The age of illusion: An interview with Chris Hayes

An editor at large from the Nation discusses meritocracy, Occupy Wall Street and the struggle against the elite

Published June 30, 2012 5:00PM (EDT)

This article originally appeared on Jacobin.

Crisis is the catchword of our time. After the dawning of the new millennium, America stumbled from debacle to debacle. The election of Barack Obama gave hope to many, but the realities of a deeply dysfunctional political economy do not readily yield to a good speech or two. As I write, the slow-motion collapse of public education, aided by the policies of a Democratic administration, continues apace. The financial system seems as unwieldy, reckless, opaque, and insanely powerful as ever. I could go on, but my crippling depression prevents me from listing anymore cripplingly depressing examples.
JacobinChris Hayes has a theory about why everything is going to straight to hell. The culprits aren’t the typical cast of Republicans, fundamentalists, and rednecks. It’s the meritocracy that did it.

Hayes is an editor-at-large with the Nation and host of the only cable news program worth watching. In his new book, Twilight of the Elites, he explains that the “fail decade” is a result of an insular and corrupt meritocratic elite, which cannot help but be dysfunctional. Hayes argues that it is the meritocratic ideals of our elites, ossified into perverse caricatures, which engender their repeated blunders. A wide equality but shallow notion of equality allows for greater acceptance of, say, gay marriage, but leaves social mobility a pipe dream, the working and middle classes sidelined, and the safety net perpetually set upon.

The book is strongly influenced by the work of Christopher Lasch, whose 1994 book Revolt of the Elites presages many of Hayes’s arguments, and Robert Michels, an early 20th century socialist intellectual whose most famous book, Political Parties, argued that organizations, even those of the left, inevitably slide into oligarchy. I read all three books in an inspired blaze of near-comprehension and then waded through a tide of school children to meet Hayes at a diner near his home in Park Slope, where the elite go to breed. The following is a lightly edited version of our discussion over coffee, omelets, and free-range hash browns.

Jake Blumgart: You argue that meritocracy inevitably metastasizes into oligarchy, creating “elites who cannot help but be dysfunctional and corrupt.” Some I’ve explained the idea to seem skeptical — what’s wrong with letting the smartest and most driven run society?

Chris Hayes: I think people are resistant to the idea, because the meritocracy is our social ideal, particularly among good liberals. Equality of opportunity, but not of outcome. Not evaluating people by their [outside] features, but by their innate talent and drive. And I do not say this mockingly. It’s an incredibly appealing vision. But meritocracy contains the seeds of its own destruction. It concedes inequality. As an ethos, it doesn’t trouble itself with what the results are going to be. One of the key arguments of the book is that those results have real effects. And they then queer the system to produce more inequality and restrict equality of opportunity.

Meritocracy leading to oligarchy, my high school is a concrete parable for that. Here’s a place, the Hunter College High School [a prestigious public high school in Manhattan], an amazing place that in some ways sticks to a beautifully austere vision of meritocracy. They have this single test, and it literally doesn’t matter if you are Mayor Bloomberg’s daughter, if you don’t take and pass it, you are not getting in. I’ve talked to the president of Hunter and she told me “You would not believe the phone calls I get, and who I get them from — ‘is there some way to make an arrangement …’” And there’s something incredible about that, particularly in an era in which there are very few institutions that can confidently say Mayor Bloomberg’s daughter wouldn’t [necessarily] get in.

But what’s happened to this, at some level brutally equal, system? That equality is embedded in a social system full of massive inequality, and the latter leaks into the former and colonizes it. We’ve had … the growth of this tremendous testing and test prep industry in New York, along with the massive rise in inequality, and it has produced a system in which the school is now admitting only three, four, five black and Latino students. The students they are admitting are almost entirely white, affluent kids with tutors or second-generation, first-generation immigrants from Queens and other places where the parents pay for test prep. You end up with a system where who you are really letting in are the kids with access to test prep, the kids with access to resources. Hunter can be an amazing engine of mobility, but over time, it can’t help but break down if it isn’t embedded in a society that has egalitarian commitment. That’s the theoretical soul of the book.

Meritocracy has amazing things about it and terrible things about it. Part of the purpose of the long section on Major League Baseball is to show that one of the outgrowths of a system of incredibly intense emphasis on performance, with finely granulated judgments of who’s better than whom, is that you produce real intense incentives for fraud, for cheating. And that’s not to say its impossible, but in the same way that everyone recognizes that a bureaucracy or a system driven by seniority ... that there side effects to that, you need to keep people motivated and you have to make sure you don’t end up with blockages and obstacles to getting things done. If we are going to keep embarking on this meritocratic project, we should be clear eyed about what the negative effects are.

JB: The Atlanta education testing scandals really exemplify that for me.

CH: That’s a perfect example. There is a certain social vision that bureaucracy is bad and meritocracy is good and that we are going to replace the [former with the latter]. That’s clearly what a lot of the education reform fight is about. One of the points of the book is: Wait a second, it’s a lot more complicated than bureaucracy bad, meritocracy good. You can create tremendously destructive meritocracies. One of the interesting things about doing reporting for the book was talking to people from Enron. People loved that company. Numerous people said to me, it was the least bureaucratic place I ever worked, you couldn’t keep deadwood around. The favored son of some manager wouldn’t cut it, because everything was structured in a very fluid way. People really loved that. There are benefits.

