by Jan Niklas Rolf
With Russia deploying more than 100,000 troops near the border to Ukraine and China detaining more than 1,000,000 Uyghurs in the region of Xinjiang, Thomas Bach, president of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), felt compelled to appeal to the Olympic spirit of peace in his Beijing 2022 opening ceremony speech: “This is the mission of the Olympic Games”, he said, “bringing us together in peaceful competition. Always building bridges, never erecting walls. Uniting humanity in all our diversity”.
Yet, given the US-led diplomatic boycott, there were hardly any officials to engage in the kind of ping-pong diplomacy that Nixon and Mao had practiced fifty years ago. Due to the regime’s strict zero-COVID policy, there were also no foreign spectators in China to make a connection, and the athletes and coaches that actually made it into the country were put in a bubble that prevented them from immersing into the culture. “Building bridges”, thus, seemed to come down to the commentators that bring one of the most televised events in the world into our homes.
By analysing the television coverage of the parade of nations during the opening ceremony of the 2022 Winter Games in Beijing, this post explores how commentators are engaging with other nations. The two TV stations chosen are the public-service broadcaster Zweites Deutsches Fernsehen (ZDF) and the pan-European network Eurosport 1, both of which are freely available in Germany. As the most successful nation at Olympic Winter Games, Germany has a strong Olympic fan base and, hence, should make for a good case study.
But first, we have to establish the link between the Olympics and peace. During the ancient Olympic Games, a truce was proclaimed to allow for a safe journey to and from historic Olympia. In 1992, the IOC renewed this tradition by calling upon all nations to put aside their political differences for the duration of the Games, and invoked it at every Games ever since. While a brief ceasefire during the 1994 Winter Games in Lillehammer allowed for the vaccination of an estimated 10,000 children in Bosnia, Russia’s full-scale invasion of Georgia took place on the day of the opening ceremony of the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing. The conflict in Ukraine, too, escalated around the time the 2014 Winter Games were held in nearby Sochi. In the face of Russia’s military build-up in the lead-up to the 2022 Winter Games in Beijing, the United Nations (UN) General Assembly unanimously adopted the Olympic Truce Resolution that
“Urges Member States to observe the Olympic Truce individually and collectively, within the framework of the Charter of the United Nations, throughout the period from the seventh day before the start of the XXIV Olympic Winter Games until the seventh day following the end of the XIII Paralympic Winter Games, to be held in Beijing in 2022 […].”
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine between the Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games, thus, constituted not only a violation of international law, but also of the Olympic Truce.
But even if observed, the Olympic Truce only guarantees a temporary or negative peace. Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Olympic Games, was more interested in fostering a sustainable or positive peace:
“We shall not have peace until the prejudices which now separate the different races shall have been outlived. To attain this end, what better means than to bring the youth of all countries periodically together for amicable trials of muscular strength and agility?”
Like the current IOC president, de Coubertin saw the Games as a locus of encounter where people of different nations get “to know one another better”. Knowledge, in turn, “will replace dangerous ignorance, mutual understanding will soften unthinking hatreds”. Enshrined in the Olympic Charter, which pictures sports as means to “better understanding between each other and of friendship, thereby helping to build a better and more peaceful world”, and the Olympic Truce Resolution, according to which “sports can contribute to an atmosphere of tolerance and understanding among peoples and nations”, this view has taken on an “ossified form” over the years. However, unlike other elements of de Coubertin’s ideological morphology such as athleticism and amateurism, Simon Creak notes, it “has remained remarkably resistant to critical analysis ever since”.
This post examines whether commentators are engaging with the ‘other’ in a meaningful way, thereby promoting a deeper understanding of other countries and cultures that the IOC and UN deem critical for a more sustainable peace. To that end, it conducts a discursive analysis of the television coverage of the parade of nations—an integral part of the opening ceremony during which the teams of participating nations parade into the stadium—by the two networks ZDF and Eurosport 1 along the three dimensions of sports, politics and culture.
On both networks, the greatest chunk of commentary was on sports. And yet the focus was a very different one. The two ZDF commentators—reporter Nils Kaben and correspondent Ulf Röller—used the nation as a frame of reference, making frequent references to the Olympic record of national teams: We learn that Hungary and Poland have participated in all Winter Games so far, that Norway and Switzerland were particularly successful at the previous Winter Games and that Turkey and Azerbaijan are yet to win their first medals at Winter Games. Where references were made to individual athletes, they tended to be references to flag-bearers as representatives of their respective nations.
In contrast, the two Eurosport 1 commentators—reporter Siegfried Heinrich and journalist Birgit Nössing—seemed to follow the mantra of the Olympic Charter that—all appearances to the contrary—the “Games are contests between individuals and not between nations”, telling a number of personal stories: We learn that an athlete from Ecuador does not eat anything before her contests and that another athlete from Andorra always wears different colored FC Barcelona socks during her contests. When the national teams of Brazil and Spain entered the stadium, it was particular athletes that came to the mind of the commentator: “Brazil marches in. And there I’m thinking, if you allow, of the cross-country skier Bruna Moura […]”. “Now comes Spain […]. When I think of Spain, I think of [Francisco Fernández] Ochoa […]. And I have to think of Javier Fernández [López], the figure skater”. The exchange the commentator had with the co-commentator on figure skater Vladimir Litvintsev, flag-bearer of Azerbaijan, is particularly telling in this regard:
Co-commentator: “Until 2018, he skated under the Russian flag and then he changed to Azerbaijan.”
Commentator: “And why?”
Co-commentator: “ROC [Russian Olympic Committee] is the keyword.”
Co-commentator: “ROC [pause]. Well, the Russians are not allowed [to compete] under their own flag.”
Commentator: “No, not only. He changed because the competition in Russia had become too fierce.”
Co-commentator: “That’s what you mean.”
Commentator: “Yes. He said to himself, I'll go to Azerbaijan, because there I'll have my starting place for sure.”
For the co-commentator, Litvintsev’s decision to become an Azerbaijani citizen was governed by the fact that Russia, due to its state-sponsored doping, was banned from the Games, forbidding Russian athletes to compete under the Russian flag. For the commentator, in contrast, it was a rather opportunistic decision that had little to do with not being able to compete under the Russian flag, but with being able to compete at all, no matter under which national flag. Once again, the commentator refused to engage in “methodological nationalism”, that is, to conceive of the nation as the sole unit of analysis.
The second most discussed topic after sports was politics. Commentators from both broadcasters commented on the political situation in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Ukraine, Russia and China. In addition, Eurosport 1 commentators mentioned the unrest in Belarus and Kazakhstan. While Eurosport 1 commentators thus made more references to politics, the general tone was more tentative: “And now it’s going to be a bit political, that’s clear. Because now comes Chinese Taipei, that is, Taiwan […]”. “It remains a bit political when we have Hong Kong here […]”. “Ukraine, and things are getting a bit political here too […]”. While in each case the commentators added a few sentences about the political situation before turning the conversation to other issues, the introductory phrase “a bit political” downplayed the import of it.
