Meritocracy Died in Kabul this Month


I was actually going to write about an excellent new essay by Mary Harrington today, but given how strongly I feel about the debacle in Kabul, I want to write instead about an essay penned by Swedish thinker Malcolm Kyeyune called "Farewell to Bourgeois Kings."

I've been thinking (and writing) a lot about the disastrous events unfolding in Kabul. It jogged a memory for me, of when I was interviewing folks in DC for my co-authored book The Hillary Doctrine around 2013. I remember being very surprised that those in positions of great responsibility were, by and large, in their late 20s and early 30s. They had gotten master's degrees at places like Johns Hopkins and Georgetown, and were very polished, poised and well-dressed. And they had never actually done anything in their entire lives, except gotten good grades. "The young mandarins," as I thought of them. They seemed to be in some strange gaming word where saying the right opaque thing, or being appointed to the right position from which they could get to another more coveted position, was the sum total of their thoughts. As for actually doing anything, that was all shadows and mirrors. "We've allocated $1.2 million for this new program . . . " and all that would be examined would be burn rates and M&E reports written by the same people they had given the money to. It was all so . . . other-worldly.

I had the same experience when trying to work with a government council that will remain nameless. The young mandarin in charge of the council was very upset at me because I kept asking questions about evaluation of the programs undertaken, whether there was follow-up to gauge impact, anything. It took me almost a year to realize that none of that mattered. It wasn't actually about getting anything done, or changing anything. It was all about spending money so that you could plausibly assert you were getting things done and changing things. I'm sure you've heard of "plausible denial," but what I had encountered was "plausible assertion." If you're spending your days sitting in an office in Foggy Bottom in DC, then plausible assertion is the closest you ever get to "doing" anything. You begin to fool yourself that you really are doing something.

Until, of course, the real world intrudes and it's clear you have never done anything at all and you don't know how to. Kabul is that great reality check, and it's revealed what a Potemkin village our foreign policy establishment is. The young mandarins are, in the end, incompetents, despite their credentials.

And this is a big, big deal. America was built in part on the idea the country is a meritocracy, and that technocrats and other professionals such as scientists will run the country more effectively and rationally than any other type of system. But the concept of "merit" has been corrupted. It's now simply a term for credentials, and does not in the least indicate any level of competence, experience, or effectiveness at all. Kabul put all of that on display for the world to see.

Kyeyune echoes these points in his essay:

"It is not just that the elite class is incompetent – even kings could be incompetent without undermining belief in monarchy as a system – it is that they are so grossly, spectacularly incompetent that they walk around among us as living rebuttals of meritocracy itself. It is that their application of managerial logic to whatever field they get their grubby mitts on – from homelessness in California to industrial policy to running a war – makes that thing ten times more expensive and a hundred times more dysfunctional. To make the situation worse, the current elites seem almost serene in their willful destruction of the very fields they rely on for legitimacy. When the ”experts” go out of their way to write public letters about how covid supposedly only infects people who hold demonstrations in support of ”structural white supremacy”, while saying that Black Lives Matter demonstrations pose no risk of spreading the virus further, this amounts to the farmer gleefully salting his own fields to make sure nothing can grow there in the future. How can anyone expect the putative peasants of our social order to ”trust the science”, when the elites themselves are going out of their way, against all reason and the tenets of basic self-preservation, to make such a belief completely impossible even for those who really, genuinely, still want to believe?

"The managerial class increasingly appears as a sort of funhouse mirror inversion of the doomed russian nobility of the late tsarist era; they no longer know how to run a country and only seem to parasitize on the body politic while giving almost nothing of value in return. In tsarist Russia, the nobility proved increasingly incapable of winning Russia’s wars or running its ministries, making their legitimating narratives proclaiming them to possess some natural-born right and capacity for rulership increasingly impossible to believe in. In modern America, it is the meritocrats who now openly lack any merit or ability to rule, quickly undermining the ability of the average person to believe in the very foundational claims behind the managerial order. And by what right does the collective of non-divine kings rule? To borrow from Schmitt: by the same right as the collective of stupid and ignorant technocrats. In other words, by virtue of simply not having been replaced yet. Nothing more."

Well said. But it didn't really have to be that way. Merit once meant something. Experience was once demanded as a pre-requisite for appointment to high position. And don't get me started on the dilution of academic credentials! As someone in the profession of providing those credentials, I could tell you tales that would curl your hair about how standards have fallen. Substantive knowledge of international affairs is dismissed as "something they can google on their own time," while what matters for their grade is knowledge of "isms."

So this is how the mighty USA will fall. We train our best young people in words and ideas, and we give them no substance, no experience, and certainly no accountability. It's all one big cluster hug . . . until the inevitable Kabul reveals all.