“If you’re talented and work hard, success (whatever that is) will be yours!” – So says the powerful system and ideology known as “meritocracy”. But if only it were so simple! Jo Littler joins Uncommon Sense to reflect on where this idea came from, how it became mainstream, and how it gets used by elites to convince us we live in a system that is open and fair when the reality is anything but that.
But Jo also shows things are changing. Since the crash of 2008 it’s been clear we’re living and working on a far from “level” playing field. Jo describes the recent embrace of non-work and the rise of assertive “left feminisms” as a sign of hope that the tide may be turning against meritocracy and shallow ideas of success, and discusses the work of people leading the way.
Plus: we reflect on the trope of escape. Why is it so often that to “succeed” in life, one must leave the place that they’re from and embrace the risky and new? And what’s up with the cliche of the “ladder” as a visual image for success? Jo reflects with reference to everyone from Ayn Rand to Raymond Williams. Also: we consider the 1990s rise of the “Mumpreneur” and the more recent phenomenon of the “Cleanfluencer”.
Guest: Jo Littler
Hosts: Rosie Hancock, Alexis Hieu Truong
Executive Producer: Alice Bloch
Sound Engineer: David Crackles
Music: Joe Gardner
Artwork: Erin Aniker
Find more about Uncommon Sense at The Sociological Review.
Jo, Alexis and Rosie recommend
From The Sociological Review
By Jo Littler
Read more about the industrial sociologist Alan Fox, the work of Bev Skeggs on respectability politics, the work of Nancy Fraser, and the Billionaire Britain 2022 report by The Equality Trust.
Rosie Hancock 0:09
Hi, welcome back to Uncommon Sense, I'm Rosie Hancock in Sydney, Australia.
Alexis Hieu Truong 0:13
And I'm Alexis Hieu Truong in Gatineau/Ottawa, Canada. This show comes to you from the Sociological Review, and we're all about grabbing hold of an everyday notion that we tend to take for granted, right, and putting it in a kind of freeze frame, trying to see it differently – maybe more critically. The whole idea is that in doing so we show the value of thinking sociologically.
Rosie Hancock 0:41
Today, we're talking about success. And that's going to have a different meaning, I guess – in different contexts, different societies – with pretty big repercussions too – but at least here in Australia, and I'm guessing maybe where you or too, Alexis – it's essentially defined as achieving something you want or work for and it pretty quickly brings us to kind of hard ideas like hard work, effort, deservingness. Anyway, Alexis, what does the word success mean for you?
Alexis Hieu Truong 1:12
I think, you know, like thinking about success really brought me back to this meeting I first had when I was hired at the University of Ottawa, with the Vice Dean of Research and basically like all the new hires, all the new profs had been hired recently. And we were like, all dead set – like laser focused – on external funding and publishing and all of that jazz, right? So it's the things that are seen as the real success in academia. Yeah, and I feel like we were just like, also afraid of not succeeding. So again, I guess my relation to success is more often then just basically this oppressive feeling of failing, right?
Rosie Hancock 1:52
Yeah I mean, I definitely share that feeling that that push in academia to be successful – when we're all probably, you know, type A high achievers to start off with and you chuck us all together, it's cutthroat – and it feels really tough. You know, and when I heard that we're doing success. I couldn't help, you know, I'm a sociologist of religion, and when I hear success, I can't help but think of Weber's Protestant Ethic. Because, you know, in that he argues that a particular kind of Protestant theology – so the belief in predestination – meant people look for signs of God's favour in the world and material success – having money succeeding in your business – meant God had predestined you to be saved. But it's worth saying the idea of, of spiritual reward – maybe not money, but certainly spiritual award – isn't an exclusively Protestant thing. So I, I've studied Islam a lot and there's definitely an idea in, in Islam – that being faithful and doing good in the world – will give you a spiritual reward, you know, going to heaven, let's say. So, those ideas to one side for a second, our guest today is Jo Littler – who's professor of culture, media and social analysis at Goldsmiths in London. And she spent much of her – dare I say, very successful career – thinking and writing about meritocracy, which is both a system and an idea that I'd say boils down to this – if you work hard, you'll be rewarded on the basis of merit, on the basis of ability. Basically, regardless – or so the idea says – of things like class or wealth. So welcome to the to the podcast, Jo.
