The Sad Empires of Merit

On the border and beyond/4 - A "famine of gratitude" fills the world of the damned

by Luigino Bruni

published in Avvenire on 12/02/2017

Sul confine e oltre 04 rid"Affliction is by its nature inarticulate. The afflicted silently beseech to be given the words to express themselves. There are times when they are given none..."

Simone Weil, Human Personality (English translation: Richard Rhees)

Merit is the great paradox of the economic cult of our time. The first spirit of capitalism was generated by Luther’s radical critique of merit (that is, the merit-based Christian theology of his time), but that "rejected stone" has now become the "cornerstone" of the new capitalist religion, which is emerging from the heart of the very countries built on that ancient anti-meritocratic Protestant ethic. Salvation for "sola gratia" and not through our own merits was placed at the centre of the Protestant Reformation. It was also a revival of Augustine's polemics against Pelagius (Luther was an Augustinian monk), a millennium later. The anti-Pelagian criticism was essentially a surpassing of the ancient idea that the salvation of the soul, the blessing of God and heaven could be earned, purchased, bought or earned by our actions. The theology of merit also wanted to imprison God within the meritocratic logic, forcing him to punish and reward based on criteria attributed to him by theologians.

The fight against Pelagianism was an operation far from being marginal. It was decisive for the Church of the first centuries (a struggle that in fact, as we can see, has never been won). If, in fact, the Pelagian theology had prevailed, Christianity would have been added to the many apocalyptic and Gnostic sects of the Middle East, or transformed into an ethic similar to stoicism. He would have lost the charis (grace, gratuitousness), which was its specific feature, and clearly distinguished it from the religious doctrines and the dominant meritocratic idolatries.

The origin of the meritocratic type of religion is therefore very old, it hides deep within the history of religions and idolatrous cults. In continuity with the prophetic soul of the Bible, the message of Christ made a real revolution in a theological world dominated by economic / retributive cults and by merit - to see this and get a very clear idea of it, just re-read the dialogues of Job with his friends. Although we find some merit remnants in the Gospels and the New Testament texts, the words and life of Jesus were above all a radical critique of meritocratic faith, continued and developed by the theology of Paul. To understand this it is enough to take the parable of the worker of the last hour, where the wage policy of the "owner of the vineyard" follows a radically anti-meritocratic criterion; or to consider the role of "elder brother" in the story of the "prodigal son" who scolds their merciful father just because he has not followed the meritocratic rules about his brother - mercy is the opposite of meritocracy: we are not forgiven because we deserve it but it is precisely the condition of being undeserving that moves the bowels of mercy. Not to mention the Beatitudes, forming an eternal manifesto of non-meritocracy. In his Kingdom there exists a different law: "be (the) sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good". The perfection of this ethic is the definitive surpassing of the register of merit: "You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect." (Matthew 5)

Despite the clarity and strength of this message, the old economic-retributive-meritocratic theology has continued to influence Christian humanism throughout the Middle Ages and well beyond. The neo-Pelagian ideas continued to inform the doctrine and especially the Christian practice until the real disease of the "market of indulgences", which can be understood only in the framework of a deformation in the retributive-meritocratic sense of the Christian message. And as it always happens in matters of religion, the consequences of these theological ideas were (and are) immediately social, economic and political. Those considered undeserving were (and are) also condemned and marginalized, and the deserving attained paradise on this earth, before winning it in the other life, since their merits were associated with many privileges, money and power.

The history of the Christian Europe has been a slow process of getting rid of this archaic vision of faith, in a succession of several more Augustinian as well as Pelagian historical stages. But until recently we had never thought of building a wholly or predominantly meritocratic society. The army, sports, science and schools had a tendency of becoming meritocratic areas, but other decisive spheres of life were governed by a different and sometimes opposite rationale. In churches, in the family, in health care and in civil society the basic criterion was not merit but need - another great word now forgotten and replaced by consumer tastes. School, for example, is a place where no one, or just a few, have questioned that the merit system should be prevailing (though not the only) one in the training and assessment of children and young people.

