# 39|2016: Mobilität/Artikel

A Hostile and Inefficient Meritocracy. The negative consequences of today’s Gesellschaft and how we avoid them.

by James Hollis

Contemporary debates on social mobility largely focus on how to ensure that dispossessed social groups penetrate upper income strata. Such debates seek to develop strategies, which can then be used to provide opportunity and subsequent upward mobility for a range of deprived social groups. It is hoped that such strategies can in turn be used to provide answers to a number of pressing social questions. For example, how can society provide children from impoverished families with the same life chances as those from well to do backgrounds?

Or how can society be moulded to ensure that women are better represented on company boards in relation to men? Or, and more recently, how can European countries ensure that refugees arriving from the Middle East and Africa can begin a dignified life in their newly adopted homelands? Such questions lie at the heart of social mobility discourse and will undoubtedly continue to incite vigorous debate in the foreseeable future.

However, although debates on social mobility largely relate to the means, which may be employed in order to achieve social justice, comparatively little regard is paid to the ends that social mobility strategies are striving towards. In other words whereas there is ample discussion concerning the means, which may be employed in order to spread opportunity, analysis is not as forthcoming with respect to the nature of the society that is currently emerging as a result of current social labours. This has much to do with the fact that social mobility tends to assume the answer to this ostensibly obvious question. That answer tends to incline towards idealistic notions of a society where individuals from a range of deprived backgrounds are adequately represented throughout the upper income echelons of society. With this in mind, this article will seek to investigate the social model of Gesellschaft around which today’s society is organized and which remains the primary social blueprint upon which contemporary strategies on social mobility are based. It will do this by investigating the key underlying tenets of Gesellschaft and those of its predecessor Gemeinschaft, social models which have contributed significantly in framing both past as well as contemporary debates on social justice. It will outline that western society has for all intents and purposes assumed the form of a Gesellschaft with individual life directions being largely based on ability as opposed to background. It will highlight that whilst a meritocratic Gesellschaft might seem an attractive social model, it nevertheless constitutes a model characterized by high levels of status inequality and resulting social antagonism. By drawing on the theory of comparative advantage it will argue that the objective of social mobility should be to encourage individual talent irrespective of the particular socio-economic bracket within which a particular talent and its resulting vocation may fall. This would not only give rise to a more harmonious society but also to a more efficient society in economic terms. Finally, the article will suggest a new organizational model for society, which seeks to combine the positive elements of both Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft, whilst keeping the disadvantageous elements inherent within both models to a minimum.

Gemeinschaft: A Harmonious but Exclusive Community

As first proposed by the German philosopher and sociologist Ferdinand Tönnies, the term ‘Gemeinschaft’ within sociological discourse is used to refer to a particular unit of social organization, in this case a community (see Loomis 1957). Gemeinschaft is characterized by high levels of solidarity amongst its members, which has much to do with its family-centric nature (see ibid.). Community solidarity does not however, imply a community of economic equality. As is the case with many other social and economic models, Gemeinschaft constitutes a community of ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’. Such a reality should not however, be regarded as a source of instability for Gemeinschaft itself as a result of any underlying social antagonisms amongst its members. This is because whilst enduring differences in terms of income, Gemeinschaft is also characterised by low levels of “status inequality” (Brint 2001: 15). That is, a Gemeinschaft constitutes a place where all of its members regardless of socio-economic status are able to find acceptance (see ibid.). Taking the example of a lawyer and a manual factory worker as a case in point. Whereas a lawyer may enjoy a better standard of living compared to that enjoyed by a factory worker, the role of factory worker within a Gemeinschaft is nonetheless, regarded on more or less equal terms with that of a lawyer.

