Beyond Cognitive Meritocracy

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  • Book: Head Hand Heart. By David Goodhart.



Richard King:

"For Sandel, and for others in the communitarian tradition, even social liberalism concedes too much to its classical progenitor, reproducing liberalism’s principal error (which is also, historically, its greatest strength) – its emphasis on the individual. For Sandel, our sociality is prior to our individuality, and the way we view work should reflect that fact. Work is not merely a means to an end; it is an irreducible aspect of our humanity in that it allows us to meet what he describes as ‘the fundamental human need to be needed’.

David Goodhart would agree with much of Sandel’s analysis. Certainly he would take the point that progressives are today often far too uncritical of certain kinds of individualism. His previous book The Road to Somewhere (2017) was written in the wake of the Brexit debacle and argued that a knowledge class in thrall to ‘progressive individualism’ and often dismissive of more collective forms of understanding (including nationalism and even patriotism) had become dangerously remote from those outside its own life-worlds. This got him into hot water with progressives, not least because he is a progressive himself, and was deemed to be giving ammunition to the enemy; but there is no doubt that he’d spotted something important about the way the ‘double liberalism’ of the increasingly powerful knowledge class – an emphasis on openness and individualism in both economic and cultural matters – had given rise to its opposite: a politics of ‘walls’, effectively, in which more nationalistic sentiments at the level of both economics and culture were making gains among those left behind in the great transition from an industrial economy to a (global) post-industrial one. For Goodhart, Brexit was a manifestation of this politics – a populist ‘Somewhere’ view of the world expressing a preference for the local and the familiar in the face of a dominant ‘Anywhere’ view stressing openness and flexibility.

For Goodhart, as for Sandel, this new division turns not only, or even principally, on material inequality, but on questions of status and (self-)esteem, especially as they relate to the credentialism and meritocracy at the heart of our current ‘status hierarchy’. In Head Hand Heart, he develops this idea, linking it to the useful distinction, first developed by the anthropologist Ralph Linton, between ‘achieved’ identity and ‘ascribed’ identity. Thus:

The institutions that have historically accepted you as a member unconditionally – family, church, nation – are all weakened in a freer, more mobile and more individualistic society. Achieved identities based on educational and career success have eclipsed ascribed identities based on attachment to place and group.

As we’ve seen, such ‘educational and career success’ is bound up with particular kinds of work, and there is a deep connection between these kinds of work and the status identities described above. For ‘Head’ work is information work – work that deals in the fluid and the abstract, and can often be done from anywhere, or indeed from Anywhere – and the greater esteem accorded to it means that it is the ‘embodied’ skills of ‘Hand’ and ‘Heart’ that are marginalised. Head’s ‘eclipse’ of Hand and Heart is thus felt at the level of people’s deepest identity, with profound social and political consequences.

There is much to be said for this argument, which places issues of work and status at the epicentre of the populist earthquake. But there are also problems with Head Hand Heart, not the least of which is the fact that its author has erected a rather self-defeating way to advance its principal argument – that we need to raise the status profile of forms of work outside the knowledge economy. In some ways he is the hostage of his own title/taxonomy, which not only obliges the reader to think in terms of ‘hand jobs’ and ‘head jobs’ (which isn’t ideal) but also seems in some regards to be shot through with the very thinking he is, or should be, aiming to dislodge. Indeed, he seems to be sporadically aware that his categories are problematic, and at one point even describes them as ‘misleading’. That he doesn’t attempt at any point in the book to rigorously define these categories (in stark contrast, it should be said, to his process in The Road to Somewhere, in which terms were defined in meticulous detail and hedged around with important distinctions), only adds to the problem.

This is not to say that Goodhart is wrong to categorise work at all. On the contrary, I think he is right to follow the excellent Matthew Crawford’s line (as set out in The Case for Working with Your Hands) that there is a difference between knowing ‘that’ and knowing ‘how’, and right too to suggest that the concept of ‘cognitive skills’ relates to something real and specific – i.e. to a particular set of competencies. But the ‘Head Hand Heart’ formula is too vague to be useful, and sometimes simply confuses the issue. For example, his lengthy disquisition on the relationship between IQ and cognitive ability – a disquisition in which he seems oddly insistent that the fraught category of ‘intelligence research’ is now a respected branch of psychology – is followed by this chunky caveat:

To summarize so far: cognitive ability is a real and measurable thing, but the cognitive ability-based sorting machine [i.e. exams, IQ tests and the like] does not always get things right because of the difficulty of capturing something as elusive as intelligence in narrowly based tests. Moreover, many of the qualities that even advanced technological societies need to function well, and to do so fairly, do not feature at all in narrower definitions of intelligence – effort, empathy, virtue, imagination, courage, caring ability.

Perhaps part of the answer is in our use of language and labelling.

Well yes, I think we could say that labelling is part of the predicament here. As when, for example, an author purporting to analyse the relationship between work and value describes a very narrow range of intellectual skills as ‘Head’, in a way that manages to reproduce one element of the bias against ‘manual’ and ‘care’ workers, namely that the work requires no particular effort at the level of intellect. Surely the important point is to challenge the categories that are currently used to describe productive activity, not to faithfully duplicate them.

To make my point clear: if, as Goodhart seems to accept, there are plenty of ‘Head’ skills not captured in cognitive tests, from imagination to judgment to social intelligence; and if, as I’m sure he would also accept, there is Head work involved in much blue-collar work, and both Head and Hand work in most care work; and if, finally, there is plenty of Head work that does not require much cognitive ability at all, what is his titular taxonomy doing other than reinforcing the values marbled in to our current moment? As Goodhart himself appears to understand, the principal thing dividing ‘Head’ work from ‘Hand’ work and ‘Heart’ work is not ‘intelligence’; intelligence is far too complex a phenomenon, and Head work too diverse, for that to be the case. The thing that separates it, ultimately, is that it relates to the sectors of the economy to which the mighty wagon of capitalism hitched its star in the 1990s – finance, insurance, communication, personal services – and sprinkled with the ideological pixie dust of flexibility, merit and the like. The cognitive workers were the winners, is all, encouraged to believe their contribution is peculiarly tough and especially important.

Goodhart worries that the value we place on some kinds of work is out of proportion with the contribution such work makes to society, and there’s no question that he is correct on this score. But capitalism doesn’t care about our contribution; it cares about profit and economic growth, and analyses that neglect to grapple with that fact are bound to look a little thin. Such was Will Davies’ point: it was the suspension of normal economic activity that followed the COVID-19 emergency that threw the issue of status into relief. COVID-19 was a little rip in the matrix – one that demonstrated the fundamental link between our lopsided attributions of status and the economic system we have." (