Toby Young is Michael Young’s son. Fifty years ago, Michael Young wrote the groundbreaking book, “The Rise of the Meritocracy.”  Today, Toby examines the popularity of his father’s book and how the very idea of a “meritocracy” — a term his father coined — to condemn the British elite, has now been replaced with the “celebritariat.”

Michael disapproved of meritocracy because he saw it as a way of legitimising inequality. After all, if everyone starts out on a level playing field, then the resulting allocation of rewards–however unequal–seems fair. Those at the very pinnacle of our society might not inherit their privileged position, as their forebears had done, but its pyramid-like shape would be preserved. Indeed, once this hierarchical structure became legitimised, as it would in a meritocratic society, it was likely that power and wealth would become concentrated in even fewer hands.

Just how prescient was The Rise of the Meritocracy? Equality of opportunity has become every bit as entrenched as my father thought it would, but that hasn’t had a corresponding impact on the composition of Britain’s elites. Much of today’s ruling class is still drawn from a narrow band of schools and universities and while those institutions accept only the “brightest” applicants they have not had to compete with the rest of the population on a level playing field. They have not earned their place at the top on merit alone which, for the purposes of his book, my father defined as IQ + effort.

Toby continues to argue that the meritocracy in the UK is dead — and it has been replaced with the idea of the celebrity as the ruler of hearts and minds — and that change was encouraged by the ordinary masses because regular people can more closely relate with celebrities than they can with old century money and power.

As Ferdinand Mount notes in Mind the Gap: “The old class markers have become taboo… The manners of classlessness have become de rigueur.” To put it another way: a profound increase in economic inequality has been accompanied by a dramatic increase in social and cultural equality. We can see this most clearly in changing attitudes to popular culture. It is a cliché to point out that the distinction between high and low culture has all but disappeared in the past 25 years or so.

In this free-for-all it is high culture that has been the loser, with most educated people under 45 embracing popular culture almost exclusively. As a student in the mid-80s, I was proud to call myself an “Oxbridge Gooner”–one of several dozen students at Oxford and Cambridge who regularly attended Arsenal games–and such groupings are commonplace now. The rich and the poor no longer live in two nations, at least not socially. Economic divisions may be more pronounced than ever, but we support the same football teams, watch the same television programmes, go to the same movies. Mass culture is for everyone, not just the masses.

Yet if Britain is no longer a deferential nation–if its citizens don’t accept that their place in life should be dictated by their class status–why is egalitarianism still the dog that hasn’t barked in British politics since 1979? Could it be that partly because of the power and ubiquity of popular culture, Britain is now perceived to be far more meritocratic than it actually is? This phenomenon has been widely documented in America, where belief in the meritocratic American dream persists with low social mobility.

If this is the case, I believe it is largely due to the emergence of a new class that my father didn’t anticipate and which, for want of a better word, I shall call the “celebritariat.” I am thinking of the people featured in Heat magazine, rather than Hello!–the premier league footballers and their wives, pop stars, movie stars, soap stars and the like. For all its shortcomings, the celebrity class is broadly meritocratic and because it is so visible it may help to persuade people that Britain is a fairer place than it really is.

Is celebrity the new religion?

Do we all now seek comfort in our stars than in the stars?

Is the want for, and adoration of, fame the new narcotic used by the majority power to keep the ordinary hopeful and upward looking and in place?

26 Comments

  1. Definitely.
    When I see Kevin Federline on the cover of People magazine, I have to ask myself what went wrong.
    It is exactly that we put too much stock into celebrity – even undeserved celebrity.

  2. I think it might have something to do with the ease with which photographs can now be taken. People don’t worry about “wasting film” and so take a thousand and one photos of celebrities picking their noses just because they can.
    As people grow more and more despondent, they look to celebrities and think, how wonderful it would be if I were in a movie like xyz, etc.

  3. It does seem like there is a yearning for fame, Gordon. A want for attention. When you look at sites like TMZ, you quickly realize anyone with a HandyCam is considered legit media. There’s no bar on the door now for joining the Press Club. That’s good for democracy, but bad for creating a sustainable taste and higher aesthetic.

  4. Hi David,
    I think it’s the superficial glitz and glamour that attracts people the most and they start worshipping celebs.
    I think people find some kind of satisfaction through fanatically following their idols.