Notwithstanding its social harmony Gemeinschaft does, however, suffer from one significant shortcoming, that of its exclusive nature. In addition to ‘community’ Gemeinschaft can also be translated to mean ‘group’. On consideration of the word group, one is likely to envisage a group of individuals, some or all of whom not only have power over the direction of the group, but also have power over its constitution. That is, a group can be just as exclusive as it can be inclusive; such is the nature of a Gemeinschaft. Not only does Gemeinschaft fail to facilitate mobility between its various social groupings, but it can even go so far as to block any attempts at inter-group mobility. This is largely due to its family-centric nature where a communal unit such as a town is considered as a family and where town “clans” represent “the elementary organisms of its body” (Loomis 1957). Furthermore, the children of town clans are regarded by all as the “anticipated masters of their clan” (ibid.). By contrast, whilst “strangers” to the community may be accepted as “guests” they are unlikely to be able to assume the role of representatives of the community itself (see ibid.). Thus, such a state of affairs does not bode well for social mobility as it suggests that the clan or social group within which an individual is born is likely to be where that individual will spend the rest of his or her life. This is because membership of social groups or clans within a Gemeinschaft is exclusively reserved for those who originate from those groups.

The implications of Gemeinschaft for social mobility can be traced throughout pre-twentieth century European history and culture. The most classic example in this regard being that of a very intellectually gifted child born into an impoverished family within a Gemeinschaft. Given his background, this individual would have found it nearly impossible to use his intellectual prowess in a white-collar and therefore better-paid job for the benefit of both himself and for society at large. This would have been largely due to his circumstances where he could neither access the education necessary to develop his talent, nor readily find the opportunity to apply his talent in any practical way thereafter. Such opportunities would have been de facto reserved for those individuals emanating from the higher social strata. Conversely, a far less intelligent child born into a wealthy family–because of his access to education as well as his familial or ‘clan connections’–would almost certainly have been guaranteed a high-income career along with its impressive standard of living. Such a state of affairs led many progressive intellectuals of the nineteenth century to question both the structure and morality of the Gemeinschaft upon which western civilization at the time was based (see Micklethwait and Wooldridge 2014). As a consequence, many radicals throughout western society began to seek strategies with the aim of producing a social and economic order in which people’s life chances were based on ability and not on background (see ibid.). The steady implementation of such strategies led to the decline of Gemeinschaft and to the emergence of a new social model, that of Gesellschaft.

Gesellschaft: A Meritocratic but Antagonistic Society

Ferdinand Tönnies himself treated society’s progression from a Gemeinschaft to a Gesellschaft in evolutionary terms. For Tönnies, Gemeinschaft represented humanity’s childhood and Gesellschaft represented its maturity (see Brint 2001). The ‘maturing process’ itself would come about over time as the village or town within which Gemeinschaft was situated gradually gave way to the larger and more alienating city (see Loomis 1957). In contrast to Gemeinschaft, Gesellschaft constitutes a space wherein each individual is what he is “through his own personal wealth and contracts” (Loomis 1957). As a consequence of this and in direct opposition to Gemeinschaft, the difference between natives and strangers within a Gesellschaft is rendered irrelevant as individuals are accepted based on their abilities and achievements (Loomis 1957). In a Gesellschaft therefore, the communal or group barriers once prevalent within a Gemeinschaft are rendered non-existent and individuals are free to achieve social progression based on their own individual efforts. From the perspective of social mobility, the shift from Gemeinschaft to Gesellschaft within any society can be regarded as in a positive light. Despite on-going debates of how social mobility can continue to be improved for a number of disadvantaged social groups, western society has for all intents and purposes assumed the form of a Gesellschaft. One need look no further than the world of work as it stands today where the playing field has been opened up to those social groups who would not have otherwise had a chance to prove themselves were they to live within a Gemeinschaft. The situation today as far as social mobility is concerned, is a major improvement on that which existed one hundred or even fifty years ago.

