Meritocratic Elitism or Tadpole Philosophy- Illusion of Success in Hard Work

N R Narayana Murthy

T M Krishna’s (Carnatic vocalist and writer-activist) critical observation (Deccan Herald, January 14, 2024) of N R Narayana Murthy’s rather insensitive statement of 70-hour work week- a statement delivered in a certain style that smacks of arrogance- is a fitting intervention uncovering a narrow socially constructed idea of merit “hidden behind such views”. This statement made by Murthy brings to the fore that notion of merit- one that is not as estimable as the word is generally understood. The vacuousness of such an idea has to be unpacked and the consequent concerns it raises are something that every thinking citizen should take note of.

Though this statement sparked a debate and received some criticism in the media, commentators, like Krishna have been very charitable and polite in excoriating Murthy’s embedded “thought process” in that coded insensitive statement of 70-hour work week. If decoded, Murthy, through this statement, appears to be pontificating on the virtues of merit and espousing a value for meritocracy- meritocracy being a golden cage in which an arrogant elitism is ensconced. However, to realize fully the concerns, a little bit of bluntness and straightforwardness is called for.

Meritocracy is a word that was coined by Michael Young, British sociologist and activist, in his 1958 book The Rise of Meritocracy, 1870-2033. Young did not use the word in the way we understand it today. It had a pejorative sense in his usage. This book was Young’s spoof that portrays the consequences of a society where a citizen achieves success and gains rewards on the basis of individual merit. Merit, here, is formulated as IQ+ Effort, and the popular notion that is driven down is that a just society is best ruled by people with merit. The best jobs in the highest paying companies should be given for merited candidates.

Meritocracy, an idea or system constructed along the lines of ‘democracy’ and ‘aristocracy’, is the rule of the merited people and it is justified by proclaiming that it is this system of merit that best organizes a just society. Though a just society, inequalities would persist and the justness lies in the best positions being given to those on the basis of merit. Any degree of inequality was justified as long as there was no discrimination and no favours granted to anyone.

To justify such an inequality is to ““naturalize” inequality”, to borrow, Thomas Piketty’s expression from Capital and Ideology. Piketty notes that “…elites of many societies, in all climes and periods…have sought to “naturalize” inequality and rightly observes, “[i]nequality is neither economic nor technological; it is ideological and political”. The ideology that is at play in the present context is one of meritocracy and the meritocratic elites propagate this ideology to “naturalize” inequality.

Krishna makes an important point that “Murthy is not a person of ideas that emanate from conscious, deliberate engagement with the larger society”. Such a disposition of not engaging with the larger society is an inevitable consequence of an amalgam of technocracy and meritocracy (He is right when he says “Murthy’s life has been in technology space”). That’s what it appears to be. Murthy is a product of such an amalgam. Such a product would be devoid of any other concerns of the society. Deliberations on issues of social justice, inequality, climate change arising out of capitalist greed, and how public resources have been given to capitalists at throwaway prices by the State because of the unholy nexus between the capitalists and politicians for mutual benefit, and other issues plaguing the society require a good exposure to the Humanities and the Social Sciences- one that cannot be expected from a product of technocratic-meritocratic education. 

Having benefitted from such a nexus the beneficiaries declaim from public platforms and the media the importance of merit and hard work as the only factors linked to success. Such declamations completely bury the rigged social and political system. The irony of merit is that this very rigging is considered as part of merit which the smart ones from business schools manage so smoothly. Anyway, the public will not come to know what happens behind the screen but what they are presented with on the stage, and thus made to believe, are the virtues and qualities of meritocracy voiced through television channels and social media platforms (70-hour work week being one of those qualities).

Votaries of meritocracy will claim that a fair system of competition has been created where everyone plays by the rules. To win this game (that is to be successful), they further claim, one needs hard work (for long hours) coupled with inbuilt talent. This is the oft repeated social script for achievement and success. All it requires is a person of Murthy’s stature to keep this script in circulation.

