09 December 2013

An Argument for Meritocracy

This is my third column for The Sunday Guardian.

“What's the matter, you dissentious rogues,
That, rubbing the poor itch of your opinion,
Make yourselves scabs?”
- Coriolanus, Coriolanus, 1.1.171-3

Our democratic institutions depend so fiercely on appearances that it seems, sometimes, like they are forever poised to fail us. How easily can we love our leaders for what they have done when they do not make it easy for us to love them? And how often are their achievements in one field enough to tide them by in the curdling power dynamics of statesmanship?

Shakespeare’s Coriolanus is, in many ways, a study of the failures of the overtly democratic state. Caius Martius returns from a successful war at Corioles to be rechristened Coriolanus and find himself in the running for the senate. But while his military exploits have saved Rome, Coriolanus’s absolute refusal to play nice turns him into an enemy of the state. Ultimately, though, by the end of the play, Coriolanus’s weakness is that very weakness that has crippled so many leaders of state: family. And his tragic flaw is the very same that we see in our leaders every day: egotism. For its Fascist interpretations and seemingly totalitarian doctrine, Shakespeare’s Coriolanus has the great distinction of frequently being banned, even within democratic nations that, ironically, defend the liberal values of freedom of speech and expression. Such are the troublesome incongruities of the modern state.

Coriolanus’s electoral ambition cannot survive Rome’s republican convictions. In standing for public office, he will not be polite and ask for votes. And, essentially, he seems anti-democratic. He does not see why plebeians must control the state at all – it is akin to allowing “crows to peck the eagles”. He is contemptuous of a public that he feels is unequal to him, a public that revels too carelessly in a city whose freedom he fought for and won, a public that is perhaps undeserving of his services. The citizenry is vulgar and the senate is noble. We are told this over and over again. So disdainful is Coriolanus of public opinion that he will not even reveal his battle scars to them, as is customary for war heroes.

Just as Cordelia will not tell King Lear of her affection for him with hollow words and unctuousness, Coriolanus has no intention of sweet-talking the public into casting votes in his favour. No, he is too much of a patrician to stoop to having to ask for anything. The public vote is too fickle for him to trust – and he turns out to be right, for they turn against him as swiftly as they earlier turned towards him. His dislike of the electorate is oppressive and tyrannical. As Brutus says, “We must suggest the people in what hatred he still hath held them; that to's power he would have made them mules, silenc'd their pleaders, and dispropertied their freedoms.”

But we, as readers, are asked to sympathise with Coriolanus, even as it goes against every notion of egalitarianism that we believe in. He rails violently against popular rule and Shakespeare somehow makes his conniptions seem understandable and even reasonable. In part, we who are so used to tokenism and duplicity from political rhetoric are relieved at Coriolanus’s outspokenness. These battle scars were not wrought to impress us, these wars were not won for our votes. It is an argument for meritocracy, not an argument against democracy.

Coriolanus argues that legislative reforms lie in the hands of people who are not informed enough to make the choices that will alter their geopolitical lives in ways they have yet to fathom. What this leads to is more lip-service: the senate will continue to make decisions that please the people rather than decisions that are right for the state. Even as it sounds like a plea for Fascist authoritarianism, the play asks us if we are responsible enough to handle universal adult franchise, if we have the political consciousness that suffrage necessitates.

Our votes cannot be whimsical or fanciful. These are not the People’s Choice Awards. Our votes must be the result of thoughtful analysis and inquiry. By granting control over our civic lives to individuals and collectives, we are implicitly placing our futures in their hands. It cannot be taken lightly or easily, not unless we are willing to forfeit the many freedoms we liberally espouse. Our votes are too valuable to be given away for battle scars or television sets.

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