And so, most meritocracies have nepotism. Paris Hilton, for example, would likely be a crack whore if she had been born into a different family. Luckily for her, her great-grandfather was an entrepreneurial genius. She would be the third generation to be born lucky. And so, the social structure is basically the same as it was during the Middle Ages; a small wealthy elite that is relatively closed off to outsiders and a large peasantry that is largely inescapable. A recent article in The Economist even argued that there is less social mobility in America today than there has been at any other time since the Gilded Age.
However, we can’t forget that other economic system of the twentieth century, Communism. In Communist countries, in fact, we see the same basic social structure repeating itself; a tiny elite which we can call the apparatchik nobility and a large underclass, which we can call the proletariat, or if we want to be snotty, the gulag class. At any rate, the justification for this social inequality is that old French Revolution gag, “the people”. The elite claim to be working for the people and the masses to be suffering for the people. Ultimately, the society decides that “the people” can be best served by arresting great numbers of the people and keeping them in gulags. And so, ironically, it is much easier for the average person to live their lives in a nation that values a belief in “every man for himself” than it is to live in a nation that claims to fight for social equality. Foucault once said that there was no real difference between Truman’s America and Stalinist Russia, but I think that this statement says more about Foucault than it does about historical fact. Personally, I would much rather suffer the indignity of being looked down upon by the man in the gray flannel suit than die in the killing fields. But, that’s just me.
So far, of course, much of this sounds like watered-down Marxism. The major differences are that I do not see any of these things as being inevitable, I do not have faith in historical stages, and I do not particularly see any way that high societies could be organized otherwise. Certainly, I know that tribal economies tend to be “gift based”. However, I can’t imagine that we could return to a gift economy without destroying much of our own society in the process. I would argue however that file-sharing, bootlegging, and other increasingly common hobbies constitute a return to gift economics. But, notice that the Department of Homeland Security now considers bootleggers to constitute a terrorist threat, and with good reason- the current society in which we live cannot survive the existence of a gift economy. If we want a gift economy, which many of us do, we have to consider a return to tribes, tribal warfare, and all else that goes along with the economy and stop pretending that we could have a highly developed prosperous tribal economy.