Competition and Cooperation

The question of competition versus cooperation among humans has come up on my Twitter timeline again. It emerges every now and then, when someone desperate to find a defense for capitalism falls back on, “You socialists want to eliminate competition, but competition is a part of nature, so eliminating it is impossible.”

Okay, let’s talk about it. To take the easy answer first, I should point out that, while yes, nature is full of competition, it is also full of cooperation. Human beings in particular, by virtue of being born premature (ie, instead of taking days or weeks or maybe a few months before an infant can survive by itself, human beings must be cared for for years), we are required to be social animals. Cooperation is so fundamental to human biology, that I’d call it “human nature” if I weren’t allergic to that term.

But let’s go a little further.

Competition is such a vague word. What competition, under what conditions, for what stakes, against whom? The argument of those defenders of capitalism who say socialism wants to “remove competition” are simply confused. Competition in a market economy takes certain specific forms. The most significant for our purposes is that it assumes scarcity, which means the most basic competition is for those scarce resources necessary to life. But under contemporary conditions, where the only reason for the scarcity of the most important resources (food, shelter, medical care) is distribution rather than production capacity, then what becomes absurd is not competition as an abstraction, but those specific forms of competition.

What forms might competition take in a rational society, in which every human being had not only the basic necessities of life, but leisure to pursue his or her inclinations? We can’t know. I might guess—competition over different plans to improve our environment, or over who gets this or that luxury item, or over different plans for improving everyone’s life.  And I’m certain there will continue to be sporting events, games, and so on. But when it is not, as it is today, literally a life & death issue, might we not be permitted to hope and expect that such competition as still exists will be less toxic?

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16 thoughts on “Competition and Cooperation”

  1. Corporations coöperate too, they are organizations of people, and that’s what people do. That’s what works. But they have more limited goals than what societies have.

  2. Americans are particularly competitive. More than many many cultures. I teach high school. I do an activity with my kids called War and Peace. Short explanation: you don’t use any “game” words. There are 2 norms, 1. Make as much money for your country as you can. 2. Don’t hurt anyone else. Everyone CAN finish the activity with 10 million dollars. And no one gets hurt. But it seems like going to war will make more money. It doesn’t, just like real life. They never cooperate. If I get one single group a year that sues for peace, I am lucky. It doesn’t enter their minds. The conversation that follows is always interesting though!

  3. Civilization is man’s invention to allow him to overcome the natural tendency to compete with other lifeforms. This invention has been singularly successful in ensuring humankind is the dominant species on the planet.

    People who say it’s “human nature” to compete with one another ignore literally all of recorded human history.

    Say, why IS there such a thing as recorded human history? Because your “human nature” argument is clearly false.

  4. This is an interesting and complex subject. As you point out, competition in sports can be benign. It was invented to be a peaceful substitute for actual fighting. Though it doesn’t always work that way.

    Cooperation is a natural thing among people. It works very well most of the time. It has difficulties when resources become severely limited (food, water, etc.). Then some people think they should have the resources and everybody else can just die. Or they can use this argument to justify selfishness, violence or greed, even if the scarcities are artificially created as with our Mexican border.

    Corporations have gone way too far. We are back to the Robber Baron mentalities of the Golden Age. They feel justified by “competition” to drive people into poverty and to steal resources. Even when it is not needed for the corporation to do well. But it helps the CEO to become a billionaire so he/she has bragging rights over lesser billionaires.

  5. Also, When you get down to the root behaviors of capitalists, they only really want competition for everyone else. They all really want to be monopolists.

  6. Even in a true post-scarcity society, there will always be competition for *attention* in all its forms. Friendship, respect, fandom, love, fame…

  7. A slightly different spin on Majikjon’s excellent comment: The greatest technology of civilization is the concept of Rule of Law. The idea that merely being stronger doesn’t entitle you to take other people’s stuff/lives/labor. While it has never been perfectly implemented, various approaches gradually seem to be tending closer.

    When thinking about this notion, I realized what my fundamental disagreement with Libertarians is. What they want “liberty” *from* is precisely Rule of Law, the fundamental structure on which civilization is built. They *want* Rule of Strength.

  8. Grand generalities often fall apart when we get down to specifics. Competition and cooperation are the kind of grand generalities that are particularly good at weird interpretations.

    I agree with SKZB that they are vague words.

    I would say that slavery is also pretty much universal among human populations. But it’s the vagueness of the word that lets me say it. Some native american tribes did “slavery” that wasn’t what we usually think of that way. A captured person from elsewhere might sometimes not be killed, but allowed to live under supervision. The “owner” would teach the “slave” the right way to live. If slaves learned well enough, they might eventually become full members of the tribe with all rights. Kind of like a freed slave. Exactly like a freed slave. In the meantime they were treated as children. Or as slaves. If they learned poorly, they might be kept as slaves for a long time or sacrificed in religious ceremonies Or maybe they might be sacrificed for other reasons. Was it really slavery? Yes, of course it was.