Jo Littler 3:38
Hi, thanks for having me.
Rosie Hancock 3:40
So we're gonna let you improve on that definition that I gave in just a second, and also asked you a little bit later about the global story of meritocracy and its, and its different manifestations. But to start off with, you're based in the UK and you were a teenager in the 80s – which is kind of the quintessential era for go getting, getting rich, greed is good, all that stuff – but then you were at uni in the 90s, and saw the election of Tony Blair in 1997, the rise of the New Labour political project with an ostensibly different discourse emerging – what in your own story, in the British context, got you interested in meritocracy?
Jo Littler 4:22
Yeah, that's right. I was a child in the thrusting 80s – the era of Dallas and Dynasty – which then mutated into the more socially liberal 90s – when the idea that anyone could make it no matter your class, gender, ethnicity, no matter your background – you just had to get in there, do the graft pull up your bootstraps and, and focus – was really dominant across the political spectrum. And as you say, it was ascendant in the new era of Tony Blair. So, so that was that was the kind of cultural message that was being beamed at me as, as a young adult, but I knew just from looking around my own diverse social context that that wasn't really the case, it did, it jarred with the reality that I saw. So I saw that, you know, depending on social background, you had a very different start in life. And, you know, some people that I knew – including in my own family – would work incredibly hard and not be able to make it because the odds were stacked against them. And conversely, you know, other people that I came across and knew, with incredible privilege had a considerably easier time. So the rhetoric, in other words didn't map on to the reality that I saw around me. And that's really what prompted the study in my interest in meritocracy,
Alexis Hieu Truong 5:53
Before we get ahead of ourselves, like, let's dig into this idea of meritocracy some more, and an idea which you wrote a book about, that came out, I think, in 2018. Basically, the question is – what is meritocracy? And I wondered if you could give us kind of a textbook, yeah, definition?
Jo Littler 6:13
Well, in its common sense, meaning, it means as you said, at the beginning, you know, the idea that if you work hard, you can activate your talent and achieve, you can move up the social pile. And so it indicates, I think – on the one hand – a social structure where that idea is possible. No, it indicates a system, which is not a feudal system, which ideally is open for everyone to move into positions of power, according to their supposed merit. So that's the idea, at least. And then I, but I think on the other hand, we have to understand it as an ideology. And the two can't really be separated. But its meaning has shifted and mutated, and been regarded in positive and negative ways over the years. So it's a very ideologically mutable term. It's an ideologically loaded term that's been used for very different ends – especially by elites – especially by the super rich to try and convince people that we do live in an open fair democratic system, when in fact, it's a system which is becoming less and less so.
Rosie Hancock 7:24
I mean, it kind of seems like an idea that's maybe really hard to turn the tide on. Like, if you're successful, I guess you'd want to believe that you got there based on merit and hard work. And if you're not successful, you probably want to believe that you're going to be rewarded for your hard work one day. And I don't know, it seems intuitive that that might be – particularly so in countries that have really high levels of corruption – like, you'd really want to believe that some kind of fairness was possible. But it'd be great to talk about the history for a little bit, because this wasn't always, meritocracy wasn't always seen as a positive concept, was it? We'll ask you about the global picture in a moment. But could you give us a brief history of its use, at least, you know, in your context in the UK?
