Life, love and loyalty: in defence of nepotism

by Michael Merrick

Relationships are a good thing. Even disciples of Hobbes and Rousseau will admit as much. The social sphere is, by its very nature, social. That is, it depends on relationships. And the more vibrant and diverse the relationships, the more vibrant and diverse the social sphere.

The more positive and virtuous those relationships, the more positive and virtuous the social sphere. This means that any resurrection of the social sphere as a safe and positive place of interaction (which includes economic interaction) must in some sense build upon an appraisal of the relationships we share with one another.

Nepotism is an important part of this drama.

Yet whenever the issue is discussed, particularly by those who place themselves on the left of the political spectrum, we are given naught but murky tales of powerful upper-class types jealously seeking to protect their social and professional circles from penetration by working-class oiks, often by treacherously bestowing opportunity and privilege solely upon their unworthy and less than capable nice-but-dim nephews and nieces.

Understandably enough we consider this an injustice. We shout loudly, we hold our banners and hone our slogans, we turn the pursuit into one of universal social justice for the working classes and wrench up the rhetoric against these evil nepotistic enemies of the people.

And in so doing, we get it entirely wrong. We get our accounts of human relationships wrong, we get our account of society wrong, and we get our account of nepotism itself wrong. We deny what is good and to be cherished in human relationships, in preference of a cold atomism only possible within a sanitised concept of the social sphere.

For nepotism is the natural by-product of healthy relationships. It is the urge and instinct toward fraternity. It is the outward manifestation of solidarity, the mortar that binds society together as a complex construction of personal and social relationships.  It is the external expression of love and loyalty, the social and filial fulfilment of duty and responsibility.  It spreads opportunity horizontally and vertically and it strengthens bonds of friendship, family and community.

Camaraderie spreads through it, comradeship flourishes within it, solidarity courses through its veins.

And it doesn’t end there. Not only is nepotism a feature of a strong interlinking society, it can also prove both safety-net and ladder for the most vulnerable in society. Whilst we like to focus on the young and privileged getting highly sought after internships in the City, there are other tales to tell. There are the young men who leave school without any qualifications or experience and land a job at an uncle’s construction business. There is the mother hearing of a job at work and getting her offspring an interview. There is the friend starting on a new venture head-hunting an old colleague whom she trusts and whose opinion she respects. There is the family friend offering work for the school holidays, the father putting a good word in for his son at the local factory, the sibling hiring a family member to help them with their flourishing enterprise.

Moreover, nepotism is a protection against the Darwinian consequences of narrow meritocracies, the ladder to lift those rejected by the system out of the sinks created for them by a society that would insist on judging their worth solely by the formal skills they have acquired and qualifications they hold.

Nepotism is word of mouth, it is lived experience, it is face to face relationships. It is based upon assessment of character and judgement and trustworthiness and respect and effort and determination and everything else that we should cherish as characteristics deserving reward in society, even when they are difficult to convey in the written lines of a formal CV. It is the informal and the casual, and it can provide as much insight, perhaps more, than the formal and professional assessments we have grown accustomed to assuming are the only legitimate methods of selection.

There needs to be brakes in the system, of course. Nepotism cannot rule every transaction of life, every opportunity or every social network. When it does it descends into stagnant oligarchy and negates itself. We do not want a society ruled solely through who-you-know any more than we should want a society ruled solely through what-you-know. The former would stifle potential whilst the latter is merely that meritocratic mire mentioned above. And neither would benefit most.

But the corollary of a wholesale rejection of the nepotistic principle is a sterile society of atoms coldly calculating one another’s worth by CV. This is a rejection of society, of relationships, of what gives worth and value to everyday living.

Labour ought to recognise this. We do not, cannot, and should not desire to live in this taciturn, mechanistic, utilitarian world. We do not, cannot, and should not desire to place lived relationships outside the calls for social justice, as if the two were competing for legitimacy rather than symbiotically interwoven with one another. Sterile universalisms sound great for the theorists, but when they appear to attack the very fibre of the social, the very roots that bind us to one another, then the consequence can only be the alienation of Labour from those whom they earnestly seek to lead. A working-class mother won’t cease trying to secure the best for her child for the sake of abstract principle delivered by those often more privileged than herself.

A society that is vibrant will be nepotistic. It is a natural consequence of heartfelt ties toward kith and kin and community, ties that are the very building blocks of a vibrant society. Labour needs to once again talk this language of life and love and loyalty.

Eliminating nepotism is not possible, regardless of the rhetoric. We should recognise that neither is it wholly desirable.

Michael Merrick supports Middlesbrough and blogs here.

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4 Responses to “Life, love and loyalty: in defence of nepotism”

  1. AmberStar says:

    You are not comparing like with like. Those of us who object to nepotism are actually objecting to the unfair use of power.

    What power does a working class mother have when she puts in a good word with her employer for her own child? None. The employer has the power to act on her recommendation or ignore it.

    Why should Labour not chastise nepotism? Because it makes us look like hypocrites when so many in the Shadow Cabinet have friends & parents with connections to the Party. So don’t dress it up as being all fluffy & a social ‘good’. Just admit it: People in glass houses can’t be chucking rocks about therefore, the Labour Party are going to stop knocking nepotism.

  2. Ralph Baldwin says:

    What about democracy and equality?

    Since when do friendships become more important than representation in entirely different constituencies?

    There will always be some nepotism based upon who we “trust”, but the difference between pragmatic recognition of ability and the stitch up and sliming and scrounging we have in politics at the moment is costing us our credibility, we cannot advocate fairness if we do not practive it, we cannot practice equality if we don’t understand it, we cannot speak out about aspiration or metritocracy if we defy it in practice.

    We are a political party, not a social club for a narrow group of less than able inflated egos.

    I suggest we make an understanding of democracy and Labours historical position as being opposed to privalage based nepotism and corruption compulsory reading.

    Even the Daily mail (of all trashy rags) recognises this

    All political parties have start sorting themselves out. Or be replaced by the alternative.

    This is thankfully my last blog entry on this site, GCSE level debates on meeting basic public expectation is wasting my time. We really do need to raise the game in our Party and find people who understand the basic fundamentals of Representational Liberal Democracy rather than the dodgy stitch ups one normally associated with corrupt feudal or communist countries.

  3. Cathy says:

    I agree with the above point on power. Not only can power gain a position for a relative or friend, but can be used to protect them with no bad outcome for the powerful. The person starting up a business, the owner of a small business – if they hire someone who is incompetent, they will suffer directly. The “nice-but-dim” intern will generally not impact the well-being of the large organisation they have been pushed into, nor of the person who pushed them there.

    In addition your second set of examples are not of pure nepotism. They are based on familiarity, character, of the “he’s a good lad who deserves a chance” type. There is a large difference between that, and choosing someone for a job that you know nothing about, other than that their dad plays golf with your boss. Conflating the two is doing the former type of “nepotism” a disservice.

  4. Myles says:

    You should read Francis Fukuyama’s new book ‘The Origins of Political Order’ to learn why nepotism isn’t just inimical to the principles of equality and fairness but destructive to institutions and society as a whole.

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