Meritocracy and inheritance

The above picture is a scan from the news magazine The Week (issue 772). I thought the juxtaposition was quite upsetting, so I decided it needed to be shared. Here are two excellent examples of the inequalities inherent in our systems of wealth distribution: one story shows the obscene wealth and decadence of the American rich and the other shows the poverty and suffering of one of the world poorest nations. This has to stop.

I recently finished an excellent little book from Zero books called The Meaning of David Cameron by Richard Seymour. A large part of the text was taken up by discussions of the term ‘meritocracy’ and its appropriation by the left and right. It is used as a progressive term to signify that “one should rise or fall by one’s own merits” in a society of equal opportunity. Thus any individual’s own effort and natural genius morally justifies their own financial successes: Everyone is equal in opportunity but unequal in character. Seymour goes on to discuss the research of Stephen Aldridge of the Cabinet Office’s Performance and Innovation Unit, who presented his work to the Blairite ‘third way’ sociologists, such as Anthony Giddens.

He said that to have a ‘strong’ version of meritocracy, it would be necessary to raise taxes on income and investments, and abolish inheritance. For social mobility to realistically take place, it had to be possible to move down as well as up the scale, and thus it would be necessary to “reduce barriers to downward social mobility for dull middle class children”. The Government distanced itself from these findings – this was not the meritocracy that had in mind. (p.55)

To follow the logic of meritocracy one would need to increment a dissolution of inheritance, otherwise the premise of ‘equality’ in a meritocracy is false. The hypocrisy of meritocracy is clear for all to see, and I agree with Seymour that it is a “collective insult on humankind”. If a supposedly socialist party such as Labour is unwilling to introduce such measures and the conservatives are about as likely to drop inheritance as throw eggs at the Queen, then why is dropping inheritance a faux pas, even when it coincides with the logic of our contemporary [fascistic] form of neoliberalism?

In The Communist Manifesto Marx lists the “abolition of all right of inheritance” third in a list of 10 procedures to be enacted once state power has been claimed by the dictatorship of the proletariat and the expropriators are expropriated. Inheritance is very important as a consequence of the destruction of capitalism, but as Marx noted in The Right of Inheritance eliminating inheritance tout court would not rid society of the structures of private property and therefore may not be a progressive move towards communism at all: the relations of society are still essentially the same. “Inheritance does not create that power of transferring the produce of one man’s labor into another man’s pocket — it only relates to the change in individuals who yield that power” (Marx). To use the bourgeois powers to eliminate inheritance would seemingly be impossible, given that one major point of inheritance is for one’s children to be protected from hardships after the death of a dependent. The incentive for wealth accumulation and the provision of family assets such as homes and savings would be limited if inheritance was abolished. Although it would ultimately take one avenue of social mobility away from the rich, the basic capitalist desire would still be based on individual self-interest, personal wealth accumulation and appropriation of others labour as a means of financial success.

To proclaim the abolition of the right of inheritance as the starting point of the social revolution would only tend to lead the working class away from the true point of attack against present society. It would be as absurd a thing as to abolish the laws of contract between buyer and seller, while continuing to present state of exchange of commodities. (Marx)

Even if inheritance was abolished, it would only encourage capital flight and devious loopholes to ensure assets end up in the ‘right’ pockets. To abolish inheritance is not a solution to redistributing wealth, but it shows how the logic of accumulation is bound to the family as a centre for protection and privilege. This helps to maintain structures of class inequality and social immobility within a meritocracy.

However, even though inheritance is an effect not the cause of inequality, if there was a referendum on the issue, I know how I would vote, although, as “Professional white owner-occupiers are most likely to receive an inheritance” I’m not sure this lot would agree:

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