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Why Do Americans Have to Crush Others to Get Ahead?

The competitive edge is always front and center in this country. But it's not the best way to run a society.
 
 
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While I was watching a recent episode of America’s Got Talent,  I was reminded all over again of the power of the competition meme.  Were the contestants talented?  Yes. Did they sincerely hope they could find their way to fame,  fortune and escape from a precarious working class life?  To be sure.  Were the judges witty and clever?  You betcha.  Was the audience,  both live in the studio and on TV passionate and engaged?  Very.  Well then,  apparently the competition system is working just as the 1% wishes it to. 

The competitive edge is always front and center in this country. Football season is here.  And The Hunger Games,  the movie where things get really extreme is now out on DVD.  The Hunger Games is a movie worth seeing if you missed it and watching again if have already seen it.  It is a deeply subversive film that exposes the rigged nature of the system by which the one-percent rule and the rigged nature of the Hunger Games through which the system distracts,  manipulates and paralyzes the ruled. 

It is also a commercial blockbuster.  At least in part that’s because the movie—and the books on which it is based—connect with the American Idol,  DWTS,  Survivor,  Iron Chef have contest and conquest at their core.  

Is this an argument that all competition is bad?  No.  Competition is an intrinsic component of nature.  It’s essential to evolution.  That said,  how competition is managed is the hallmark of civilization.  

From the golden rule to the evolution of table manners we establish rules,  mores,  laws,  systems and structures to ensure that every human-to-human encounter does not degenerate into a literal contest for survival. And to the extent that “games” substitute for lethal human-on-human violence,  they are part of our evolutionary progress.  Plus,  sports and games can certainly be just plain fun.  

But as with a lot of things,  add in capitalism and the dynamic changes.  Capitalism glorifies competition.  And now that capitalism has achieved near world-wide domination,  we are engulfed in the manipulated worship of competition as never before.  Moreover,  as a species we have achieved a level of economic development that permits sports and entertainment to be a major component of how many humans spend time and money.  


Yet just as “a fish doesn’t know it’s wet,”  we are so immersed in the culture of competition that it’s hard to see it at all.  Power up the TV.  Then, turn on your inner anthropologist.  Observe how many TV shows somehow pit man against man, women against women, man-against woman…you get the idea.  Sports is a major category of televised competition.  Of the bazillions of channels available on cable and satellite, hundreds are devoted to sports.  

The economics of this is extraordinary.  Players, coaches, trainers, stadiums, equipment, satellite technology and all the rest add up to billions of dollars in economic activity.  And within the sports culture of competition is more competition.  Teams compete for players.  Cities compete for teams. Owners compete for public subsidies.  

Parents compete to get their children into schools and training programs they hope will turn them into mega income producing athletes.  Companies contend to pay millions in endorsements and sponsorships for athletes, pop stars and events.  The “draft” in various sports are nationally televised spectacles.  The ethics of major colleges and universities are routinely corrupted by money sloshing through the college sports system. Nations spend tens of millions trying to win rights to host the Olympics, soccer championships and other global events.

Now, pick up your TV remote.  Let’s look at some of the non-sports channels.  Close your eyes.  Pick a channel at random.  Chances are you’ll land on some amped up overt or covert drama of winners versus losers.  

Especially since we are in electoral High Season, particularly worth noting is the degree to which politics is now thoroughly integrated into this culture.  The more elections become completely decoupled from the real allocation of economic or political power, the more they become integral to the entertainment/sports eco-system.  Which Iron Chef will prevail?  Master Chef Morimoto Obama, or challenger Mitt Romney.  

And have you noticed how the “news” about elections is always the same?  The contest is always close.  Why?  Television and radio stations depend increasingly on the profitable airtime they have for sale to all sides.  They closer they make the election look, the more time they will sell.  Words like “race too lopsided in state X, campaign diverting funds to state Y,” strikes fear in their hearts.  

Turning our attention to print and other media we find more of the same.  Especially pervasive there is the proliferation of “list” culture.  Top five this and top ten that.  Who’s up, who’s down.  Anything and everything must be ranked.  AlterNet itself is fond of this approach.  And hovering over the whole system is, of course, NUMBER ONEISM.   

The enormous power of the foam finger notwithstanding, hyper-competition is anything but the whole story of our times.  One of the primary characteristics of the entertainment industry is its collaborative nature.  If you don’t normally watch the credits at the end of a movie all the way through, take the time to do so.  Modern filmmaking is a marvel of collaboration and the organization necessary to combine the skills and talents of hundreds of workers over years of effort from conception to theaters, DVD release and beyond.  The same is true of most of the global entertainment complex.  

Indeed massive cooperation, voluntary and enforced in various ways, is perhaps the defining characteristic of how global, capitalist hegemony actually works.  Many types of standardization are required to make the whole contraption function.  No shipping containers—no global economy.  Of necessity, containers must all be the same size so as to fit any crane, any rail car, any truck, any ship anywhere in the world.  

