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The New Meritocratic Elite: Really?

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The new edition of the Economist has an in-depth special report on global leaders. The writing manages to transport you to the buzzing activity of highly achieving individuals throughout the world, and, in the process, allows you to wrestle with such varied issues as heredity, meritocracy, fairness and philanthropy, globalisation and tribes, and above all, just what the way society operates in the 2011 means for us all.

You would be glad to hear that the main message is positive. A thread of celebration of a new age, a new dawn, where merit rules supreme, and the old order based on hereditary claims of status is gone, runs throughout the special report. Look at Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, argues the Economist, who by sheer power of intellect managed to transformed our world.

Yet all these examples involve success made out of the technological revolution, which has opened the door for many to become filthy rich, as the industrial revolution did for their predecessors. Outside of the Information Technology sector, however, examples are absent, save for Barack Obama, who again is used to illustrate the power of transformation of technology in politics and activism.

Examples illustrating the contrary are subtly ignored. In Great Britain for example, the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the two most powerful political figures in the country, as well as numerous cabinet members, are royal blue blood, descended from long dead kings, who speak almost as posh-ly as the Queen, and were educated at elite private schools such as Eton and Oxford— one of the most elite universities in the world.

The Economist ignores these details, for the theme is one of a meritocratic elite, to whom we the people have given power and whom we keep in check by taking such power away. We can stop buying Microsoft products, spending time on Facebook, or searching on Google, and thus stop making their founders richer and stop giving them more influence.

The practicalities for people doing so however are overlooked. Apple, the only credible threat to Microsoft’s operating system, is expensive. Google currently has no credible alternative. Facebook manages to lock one’s pictures, friends, posts, and all else contained within one’s profile, making it incredibly difficult to move to another social network.

Yet there are many truths expressed in the special report. Intellect is being empowered by the technological revolution, and, unlike other more settled and less exciting times, people do have the ability to achieve incredible success and become one of the elite few, one in about 50,000,000. Everyone has now access to all or almost all knowledge. Everyone who can read and write is able to communicate with about 2.5 billion people in the world, and influence opinion, engage in activism, change politics, create a better world in whatever little way.

In practice however such power is illusory. Let us not forget, Bill Gates and Mark Zuckenberg both went to Harvard, an elite institution.

The Economist argues that this new meritocratic global elite, which achieves success through hard work and intellectual ability, tends to marry intellectual women, thus producing intellectual children, whom they can support by sending them to private schools, thus giving them the best education, which combined with other, more subtle qualities, such as the size of the vocabulary used at home, leads to raising children just as educated and achieving as their parents, if not more so.

It is difficult to balance the proposition that a new meritocratic elite has arisen, with the argument that this elite tends to breed within their own rank and their children tend to be as successful. It seems to be no more than a new name for an old system. Power, influence and richness is achieved through hard work and above average intelligence. Once achieved, this is passed onto siblings and retained within the family. Thus is gradually creating a new elite, which achieved power through merit, but retains it through heredity. Thus, nothing has changed but the people.

There are many great structural problems which hinder talent, due to no fault of the particular individual and it is dangerous for our society to accept that those who have risen have done so due to their hard work and intellect alone. If it were true perhaps we could rejoice, but the wealth of a family, their contacts and connections, their race and gender, play a greater role in who rules and has greater influence.

It is dangerous not least because this new elite, due to their belief that they have achieved success because they merit it, become arrogant, selfish, less caring or altruistic, believing in a way that we are in an evolutionary race of the survival for the fittest, and those who are weak, deserve their position, and those who are strong, deserve to not care.

People are however complex, and the rich no less than everyone else. Though they may be less caring, they indulge in philanthropy. Though they have national ties, this new elite is global in nature, somehow above and beyond national borders, cultures, rules and norms, sharing more in common with each other than their country men, going to global meetings such as Davos, or the Bilderberg Group, even being educated at the same international elite institutions such as Harvard or Oxford.

Yet equally the Economist suggests that tribes matter, arguing that Europeans tend to invest in Europe, Americans in America, and Asians in Asia.

Another layer of complexity is added by the Economist when it further suggests that they are global, though they care about tribes, but philanthropically we know that their focus is not on their own nation. Oprah Winfrey can be cited as an example, who spent $40 million in a school in South Africa, rather than spending much less and the rest helping inner city kids in America, which indeed one would think would be closer to her heart having spent many years living in inner city poverty herself.

She argued that South African children were more interested in uniforms, while the American children were more interested in iPhones. Such disdain and generalisation is not limited to the most influential woman in the world. From China to Brazil, Moscow to the U.S., walls are being built between neighbours, based on perceived intellect, where the lucky few, though more deserving than their ancestors, isolate themselves from the inferior masses who care not to work nor use the brain, but care for such trivialities as iPhones and celebrities.

The notion that these elite few have surmounted adversity by sheer will power alone, or risen from the most humble beginnings to the highest heights, or by hard work and the luck of genes have created mountains from thin air, and thus deserve their success and deserve to have a disdain for others who are more “weak”, as evidenced by the many who continue using their products or watching their shows or adoring and worshiping them, creates in a way a more ruthless society, without the moral feeling that the nobility had towards those under their care. For in the end, it is not a question of how one reaches such dazzling heights, but more of a question as to how one uses the power and influence one has acquired to benefit society as a whole.

Whether Kings or Queens, Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg, they all are or became because of sheer luck. The sheer luck that they were born in a royal family, or in a wealthy family, the sheer luck that they were born with those certain genes or tendencies to overcome adversity, the sheer luck that they were at the right place at the right time, the sheer luck that their genes or family have given them the discipline required to work hard and the environment required to develop their skills. Many are not so lucky. Many do not become so successful. Not because they are lazy or inferior, but because they are less lucky. While praise therefore ought to be given to those who have risen by merit rather than title, greater praise ought to be given to those who use their power and influence for the greater good.

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