ZDF commentators, in contrast, employed a number of superlatives when talking about politics: “This [the political status of Taiwan] is a super sensitive topic […]. It is the great political goal of Xi Jinping to bring Taiwan back to the mainland and there is a huge political dispute about this with the Americans”. The commentary was also more accusative, emotive and generalising in nature: “The pictures that we recently had to see from Hong Kong [in this moment, the camera captures the political leader of China] for which he, Xi Jinping, is responsible, also shook us to the core”, with the “us” supposedly referring to an assumed national, if not global, community. When the Chinese team entered the stadium, both ZDF and Eurosport 1 commentators talked about the government’s attempt to turn China into a competitive winter sports nation. And yet ZDF commentators were way more negative about this than Eurosport 1 commentators, as can be seen from a comparison of the following two conversations:
Commentator (ZDF): “With a lot of effort, with a lot of European trainer know-how, they want to close the gap with the world’s best. Very ambitious [in fact, China was among the three most successful nations at the Games, even outperforming the United States in gold medals].”
Co-commentator (ZDF): “Of course, China is not a winter sports nation, but they have bought heavily internationally, and have turned many athletes into Chinese people, given them a Chinese passport to improve the performance of the team.”
This patronising (“with a lot of European trainer know-how”) and slightly sinophobic (“turned many athletes into Chinese people”) language can be contrasted with the rather positive and personalised commentary on Eurosport 1:
Co-commentator (Eurosport 1): “In order to make China a winter sports nation they are bringing in the best of the best coaches […]. They are supposed to make stars out of the Chinese rough diamonds […]. And then there is Eileen Gu [a US born freestyle skier who competes for China, for which she has attracted a lot of criticism].”
Commentator (Eurosport 1): “Well, Eileen Gu, that’s the story par excellence […]. Dad is American. Mom is Chinese. And she said what I think is a really beautiful sentence: Nobody can deny that I’m American, she said, nobody can deny that I’m Chinese, and that’s almost a conciliatory story.”
Indeed, by starting for China, Gu hopes “to unite people, promote common understanding, create communication, and forge friendships between nations”. The Eurosport 1 commentator moved on to talk about the Chinese ice hockey team, which is mostly made up of former US-Americans and Canadians, only to conclude with: “But it’s nice that it happens like this”.
Surprisingly, culture was the least discussed topic during the carnival of cultures that is the parade of nations. The only time it featured in the ZDF commentary was when the Austrian team, rather coincidentally, entered the stadium to a waltz tune and the commentator, noticing this, commented: “And then there’s a bit of waltz music in the bird’s nest”. But comments on culture were not only sparse; sometimes they were also false. The Eurosport 1 commentator, for example, suggested that, instead of the national anthem, Russian gold medal winners will hear Beethoven’s 9th symphony where, in fact, it was Tchaikovsky’s piano concerto no. 1. On three more occasions, the Eurosport 1 commentator touched upon culture and customs. When the Argentinian team marched into the stadium, he complained:
“Well, Argentina. With six participants. I don’t understand that, because there are such great ski areas in Argentina and yet nothing comes out of it that would be remotely competitive athletes.”
With the co-commentator not responding, which could be interpreted as a sign of dissent, the commentator came to qualify his statement by attributing the lack of competitive athletes to a different culture:
“Not everyone sees sport as the main goal in life, you have to take this into consideration, of course. There are cultures where sport is important, there are cultures where sport is not so important or not that valued.”
This is indicative of a learning process that de Coubertin sought to instill in society at large: Being raised in a country that is passionate for (winter) sports, the commentator wonders in quite derogatory terms that a country with favorable conditions does not produce competitive athletes. After some reflection, however, he recognises that there are cultures that might not share his enthusiasm for sports. A similar learning process was evident when the commentators talked about a female athlete from Iran:
Commentator: “She is only the third woman from Iran to qualify for the Winter Games. I find that remarkable and very conciliatory when you know how hard women in Iran have to fight for recognition, for sporting recognition.”
Co-commentator: “Yes, and she is asked again and again, she said in an interview, are you allowed to ski at all, does your religion allow it and then of course she said that it is no problem at all. Some of the questions she doesn’t even understand. For example, is there snow in Iran and she always says, well, we are not a desert like Saudi Arabia.”
Commentator: “That’s probably true”.
Whereas the commentator was echoing the Western narrative that women in Iran and other Islamic republics are severely suppressed, the co-commentator, by citing the Iranian athlete, questioned that very narrative and other stereotypes about Iran, which the commentator, by responding with “that’s probably true”, seemed to accept. Lastly, when the flag-bearer of Timor-Leste entered the stadium in traditional clothes, the commentator made an approving comment of the costume. Apparently noting the Orientalism in his words, he added: “I wouldn’t consider it as exotic, it’s just something that one likes to see”.
While there was no further discussion of cultural artefacts, commentators did present some geographical facts about what they assumed to be lesser known countries, that is, far-away or small countries, or both. Eurosport 1 viewers learned that Timor-Leste is “an island nation in Southeast Asia near Indonesia” and ZDF viewers got to know that Madagascar is “the second largest island nation in the world by area after Indonesia, located in the Indian Ocean, east of Africa”. The latter audience was also told that San Marino is “a microstate surrounded by Italy” and that Andorra is “a principality in the Pyrenees”. Yet, rather than talking about its peculiarity, Andorra was compared to and lumped together with other European microstates: “By area, the largest of the six European microstates. San Marino, Monaco, Liechtenstein, Vatican City are all among them”. Madagascar, too, was only made sense of by reference to other African countries: “Madagascar, the first of five representatives from Africa”. When the national team of Ghana entered the stadium, the ZDF commentator proclaimed: “Ghana, the next representative of Africa”. Notably, no other teams were pictured as representatives of their respective continent—an expression of the common conflation of African countries with the African continent. The Eurosport 1 commentator, on the other hand, conflated Great Britain with England when he remarked: “In curling, the English, represented by Scotland, have recently beaten the Swedes [...]. The Scots are very important for England”. Strictly speaking, even the official brand name, “Team GB”, is not correct, as the team also includes athletes from Northern Ireland, which does not belong to Great Britain. Yet commentators did not even get some of the more basic facts straight.
Nor can commentators be expected to contribute towards a better knowledge of other cultures and countries within the thirty seconds or so that they have when a national team enters the stadium during the parade of nations. What commentators can do, however, is to set the tone. Here, the tentative and reflective tonality of Eurosport 1, focusing on the individual, seems to be more conducive towards cross-cultural understanding and, eventually, positive peace than the affective and accusative tonality of ZDF, applying a national frame. While there was no evidence of assertive nationalism or chauvinism, a national bias was clearly discernible.