    Today in the USA many people become slaves when convicted of crimes, for example for possession of marijuana. Often they have a promise of freedom after some set time, and may be freed sooner if they behave well. Is it still slavery if they have a chance of freedom, and if their children are not enslaved until convicted of their own crimes? Yes, of course it is.

    Is wage-slavery in the USA really slavery? I’d have to say no. When you have to enthusiasticly sell yourself to become a wage-slave and have to work hard under the threat of being freed, that’s too far from the vague concept.

    The Inuit had a slogan that went “Whips make dogs, and gifts make slaves.” They had a word that translates to slavery, but did it mean the same thing? How could it possibly? But it meant something.

    Their society valued good hunters — without good hunters they starved. Good hunters gave extra food to anyone — as a gift. It was the custom that anyone gave away anything they had to anyone else, if they asked. It was also the custom that people could be killed and the killer would try to justify it to the elders afterward. If they didn’t accept it — if there was anything they didn’t accept, they could tell the person they disapproved of to go elsewhere, and he must go.

    So if you are not a good hunter, a good hunter might ask for anything you have and you must give it to him. Including your wife and daughters. But a good hunter might choose to kill you whether you have asked him for anything or not, and he is a vital member of the community while you were not.

    Once during hard times a good hunter got tired of providing for a man who could not feed himself. Finally he killed a dog and cut the dog’s liver into a shape that didn’t look like dog, and put it up on the meat board. The bad hunter slunk out and took the liver and ate it and died. The good hunter argued that his victim was a bad hunter and not useful to the community. He died because he didn’t even know dog liver when he saw it, and chose to eat it! He had no responsibility for the fool.

    I say that was slavery, even though the slaves always had the option to leave, to go out onto the ice and survive by their own skill.

    It’s slavery when people who don’t want to cooperate, have no choice but cooperate.

    A woman who decides she does not mind being married to a particular good hunter, is not a slave. Even if she doesn’t mind being his second or third wife and not having a lamp of her own. If she doesn’t accept it but has to anyway, then she is a slave.

    So I take it back. A wage slave who doesn’t want his job but can’t find a better one, is a slave after all. In an economy where he has no choice but to find some wage-slave job (or else get himself arrested and become a literal slave) or die, and he actively sells himself for a job he hates, and kowtows to the boss to keep it, pretending that he wants it — he’s a wage-slave and a slave.

    In an ideal socialist society, where everyone works for the common good, can there still be slavery? No, everyone will WANT to do the jobs they are assigned for the common good. No one will object.

    But if someone DID hate their work and refuse to do it, even though they knew it was for the common good? If they refused to cooperate when everybody knew they ought to? Then they must be coerced. We can’t allow malcontents to sponge off the rest of us. If they refuse to work for the common good of their own free will, then they must do it as slaves.

  9. “In an ideal socialist society, where everyone works for the common good, can there still be slavery? No, everyone will WANT to do the jobs they are assigned for the common good. No one will object.

    But if someone DID hate their work and refuse to do it, even though they knew it was for the common good? If they refused to cooperate when everybody knew they ought to? Then they must be coerced. We can’t allow malcontents to sponge off the rest of us. If they refuse to work for the common good of their own free will, then they must do it as slaves.”

    Actually, I think in a socialist society such individuals will simply suffer social penalties, i.e. people will think they’re dicks. There are always some dicks, and people who find ways of not working, even in capitalism. But without the current limitations on productivity imposed by capitalism, the impact of such people will be nil, and they’ll simply be dismissed as harmless cranks. Most people do want to contribute, do want to work, and it wouldn’t be hard to create conditions where everyone can do so without it being back-breaking and life-ruining (and they could choose to do so freely).

    The goal of socialism isn’t to create a perfect society where everyone is happy. There will still be idiots. There will be people who waste their lives. It happens. But resources don’t need to be so tight that this is somehow a big deal. We absolutely can afford to have some people sponge off the rest of us. Especially when you consider that right now, that’s literally the basis of the entire system. What’s a handful of bored idiots compared to a world where you own nothing and there’s an entire class of owners?

  10. Jonas:Yes, exactly.

    I think it says a lot about the proponents of capitalism that they think so little of people that they think the majority would choose not to do anything without coercive enticements.

  11. Jonas, consider the example of Israel.

    “The Trajtenberg Committee, charged in 2011 with drafting proposals for economic and social change, called, among other things, for increasing employment among the Haredi population. Its proposals included encouraging military or national service and offering college prep courses for volunteers, creating more employment centers targeting Haredim and experimental matriculation prep courses after Yeshiva hours. The committee also called for increasing the number of Haredi students receiving technical training through the Industry, Trade, and Labor Ministry and forcing Haredi schools to carry out standardized testing, as is done at other public schools.[173] It is estimated that half as many of the Haredi community are in employment as the rest of population. This has led to increasing financial deprivation, and 50% of children within the community live below the poverty line. This puts strain on each family, the community, and often the Israeli economy.

