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?