The term meritocracy arose in socialist circles in the 1950s as a derisive term for a new system of class oppression. The first known use of the term is by Alan Fox in the journal Socialist Commentary of May 1956. Fox writes:

[Social stratification] will remain as long as we assume it to be a law of nature that those of higher occupational status must not only enjoy markedly superior education as well but also, by right and necessity, have a higher income in the bargain. As long as that assumption remains—as long as violation of it are regarded as grotesque paradoxes—then so long will our society be divisible into the blessed and the unblessed—those who get the best of everything, and those who get the poorest and the least. This way lies the “meritocracy”; the society in which the gifted, the smart, the energetic, the ambitious and the ruthless are carefully sifted out and helped towards their destined positions of dominance, where they proceed not only to enjoy the fulfillment of exercising their natural endowment but also to receive a fat bonus thrown in for good measure.

This is not enough. Merely to devise bigger and better “sieves” (“equality of opportunity”) to help the clever boys get to the top and then pile rewards on them when they get there is the vision of a certain brand of New Conservatism; it has never been the vision of socialism.

(I include this lengthy quotation because copies of the original source are difficult to find—as far as I know, it hasn’t been digitized—and the brief quotation in the Oxford English Dictionary doesn’t fully convey the context or tone of its use.)

The term made its way into mainstream discourse via the publication of Michael Young’s 1958 The Rise of the Meritocracy, 1870–2033: The New Elite of Our Social Revolution. Young’s book is a satirical look at 1950s British society from the perspective of someone writing from the distant perspective of the year 2034. Young writes:

Before the meritocracy was fully established, age-stratification as a substitute for the hereditary order may have been necessary for the sake of social stability.

Young is basically echoing Fox’s sentiment that the meritocracy is simply a replacement of one class of bosses with another. In this case, the hereditary rulers of Britain had been replaced by a seniority system (“age-stratification”), which, in the 1950s, was being replaced by one based on perceived merit. Young’s book made something of a splash, and was much commented upon in the mainstream press upon its publication.

Young later claimed to have coined the term, and he may have used it without conscious awareness that it was already in use. And many writers have followed suit, crediting Young with coining the term. But he did not—as any quick look at the OED, which contains the Fox citation from two years earlier, would confirm. Young was simply using a term that was already in use by those discussing the problems of social and economic stratification.

Meritocracy was originally derisive, not satirical, although Young’s book is definitely satire. But it is certainly ironic that twenty-first century capitalism has adopted this socialist slur as justification for its existence.

Fox, Alan. “Class and Equality.” Socialist Commentary. May 1956, 13.

Oxford English Dictionary, third edition. September 2001. s. v. meritocracy, n.

Young, Michael. The Rise of the Meritocracy, 1870–2033: The New Elite of Our Social Revolution. New York: Random House, 1959, 71–72. (Published in Britain by Thames and Hudson the previous year.)

Zimmer, Ben. “A ‘Meritocracy’ Is Not What People Think It Is.” The Atlantic. 14 March 2019.

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