A couple of years ago, during an argument with a relative about income and wealth inequality, I brought up anthropologist David Graeber’s viral essay “On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs,” which observed that “the more obviously one’s work benefits other people, the less one is likely to be paid for it.”
“What if we woke up tomorrow and all the sanitation workers and cleaners disappeared?” I asked my relative. “Then compare that to investment bankers and hedge-fund managers. What would happen if they all disappeared overnight? Which one would have a greater negative impact on society?”
They answered immediately: “It would be worse if the investment bankers disappeared.”
I was surprised and it took me a moment to collect my thoughts. “You realize we can’t survive without cleaners? The streets would be filled with garbage. People would die.” I babbled something about how the recent increases in human life expectancies have more to do with improved hygiene and cleanliness than better health care — more to the work of hospital cleaning staff and sanitation workers than doctors.
They shrugged. “Yeah,” they said, “But the economy would collapse if all the investment bankers disappeared because they’d be impossible to replace.” Investors, they claimed, were smarter and harder working than almost everyone else, and required years of training.
Then they added, in a dispassionate, condescending tone: “We can easily replace the cleaners.”
I was asked to write this essay to comment on the myth that wealthy people work harder than others and therefore have “earned” their immense incomes and fortunes. This is a world I’m very familiar with: my father is a CEO of a private corporation; I grew up in an upper-class neighbourhood in North Vancouver, and attended two different affluent high schools in West Vancouver. Last year, I wrote an essay for The Walrus titled “I’m Part of the 0.1 Percent and I Want a Wealth Tax.”
While it obviously doesn’t take a person born into wealth to point out that rich people don’t deserve their money, my aim here is to dissect this particular defence from the inside.
Modern English is fascinating in how it limits critical thought: “Earned” means both to “obtain money” in return for labour, as an award, or as interest or profit, and to “gain deservedly in return for one’s behaviour or achievements.” The equivocation of these two ideas gives us meritocracy, the “bootstrap” ideology of the current ruling class.
One of the core issues of this ideology is that assuming merit is the main pathway to wealth and success means people will infer the opposite to also be true — that wealth is proof of merit. This can lead to the false conclusion that one’s income is a measure of the value added to society, when it’s better understood as a measure of the amount extracted.
Meritocracy as a concept is relatively new, an evolution of the Protestant work ethic that was spawned in part by popular, justified contempt for lazy aristocrats and rent-seeking capitalists. Since extreme inequality can only be sustained through what economist Thomas Piketty refers to as an “apparatus of justification,” when inequality increases, so too must rationalizations as to why this inequality is just. Meritocracy has served as this rationalization since at least the late 1970s, as it insulates the new highly-educated and remunerated professional class from traditional left-wing criticisms, even though this class also increasingly extracts wealth from rents.
The question of whether high-income professionals got where they are because they’re more hard-working than others once again boils down to definitions.
If you define “hard-working” by the number of hours one spends at their job and “optimizing” themselves, rich people do reportedly work “harder” on average, although these self-reported numbers from “successful” people are likely greatly exaggerated. Furthermore, long hours don’t mean someone is engaging in useful or socially-positive tasks — Graeber’s work suggests it’s often the opposite in corporate contexts.
Meritocracy venerates the workaholic, and so performative workaholism — and burnout — is on the rise, despite a growing body of literature showing productivity rapidly declines as work hours increase, and that constant busyness impairs certain types of cognition, making us less empathetic and more susceptible to biases, peer pressure, and impulsive behaviours.
Consequently, performative workaholism is partially achieved by recoding leisure activities as productive work (e.g. getting drunk at a “networking event” instead of a “party,” or playing golf with clients). In addition, even if a CEO or stock-market analyst works twice or even three times as many hours, it doesn’t follow that their contribution in terms of effort or productivity is equivalent to 200 times that of the average worker, which is nearly the amount they get paid.
But there’s far more to the merit myth than bogus claims about effort and talent, and so we must take a closer look at some of the highest-paying jobs in our society.
According to a 2015 paper by economists Thomas Lemieux and W. Craig Riddell (using data from Statistics Canada’s 2011 National Household Survey), approximately half of the top 1 per cent of income earners in Canada come from only four industries: business services, finance and insurance, health and social services, and mining, oil, and gas. (This data is nearly a decade old, and therefore fails to capture impacts of the recent real estate and tech booms in major Canadian cities. Furthermore, these numbers do not account for the fact that the majority of the profits from the oil sands don’t go to Canadians. Still, the data is useful.)
These four industries have several things in common: they involve rent seeking and/or resource extraction; they’re thought to have low or negative social value, with the exception of healthcare; many in these industries report that much of their time at work is taken up by pointless bullshit and/or secretly believe their jobs shouldn’t exist. Studies also suggest leaders in these industries are disproportionately likely to exaggerate their abilities and/or be narcissistic or psychopathic, something I’ve previously written about.
