Naked Questions/13 - Fighting the devaluation of non-economic virtues
by Luigino Bruni
published in Avvenire on 31/01/2016
"Full of merit, yet poetically / Humans dwell upon the earth."
The logic of merit has always been very powerful. We human beings have a deep need to believe that there is a logical and just relationship between our actions, talents, commitment and our results. We like to think that our salary is the result of our quality and our commitment, that the grades we get at school depend on how much we study, that we have earned our awards (the word meritum comes from mereri meaning: earn, gain).
It's natural, it's a real and existing need. The real problem is not so much or only in the idea of merit in itself, but the answers we give to the questions regarding the recognition of our merits and above all those of the others. Qoheleth knows this very well: “Again I saw that under the sun the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favour to those with knowledge, but time and chance happen to them all” (9,11).
People have always tried to react to this scenario that appears to us as a great display of injustice. In ancient civilizations, the main solution to injustice in the world was to imagine a God who is different from us and follows a fair policy of rewards and punishments. They took the historical fact of inequality and injustice, and gave reality a religious chrism. The apparent injustice was thus turned into an invisible and deeper kind of justice, and the world was given order by finding a religious sense in richness and in their own misfortune or that of others. So those who were rich and powerful were granted the status of 'blessed' without calling them for conversion; and those who were poor and unfortunate were sentenced twice: by the misfortunes of life and by God. The moral need to recognize merit produced an immense sense of guilt in the poorest and the most unfortunate for their own misfortunes. Other forms of religious humanism have instead reacted by imagining that the injustice under the sun would be eliminated in other lives beyond the sun, where the poor but righteous would be rewarded and the rich but wicked punished. The earth is unjust, heaven isn't. The economic-retributive logic remained, but the horizon of its application stepped out of the historical time span to eternity or at least to another life. Theories about merit necessitate a humanism of morally different individuals, where everyone has their own '"card" of actions/rewards. Holistic societies are not meritocratic.
Because of its humanistic and personalistic spirit meritocratic ideology (which makes merit the criterion to evaluate, classify and order people and organizations) is very charming, seductive and it captures many people. We find it at the centre of the culture of large corporations and multinational banks. Its symbolic technology is of a dual nature. On the one hand large enterprises build a sophisticated system of incentives designed with the aim to identify and reward merit, conceived according to the business objectives. On the other hand, the worker who finds himself in this rewarding mechanism reads his own salary and benefits as a signal of his meritability. It is a perfect contract, continuously fed by both sides because it seems mutually beneficial: the company satisfies its need for rationality and ordering reality to its own ends, and the employee meets their need to feel worthy and valued.
It is an ideology that has grown like climbing grass on the retributive tree in the garden of biblical faith, which is experiencing an incredible and growing success in the era of individualistic capitalism. As Max Weber showed us more than a century ago, in Judeo-Christian humanism there is a stream that has interpreted economic success as a sign of election and salvation. The current economic culture has radicalized and universalized that psychological-religious mechanism. It secularized and extended it from the entrepreneur to the entire economic system, production, finance and consumption. The quantity and quality of salaries and incentives (and consumption) become the new indicators of election and predestination for the 'paradise' of the deserving (meritable). The symbolic-religious dimension of money and success has thus been amplified, radicalized and generalized.
But the worm of this and all pay religious systems is discovered clearly when we leave heaven and descend to the circles of purgatory and hell.
Merit has a necessary need of demerit. It is a positional and relative reality: the world of the deserving (meritable) works if merit can be defined, ordered, organised in a hierarchical order, measured and put in a relationship with demerit. Beyond a deserving person there must be someone who is more deserving, and one who is less deserving, below them. It is a perfect caste system, where the Brahmins need the Pariahs, but cannot touch them to avoid being contaminated by their demerit. The simplest management of demerit is to present it as a necessary step towards merit, as a step of the way, a milestone of the journey. This management works very well with young people, showing them the 'Beloved Mount', telling them that they will be able to climb it only if they can 'grow', although those who propose this scenario know very well that in the house of merit there aren't enough places . And so, when they go through their first failures and the much hoped credit does not flourish according to the preset goals, the miracle takes place: the employee has been trained to interpret their own failure as demerit, and so accept their fate in a docile way. The cult is perfect: the 'believer' internalizes religion and implements it independently. And the mass production of guilt becomes the big refuse of our economy, fuelled by aggression, pride and arrogance accompanying the laudatores of meritocracy.
