How ‘Competitiveness’ Became One of the Great Unquestioned Virtues of Contemporary Culture

By William Davies, a Senior Lecturer at Goldsmiths, University of London, where he is leading the development of a new PPE Degree. He is the author of The Limits of Neoliberalism: Authority, Sovereignty & The Logic of Competition. Twitter: @davies_will. Originally published at the London School of Economics’ British Politics and Policy website; cross posted from Evonomics

Widening economic inequality is the academic topic du jour, but the trend of growing wealth and income disparity has been underway for several decades. How did mounting inequality succeed in proving culturally and politically attractive for as long as it did?

The years since the banking meltdown of 2008 have witnessed a dawning awareness, that our model of capitalism is not simply producing widening inequality, but is apparently governed by the interests of a tiny minority of the population. The post-crisis period has spawned its own sociological category – ‘the 1%’ – and recently delivered its first work of grand economic theory, in Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-first Century, a book dedicated to understanding why inequality keeps on growing.

What seems to be provoking the most outrage right now is not inequality as such, which has, after all, been rising in the UK (give or take Tony Blair’s second term) since 1979, but the sense that the economic game is now being rigged. If we can put our outrage to one side for a second, this poses a couple of questions, for those interested in the sociology of legitimation. Firstly, how did mounting inequality succeed in proving culturally and politically attractive for as long as it did? And secondly, how and why has that model of justification now broken down?

In some ways, the concept of inequality is unhelpful here. There has rarely been a political or business leader who has stood up and publicly said, “society needs more inequality”. And yet, most of the policies and regulations which have driven inequality since the 1970s have been publicly known. Although it is tempting to look back and feel duped by the pre-2008 era, it was relatively clear what was going on, and how it was being justified. But rather than speak in terms of generating more inequality, policy-makers have always favoured another term, which effectively comes to the same thing: competitiveness.

My book, The Limits of Neoliberalism: Sovereignty, Authority & The Logic of Competition, is an attempt to understand the ways in which political authority has been reconfigured in terms of the promotion of competitiveness. Competitiveness is an interesting concept, and an interesting principle on which to base social and economic institutions. When we view situations as ‘competitions’, we are assuming that participants have some vaguely equal opportunity at the outset. But we are also assuming that they are striving for maximum inequality at the conclusion. To demand ‘competitiveness’ is to demand that people prove themselves relative to one other.

It struck me, when I began my Sociology PhD on which the book is based, that competitiveness had become one of the great unquestioned virtues of contemporary culture, especially in the UK. We celebrate London because it is a competitive world city; we worship sportsmen for having won; we turn on our televisions and watch contestants competitively cooking against each other. In TV shows such as the Dragons Den or sporting contests such as the Premier League, the division between competitive entertainment and capitalism dissolves altogether. Why would it be remotely surprising, to discover that a society in which competitiveness was a supreme moral and cultural virtue, should also be one which generates increasing levels of inequality?

Unless one wants to descend into biological reductionism, the question then has to be posed: how did this state of affairs come about? To answer this, we need to turn firstly to the roots of neoliberal thinking in the 1930s. For Friedrich Hayek in London, the ordoliberals in Freiburg and Henry Simons in Chicago, competition wasn’t just one feature of a market amongst many. It was the fundamental reason why markets were politically desirable, because it conserved the uncertainty of the future. What united all forms of totalitarianism and planning, according to Hayek, was that they refused to tolerate competition. And hence a neoliberal state would be defined first and foremost as one which used its sovereign powers to defend competitive processes, using anti-trust law and other instruments.

One way of understanding neoliberalism, as Foucault has best highlighted, is as the extension of competitive principles into all walks of life, with the force of the state behind them. Sovereign power does not recede, and nor is it replaced by ‘governance’; it is reconfigured in such a way that society becomes a form of ‘game’, which produces winners and losers. My aim in The Limits of Neoliberalism is to understand some of the ways in which this comes about.

In particular, I examine how the Chicago School Law and Economics tradition achieved an overhaul (and drastic shrinkage) in the role of market regulation. And I look at how Michael Porter’s theory of ‘national competitiveness’ led to a new form of policy orientation, as the search for competitive advantage. Both of these processes have their intellectual roots in the post-War period, but achieved significant political influence from the late 1970s onwards. They are, if you like, major components of neoliberalism.

By studying these intellectual traditions, it becomes possible to see how an entire moral and philosophical worldview has developed, which assumes that inequalities are both a fair and an exciting outcome of a capitalist process which is overseen by political authorities. In that respect, the state is a constant accomplice of rising inequality, although corporations, their managers and shareholders, were the obvious beneficiaries. Drawing on the work of Luc Boltanski, I suggest that we need to understand how competition, competitiveness and, ultimately, inequality are rendered justifiable and acceptable – otherwise their sustained presence in public and private life appears simply inexplicable.

And yet, this approach also helps us to understand what exactly has broken down over recent years, which I would argue is the following: At a key moment in the history of neoliberal thought, its advocates shifted from defending markets as competitive arenas amongst many, to viewing society-as-a-whole as one big competitive arena. Under the latter model, there is no distinction between arenas of politics, economics and society. To convert money into political power, or into legal muscle, or into media influence, or into educational advantage, is justifiable, within this more brutal, capitalist model of neoliberalism. The problem that we now know as the ‘1%’ is, as has been argued of America recently, a problem of oligarchy.

Underlying it is the problem that there are no longer any external, separate or higher principles to appeal to, through which oligarchs might be challenged. Legitimate powers need other powers through which their legitimacy can be tested; this is the basic principle on which the separation of executive, legislature and judiciary is based. The same thing holds true with respect to economic power, but this is what has been lost.

Regulators, accountants, tax collectors, lawyers, public institutions, have been drawn into the economic contest, and become available to buy. To use the sort of sporting metaphor much-loved by business leaders; it’s as if the top football team has bought not only the best coaches, physios and facilities, but also bought the referee and the journalists as well. The bodies responsible for judging economic competition have lost all authority, which leaves the dream of ‘meritocracy’ or a ‘level playing field’ (crucial ideals within the neoliberal imaginary) in tatters. Politically speaking, this is as much a failure of legitimation as it is a problem of spiralling material inequality.

