Thinking About Anarchism: Competition Versus Co-operation


Consider the accompanying image: phone service providers. How many of these companies does a rational society really need? Their job is to connect our mobile phones to communications networks (GSM, 3G, 4G, Wi-Fi). Do we really need five such organisations in the 26 counties to attempt that same task? And who does it benefit that these five organisations compete with one another for profit? After all, they are all using the same infrastructure! Surely five organisations co-operating will be more effective than five walled-off organisations each attempting the same task individually.

But this article is not about phone coverage in particular. It is about those broader questions which run right through the fabric of our societies.

Capitalism is a system of competition. Competitiveness is hailed as a virtue. We are told that competition brings out the best in us and leads to the best result. When this is challenged, often the criticism is scoffed at and recourse made to some simple examples of competition which seemingly prove that competition is unassailably sensible. Imagine how a presenter might respond if one appeared on RTE or Newstalk and said that competition, broadly speaking, does not make sense. But does this adamant promotion of competition survive scrutiny?

Competitive Sports

Someone might talk of a running race. In this case, the athletes are strictly in competition with one another. They train so they can individually be the best, and in this effort to be the best, they push themselves to their limit, and that is how world records are set, how excellence is achieved. This is true. They might talk of a rugby or football match, or any other team sport, and talk of each team co-operating internally but competing with other teams in order to be the best, and say this is analogous to our competitive market system, the firm being the team. Again, there is no doubt that competition makes for entertaining sport and challenging matches. But, surely, that is very different to society in general. There are very different issues at play. Do we really want to structure our entire society according to the same rules as boxing, tennis, or Formula One? Let us illustrate this.

In a running race, competition is built into the definition. A race is inherently about competition. That’s why people are watching, that’s what adds excitement, that’s what the athletes signed up to. To phrase it in clinical economic terms, the goal for the ‘consumer’ is to observe the spectacle of competition. It probably makes no odds to them how fast someone gets across the line, they don’t care, they just want a good show.

The Analogy Breaks Down

This is not the case for the rest of society. Consider companies producing food. Is this a form of entertainment? Do consumers watch the league tables of food companies, munching on bags of popcorn as one company overtakes the other in stock price or quarterly profits? Clearly not. Their goal is very different. The ‘consumer’ wants food. They want food that nourishes them, that tastes good, and that they can afford.

If a running race was analogous to food production, the point of the race would be for somebody – anybody – to get across the line as quickly as possible. Then it would not make sense for the runners to compete. What would make the most sense would be for them to co-operate with each other. One of the athletes would run alongside the others shouting encouragement to help them keep going. They would share their tips for how to train, on running technique, and so on, in order to increase the maximise the speed of each person. In short, they would work as a team to achieve the fastest time they could, pooling their resources, and indifferent to which runner crossed the line first.

The point is that these competitive analogies don’t work for our society. The goals are different. If the goal is to produce the best food at the lowest cost, why don’t food companies co-operate? If they co-operate, they will each become more effective. They could share material resources, skills, knowledge, and workers. Each firm could gain something from the others and become more effective. From the point of view of producing something this would be the best option. From the point of view of making a sporting spectacle it wouldn’t be. Football matches are great to watch when the two teams are clashing, taking the ball off each other, trying to get in the other team’s goal. But if the aim was actually just to get the ball in one of the goals, regardless of who did it, then obviously the two teams would stop impeding each other, and get the ball in a goal, whichever goal, within a few seconds.

Why Don’t Firms Co-operate Under Capitalism?

Why don’t companies co-operate, why do they compete? The answer isn’t a lack of intelligence on the part of the businesses, it’s not even a lack of morals, rather it is built into the economic system. Competition is a fundamental fact. A business has to look out for numero uno or else it will go under. This means not helping other businesses, even though that would actually be best for the consumer.

