It may have been uttered as often in caricature as in anger, but the voice from the crowd asked a question that was accepted as reasonable even by those who winced at the jeering tone. Until fifteen or twenty years ago, the interest-earning and brain-working classes generally felt that they owed something to the workers, for doing the drudgery needed to keep an industrialised society going. And it was taken for granted that the workers were a class, with collective interests of their own. In some instances — British miners, for example — they enjoyed considerable respect and a romantic aura. Even in the United States, where perhaps the question was not put quite the same way, the sentiments were there.
Now there is an underclass of dangerous and hopeless folk, an elite of the fabulous and beautiful, and everybody in between is middle class. Meritocracy is taken for granted, bringing with it a perspective that sees only individuals, not groups. There are no working classes, only low-grade employees. In a meritocracy, respect is due according to the rank that an individual has attained. And since achievement is an individual matter, those at the upper levels see no reason to feel they owe anything to those at lower ones. This state of affairs will probably endure until such time that people cease to think of their society as a meritocracy, with its upbeat tone of progress and fairness, and start to feel that they are living in a Red Queen world, where they have to run ever faster just to stay in the same place.
MAREK KOHN'S most recent book, published last year, is As We Know It: Coming to Terms with an Evolved Mind. His other books include The Race Gallery: The Return of Racial Science and Dope Girls: The Birth of the British Drug Underground. He writes a weekly column on digital culture, Second Site, for theLondon Independent on Sunday.