The result is a condition that I term ‘contingent neoliberalism’, contingent in the sense that it no longer operates with any spirit of fairness or inclusiveness. The priority is simply to prop it up at all costs. If people are irrational, then nudge them. If banks don’t lend money, then inflate their balance sheets through artificial means. If a currency is no longer taken seriously, political leaders must repeatedly guarantee it as a sovereign priority. If people protest, buy a water canon. This is a system whose own conditions are constantly falling apart, and which governments must do constant repair work on.

The outrage with the ‘1%’ (and, more accurately, with the 0.1%), the sense that even the rich are scarcely benefiting, is to be welcomed. It is also overdue. For several years, we have operated with a cultural and moral worldview which finds value only in ‘winners’. Our cities must be ‘world-leading’ to matter. Universities must be ‘excellent’, or else they dwindle. This is a philosophy which condemns the majority of spaces, people and organizations to the status of ‘losers’. It also seems entirely unable to live up to its own meritocratic ideal any longer. The discovery that, if you cut a ‘winner’ enough slack, eventually they’ll try to close down the game once and for all, should throw our obsession with competitiveness into question. And then we can consider how else to find value in things, other than their being ‘better’ than something else.

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  1. Steve Sewall

    Eye-opening piece. Fullest description I’ve seen of the way things are today. Once one runs with Davies’ counter-intuitive (for me anyway) yet hidden-in-plain-view notion of the attractiveness of mounting inequality, all kinds of things fall into place as he constructs his picture of how and why we got to where we are now. It’s all so obvious; I found myself chuckling all the way through.

    From an analysis as successful as this one is in depicting the construction of modern society, one would expect prescriptions of some kind as to what society should do next. But Davies doesn’t fall into that trap, and instead at the end puts the ball into the hands of his readers in a concluding sentence that suggests (are you ready for this?) that society might one day learn to think for itself : “And then we consider how else to find value in things, other than their being ‘better’ than something else.”

    Food for thought: is it possible to ensure that ‘we’ is all of us, and not merely the ‘we’ that reads splendid pieces like this one? One answer: Google “Chicago Civic Media”

    1. James Kroeger

      I have a bit more sanguine view of ‘competition’, in spite of the fact that I am someone who advocates steeply progressive marginal tax rates on the highest incomes. Perhaps the biggest reason for this is I perceive competition to be the one saving grace of market economies which makes them beneficial to “the least among us.”

      The problem is not that firms compete with each other; the problem is when—in the name of national competitiveness—specious arguments are used to persuade legislators to grant special favors to all competing firms, favors which actually do nothing to improve the competitive positions of those receiving them relative to each other. (For example, initiatives that would lower the wage costs of all firms)

      Davies is right to challenge the way that the minions of The Oligarchy use the competitiveness meme to advance laws & regulations which are designed to benefit the ownership class at the expense of everyone else. But I think it is a bit off the mark to (implicitly) call into question the motivation of firm owners/managers who believe they can compete favorably with more established firms.

      Know what I mean?

      1. Steve Sewall

        Think I do. There’s destructive competition, then there’s the healthy the healthy, kind. What concerns Davies, as I read him, is the latter: destructive, all-or-nothing, monopolistic.

        In his piece I didn’t hear Davies calling into question the motivation of all firm owners/managers – did I miss something?

        1. James Kroeger

          In his piece I didn’t hear Davies calling into question the motivation of all firm owners/managers – did I miss something?

          Well, no…he didn’t call into question the motivation of all firm owners/managers. But I must say I don’t know how it is possible to question ‘competitiveness’ as a primary motivational impulse without also calling into question—at least peripherally—the motivations of firm owners/managers who try to ‘survive’ in very competitive markets.

          I guess I feel some important distinctions need to be made. And I don’t think it’s just a matter of ‘excess’ vs. moderation. I don’t really think there’s anything wrong with wanting to ‘succeed well’, or to do the best that you can. Neither do I fault people for being self-serving, but only for being stupid-selfish.

          1. Steve Sewall

            Neither do I fault people for being self-serving, but only for being stupid-selfish.

            Sounds right to me. I do wonder what Davies knows about what it takes to run a successful business. And this took me back to his penultimate sentence:

            The discovery that, if you cut a ‘winner’ enough slack, eventually they’ll try to close down the game once and for all, should throw our obsession with competitiveness into question.

            This is no idle point. In the early 1980’s I spoke with an American media tycoon whose company was then competing with five or six others in the rush to divvy up as much of the global digital media market as they could. My friend likened this competition to a Monopoly game in which any player making a single bad play was out of the game… for good. (He’s still a major player today.)

            So: do we call what takes to stay in this game “stupid-selfish” or “self-serving”? Not an easy distinction to draw!

            1. James Kroeger

              So: do we call what takes to stay in this game “stupid-selfish” or “self-serving”? Not an easy distinction to draw!

              Not easy, perhaps, but still possible.

              It requires, in my mind, that observers be willing to step back and ask themselves a fundamentally moral question: “what would the consequences be if everyone (every player in a market) were to act the same way, or experience the same benefit?”

              It is the kind of question that can be reliably used to reveal those times when an action that may be prudent for an individual player to pursue—if no one else acts the same way—is actually quite immoral, for if all players were to act the same way, they would unquestionably all be worse off.

              That is the general rule I use to make the distinction between behaviors that are ‘self-serving’ vs. ‘stupid-selfish.’

          2. Skip Intro

            I believe at one point in time, a corporate charter was bestowed by the government on an enterprise that generated some societal good, and thus ‘earned’ some extra protection from liability for the individuals involved. That concept now seems so quaint that I wonder if it was just a fantasy, particularly in light of the newly invented primary role of the corporation as a vehicle for maximizing shareholder value.
            At this point we are through the looking glass; reward is its own virtue, corporations and cartels create or remove governments, and the neoliberal market-state merely serves to pick cronies whom they will assign the collection of rents for previously public services.
            It is enough to make a smart person spell Water Cannon with one ‘n’.

  2. Don

    Ayn Rand and her superhuman “winners” must have had something to do with this: the mythology that only those not content to work in factories or on farms or fishing boats are worthy. The rest are … well, “losers.” And thank you Alan Greenspan, disciple of Ayn Rand, for helping to make this real.

    1. LifelongLib

      Actually, she was OK with working people as long as they settled for what their employers willingly gave them (she even accepted “voluntary” i.e. useless labor unions). But she thought that for ordinary people to use the power of government to improve their lot was legal extortion.