Gesellschaft is not however, without its own shortcomings. As with Gemeinschaft, Gesellschaft can also be translated to mean more than one thing, including ‘corporation’. When thinking of a corporation one is likely to envisage a business entity and one, which is constantly striving to achieve efficiency. It behaves in this fashion in order to compete or survive within the particular market within which it operates, the latter of which constitutes a very competitive environment. It is within this market setting that the best flourish and those that are less able founder. Consequently, the corporation seeks to attract the very best of employees in order to enable it to compete with rival corporations who also seek the most talented and the most competent of workers. Additionally, the inside of a corporation must necessarily constitute both a competitive as well as pressurized environment as the corporation’s employees strive to meet the corporation’s high standards. This is a reflection of the harsh competition raging between corporations in the marketplace. Whilst this is the natural state of affairs of any market economy, it is also a reflection of the tone of life facing those living within a Gesellschaft. One of the reasons for the heightened levels of competition prevalent within a Gesellschaft has to do with the fact that Gesellschaft in contrast to Gemeinschaft is characterized by high levels of status inequality. This is because it is the wealthiest members of Gesellschaft–some of whom may not have been wealthy to begin with–, who are the perceived standard setters of society, standards to which the lower income social strata feel obliged to conform with (Loomis 1957). These lower income social groups seek to imitate such standards through the accumulation of knowledge and wealth and through this social power (see ibid.). But attempts at obtaining social power only cover up the many inner hostilities with a Gesellschaft, which are caused as a result of the conflicting interests of individuals (see ibid.). That is, the interests of the individual members of Gesellschaft frequently come into conflict with one another as they compete with one another for both wealth and status.

So although individuals may have the opportunity to achieve social mobility within a Gesellschaft many feel under an obligation to achieve not just mobility but also significantly higher incomes in order to obtain those social standards set by the very wealthy within society. This creates not only a highly pressurized environment but also a highly antagonistic society. It also encourages discourse on social mobility to focus more on encouraging a select number of talents and their resulting high-income vocations to the detriment of other career paths. This can have a number of practical implications not least in economic terms, as the next section will show.

Comparative Advantage in Talent

In addition to the social antagonisms brought about by high levels of status inequality another shortcoming associated with today’s Gesellschaft is its inefficiency in economic terms. Any truly economically efficient society needs to be able to encourage talents of all descriptions irrespective of what their promise in socio-economic terms may be for the individuals concerned. That is, there is a need to place more emphasis on encouraging diversity in talent. This is important from the point of view of comparative advantage; a term first coined by the British political economist David Ricardo. As set out by Ludwig von Mises this theory holds that:

Collaboration of the more talented, more able, and more industrious with the less talented, less able, and less industrious results in benefits for both. The gains derived from the division of labor are always mutual. [H]igher productivity achieved under the division of labor is present because its cause–the inborn inequality of men and the inequality in the geographical distribution of the national factors of production–is real. (Derobat and Topan 2015: 8).

Comparative advantage is therefore to be understood as the ability of an individual to produce a good or service at a lower cost than another (Derobat and Topan 2015). Or where a particular individual has a “higher relative efficiency with regards to production given the range of possible goods to be produced at a specific point in time” (ibid.: 9). According to comparative advantage therefore, individuals are more efficient at producing certain goods or services relative to other goods and services. This suggests that people have differing levels of abilities with respect to different areas of economic life with one individual being naturally inclined to produce a particular good or service better than the next.

Individuals should as a consequence specialise in the production of a good or service within an area within which they are most naturally inclined. So for example, someone who is particularly talented in solving mathematical equations should specialise within this particular area and engage himself within a profession, which demands a high-level of mathematical aptitude. Similarly, someone who demonstrates a natural affinity with political science should ideally concentrate the bulk of his future labours within this particular field. Indeed, the majority of strategies on social mobility are likely to agree with this logic. Furthermore, they are likely to go on to argue that such an argument militates in favour of enhanced access to education in order to allow such talents to fully prosper. This would not just be right in itself from a social justice standpoint, but would also be beneficial for society as a whole.