JB: I liked your description of meritocracy as “a new hierarchy based on the notion that people are deeply unequal in ability and drive.” When put like that, it does seem a deeply conservative idea, ignoring the social realities of poverty, structural racism, lack of social mobility — ideas central to the vision of education reformers like Michelle Rhee.

CH: This idea of “equality of opportunity, not of outcomes” is very bipartisan, almost meaningless pabulum. But it means something, it has a politics. One of the inevitable results is that you are going to ask the educational system to expiate the sins of the entirety of the rest of society. It’s the only place where we can make interventions. And that’s what you are seeing in our politics; that’s the place where energy is being made.

JB: Education policy is the one place where there seems to be bipartisan overlap.

CH: It’s not an accident that all the hedge fund guys are funding school reform. I think they really believe, really are idealistic in that sense. They hate unions, too. But they see a manifestly unequal society, and within the terms of the ideology they have, the way to deal with that is to make education better. My point is that their whole framework is screwed up.

JB: They have this view from 20,000 feet of what education policy should be, but they are too far removed to get any feedback from the community when it doesn’t work.

CH: Exactly. These are the concrete effects of having an unequal enough society that these guys … don’t get feedback.

JB: Despite its seeming novelty, this isn’t a new idea. Back in 1994, Christopher Lasch (whom you cite) wrote: “The chief threat seems to come from those at the top of the social hierarchy, [“new aristocracy of brains”] not the masses …Meritocracy is a parody of democracy.” How influenced were you by Lasch’s work, where do you diverge from his analysis, and how have things changed since his writing?

CH: I’m heavily influenced by his work. And the trends have only gotten much, much, much worse. In fact, I think that’s a very prophetic book. He deals with the way it sort of destroys the moral fabric of society and is unjust. But my book, I don’t think it’s a very moralistic book. Lasch is making a very moralistic argument; he’s a polemicist, a Jeremiah figure, a prophet railing against the fallen society in which he lives. I’m trying to make, in some ways, a practical argument. About the practical effects, the negative consequences. No one wants an Enron; no one wants a financial crisis.

JB: I want to circle back to something you said about reporting for the book. In contrast to Lasch and Michels, you come from a journalistic background. You’ve engaged with actual people while writing this book. How did that affect your perspective and work?

CH: It’s a methodological toolkit I’ve been trained in. It’s a huge part of how I learn about the world. There’s a certain form of content synergy in so far as, you know, if the problem is social distance … I mean, look, I’m a member of the elite I’m writing about. That’s a weird and uncomfortable thing for me to say, but there is no definition of the elite, no plausible, coherent one, that I don’t belong to. I’m just as subject to the same forces, so it’s really important for me to actually talk to people. And I think reporting makes it more compelling storytelling. The book’s form is weird in a way; it’s both a reported work and a work of theory.

JB: Michels had a strong influence on your work, but the conclusion he reaches — “Democracy leads to oligarchy, and necessarily contains an oligarchical nucleus” — implies intrinsic limits to the radicalism of any project. Is a better elite the best we can hope for?

CH: I was having an exchange with someone who was really active in OWS, and I asked him about this horizontalism and, yeah, I’m with Michels on the limits of horizontalism. At a certain point, you run up against these basic mundane, logistical problems. Again, I don’t want to over-generalize, there are some cooperatives that are really functional and some that are complete nightmares. But Michels's core insight, it seems to me, is undeniable.  The question is what you do with it. Michels took it and became a fascist.

JB: He pitches it as an objective truth he’s found.

CH: That’s another place where his influence shows in my book. He actually isn’t making a moral argument; he’s making an almost entirely practical one about organization. I’m trying to do an analogous work on meritocracy.

But the question was about better elites … There is no final fix, no static condition. The nature of having egalitarian commitments is recognizing that the work is never done … The inevitability of that, it’s a little like the Camus essay "The Myth of Sisyphus." The inevitability of that doesn’t mean it's invalid, it means the struggle continues. You keep fighting for equality because equality isn’t the natural state of human beings; I think that’s in some ways the really profound insight. Inequality is baked into the cake. Inequality and hierarchy are natural, but that doesn’t mean they are right, that doesn’t mean there is isn’t a productive tension between those forces and the forces of equality. You need the horizontalism always present as a challenge, different egalitarian movements or forces pushing and forcing events, if you are going to create this vibrant tension, rather than some end-of-history equilibrium.

JB: Michels felt he had proved the impossibility of socialism and democracy. He sought a magical cure of sorts and ended his life a fascist. Do you fear such an analysis stemming from the “near total failure of each pillar institution of our society”?

CH: Yes, I’m very worried about that. I think the data is interesting, you see the two institutions that have gained in public trust are the military and the police. The most trusted institution in the country is the military, the least trusted is Congress. Authoritarianism becomes very seductive during times of discredited elites, but it’s important to keep all this in relative terms. We are not in a crisis like Greece is in a crisis. In Greece the [neo-Nazi] Golden Dawn party got 7 percent in the May elections [allowing the possibility of parliamentary seats], and who knows what they are going to get in June? Probably higher.