  3. Steve H.

    Peter’s Manifesto has 3879 words of content, and only 6 are variants on competition.

    “We’re consumer-siders, not supply-siders.” Word-cloud the manifesto and you’ll see it’s a lot more concerned with jobs. “Bring back the WPA — bring it back to rebuild the nation’s infrastructure, to give people jobs, to give the poor money to spend.”

    An ecological rule-of-thumb is that competition is favored when resources are abundant, cooperation when resources are constrained. In this case, the constraining resource is consumer money.

    A case can be made for misappropriation of the term of neoliberalism. Take this quote:

    “We also favor freeing the entrepreneur from the kind of economic regulation that discourages healthy competition. But on matters of health and safety, we know there must be vigorous regulation, because the same capitalism that can give us economic vitality can also sell us Pintos, maim employes, and pollute our skies and streams.”

    That is directly contradicted by the ISDS provision in the TPP. Add in this: “That’s why some neo-liberals, who are on the whole internationalists and free-traders, are willing to consider such bizarre ideas as getting out of NATO, forgetting about the Persian Gulf, embargoing Japanese cars, or requiring that, in part at least, they be built here.” And this: “The basic problems we’re trying to address is that American industry’s ability to compete has been seriously impaired by the amount of money we have spent in the common defense as compared with our competition…”

    By these distinctions, Trump is a neoliberal, while Obama\Clinton are something else entirely, global corporatists perhaps. Davies would have served better by drilling down into the change in meaning of neoliberalism and the different regime post-2008. Lambert’s article is more applicable to the inequalities that Davies is attributing to neoliberalism.

    1. Katharine

      It’s remarkable that a phrase like “healthy competition” is so completely taken for granted that we don’t ask whether competition in particular circumstances actually is healthy.

      1. Emma

        A great point Katharine. It could well be deemed ‘healthy’ propaganda for what may at times be considered nefarious purpose. A ‘positive’ aspect repeatedly emphasized. In this way it may appeal more to the emotions than the intellect, and actually directs us away from genuine equality and inclusiveness, facets both of a humanitarian foundation for real social order in real democracy. By ‘healthily’ embracing it, as and when diirected, we have little to no time at all (yours, mine, his, hers or theirs!) to waste on thinking it through. Through to a point we see it as an act of power to reduce our freedom of action. Through to a point it destroys ones’ innate wish to do the right thing. That’s what makes it so escalatory, and in some sense too, so ‘Clausewitzian’!

    2. Grebo

      Peter’s Manifesto …
      A case can be made for misappropriation of the term of neoliberalism.

      I skimmed this last time someone (you?) posted it. I don’t believe it is talking about the same thing that we all mean by neoliberalism. It is a list of policies rather than a clear statement of ideology but it seems to me that that the ‘old liberals’ that it is contrasting itself with are, in fact, our neoliberals.

      The article is from 1982 and the author claims he invented the name ‘neoliberal’, although he doesn’t say when. Our neoliberals came into existence in 1947 at Mont Pelerin.

      Why does Peters think he can invent an old name? Because he hasn’t heard it before. Our neoliberals cleverly decided to stop using the name, or any other, so as to make it easier to present their worldview as simply The Truth, and to make the claim that There Is No Alternative. It also deprives its opponents of a focus.

      1. Steve H.

        Very interesting, thank you. With headquarters in Switzerland, and the author of this article being based in London, it looks like the sides of the Atlantic put different referents to the term. It makes it understandable why there’s so much about fuzzy meaning in what I’ve seen written.

        It looks a bit like the Pelerin group went more illuminati while the Americans went full public relations. This means there’s been more public discourse around the sources like the New Republic and Washington Monthly, and that means that it’s not correct saying ‘that we all mean by neoliberalism.’ A disadvantage of being behind the scenes is folks don’t notice you.

        Knowing this, it’s not fruitful to argue about which is the correct sect. There can be more than one truth which fit the facts. For instance, recently William Lind has been showing up as a bogeyman in pictures around our elections. He’s a paleoconservative with two primary claims to fame. His writings on 4th Generation Warfare pretty much laid out what was going to happen with violent conflict in the 21st century. His writings on political correctness are fascinating, in that he takes the same facts as his primary sources and views them as a terrible thing. I grew up around some of the people associated with the Frankfurt School and see those facts as a good thing.

        So, thanks for bringing this up. I agree it is hard to misappropriate a term that already has more than one meaning.

        1. Grebo

          I’m British so I’d never heard of Peters and his neoliberalism until I followed your link. Jacobin has a couple of interesting pieces on them. Apparently they never caught on and gave up in the mid 80s.

          The Mont Pelerin ideology on the other hand pretty much rules the world, and has done for over 30 years. People used to call it Monetarism, or Thatcherism, or Reaganomics, or Globalisation but I guess some time in the late 80s somebody (maybe Chomsky?) figured out what was going on, dug up the original name and it’s been gaining currency ever since.

          Peters and Co. were mainly journalists which is why they went for PR. The Mont Pelerin Society were economists and philosophers. They went for infiltrating academia and setting up think tanks, of which there are now more than 400 worldwide. This was obviously a more effective if slower strategy.

          So I think it’s fair to say that when you hear someone banging on about neoliberalism these days they probably mean the bastard offspring of Hayek and Friedman.

          Bill Lind — someone else I’ve not come across, fortunately. Cultural Marxism indeed. Used to be called common courtesy.

          1. Plenue

            ‘Cultural Marxism’ was originally called ‘Kulturbolschewismus (Cultural Bolshevism)’ and was literally a Nazi creation. It was a vague term for anything they didn’t like, including modernist paintings and jazz.

            Anyone who unironically whines about Cultural Marxism is (by definition as far as I’m concerned) an idiot.

      2. swendr

        Our neoliberals cleverly decided to stop using the name, or any other, so as to make it easier to present their worldview as simply The Truth, and to make the claim that There Is No Alternative. It also deprives its opponents of a focus.

        Can you source this statement? I’m curious if the reasoning behind decision to stop using the name was proclaimed publicly by those that made it or simply inferred by later study.