Under capitalism, firms will go to great lengths to keep secrets from other firms, to the extent that corporations are known to hire spies to conduct ‘industrial espionage’ on their competitors. From the perspective of one firm’s profit, this makes sense. Sharing their knowledge with competitors will dull their competitive edge and push them closer to market failure. From the perspective of productivity, this is absurd. Hoarding knowledge might increase profits, but it maims the production process across the board. We must ask ourselves if the task – growing vegetables, designing computer chips, manufacturing medicines – or profit-making is more important.

I have witnessed this nonsensical antagonism between firms first hand, receiving monthly corporate updates from on high, usually involving some remark upon the success or failure of the despised competition with schadenfreude at the ready for when it transpires that their plans have been frustrated. It is utterly bizarre to someone who is rooting for humanity rather than any particular company to observe such gladiatorial displays between two enormous technology firms. ‘Surely’, I think, ‘it would be better for everyone if we co-operated, rather than walling ourselves off and wishing each other to fail’. But the purpose is precisely to re-align the interests of workers and managers with the firm rather than humanity. It’s the corporate version of nationalism: how to make it seem as though the CEO on $2 million a year is on the same team as the rest of us lackeys. It definitely helps to have an external enemy. But that enemy isn’t really an enemy at all, it is a potential great friend and ally.

To switch from a competitive economy to a co-operative economy, we would need to make big changes. We would need to re-write the economic system from scratch. That is possible and it would be a huge boon for humanity. Competition is holding our creative capacity in a straitjacket. We say ‘two heads is better than one’, so why not unleash this principle in our economy?

Plot Holes in the Competition Story

The fact is that capitalism was not invented like a jet engine, washing machine, transistor, or wind turbine. Someone did not sit down trying to invent the best social system from first principles, recording at some point ‘my research has proven conclusively that competition produces the most and best quality work, the most groundbreaking ideas, and the best satisfaction of human needs, out of any form of human or economic interaction’. What happened is that capitalism spread around the planet, and people who had a stake in its continued existence justified why it was the best post hoc, just like if we decided we didn’t want to do the dishes we might come up with all sorts of clever and reasonable sounding reasons why somebody else should really do it.

Another fact is that capitalism could not function without co-operation. Firstly, there is intra-firm co-operation: co-workers are driven by economic incentives to compete with each other, but if they did not meaningfully co-operate, the firm would collapse. Secondly, there is inter-firm co-operation: firms co-operate in economic organisations like the Chamber of Commerce. They don’t really co-operate, for instance, they wouldn’t share their intellectual property with each other, they more conspire to increase the share of the pie that business, rather than labour, gets. But even within an institutional framework of rabid competition, capitalists see some need to co-operate. Firms will co-operate to produce industrial standards so that production is more uniform across different firms and, hence, is more harmonious and effective. Thirdly, there is extra-firm co-operation: critically, capitalism can only continue to exist because it sits upon a bedrock of human co-operation, without which society itself would be ripped apart, and large-scale social organisation would become impossible.

Why Co-operation is Enough

The argument against 'two heads is better than one' is that without competition people won’t do anything productive, and if they do it will be poor quality because there isn’t the incentive to beat the competition. This is repeated over and over again, and it sounds logical, but further consideration finds some serious problems with this explanation.

Firstly, if this was true, then no team or group could exist and co-operate, period. Think of a family. Is that one big competitive marketplace? No. People co-operate and have a sense of common purpose. The question which needs to be answered properly is why we are to believe that co-operation can exist all across society, but it cannot be extended across the economy.

Secondly, we are not stupid. We will still be able to figure out that we need to eat food to live, without a competitive economy! It’s as simple as some people deciding ‘let’s grow some food’, others saying ‘let’s process some food’, others saying ‘let’s distribute some food’, and others saying ‘let’s stock some food’. We manage to do things in our own lives every day without doing so for reasons of competition, and if humans needed competition to organise such basic matters, our species would have gone extinct long ago. The idea that we are clueless morons who cannot understand what needs to be done without being forced into competition with other people is not just deeply insulting it is absurd.

