Tag Archives: Europe

Meritocracy is scary

A few weeks ago, a Swedish man called Borzoo Tavakoli published an article in the daily newspaper Dagens Nyheter. The article takes the form of a letter from Tavakoli himself to Kent Ekeroth, a politician described as belonging to the inner circle of the Sweden Democrats Party (Wikipedia). Tavakoli was born in Iran and migrated to Sweden in 1988 as a political refugee. Ekeroth is a notorious xenophobe and Islamophobe; in fact, xenophobia seems to be the main political platform of the Swedish Democrats.

Tavakoli has a simple message to convey: “I, a hard-working, law-abiding, economically successful migrant, make much greater a contribution than you, some dubious politician. My record as a taxpayer is immaculate, while you are under investigation by the Tax Authority. I never attacked people, whereas you and your party colleagues chased people around wielding iron rods (!) in Stockholm in 2010. I never belittled women, whereas you have been known to physically attack a woman and call her “a whore” in 2010. I never had to leave my assignment, whereas a scandal forced you out of Parliament in 2012. I fought for democracy in Iran, and did six years in prison rather than give up on my convictions, whereas you, according to the news, have a habit of lying, and therefore qualify as a coward that does not stand up for his actions. Ah, and I, through my hard work and intellectual qualities, have risen from line worker to high executive in a large company. And my son is a genius. He just won the first prize in the Swedish young scientists competition. Sweden is much better off having citizens like me than citizens like you. I deserve to be Swedish more than you do.”

Many of my friends reacted very positively to this article. This, they argue, surely shows that xenophobia is counterproductive! Indeed, it is hard not to sympathize with this hard-working activist for democracy turned successful businessman, making the most of the chance offered to him by Sweden’s generous policy of welcoming refugees – and all the more grateful for it. My friends – the younger ones, especially – tend to embrace meritocracy as a positive value: people should rise in society according to what they contribute to it. And why wouldn’t they? It’s simple. It’s fair. It’s by no means limited to Sweden: my fellow Italians, divided on everything, seem all to be united by a common contempt of their undeserving ruling class. I am sure you can think of meritocratic undercurrents surfacing in your own country.

But you have to wonder: where does meritocracy lead us? The converse of rewarding positive contribution has to be not rewarding those who don’t contribute enough, or at all. If people don’t pull enough weight, they should be pushed down the social ladder. Someone like Ekeroth, wielding iron rods and foul-mouthing ladies in the streets of Stockholm, has no business being in parliament. He should be moved over to some menial job, under the thumb of a supervisor that prevents him uttering racist and sexist remarks that could offend bystanders. Right?

We can probably all agree that a xenophobic politician is as close to a pure deadweight as it gets. But then, Tavakoli also makes a greater contribution than, say, law-abiding people who are also long-term unemployed. Or dumb. Or lazy. Hell, he makes a greater contribution than me, or you – unless you are a really successful, impressive person. Any sensible country, given the choice, would much rather welcome as a citizen him than 99% of its own citizens.

So, you see: as an ideology, meritocracy is too scary to stick. It promises fairness and social mobility, but at the cost of being, forever, on your toes, in a world where someone will always be better and faster than you, no matter how good you are. Nobody wants meritocracy – not for themselves, at least. European young people say they want it, but what they mean is that they are stuck in a meritocratic fringe of society, shut out of the secure jobs where you are not really expected to jump through too many hoops. They think – rightly – that they would be better off if by some miracle all positions became contendible, because they are better educated and harder working than their elders. So they call for more meritocracy as outsiders, but once they get into the system they will instantly start to maneuver to secure their positions. It’s only human.

By contrast, Ekeroth and his merry gang of European nationalists and xenophobe have an ideology that says: born here? You’re good – you’re good regardless of what you do or don’t contribute. Don’t worry, we’ll take it on those others instead. Takavoli may be smarter and braver, but Ekeroth’s got a much better political product to sell. So, I have to disagree with my Swedish friends here: I don’t think meritocratic arguments are going to be of much help in contrasting the growth of xenophobia in European societies. We’ll need to find something else.

“Not so bad, actually”: an interview of the state of open data in Europe

Update: on July 30th EPSI Platform has taken down the video to perform some editing of the captions. An updated version should become available presently.

A few weeks ago, as I went through Barcelona to participate in the Open Government Day, I had a chat with Montse Delgado on open data in Europe and some of my projects, notably Edgeryders and OpenPompei, which both originate in the open government paradigm. Montse and her colleagues got the chat on video and released it on the EPSI platform website, the closest thing we have to an official European open data discussion space. The whole thing can be found here.

Edgeryders: the Council of Europe and the world we are building

Young Europeans are having trouble completing their transition towards full independence. The problem bites deeper here, because our social model is based on the status of full-time, long term employee, that unlocks important social and economic rights (in France, where I live now, if you don’t work you have no right to health care). This generates tensions, because it forces young people to fight for this status at all costs, even if it got very difficult to obtain and even if many of them would like to explore different roads. Result: 20% of 15-34 years old, in Europe, is not in employment, education or training. It is not even a matter of being young anymore: young people are in the line of fire, but citizens of all ages are losing autonomy.

The paradox is that the currently young generation is probably the most creative, generous, idealist, collaborative ever. Everywhere you look young people are creating, seemingly out of thin air, their own jobs in entirely new businesses like my friends at CriticalCity or the extraordinary twentysomethings at Blackshape Aircraft; they experiment new ways to share resources, from their couches to motor vehicles, or going out to live off the beaten track; others still are building new way to meaningful activism, making their voice heard and matter in an age of crisis of representative democracies. These people don’t know each other, and they act independently; and yet, one can’t help get the feeling that their projects are somehow coherent, as if they were pieces of the same emergent future. The OpenStreetMap 2008 video (above) is of course completely unrelated, but it makes for a great metaphor of this emergence; and it gives me the same feeling of elation and hope.

The Council of Europe has an idea: try to dig out all of these experiences; aggregate them; validate them through peer-to-peer assessment; and use them to propose to the European Commission and its own member states a new strategy. We might call it adaptive; in plain terms, it is about:

  1. figuring out what the young people of Europe are already doing to build the world we will all inhabit in twenty years. The proof of the cake is in the eating: if they struggle so hard to build something, it means they really want it. So that gives you a goal for your policy.
  2. if possible, help them with it, in the sense of creating the conditions for these strategies – that today require a lot of resourcefulness and self-sacrifice, and are de facto accessible only to a minority – become viable for the average young person.
  3. if it’s not possible to help them, get out of their way, by refraining from projecting onto them the social and economic model of the 70s. It is the one most senior European decision makers grew up in, but that does not make it the best or the best suited to this day and age.

This will be done through a web project, characterized by fully open and constructive interaction. Its final result will be presented in a high profile conference, probably in May 2012. I have the honor of managing this project, and the good fortune of having been able to put together a stellar team (I will introduce them in a subsequent post). I need to credit the Social Cohesion Research and Development Division of the Council of Europe for believing in the project, and for the courage demonstrated in rolling out such an open initiative.

The project is called Edgeryders. The platform will launch in late October; for now we have put online a provisional blog to start the conversation. Come say hello, and, if you think we are credible, pass word around: we will need all the wisdom and all the help we can get. And you, and we too, that means all of us are the real experts on future building: we struggle with it every day.