    3. LifelongLib

      Yes, I first saw the term “neoliberalism” used decades ago in the Washington Monthly, which Peters was then the editor of. It had a different meaning there than what is called neoliberalism on NC. What we’ve had for the last 40 years is certainly not the neoliberalism that Peters was talking about. It’s more like Reaganism, or Reaganism-lite…

      1. Steve H.

        I’ve noticed how much David Stockman shows up these days as a analyst, and he has been worth reading. It looks like Reagan and his folks took the pieces of Stockmans work they found useful (trickle-down) and tossed the rest. His repudiation of what they did brought some credibility back to him, and I can see him as a smart young man who started out unaware of how he was being used.

        With this, and Grebo’s comment above, I am drawn to the view that it can be dangerously tribal to discuss things in terms of ideology. In practical terms, it lets the best liar win, while the policies as implemented determine who benefits and who suffers. The Archdruid has been getting dumped on around here lately, but he has shown insight about how our abstractions are the incomplete models drawn from the particular cases, and analyzing the abstractions can be a stroll down an illusory hall of mirrors.

  4. Sound of the Suburbs

    The US and the West never did get the hang of this globalisation thing.

    China and India have added a billion workers a piece to the global workforce, there is plenty of spare capacity in the labour force acting as a permanent drag on wages.

    Foolishly we have let living costs soar in the West, with house price booms nearly everywhere apart from Germany.

    The high mortgage payments and rent eat into suppressed wages reducing the standard of living and purchasing power of the vast majority of workers.

    For workers in the West to compete in a global economy, we need a similar basic cost of living to those in the East.

    The minimum wage to cover the basic cost of living must be the same in the East and West.

    The US has probably been the most successful in making its labour force internationally uncompetitive with soaring costs of housing, healthcare and student loan repayments.

    These all have to be covered by wages and US businesses are now squealing about the high minimum wage.

    When you’ve got the cost of living down, productivity is the next item on the agenda.

    1. Sound of the Suburbs

      We will probably need tariffs until the West can make itself internationally competitive again with Classical Economics.

      Neoclassical economics is a perversion of classical economics that misses out important parts of classical economics to cause inequality.

      Adam Smith:

      “The Labour and time of the poor is in civilised countries sacrificed to the maintaining of the rich in ease and luxury. The Landlord is maintained in idleness and luxury by the labour of his tenants. The moneyed man is supported by his extractions from the industrious merchant and the needy who are obliged to support him in ease by a return for the use of his money. But every savage has the full fruits of his own labours; there are no landlords, no usurers and no tax gatherers.”

      Adam Smith saw landlords, usurers (bankers) and Government taxes as equally parasitic, all raising the cost of doing business.

      He sees the lazy people at the top living off “unearned” income from their land and capital.

      He sees the trickle up of Capitalism:
      1) Those with excess capital collect rent and interest.
      2) Those with insufficient capital pay rent and interest.

      He differentiates between “earned” and “unearned” income.

      Capitalism has two sides, the productive side where “earned” income is generated and the parasitic, rentier side where “unearned” income is generated.

      You tax “unearned” income to reduce the taxes on “earned” income and subsidise the productive side of Capitalism.

      It makes you internationally competitive by lowering the costs of labour.

      You don’t have massive housing booms, increasing rents and mortgage payments making you internationally uncompetitive by raising the costs of labour. (Wages have to cover these costs)

      Classical economics is not taught otherwise people would see the contradictions; it gives rise to conclusions that are the opposite of today’s philosophy.

      You want:
      1) Low cost housing
      2) Free or low cost services
      3) Free or low cost healthcare
      4) Free or low cost education

      This keeps the basic cost of living down, keeping the minimum wage down and making you internationally competitive.

      If these are not free or low cost they have to be covered by wages making you internationally uncompetitive.

      This is funded through taxes on “unearned” income.

      It’s great for business.

  5. Carolinian

    Unless one wants to descend into biological reductionism

    Well why not “descend” into biological reductionism since social Darwinism is the true basis for all our current elite ideas about how to organize society? With religion and philosophy in decline some new set of rationalizations was clearly needed to justify our entirely instinctive zeal for dividing ourselves into tribes and hierarchies. It’s this failure of self awareness that may be the real problem and not tinkering with the mechanics of the more conventional explanations.

  6. Betina

    Excellent piece. This has been on my mind for a while. Also, notice how people speak of countries as “economies” rather than societies.

  7. hemeantwell

    One way of understanding neoliberalism, as Foucault has best highlighted, is as the extension of competitive principles into all walks of life, with the force of the state behind them.

    Beyond coining a catchy term, “biopolitics,” Foucault was hardly innovative in this. The Frankfurt School was all over this tendency; their writings strongly emphasize the enlistment of culture to capitalist ends. Let’s toss in some British Marxists, Raymond Williams for example. Polanyi? Marx?

    A recent Jacobin article, The Art of Politics, discussing developments in the US in light of Thatcher, is apropos. It highlights how, to put it simply, a radical, capital-antagonistic political initiative by Labour was converted into a class “accord” that came to be implemented by the state, in alliance with employers, against workers who resist the accord. This social democratic version of TINA set up a muddled, anti-state climate which the Right hijacked with its fake commitments to “freedom,” even as it uses the enhanced state to promote a capital-friendly culture, including “competitiveness.” Foucault was deaf to such turns of the dialectic, he was simplistic in his stress on domination and held a rather ahistorical understanding of history.

    1. Alejandro

      IMHO, K.Polanyi made clear that what ‘I do'(my labor) can’t be extricated from who I am AND what ‘we’ do(coordinated efforts) can’t be extricated from who ‘we’ are, without pernicious transformative effects. Applying the abstract notion of “competiveness” to the abstract “logic” of “markets”, to what ‘I’ AND ‘we’ do, has created conditions that this same “logic” hasn’t AND can’t solve, leading him to conclude that “labor”, in addition to money and the environment, are fictitious commodities.

    2. Mickey Marzick in Akron, Ohio

      I found the same quote the most explanatory as MARKET TOTALITARIANISM has evolved. Also refreshing were your references to its antecedents. Might want to add C. B. McPherson’s work on “possessive individualism”, aka competition, to the list.

      Only the winners have the right to decide… Their time, effort, discipline, etc entitle them to their just desserts. The rest of us are “looters”. Is it any surprise that an avowed atheist, Ayn Rand, realizing that God was dead, replaced “the CREATOR” with the “job creator”. Otherwise, her objectivism would be little more than a variant of Social Darwinism, if not nihilism.