Jo Littler 8:13
Sure. And what you say there is, is really important, because, you know, it is an attractive system, precisely because it has these grains of truth within this, you know, it has these kind of threads of truth within this quilt blanket of mystification. So I think if we look at the history, perhaps that's a way into unpicking it a bit more. Because, as you say, you know, it's it's travelled in its, in its meaning in its valorisation quite a lot. So it's got precedents or antecedents you can... when people start to think about the, you know, the opposite of feudal societies – of societies that are open to different kinds of social mobility – you can trace back all kinds of threads to what became known as meritocracy – globally and historically. But as a term in English, it's first used in 1956, by the industrial sociologist, Alan Foxx, who is very left wing and he writes an article in a socialist journal about meritocracy. And he writes it's pointing out, you know, and kind of assuming that the system to which it refers is inherently problematic. So he says – for example – why is it that we have a society or we have this idea of a society where you give more economic rewards to the already gifted and talented? Why is it that we're taking away things from people who do the rubbish jobs? You know, why, why don't we evolve a system which is more fair, which involves – as he calls it – 'cross grading' where you might give for example, or Rubbish Sanitation worker some more leisure time to compensate for the fact that they're picking up other people's dirty stuff. So it, it starts with that. I mean, most people know the word in relation to the 1950s sociologist, Michael Young – he was well known in the UK for being involved in the Labour Party, co-writing the manifesto in the 50s, for helping set up the Open University and the Consumers Association – and he wrote a best selling book called "The Rise of the meritocracy" which was really a kind of satire about the emergent new grammar system in the 1950s and the way in which society was being stratified. So, for Young, you know, he thought meritocracy was a problem because it led to this very competitive system. And he kind of, he talks about democracy in the past. And then he has a science fiction version of the future in which you have a black market trade in brainy babies. So at this time in the, in the 50s, and 60s, it's very much a swear word, you know – for Hannah Arendt as well – it's something which is obviously problematic. But then by the 70s it's been gradually rehabilitated by Daniel Bell – the theorist of the Knowledge Economy. And then it's being fully used by the new right from the 1980s as they kind of suck it up and turn it on its head, give it a pol... positive spin, and try and use it basically as a justification for increased marketisation, for breaking down comprehensive schooling and for saying we need to make society more competitive. From there it becomes, you know, more widely used across the board, by the liberal left as well.
Alexis Hieu Truong 11:45
I guess we kind of like have to be careful not to talk to generally Yes, it's like, implicitly here we're talking about what gets called the West. So apparently, the idea arguably originated in China, possibly, with Confucianism – and I'm curious about meritocracy elsewhere, like in East Asia, let's say. Do you know of like other studies, or scholars taking this more like global view? Or looking beyond the West?
Jo Littler 12:14
Yeah, exactly. So we're starting with this, this word, aren't we, in English, but you can trace the ideas it enompasses back in different ways and use different starting points. So as you say, you could think about the Civil Service style exams that they had in China to open up careers to different people, you could think about how the French Revolution was partly founded through this idea that, that position should be open to anyone, according to their talent. But that's a little bit different, I think, because it doesn't quite have the same bundle of meanings that meritocracy came to adopt in English. So they're kind of related but slightly different traditions. Then you can think about how this kind of Anglo or American-Anglo idea of meritocracy that I've been talking about, as emerging from the 50s relates to the rest of the world – and how it's got a kind of inherent imperialism to its dynamics. So for example, there's a socio, sociologist called Simone Varriale – who's just published a book about meritocracy and colonialism – and he looks at how, for example, Italian migrants to the UK, position themselves in a kind of racialised hierarchy or pecking order, in which, you know, UK, kind of whiteness is seen at a pinnacle and it kind of problematises that. And then you have authors like Terri Anne Tiao, and Kenneth Paul Tan who were writing about neoliberal – what I call neoliberal meritocracy – in Singapore, and how, you know, the Singapore government are using this kind of idea of meritocracy to basically push through more capitalism – capitalist reforms and stratification. So that's very analogous to the kind of the British American, Northern European version that I've been talking about that – and of course, that comes with its own history of Imperial dynamics in woven in from from the beginning as well.
Rosie Hancock 14:20
Yeah, I mean, like that Protestant Ethic – that I spoke about earlier – spread around the world, thanks to colonialism, and also Neo-colonialism. So you find our contemporary versions of it like the prosperity gospel – which you kind of normally associate with US evangelicals – but you find that in Latin America or an African Pentecostalism, for example...
Jo Littler 14:42
Rosie Hancock 14:42
I mean, one problem of meritocracy is that it's ideas of success and deservingness rest on really, you know, culturally specific concepts and histories that are often racist. Can you talk a bit more about racism and meritocracy? It would be, I mean, it would be awesome if you could tell us a little bit about the famous Bell Curve debates of the 90s and what that was about. I was at school in the 90s.
