The language of meritocracy, the workings of power, and the lack of accountability

One of the challenges of an organizational structure built on the rhetoric of meritocracy is its inability to put checks and balances in place to hold accountable the structures of power that are accumulated through claims to meritocracy.

The logic of meritocracy works precisely on the acceptance of inequality as natural to a structure that is built on merit, with merit standing in as a signifier of capability.

Inequalities are justified to the extent that they are based on differentials in merit.

Inequalities in differential labour, differential assigned workloads, differential pay structures can all be justified to the extent that they can be justified by some claim to merit. The powers that be in meritocratic structures determine the rules of the game to justify these inequalities.

Now all of this would work in a meritocratic system if the system was devoid of the workings of power and the traps to equal access that are put up by structural differences in access to opportunities.

In the concept of a meritocratic structure, once one has achieved the markers of what constituted merit, he/she has an opportunity of being part of the system. This logic would of course work if a meritocracy was based on continual evaluation on the basis of clearly articulated and transparent structures, with checks and balances of accountability built into the system such that those who were once in but have failed to perform to the standards of merit are automatically filtered out, making place for new power players in the system by virtue of merit.

In other words, for meritocracy to work, the rules, processes, and guidelines would have to be transparent to organizational members broadly, and opportunities would have to be extended equally so every organizational member has a chance at merit.

However, meritocracies are not devoid of power. Quite the opposite. Once through some claim of meritocracy one set of actors have been incorporated into the structure, it is of ultimate interest to the power brokers within the system to maintain their power. The maintenance of this power can now be achieved through the changing of rules, creation of new systems and new metrics that would serve the interests of power, and that are overall directed toward servicing the control of the power elite. In many instances in organizations, these rules are not transparent and are not available to all organizational members. This lack of transparency then keeps intact the power structure while keeping those in these structures out of the lens of scrutiny. Inequalities produced by the structures are continually justified without any accountability to organizational members.

Power in a meritocracy thus makes sure that new rules, standards, and arguments are propped up to retain and propagate power, maintaining intact the status quo. In organizational structures, these workings of power retain as intact the dominant modes of circulating power, simultaneously consolidating additional power in the hands of the meritocratic elite. Inequality thus is continually perpetuated in meritocracies that work by perpetuating differentials of access and differentials of labour, opportunities, and rewards.

Accountability in such systems is lost as structures don't really create opportunities for remaining accountable. The logics of the organization and its rules are not rendered visible in such instances, ensuring that inequalities are perpetuated.


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