      But if the intent of the author was to add another layer to the “how did we get here” anthology, more important is how do we get beyond MARKET TOTALITARIANISM? What are the internal and external contradictions in the latter that presage its supercession? Nothing is permanent so long as rampant individualism is exalted because controlling it becomes the overriding imperative. And once one begins to control it or steer it into what are deemed acceptable pursuits, INNOVATION will suffer. So, individualism itself, aka competition, may be the Achilles’ heel of MARKET TOTALITARIANISM.

      The very issue of “growing inequality” and its consequences calls into question the legitimacy of individualism/competition, especially when the game is seen as rigged. To excel in an individual pursuit then turnaround and modify the rules so that only certain individuals can “pursue” it undermines its legitimacy. Ultimately, INDIVIDUALISM and COMPETITION themselves will be called into question.

      The fact that “growing inequality” has even become part of the public discourse in this country and elsewhere AGAIN suggests that MARKET TOTALITARIANISM has not triumphed totally or is something that, once in place, cannot be overcome. Only if we can be convinced that the current rigged game is legitimate, that it reflects the natural order or God’s will, and cannot be changed will MARKET TOTALITARIANISM have triumphed. I don’t see that happening even in this country, yet alone on a global scale. I may be wrong… but individual agency still matters and can make a difference, even if only one on one, one day at a time..

      1. Zack

        Social Darwinist ideas that underlay ideology of competitiveness of, what you call, market totalitarianism are nowhere near nihilist. In fact they are quite the opposite, optimistic in their promise of undeniable historical progress.

        What appears to me to be the greatest obstacle of getting beyond “market totalitarianism” is the very idea of historical progress, the idea that we can create the system that will eventually make future better and brighter for everyone. Market totalitarianism with it’s system of allocation of resources has no problem defeating any other idea that promises system for allocation of resources that may deliver better outcomes in terms of economic progress.

        By admitting that there is no such thing as Enlightenment’s idea of historical progress and that is worth scarifying present for possible “brighter future” we may at some point get beyond market totalitarianism. Once we admit that new apps, gadgets, new beauty products, new food, faster and safer cars, better TVs, even higher crop yields or new medicine, … are not going to improve experience of our lives, will not make us happier or more life-satisfied we will be able to stop the rat race and organize our society to make everyone’s life a bit easier to endure with a bit less suffering at the present.

  8. JLCG

    It seems that Darwinism and competitiviness are two aspects of the same mental process Who survives is supposed to have adapted well.
    The aspect of why inequality has surged as a problem is due to the end of colonialism. When the exploited were far away, out of sight, our wealth had a natural inevitable cast. But now that colonies have disappeared or more precisely we have all become colonies the differences in income knowledge and health manifest themselves brilliantly.

    1. Norb

      Colonialism is about conquest and exploitation. It is class warfare on a broader national scale. As long as humans are governed by the notion that one class of people has sovereignty over another, the dynamic of exploitation and subjugation continues under different forms.

      The progressive hope that government by the people strengthened by technological advancement could bring equality to humankind has been subverted by a counter revolutionary force. The enlightenment goals of freedom, liberty, and equality for all have been turned upside down to reinforce the rights of the few over the many.

      In the end, it is the political power struggle to lay claim to the bounty of the earth.

  9. Norb

    Walking away form the current competitive system and spending ones energy building cooperative systems is the logical response to todays dominant worldview. The winner take all mentality is an evolutionary dead end. As the author notes, the evidence is plainly visible for all the see. The basic human relations have not changed. Ruler and subject. Capital and labor. The resulting bonds of these two opposed groups creating a multitude of dynamic forces in perpetual motion. History is the result.

    The first tentative steps at building cooperative structures must surely mirror capitalisms early beginnings rising from feudalism. The reigning power of the day must always seem inevitable to those trapped inside, but circumstances drive action. The response to neoliberalism is not more competition as the elite will have us believe, but less. Capital’s greatest weakness is once the masses realize that practicing cooperation and solidarity are in their best interests, the capitalist game is up.

    The notion that competition is the dominant trait of human beings is the trump card continually played to justify our current social order. While the article clearly outlines the historical connections to our present reality, it offers no concrete solutions to the dilemma. This is probably for the best, as the current power structure is maintained thru propaganda, infiltration, and extermination. True threats to the neoliberal order will not be born online where they can be easily disposed of or identified for destruction. They will happen behind the scenes. They must find a place and live in the real world.

    If humanity is to have a future on this planet, cooperation must find the power to prevail. Early mammals did not consciously bide their time waiting for the dinosaurs to loose dominance. They followed their true nature and evolution took care of the rest. If anything is true about humans, it is that as a species, we have evolved to the point where the majority must be compelled by some force to competitiveness and violence. This force must be resisted. Fostering cooperation is the true hope for the future.

      1. Norb

        My sentiments are offered up in the spirit of reforming a corrupted state, not as an endorsement of anarchy. Extreme individualism, in any form seems to lead to ultimate misery. The individual is made healthier and stronger as is the relationship to the whole of his fellows.

        Neoliberalism has been the effort to channel the drive for individual freedom into the narrow cultural outlines of greed and personal satisfaction and attempt to justify this value system as somehow benefiting humanity on a larger scale. It is not turning out that way, regardless of all the sophisticated propaganda techniques deployed to convince otherwise.

        Anarchy is useful as a means to an end, not an end in itself. The end needs to be a strong government dedicated to protecting the rights of its citizens. Groups and associations will always form in human societies. The motivating factor supporting these groups should be a common sense of responsibility and obligation. Not some glorification of the individual.

    1. TedHunter

      True threats to the neoliberal order will not be born online where they can be easily disposed of or identified for destruction. They will happen behind the scenes. They must find a place and live in the real world

      Excellent. Two steps ahead.

  10. Gaylord

    I think the basis of economic neoliberalism is human exceptionalism. The evidence of our continuing destruction of the natural world which is our own and only habitat for survival, which inevitably will lead to mass extinction of most if not all life on earth, reveals this fundamental defect in our species. Perhaps millions of years hence, the earth will start over and evolution will work better the next time around.

    1. Norb

      You have highlighted the key point and the foundation on which all future action rests. How one approached the question of human exceptionalism sets them apart. Conquest or sociability. Humility is a concept that must be fostered and is in the reach of everyone. It must be practiced though. I think this is the turning point that the elite may or may not be aware of. They fear being proven out as the frauds that they are. The capitalist system is producing unexceptional people at an ever increasing rate. The moment when a critical mass of people realize that they are unexceptional, and learn to live with it, will be a great turning point for humanity-and the world.