In addition, for some high-paying careers, such as stock-market analysts, research indicates performance might be mostly a matter of luck. This is well-known in the financial world, where people often point out most investors fail to beat the market. Investors’ solution to this is spreading investments out in a wide-ranging portfolio or index fund so that returns and losses cancel out to approximate the average growth of the “market.” It doesn’t take talent or knowledge to invest your money this way; it takes access to wealth. I grew up around rich people who love to gamble, and know that “fortune” favours those who can afford to play endless rounds of the game.
An economic system based on ruthless competition inevitably fetishizes extreme skill and effort, thus incentivizing monopolistic and gatekeeping behaviours. This has led to an increasingly polarized labour market, consisting of what author Daniel Markovits, in his book “The Meritocracy Trap: How America’s Foundational Myth Feeds Inequality, Dismantles the Middle Class, and Devours the Elite,” refers to as wage-stagnated “gloomy” jobs and high-paying “glossy” jobs, such as those described above, which, by design, displace middle-class labour (Markovits uses as an example loan officers who were deskilled by financial technology; a way to climb the wealth ladder is to design or implement technologies that wipe out jobs a few rungs down). The concentration of decision-making power in fewer hands actually lowers overall production within companies, because the monopolization of power and technical knowledge diminishes the potential productivity of all the workers who are pushed to the bottom.
In other words, “merit” is not about talent, ability or production so much as it’s about narcissistic control — think of the Wall Street bankers who were bailed out after the 2008 crisis because they were perceived as too big to fail.
Narcissism also explains why these powerful people feel entitled to escalating compensation packages. At a certain point, accumulated wealth and income stop functioning as units of utility, and become — to the self-aggrandizing person — units of “merit” or personal value instead, leading these highly-competitive, passionless and alienated individuals to seek to outdo each other in order to “win” what they effectively see as a game, consequences — environmental destruction, worker exploitation, mental illness, community breakdown — be damned.
“What is conventionally called merit is actually an ideological conceit, constructed to launder a fundamentally unjust allocation of advantage,” Markovits writes. “Meritocracy is merely the most recent instant of the iron law of oligarchy.”
I return now to my relative’s horrifying statement: “We can easily replace the cleaners.” I shared this story because their response reflects a common attitude among wealthy, privileged people: they don’t care about people outside of their socioeconomic class, and don’t want to have to care.
Markovits characterizes glossy jobs as being “high-skilled” and gloomy jobs as being low-skilled. However, I think a better distinction is that glossy jobs are high-powered/controlling while gloomy jobs, which include talented workers in academia and creative fields, among others, are low-powered. Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say disempowered, by a deliberate effort to de-specialize and degrade the skills involved in many creative, technical and empathic careers through use of algorithms, statistics, and computer programming. The point is to make the vast majority of workers both interchangeable and replaceable, to further concentrate power in the hands of “leaders” and “job creators.”
In order to maximize the extraction of “profit,” corporations must optimize the exploitation of workers by rendering them, as my relative put it, replaceable, and — should the march of automation continue undisrupted — disposable.
I used to believe change could be brought about by democratic means, but in the last few years I’ve come around to the view that revolution and rebellion are likely necessary. Almost every article about narcissistic abuse says the same thing: narcissists rarely change. You have to give up a lot of yourself to reach, or stay at, the very “top” of the capitalist pyramid scheme. From personal experience, I can attest to the fact that many people are willing to lose their children before their wealth and power — after all, they’ve convinced themselves that they deserve everything they have, and more.
I don’t want to live in the hyper-consumerist, mechanized, technocratic world we’re rapidly being thrust into by our narcissistic and megalomaniacal elites. I’m from that world, and know it to be a cruel, emotionally vacant and empty existence, our souls as wasted as the land we as settlers stole and destroyed.
I never saw exceptional “hard work” or “intelligence” among the members of the class I was born into; I have, however, witnessed bizarre, needless greed, grandiosity and self-inflation, and a general willingness to shut out the cries for help or intervention emanating from around the world.
Don’t let the rich use false claims of merit and hard work to stop you from pushing for needed change. We must fight now, before there is nothing left to fight for.
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Meghan Bell’s fiction and poetry have appeared in literary journals across Canada, and her critical essays have previously appeared in The Walrus and The Tyee. In November 2019, Meghan joined Resource Movement, a community of young Canadians with wealth and/or class privilege working toward the redistribution of wealth, land, and power. Sign their petition calling for wealth and inheritance taxes in Canada. meghanbell.com / @meghanlbell