Indeed, even the Olympic Broadcasting Services (OBS), who, on their website, claim to provide “unbiased” and “neutral” coverage to national broadcasters (who then add their own commentary), were not able to fully deliver on that promise: When the German team entered the stadium, an applauding Thomas Bach—IOC president and German national—was captured by the cameras. When the Portuguese team paraded into the stadium, António Guterres—UN General-Secretary and Portuguese national—appeared on the screen. The same holds true for most of the state leaders—from Albert II of Monaco to Xi Jinping of China—that attended the opening ceremony. However, when the Russian Olympic Committee marched in with Russian flags stitched onto their otherwise neutral jackets, the OBS director—maybe in anticipation of what was yet to come—chose to edit out a cheering Vladimir Putin.
 H. L. Reid, ‘Olympic Sport and Its Lessons for Peace’, Journal of the Philosophy of Sport, 33 (2006), pp. 205-214.
 Pierre de Coubertin, ‘The Olympic Games of 1896’, Century Magazine 53 (1896), pp. 39-53 at p. 53.
 Pierre de Coubertin, cited in J. J. MacAloon, This Great Symbol: Pierre de Coubertin and the Origins of the Modern Olympic Games (London and New York: Routledge, 2008), p. xxv.
 Simon Creak, ‘Friendship and Mutual Understanding. Sport and Regional Relations in Southeast Asia’, in B. J. Keys (ed.), The Ideals of Global Sport. From Peace to Human Rights (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2019), pp. 21-46 at p. 26.
 All comments have been transcribed and translated by the author.
 Andreas Wimmer and Nina Glick Schiller, ‘Methodological Nationalism and Beyond: Nation-State Building, Migration and the Social Sciences’, Global Networks 2 (2002), pp. 301-334.
by Feng Chen
Ideology has been a central force shaping labour movements across the world. However, the role of ideologies in labour activism in contemporary China has received scant scholarly attention. Previous studies on Chinese labour tend to hold that in China’s authoritarian political context, ideologically driven labour activities have rarely existed because they are politically risky; they also assume that ideologies are only related to organised labour movements, which are largely absent in the country. In contrast to these views, I argue that ideologies are important for understanding Chinese labour activism and, in fact, account for the emergence of different patterns of labour activism.
By applying framing theory, this piece examines how ideologies shape the action frames of labour activism in China. Social movements construct action frames by drawing from their societies’ multiple cultural stocks, such as religions, beliefs, traditions, myths, narratives, etc.; ideologies are one of the primary sources that provide ideational materials for the construction of frames. However, frames do not grow automatically out of ideologies. Constructing frames entails processing the extant ideational materials and recasting them into narratives providing “diagnosis” (problem identification and attribution) and “prognosis” (the solutions to problems). Framing theory is largely built on the experiences of Western (i.e., Euro-American) social movements. When social movement scholars acknowledge that action frames can be derived from extant ideologies, they assume that movements have multiple ideational resources from which to choose when constructing their action frames. Movement actors in liberal societies may construct distinct action frames from various sources of ideas, which may even be opposed to each other. Differing ideological dispositions lead to different factions within a movement.
Nevertheless, understanding the role of ideology in Chinese labour activism requires us to look into the framing process in an authoritarian setting. In this context, the state’s ideological control has largely shut out alternative interpretations of events. It is thus common for activists to frame and legitimise their claims within the confines of the official discourse in order to avoid the suspicion and repression of the state. Nevertheless, the Chinese official ideology has become fragmented since the market reforms of the late 1970s and 1980s, becoming broken into a set of tenets mixed with orthodox, pragmatic, and deviant components, as a result of incorporating norms and values associated with the market economy. From Deng Xiaoping’s “Let some people get rich first”, the “Socialist market economy” proposed by the 14th National Congress of the CCP, to Jiang Zeming’s “Three Represents”, the party’s official ideology has absorbed various ideas associated with the market economy, though it has retained its most fundamental tenets (i.e., upholding the Party Leadership, Marxism-Leninism-Mao Zedong Thought, Socialism Road, and Proletariat Dictatorship) crucial for regime legitimacy.
Correspondingly, China’s official ideology on labour has since evolved into three strands of discourse: (1) Communist doctrines about socialism vs. capitalism as well as the status of the working-class. (2) Rule of law discourse, which highlights the importance of laws in regulating labour relations and legal procedures as the primary means to protect workers’ individual rights regarding contracts, wages, benefits, working conditions, and so on. (3) The notions of collective consultation, tripartism, and the democratic management of enterprises. These notions are created to address collective disputes arising from market-based labour relations and maintain industrial peace. These three strands of the official discourse, which are mutually conflicting in many ways, reflect the changes as well as the continuity within Chinese official ideology on labour.
Framing Chinese labour ideology
The fragmentation of the official ideology provides activists with opportunities to selectively exploit it to construct their action frames around labour rights, which have produced moderate, liberal, and radical patterns of labour activism. To be sure, as there is no organised labour movement under China's authoritarian state, the patterns of labour activism should not be understood in strict organisational terms, or as factions or subgroups that often exist within labour movements in other social contexts. The terms are heuristic, and should be used to map and describe scattered and discrete activities that try to steer labour resistance toward different directions.
Moderate activism, while embracing the market economy, advocates the protection of workers’ individual rights stipulated by labour laws, and seeks to redress workers’ grievances through legal proceedings. One might object to regarding this position as ideological—after all, it only focuses on legal norms and procedures. However, from the perspective of critical labour law, it can be argued that labour law articulates an ideology, as it aims to legitimate the system of labour relations that subjects workers to managerial control. Moreover, moderates’ adherence to officially sanctioned grievance procedures restrains workers' collective actions and individualises labour disputes, which serves the purpose of the state in controlling labour.
Radical activism is often associated with leftist leanings and calls for the restoration of socialism. Radical labour activists have expressed their views on labour in the most explicit socialist/communist or anti-capitalist rhetoric. They condemn labour exploitation in the new capitalistic economy and issue calls to regain the rights of the working class through class struggle. Unsurprisingly, such positions are more easily identified as ideological than others.
Liberal activists advocate collective bargaining and worker representation. They are liberal in the sense that their ideas echo the view of “industrial pluralism” that originated in Western market economies. This view envisions collective bargaining as a form of self-government within the workplace, in which management and labour are equal parties who jointly determine the condition of the sale of labour-power. Liberals have also promoted a democratic practice called “worker representation” to empower workers in collective bargaining.
To make their action frames legitimate within the existing political boundaries, each type of activist group has sought to appropriate the official discourse through a specific strategy of “framing alignment”.
