The Meritocracy to Feudalism Pipeline
Intelligence is the last value standing, and it's iteratively creating an iron caste system.
I had a conversation with someone recently who was tired of intelligence. He was tired of the outsized importance of being smart, of the incessant signaling of those who consider themselves smart, and wondered why we've come to be so obsessed with intelligence.
To me, it seems obvious: there is no other benchmark left. Intelligence correlates highly both to your ability to manipulate status signals and symbols and to your bank balance. It's the golden ticket of meritocracy.
Centralizing the world culturally, crafting the "global village" also allowed for the rise of one emergent elite. Meritocratic norms and increasingly cognitively complex work requirements meant that not only will labor sourcing happen globally, but it is required to happen globally to keep supply up and costs down.
The cultural fracturing and polarization we're experiencing are closely tied to the rise of this new feudal nobility. Though, yes, feudalism is nothing new, this type of feudalism excels in that it is meritocratic, it has advancement, it has churn.
It is not that upward mobility isn't available anymore - I've seen it be more than possible for the handful of brilliant but poor kids in my generation, even here in the backwoods of the empire. These people now grace the halls of power in the West with, literally, the best of 'em. Upward mobility is the point. The issue is that it has only one form and only one destination - far away.
As brutal and repressive as it undoubtedly was, the feudalism of old didn't involve strip-mining the lower castes' cognitive and leadership potential. The nobles were rightly afraid of clever peasants, who could organize, fight back, and represent a real resistance. Still, they rarely offered them opportunities to ascend to the higher ranks because in-group loyalties and stability outweighed the benefits. Today, the outsized impact that one capable person can have in high leverage fields like tech or finance is enormous. Add to that the pavlovian abhorrence we must all feel toward in-group loyalties, and lubricating the way for the capable becomes almost a religious duty.
The American immigration system, praised for being a magnet for the best and brightest and hated at the same time for being "hard to get in," is a tool of our new feudalism. While America exports industrial quantities of "get yours" style individualism through its culture to every corner of the world, these newly minted citizens of the world, hungry for status and experiences, typically desire no experience more than to leave their communities and integrate into the true elite at the heart of the empire. Even in the most impoverished satellites of the American empire, words like "Harvard" mean elite. Everyone knows that's where the worthy get to go.
While New York, Paris, London, Vienna & Berlin have all been intellectual hubs in the past, pilgrimages to these cities either left thinkers inspired and energized to return or would skim a few errant stars off the top. The incentives of the current style of cognitive strip mining extend far beyond a bit of star harvesting. They take a good 20% off the top. That requires raking, not skimming, and forever changes the makeup and potential of the places left behind. What are the incentives of even the most patriotic if there are no peers to return to, no collaborators, no innovation beyond that standardized and imported by multinational corporations?
I find it funny to hear about diversity at top institutions. While the people in the halls of power indeed feature different melanin patterns and hard to pronounce names, the one thing they have in common is that they aren't going back. And while these elite circles are in fits and convulsions over how many percent of one or the other shade or genital configuration is represented on Fortune 500 boards or in VC firms, the one constituency that doesn't get a say in it is the one back home.
The problems at the top may be that you are almost invariably overworked, probably stuck in some baroque managerial hierarchy with much less leverage than you bargained for, no time for kids, or some variation on the golden handcuffs dilemma. At the bottom, the problems become more existential. Entire towns, regions, and countries become hollowed out. There is nothing to do, nowhere to go. On the darker end of the issue, there is addiction, in ever more baroque forms, from food to streaming video to porn and games and other utility-maximizing and value-creating inventions like ubiquitous opioids.
This is my issue with a lot of right-wing thought: we are well beyond the point of fixing our issues through a more intense application of "personal responsibility." The left is deluded in thinking that equality of outcome is only impeded by oppression (the more sophisticated leftist wouldn't phrase it this way, but any significant deviation from this axiom is heresy). The right is deluded in thinking that everyone has the same capacity for personal responsibility and that it does what it says on the tin when applied in a context with increasingly fewer options. Centralizing status and consolidating hierarchies has created new opportunities for some but much fewer options for most people who can't even dream of getting on that ladder. These people have seen their communities be wiped out to make space for the options of the few with the additional framing that any opposition to the new world is reactionary and “voting against their own interests.”
The most cogent, and to this day, the only real attempt at an answer comes from Silicon Valley, who from their rarefied cognitive heights can see the big picture and are autistic enough to bring it up - "Pay them off." Robot-powered UBI is how we'll keep them alive. Some pepper this bleak outlook with visions of poets and a renaissance of pottery & candle-making. Most intuit that it will simply be a more efficient and humane form of welfare, with all it has historically entailed.
Nobody has a viable plan for these places, for these people, one that can offer even those who can't "learn to code" the chance at a dignified existence.
I believe we've arrived at this point because we pay lip service to an idea of equality in a world emptied of dignity for those who, despite our protestations, turn out to be stubbornly unequal. "Equality before God" was a bulwark against this, but we've dispensed with that, replacing it with secular, see-through house-of-cards constructs like "human rights."
The global meritocratic ladder may be a dream for a handful of individuals but a nightmare for many collectives.
Thanks for reading my Substack.
Consider subscribing to it if you enjoy my writing. Also, please share, like, and comment.