      A new spirituality perhaps. The moral bankruptcy of the elite is almost complete. For good or evil, the leadership that gains control of the unexceptional masses will determine our fate as a species. I for one think that the forces of good can prevail. Good being defined by the practice of humility. There is much potential strength lying dormant.

      One drop of water in the ocean.

  11. craazyman

    something strange and new occurred to me this morning as I was studying the graphical portrayal of simple bi-variate probability density functions (pdf) and cumulative distribution functions (cdf).

    These are pictured as squares on an x-y plane, with a small square inside a big square. The big square is all possible things. The small square inside the big square is the things that actually happen. The odds of the things that happen is the percent of the big square occupied by the small square.

    It occurred to me the exaltation of markets assume that most economically worthwhile activities can be expressed through market transactions and, by construction, that economic “actors” have a natural means of expression (usually defined as money). But when the exaltation itself deprives, through its influence on social and political relations, a significant subset of actors from possession of a natural means of expression, that phenomenon is not contemplated in the exaltation.

    As a result, the exaltation is by nature incomplete and self-contradictory, since it implies a continuity and completeness of means that does not in fact exist. It’s as if the area under the pdf of “exaltation” is not fully 1 and the cdf never reaches 1. QED from Magonia. Fuk It’s Stoner Time on the Thinking Rock. Just like Rodin’s Thinker dude. Stoned. A few more bong hits and this could get to be some serious deep thawts. –

    1. Steve H.

      You have just outlined a basic income argument, as money is speech, that the gvt should ensure exaltation through an allotment of free speech in support of the first amendment.

      It could be argued, however. that as corporations are people, people are thus corporations, which would be support for a jobs guarantee.

      ISDS provisions support the latter, with an upside that you can claim whatever profit you can put to paper. But that becomes inflationary.

      1. craazyman

        I was thinking that Merv Griffin started Jeopardy in the 1960s even. The contestants used to share winnings, it wasn’t winner take all. Then according to Wikipedia:

        Before 1984, all three contestants received their winnings in cash (contestants who finished with $0 or a negative score received consolation prizes). This was changed in order to make the game more competitive, and avoid the problem of contestants who would stop participating in the game, or avoid wagering in Final Jeopardy!, rather than risk losing the money they had already won.[17] From 1984 to 2002, non-winning contestants on the Trebek version received vacation packages and merchandise, which were donated by manufacturers as promotional consideration. The current cash consolation prize is provided by Aleve


        Tha’ts incredible! Even Jeopardy became a neoliberal paradise.

        You can’t make this stuff up. Aleve gives the consolation prize! Oh man

  12. jef

    Competitiveness by definition suggests a fair and level playing field. There has not been a level playing field for a very long time and perhaps never.

    I thing what is mistaken for competitiveness is that ever so ugly misinterpretation of Darwin “dog eat dog” which becomes win by any means possible…nothing competitive about it.

    When ever I have pointed this out throughout my life I have been accused of being a sore loser. Ha!

  13. Sound of the Suburbs

    If people wanted fair competition we would live in a meritocracy.

    What does a meritocracy look like?

    1) In a meritocracy everyone succeeds on their own merit.

    This is obvious, but to succeed on your own merit, we need to do away the traditional mechanisms that socially stratify society due to wealth flowing down the generations. Anything that comes from your parents has nothing to do with your own effort.

    2) There is no un-earned wealth or power, e.g inheritance, trust funds, hereditary titles

    In a meritocracy we need equal opportunity for all. We can’t have the current two tier education system with its fast track of private schools for people with wealthy parents.

    3) There is a uniform schools system for everyone with no private schools or universities.

    As the children of the wealthy wouldn’t be able to succeed on a level playing field we can’t have one.

    I believe in capitalism because fair competition means the best and most efficient succeed.

    I send my children to private schools and universities because I want my own children at the top and not the best.

    Human nature leads to crony capitalism, we don’t like fair competition.

    1. Adam Eran

      Actually, Darwin wasn’t all that keen on competition. His Origin of the Species mentions love and cooperation far more often. I think it was Spencer whose morbid worldview was that the fittest are who survive (not the most barbaric).

      …Which reminds me of Milton Friedman’s model of consumption: Four flavors. I spend my money on myself, and get exactly what I want at a good price. I spend my money on someone else, and may or may not get what they want, but probably get a good price. I spend someone else’s money on me, and get exactly what I want, price is no object (Rodeo Drive shops). I spend someone else’s money on someone else (welfare) and all bets are off about whether the price or goods/services is right.

      What Friedman can’t explain away is that a private pool costs tens of thousands of dollars, while a public pool costs only a few cents annually from each citizen, and is probably more fun to play in.

  14. Left in Wisconsin

    Maybe I’m missing something but I don’t get what people are seeing in this piece. There is nothing new or particularly neoliberal about capitalism and competition.

    competitiveness had become one of the great unquestioned virtues of contemporary culture, especially in the UK. Unquestioned? Really?

    The basic delusion of (neoclassical) economics is the notion that winners are deserving because they won a fair competition. Real capitalists know better, which is why they spend so much effort trying to corner markets, entrench advantage, buy politicians, etc. But many intellectuals are pretty easy to buy off. Which I guess makes other intellectuals see this marriage of convenience between capitalists and rightwing intellectuals as a society-wide phenomenon. These people need to get out more.

    1. Left in Wisconsin

      To maybe clarify, this piece seems to be arguing that the rationalization (ideology) is the problem, whereas I would argue that the problem is that nation-states both are increasingly unable to regulate global corporations and also have been captured by them.

    2. Raven on a Coyote

      I agree with you, but I want to point out “fair competition” in capitalism is also a myth. Because what does that even mean? Does that mean we all start off the same? If we all start off the same, would it not always lead to a tie? Ow, my brain.

      Capitalism will never allow “fair competition” because the individual with the most capital always has the upper hand. It has an inherit unfairness. In fact, it celebrates unfairness. It is authoritarian and only leads to the promotion of authoritarian people.

      The reason why I said it was all Darwin’s fault is that his theory enabled the creation of the social competition myth. Economics is a social construct, not a biological one, and humans use it to exploit each other.

