Filed under: brave new world, the sweet life | Tags: america, Benjamin Barber, competition, cooperation, freedom, Jean Jacques Rousseau, John Dewey, The Lost Art of Cooperation, Thomas Hobbes
You can win and lose in music or cooking, as crazy as that seems. In order to win, others must lose, in the American way, developed by the emotionally stunted, and everyone takes the risk of losing in the belief that someday there will be a big win. Of course there never is.
For Thomas Hobbes social existence was a war of all against all, zero sum. For him competition is an ideal not a problem.
But there is also the cooperative paradigm, the non zero sum game, in which the rising tide floats all boats. It enables strength, sustainable lives, health, freedom.
From Benjamin Barber:
It is much the same with entertainment. Our most successful shows, themselves in a competition for survival with one another (sweeps week!), pit on-camera competitors against one another in contests only one can win. The eponymous show Survivor is the Darwinian prototype, but the principle rules on all the “reality” shows. On American Idol, singing is the excuse but winning the real aim. In the winners’ world of television, nothing is what it seems. Top Chef is not about excellence or variety in cooking, but about winning and losing. Project Runway turns a pluralistic fashion industry that caters to many tastes into a race (with clocks and time limits) in which there is but one winner. The competitive culture hypes winners but is equally (more?) fascinated with losers. “It is not enough that I win,” proclaims the hubris-driven American competitor, “others must lose.” And Americans have shown themselves ready to become big losers in order to be eligible to become big winners—however remote the odds. We are a nation of gamblers willing to tolerate radical income inequality and a large class of losers (into which we willingly risk being shunted) for the chance to win.
That tension is hard to maintain, however. The two modes of being inevitably become the source of rival theories of politics and society and, as a consequence, two distinctive approaches to human identity. When we contemplate nature as a kind of parody of human warfare and anarchy, as Thomas Hobbes did, our social existence becomes a “war of all against all.” According to this model, we live in a “zero-sum” world where one man’s victory must be another man’s defeat. We either have to sacrifice our liberty to secure tranquility or live well through rivalry and conquest. The price of attenuating competition is always high, even when it is deemed necessary for survival (as posited by social contract theory). In our very impetus to move, this view argues, we cannot help but collide with others. In collision, we cannot help but experience others as limits on our own freedom. The preservation of freedom demands competition, while any restraint at all on competition, even mere civility, becomes an unfortunate limit on liberty.
This celebration of radical competition has, of course, been contested by theorists such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Thomas Jefferson, and John Dewey, who have treated competition more as a problem or pathology to be overcome than an ideal to be realized. In the cooperative paradigm, the world is understood to be a non–zero-sum game in which we can win by helping others win. We are psychic as well as material beings and can coexist in common space with similar beings, even become stronger by doing so. Mutual aid and common ground are extensions of our common being and make possible healthy and sustainable lives. Freedom becomes a feature of our cooperative interaction with others rather than a symbol of our rivalry with or independence of them. We are free not when unconstrained but under constraints and norms we choose for ourselves. And we are free together, not alone.
The Lost Art of Cooperation by Benjamin Barber
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