Exposing the competitive myth

One of the prevailing myths of our global economic society concerns the supposed fundamental nature of competition. The origin of this myth can arguably be traced back to Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan. In this influential book Hobbes famously described the state of human nature as a war of all against all, as a war in which individuals are in constant competition with each other for scarce resources. In doing so he rejected any notion of a natural political community working together to achieve the greatest good for all. In fact, this state of nature was not very productive at all:

“In such condition there is no place for industry, because the fruit thereof is uncertain, and consequently no culture of the earth, no navigation nor the use of commodities that may be imported by sea, no commodious building, no instruments of moving and removing such things as require much force, no knowledge of the face of the earth, no account of time, no arts, no letters, no society, and which is worst of all, continual fear and danger of violent death, and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” (XIII.9)

For Hobbes, it is the desire to rise above this state of nature that drives us to give up certain of our liberties to a monarch or government. However, by the time classic capitalism emerged as an economic theory, that natural state of man, his rational self-interest, was deemed a good thing. Basically, if left relatively unrestricted, and as if by some invisible hand, this self-interest promotes the good of all. And, by the time neo-liberalism took hold, this free market rationale was extended into areas of society that had previously been seen as outside of market influence.

This theory of human nature is quite simply wrong, and the atomisation of society that has resulted from it is grossly detrimental to human flourishing. My greatest concern, however, is that this understanding has been so absorbed into our common sense view of the world that most people, people who are not in the slightest bit interested in economic theory, just accept it as fact. It is relatively easy to argue against a theory, but a great deal more difficult to expose the error of common sense. The theory can be challenged by pointing out that for about 90% of human evolutionary history group cooperation has been more dominant than in-group competition. Not only have groups survived because cooperation within the group has proved itself to be of greater benefit than unbridled competition, but in many cases inter-group cooperation has proved to be of mutual benefit as well. Put simply, just about any modern evolutionary approach to understanding ‘human nature’ will provide a serious challenge to the core principles of capitalism. The real problem we face is that these core principles have been repeated and repeated so many times across recent decades that they have been absorbed into our ‘common sense’ view of the world, and challenging ‘common sense’ is never an easy task.

However, our response to Coronavirus, particularly the multiple responses that have emerged at community level across the country, are surely evidence that when we face a completely novel situation, one for which our we have no ready made habitual thinking to fall back on, we ‘naturally’ engage in cooperative, not competitive behaviour. Yes, there are still calls from a few on the right of the political spectrum, a small number of ardent free marketeers or extreme libertarians, who argue that doing all we can to preserve market competition is a priority, but they are very much in the minority. For these poor few, the ideology of the free market has so totally taken hold of their thinking that their natural cooperative behaviour has been completely suppressed. Fortunately, for the vast majority of us, this ideology has a less strong grip. Most of us feel a natural desire to cooperate in a crisis, not compete.

Our task then, the task of those of us to the left of the political spectrum, is to firmly re-establish cooperation as our default setting. Starting with the wonderful examples of community cooperation that have spontaneously emerged all over the country, we need to talk about cooperation as much as we can. We need to talk about it, write about it, and, most importantly, cite local examples of it, at every opportunity in all that we do. We need to do this until the idea of cooperation is so firmly embedded in our thinking that it feels like it has always been there – in other words, until it feels like just plain common sense, until it feels like the natural thing to do. Then, and only then, will left wing or socialist policies be met with a positive response from the electorate.

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