‘Zizek is untwitterable’ was a pithy tweet on last night’s RSA lecture by one of the world’s foremost philosophers. The great man’s lecture was dense, edgy and erudite. Like a good wine its after taste is more affecting than the first impression.
One passage came back to me last night running home (for fitness purposes not because I was being pursued by lust-crazed fans). Zizek was discussing the idea that a viable and orderly social democracy could be based on a deal whereby we give total power and status to a super rich knowledge elite in exchange for all citizens – regardless of merit or effort - being guaranteed a basic income. He dismissed this, in part because he said it took no account of envy. Zizek quoted Frederich Von Hayek who argued – against advocates of social justice - that the poor find it easier to accept the wealthy if they think their fortune is unmerited. For the masses to accept that those at the top deserve their success means the majority have to accept not only that they are poorer but they are less virtuous.
This echoes the point made by Michael Young in his 1956 satire ‘the rise of the meritocracy’ and again in one of his final articles in 2001:
“The business meritocracy is in vogue. If meritocrats believe, as more and more of them are encouraged to, that their advancement comes from their own merits, they can feel they deserve whatever they can get.
They can be insufferably smug, much more so than the people who knew they had achieved advancement not on their own merit but because they were, as somebody's son or daughter, the beneficiaries of nepotism. The newcomers can actually believe they have morality on their side”.
All this made me think of our attitude to celebrity. We want to think two things about celebrities. Either that they are simply blessed with a talent we don’t have (which is bearable for us as it’s not our fault that we are not gifted), or that they are deranged and damaged (which is bearable because we choose not to live their crazy sad lives). If it is possible to think both things at once all the better.
Much less attractive to us is the idea of people whose specialness comes from simply working hard and sticking at it. We might say simply that this is boring but maybe ours is a defensive reaction to not wanting to be made to feel that it is our own fault that we have not excelled.
So on X Factor we like Leona Lewis for her talent or Jedward for their deranged desire to be famous even while losing their dignity. As for the rest - hard working, not bad but not special singers – well, they leave us cold. And as that’s all that’s left to fight it out, I won’t be watching any more.
Public services, commercial corporations and spontaneous social movements: what's the power they all lack? How might public service reform not flounder through shoehorning dynamism into a universalist and planned approach? How might businesses become genuinely socially responsible rather than merely intoning fine sounding rhetoric?