Daniel Markovits, Professor at the Yale Law School, the author of The Meritocracy Trap, states in an article that “[i]n practice, however, meritocracy excludes everyone outside of a narrow elite”.  He further notes, whatever are the rules, it is only the rich who can win. This is so because the meritocratic system is so designed that odds are stacked against the marginalized and the have-nots. Markovits argues that the children of elites will always have access to the best schools and best universities from where they are likely to be conferred the elitist job. And the cycle continues. All along the mantra of hard work is chanted, either as self-assuring oneself, deceptively, of one’s abilities (read merit) and justifying the rewards, success and achievements that they have gained or as homilies for others to follow this path.

Brian Barry, a Moral and Political Philosopher and a critic of such a system, has pointed out with empirical evidence and analytical arguments, in Why Social Justice Matters, how such a system gives rise to what R H Tawney, an economic historian and social critic, calls the Tadpole Philosophy- 

“It is possible that intelligent tadpoles reconcile themselves to the inconvenience of their positions by reflecting that, though most of them will live and die as tadpoles and nothing more, the more fortunate of the species will one day shed their tails, distend their mouths and stomachs, hop nimbly on to dry land, and croak addresses to their former friends on the virtues by means of which tadpoles of character and capacity can rise to frogs.”

Murthy, typically, is like Tawney’s frog trapped in the golden cage of meritocracy- with no “engagement with the larger society”, as Krishna rightly notes- mocking and teasing those who could not achieve, what according to him is, success. The Tadpole Philosophy is a way of looking down upon people, the have-nots, and saying “You couldn’t make it because you didn’t have the merit”.  

This Tadpole Philosophy is best captured in a scene from a very popular Kannada movie of the early seventies, Bangaarada Manushya (Golden Man). It depicts the insensitiveness towards the have-nots by one of the characters. The scene was enacted by Karnataka’s cultural icon and versatile actor, Dr. Rajkumar and yesteryear villain Vajramuni.  In that scene, Rajkumar (acting as Rajiva) admonishes his nephew, when the latter asks for a huge sum of money. In that admonition Rajkumar shows sensitive concern for have- nots not having adequate means for nourishment. His nephew (played by Vajramuni) very arrogantly passes off Rajkumar’s admonition in a totally insensitive way with an “I don’t care attitude”. He reacts by saying that it is their karma and it is their fate. This reaction reveals the Tadpole Philosophy displayed by the character where the privileged look down upon the underprivileged because they are unmerited. 

For whose benefit are the meritorious occupying a position in an institution or an organization? If the meritorious person is serving an institution or an organization then what or whose purpose is that institution or organization serving?  What is the merited individual’s contribution to the society and to the well-being of his fellow beings? Is a person as a member of the managerial or technocratic class- a membership that one has gained by clearing some examinations- enriching oneself and the shareholders of the corporation one is working for? If by enriching oneself and enhancing one’s social status, one is considered to be successful, then, is not such a success, that is measured only by distinguishing one from others, socially and economically, creating an inequality? Is this inequality, in a meritocratic system, justified because this is generated by some accepted or socially constructed notion of merit? Such uncomfortable questions unpack the fundamental notion of merit to reveal the emptiness in the content of merit. It is empty because it is unable to serve the broader social purposes, mentioned above, like social justice and reducing inequality etc.  

S K Arun Murthi is Ex Faculty of Philosophy in IISER, Mohali (retired), Department of Humanities and Social Sciences

Support Countercurrents

Countercurrents is answerable only to our readers. Support honest journalism because we have no PLANET B.
Become a Patron at Patreon

Join Our Newsletter


Join our WhatsApp and Telegram Channels

Get CounterCurrents updates on our WhatsApp and Telegram Channels

Related Posts

Join Our Newsletter

Annual Subscription

Join Countercurrents Annual Fund Raising Campaign and help us

Latest News