JB: Or consider the Hungarian example.

CH: Hungary’s even worse. But I don’t want to be too alarmist. We are not Hungary, we are not Greece … But because we are so powerful, our failures resonate more. In some ways, the worst victims of our institutional and elite failures, through the ripple effect of financial crisis and war, aren’t Americans.

JB: With the massive power differentials you describe, how can we hope to enact real reform? In the case of, say, abolition or civil rights, there were other powerful groups for the oppressed to ally with. Or a strong labor movement, or a mass-based political party that wasn’t dependent on the wealthy. That seems harder to imagine here. I don’t really see a power base that can push back.

CH: The argument I make in the book, and it’s a tentative argument, but I do think there is a potential for a radicalized upper-middle class. We already see that, it’s just a question of how that gets channeled. Everything about the Netroots, the anti-war, anti-Bush sentiment [the Tea Party is also cited in the book] ... One of the interesting things about the way our certain kind of fractal inequality has manifested, the people who see it the most, have the closest proximity to it, [are] say, the top 2 to the top 20 percent: "I went to law school with Joe and I have some job at a firm and I’m doing alright, but he went into a hedge fund and is making $10 million."

That is a lot of power, resources, cultural capital, network, class, monetary power. The working class has already been ground into dust in terms of political power, as I cite in the book the Martin Gilens and Larry Bartels studies showing [the preferences of voters in the top one-third of income distribution are represented in the votes of senators to the exclusion of everyone else]. It’s not uncommon for revolutions to stem from a radicalized group just outside the circle of power. That’s what the French Revolution was all about; that’s what the American Revolution was. The question is: Will all those groups, because of the nature of partisan polarization and ideological polarization, just fight each other? Or is there capacity to organize?

I don’t want to be overly optimistic because I don’t think polarization is some kind of grand distraction. It’s real. People have different commitments, believe in different things and principles, different visions of the good life … but there is also a degree to which all the really big, successful reform movements in the country had extremely bizarre ideological coalitions. Abolition did. Prohibition did. So I wonder if that’s the way out for us.

JB: You cite Latin America’s leftward turn as an example of nations taking inequality seriously and political parties utilizing progressive policies to reduce it. What lessons can be learned by progressives from Latin America? What of their experience is replicable?

CH: The important lesson is that it’s doable. It wasn’t rocket science. The Lula government [in Brazil] started giving a lot of money to poor people. This isn’t something beyond our control; there are things we can do. Some have been more successful than others in that part of the world. The other important lesson is that it doesn’t have to come at the expense of growth. Which is always the tradeoff [that is posited]. Brazil is a complicated case because there has been a huge boom in energy exports due to sugar-based ethanol. And obviously it’s easier to grow faster when you are a less developed country than when you are where the U.S. is.

The basic story of Latin America: Ten to 20 years of IMF-imposed austerity and structural adjustment created terrible crisis, terrible poverty, and terrible inequality, which provoked a backlash across the continent. Left and center-left leaders were voted in who had mandates and political coalitions in which inequality was explicitly part of their agenda, and they then implemented policies that were egalitarian. Again, there are tremendous differences between Brazil and Bolivia and, definitely, Venezuela, which is a special case because of Chavez and the resource curse of Venezuelan politics. But that three-act drama is the basic story — financial crisis and huge inequality, backlash against that, government elected to shrink inequality.

JB: In Twilight of the Elites, you advocate for “Disrupting the normalcy and comfort of the elite.” What actions, organizations are you most excited by?

CH: I see a lot of hope in the Occupy mobilizations … I think that’s really incredibly important, because one of the strange things about the bizarre post-crisis interregnum we’re in is that the elites, once they produced the crisis, did a good job of essentially keeping the ship afloat. Bernanke, Paulson, Geithner, the president. It really could have been much worse. Look at Europe. We could have 20% unemployment. They could have screwed it up enough to do that. And if they did, there probably would be more mass movements in the streets.

The potential for crisis is clear to everyone, but the actual depth and acuteness of the current crisis [is felt by] people who are poor or unemployed. It’s horrible and miserable and acute. But 8 percent unemployment is not 20 percent unemployment. There is this weird, frustrated sense of unhappiness with the status quo, and yet, a sort of return normalcy. I want us to make the changes we need to make and redistribute power in the way we need to, but I don’t wish for crisis. Crisis is horrible and hurts people at the bottom the most. So what you really need to do is create disruption, because there is either going to be exogenous disruption, which will mean another shock, another crisis. Or you create the disruption through movements, through street protests, through all sorts of creative ways to say, "No, this is not tenable."

I really worry, because I don’t think, if the analysis is right and the current constitution of the American elite and American power will inevitably lead toward another crisis ... So this is our chance to, in a sense, save the elites from themselves. And we see it in the news from JP Morgan Chase in the last few weeks. The smartest guys in the world, back at the casino table.

By Jake Blumgart

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