But we should not think that this choice, which seems non-controversial, did not result in very serious consequences for centuries. Based on merits and school grades we have built a whole social and economic system that's caste based and hierarchic, where the first places were taken by those who responded better to those merits, and the last ones by those of the worst performance at school. And so doctors, lawyers, university professors have had much better wages and social conditions than workers and peasants; and today, in this new wave of Pelagian meritocracy, workers who, working day and night, keep the streets and sewers clean, receive salaries that are hundreds of times lower than those of the managers of the companies for which they work.

Merit obtained at school, which seemed so obvious and peaceful, actually resulted in very different privileges and dignity among those who have always held and continue to hold the structures and inequalities of our societies. If we wanted to break the cycle of inequality and exclusion today, we would have to create anti-meritocratic educational policies, especially in poorer countries - as we were able to do in the past century in Europe with the introduction of universal compulsory and free schooling.

Today it would be more urgent than ever to return to Augustine's ancient criticism of Pelagius. Augustine did not deny the existence of talent and commitment that generate those actions or ethical states which we call merits (from merere: earn, wages, profit, prostitute). The decisive point for Augustine was about the nature of these gifts and merits in people. For him all these were charis, grace, gratuitousness. According to Augustine, "God does not crown your merits as your merits, but as His own gifts." Merits are not our merits - except in small part, a part that's too minimal to make it the main wall of an economy and a civilization. That's why an important side effect of a culture interpreting the talents received as merit and not as gifts is a dramatic scarcity of true and sincere gratitude. The first characteristic of merit systems, in fact, is mass ingratitude.

Actually, when we tie social esteem, remuneration and power to talents and so to merits, all we do is extend and greatly amplify inequalities. People who are unequal already at birth because of their natural talents and family and social conditions, become even more so as adults. In the twentieth century, particularly in Europe, politics reduced the gap in the points of departure in the name of the principle of equality. Our meritocratic age, however, strengthens it and takes it to the extremes. Therefore, if I am the son of educated, rich and intelligent parents, if I was born and grew up in a country with many public goods and good health and education systems, if my initial set of chromosomes and genes was particularly lucky, it follows that I shall attend the best schools and will attain more academic merits than my peers who were born in more unfavourable natural and social conditions, and that in all probability I will find an employment in the labour market that is much better paid by the merit system. And so, by the time I retire, the distance from my fellow citizens who came to this world with less talent will have been multiplied by 10, 20 or 100.

That's why we do not understand the increase in inequality in our time unless we take its root very seriously: the sharp increase in the presence and influence of the merit theology of capitalism. And we do not understand the increasing blame placed on the poor who are more and more seen as undeserving instead of unfortunate if we do not take the undisturbed advancing the meritocratic logic in consideration. If, in fact, I interpret the talents I received (from life or from my parents) as merit, the step of considering those who do not have them unworthy and guilty will also be taken readily and all too soon. The axis of meritocratic worlds is not heaven, but hell and purgatory. Demerits are the protagonists of the empires of merit.

Before being a theory of merit every meritocratic theology is a theory and practice of demerit, unworthiness, guilt, and expiation. They appear as humanism, personalism and liberation, but in no time they become a mechanism for the creation of guilt and punishment, a mass production of sins and sinners who eventually get to manage and control a complex system aiming to reduce the pains on this earth and in heaven. The meritocratic universes are inhabited by very few elected and a multitude of the "damned" who hope for the reduction of their sentences throughout their lives. Yesterday, and today, the place of the Pelagian preachers is taken by the new evangelizers of meritocracy in businesses and now everywhere, and they are re-creating new and flourishing "markets of indulgences" in their temples, where the currency to buy paradise - or at least purgatory - is no longer people’s money or pilgrimages to Santiago, but the sacrifice of whole chapters of their life, their flesh and blood. Control of the souls is no longer practiced in the confessionals and in the manuals for confessors, but in coaching and counselling offices and, above all (thanks to the incentive contract mechanism that made a perfect distribution of rewards and punishments according to merits and demerits), it is defined in careful detail by the enterprise-deity and implemented by its priests.

Meritocracies of yesterday and today have one great enemy: gratuitousness. They fear it more than anything because it disrupts hierarchies and liberates people from the slavery of merits and demerits. Only a revolution of gratuitousness - shouted, desired, lived, donated - will deliver us from this new flood of Pelagianism, if during this time of slavery and forced labour in the service of the pharaoh we do not stop dreaming collectively of a promised land.

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