The shortcoming inherent within today’s social mobility discourse however, lies in the fact that the comparative advantage argument tends to stop here. As set out by comparative advantage, individuals are inherently unequal in terms of their output within different areas of economic life. Or put differently, each individual has a particular area, whether this be academic or practical where they are naturally endowed and where they are therefore likely to produce the greatest output when compared to other areas. Furthermore, comparative advantage is blind with respect to socio-economic background. Thus, it could well be that someone from an affluent family has a natural affinity in crafting objects and fixing machines, whereas someone from a poor family may prove to be an exceptionally talented economist. Comparative advantage would hold in this scenario that it would be beneficial for society as a whole for the former to develop his mechanical aptitude and go on to take up a career, which involves producing handicrafts and/or fixing vehicles. Similarly, it would argue that the other individual should take up employment as for example, an economist for an economic think tank or business. What is also clear however is that the above logic could and should work the other way round. That is, where the above talents of both individuals are switched then so too should their respective economic roles within society even when their socio-economic backgrounds remain the same.
Such logic does not on the other hand, tend to go down well within a Gesellschaft characterized by high levels of status inequality. Or such logic is not attractive within a society where those from lower income social groups feel pressurized into imitating the high standards set by the wealthy within society. Social mobility tends to embrace this narrative by largely focusing its efforts on ensuring that those from low-income bracket social groups are able to penetrate high-income brackets. This is because many practically inclined careers tend to fall into lower income brackets when compared to more academically inclined professions. Comparatively little attention is however, devoted to the question of how society might ensure that the talents of all irrespective of socio-economic background are not only developed but fully utilized for the overall benefit of society. How this might be achieved in practice is what the final section of this article will lay out.

Towards a New Model for Society: The Case for Fellowship

Given its shortcomings the question, which then arises, is what can be done in order to overcome the socio-economic weaknesses inherent within today’s Gesellschaft? As underlined above, the root cause of Gesellschaft’s drawbacks has to do with its high levels of status inequality resulting in social antagonism and economic inefficiency. Gemeinschaft by contrast due to its low levels of status inequality, offers a more attractive alternative to Gesellschaft in this regard. This is because Gemeinschaft shows appreciation for an individual’s personality and contribution to group life as opposed to focusing solely on the narrower aspects of rank and achievement (see Brint 2001). Furthermore, there is nothing to prevent today’s Gesellschaft from assuming more of the characteristics traditionally associated with Gemeinschaft. Indeed and as mentioned above, Tönnies regarded society’s progression from Gemeinschaft to Gesellschaft in evolutionary terms. Nevertheless, Tönnies still viewed Gemeinschaft along with “its own distinctive set of empirical coordinates and consequences” as constituting an alternative to Gesellschaft (see ibid.: 2). One cannot however, escape from Gemeinschaft’s most significant shortcoming with respect to social mobility, that of its exclusive nature. Given the distinct social and economic disadvantages associated with both Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft, another model for society is therefore required.

Curiously enough, whereas Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft differ in relation to one another with respect to meaning both however, share one noun in common; that of “fellowship”. A fellowship can be construed inter alia, as a group of individuals who share mutual interests. It also constitutes a term, which can be associated with notions of charity. As a form of social organization therefore, fellowship could offer an encouraging alternative to both Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft. This is not because it stands in opposition to both but because it could potentially borrow the best features of both social models whilst at the same time ensuring that the negative traits inherent within both remain at a minimum. Beginning with what the charitable aspect of a fellowship could look like: Charity within a fellowship might assume the following form; where individuals recognise that those who deserve to progress into higher income strata owing to their ability should be given the opportunity to do so irrespective of their particular socio-economic backgrounds. This would thus achieve the meritocratic element present within Gesellschaft but not as forthcoming within Gemeinschaft. Additionally, charity could assume the form of a charitable attitude on the party of the individual members of a fellowship in relation to each individual’s personality and contribution to group life. This would then allow for the creation of a society where the individual contributions of society’s members to both social and economic life irrespective of their relative wealth and status, are valued for their own sake. Such a charity in attitude could then have as its consequence the achievement of the low levels of status inequality, which is inherent within a Gemeinschaft but lacking within a Gesellschaft. Furthermore, a society whose members share mutual interests must necessarily encompass the mutual interest that all members would necessarily have in both the progression and advancement of the society within which they live. A society, which enables its members to make use of their different talents to the full–made possible by low levels of status inequality–would then allow a more economically efficient social model to emerge. This is because a society in which all talents are being used to the full would then give rise to a society whose members are all adhering to comparative advantage notions of economic efficiency.