      1. Katharine

        The reason why I said it was all Darwin’s fault is that his theory enabled the creation of the social competition myth.

        But displaced peasants and other workers in England had been viciously exploited for decades before the publication of the Origin, so it’s hardly fair to blame Darwin because his theory provided Spencer with a new way to rationalize the process. And the history of enslavement of Africans goes back centuries further, and relied on different specious rationalizations, mostly religious. Unfortunately a lot of ideas intrinsically neutral or good can be twisted to harmful purposes. The fault doesn’t lie in the original idea in that case but in its misapplication, and perhaps in the intellectual laziness of those who accept the distortion uncritically.

        1. Municoin

          “Darwin’s fault is that his theory enabled the creation of the social competition myth.”
          Is this theory yours?

    3. YankeeFrank

      What you’re missing is the notion firmly implanted that competition, winners and losers, has become the defining trait of our society. Those who lose deserve nothing, those who win deserve everything. Our society didn’t always use this as its operating principle. After WWII, when it was clear that the “common man” won the war, and socialist principles were dominant among the working classes, we saw clearly that we needed to carry each other and that while competition had its place, it could not be the prime directive for a civilized society. Then labor was crushed, greed was promoted as good, and competition became the (false) mantra alongside meritocracy, as if those who don’t “win” don’t deserve healthcare, food or shelter. And that is the edifice that is crumbling before our eyes, whoever and however this ridiculous election for figurehead turns out.

      1. Left in Wisconsin

        I don’t buy it. What has changed is that our politics, and I think this holds for the UK, reflects even less than it used to the will of the people. All the polling suggests a clear majority of Americans are in favor of a strong safety net, higher minimum wage, easier unionization, etc. And that is despite virtually no positive presentation of these issues in politics or the MSM.

        I’m not sure I buy the notion of “our society,” much less that is has one defining trait. But if majority opinion defines it, the majority does not subscribe to unconstrained competition, no matter how much it is dressed up.

        1. YankeeFrank

          Oh I don’t think we disagree. Its not the people pushing this ideology at all. But that doesn’t mean its not shaping our economic and political landscape all the same. The takeover of all mass media, most of academia, the legal and political systems by neoliberal ideology has created a complete disconnect between the bottom 90-95% and the top. It won’t last much longer but it has been incredibly destructive all the same.

  15. JimTan

    I agree that ‘competition’ requires a winner and a loser which is a zero sum outcome and very different from cooperation.

    Ironically there are many very large companies that are currently profiting from anti-competitive practices including monopolies (google, pharma companies with off-patent drugs, big banks, monsanto), government subsidies (defense contractors, all healthcare, construction/engineering companies, solar companies, tesla), ignoring laws (banks, pharma, uber, airbnb, amazon, walmart), exclusive contracts, legislative protections and exploiting connections. If everyone in a game follows the same set of rules then a game is competitive, if everyone in a game does not follow the same set of rules then a game is anti-competitive. Competition selects and rewards the best players and ideas. Anti-Competition selects and rewards those most adept at rigging the game.

    I suspect much of the appalling degree of inequality that exists today is specifically related to Anti-Competition or rigging the game.

    We’re not in at some Darwinian apex where companies are the most competitive and innovative they have ever been in history. It’s actually shocking how little meaningful innovation has been brought to consumers over the last few years. In the 1990’s innovation included the Internet, Mobile Telephones, CDs/DVDs, Java & Linux, Mapping the Human Genome, and Cloned Sheep. In the 2000’s innovation included (Film-Less) Digital Cameras, Touch Screen Computers and Telephones, Commercial GPS, Wireless Data Networks, Text Messaging, USB Flash Drives, and Handheld Devices with Hard Drives (iPod/iPhone). From 2010-2016 innovation has included the Cloud (storing files on someone else’s hardware), and CRISPR Cas9 (a ground genomic technique). This lack of recent innovation is not a sign we’ve reached some competitive high point that requires unequal rewards. We’ve more likely reached an anti-competitive high point that requires restoration of proper competition.

    1. LifelongLib

      As you say, “game” usually implies a fixed set of rules for all players, which can only be changed if all the players agree (and players have the option of not playing if they don’t agree). But if at a certain point in the game you become entitled to change the rules in a way that most other players can’t, it isn’t really a game anymore, especially if players who don’t agree are forced to play anyway.

    1. FluffytheObeseCat

      And ‘Trump is an Oli-snark’. A yuge, bee-you-tiful, joke played upon us all.

  16. Robert Hahl

    Money is a weapon. At most times, but more obviously since the end of the Breton Woods system, our ruling factions have had the power to create all the money they needed essentially at will. This fact tends to cause labor parties everywhere to abandon their constituents and chase all that beautiful new money.

    The Left is apt to loose in any financial crisis because it depends on formal employment relationships. High unemployment makes it hard to strike (too many potential scabs) while those who are still employed usually need their jobs, and are quick to abandon all principles under threat of dismissal. Frightened workers support the Right because it has (or will be given) new money as needed, even though many people on the right are ruined and betrayed during the crisis. The Marshall Plan was a good example of this pattern.

    People in the west instinctively know these things and try not get into fights that they can’t win short of total war, especially considering that whoever wins such a war is likely to start doing the same thing anyway. Again, the Marshall Plan is a good example.

    A old saying which I don’t hear much anymore is, “If you can’t beat em, join em.” I think that is what explains the move toward competitiveness in all things. The Right won’t have it any other way, while having enough money to make it so.

  17. TG

    Kudos. Well said! Struck the spike square and true!

    It’s as if we were to allow someone to hit you in the head and steal your wallet – and if you complain, why, it’s your fault for not being strong enough to defend yourself. Or allowing a theif to break into your house and steal your food – it’s your fault for not investing in better locks. And if an oligarch bribes a politician to let him simply steal from the public treasury, well, it’s the fault of the public for not outbidding the oligarch. Utter incoherent rubbish.

  18. nothing but the truth

    as krugman says, “it is not about morality”.

    exactly. That is the problem.

    morality is the human compass. Without that you will have arbitrary rules made by the powerful to suit themselves.

  19. nothing but the truth

    the pie of 100 gets divided between landlords, capitalists (owners) and labour.

    now tell me, from this fundamental axiom, when competitiveness has happened, how does the distribution of the production change?