Moderate Activism: Accentuation and Extension
Accentuation refers to the effort to “underscore the seriousness and injustice of a social condition”. Movement activists punctuate certain issues, events, beliefs, or contradictions between realities and norms, with the aim of redressing problematic conditions. Moderate labour activists have taken this approach. Adopting a position that is not fundamentally antagonistic to the market economy and state labour policies, they seek to protect and promote workers’ individual rights within the existing legal framework, and correct labour practices where these deviate from existing laws. Thus, their frame is constructed by accentuating legal rights stipulated by labour laws and regulations and developing a legal discourse on labour standards. Moderate activists’ diagnostic narrative attributes labour rights abuses to poor implementation of labour laws, as well as workers’ lack of legal knowledge. Their prognostic frame calls for effective implementation of labour laws and raising workers' awareness of their rights.
Extension involves a process that extends a frame beyond its original scope to include issues and concerns that are presumed to be important to potential constituents. Some moderate activists have attempted to extend workers’ individual labour rights to broad “citizenship rights”, which mainly refer to social rights in the Chinese context, stressing that migrant workers’ plight is rooted in their lack of citizenship rights—the rights only granted to urban inhabitants. They advocate social and institutional reforms for fair and inclusionary policies toward migrant workers. While demand for citizenship rights can be seen as moderate in the sense that they are just an extension of individual rights, it contains liberal elements, because such new rights will inevitably entail institutional changes. To extend rights protection beyond the legal arena, moderate activists are instrumental in disseminating the idea of “corporate social responsibility” (CSR) and promoting it to enterprises. This aims to protect workers’ individual rights by disciplining enterprises and making them comply with labour standards.
Liberal Activism: Bridging
Frame bridging refers to the linking of two or more narratives or movements that have a certain affinity but have been previously formally unconnected. While the existing literature has paid more attention to “ideologically congruent but structurally unconnected frames regarding a particular issue or problem”, “bridging” can also be understood as a means of “moral cover”. That is, it splices alternative views to the official discourse, as a way of creating legitimacy for the former. This is a tactic that China’s liberal labour activism has used fairly frequently. Liberals support market reforms and seek to improve workers’ conditions within the current institutional framework, but they differ from moderates in that their diagnostic narrative attributes workers’ vulnerable position in labour relations to their absence of collective rights.
Meanwhile, their prognostic narrative advocates collective bargaining, worker representation, and collective action as the solution to labour disputes. The ideas liberal activists promote largely come from the experiences of Western labour movements and institutional practices. As a rule, the Chines government regards these ideas as unsuited to China’s national conditions. To avoid being labelled as embracing “Western ideology”, liberal activists try to bridge these ideas and practices with China’s official notions of collective consultation, tripartism, and enterprise democracy, justifying workers’ collective role in labour disputes by extensive references to the provisions of labour laws, the civil law, and official policies. These are intended to legitimise their frame as compatible with the official discourse.
Radical Activism: Amplification
Amplification involves a process of idealising, embellishing, clarifying, or invigorating existing values or beliefs. While the strategy may be necessary for most movement mobilisations, “it appears to be particularly relevant to movements reliant on conscience constituents”. In the Chinese context, radical activists are typically adherents of the orthodox doctrines of the official ideology, either because they used to be beneficiaries of the system in the name of communism or they are sincerely committed to communist ideology in the Marxist conception. Unlike moderates and liberals, who do not oppose the market economy, radicals’ diagnostic frames point to the market economy as the fundamental cause of workers’ socioeconomic debasement. They craft the “injustice frame” in terms of the Marxian concept of labour exploitation, and their prognostic frame calls for building working-class power and waging class struggles.
Although orthodox communist doctrines have less impact on economic policies, they have remained indispensable for regime legitimacy. Radical activists capture them as a higher political moral ground on which to construct their frames. Their amplification of the ideological doctrines of socialism, capitalism, and the working class not only provide strong justification for their claims in terms of their consistency with the CCP’s ideological goal; it is also a way of forcefully expressing the view that current economic and labour policies have deviated from the regime’s ideological promises.
These three action frames have offered their distinct narratives of labour rights (i.e., in terms of the individual, collective, and class), and attributed workers’ plights to the lack of these rights as well as proposing strategies to realise them. However, this does not mean that the three action frames are mutually exclusive. All of them view Chinese workers as being a socially and economically disadvantaged group and stress the crying need to protect individuals’ rights through legal means. Both moderates and liberals support market-based labour relations, while both liberals and radicals share the view that labour organisations and collective actions are necessary to protect workers’ interests. For this reason, however, moderates have often regarded both liberals and radicals as “radical”, as they see their conceptions of collective actions as fundamentally too confrontational. On the other hand, it is not surprising that in the eyes of liberals, radicals are “true” radicals, in the sense that they regard their goals as idealistic and impractical. It is also worth noting that activist groups have tended to switch their action frame from one to another. Some groups started with the promotion of individual rights but later turned into champions for collective rights.
The three types of labour activism reflect the different claims of rights that have emerged in China’s changing economic as well as legal and institutional contexts. While the way that labour activists have constructed their frames indicates the common political constraints facing labour activists, their emphasis on different categories of labour rights and strategies to achieve them demonstrates that they did not share a common vision about the structure and institutions of labour relations that would best serve workers’ interests. The lack of a meaningful public sphere under tight ideological control has discouraged debates and dialogues across different views on labour rights and labour relations. Activists with different orientations have largely operated in isolation, and often view other groups as limited and unrealistic—a symptom of the sheer fragmentation of Chinese labour activism. Yet the evidence shows that, although they have resonated with workers to a varying degree, these three patterns of activism have faced different responses from the government because of their different prognostic notions. Both liberal and radical activism have been met with state suppression, because of their advocacy of collective action and labour organising. Their fate attests to the fundamental predicament facing labour movements in China.
 For this perspective, see J. Conaghan, ‘Critical Labour Law: The American Contribution’, Journal of Law and Society, 14: 3 (1987), pp. 334-352.
 K. Stone, ‘The Structure of Post-War Labour Relations’, New York University Review of Law and Social Change, 11 (1982), p. 125.
 R. Benford and D. Snow, ‘Framing Processes and Social Movements: An Overview and Assessment’, Annual Review of Sociology 26 (2000), pp. 611–639.
 S. Tarrow, Power in Movement: Social Movements and Contentious Politics (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012).
 R. Benford and D. Snow, ‘Framing processes and social movements: An overview and assessment’, Annual Review of Sociology 26 (2000), pp. 611–639.
 D. Westby, ‘Strategic Imperative, Ideology, and Frames.” In Hank Johnstone and John Noakes (Eds.), Frames of Protest (New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2005), pp. 217–236.
 R. Benford and D. Snow, “Framing Processes and Social Movements: An Overview and Assessment.” Annual Review of Sociology 26 (2000), pp.611–639.
by Noam Hadad and Yaacov Yadgar
How are we to understand a self-proclaimed “religious-nationalist” ideology if we take seriously the critical insights of a wide field of studies that question the very meaning of and distinction between the two organs of this hyphenated identity (i.e., religion and the supposedly secular nationalism)?