Recall that under feudalism people like you and me were told to believe in the divine right of kings, that monarchies were the presence of god on Earth. We are fed all sorts of guff to believe that the current situation is fair and wonderful even if it makes no sense, 2000 years ago, 500 years ago, and today.

Thirdly, competition is not the sole reason, or often the reason at all, that humans do things well. If there’s anything I know about people, it’s that we are proud. We like to do a good job, feel like we did a solid day’s work, whatever that is, feel useful. That is very important to us. And this isn’t just my opinion, it has long been the consensus within the field of psychology. That’s one reason a person’s mental health often gets crippled when they lose their job. They lose a sense of purpose and feel useless – it is unfortunate because not having a job doesn’t stop one being a human deserving of happiness, but this is how we learn to think in this society.

If one talks to a teacher, they will not say ‘I bring out the best I can in my students so I can be as competitive as I can on the labour market’. That is ridiculous. If one talks to a surgeon, they will not say ‘I am as careful and as quick as I can be in surgery so that I can be as competitive as possible on the labour market’. That is ridiculous. They will say that they take pride in their job and that it is important to do well because the results matter. Engineers, the people behind most of what is nowadays called ‘innovation’, are famously indifferent to business matters and most would rather be left alone as boffins focusing on developing a high quality and clever product. It is amazing just how enthusiastic a person can be about something another might consider monumentally tedious.

People like to be good at what they do. There will always be a few slackers, but, as we know, that is true under this competitive system. There is an argument to be made that we have even more slackers because of how this economic system works but let us leave that for another article.

Lazy Monopolies

A common objection to critiques of market competition is that if there was only one company, the personnel would likely become complacent, lowering quality, efficiency, and innovation. That argument is not without merit. But the salient fact is that the alternative being presented here is not monopoly under capitalism. It is not about reducing the number of firms who compete for profits on a market to a number as close to one as possible. The alternative is changing the economic system so that competition is not the defining principle of operation. There are things that humans need and want, and we would organise ourselves, using our ability to rational reflect upon our circumstances, in the most efficient and fairest ways possible to meet those needs and wants.

Becoming complacent due to lack of competitors for profits wouldn’t be applicable. Under capitalism, firms organise themselves to maximise profits, for which they compete with other firms. They must stay ahead of, or at least even with, the progress of their competitors. When that stimulus, the push and pull of market share from other firms, is removed, and a firm becomes a monopoly, they have a captive market, and can be less concerned with satisfying customers than before. This is because the aim of the firm was never to satisfy customers, it was to make profit.

A productive organisation in a co-operative society would not experience this shift in priorities. The organisation was never trying to make profit, it was always trying to meet human needs and wants most effectively. So it doesn’t matter if there are zero, one, two, or twenty, other similar organisations attempting the same task, it will not become complacent due to lack of competition. If we wanted, we could say that such organisations would be competing with the physical conditions of the universe, for health against disease, for plenty against scarcity, for leisure against toil, and so forth.

Is There a Place for Economic Competition?

Does this all mean that we should eradicate all competition from our economic affairs? Furthermore, should we eliminate competition as an idea totally?

What needs to happen is that competition ceases to be the primary organising principle in our economic affairs, that competition is no longer institutionalised and lionised.

Is there still room for economic competition then? Not as we would immediately recognise it. Perhaps competition in small doses has some value. It can be motivating and healthy sometimes to have some friendly competition. That might merely involve a person observing others, for instance a particularly able co-worker, and attempting to keep up with or surpass their productivity. That can be fine, even a good thing, as long the ego doesn’t get in the way and degenerate from friendly competition to bare competition, and as long as it doesn’t turn into a rivalry.

There’s a fine line to tread on, and it’s always best to strive for a truly co-operative approach as the default since even small amounts of competition can be corrosive. Upon further reflection, it seems this is less competition and more using what others do as motivation to improve oneself. The more egotism enters the process, the more it becomes competition.