Jo Littler 15:07
Yeah. Well, I, there's, there's a whole host of different issues out there connected to racism and stratification in relation to meritocracy. And so one – to which you just eluded – is how, you know, people with less power become positioned as the ideal subjects of meritocracy. So the prosperity gospel stuff partly works because, you know, because of people's desperation and people wanting you know, to get out of the position that they've been put in – unfair position that they've been put in – and you know, that works along axes of physical ability and, and gender as well. So the intense incitement to people who have less that they then really need to work much harder. That's, that's, that's where it can, meritocracy can often be most visible and have have most traction. And you have kind of mediated parables of progress where, you know, you – the kind of the boys spotlighted in it from a bandolier council estate projects can be shown and positioned as the as the, the kind of ideal subject of meritocracy – it's possible of him so it'd be possible for you. So that's that's the way in which I think you know, kind of mediation of it works now. Yeah, there have been the Bell Curve debates as well from from the 90s was, it was kind of a book by Marie and Richard Herrnstein – a psychologist and a political scientist – and they argued that we should really have a return to IQ, to intelligence tests – and that that was the kind of driving force or driving explanation for social stratification. So it was, in a way it was a kind of right wing politically inverse text – you might look at it as being the opposite of something like Michael Sandel's work, where he's looking at that from the other perspective – to argue, you know, that we have stratification for bad social reasons. And there's a really excellent sociological book called "Inequality by design" which picks apart their argument, which looks at the the multiple ideas and understandings you can have of intelligence and the more far reaching reasons why social stratification exists – really demolishes the bell curve myth.
Alexis Hieu Truong 17:27
So you mentioned like that meritocracy works along axes like social class, gender, possibly age. Can we rewind a bit and get back to our discussion on the history of meritocracy like, there are a lot of theorists – say Angela McRobbie – who talked about how from around the 80s people were basically encouraged to see themselves as entrapreneurs, as brands? And can you tell us about that and how it fits in with the story of meritocracy and also how it brings us to a figure that you discuss as 'The Mompreneur' I believe?
Jo Littler 18:04
Yes, that's right. So when meritocracy becomes revalorised, from the early 1980s, it's very much part and parcel of the reinvigoration of the right in all its variations – including what Nancy Fraser would call its kind of progressive neoliberal variation – which is about being socially liberal, which showing you, which is arguing that you can be capitalist but also anti-racist and a feminist etc. So there become lots of messages beamed to example, to, to women and girls that, you know, they need to just lean in – to borrow Sheryl Sandberg's phrase – and prove themselves and kind of not, not... screen out all the inequalities and just just pull themselves up by their, by their bootstraps themselves. So that's when you start to see lots of encouragement for girls, to – for example – become entrepreneurs in different ways. You start to see the encouragement in women's magazines of women to just build businesses, kind of perhaps, you know, set up businesses making jam etc. Or, you know, set up different kinds of businesses about clothing or interior design. So this is where the the idea of 'The Mompreneur' emerges in the 1990s and becomes very popularised at that time. You see a whole series of awards for 'Mompreneur of the year' – there are lots of glossy articles about it and women's magazines. And it's, it refers – the portmanteau term – it refers this idea that, you know, mothers – when they're on maternity leave, they shouldn't just be looking after their kid. They should also use the time wisely to set up a business from their kitchen table – as if they didn't have anything better to do.
Rosie Hancock 19:53
Yeah, we've all got all so much time.
Jo Littler 19:55
I know so much, right? And I think what's really noticeable is that it kind of, is speaking to the dissatisfactions that women have in being able to juggle family life and new, having babies with the world of work. And that is a structural issue. You know, it's about the lack of paternity leave. It's about the inability to work flexibly, the inability to be able to work part time and have enough money to live on. So things like the 'Mompreneur' become a social sticking plaster in a way, a kind of dream – a carrot to dangle before mothers as a alternative system that might solve their problems rather than tackling the root causes.
Rosie Hancock 20:39
Is this, is this a good place to talk about the 'Cleanfluencer' – which you've written about with Emma Casey? I believe it's a phenomenon famously epitomised by Mrs. Hinch – the Instagram star who shares stories of cleaning and family life – and has millions of followers.
