune is, for Sandel, more combustible than other political sentiments that lead to resentment and violence, and which could be exploited and used for political advantages by figures like Donald Trump. For Sandel, the harsh logic of meritocracy results in a humiliating loss of social esteem and dignity of work for the left behind and a hubristic credentialism, a “smug conviction” on the part of those who land at the top that they deserve their success and those who are at the bottom have no one to blame but themselves for their failure.
As a banisher of any grace or gift, meritocracy, for Sandel, leaves little room for solidarity or any shared human life. As a remedy to this corrosive effect of meritocracy, Sandel argues for reviving a politics of humility invigorated by a public discourse which pitches for a debate beyond the entrenched notions of “equality of opportunity” and Rawlsian distributive justice towards a much more inclusive tradition of generosity, Aristotelian notion of contributive justice, dignity of work and common good. Unless our morally vacant public meanings are filled with such rigorous democratic public debates, Sandel believes they will keep on providing room for strident forms of religious fundamentalism and nationalism which are poisonous and endangering for democracy.
“The Tyranny of Merit” is provocative and novel enough to make us question our settled notions about merit and its ethics of “rising”. It beckons us to think beyond the harsh and corrosive logic of success and failure.

The writer is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Govt Degree College, Pampore

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