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Interesting Findings And World Unfolding Through My Eyes.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

The Lost Art of Cooperation

Competition is as American as apple pie. It announces American individualism and marks the American market economy with its characteristic rivalries. Not just for neoliberals such as Milton Friedman and ­quasi-­anarchists such as philosopher Robert Nozick, but for Americans of all political stripes, it reflects a distrust of the “government and co-operation” dear to cultural critic John Ruskin. We are a nation of winners (and, yes, losers) where, in the wonderfully perverse turn of phrase often attributed to one of America’s “winningest” coaches, “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.”


Yet we need not be readers of Ruskin to know that competition also has a pejorative sense, even in American usage. It may be nature’s way, as Charles Darwin proposed, but only when we conceive of nature as a jungle. Whatever we make of it, today competition dominates our ideology, shapes our cultural attitudes, and sanctifies our market economy as never before. We are living in an age that prizes competition and demeans cooperation, an era more narcissistic than the Gilded Age, more hubristic than the age of Jackson. Competition ­rules.

We need only look at America’s favorite ­activities—­sports, entertainment, and ­politics—­to notice the distorting effect of the obsession with competition. Sports would seem to define competition, as competition defines sports. But beginning with the ancient Olympics, sports have also been about performance, about excelling (hence, excellence), and about the cultivation of athletic virtue. It is not victory but a “personal best” that counts. In the United States, however, athletics is about beating others. About how one performs in comparison with others. Ancient and modern philosophers alike associate comparison with pride and vanity (amour-propre), and have shown how vanity corrupts virtue and excellence. When Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar protests, “Such men as he be never at heart’s ease/While they behold a greater than themselves,” he captures what has become the chief hazard of a ­hyper-­competitive culture. No wonder ours is often an ­outer-­directed culture, unreflective, grasping, aggressive, and ­cutthroat.

It is, ironically, a culture that tries to pin on the animal world responsibility for human viciousness. Michael Vick, one of our great gladiatorial football competitors, recently admitted to sponsoring brutal dogfights. The real dogfights, of course, are the football games he played in, where injury and even death are not unavoidable costs but covertly attractive features of the sport. Where steroid use is forgivable, or at least understandable, on the way to a winning record. And where dogfighting itself (like bullfighting and cockfighting) is justified by an appeal to the “laws of nature,” though it is men who articulate those laws to rationalize their own warlike ­disposition.

It is much the same with entertainment. Our most successful shows, themselves in a competition for survival with one another (sweeps week!), pit ­on-­camera competitors against one another in contests only one can win. The eponymous show Survivor is the Darwinian prototype, but the principle rules on all the “reality” shows. On American Idol, singing is the excuse but winning the real aim. In the winners’ world of television, nothing is what it seems. Top Chef is not about excellence or variety in cooking, but about winning and losing. Project Runway turns a pluralistic fashion industry that caters to many tastes into a race (with clocks and time limits) in which there is but one winner. The competitive culture hypes winners but is equally (more?) fascinated with losers. “It is not enough that I win,” proclaims the ­hubris-­driven American competitor, “others must lose.” And Americans have shown themselves ready to become big losers in order to be eligible to become big ­winners—­however remote the odds. We are a nation of gamblers willing to tolerate radical income inequality and a large class of losers (into which we willingly risk being shunted) for the chance to ­win.

American politics too is founded on competition. Contrast electoral politics in our representative democracy with citizen politics in a participatory democracy, where the aim is not to win but to achieve common ground and secure public goods—a model of politics in which no one wins unless everyone wins, and a loss for some is seen as a loss for all. The very meanings of the terms “commonweal” and “the public interest” (the “res publica” from which our term “republic” is derived) suggest a system without losers. How different from this the American system has become. As each election rolls around, we complain that ideas and policy are shoved to the background and personality and the horse race it engenders are placed front and center.

What’s gone wrong here? Why, as a nation, are we so obsessed with competition, so indifferent to cooperation? For starters, competition really is as American as apple pie. America has always been deeply individualistic, and individualism has presumed the insularity and autonomy of persons and, thus, a natural rivalry among them. Capitalism also embraces competition as its animus, and America is nothing if not capitalistic. Even the American understanding of democracy, which emphasizes representation and the collision of interests, puts the focus on division and partisanship. There are, of course, democratic alternatives. Systems of proportional representation, for example, aim to ensure fair representation of all parties and views no matter how numerous. But our system, with its single-member districts and “first past the post” elections, is winner take all and damn the hindmost, a ­set­up in which winners govern while losers look balefully on, preparing themselves for the next battle.

This has never been more so than in this era when politics has, in Jonathan Chait’s recent portrait in The New Republic, become “an atavistic clash of partisan willpower,” with Christian Right pitted against the Netroots Left in a polarized media environment defined by hyperbolic talk radio and the foolish excesses of the blogosphere. Moderation, cooperation, compromise, and bipartisanship are lame reflections of a pusillanimous past and of a “pathetic and exhausted leadership” incapable of winning elections. Even more than the Founders, the new political crusaders of Left and Right prefer King Lear’s version of politics—“who loses and who wins; who’s in, who’s out”—to the aspirations of communitarians and republicans who seek to establish a common good. Polarization is more an ideal than a pathology, and incivility is politics properly ­understood.

In recent decades, sustained by neoliberal economists such as Milton Friedman and the political successes of President Ronald Reagan and British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, this natural inclination toward individualism and competition has been reinforced not only by left/right Manichaeism, but by an ideology of privatization and ­anti-­government animus that characterizes cooperation as only an excuse for paternalistic bureaucracy and public corruption, while market competition, which strips government of its powers, putatively guarantees transparency and freedom. The most partisan politicians, upon winning, must govern in the name of all, using the powers of overweening government they have secured, so to hell with all politicians. The entrepreneur—whether a blogger or a hedge fund trader—can remain the eternal competitor and hero, active and free in the name of self-­interest.

The extreme rhetoric aside, everywhere in America, liberty is deemed competition’s ultimate rationale. More than anything else, our modern neoliberal ideology contends that competition and a culture of winners and losers assures us all our freedom. Like the corporate winners in the global marketplace and the political winners of the American electoral sweepstakes, even the ordinary winners on Survivor and its ilk are liberated from mundane constraints. No wonder American winners lose perspective and put themselves above sexual norms, above ordinary standards, above the law. By the same token, losing is a ticket to subservience, reminding us of the importance of winning and thrusting us back into the race, no matter how often we lose (think about the gambler’s mentality).

Ruskin is turned on his head: Public government, community standards, and cooperation are seen as entailing the laws of inertia. They exonerate people from personal responsibility, and impri­son them in circumstances and the victim mentality (“It’s not my fault I lost”), the result being a kind of civic death. Private activity and competition, conversely, as­sure vitality, productivity, and responsibility—“I made my own circumstances! I made myself a winner!” They are the very essence of life and ­liberty.

So what’s wrong with this? Plenty. Competition skews the balance, and threatens real democracy. More fundamentally, it fails to comprehend freedom’s true character.
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