It might involve different teams within a given enterprise having a friendly competition to devise the best solution to a problem. This could in some circumstances be a good way to explore different solutions and then choose the best one. In some circumstances, another approach would be better. The point is not to elevate competition as almost a moral principle which must be enacted.

There could be several different enterprises or organisations engaging in a certain pursuit, say designing and manufacturing guitars, rather than one enterprise. This is especially likely since as a global society, do we expect all guitars to be designed and manufactured in one part of the planet, all bananas to grown in another, all books to be published in another? Of course not. In the case of guitars, different organisations might have different approaches to doing the best job. Some guitarists might appreciate one type more than another, the different enterprises could learn from one another, perhaps noting ideas they wouldn’t have developed themselves. That is a healthy dynamic to be encouraged, and one which at no point requires one enterprise to try to overwhelm, dominate, and bury, the other ones. It is not competition so much as each enterprise striving to be its best, and learning from other enterprises attempting a similar task. There would be no institutional reason the enterprises could not help each other, since the aim would be meeting the human want of music, rather than the economic goal of profit.

If no one wanted the guitars of one enterprise, perhaps the enterprise would not need to exist any longer. Under capitalism, that means dreaded unemployment, being tossed to the gutter. But in a co-operative society the needs of the workers would be provided for by society – no cause for panic. And after all, the goal of meeting human needs and wants would have been achieved, either some other guitars were satisfying to people, or no one wanted guitars anymore. Isn’t that a logical way of approaching life?

Should We Eliminate Competition Totally?

Should we eliminate the idea of competition totally? Of course not. The above examples prove this, as does the earlier discussion of competitive sport. There is some limited place for competition within our societies, either in peculiar contexts like sports, in dilute form as motivation to improve ourselves, or even occasionally as a technique to find the best solution between groups. And certainly competition with oneself, which is of another character entirely to competition with other people, is very valuable and ought to be encouraged.

But just because in some very particular cases it has merit, does not mean we should base our society upon it. That is as reasonable as saying that because sometimes guilt can produce good results, we should base our society upon feeling guilty, or that because sometimes shouting serves a good purpose, shouting at one another should become the norm.

Competition is surely a blight on our existence. We compete with each other to look the best, we compete to be the funniest, we compete to be the coolest and most popular, we compete to be the most successful, we compete to be the most moral, we compete to be the most intelligent and knowledgeable, we compete to be the most manly and the most feminine. This is based upon insecurity and a phony understanding of what life is about, something we all accept in some regard, unless we put tremendous effort into overcoming our psychological weaknesses and social programming. And even then, something lingers.

Many will attribute such competition to human nature, and, in truth, it couldn’t happen if this potential didn’t exist somewhere in our natures. But there also exists a different potential, a potential to live as securer, wiser, more open, people. People who strive to be themselves and do the best they can rather than constantly comparing themselves with others, rather than living to ‘get on top’ in life, as if it were a big sprinting race and other people were our opponents.

The Future is Co-operation

Which human potential is expressed is largely a function of what environment we create for ourselves. A society which institutionalises competition between people cannot be expected to produce an environment conducive to the securer, wiser, more open, people we could and should be.

We are even split geographically into different ‘nations’ which compete with each other on ‘the world stage’, even though the nation in which a person is born is as random as the lottery. Each nation tries to maximise its ‘competitive advantage’, to lower its corporation tax and minimum wage to attract foreign direct investment away from other nations, even to hold the biggest nuclear arsenal so it could annihilate every other nation. Does this competitive game best serve the human species?

Our intense ability and propensity to co-operate is one of the distinguishing features of Homo sapiens – it is a deeply ingrained inclination which naturally evolved because it works, and which takes quite a sustained hammering to knock out. Whatever the small acceptable degree of competition in our societies, what is certain is that our lives will be successful and flourishing in proportion to how much we choose to co-operate with one another. We could have a global human society founded upon co-operation, where teamwork replaces bitter conflict, where ‘two heads are better than one’ is put into practice, where we have realised that when we join forces life is better than it ever could be straining against each other.