Likewise, there could not be thousands of daily airplane take offs and landings across the globe without agreement that all pilots and all air traffic controllers be able to communicate in English.  Global telecommunications also requires a high degree of standardization.  Much of the important scientific research these days is done by global teams.  The J.O.B. system of the employer and the employees predominates in most nations.  

To be sure, there are still plenty of conflicts and anomalies over everything from the metric system to meshing the complexities of languages, dialects, local cultural preferences etc.  The general trend however has been toward standardization, homogenization and cooperation.  Production becomes ever more standardized.  Marketing defers to differences.  

Another arena in which we are directed to at least the appearance of competition, is in the so-called “marketplace of ideas.”  In theory, we are told from childhood on, free speech and other liberal philosophies assure that there can be a vigorous debate about social, political and economic concepts.  As with other forms of competition, out of this process should emerge the “best.”  

In reality, something quite different happens.  Most of the time, power elites find ways to frame, limit and control the conversation.  Especially within the electoral process it is the superficial issues that get all the attention.  The eco system of the planet is at risk, capitalism itself is in permanent crisis, militarism is the true basis of our economy;  millions are incarcerated or otherwise tangled up in the criminal “justice” system of the US, civil liberties are under stress as they haven’t been since Jim Crow ended and virtually every day another city or school district slides into financial insolvency.  

Not one of these issues is seriously discussed by either of the mainstream candidates for president.  About the only questions allowed into the discussion are tax policy and “deficits.”  And even those are talked about in the narrowest of terms.  (For a broader perspective on deficit issues see David Korten’s America’s Deficit Attention Disorder.)

Central to the hyper-competition mindset is the eco-system of “choices.”  A recent advertising circular from Best Buy is a good example.  A headline says, “Choose Phone Freedom.”  The sub-head reads, “The freedom to choose ANY CARRIER, ANY PHONE, ANY PLAN with unbiased advice.”  The “choices” notion of freedom is deeply imbedded in our individual and collective psyche.  

After all aren’t there are hundreds of TV channels, hundreds of thousands of apps and songs and videos available on iTunes, millions of items for sale in retail, grocery and mega-stores?  Can we not pick from hundreds of post secondary schools and colleges and then thousands of courses within them?  Does this not prove that we need merely choose a satisfying career from a scrumptious smorgasbord of options?  And if a few degrees and a few years later we are out of school but unemployed, up-to-our eyeballs in debt and possibly homeless, does that not merely prove that we made “bad choices” at the buffet table?  

Other “choices” are framed by the great rivalries of our time.  We can pick between George Lakoff or Frank Luntz;  Romney or Obama;  Democrats or  Republicans;  climate changers or climate change deniers;  Limbaugh or Maddow;  Fox or MSNBC;  Iran or Israel;  i-phone vs android;  MasterCard or Visa...

Clearly competition is alive and well.  And as George Orwell might put it, surely competition is freedom.  Or as philosopher Frithjof Bergman puts it, more often than not, the whole thing is like asking a vegetarian if they would rather have a pork chop or a steak.  (Bergman’s book , On Being Free, first published in 1977, offers an excellent discussion of different theories and definitions of freedom.  It is available in many libraries.  Used copies can also be found in used book stores and on-line.)

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In my world, “so what?” is always an appropriate question.  Isn’t an Android phone a wonderful thing and isn’t it the product of intense competition?  

The age of capitalism surely has been an age of technological innovation.  From the H-bomb to commercial air travel to washing machines to factory farms to endless gadgets such as “smart” phones to the Mars land rover “Curiosity” currently beaming back data endless streams of data,  the rate of innovation and invention has been breathtaking.  

But how much does “competition” deserve the credit? And is more of the same what we need now?  Unpacking the answer to these questions is not so easy.  Doing so however is essential to building an economy that better serves humans and the earth.  

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again:  human ingenuity created capitalism, not the other way around.  Humans have always invented.  That’s why we can go back thousands of years and find tools, musical instruments, weapons, the evolution of language, writing and reading, arithmetic, money and much, much more.  

Good inventions beget more good inventions and improvements in those that exist.  That process is itself “competitive” in the sense that if one tool proves better at say, cutting, because of its design or material, that’s the one that will be more commonly reproduced until something better comes along.  

The progression is anything but neat and tidy.  The past frequently exerts a pull.  Today for example, some people still prefer to hunt with a bow and arrow and play music on vinyl records.  England still has a queen, albeit with different duties and powers than in the past.

Thinking about how competition works now requires thinking about the capitalism we have now as distinct from the capitalism we had even a few decades ago.  It’s a very different animal.  Why?  Most important, it has near total hegemony.  At least since the fall of the Berlin Wall, capitalists have felt no threat from an “alternative” system.  This critical development is often overlooked, especially by those who are trying to “fix” capitalism.  They imagine the capitalism that now runs the economy of the globe can somehow be put back into a 1950’s bottle.  Not happening.  