Jo Littler 20:57
Yeah, well, I think that also brings us isn't it to the way in which we are have all been incited to brand ourselves very extensively since the 1980s. You know, there was a marketing book in the 80s called "Brand Me" – and we've all...it's so normalised now it's hard to remember a time when that wasn't the case. But you know, the way in which social media has encouraged people to brand their identity, to brand themselves, to think of themselves as an extensive product line has has spilled over into new domains, including the 'Cleanfluencer' which Emma and I wrote about in our Sociological Review article. And we were very interested there and how for Mrs. Hinch – who's, you know, kind of working class Essex woman – it becomes a means, it becomes a way for her to progress up the social pile. Yet, she also has to show – in her Instagram feed devoted to sharing cleaning tips – she also has to prove that she is you know, still an ordinary person, every day. And she, we write there about how she's part of this logic, you know, that of, you know – entrepreneurial, enterprising femininity – but it's also... It's very interesting, because in her in her books and her account, she also kind of talks about the process of becoming an influencer, becoming, you know, that the kind of difficulties and the exposure and the vulnerabilities that are entailed in that.
Rosie Hancock 22:34
So I mean, there are ways I mean – some of which I know you've written about – in which dominant ideas of success are being challenged, I mean, at least, at least in some kinds of pop culture – whether it's like drop out literature that's popular amongst some female authors, or TV shows like "White Lotus" that kind of parody the super rich to varying degrees of success, success. And, you know, in our recent show on breakups, we also talked about the phenomenon of shitposting – where people write joke posts on LinkedIn, about their productivity and so on. So it kind of, it does seem in particular, maybe that that Gen Z is a bit grossed out by older people's obsession with status and success – all of which is to say, maybe we're reaching a turning point. But I guess it's important that this translates into activism and solidarity. And I know, Jo, you point to the importance of left feminism as a challenge to meritocracy. Can you tell us a bit about what you mean here?
Jo Littler 23:37
Yeah, that's a really good point. I think you're right, you know, there has been a turning point, a sea change in cultural attitudes. And you can trace that back really to the financial crash of 2008 – when the, you know, it just became very clear that the playing field was most definitely not level. And in fact, it was becoming increasingly hard to do – to achieve and to try and climb up the ladder of success in the way that people have been told. And the idea that it was unfair that the playing field wasn't level and that the people were struggling with precarity entered the public conversation, became something that was more kind of widely felt and widely registered. So the idea of the 'Girl Boss' – or example – which was popularised in the mid 2000s – is really a kind of younger archetype of, kind of female entrepreneurialism. It became roundly rejected over the past few years. You have articles in the press and on Instagram saying the girl boss has left the building and embracing new forms of non-work, at work embracing a kind of new type of slacker culture In a way, through necessity and grievance as much, rather than the kind of 90s hedonism and greater prosperity – for the middle classes, at least. So yeah, so I think there has been a kind of shift away from these ideas of success. And from the idea that the playing field is level. But yes, as you say, it's something which can not really, you know, have much effect if it's, if it's only on an individual basis. And I think that's where, you know, it's very interesting that new forms of feminism are often bound up with strike action and kind of interested in issues around economic disparity, as well as, you know, sexual violence and racism and queerness. So you kind of have a rejection of the idea that the playing field is level in a whole host of ways together.
Rosie Hancock 25:59
And Jo, is that what you mean by 'left feminism's' – this idea that that feminists who are not just interested in kind of gender and sexual inequalities, but economic ones and and sort of other vectors of oppression?
Jo Littler 26:14
Yes, loosely, yes. So I think there's become a renewed concern with economic inequality, globally. And you can see that for example, in in the States, you can see it in figures like Alexandria Ocasio Cortes, you can see it in Spain, with Ada Colau and the new municipalism in Barcelona. And you can see it in Argentina, with a NiUnaMenos movement where the rallying cry was "the debt is owed to us". You know, there's numerous debts on many levels that are owed to all kinds of women. So yes, there's a kind of renewed interest in economic disparity at a time when, you know, billionaires, billionaire wealth is ballooning – and it's becoming more and more palpable for the majority.
