“Mutual Aid” by Peter Kropotkin (1902) and comments I read almost everywhere on the internet put me in mind to write on this topic, which is, I think, one of the most important aspects of the transition we are passing through today. What place competition, what role cooperation? Is one mightier than the other? Is that even a valid question? I think so, if only as a titillating appetizer to draw the reader into the debate. It informs this article.
Kropotkin’s book is a masterwork of well written, erudite and scholarly analysis. Not all questions are answered (they never will be), it is not without controversy and no doubt some of it is out of date, but its core thesis – that cooperation is a more effective tactic than competition in the struggle we call “survival of the fittest” – is sound. This is an important observation; it is not, says Kropotkin, that “survival of the fittest” is just another way of saying “competition,” but that there are alternative tactics which can be deployed by living organisms, as they adapt to, and find a rhythm of living within, the environment of which they are a part, whose composition they help make up. Cooperation is a tactic, as is competition, tactics, furthermore, we can compare, understanding each better by virtue of the exercise.
In the early pages of Mutual Aid Kropotkin recounts an interesting story of a zoologist who took a bag full of ants – a cooperative insect – into a field free of ants, and emptied it there. The ants quickly dominated the territory. All solitary insects – beetles, grasshoppers, etc., dropped whatever they were doing and fled for their lives. Kropotkin, explaining this, observes that cooperative animals are capable of courage and self-sacrifice, complex battle tactics and other skills, unlike solitary creatures. Cooperative animals display higher intelligence too, proving capable of otherwise impossible feats, such as termite mounds which have their own air conditioning. Homo sapiens sapiens escaped Earth and put footprints on its satellite.
My thoughts on the matter are simple. We hear often the refrain that humans are competitive by nature, but compared to wolverines, for example, we are not, not if cooperation is the opposite of competition. We are social first, competitive second (what competition really means I come to later). The evidence that we are social is all around us; families, language, culture, art, cities, nation states, the internet, Facebook and so on. None of this would be possible if we were competitive first and foremost, incapable of cooperation and compromise. That this is quite a controversial statement is not lost on me, but is in fact further confirmation of how susceptible to received wisdoms we are. Group-think, “sheeple,” peer pressure, cliques are all further evidence of our social nature. A consensus is arrived at by various means, and then stuck to, or calcified, by various means also. But consensus can be very wrong, no matter how hard won: the Earth was famously once flat; physics experts used to know manned flight was impossible, until two people who had not read the experts’ books proved them wrong. My belief is that our understanding of competition, the consensus we have achieved on it, is likewise flawed, and needs closer inspection via open and honest debate.
The etymology of the word is latin: com and petere, com meaning “together” or “with,” petere “to seek” or “struggle toward.” The origins of competition are therefore social, and its original meaning reflects this; to strive together toward a common objective. It seems we need not be sociopathic about this competition thing, see nature as a Hobbesian battle field of each against all, after which one creature is left alive on a desolate planet, enjoying its last minutes alive as the final victor of The Survival of The Fittest. Surely this is not what nature is all about. Competition can include cooperation, cooperation can include competition. Perhaps they are not opposites. Perhaps economics has a poor understanding of this most essential element of its theory.
A myth has arisen around the notion of competition which is removed from the complicated reality of how things really work. Nature (and there is only nature; nothing is unnatural) is a complex collection of processes, or systems, dynamically interrelating and exchanging energies, doing work, growing and contracting, digesting and egesting, going in and out of balance. Competition is a part of this, as is cooperation, as are other things, but what it is most certainly not is a total, all out war. If it were, something or someone would have won by now. After all, it’s been going on for billions of years. And anyway, what would “victory” actually mean? What is the point of destroying things on which we depend? What is victory, exactly?
In economics there is the myth of perfect competition, out of which, as well as out of the misunderstood work of Darwin and the foolish “selfish gene” idea, we have a generalized idea of competition, in the economic realm, as selfish, efficient and ruthless, as the fuel that powers The Invisible Hand which ensures its effect is good, despite people always acting on their own self-interest. Were the economic choice between “competition” in this sense, and State run interference, I’d take competition every time, but I think we are erecting a false dichotomy when we make this comparison, when we present ourselves with this black and white choice.
There can be no perfect competition, and there must be a State of some kind. Economic activity is dependent upon humans coming together to exchange stuff. Humans coming together is how States form. Human activity becomes socially organized, rather than staying chaotic and wholly unpredictable, for the simple reason that humans prefer it that way: we are social, so we agree upon rules. But we are “flawed” too, often "irrational," and cannot be perfectly informed about the goings on in the market place, so in the messy hubbub of buying and selling, in that organic and multi-faceted process, dominant parties (aka The Successful) emerge. In that all trade is predicated on the necessary rationing out of scarce resources, and in that a medium of exchange is necessary to enable complex trade, we have here a system – the market – which can only lead to monopolies and/or cartels, which themselves could only be inhibited by perfect competition, which itself is impossible. Therefore the market can develop in no other way. Systemically, inherently, it is about securing differential advantage. There is no other way to play this game, there is no other way this game can play out.
So we are back to competition. For a multitude of very valid reasons human activity gave rise to markets, and markets are supposed to stay efficient and mostly beneficial via competition. And yet, under its remit, on its watch, we have developed built-in and perceived obsolescence, an after-care industry only necessary in its current size because of poor quality construction, highly effective and pervasive advertising to pump repeated consumption of nonsense goods, the idea that shopping is therapy, perpetual GDP growth as a necessity, and other anomalies, all of which cause distortions harmful to the environment in which we operate, and on which we depend for our very existence. Is competition, as we have mythologized it, delivering what it is theorized to? Can a market be other than Hobbesian in its conception? Can it be other than Orwellian in its long term outcome? How do we combine cooperation and competition wisely within economic theory? As I have said elsewhere, economics – as other disciplines – should not allow the walls erected between it and others to stand any longer. Answering these, and other very important questions, obliges us to tear these walls down. Why shouldn’t the fruits, say, of zoology and geophysics, where relevant, influence economics, change it, improve it?
Competition is both real and necessary, but poorly understood. The model I like most is open source software, in which the original meaning of competition, as defined above, seems to find its most healthy expression. That Bill Gates referred to it as Communism is telling, don’t you think? That its product is both “free” and of high quality tells its own story. Economic theory should be paying very close attention.
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