    “The demographic trend indicates the community will constitute an increasing percentage of the population, and consequently, Israel faces an economic challenge in the years ahead due to fewer people in the labor force. A report commissioned by the Treasury found that the Israeli economy may lose more than six billion shekels annually as a result of low Haredi participation in the workforce.[174] The OECD in a 2010 report stated that, “Haredi families are frequently jobless, or are one-earner families in low-paid employment. Poverty rates are around 60% for Haredim.”[175] As of 2017, according to an Israeli finance ministry study, the Haredi participation rate in the labour force is 51%, compared to 89% for the rest of Israeli Jews.”

    I don’t know a whole lot about this, but the story I hear is that a whole subculture believes in practicing their rituals to the point that it interferes with their work in the modern world, and they accept considerable poverty for it. They do not care about the opinions of outsiders, they care about their own opinions. It could become a serious problem for their nation though of course one way or another the problem might be solved before it becomes serious.

    If there was no poverty problem for them, wouldn’t they likely do this even more?

    It can be argued that with socialism the system will be so productive that no matter how many Haredi there are, and no matter how fast they breed, it will only take a few workers to produce enough for everybody in Israel. I agree that’s possible. Similarly, Haredi are exempt from military service, and it might be that with socialism it will be cheap to create robot armies and robot drones that can slaughter any combination of arab armies with hardly any human involvement. But is it necessarily so?

    Isn’t there a possibility that even with socialism there could be a requirement that people must conform? A minority who works might wind up treating everyone else as second-class citizens. They don’t have what it takes to get the jobs because they are less capable or less motivated, so they don’t deserve as much. Or people could be forced into make-work jobs to prove that they will contribute.

    I had a similar experience with a food co-op. Some of the leading members called it “an alternative to capitalism”. Some members worked at the co-op and got a discount on the food they bought, but the discount usually did not come close to minimum wage. They did it because they wanted to. Many members worked for awhile and quit, but kept buying without the discount, and they helped pay the rent etc. At the annual meeting, attended by maybe 5% of the most active members, there was an argument that everybody should have to work. It would encourage togetherness and solidarity. While we were getting by without that much work, still there was always productive work that could be done if people would do it. When people saw it was required they would do it and see how great it was. The motion passed and the co-op folded within 2 months.

  12. “Similarly, Haredi are exempt from military service, and it might be that with socialism it will be cheap to create robot armies and robot drones that can slaughter any combination of arab armies with hardly any human involvement.”

    Finding it a bit hard to respond to this given the assumptions made about wanting to slaughter people. But the goal here isn’t socialism in one country, where you just have one socialist Israel surrounded by capitalist nations.

    And achieving socialism in Israel would likely involve overcoming a number of the reactionary religious tendencies in that country in the first place, or at least breaking their hold over the population.

    Would there be some people who might choose not to work for religious reasons? Sure. But producing enough to cover them is easily possible now, let alone under in a more powerful and productive socialist economy. Every major country can cover the needs of all its citizens at present.

    “A minority who works might wind up treating everyone else as second-class citizens.”

    I disagree that it would be a minority. But would some people have contempt for those who don’t work? Sure, yeah, I guess that would happen. But since there would be no way for them to impose any material penalties, and both groups would have the freedom to do as they pleased, so what? There are plenty of people who do stuff I disapprove of, but we all go on with our lives.

    “I had a similar experience with a food co-op.”

    There is no outside of capitalism, and this kind of stuff is just proof that anarchism doesn’t work.

  13. Did you all see the story about the bus crash in Andrews, Texas? The band director and two band members killed by a wrong way driver, many of their instruments destroyed.

    Well the band from the next town over showed up and took their place. Then the wider community rallied and found loner instruments to replace all the ones destroyed, and band kids from all over showed up and they all put in a massive show, like 1,200 performers including like 45 tubas or some crazy thing. Apparently some students traveled over 100 miles to join in.

    And I can pretty much guarantee you that no one who participated in this cool deal was paid to do so. This is the kind of thing the community is capable of when all contribute, totally outside the system of capitalism. Competition and Cooperation, indeed.

  14. I’ve noticed some discussions from sports fans which says that players who don’t get vaccinated aren’t team players.

    How we define team players in the bigger world seems to be a variable.

  15. One emerging concept of economics that I found quite thought-provoking is that one of the roles of governance is to remove things from the economy. That is, make them so abundant that no one ‘needs’ that resource – it’s just available, without cost. Some of these things (you’d think) are very easy for the government to provide – air to breath, say. Some take a lot of work, and taxes – roads to get from point a to point b.

    And in that light, the role of competition is around how to best distribute the resources that aren’t abundant enough everyone has all they need. Capitalism and trade offer a convenient solution for this – markets can drive the price of these resources, and individuals can make decisions about the tradeoffs.

    The pathological case, which I would argue is where we are, is that players in the capitalist portion of the economy keep cheating. Making things not-abundant. Rent-taking that restricts individuals ability to best make choices. Externalizing costs so that they are getting things for less than the price a real market would demand. Essentially, competition for it’s own sake – as though being competitive was a moral quality. And winning that contest, even if ‘winning’ means absolutely nothing (rich men still die), means corrupting everything imaginable in it’s pursuit regardless of the cost or damage.

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