Thursday, August 20, 2009

Political Consciousness and Meritocracy Revisited


A little while ago, I wrote two posts on political consciousness and meritocracy, which I would like to revisit in light of a passage I came across just the other day. In the post on political consciousness, I observed that many today consider the attainment of political consciousness as necessary for an individual's maturation. Moreover, these same people often define attainment of political consciousness as the rejection of authority. Rejection of authority, then, becomes an essential condition of growing up. In the second post, I reproduced a quotation from Tocqueville, where he points out that meritocracy makes individuals free to pursue their own happiness without regard for others. While this phenomenon is usually praised for enhancing individual freedom, it does have the negative effect of alienating many individuals from society; in many cases, according to Tocqueville, this alienation ends in suicide or insanity.

It should not surprise anybody, then, that these two ideals of political consciousness and meritocracy together have devastated the family. It also should come as no surprise that all these individuals, once beyond their fathers' control, would devise new institutions to deal with their alienation. And without further ado, here is the passage:
Hierarchical, patriarchal, circumscribed families were being replaced [among Russian Jews and the Russian intelligentsia in the 1860s] by egalitarian, fraternal, and open-ended ones. The rest of the world was to follow suit.

All modern societies produce "youth cultures" that mediate between the biological family, which is based on rigidly hierarchical role ascription within the kinship nomenclature, and the professional domain, which consists, at least in aspiration, of equal interchangeable citizens judged by universalistic meritocratic standards. The transition from son to citizen involves a much greater adjustment than the transition from son to father. Whereas in traditional societies one is socialized into the "real world" and proceeds to move, through a succession of rites of passage, from one ascriptive role to another, every modern individual is raised on values inimical to the ones that prevail outside. Whatever the rhetoric within the family and whatever the division of labor between husbands and wives, the parent-child relationship is always asymmetrical, with the meaning of each action determined according to the actor's status. Becoming a modern adult is always a revolution.

There are two common remedies for this predicament. One is nationalism, with the modern state posing as a family complete with founding fathers, patriotism, a motherland, brothers-in-arms, sons of the nation, daughters of the revolution, and so on. The other is membership in a variety of voluntary associations, of which youth groups are probably the most common and effective precisely because they combine the ascription, solidarity, and intense intimacy of the family with the choice, flexibility, and open-endedness of the marketplace.

(Yuri Slezkine, The Jewish Century, p. 142. Princeton University Press, 2004)
Slezkine's main idea here is that many of the most important institutions and ideals of the modern world are all tools invented to deal with the demise of the family. Once we (or at least, the truly modern among us) reject traditional authority, we are free--but we do not know how best to use this freedom. To make up for the loss of our family, the result of our self-emancipation, we form voluntary associations, especially youth groups, where those who have rejected parental authority can unite; or, we conceptualize the "nation" or "people" (in the 19th-century biological/racial sense) as our real family, with a greater claim to our loyalty than our own flesh-and-blood parents.

In the end Slezkine leaves us with a very perturbing question: How much of the modern world is really just our attempt to flee from authority?
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