Rosie Hancock 27:00
Well we are going to talk about the trope of escape in just a second – talking about billionaires with private jets. We're talking about different types of escape in just a moment. But we'll be back with you in a second Jo, because we're going to have a word from our producer, Alice, right now.
Alice Bloch 27:22
Hi, you're listening to Uncommon Sense where we're discussing success and meritocracy with Jo littler. If you go to our archive, you can catch related episodes on subjects like school with Remy Joseph Salisbury and taste with Irmak Karademir Hazir. You can find those and many more plus reading lists with lots of surprising tips to share and enjoy over at the Uncommon Sense section of the podcast page at thesociological review.org. Or just browse through in whatever app you're using right now to hear this. And while you're there, please do remember to quickly give us a review or tap follow, it means you'll always catch the latest episode. And it really does help us to keep bringing Uncommon Sense to you. Thanks for listening.
Rosie Hancock 28:08
All right. So here is where we take on a particular trope – a norm that's perhaps not quite capturable in a single word, but that's nonetheless pretty powerful. And that also goes unquestioned. Today, it's the idea of mobility and escape, that to be successful a person – particularly I'd say a working class person – has to basically leave where they came from, sometimes quite literally, and undergo some kind of transformation. It is literally the American dream in a way.
Alexis Hieu Truong 28:40
And like this idea seems like super entrenched. Like I feel like so many real, reality shows are just based on this idea of digging deep into people to find the buried gem – like the inner, kind of success that was sometimes innately there, and at other times crafted by experts. And I'm thinking like maybe like beauty shows and our property shows and like these kinds of things, for example, definitely, like shows that ask or force – sometimes, like violently – people to shed all that seems on valuable, like everything that's a failure, basically. So like, I was wondering, where does this idea of escape come from? And how is it enforced in the media?
Jo Littler 29:23
Well, you're right, it's, you know, it's very powerful, isn't it, in multiple ways, and it's been... it relates to older narratives and older stories– like the American dream – and different political systems – like the grammar school system in the UK, for example. And it also, you know, it comes back to that point that within all the mystification there are some important grains of the truth or things that are valuable. So when people grow up, they do want to distance themselves a lot of the time in some ways, from things they've grown up with – they want to learn and acquire more and you know, just as with hard work and with different ideas of merit that are multiple, there, there is a value to that. But the way in which it becomes difficult and more poisonous is when the system is used to reinforce very kind of class based norms – as we might say – of, you know, the distant extending, extendable ladder of social privilege, in which you must escape working class zones and areas, in which they're rendered abject and terrible – and in subjects that are revolting and spaces that are revolting. So in the UK, for example, you might say, as I just indicated, that the the grammar school system, and the university system have really kind of pushed that message over the course of the later 20th century in particular. So you know, when I grew up, the idea was that if you work really hard, you can escape where you're from – and that's a good thing. And then you might be able to join the upper middle classes, if you're really lucky in metropolitan zones. And more recently, you know, attention has both is turned to the fact you know, what, what happens to these places, you know, that are being degraded and devalued – because they have a lot to offer, and they're being disparaged. They're being told they're worth nothing, you know, what are the political effects of that? And also, you know, it's a very kind of poisonous and toxic idea to just think that, you know, upper middle class culture is where it's at – that you should have an elite cadre of rulers and that's the only culture and social space that's worth anything. So this has been more roundly critiqued, I think, by by sociologists and politicians, in many ways at present, and you can see that in relation to a new interest in – in the UK, there's new interest in towns – for example – and in communities and in thinking about the left behind areas and, and what what it might mean to kind of build, build politics, which aren't about the politics of leaving, but the politics of staying and approving places for everybody, and not downgrading traditional spaces of working class community – like council estates – because they've been, you know, hugely important and great models of sociability for lots of people.
Alexis Hieu Truong 32:22
Like you mentioned, kind of, the the idea of the ladder, right? Or, like our dominant visual metaphors for thinking about success and social mobility do tend to be like really vertical, and the image of the ladder, right, that, that you mentioned. So there's a Raymond Williams quote that draws attention to this, correct? Could you tell us about that? And kind of other words that take on this idea of the ladder?
