Against Meritocracy : Culture, power and myths of mobility book cover
1st Edition

Against Meritocracy
Culture, power and myths of mobility

ISBN 9781138889552
Published August 21, 2017 by Routledge
250 Pages 8 B/W Illustrations

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Book Description

Meritocracy today involves the idea that whatever your social position at birth, society ought to offer enough opportunity and mobility for ‘talent’ to combine with ‘effort’ in order to ‘rise to the top’. This idea is one of the most prevalent social and cultural tropes of our time, as palpable in the speeches of politicians as in popular culture. In this book Jo Littler argues that meritocracy is the key cultural means of legitimation for contemporary neoliberal culture – and that whilst it promises opportunity, it in fact creates new forms of social division.

Against Meritocracy is split into two parts. Part I explores the genealogies of meritocracy within social theory, political discourse and working cultures. It traces the dramatic U-turn in meritocracy’s meaning, from socialist slur to a contemporary ideal of how a society should be organised. Part II uses a series of case studies to analyse the cultural pull of popular ‘parables of progress’, from reality TV to the super-rich and celebrity CEOs, from social media controversies to the rise of the ‘mumpreneur’. Paying special attention to the role of gender, ‘race’ and class, this book provides new conceptualisations of the meaning of meritocracy in contemporary culture and society.

Table of Contents

List of illustrations



Introduction: Ladders and Snakes

Meritocracy as plutocracy

What’s wrong with meritocracy? Five problems

Meritocracy as social system and as ideological discourse

How this book is organised

Part one: Genealogies

Chapter one: Meritocracy’s genealogies in social theory

Never start with the dictionary

Early genealogies, histories and geographies

Ladders and level playing field

Socialist roots and critique

Social democratic meritocracy

The critique of educational essentialism

‘Just’ meritocracy? The beginnings of neoliberal meritocracy

Meritocracy in the neoliberal meritocracy


Chapter two: ‘Rising up’: gender, ethnicity, class and the meritocratic deficit

See where your talent takes you

Partial progression and painful ladders: mid century welfare

Pulling rank: problems with welfarist ‘rising up’

Selling 1968

Parables of progress: luminous media fables

Not so cool: unequal employment

Selling inequality: post-feminism, post-race….post-class?

Neoliberal justice narratives

The egalitarian and the meritocratic deficit

Chapter three: The movement of meritocracy in political rhetoric

Meritocratic feeling

Thatcherism in Britain

Major meritocracy

Blairism and beyond

Aspiration Nation

Tragi-comedy: Bojo’s ‘hard work’

Blue-collar billionaires: Farage, Trump and the destabilisation of merit

Theresa May and the Middle England meritocrats

Aspiration for all?

Meritocracy vs. mutuality


Part two: Popular parables

Chapter four: Just like us? Normcore plutocrats and the popularisation of elitism

Meritocracy and the extension of privilege

The 1%, the new rentiers and transnational asset-stripping

Normcore plutocrats

Normcore aristocrats

The kind parent


The new rich are different

Chapter five: #Damonsplaining and the unbearable whiteness of ‘merit’

#Damonsplaining and externalised white male privilege

Post-racial meritocracy

The racialization of merit: people

The racialization of merit: products

The racialization of merit: production

Trying to shut women up

Calling out the myth of postracial meritocracy

Externalised and internalised neoliberal meritocracy


Chapter six: Desperate success: Managing the mumpreneur

Doing it all

Child labour

Desperate success

Entrepreneurial Man

Magical femininity

The mumpreneur and the branded self

Disaggregation and alternatives

Conclusion: Beyond neoliberal meritocracy

Failing to convince

The journeys of meritocracy

What’s the alternative?

Changing the cultural pull of meritocratic hope

Alternatives to the ladder


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Jo Littler is a Reader in the Centre for Culture and Creative Industries in the Department of Sociology at City, University of London. She is the author of Radical Consumption: Shopping for change in contemporary culture (2009) and co-editor, with Roshi Naidoo, of The Politics of Heritage: The Legacies of ‘Race’ (2005).


"This is a marvellously rich and timely book. It is meticulously researched and wide ranging in focus. Jo Littler pins down with precision the key role played by the idea of meritocracy in the political and cultural neoliberal strategy." 

- Professor Angela McRobbie, Media and Communications, Goldsmiths, University of London, UK

"Against Meritocracy is a tour de force of political analysis. But it's also a landmark political book, charting pathways beyond the leading social beliefs of our time."

- Professor Andrew Ross, Social and Cultural Analysis, New York University, USA

"In Against Meritocracy, Jo Littler elegantly and persuasively weaves together histories and discourses of the concept "meritocracy," and theorizes about the longevity of this concept even in the face of overwhelming evidence that this concept does not "work" in culture, in politics, in our everyday lives. Here she offers an important new angle on the familiar assumptions about meritocracy, and importantly demonstrates how these assumptions are put into practice in ways that benefit the privileged. This brilliant book is so important; Littler’s refusal to make totalizing statements about what, and how, meritocracy means, is a major, and necessary, contribution."

- Professor Sarah Banet-Weiser, Communication, USC Annenberg, USA

"Meritocracy, as legitimating creed for capitalism-as-culture, has been widely studied, but less than adequately theorized. In a commanding new study, Jo Littler subjects the myth of upward mobility to searching critical analysis, probing its historical resilience, its pervasive presence in popular discourse, and its insidious effects as an ideology that continues, amidst plutocratic rule and widening structural inequality, to promote faith in the elusive "ladder of opportunity"."

- Professor Jean Comaroff, African and African American Studies, Harvard University, USA

"Against Meritocracy has an important role to play in informing the growing movement working to sweep away the Tory government."

- IAN SINCLAIR, Peace News

"Littler’s compelling argument of the damage, both ideological and material, caused by the workings of meritocracy needs to be heeded. […] Against Meritocracy is an important and timely book that reminds us it is time to abandon meritocracy as elitist, inequitable, and well past its sell-by-date."

- Professor Diane Reay, University of Cambridge

"Littler offers a systematic and brilliant analysis of the kind of cultural work that the incorporation of meritocratic ideals has carried out in the Anglo-American world, particularly since the 1980s"

- Dr Catherine Rottenberg, Cultural Studies 

"One of those unusual academic books which is actually pleasurable to read from cover to cover ….a rewarding site for collective thinking and action vis-à-vis building a better – fairer – social world."

- Dr Sarah Burton, LSE Review of Books

"Engaging and important [..] This book offers a valuable set of tools through which we can not only debunk neoliberal meritocracy but also begin to generate alternative ways to work toward a more egalitarian and progressive society that benefits the many and not just the few."

- Dr Kim Allen in Cultural Politics

"Littler’s analyses are subtle, and the research informing them is impressively wide-ranging. Littler leaves readers indignant. She leaves neoliberal targets weakened, morally concussed [...] Constant alertness to gender complications apt to be overlooked by people writing about meritocracy in a broad-brush way is one of her book’s great strengths."

- Professor Andrew Pinnock in Cultural Trends 

‘A well-researched and compelling book... shows the many ways in which this seemingly progressive yet insidious idea and its material manifestations have seeped into contemporary life’

- Dr Marjana Johansson, Organization