Which brings us to the next point.  The enormous noise machine notwithstanding, what motivates the 1% masters of the universe today has very little to do with capitalism per se.  It has to do with staying in power.  This cannot be stressed too much.  The Koch brothers are coming from the exact same place as Bashar Assad. The purity of capitalist ideology is useful to them mostly as a cover story for consumption by a public they hope is both gullible and stuck in the past.  That’s why Charles Koch, of all people, recently penned an op ed for the Wall Street Journal decrying “crony” capitalism.  Seriously.  I am not making this up.  

Behavior is the ultimate expression of attitude.  One of my current favorite examples of capitalist behavior involves a bitter struggle underway in Michigan.  Republican Governor Rick Snyder is a self-described business nerd.  Prior to becoming Governor his history was entirely in the “private sector.”  On just about every issue he tows the Republican party line.  

Yet second only to his pioneering fight to impose “emergency manager” dictators over all of Michigan’s predominately African American cities and school districts, his next priority is get a publicly financed bridge between Detroit and Windsor Canada.  What makes this interesting and revealing is that the Ambassador Bridge already connects Detroit to Windsor.  It is owned by private sector billionaire Matty Moroun.  

According to Moroun—a notorious slumlord and all around sleazebag—traffic on the existing bridge has been declining for years and hence there is no need for a second bridge.  Whatever.  Snyder and his big business supporters want a new bridge and they want it financed by the public—in this case the taxpayers of Canada.  They have been ruthless in trying to crush opposition to the new bridge—even when it comes from fellow Republicans.  

To some, this looks likes corruption, or crony capitalism, or the pernicious influence of “too much money” in politics.  All the more reason, say many, that we have to overturn Citizens United.  Maybe so, but that misses the deeper dynamic of what’s at work here.  

Today’s capitalists actually have no opposition whatsoever to Huge Government (thanks to David Sirota for this useful phrase).  To the contrary—they are utterly dependent on Huge Government.  They love the revenue they get from government contracts, not to mention trillion dollar bailouts when they screw-up. They need government police power to suppress dissent.  They depend on military might to protect supply lines and friendly governments.  Government financed research and development that finds its way into the hands of their corporations is fine with them.  The Robert Rubins and John Corzines of the world appreciate the high level government jobs they rotate in and out of as suits their fancy.  Anything the government collects taxes for that is consistent with their agenda, they favor.  They are only against government that does something other than provide direct benefits to them.  Oh and they very much like transferring wealth from people with lower incomes to the government to pay for all the things that help them.  

Further, they are interested in promoting genuine economic competition only in very limited circumstances.   What the priests of capitalism preach is not what working capitalists practice.  From TARP to LIBOR, as scandal after scandal reveals, amongst themselves, capitalists are all about collaboration, cooperation and manipulation.  It’s the 99 percent that they want to be obsessed with the theory and practice of competition.  

Telling examples permeate the world of professional sports.  In the first place, in the US, professional sport operates under Congressional mandates exempting the privately owned teams from anti-trust laws.  Beyond that, professional sports leagues routinely employ draft schemes that requiring “winning” teams transfer the most promising young players to “losing” teams.  Salary caps, revenue sharing and other tactics also manipulate “competition” for the good of their common economic interests.  

This is not to say there are never conflicts among capitalists.  Of course there are.  George Soros and the Koch brothers really do disagree on some social and economic policies.  Apple and Samsung actually are fighting over intellectual property and market share.  There are remnants of old fashioned economic competition for markets, raw materials, intellectual property and certain kinds of labor.  
But they are increasingly rare.  And why not.  The global 1% has ever reason to unite and cooperate among themselves.

Among the 99% however, competition is thriving.  It is especially fierce within the confines of the global J.O.B. economy.  Capitalism is not now nor has it ever been a job-creation system.  In some places and some times corporations and businesses employ large numbers of people.  Other times and other places, they don’t.  Under both circumstances the number of J.O.B.’s is a collateral result of decisions by capitalists as to where and how to invest—you guessed it—capital.  

For at least two decades there has been a global surplus of labor.  There is every reason to believe that the surplus will expand, not contract.  Consequently more and more workers will be vying for fewer and fewer J.O.B.s.  

For that reason alone it makes sense to question the ideology that promotes all competition as all good all the time.  

Which brings us back to the entertainment/sports industrial complex.  It’s meta message is hidden in plain sight:  If are doing well—give yourself all the credit and be prepared to fight with all your might to hold on to what you have because the “unworthy” will surely come after you.  After all, does not American Idol and the NFL and the whole dang edifice prove that the winners are deserving and the losers are not?  

There is another way.   A whole new world of cooperation, collaboration and community is there for your consideration and participation.  It is both an alternative philosophical approach and available in a growing number of businesses and institutions of all kinds.  More and more people are finding that alternative every day.  

America surely does have talent.  Who will be more surprised when that talent is deployed on behalf of the 99 percent instead of the 1 percent?  We are definitely going to find out. 

Frank Joyce is a lifelong Detroit labor and political activist and writer.