A wide field of studies (what is usually termed post-secularism or critical religion) have convincingly situated the emergence of the modern usage of these categories or concepts in specific historical and political configurations of power, debunking the (nevertheless prevalent) notion that they are universal and supra-historical concepts, the distilled essences of which can be found everywhere and everywhen in human history, only the outer appearance of them changing from place to place and from time to time. These critical studies caution us not to accept the assumed distinction between irrational, apolitical and private religion and secular, public and rational politics as a natural “given”. Instead, they encourage us to highlight exactly the specific political and historical makeup of the configuration of power that motivates the very construction and usage of these concepts.
We take Religious-Zionism as a case study to explore the manner in which the so-called religious identity of an ideology whose foundational values are those of nationalism and the nation-state, is shaped. We also explore the ways in which this ideology, bent on “hyphenating” nationalism and religion, deals with the ideational challenges posed by an epistemology that insists that the two are mutually exclusive.
The Western construction of “religion” and “the secular”
Popular imagery, as well as the discourse prevalent in large swaths of the academic field tend to view religion and the secular as universal (that is, culturally agnostic), almost natural and obviously neutral categories, that are used to describe—and to analyse—any given social and political reality. Religion is described in this context as a primordial, non-rational (or irrational) basis of human society, and secularism or secularisation as a rational, enlightened release from the archaic bonds of religion.
Powerful critiques reject this construction of both religion and the secular. Critics retrace the emergence of the conceptual binary to its historical and cultural (modern, Christian, largely Protestant, European) context, and warn against employing this binary as if it were supra-historical and universal. The prevailing concept of religion, they show, has developed in the context of the emergence of the modern, secular nation-state. Religion is charged with a (negative) normative load, often captured in what secularist partisans depict as the violent and irrational nature of religion. The critics further show that the secular is constructed as the mirror image of religion, associated with a positive normative load of reason, rationality, and progress. Most importantly, these critiques highlight the ways in which this Western construction of religion serves the politics of the nation-state, while delegitimising competing claims for authority as religious, hence irrational and danger.
This construction of religion and the secular nourished on Protestant ideas, especially the depiction of religion as a personal, apolitical matter. The Church, this view would claim, should avoid interfering in matters of politics, leaving it for the secular state to conduct. The outcome of this segregation of religion and its distancing from politics is thus inherently political: it dictates that one’s loyalty should be given exclusively to the state. Loyalty to God (and the teachings taught in God’s name by tradition) is to be depoliticised, neutralised of its public power.
The secularist discourse is thus presented with a dilemma when considering the phenomenon of religious nationalism: How to account for this obviously modern “hybrid”, that professes political loyalty to both God and nation-state? The academic discourse on Religious-Zionism, which for the most part has been bound into the secularist discourse suggests that the key for understanding this phenomenon is in the balance of power between the two organs: religion and nationalism. Many of these studies have employed the concept of fundamentalism to study Religious-Zionism. Other studies reject fundamentalism as an irrelevant framework, describing instead this ideology as existentially torn between its competing, incompatible commitments to secular Zionism and the religious Judaism.
What all these approached has in common is their insistence on employing the secularist epistemology, analysing Religious-Zionism through the contrast and tension between a secular nationalist ideology (i.e., Zionism), and religion.
Yet a critique of the ways in which academic literature based on secularist epistemology has struggled to understand Religious-Zionism is not in itself sufficient to overcome this hurdle. This is so since spokespeople and thought leaders of Religious-Zionism themselves also rely on the bipolarity that pits religious tradition against secular politics as an infrastructure of their thought. Religious-Zionism has for decades based its self-perception on this bipolarity, viewing itself as tasked with the challenge of synthetising or reconciling this apparent binary of a thesis and its antithesis.
This is the background against which to appreciate far reaching changes in the ways in which Religious-Zionists have understood the meaning of their religious commitments and allegedly secular nationalist loyalties. Much of the history of the Religious-Zionist thought in the past half-century can thus be explained as a struggle to reconcile what its carriers viewed as an inevitable conflict between the two, potentially conflicting but equally cherished cores of their identity.
As practically all scholars agree, the June 1967 Six Days war mark, in this regard, a watershed, further motivating this ideological soul-searching. But its effect took time to emerge into the foreground. The two decades immediately following the war saw Religious-Zionists continuing to view their guiding ideology as offering a unique combination of secular and religious values into a whole, consistent system of thought. Some viewed this combination as achieving wholeness, while others insisted on preserving the distinction between the two separate yet interlocked arms. The “Western” (i.e., Euro-American) conceptual toolkit remained their primary framework for understanding their politics. This was especially apparent when spokespeople for Religious-Zionism took a leading role in resisting what they depicted as the separation of religion from state politics, demanding that certain aspects of Jewish tradition are granted a substantial place in public life. The epistemological tension entailed in trying to combine and unify what are, according to the very fundamentals of the secularist discourse, separate and mutually exclusive organs has been apparent. Even when it was clear that the writers are acutely aware of the tension, they were unable to solve it, invested as they were in the conceptual framework that nourished it in the first place.
This tension was rapidly coming to a head during the early 1990’s when the Israeli government and the Palestinian Liberation Organisation were negotiating and signing what became known as the Oslo Accords. Religious-Zionists commentators, who read the Accords as an Israeli capitulation, led by secular Zionist leaders, could no longer accept the principal legitimacy of secular dimension of Zionism. They began to question the legitimacy of the so-called secular element in Zionist thought. It is the thin ideological bedrock of secular nationalism, these spokespeople argued, that results in the Israeli inability to safeguard Zionist fundamentals. The only remedy against this precariousness of the Zionist commitments is, they concluded, religion. It is religion, in other words, that safeguards nationalism and guarantees that it is not undermined. Religious-Zionist writers thus solved, in this context, the tension between secular nationalism and religion by transforming the (allegedly secular, even by their own measures) nation-state into a supreme religious value. In effect, this solution meant that any secular Jewish-nationalism is not properly Zionist, since it is only Religious-Zionism that fits bill of authentic Zionism.
Yet this solution, too, remains wedded to the same conceptual framework, where religion and nationalism are understood to be distinct from each other. In retrospect, it is clear that it has not gained much ground. It was during the Religious-Zionist campaign against the Israeli “Disengagement” (namely, the withdrawal of Israeli settlers and armed forces from the Gaza Strip and the northern West Bank) in 2005 that religion, in its Western-constructed manner, was no longer presented as a foundational element in Religious-Zionist identity. Neither was religion used to distinguish Religious-Zionism from general, secular Zionists. Instead, Religious-Zionist spokespeople focused on the notion of Judaism, which they saw as identical to Zionism writ large. Moreover, there were also calls from within the Religious-Zionist camp to separate religion from realpolitik, or at least to substantially limit its footprint, since it was limiting Religious-Zionism’s ability to confront this realpolitik of the state. While in the past Religious-Zionist spokespeople sought to legitimate religion as worthy of playing a role in politics, they now started to question religion’s political worth, and to position it at the lower ranks of Religious-Zionist ideology, assigning it a utopian more than politically practical and influential role.
