A fresh look at meritocracy. Maybe we have all got it wrong.

The Marxian notion that economic resources should be allocated “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs” (1) has always caused confusion. Such a method of allocating resources is not typically associated with merit because of the prevailing twentieth-century view that Marxism is state social engineering, so merit cannot play a part.

Historically society has created meritocracies on the back of economic systems which exploit the labour-power of others, legitimising it with religious, legal and political structures which collectively define the parameters of consciousness.

Today we are governed by politicians who have run out of ways to improve society without the use of debt to maintain the political status quo and to prop up levels of consumption to maintain GDP. This badly distorts what we have come to accept as meritocracy however worthily it is viewed, our consciousness was and still is defined in terms of exploitation.

Having debt as a substitute for economic value with its burden falling to workers of future generations, whilst maintaining outmoded politics and supporting a global financial elite, suggests that we need to look at how we can create a more just system which better reflects a modern conception of merit.

Allocating resources based on ability and needs without state engineering requires us to look anew at the concept of merit and meritocracy. In doing so we must place it in a free market twenty-first-century economic context with opportunity and choice as central aims. “From each” “to each” within Marx’s definition suggests opportunity and choice is integral to the economic and political ‘settlement’. Rather than state engineering based on mere conscience that the system is ‘unjust’, modern collective consciousness may act as a worthy substitute for state interference.

In the twenty-first century “From each according to his ability to each according to his needs”, must be expressed both economically and politically but reflect Marx’s vision of society with a modern collective consciousness that rejects the exploitation of others at every political and social level. Merit is not about status and wealth, both of which remain the benchmarks for measuring the success of a meritocratic system.

Marx’s vision of workers controlling capitalist production has little modern relevance. However, the principles that underpin capitalism and are enshrined within Marx’s analysis of capitalism can be used to formulate a new concept of merit that promotes opportunities for ordinary people within a free market society.

Capitalism was, in its earliest iterations, meritocratic but economically unfair relying on the appropriation of workers labour-power to create capital. It reflected principles of contract, choice and consent as the basis for delivering economic and political freedom, only open to the elite.

Socialism extended the principles of contract, choice and consent to all adults. We have become accustomed to the freedom this offers us. The state has probably moved as far as it can go in extending these principles socially and economically allowing same-sex couples to contract in marriage for example.

However, locked into their own eighteenth-century political bunker, parliament is unwilling to extend real political choice and consent to working people. “Meritocracy” remains defined by eighteenth-century ideals. Our political system is sadly a mausoleum to eighteenth-century capitalisms economic unfairness and therefore it is unable to address the economic inequality and unfairness it seeks to change. Its definition of meritocracy remains wealth and status based and is therefore inherently unfair and unequal.

Meritocracy must not be one based on an economic model that enshrines merit in terms of wealth-based status. We must define merit in terms of how well people deliver positive economic, social and political outcomes for themselves and others within a free market, based on contract, choice and consent. This must be done legitimately with mass support and without burdening the people of the nation with unrealistic financial expectations based on the economic principles and ‘successes’ of the past.

The meritocracy of the future should allow the ordinary person to achieve economic and political parity with those people who enjoy power and status today. Of course, given the role of debt, it does not mean ordinary people going up some national debt-based wealth or status ladder. It means those currently on the top of the existing ladder coming down. The economic framework, the free market, is already in place, what it lacks is a legitimate political expression. Meritocracy must now be about politically empowering ordinary people.

Reform of the political system must reflect the new economic reality of the free market. The power to reduce the cost and burden of the state on the ordinary worker and thus promote enterprise will never come from a state which refuses to move beyond a political environment set up in the eighteenth century to represent the interests of extinct economic and political elites. In much the same way as the left has lost its industrial working class the right has lost its British economic elite.

Achieving change must involve empowering elected representatives at every administrative level from parish council up. Making them functioning members of the legislature. Politics will become significantly more meritocratic and less party dominated. It will be possible for specialists, as councillors, to address parliament on areas of expertise i.e. farming or teaching.

It will mean that the costs of the state will be exposed to the scrutiny of ordinary workers and are more likely to come down than go up. Routes into politics will deliver more access to ordinary people thus empowering them. This will be meritocratic in two ways. It allows successful politicians a career ladder that requires paid employment in lower tiers. By reducing the cost of the state, taxes will be lower stimulating the economy. It will reduce feelings of “them and us” creating perceptions that fair resources are distributed based on abilities and needs. Politics needs to align with the meritocracy of the free market our twenty-first economic reality.


  • Karl Marx  Critique of the Gotha Programme. Progress Publishing. eighth edition 1988 p18