  5. I am going to go out on a limb here and mention the “Diana” effect. Princess Diana (whatever you think about her) was the catalyst for a lot of the breaking down of social barriers and the rise of the “celebritariat”. She was the “peoples princess”. She encouraged and fully involved herself with the earliest of the “celebritariat”.
    Royalty was dumbed down out of its class. She was the first royalty to have celebrity status rather than class – others have followed.
    Accompany this with the plethora of “Reality TV” programs that make instant celebrities ( and instant fortunes) of those that take part. This means that the average can be famous (or infamous) and can live of their fame instead of getting a real job! It is an escape – they think it is easy!

  6. Thanks for the UK insight, Nicola — especially since the article I quoted concentrated on the UK culture of adoration.
    Why do you think Diana was “less royal” than Fergie? Diana always seemed to have class and aristocratic daring while Fergie was the one that always seemed to be leaping into swimming pools and dipping her toes in the punch bowl.

  7. David,
    I’m not sure if celebrity is the new religion.
    But celebrity does seem to have adopted an eerily similar MO to much of organized religion. The iconization, the hero worship, the blind faith and the massive industries that propagate and are simultaneously fueled by this need. And both systems work best when their audience/consumers are kept as narrow-minded and insular and uncritical and unquestioning as possible.

  8. I think that is right analysis, Dananjay, and I’m left to wonder why we have exchanged so much of our religious idolatry for ordinary celebrities? It is because we can see ourselves in their reflection as flawed, but worthy, while the idea of divinity is too complex and too distant for today’s instant now generation?

  9. That a distinct possibility, David, popular culture with its all pervasiveness and its fantastic ability to inspire awe makes it a lot more appealing. Also with advances in science and education and the spread of modern ideas, the technology of religion became obsolete. And in its stead, those who were incapacitated by religion to be godless, found new ones in celebrities.

  10. That’s some intriguing analysis, Dananjay. It does seem that celebrity worship has become the new “opiate of the masses” —

    “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of a spiritless situation. It is the opium of the people.”
    Karl Marx, “Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right” (1834)

  11. It seems like it, David, but do you think it replaces religion completely? Except for providing new idols to worship, i don’t see anything else in celebrity culture.
    Perhaps the promise of heaven has been replaced by the promise of celebrity through things like reality shows etc.? So then has celebrity culture made fame itself the opium?

  12. I don’t think celebrity has replaced religion yet, Dananjay, but the process has started. Celebrities are distant, yet flawed, and people today can more eagerly relate and imitate their stars than their Lords. The deification of entertainers is a disturbing trend, but one that can be anticipated in tough times. When finances are down, movie attendance goes up and churchgoing shrinks — people want escapism and safe shelter and while the church pew used to provide that comfort, now the theatre seat and the glossy magazine provide the tenderness and the understanding.

  13. I agree, David. The deification of entertainers is actively propagated because that supports a lot of big business. Not just the ones that facilitate that process like glossy magazines and movies/tv shows.

  14. David,
    religion is rapidly being overswamped by developments in popular culture. there are dozens of television shows, nationally as well as at the regional level, that are like American Idol or So You Think You Can Dance. And the whole thing runs on fame throughout.

  15. That’s what I suspected, Dananjay, and I’m a little sad to learn the world culture is finally coming together — but we’re being bound together in the pain of terrorism and in the opiate of rising celebrity as well as a wishing for fame that will, if only temporarily, remove us from the reality squeezing in on us from all sides.

  16. There was a difference between Diana and Fergie – Fergie was the dumbed down version of Diana and did not have her class! She was more a footballers wife/girlfriend (W.A.G).
    However Diana led the way – Fergie caught her up and over took her on that rocky road.

  17. Diana snagged the heir to the throne and was “pure” – Fergie was already soiled goods and married the younger brother – Fergie had was already known in more ways than one on the motor racing circuit – which was developing into a media circus.
    Diana worked very hard in charitable areas that the rest of the family would not touch – mainly aids, homeless and mine clearance. That work gave her iconic status. A mix of both class and celebrity.
    Fergie dragged the royal family into the gutter – and paid the price for it – although there seems to be some rapprochement recently.
    I guess it shows class will out 😉

  18. Hi David,
    I think it works differently for various social strata.
    Frantic worshipping might be a way of escapism the brutal reality for some, where as flaunting the same acc. Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt or Anjelina wearing might be a way announcing their economic status.
    I accidentally came across to a blog where the blogger (mind it, she claims to be an expert in few things…etc.)was encouraging to follow the celebs to learn more from them about dressing right and so on…
    Excuse me?
    I never thought someone with an ounce of brain can openly promote this bizarre idea!
    I lost the bolg url, I will post it if I can find it just to share and tell people – “PLEASE DON’T!”