Anyway, this is all preference to calling attention to David Brooks's critique of meritocracy from a very different angle. He seems to be arguing that meritocracy is confusing to the plebes and peasants because they don't know who they are supposed to be deferential to anymore, and it makes them trust institutions less when the same white men who have always run them aren't always in charge anymore.
Here’s the funny thing. As we’ve made our institutions more meritocratic, their public standing has plummeted. We’ve increased the diversity and talent level of people at the top of society, yet trust in elites has never been lower.That there should be elites is never to be questioned, naturally. The problem is that the "new" elites lack what Brooks calls "empathy," but would better be described as comfortable familiarity with the entitlement of domination, so that they can make it palatable to those dominated. He rolls out this defense of noblesse oblige: "If you were an old blue blood, you traced your lineage back centuries, and there was a decent chance that you’d hand your company down to members of your clan. That subtly encouraged long-term thinking." Now though, those selected for their merit -- for having more talent than social capital -- have to prove their worthiness by short-term results, lest the blue bloods kick them out of the seats of power. Another problem is "transparency," which has revealed the unpleasant mechanisms of domination in the power struggles among elites. Better to have a uniform group of elites who rule as a class, an aristocracy, rather than this unseemly fight for power.
Brooks is not necessarily wrong about all this; if elite hegemony was more uniform, there would less discontent and more resignation, apathy and acceptance of the "natural order" of social hierarchy. If you rule out social mobility altogether, of course society is more stable. If in nearly all cases, birth assigns you to your station in life, there is little space for disruption. But hereditary class has proven an untenable principle for social organization, and incompatible with the requirements of capitalist ideology. Social mobility justifies its exploitative practices.
Brooks ends by shrugging his shoulders and disavowing the conclusion he has been building toward in the column: "This is not to say that we should return to the days of the WASP ascendancy. That’s neither possible nor desirable. Rather, our system of promotion has grown some pretty serious problems, which are more evident with each passing day."
Chris Lehmann at the Awl is understandably unhappy about this column. Correcting Brooks's abuses of Wright Mills's The Power Elite, Lehmann makes the useful point that today's power elite may not look uniformly WASPy but is nevertheless homogeneous in that they derive power from controlling key institutions in the modern corporate-capitalist state. "Hence the overlapping directorates of the military, the corporations, and the government served, in Mills’ view, as the most critical forcing beds of plutocratic interest. Mills’ power elite got its marching orders from the impersonal mandates of the government contract or corporate board—not via the exchange of sly winks and elbow nudges at the Harvard Club." Aristocracy, that is to say, has dissolved into pseudo-meritocratic institutions, which depersonalizes blue-blood connections. In practice, the capitalist state transforms social capital by depersonalizing it, making it seem more meritorious in the form of state power, direct corporate control, or plain old cold, hard cash.