In other words, we can see here a renewed “Protestanisation” of Jewish religion among Religious-Zionists. Jewish tradition, seen as mere personal and spiritual “religion,” was gradually pushed aside from matters of national politics, which were fully dominated by the state. Ironic as it may sound, we can speak here of a Religious-Zionist trend of separating religion from politics, that gained power against the background of the Israeli “Disengaging Plan”.
Nationalism and Territory—the Land of Israel
The effects of the secularist, Western epistemology are also apparent when considering the ideological principle of the settlement of the national territory (the Land of Israel) with members of the sovereign nation, a central foundation of Zionist ideology generally. Scholars and commentators of various kinds have tended to single out the principle of settlement as the very core of Religious-Zionism. Critically, they have interpreted it as a matter of Religious-Zionism’s Judaic, religious commitments, depicting Religious-Zionism as promoting the achieving or fulfilling of this end or “commandment” by all available means, including the nation-state, and Zionist ideology itself. At the very least, these scholars have explained the settlement of the Land of Israel as an independent religious value, to which Religious-Zionism is committed as a matter of its religious orthodoxy, regardless of or in parallel to this ideology’s commitment to the nation-state. Accordingly, scholars subscribing to this view have explained various conflictual flash-points—especially since the onset of Religious-Zionist led settlement of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip—as putting Religious-Zionism in an existential dilemma, torn between its religious commitment to settle the land and its political, secular commitment to the state. (Some even presented the latter as a matter of religion too).
Yet careful examination of Religious-Zionist public discourse during the half-century since the June 1967 war shows that the value of settling the Land of Israel was rarely granted an independent, self-fulfilling status. Instead, it was usually tied to and dominated by a broader nationalist view, at the center of which stands the state, the nation and nationalist ideology. The idea of the “undivided Land of Israel”, central and important as it has been in Zionist thought generally and in Religious-Zionist thought specifically, has not been elevated to the status of an absolute value, but remained subservient to the sanctification of nationalism and sovereign statehood.
Moreover, the Religious-Zionist public discourse has not focused on a theological discussion of the sanctity of the Land of Israel (a religious principle from which this ideology allegedly nourishes its commitment to colonising the land, according to the scholarship mentioned above.) Instead, most spokespeople have dedicated most of their and their readers’ attention to matters that are commonly identified as secular (primarily issues of security and strategic concerns, but also those of demography), ultimately revolving around one core issue: sovereignty over the national territory.
Thus, for example, one of the central arguments in the Religious-Zionist discourse on the Land of Israel (mostly following the occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip in 1967) was about the “historical right”—not the theological one—of the nation-state to rule over the land. This right was presented as an axiom that needs neither proof nor explanation; it is clearly seen as part of a universal, political concept of sovereignty. Another major argument made by spokespeople for Religious-Zionism to defend their maximalist stance on matters of territory had to do with matters of security. Often, these security concerns have overshadowed all other arguments regarding the Land. They have argued that exercising sovereignty and military control over the territory and colonising it are a necessary condition for guaranteeing the security of the state. It is the latter—the state, its security—that held the status of the absolute value.
The Land of Israel—and the project of settling it—were presented as one of the most important means to achieving this primary end, not an ideological absolute in and for itself. Certainly, they were not made into a theological end. Moreover, even when the Land and settlement were dressed in a “religious” garb, they still formed part of a theopolitical argument, that is: as a nationalist, Zionist matter of Jewish nation-statism, not as a traditional Judaic value.
Militarism as the expression of the modern nature of Religious-Zionism
The values of militarism and security, which have gradually grown in dominance, culminating in their occupying the very center of Religious-Zionist ideology in the past decade or so, are also a rather stark expression of the all-encompassing commitment of this ideology to the politics of the sovereign nation-state. Militaristic political ideals that sacralise the security of the state and the nation, rendering this an absolute value and justifying in its name violence and bloodshed are indeed by definition bound to nation-statist thought.
Religious-Zionist ideology’s valorisation of the state’s security was most explicitly pronounced in the context of justifying and rationalising the death of Israeli soldiers as the price demanded for guaranteeing this security. This became all the more pronounced against the background of violent conflicts around which there was no consensus among Jewish-Israelis. Especially when critics (usually coming from the Zionist Left) doubted whether such deaths were justified, questioning the necessity, reason and morality of the violent conflicts into which the Israeli government sent its armed forces, Religious-Zionist pronouncements became all the more dominated by intensive, militant militaristic discourse. Indeed, a dominant theme in the Religious-Zionist militaristic discourse surrounding these events has been the demand that the Israeli military is sent to fight, even if this necessarily entails the death of Israeli soldiers. (This demand was made against a background of public debate which questioned the merit of this military adventures, exactly because of their price in human lives.) The prevalent argument heard over Religious-Zionist platforms (either explicitly or implicitly) was clear: the security of the state is an absolute value, that justifies the highest of sacrifices, that of soldiers’ lives.
Even more pronounced was this valorisation of the state’s security when what was at stake were the lives of civilians from the enemy’s side. There has been little doubt among formulators of the Religious-Zionist stance on these armed conflicts that such conflicts are a normal feature of the lifecycle of states, and that in this context the killing of civilians on the enemy’s side during war, unfortunate as it may be, is wholly justified and acceptable.
A striking feature of this Religious-Zionist militaristic discourse is its utter indifference to the kind of language, argumentation and reasoning that would usually (that is, when seen through the prevalent religious-secular binary) be put under the heading of “religious.” One would be hard pressed to find such “religious” aspects of this militaristic thought, with its focus on “secular” values of security and statism.
God and theopolitics
How are we, then, to understand the theological aspect of Religious-Zionist political thought? One crucial part of the answer has to do with the nature of these theological language and argumentations: they do not fit what the prevalent discourse will mark as the category of “religion”. This mainstream discourse does not consider the traditional Jewish elements within so-called “secular” Zionist ideology to be “religious”, no matter how deeply rooted they may be in what this same discourse sees as “religion”; instead, it would view the appearance of these elements within Zionism as a product of their “secularisation.” This theological language and argumentation is seen as essentially modernised, politicised and “rationalised”, and it is ultimately aimed at the politics of the nation-state: it fits neither within an apolitical, individual and a-rational notion of religion, nor within the frame of “fundamentalism”, which would put the interest of the state under a higher religious diktat.
