We’re told, as an article of faith, that competition is unconditionally good for society. The prevailing orthodoxy is that competition is the very basis of capitalism – a fundamental axiom, if you will – and that competition alone has delivered unprecedented progress, innovation and comfort to humanity. Without wanting to diminish the achievements of enterprise, our relationship with competition and competitiveness is not quite so clear cut.
There is a very dark side to competition.
In the first place, rapacious capitalists hate competition and will do just about anything necessary to eliminate it, leaving themselves as the sole, remaining monopolists. They eliminate competition and competitors so that they can get ahead. That’s why they’re so rapacious. They have to defeat everybody else, at all costs. In other words, they don’t believe in competition’s societal good sincerely enough to let it exist and do what it does. To get ahead, competitors spend an awful lot of time and energy getting rid of competition, whenever possible.
In the second, while we pretend that unfettered competition has been a benign mechanism for the betterment of life, we conveniently ignore the collaboration, cooperation and collective effort that getting things done actually entails. We’d rather keep the faith and cling to the myth that everything progressive is a result of beating everybody else. It isn’t.
Humanity’s fixation with getting ahead is what most people have been conditioned to think about, most of the time. We are brainwashed and propagandised, from cradle to grave, to think about how to get ahead always, by any means necessary. These messages and doctrines are drilled into our heads by people who think that convincing us all to act this way is their best way to get ahead. In fact, it’s an infectious mind virus. Do like me and you’ll get ahead (but not as far ahead as I will be).
We all buy into it because we’re convinced there is no alternative, but that’s just something we convince each other of, in self-referential, self-reinforcing, mutual feedback loops. Just because we tell each other it’s a fact, continually, doesn’t mean there is any objective truth to the assertion. It’s a mass hallucination.
Saying you’re quite competitive, as if it’s a badge of honour, can be tantamount to announcing you don’t care who you crush or how, in order to prevail, dominate, vanquish and conquer. Winning at all costs is not a nice look. We also think we’re exceptional – that the rules shouldn’t constrain us or apply to us, and that we should be allowed to get away with whatever we think it takes – so that we can get ahead.
It occurred to me, quite recently, that everything bad in the world that I could think of can be traced back to behaviours that arise, when the perpetrators think it will be a way for them to get ahead. Just about everything unspeakable is due to this mania for competition. People will do practically any heinous thing to get ahead, even if it kills us all. The fact that their actions are ultimately lethal to everybody doesn’t seem to trouble anyone, so long as they obtain some kind of short term personal advantage.
Think about every suck-up to power, any shady cover up, conspiracies to subvert, throwing others under metaphorical buses, acts of covert collusion, perfunctory investigations, evasion of legal obligations, stone-walling, weaselling, swindles, crimes, foul play, espionage, dirty tricks, abuse, inhumanity, discrimination, sabotage, surveillance, meanness, lies, deception, manipulation, cheating, destruction, and theft. At the heart of each of these is a personal calculus that permits rotten behaviour; justified only by the belief that doing so will ingratiate them to somebody powerful, or line their pockets, or otherwise ensure that their selfish interests are enhanced and advanced. Getting ahead seems to justify any terrible thing you care to name.
Even office politics and school bullying have, as their root cause, a desire to climb over others to get ahead. Cruelty and punishment, in the national psyche, inflicted on others, is widely seen as an acceptable way to get ahead. It’s why we have people that want harsher treatment of prisoners, longer sentences, deterrent punishments, corporal punishment, death sentences, prying into other people’s private business, stricter laws, sanctions, expulsions, discriminations, and curtailment of rights. We want more state violence, but applied to everybody else – the unworthy – not to ourselves.
Indeed, there are entire political parties that campaign on this basis. In their minds, suppressing and oppressing out-groups and the vulnerable is a sure way to get more of the national pie for themselves and to protect their private, privileged interests. It’s how they think they’ll get ahead, not fall further behind.
Our elected governments routinely do deals with dictators, to get ahead. It’s why people prop up corruption and extreme authoritarians. The fervent belief is that advancing the “national interest” (meaning whatever suits the owners of the wealthiest organisations in the country and increasingly, on the planet) requires tacit acceptance and approval of, and permissiveness toward, the most putrid of evil-doers, in ways that would make the most immoral, promiscuous and wanton person blush with shame.
We fear falling behind much more than the deadly consequences of our schemes to get ahead, which kill us all in the long run. Just about every other consideration comes a distant second to our obsession with getting ahead. Ethics, principles, fearless courage, truth, compassion, empathy, consideration all go out the window. We’re out to use every trick in the book to claw and grasp our way ahead of the pack. We’ll punish, torture, treat unjustly, neglect, humiliate, dehumanise, if that’s what we think it will take to win. It’s visceral, brutal and primitive, but we don’t care a fig, if it results in some small, personal advantage or privilege.
Facebook is an example of an organisation whose very business model is utterly reliant on predation. It was set up that way because the founder, his acolytes and investors found that this surveillance deception, of millions of people, was a very lucrative means of getting ahead. And get ahead they did. They now have the riches of Croesus, to spend frivolously, on themselves, however they choose, unconstrained by corporate taxes and social responsibility.
Brexiters employed Cambridge Analytica and it’s dark network of associate organisations for the same reasons – to advance their special interests and thereby get ahead. Perhaps it would give them a launch platform to bid for the prime ministership – considered to be quite a prize, in the getting ahead stakes. Past prime ministers, after all, have been catapulted into the wealthiest strata of the elite, thanks to conquering this role. It’s an excellent way to get ahead, if you’re prepared to do whatever it takes to seize and cling on to power.
At every level, in the events and circumstances that culminated in the murders of JFK, RFK, MLK and so on, there was a web of individuals playing their part, adhering to only one simple idea – that if they played their part and kept quiet, it would allow them to get ahead. Whether they were destroying evidence, white-washing the truth, conducting black ops, advancing secret agendas, supplying weapons, killing key witnesses or obfuscating and subverting investigations, a whole multitude of independent individuals was acting with just one thought in mind – if I do this thing, I’ll be rewarded. It’s not so much a conspiracy as an algorithm with emergent consequences. Nobody need know the whole plot, or it’s reasons. They only need to act in their own selfish interests, at a local level, in order to get ahead.
Human beings become fearful and anxious, if they think they’re not getting ahead. They are especially worried about falling behind and losing their wealth and status. This fear is so strong that it can easily override any other more rational, noble impulse. We’re craven.
However, this feeling of terrifying fear of loss of identity is baseless. It’s an availability bias. We only fear it so strongly because getting ahead is at the top of our minds and everybody else’s. It’s also super dumb.
We don’t need to “win”. That’s the truth. Winning is a story we make up in our own heads, where we’re the protagonist in our own life and everything revolves around our heroic, ultimately successful narrative. This is what we think. We think we’re playing the lead role in some movie about us. This is how we perceive our reality – that everything turns out neatly, fully justified, by the end of our lives. Our actions will be vindicated by the final act of the screenplay, no matter how awful.
We reject the idea that we’re making it all up as we go along, improvising, reacting to the luck we’re dealt. Our lives do not follow a coherent, purposeful, meaningful script, no matter how much we try to control our lives and our public personas, to make it seem that way. This delusional mindset, which we all share, is all rather nonsensical, when you really stop to consider it dispassionately.
Upton Sinclair said, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” I think it’s nearly impossible to get a man to understand something, when his idea for getting ahead depends on his not understanding it.
Isn’t it time we stopped trying to get ahead, all the time, at any cost?
Maybe humanity would make more progress through Integration, instead of opposition. Competition won’t take us any further forward.