Jo Littler 32:47
Yes, well, the ladder is really ubiquitous, isn't it? So it becomes a core motif for individuals striving and individualised achievement. And this happens, you know, with the with the dawn of neoliberalism, you see it everywhere. Like so, there's a, kind of quote that's often attributed to Ayn Rand – although no one can actually find the, when she said it, but it's "the ladder of success is best climb by standing on the rungs of opportunity." So, you know, this idea that, you know, individuals can make it up a singular ladder themself. It's been used by politicians all over. So in the UK, in the early 2000... 2013, David Cameron – the prime minister said "you help people by putting up ladders that they can climb through their own efforts". And Mark Latham in Australia used the the motif of the ladder so much that he became known as Lord of the Rungs. So it's, it's this idea, which is really entrenched in popular culture. But as Raymond Williams said – in the 50s, when he was writing a book review of Michael Young's book – and he said "it's, it's really problematic, because it's, it's a device that can only be used individually, you go up the ladder alone". And he pointed out that the this motif sweetens the poison of hierarchy by offering advancement through merit – rather than through feudal systems of money or birth – but it also retains this commitment to a singular notion of hierarchy itself. So it's not, a it's not a motif or an image that conjures up solidarity or togetherness or mutual improvement, it conjures up individual striving, individualised aspiration.
Rosie Hancock 34:28
And I guess as well as being really individualistic and kind of vertical, there's also the problem that seems like you know, our idea of what's waiting for us at the top is just very inflexible, it's quite boring. We're not very creative in how we might imagine success. But, but I kind of wanted to, I wanted to think about how part of this discourse that valorises escape is the idea that risk taking is, is kind of like cool and entrepreneurial, and should be celebrated. And we saw that in a speech from the former UK Prime Minister David Cameron back in 2012, where he talked about supporting – and I'm quoting from his speech here – people who want to get on in life, the doers, the risk takers, end quote, but, you know, at the same time, while these individual politicians or famous figures might be celebrated for being from humble roots – or you know, those sorts of success stories – anti immigration discourse and policy, doesn't really reward people who've left their place of birth in search of a better life. And it's, If anything, it's the opposite. It's, it seems like there's an inconsistency here that that really speaks volumes.
Jo Littler 35:47
Yeah, absolutely. Very much, so yes, yes, you're right. It's often notably, the, you know, sons and daughters of billionaires and millionaires who talk most about how they worked really hard and took loads of risks. And, you know, Boris Johnson – the former UK Prime Minister – is a good example of that, you know, he continually legitimated his position by saying how hard he worked and how he was, you know, a risk taking man the people. But yeah, the people who are taking risks, often are not rewarded for that, are they not? So yes, you're right, it comes with a whole ingrained amount of kind of privileged schema with it.
Alexis Hieu Truong 36:27
And on the subject of stakes, Jo, I wonder, can we also talk about the stakes of challenging meritocracy solo, so like dropping off the out of the system, like basically, it's something sold to us through slacker movies, nihilistic novels, and various celebrations of celebrity failure, right – this slow living that we find in pop culture – but it's often as you mentioned, like the most privileged people who can afford to do just that, or at least claim to do it, right. And like people with the kind of capital, social, cultural financial, that can cushion them. So is it worth taking, like, beyond individuals and having a reflection here on how we can maybe take on meritocracy together?
Jo Littler 37:09
Absolutely. Yes, very, very much so. So you're right, there's been lots of individualised responses to neoliberal meritocracy – and you can think about 'quiet quitting' for example, and you know, the popularisation of the 'anti CV' – as kind of exposing the difficulties that people had when they tried to make it, as well as the different forms of tuning out or dropping out that exist. But yeah, and then they are responses, aren't they, to have highly pressurised difficult cultures. But they can be used as a kind of means of just achievement by themselves. So Angela McRobbie has written very interestingly about 'perfect' recently and how, you know, perfect forms of femininity that are required for contemporary girlhood and womanhood, often, simultaneously require you showing how you're imperfect in order to be thought of as fully perfect again. Yes, and so yeah, just as with the history of different political responses and movements – kind of individualised responses on their own – tend not to be very effective. And yes, what we need to kind of challenge these systematic structural inequalities are more solidaristic modes of being and ways of working together to reduce social inequality. So there was – for example – in the UK, there was a group – a cooperative group of young people who had, you know, basically done everything – quote, unquote – right, according to the norms of the system, they were in, you know, they've got degrees and they span they still couldn't get work. So they banded together to create kind of cooperatives and try to, try to find a different way of working. And their strapline was, you know, "we don't need the ladder". So that's kind of one interesting way I think of rejecting individualised meritocratic imagery by looking to cooperatives, by looking to different ways of sharing the wealth, by looking to community wealth building, by looking to how you might challenge that, you know, the hoovering up of our social wealth by billionaires – in what the Equality Trust calls billionaire Britain and beyond.
