Watch out, 2024 GOP primary contenders: There’s a new presidential hopeful in the mix, and he’s pandering to all the trademark grievances of the conservative movement with a bold entrepreneurial elan. Meet Vivek Ramaswamy, cofounder of Strive Asset Management, Fox News scourge of the pompous elite virtuecrats, and author of not one, but two jeremiads against elite social engineering: Nation of Victims: Identity Politics, the Death of Merit, and the Path Back to Excellence and Woke, Inc.: Inside Corporate America’s Social Justice Scam.
As you’ve no doubt already gathered, Ramaswamy’s pitch for the presidency is steeped in the hoary myth of libertarian achievement: the notion that the heroic, ever-striving soul of the country urgently needs to be unleashed from the surly bonds of collective groupthink, initiative-sapping schemes of redistribution, and “woke capitalism” in all its insidious guises. “We embrace secular religions like climatism, Covidism and gender ideology to satisfy our need for meaning,” he laments in The Wall Street Journal op-ed announcing his candidacy, “but we can’t answer what it means to be an American. The Republican Party’s top priority should be to fill this void with an inspiring national identity that dilutes the woke agenda to irrelevance.”
Never mind that the opinion section of the nation’s most plutocracy-friendly news organ is scarcely the most promising breeding ground for an expansive new national identity—or that any competent psychological professional will point out that launching a major life decision in order to fill a void is almost always a terrible idea. No, what’s striking about Ramaswamy’s manifesto is its talismanic obsession with the ideal of merit—the great redemptive virtue of American public life left tragically mauled and manhandled by the forces of elite wokeness. Merit is the foundation for each of the soft-focus policy prescriptions he offers up to an investor-class readership well and truly convinced of its own innate individual genius.
“We must restore merit for who gets to come to America,” Ramaswamy announces, introducing his own success story as a high-achieving son of Indian immigrants legally granted US citizenship. “We must embrace merit in who gets to succeed in America,” he declares as he vows to ensure the abolition of affirmative action (even as that high meritocratic council known as the US Supreme Court seems poised to beat him to the punch). “We must revive merit in who gets to govern in America,” he says as he lays into civil service protections for the federal workforce and the unspecified but almost certainly illegal trespasses of “unelected bureaucrats like Anthony Fauci or Merrick Garland.” And that’s not all. “We must restore merit in determining which ideas win in America,” Ramaswamy writes as he proceeds to endorse just the cultural restorative that Americans have been clamoring for in our inequality-ravaged, pandemic-battered, and polarized republic: “As Elon Musk did at Twitter, I will release the ‘state action files’ from the federal government—publicly exposing every known instance in which bureaucrats have wrongfully pressured companies to take constitutionally prohibited actions.”
Truly, a motherlode of merit! But in erecting this fearsome to-do list out of the American right’s pet fantasies of cultural persecution, Ramaswamy succumbs to a notorious weakness of contemporary American social thought: the notion that merit is an uncomplicated exercise in ground-leveling fairness, shaping life outcomes on an undeviating grid of impartially measured accomplishment. In reality, not only are the ostensible indicators of merit distilled expressions of the dominant alignments of privilege, access, and capital; the fantasy of rule by merit is also a powerful tool to ensure the continuation of such deeply unequal arrangements.
This was the core insight of the man who coined the term meritocracy: British sociologist—and socialist—Michael Young, who cataloged the many abuses sanctioned under the ideology of merit in his 1958 satirical novel The Rise of the Meritocracy, 1870-2033. Young’s book, as it happened, shared one target in common with Ramaswamy’s Journal outburst: the institution of civil service exams in British public service. But Young assailed the practice for diametrically opposite reasons: the British government regime’s new hierarchy of professional advancement through knowledge testing, Young argued, siphoned off the organic leaders of the industrial working class, turning them into retainers for the forces of capital. Meritocracy, in short, was death to solidarity and class politics from below—all masked in the unobjectionable rhetoric of uncoerced individual learning and striving. This is why Young’s novel culminates in an apocalyptic class war staged by the “hand workers” who didn’t manage to test out of their social station—a revolt that claims the life of the book’s narrator, a complacent apologist for the brave new meritocratic order named Michael Young.
