Straining the Limitations of Meritocracy: A Meditation on Busyness

I am busy. There are eight events on my calendar today—I’m booked from 9:00 this morning to 10:30 tonight. Students at Vassar are busy. Everyone is busy. As I walk to class, I see students glued to their phones in one hand, and glued to a coffee cup in the other hand. We are going from one place to the next, barely staying awake while completing the many tasks required of us. I find myself longingly staring at advertisements for lectures and campus dialogues, knowing I will be too busy to go.

I get to my second class and find my seat. It is Uma Narayan’s Global Feminism class. Professor Narayan said something that really struck me, on this busy day: “We construct ourselves as subjects that can only think in the short-term. How can we have a social movement if we’re all too busy?” As students, we are forced to handle an assignment at a time, a day at a time, a week at a time, a semester at a time. I’ve often heard my friends and peers say, “I just need to get through this week.” But in between our obligations, we have no time to step back and think. And we definitely don’t have time to step back and organize politically.

Why are we so busy, anyway? We feel it is necessary to be this busy—not in order to be successful, but in order to survive. Our culture necessitates busyness. Our culture dictates that if we are not busy, there is something wrong with us. The root of this norm is capitalism and meritocracy. We have been told that we are not worth anything unless we work as hard as we can, and it’s not enough to master one subject—we’re expected to be well-rounded little worker bees. While we’re this busy, what we might not notice is that we were once potentially strong political subjects with the power to incite change, but we have been pacified.

Meritocracy in its purest form is the idea that you get what you deserve. What you “deserve” is dictated by how hard you work and commit yourself to capitalist ideologies–as well as ideals of whiteness and masculinity. You will be successful if you are a workaholic at a high-paid professional job. A practical person might argue that professional jobs require education, which is not something that people of all identities are afforded. Generally, meritocracy’s response to this is that you are simply not trying hard enough. Something that you did wrong is the problem; it has nothing to do with structures in our society that fiercely maintain inequality.

Meritocracy is the bread-and-butter of capitalism. The people that work the hardest gain the most, and the poor people clearly need to work harder—you just have to disregard the fact that due to the principles of capitalism, the existence of a wealthy class necessitates the existence of the working poor. Meritocracy also enforces white supremacy, patriarchy, cis-heteronormativity, and ableism through the same principles. What is it that we consider to be merit? The values ascribed to the most successful are often necessarily attached to whiteness and masculinity. In this way, meritocracy is able to reinforce systems of oppression across the board.

Our attention spans (or lack thereof) go hand in hand with meritocracy. Our social lives are compacted into social media accounts, and our romantic relationships are compacted into the hookup culture. If you are constantly busy working so you can get all the wealth you know you deserve, you are trapped in “time poverty” and do not have time to thoughtfully reflect on each aspect of your life. Reflection on oppressive systems is not at the forefront of the minds of working class people who work the most hours at the most physically strenuous jobs. Those who do have time to reflect on these systems have less incentive to organize against them.

Americans and other capitalist worker-bees are incomplete without their drug of choice: caffeine. After all, “America runs on Dunkin!” In order to fulfill their duties, most Americans consume coffee and other caffeinated beverages throughout the day (and night) to be “productive.” I put “productive” in quotes because the quality of what they are producing is questionable. Nevertheless, it is generally not important for worker-bees to create things of quality or reflecting deep thought, lest they are prolific.

Similarly, Americans pop Adderall and other psychostimulants at an alarming rate to keep up with their demands as cogs in the capitalist machine. In the 1990s, there was a 700% increase in the use of psychostimulants, with 90% of the world’s psychostimulants used in the United States. Being “lazy,” otherwise known as feeling disenchanted by our worker-bee mentality, has been pathologized as ADHD, and psychostimulants are the answer to this “problem.”

Depression and anxiety are obviously inextricably linked with our society’s expectations about work and busyness, as well. It is unsurprising that these norms cause stress for many. For those without an official diagnosis of clinical depression or an anxiety disorder, binge drinking, regular marijuana consumption, and abuse of benzodiazepines such as Xanax are the answer. It would be an understatement to say that these behaviors are ubiquitous among Vassar students. As young adults, we feel powerless to change our society’s prescribed notions of what an acceptable workload is—so we cope. Abuse of psychostimulants, alcohol, marijuana, and benziodiazepines is a direct product of these norms and serves to further pacify potentially political subjects.

As you can probably tell, this is all rather depressing. It seems like we are stuck here and completely hopeless. There are options. Suey Park tweeted “Let’s be radical in the way that we show up for each other and radical in the way that we hope. Your politics are what you do everyday.” Your politics are not just who you vote for or your opinions about social issues. Your politics are what you do everyday and how you interact with people. Being radical means deviating from the system and using your own tools, rather than the oppressors’, to create change. Your politics should be questioning yourself: where is it that you are in relationship to the world? What are you doing? Why are you doing it? How do the answers to those questions affect the way you move through spaces and interact with people? Self-awareness is underrated in our culture. It is less important to think about the implications of your behaviors and actions than it should be.

Another simple way that we can fight against these constricting social norms is to radically care for ourselves. As much as “self-care” can be a term that evokes privilege, and seems to apply only to those privileged enough to go get a manicure and pedicure when they’re having a rough week, radically caring for ourselves is actually much simpler and less consumerist than that. For example, to the best of our ability, we can demand a lifestyle that allows us to eat regularly throughout the day, to get enough sleep, to allow time for self-reflection, to develop socially and spend time with people we like. You have a right to take time to think. You have a right to set limits between your work and your “self.”

Developing these strategies in itself is radical and political. I also surmise that if we can move into a self-aware frame of mind with regards to busy culture, we will be able to organize more productive and change-producing social and political movements. This is critical to us, right here and right now—we are college students at a powerful institution during times of great troubles. We have the power to incite change; we just have to go about it in a way that will not be destructive to our own livelihoods.

With the recent events occurring on campus in the midst of the end of classes and the start of final exams, busy culture has really struck me as a deterrent to taking action to create change. We may have time to attend large discussions, but how many students have time to have real conversations about what needs to change and what actions need to be taken? It is much easier to focus on our required tasks than to think critically about how we, ourselves, are implicated in the construction and reproduction of systemic inequality.

I am not in a position to tell people how to live their lives. I am simply trying to figure out how busy culture and meritocracy affect my life and interact with my identities, and how I can cope with the negative effects in a healthy way. I am not asking you to stop drinking coffee and stop smoking pot; I’m asking you to think critically about what motivates you. I want you not only to survive, but also to be healthy and happy—despite the overarching cultural norms that we might not be able to change right now.

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