Alexis Hieu Truong 39:35
Okay, so changing gear, it's time to wrap up. But before we do, we've been edging close to the pop culture right through our discussion, right? I wonder Jo, if you have a particular show – or a novel, a play maybe something like that – that you'd suggest to people to turn to for a bit of positive inspiration, for a sign of how things could be different right. So like let's turn off the apprentice, the Dragon's Den and instead take a look at what? Or maybe if not, what would you recommend that illustrates the kind of tide, at least that's turning on this idea of success and what we've been talking about today?
Jo Littler 40:16
Yeah. Well, there's so many out there. But some things I've enjoyed recently are firstly, the memoir "Skint Estate" by Cash Carraway, the British writer. And this is a great rejoinder to the idea that poverty is the result of individualised failure. So she, you know, sets out her account of growing up skint and rejecting the stigma at the same time. You know, she opens with this whole series of platitudes and stereotypes that people would say about her. And it's a real rejoinder to what's Bev Skaggs would call respectability politics. Instead, it lays on the line where the blame should be – with politicians who are enabling billionaires to hoover up our collective wealth. So I really enjoy that, it's, it's very, hugely lively and kind of dynamic piece of work, and it's recently been made into a TV series called "Rain Dogs". Another thing I liked a lot is the popular book by Rhian Jones and Matthew Brown, which is called "Paint Your Town Red". And Matthew Brown is the leader of Preston Council – Preston's in the north of England – and they've recently been having an experiment in the council whereby they try and encourage co-ops and they try and encourage community wealth building. They try and push out big corporate takeovers, spaces, and they try and use, use it to share the wealth on a local level. And Rhian Jones is a really interesting left feminist Welsh journalist. So their book "Paint Your Town Red" is a really kind of accessible step by step guide to how you might do that and share the wealth in your area. And I liked that as a rejoinder to meritocracy, to how you might build collective success for the people.
Rosie Hancock 42:09
I love that some like practical, like a little handbook for getting past meritocracy, that's awesome. I was going to, I was going to recommend – it's definitely not a practical handbook – one of my, a movie by one of my favourite directors, Richard Linklater, called "Slacker" from 1990. It's set in Austin, Texas. And it's just, you know, a group of young-ish people kicking around feeling socially excluded and talking about social class. And it's great. Alexis, what are you going to recommend?
Alexis Hieu Truong 42:40
I had a hard time finding something positive. I don't know. Like, I don't want to bum everyone out. But if we're talking about success and making it big, I'm going to go full gloom here and suggest Darren Aronofsky's "Requiem for a Dream" – and although it's a terribly difficult movie to watch, I feel it does speak to how ideals of success can work as a sort of imperative and participate in shaping life trajectories in a very, yeah...
Rosie Hancock 43:04
Yeah, That was, that's definitely a depressing movie, there's no way that's a positive one. Jo, we've, we've really enjoyed talking to you today. Thank you so much for joining us. It's been such a pleasure.
Jo Littler 43:17
Thank you. It's really lovely to talk to you.
Alexis Hieu Truong 43:20
And that is it for this month from Uncommon Sense. If you think this show has been successful, right? Please do give us a review of whatever app you use to hear us. And more importantly, please share us far and wide with students, friends, family and basically everyone.
Rosie Hancock 43:38
We'll be back next month talking about anxiety, but not as you know it. Thanks to our producer Alice Bloch and our sound engineer Dave Crackles. See you soon.