Twilight of the Elites is an interesting book. Hayes writes from a position of well researched erudition in the format of “Silent Spring”. His aim is not to provide solutions but instead to draw attention to what he sees as a problem in modern society. That problem, in his words, is the problem of Meritocracy and it’s ills. More specifically, in my interpretation, his problem is with the implications of multi-generational meritocracy and the different incentive structures that it creates.
Firstly, what is Meritocracy? Arguably, it’s the religion of winning. In a Meritocracy each and every person gets exactly their due. No more, no less. As such, it’s a particular fan of those who have won or are in the process of winning. It enables self justifying declarations that a result is entirely due to “hard work” and your special sauce. Winning takes on a moral connotation. To win is to be filled with merit, lauded by all. To lose is to not have the right stuff and to justifiably slip down the totem pole.
Of course, Meritocracy in it’s pure incarnation is a complete and utter myth. So many things go into the development of an individual that to say their results are all entirely due to their “merit” will never be satisfactory. Country of origin, parents, genetic makeup, teachers, schools, access to high quality food. All of these things have an impact upon your end result and many of them are outside of your control.
In this sense, the question to me is not whether meritocracy in it’s purest form is ideal but instead whether it’s more useful than the other alternatives. That is, all else being equal, would I prefer to live in a society which trended towards meritocracy or one in which other factors are more important? In this sense, it’s similar to capitalism. Would you rather live under an economy with capitalist market ideals or a purely bureaucratic socialist one? The answer of course is one of degrees rather than the pure theoretical ideal.
What makes Twilight of the Elites interesting and why I picked it up is that it was written in 2012. That is, pre Donald Trump becoming the President of the United States. Pre Coronavirus and COVID-19. Pre the all prevailing, all seeing ad-tech monopolies really got their teeth stuck into all of us. To that end, I wanted to see if there was anything in Hayes’s writing that seemed prophetic, that seemed like he was able to channel the common man and see something that others couldn’t. Whilst I wasn’t successful in plumbing the depths of this line of thinking I did manage to take away three separate things from the book which I’ll paraphrase as:
- Winning has a measurement problem
- Social Distancing prevents pandemic but destroys societies
- Elites as Culture vs Elites as Class
Winning has a measurement problem
This in my view is the central concept within the book. When we say that someone has “merit” and that they deserve their rewards we are essentially saying that they’ve won. The problem here is that by making anything synonymous with winning we create a feedback loop. People will start to game the system.
As Hayes discusses as hitting home runs became synonymous with being the best baseball player and the financial rewards that follows players sought to game the system to be able to hit more home runs. Hence, the steroid scandal.
In Enron, as reporting good financial results became synonymous with getting a large bonus employees started to commit fraud and try to abuse the system.
As “page clicks” became a measure of popularity online newspapers shifted towards clickbait.
As “engagement” became a metric for social media their algorithms started to promote outrage culture.
What’s common in all of these scenarios is that a feedback loop exists between the rewards of winning and what people try to achieve. By creating a situation where all rewards flow to the “winners” then people will start to game the result.
This is particularly problematic as a society that we want to live in is one filled with intangible values such as good humour, respect for others, courteousness, virtue, honesty, intellectual curiosity and hard work. These things are almost impossible to measure in any meaningful way, worse, in internet speak, these judgements “don’t scale” so they’re pretty hard to put in an online giant’s A/B test.
I don’t have a solution to this particular problem, I can however see how our reliance upon easily measured and observable external cues can create a culture which isn’t particular pleasant to live in.
The second most interesting concept within the book is that of “Social Distance”, not the pandemic kind but instead in the line of who you rub shoulders with in your day to day life. Hayes bemoans the increasing stratification of society fault lines. We all tend to hang out with people who are extremely similar to ourselves and the institutions which used to run across these faults lines such as clubs, churches and other voluntary organisations have come under immense pressure and decay.
This is a continuation of the work first done by Robert Putnam in Bowling Alone (a very very dry book) which illustrated how our social institutions have been declining over time. Hayes goes further though and links this decline to a number of social ills on the basis that our most marginalised groups are typically invisible to our elites as they travel in different social circles.
For instance, which person will better empathise with someone in a wheelchair? The elite who takes a private jet everywhere and all household chores are performed by hired labour or the local parish pastor who pushes an old lady up the ramp to Church each Sunday? You’d argue that the pastor, though a local elite themselves, will have a much better understanding of their struggles.
This in essence is social distance. By not being exposed to different members of society they become invisible to us. In a society where elite institutions are all powerful the more stratified from general society those elites become the more they will tend to neglect general society. We are who we rub shoulders with.
Elites as Culture vs Elites as Class
The final interesting takeaway I had from the book was the difference between Elites as Culture and Elites as Class. This can be summarised as follows:
- Elites as Class - Someone is an Elite if they belong to the upper echelons of society. There is no broad brush cross section of traits that define an Elite. Instead, an Elite is someone who has power over others. A right wing Libertarian billionaire and a left wing politician are both elites even though they may detest each other.
- Elites as Culture - Someone is an Elite if they have Elite tastes. It doesn’t matter what your status within society is. Instead, it matters what your particular tastes are. In this sense. Anybody can be an Elite as the defining characteristic is how your define yourself.
I found this distinction interesting as it explains why someone at the “top” relatively speaking can still decry the “cultural elite” of academic institutions, media professionals and journalists. Additionally, someone who thinks the same way as the dominant class and is entirely intellectually represented within the upper institutions may not consider themselves and elite even though they all share the same beliefs.
Ultimately, I do not know what definition is the correct one, I merely found it interesting to see it elucidated so clearly here. I see parallels between the “diversity of thought” versus “diversity of representation” debates pop up occasionally. For instance, is a group diverse if they all grew up in the same neighbourhood, went to the same schools, studied the same subjects, read the same newspapers and like the same media content even if they happen contain a multitude of racial and gender combinations?
Or, is a group more diverse if it contains a Union organiser, a churchman, a local politican, a disabled veteran, a serving policeman, a judge and a local businessman even if they all happen to be the same gender and skin colour?
Something to think about perhaps. I don’t have a definitive answer.
Ultimately, Twilight of the Elites is an interesting book more for it’s concepts than it is as the book itself. I found it a bit of a slog to get through in sections which made reading a bit tedious. Ultimately, I found it thought provoking though which is what I was looking for. My view towards the work mellowed once I began viewing it as an investigative work and not one which is designed to suggest an alternative to our current society.
I wouldn’t re-read it but I think it’s overall a well researched and interesting book. A 3/5.