Furthermore, it cannot be framed as one side of an alleged ideological “synthesis” of two organs that are allegedly separated-in-principle. The Religious-Zionist nation-statist commitment (or its patriotism) does not clash with, serve, or complement theology; rather, it is the very essence of this theology. Like many other modern cases, the political theology at hand sanctifies the modern, supposedly secular and rational nation-state, and positions it in the role of savior, who accordingly demands absolute loyalty and functions as the center of the political order. As William Cavanaugh (2003, 2) puts it (referring, of course, to the general genus of which Religious-Zionism is but a case), “supposedly ‘secular’ political theory is really theology in disguise”. Or, in Carl Schmitt’s famous phrasing, “All significant concepts of the modern theory of the state are secularised theological concepts.”
The God, who has traditionally occupied the very center of Jewish theology, was now joined, if not even pushed aside, by the state. At best, God is seen as sanctifying the state, shifting the focus away from Him to the (political, this-worldly) sovereign. Either way, Religious-Zionist theopolitics marks nationalism and the state, not God, at the ultimate purpose.
A continuing process of blurring the distinctions between theology, Judaism and nationalism has culminated in the relegation religion to the private realm, barred from the field of politics. “Religion” was replaced in the context of this argumentation by “Judaism” or “Jewish identity”, as these are understood by the modern, nationalist, Zionist discourse. Like the founding ideologues of the Zionist movement, a growing number of Religious-Zionist spokespeople, too, came to argue (either implicitly or explicitly) that Judaism is not necessarily (or not even primarily) about “religion”: rather, it is about (political) nationalism, and its primary value is patriotism.
We argue, then, that Religious-Zionism is best understood when considered as a nationalist, Zionist ideology, at the center of which stand not religion or traditional Judaism, but nationalism and the state. Contrary to this ideology’s self-perception, and against a prevalent stream within the academic field that similarly un-self-reflectively employs a modernisation-and-secularisation discourse to construct the meaning of religion and nationalism, we argue that Religious-Zionism should be viewed primarily as a quintessentially modern-Western ideology of the nation-state. The State of Israel, relying on its military power (in which context it is “security” concerns that dominate all others); Zionism; and nation-statist sovereignty over a territory to which the nation claims a “historical right”—these are all the very core of Religious-Zionist ideology, and not merely means to achieving some hidden theological ends such as redemption or the observance of religious praxis.
An understanding of the strong gravitational force of the notion of the nation-state that dominates Religious-Zionist ideology necessitates the release of its analysis from the grip of the Western, secularist epistemology, which developed as in the context of the emergence of the modern, secular nation-state. The modern epistemology serves primarily the state, depicting it as “secular”, thus legitimising it, while rendering some of its competitors “religious” hence illegitimate. Overcoming the dominance of this epistemology allows us to see how its conceptual toolkit shapes Religious-Zionist identity—both in constructing the meaning of its religiosity, and in situating the state as its ultimate value.
 W. T. Cavanaugh, The Myth of Religious Violence: Secular Ideology and the Roots of Modern Conflict (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009); T. Fitzgerald, Discourse on Civility and Barbarity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007); D. Dubuisson, The Western Construction of Religion: Myths, Knowledge, and Ideology (Baltimore, PA: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007); T. Asad, Genealogies of Religion: Discipline and Reasons of Power in Christianity and Islam (Baltimore, PA: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993).
 G. Aran, ‘Jewish Zionist fundamentalism: The Bloc of the Faithful in Israel (Gush Emunim)’, in M. E. Marty and R. S. Appleby (Eds.), Fundamentalisms Observed (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1992), 265–344; C. S. Liebman and E. Don-Yehiya, Civil Religion in Israel: Traditional Judaism and Political Culture in the Jewish State (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1983); M. Inbari. Messianic Religious Zionism Confronts Israeli Territorial Compromises (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012); A. Horowitz, ‘Religious-Zionism – from Zionist radicalism to religious-national fanaticism’, in D. Arieli-Horowitz (Ed.) Religion and Politics in Israel (Tel-Aviv: The Centre for Jewish Pluralism, 1996), 41–55.
 For example, M. Hellinger et al., Religious Zionism and the Settlement Project: Ideology, Politics, and Civil Disobedience (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2018); E. Don-Yehiya, ‘Messianism and politics: The ideological transformation of religious Zionism’, Israel Studies, 19 (2014), 239; A. Cohen, ‘Patriotism and religion: Between coexistence and confrontation’, in Ben-Amos, Avenr and D. Bar-Tal (Eds.) Patriotism: Homeland Love (Tel-Aviv: Haqibutz Hameuḥad and Dyonon, 2004), 453–78.
 A. Sagi and D. Schwartz, Religious Zionism and the Six Day War: From Realism to Messianism, trans. B. Stein (London: Routledge, 2018).
 W. T. Cavanaugh, Theopolitical Imagination: Christian Practices of Space and Time (London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2003), 2.
 C. Schmitt, Political Theology: Four Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2006), 36.
by Sonia Maria Pavel
Imagine two societies. In the first, children are separated at birth from their biological parents and raised collectively by specialised educators. These educators, carefully selected for the task, closely observe the children in order to discern their talents, abilities, and dispositions. Based on how well they perform at various tasks and the ease with which they acquire knowledge, the children are then categorised and assigned what is believed to be their proper place in society. Those who are particularly musically gifted are given the instruments, instructors, and all the conditions they need to become musicians. The ones who are thought to show a great love of truth and distinct reasoning abilities are raised to become the leaders of that society. The desires and wishes of each individual child are irrelevant to this allocation. Nevertheless, most are content with this arrangement because they are taught and come to believe that they are all brothers and sisters who must serve their community by fulfilling their natural, preordained role. The society is just as long everyone contributes to it by minding their business and not interfering in that of others.
In the second society, children are raised in private, nuclear families. The unchosen circumstances of their birth, including who their parents are, where they were born, and their class, race, and gender status shape their life paths, often to a significant extent. From the beginning, their chances of becoming a musician, a politician, an academic, or a service worker are shaped by various factors beyond their control and irrelevant from the perspective of their ability to fulfil such roles. If their parents are highly educated and wealthy, they are much more likely to receive an education that will allow them to occupy a well-compensated and highly respected position. By contrast, if their parents live in a poor, perhaps racially segregated area, the educational and professional paths in fact available to them will be severely limited. Many people are content with this arrangement because they are taught that the competition is fair—opportunities are by law equally open to all those individuals willing and able to seize them, regardless of who they are and to whom they were born. According to the dominant ideology, accidents of birth can be corrected through hard work, which will allow everyone to ‘rise’ as far as their talents take them.
Which of these is a meritocracy? Surely, the first society seems to be governed by merit—each task and role is fulfilled by the person best suited for it. Show yourself to have a keen eye for the visual arts and all the resources to become a great painter or sculptor will be placed at your disposal. Nobody will have a better chance than you at becoming one—it does not matter that they really want to try their luck at painting (perhaps much more than you), that their biological parents were artists, or that they could have afforded tuition at the best art school. That person will only become a painter if the teachers discern that same talent in them. Otherwise, they will be assigned a different task, through which they can best contribute to society. No drop of talent will be wasted.
