Daniel Bell is cautiously hopeful because he is aware that scientific and technical work depend on "theoretical knowledge [that] is sought, tested, and codified in a disinterested way" (op. cit). Perhaps this optimism can be justified so long as the scientists and technologists remain uninterested in power and are concerned with no more than social prestige, that is, so long as they neither rule nor govern. Noam Chomsky's pessimism, "neither history nor psychology nor sociology gives us any particular reason to look forward with hope to the rule of the new mandarins," may be excessive; there are as yet no historical precedents, and the scientists and intellectuals who, with such deplorable regularity, have been found willing to serve every government that happened to be in power, have been no "meritocrats" but, rather, social climbers. But Chomsky is entirely right in raising the question: "Quite generally, what grounds are there for supposing that those whose claim to power is based on knowledge and technique will be more benign in their exercise of power than those whose claim is based on wealth or aristocratic origin?" (Op. cit., p. 27.) And there is every reason to raise the complementary question: What grounds are there for supposing that the resentment against a meritocracy, whose rule is exclusively based on "natural" gifts, that is, on brain power, will be no more dangerous, no more violent than the resentment of earlier oppressed groups who at least had the consolation that their condition was caused by no "fault" of their own? Is it not plausible to assume that this resentment will harbor all the murderous traits of a racial antagonism, as distinguished from mere class conflicts, inasmuch as it too will concern natural data which cannot be changed, hence a condition from which one could liberate oneself only by extermination of those who happen to have a higher I.Q.? And since in such a constellation the numerical power of the disadvantaged will be overwhelming and social mobility almost nil, is it not likely that the danger of demagogues, of popular leaders, will be so great that the meritocracy will be forced into tyrannies and despotism?--Hannah Arendt (1972) "On Violence,"note XVI, in Crises of the Republic, pp. 196-7
The note quoted above is attached to a paragraph that treats Bell's analysis of a then-new phenomenon in history: the rise in importance of a credentialed technocratic class (of scientists and engineers, but also bureaucrats) that is indispensable in securing the open ended economic growth of modern (liberal) political economies. While Bell treats technocrats as a new species of disinterested agents, Chomsky and Arendt know better: as the social rewards of technocracy grow, the special ethos that governs an intellectual credit economy gives way among technocrats to mores more apt to political rule (and, in turn, this infects the academy).*
Since Bell, Chomsky, and Arendt discussed these issues, this credentialed class has increasingly secured the economic gains from its own contributions and is steadily supplying the political and economic elite (perhaps also the military elite). Along the way this class also rigged the system in its own favor, by permitting a rent-seeking financial elite to secure private gains at the expense of social costs since the great financial crisis (in 2008), and by making patents and copy-rights ever more protected.** Thus what was only a speculative thought in the 1960 has become reality: we live in an epistemocracy, or (if you think our modern credentials are spurious) we live in a credentialed elite that purports to be meritocratic.*** Obviously, it is not a perfect epistemocracy (the elites’ self-selection mechanisms are imperfect), but we are heading there.
In an earlier piece on meritocracy, I noted it is very annoying to be told that one deserves to lose. It is worse, I think, if one is told repeatedly and frequently by a whole society's morality and shared commitments that the systematic pattern of outcomes in which one always end up on the losing side is morally just and due to your cognitive, physical, psychological, aesthetic (etc.) flaws, especially, perhaps, if it all seems true. [Note that the true can be ideological if it presupposes a status quo bias [recall]; it can also be a form of supportive propaganda in Stanley's sense [recall]] I would now add that the worst feature of a meritocracy is that the ruling elites treat their own values as constituting rationality.
It is very hard to combine an epistemocracy with democracy because as Arendt notes", in the counterfactial limit the numerical power of the disadvantaged will be overwhelming and social mobility almost nil. Even if the meritocracy is run in accord with Rawls' difference principle and the rising tide of prosperity benefits the least advantaged materially, there is no reason to expect that the majority will accept being second-class forever (even if its accorded all the procedural trappings of democratic participation). Obviously, Arendt smuggles in an assumption of considerable heritability of intelligence, and we may well think (with a nod to plasticity) that ceteris paribus there will be open-ended progress in improving intelligence via social/cultural/educational factors and, thereby, with clever social engineering constant renewal of the elites. But other things are not equal: those will money and influence will nudge the system in their offspring’s favor.
Because rationality and facts are, by (social) definition, on the side of the credentialed elites, the disadvantaged are susceptible to demagogues. And, in fact, if one thinks that power is a genuine end, as it must be in politics, then it is quite rational by the majority to turn to demagogues. While Arendt correctly notes the murderous traits of a racial antagonism that accompanies this turn to demagoguery she mistakenly assumes that its primary target is the credentialed elite rather than members of low status groups that are advancing in relative status due to economic success (I call this the enduring ‘Jewish problem’).
And so we can distinguish between two kinds of demagogues: (i) the ones [Donald Trump, Boris Johnson, etc.] that on the whole leave the credentialed elites pretty much alone and re-direct the majority's energies at scapegoats (immigrants, refugees, dark-skinned citizens, etc.), and (ii) those demagogues that channel the anger at the credentialed elites. It turns out that (i) is can be a serious nuisance to epistemocracy (as the disruption caused by Brexit shows) and harm some of its members (especially if they beling to targeted scapegoat communities), while only (ii) is lethal to credentialed elites as such. Credentialed elites are able to accommodate themselves to (i); from their vantage point Donald Trump is ultimately mere entertainment. We see this calculation at work, first, in the favorable media coverage Trump garnered and, second, because Trump is not being treated as an existential threat to the status quo by those that have most to lose from it.
Once a demagogue along the lines of (ii) arises democracy is finished because the credentialed elites will not defend it. For, they have no attachment to democracy as such: already 'ignorant voters' are treated as a self-evident fact by many of the most ardent epistemocrats; there is increasing fondness to use arguments from complexity to favor either markets or experts. Rather, as Arendt suggests the credentialed will desert the democratic cause, and defend their power against the more egalitarian impulse in the name of a moral cause: merit.
Obviously these outcomes are not inevitable. It is possible liberal democracies muddle on. It is notable that there is a huge atmosphere of crisis that permeates Arendt's writinsg from the late 1960s and early 70s. There was a genuine crisis that was arguably worse than what's being faced now, but for all of our many imperfections liberal democracies have not imploded since. In particular, it is more likely that external threats (fill in your favorite: climate change, violent Jihad, China, etc.) will allow the construction of some kind of unity that will involve some compromise between the principle of merit and the principle of equality.
*Arendt has a very subtle treatment of the difference between a-political truth and socially useful/influential opinion.
**I leave aside here the ways in which professions (law, medicine, accountants, securities, etc.) secure barriers to entry through government enforced privileges.
****I use 'purport' because it is by no means obvious that the status quo is truly meritocratic.