But American social thinkers are notoriously allergic to the corrosive ironies of class rule, which explains how the watchword of a satire prophesying a violent class war became anointed a self-evident ideal in our hyper-individualist social order. Dizzying as that particular irony is on its own, Ramaswamy’s own vision of corporate reform through greater corporate empowerment manages to top it—not merely on its own terms, but because Ramaswarmy’s own biography could have furnished a chapter of its own in Young’s novel. In a recent New Yorker profile of Ramaswamy, Sheelah Kolhatkar supplies this thumbnail origin story:
Growing up in the Cincinnati area, Vivek established himself as an overachiever: an accomplished pianist, a nationally ranked tennis player, and the valedictorian of his Jesuit high school. He graduated from Harvard College and Yale Law School, worked at a hedge fund, then started a pharmaceutical company, Roivant Sciences, where he made hundreds of millions of dollars.
But of course what fleshes out this picture are the friends Ramaswamy made along the way. He weighs his political prospects in consultations with his Yale Law School classmate J.D. Vance, who managed to claim a US Senate seat in Ohio on the basis of his own shape-shifting anti-woke grievance politics. Like Vance, Ramaswamy got his first book manuscript dispatched toward publication under the watchful eye of Yale Law professor Amy Chua (of Tiger Mom and Brett Kavanaugh fame; indeed, in something of a meritocratic trifecta, Chua has cannily transformed her high-profile support for Kavanugh’s confirmation into a clerkship for her daughter). Ramaswamy’s post-Roivant business launch, Strive Asset Management was, like J.D. Vance’s own venture capital firm and Senate campaign, nurtured into being with the generous assistance of Paypal cofounder Peter Thiel.
It’s hard, in short, to imagine a more thoroughly elite-credentialed apostle of the gospel of merit than Vivek Ramaswamy; one could easily imagine his face gracing the cover of a future edition of The Rise of the Meritocracy. Indeed, the stealth ideology of meritocracy has so addled his social vision that he seemingly can’t even make an enemy outside its charmed circle. As Kolhatkar notes, the Moriarty who haunts Ramaswamy’s gothic fantasies about woke capitalism is none other than Larry Fink, CEO of the $8 trillion Black Rock asset management leviathan. To Ramaswamy’s mind, Fink is the poster executive for ESG—environmental, social, and governance investing—which has also emerged as the latest entry in Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’s rolling carnival of culture war targets. It matters little that ESG accounts for less than 6 percent of the firm’s portfolio; Kolhatkar observes that Fink is exactly the same sort of made-to-order unaccountable bureaucrat as Fauchi and Garland in the prevailing demonology of the American right:
Ramaswamy contends, without citing specific evidence, that Fink is collaborating with political élites on such matters: promoting environmental policies that they have failed to push through Congress. He has attacked Fink’s supposed liberal agenda so assiduously that a newcomer to U.S. politics might, after imbibing conservative media, mistake the BlackRock C.E.O.—one of the most powerful men on Wall Street—for a darling of the American left.
That’s the problem with the Trumpian right’s tirelessly prototyped crusade against woke capitalism in a nutshell: It is neither a persuasive account of wokeness (which conservatives can never be bothered to define anyway) nor capitalism. It is, rather, a congeries of vaguely objectionable rhetoric and attitudes that come across as bad manners in the sanctums of the investment world. So when Kolhatkar tries to press Ramaswamy on the central manifest contradiction in his indictment of officious wokesters in the finance world—that the underlying malady of American politics is that the ultra-wealthy enjoy so much unchallenged clout and influence in the first place—he grows restive and irritable, like a mischief-prone schoolboy trapped indoors on a rainy day:
When I asked Ramaswamy why he ignores how money in politics compromises the regulatory and legislative process, the issue seemed to bore him. People had been fretting about getting money out of politics for years, he said. His Larry-Fink-as-left-wing-bogeyman theory, by contrast, felt fresh.
But didn’t the enormous concentration of wealth in the hands of a few pose a serious threat to democracy? Not necessarily, he replied. “You can buy your yachts, you can buy your houses, you can buy your nice cars, but you shouldn’t be able to buy a greater share of voice as a citizen,” he said. The ultra-wealthy did buy more of a voice, I pointed out, by influencing the political process at every level, from choosing the President and hiring lobbyists who write legislation to pouring money into school-board elections. He picked up his phone, as if to seek out a more interesting conversation. “I just don’t think that’s the biggest problem.”
There you have the “state action file” on the American meritocracy: In addition to being intensively unjust, it’s fatally incurious and intellectually stagnant, which is only to be expected of a movement that treats the project of social reform as another app in the making. Confronted with the actually existing realities of American capitalism translated into political power, the lords of meritocratic achievement can’t be induced to put down their phones.