The second society, which much more closely resembles our own, also seems to be meritocratic, but in a different respect. Regardless of any natural disposition or proclivity, there is no legal barrier to you becoming a visual artist. If you start painting and you are appreciated by other artists or critics, or have success selling your art, then you are free to be a painter. Nobody can tell you that you have no business creating visual art because your talents lie elsewhere and are being wasted. Nor can anyone accuse you of squandering society’s resources in becoming a visual artist when so many others are or would have been much better at this task—the choice to compete with you to make their living in the same fashion was open to them.
In my view, both of these social arrangements can be called meritocracies because the concept of ‘meritocracy’ is far more open-ended than its proponents and critics have so far recognised. Rather than having a standalone meaning, meritocracy is always reliant upon other values and ideals for what a good human life and a good society look like, which can vary dramatically.
To begin with, we should distinguish between the principle of merit and a social, economic, and political arrangement we call a meritocracy. Merit is a principle according to which rewards, positions, and goods are allocated to particular persons on the basis of desert—as a result of certain qualities, feats, or achievements. Both the rewards and the rewarded traits vary in accordance with context—the team who wins the Premier League is awarded a few dozen million pounds and a prestigious trophy, while the winner of my friends’ Fantasy PL Mini-League gets a kit of their choice. But not every context in which judgments of merit are made and rewards allocated on their basis is a meritocracy. A mother might give a treat to the child who is most well-behaved at the doctor, but that does not make the family a meritocracy. For this reason, we should reserve the label ‘meritocracy’ only for those social and political communities and institutions in which goods are primarily or exclusively distributed on the basis of merit.
Where does this leave our current debates and controversies about merit and meritocracy? Some social and political thinkers argue that most contemporary societies are not, nor have they ever historically been, meritocracies. The implication of this view is that ‘true’ or ‘real’ meritocracy would have certain political, economic, and institutional features that are absent from our existing and past arrangements. Other thinkers have articulated trenchant critiques of merit and meritocracy, discussing the “tyranny” of merit and meritocracy, the “meritocracy trap”, the “meritocracy myth” and even the “haunting spectre of meritocracy”. The latter argue that our meritocratic arrangements are deeply unjust, harmful for both ‘winners’ and ‘losers’, and that ideologies of merit often function to obscure these realities and justify our social, economic, and political institutions. Elite higher education institutions in the US and UK have been the targets of both types of criticisms. While some have called out the spurious nature of elite universities’ claim that admission is exclusively or even primarily merit-based (see the legacy admissions, class and race bias, bribery, and corruption scandals of the past few years), others have focused on the negative effects that the intense competition pre- and post-college admissions have on students’ mental health and general wellbeing, as well as on society writ-large.
Though both types of criticisms are well-founded, I think that they misidentify merit (or the lack thereof) as the culprits. Because of its open-ended nature, merit as a principle necessarily attaches to other values, ideals, and commitments. For example, universities with a liberal arts focus often evaluate the ‘well-roundedness’ of candidates, including their involvement in arts, sports, activism, etc., as a central merit, while research-focused universities pay much more attention to specialised academic merits such as grades and test scores. Thus, what the resulting meritocratic arrangements look like depends on an institution or society’s conception of individuals and their relationship to the collective, how individuals are expected to relate to each other and the larger group, and the purposes of the collective endeavours and coordination efforts. In other words, merit attaches to a social theory, a set of moral, social, and political norms, as well as an ideal of justice and the good life.
Take the first society described above. The principle of merit serves a vision of social life that prioritises the collective good over and above the good of its individual citizens. In order to achieve justice, each person must fulfil the role they are most suited for, regardless of their personal desires, ambitions, and preferences. The influence of factors that are arbitrary and irrelevant from the perspective of justice—such as class, race, or gender—is therefore neutralised to the greatest extent possible. If I can best make a contribution as a cobbler, I will be given all the resources to become one. At the same time, I am prevented by society from being a ‘busybody’ by attempting to become an opera singer. Regardless of my personal fancies and ambitions, I must submit to the judgment of our communal teachers about my talents and abilities. This arrangement of society will of course strike modern sensibilities as extreme in its lack of concern for individual freedom and its assumptions about natural or innate talent. The point of the example is not to defend this social arrangement as an actionable alternative type of meritocracy, but rather to point out that meritocracies exist on a spectrum, varying from this pole to the more familiar one inherent in the second society described.
In the second example I offered, society is supposed to resemble the free market model of ‘careers open to talents’. Merit is subordinated to the pursuit of private profit within capitalism, as opposed to a vision of the collective good. Judgments about the value of an elementary school teacher’s contribution to society, as compared to a hedge fund manager, are determined by market forces. The social theory is one of extreme individualism and society is not seen as anything more than an aggregate of people, each of them pursuing their interests. Unlike the first example, there is no sense of a collective vision of justice that individuals must contribute to. Even though all opportunities are formally open for anyone willing to compete for, they are in fact limited and circumscribed by structural injustices and inequalities.
These two different examples of social arrangements that can plausibly be called meritocracies show us that the concept should not be understood as describing a single unitary system, but rather as a spectrum of social, economic, and political arrangements that take very different forms depending on the values placed at their core. Like many contemporary critics, I recognise the profound injustices and limitations that characterise our contemporary forms of meritocracy. However, unlike them, I do not think the ideal of meritocracy itself is to blame. Nor is the solution to try to make the current system ‘more meritocratic’. By criticising merit itself we are focusing on an empty abstraction, rather than the deeper political commitments that we should be collectively deliberating upon and changing. Somewhere between the two societies I portrayed at the poles of this spectrum, we might find a more just meritocracy.
 This description is roughly based on Plato’s Ideal City (The Republic, trans. by Allan Bloom (New York: Basic Books, 1991).
 On the ‘rhetoric of rising’, see Michael Sandel, The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good?, Chapter 3 (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2020).
 See, for example, Stephen McNamee and Robert K. Miller, The Meritocracy Myth (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2004).
 Michael Sandel, The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good? (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2020); Daniel Markovits, The Meritocracy Trap: How America’s Foundational Myth Feeds Inequality, Dismantles the Middle Class, and Devours the Elite (Penguin: 2019); Lani Guinier, The Tyranny of the Meritocracy: Democratizing Higher Education in America (Boston: Beacon Press, 2015); Kai Yu, The Implementation of Inclusive Education in Beijing: Exorcizing the Haunting Specter of Meritocracy (Lexington Books: 2014).
 For a critical analysis of this feature of contemporary meritocracy, see Michael Sandel, The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good? (2020), especially Chapter 5: Success Ethics.