The aim of this article has not been to dismiss the important contributions made by social mobility strategies in advancing the cause of social justice. Such strategies have contributed a great deal to spreading opportunity and improving the lives of countless of people from disadvantaged social groups. Rather, this article seeks to highlight some of the more disdainful social and economic aspects, which are associated with today’s Gesellschaft but are nevertheless commonly overlooked. Although the Gesellschaft social model allows for social and economic progression based on merit it nevertheless constitutes a pressurized and antagonistic society, which lacks the social harmony present within a Gemeinschaft. Such high levels of status inequality help to create social antagonisms amongst Gesellschaft’s wealth and status-seeking members. It can also lead to a degree of economic inefficiency as the majority of Gesellschaft’s members obsessively seek to penetrate high-income brackets. This they do as a means of gaining wealth and status rather than focusing instead on enhancing their individual talents, some of which may not necessarily point towards a vocation with a promise of social power. Most importantly however, this article has attempted to offer a practical alternative to today’s Gesellschaft, that of fellowship. As an alternative form of social organization fellowship’s potential lies in the fact that it could combine Gesellschaft’s meritocracy with Gemeinschaft’s social harmony whilst at the same serving as a economically more efficient model for society.

In September 2009 following his inauguration as President of the United States, Barack Obama delivered a speech to school pupils at Wakefield High School in Arlington, Virginia. His speech was primarily aimed at explaining to high school students who were about to begin the new academic year what their individual responsibilities with respect to their education were:

„[E]very single one of you has something that you’re good at. Every single one of you has something to offer. And you have a responsibility to yourself to discover what that is. That’s the opportunity an education can provide.“ (Barack Obama 2009)

He then went on to list a number of career opportunities, which could be made available as a result of a good education; these were doctor, teacher, police officer, nurse, architect, soldier and lawyer (see Barack Obama 2009). What is most revealing about this speech is President Obama’s appreciation for the fact that talent comes in different forms and that each talent, its resulting vocation and contribution to society should be regarded as valuable for its own sake. This article has attempted to show that today’s Gesellschaft requires more of such an attitude for the sake of both social harmony amongst its members and economic efficiency. But this can only happen if social mobility strategies place more of an emphasis on encouraging more equality of status within society by encouraging diversity in talent. This would be in addition to their continued attempts at breaking down those social barriers, which continue to hinder meritocratic advancement to high-income careers. This would have as its consequence the encouragement of a society, which seeks to make use of the diverse talents of all by ensuring that Gesellschaft’s members along with their natural gifts are where society truly needs them to be.

*The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the European Commission or of any other European Union entity.

James Hollis is a graduate of the Diplomatic Academy of Vienna and of the City Law School in London. He is currently working as a trainee in the Directorate-General for Neighbourhood and Enlargement Negotiations at the European Commission in Brussels.

Heft #39/2016 als .pdf


Brint, S. (2001): Gemeinschaft Revisited: A Critique and Reconstruction of the Community Concept. In: Sociological Theory 2001/19, pp. 1–24.

Dorobat, C.E./ M.-V. Topan (2015): Entrepreneurship and Comparative Advantage. In: Journal of Entrepreneurship 2015/24, pp. 1–16.

Google: Google Translate. https://translate.google.com/#en/de/fellowship (access: 22.02.2016).

Loomis, C. (1957): Ferdinand Tönnies: On Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft. Studymore.org.uk/dsston.htm (access: 02.02.2016).

Micklethwait, J./ A. Wooldridge (2014): The State of the State: The Global Contest for the Future of Government. In: Foreign Affairs 2014/93, pp. 118–132.

Obama, Barack (08.09.2009): Presidential National Address to Students. http://www.c-span.org/video/?288771-2/presidential-national-address-students (access: 10.02.2016), 24:48.


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