Qoheleth tells us something very important, then: to read our life and that of others as an accounting of merits / awards, demerits / punishment is a vain and deceitful solution for the need of justice under the sun, because the mechanism of the credit cannot answer the deepest questions of justice, not even on economic justice. It is vanitas. And, above all, it has no answer for the times when misfortune appears: “For man does not know his time. Like fish that are taken in an evil net, and like birds that are caught in a snare, so the children of man are snared at an evil time, when it suddenly falls upon them.” (9,12). When we see an unfortunate person we cannot say anything about their life. That person can be a good or a bad, clever or foolish, their misfortune and fortune do not allow us to form a discourse on their merit. The words of our misfortunes are dumb, by themselves they are unable to speak of the morality of our past or future. The brilliant careers are interwoven with separations, depressions, diseases, events that are simply ejected by the system of incentives. The democratic randomness of the evil hour's striking undermines the merit-machine of our economy. Nothing like serious diseases or premature deaths is more estranged for our capitalist culture. There is no place for the moments and times of misfortune (they are seen as friction, sand in the gears), and even less for the time of death - too few colleagues are present at the funerals, or at the bedside of our long agonies.
But starting from the Book of Ecclesiastes we can go even further. Taking seriously the spirit of his ancient words, we can say that merit is an ambiguous word, rarely a friend of people and the poor - which is even more valid for meritocracy. The logic of the 'worker of the last hour', one of the most beautiful pages ever written, is a critique of the idea of merit that is no less radical than that of Qoheleth (or Job), and to be understood it must be read inside the arguments of the early Christians against the retributive religion of their time. Qoheleth's criticism of merit is vital if we want to understand the inherent dangers in a whole social life built on the logic of merit as it is conceived and promoted by companies. We could have imagined another capitalism that's less anchored to retributive religion, and almost certainly would have a less sick planet and more healthy social relationships; but today we must at least prevent its logic from becoming the culture of the full scope of social life. Instead, incentives and meritocracy are increasingly occupying many non-economic areas.
The reason for this extraordinary success is easy to understand. We all know that there are many kinds of merit and demerit. There are excellent workers who are bad parents, and vice versa, and we usually live together with merits and demerits of which we are aware, that are revealed only in some decisive steps, sometimes in the last days of our lives when we discover that we have lived a life with few apparent merits but deserved a good embrace of the angel of death.
The danger that lurks inside meritocratic ideology is thus very subtle, and usually invisible. Companies have the ability to present themselves as places that reward merit because they reduce the plurality of merit to only those functional to their objectives: an artist who works in an assembly line is not worthy because of his hand that can paint but because it knows how to screw bolts. The merit of the economy is then easy to reward because it is a simple merit / demerit that's too easy to see and so to measure and reward. Other merits in non-economic areas are much harder to see, and even harder to be measured. This is where the great risk is revealed: given its easy measurability, merit in companies becomes only merit that's 'seen', measured and rewarded in society at large. With two effects: quantitative and measurable merits are over-stimulated, while qualitative and non-productive ones go wasted. It increases the destruction of non-economic virtues that, however, are essential to live well (like meekness, compassion, mercy, humility...).
The great task of Christian humanism was liberation from the retributive culture that dominated the ancient world, and from assigning guilt to all the misfortunate. We must not resign ourselves to selling it off for the "lentil stew" of merit. We are worth a lot more.
Dedicated to Pier Luigi Porta, dear friend and master of thought and life.
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