    We can see from history that the surplus goes more and more to landlords as rising land (real estate) prices relative to other actors in the political economy. This is well known and pointed out by Smith, Henry George and others before economists become a “consultant class” whose job was to obfuscate the reality.

  20. joel

    Competitiveness and the ubiquitous ranking system feed on each other but I think the ranking system comes first, competition being the means of finding one’s place in the hierarchy.

    It starts early. I don’t know at what age an infants begins to hear how they are being evaluated, usually in positive terms at that age. When school starts it all becomes clear, you are living in a hierarchy that knows no limits. Every aspect of your person is evaluated, by the big people and your peers alike. We see the results of that pressure every day in the papers.

    In all the media no announcement is made without an accompanying ranking of whatever or whoever.

    Criteria may very but the ranking is always there, everywhere. What is wrong with us”

  21. Jeremy Grimm

    This post bothers me. I think the author is chasing after a red herring. Competitiveness as a virtue has definitely been promoted and widely adopted in our culture. So is a belief that global warming is hoax and smoking has no relationship with the chance of having lung cancer. The difference is that assertions about competitiveness are much more assertions about ideology and much more difficult to compellingly refute in an echo chamber owned by those promoting the competitiveness ideology.

    A phrase from Bill Domhoff’s lecture “The Triumph of the Corporate Rich and How They Succeeded”, posted on his website, captures what I believe is the larger truth: “it’s not about profits — it’s about power.” [– paraphrase I’m too lazy to chase down the exact quote] In spite of the widespread glorification of competition among us proles our elite disdain from competition among themselves and go to lengths to stifle outside competition wherever they find it.

    Focus on the glorification of competition blurs focus on the root causes of its promotion.

    1. Cat Burglar

      Divide et Impera!

      It is exactly about power. Alfie Kohn, in his useful book, No Contest: the Case Against Competition, called “Mutually Exclusive Goal Attainment” the essence of competition — there is an act of exclusion by some authority (often in masquerade as “scarcity”) at the base of it. Kohn’s book is great because the argues, based mainly on psychological and sociological research, that none of the popularly-believed benefits of competition in education, social settings, or work, actually exist, and that it constrains almost every human activity.

      One of my favorite examples of counterproductive competition between divisions within a business is a study of return on net assets in the aeropspace industry as a performance metric for determining which divisions to outsource.
      You end up shifting costs to the remaining departments, which you then outsource because of their poorer return on net assets, losing profitability along the way, until — voila! — all you can afford to do is put your sticker on the 100% outsourced jet. It must have been a diabolically fun paper to write, and made Boeing executives look stupid in public when they had to answer questions about it.

      You’re right about paying attention power relations behind the glorification of competition, but consider that it is an excellent opportunity to reveal and debunk power (and make fun of it!). Because it doesn’t work for us, and it doesn’t work in its own terms.

      I always tell people competition is fine with me — as long as it is voluntary. “Hey, you can’t make the rules!” Who says so? Then discussion can begin.

      1. Cat Burglar

        My bad. Here, I hope is a link to Hart’s paper on outsourcing as the key to subcontractor profits.

    2. Jeremy Grimm

      I didn’t read Left in Wisconsin’s comments above. I should have attached to that thread. Sorry.

  22. MyLessThanPrimeBeef

    It all starts in the kindergarten.

    “Mary is the best. She never falls asleep during my class.”

    And the race is on.

    “I am afraid I have to fail you in Anthropology 101, even though you scored a 100 on your final exam. You SHARED your test with the girl next to you.”

    No sharing – the implicit lesson from the professor.

    “Yeah, I got a 4.0 GPS. I have beaten all of my competing class mates. I will be going to a tuition free elite-university, to further beat up new competing class mates, so, one day, I can be a billionaire hedge fund manager, after I get my MBA.”

    “It’s not my fault they are not as smart as me. Why should I share with them my get-ahead-in-life brilliant ideas? Our society worships those individuals credited with new brilliant ideas. And it will be MY idea.”

  23. Sluggeaux

    I think that all ideology is driven by the material environment and simply adapts to reality. The ideology of “competitiveness” is simply a reflection of current world historical conditions.

    Three material factors are driving change in our world: technology, globalization, and over-population. All of these factors are driving down the cost – and value – of labor. “Competitiveness” is simply code for the fact that labor must compete globally. When a Congolese grateful for pennies a day is capable of mechanized and computerized factory work, and containerized cargo mega-ships can deliver her production anywhere on the planet within a few weeks, North American and West European labor is no longer “competitive.”

    For example, I suspect that many who voted for the Brexit were aware of the problem of globalization, and would like to wall-off their island nation from the rest of the world. However, they are over-populated as well, and England and Wales couldn’t feed themselves without trade – or the expulsion of a substantial portion of their population. Likewise “Islamic Extremism” seems to be driven by competition for scarce resources in over-populated regions.

    It is diminishing natural resources being devoured by a world population that has quadrupled in most of our lifetimes that has created the “Titanic lifeboat” ideology of the 1%, which rejects any notion of “fairness” or “equality” in favor of champagne and caviar until First Class rows away from the foundering liner, leaving the rest to drown in the night.

    1. Jeremy Grimm

      I disagree with your analysis.

      Technology does not foster competitiveness. Keynes worried about our cultural ability to handle the leisure it could have provided us.

      Globalization is a catch phrase for a bundle of techniques used to foster even more “competition” in the labor forces of the world to drive down the power of labor.

      Overpopulation is a policy of governments and religions for ancient reasons.

      Yes — we are running out of resources and time to change to better ways. Those who rule the world — not us — do not worry about the future. Corporate persons feel neither pain, nor remorse. They are not really a part of the real world they are destroying.

      The elite may not even know their children — let alone worry overmuch about their futures.

      1. Sluggeaux

        Technology has not only made spreading production to the hinterlands easier, it has contributed to the ability to sustain enormous population growth that John Maynard Keynes could never have imagined. More babies survive to adulthood, more mothers survive child-bearing to have more children, fewer succumb to starvation and disease and live longer lives. Over-population is not simply a policy choice of governments or religions. It is individuals who choose to breed, for a variety of motives.

        As for our cultural ability to handle the “leisure” (mass unemployment) fostered by technology, globalization, and over-population, I’m sure that Trump and Clinton think that the solution is an X-Box and a bag of weed for all. Unfortunately, the Michael Browns of this new leisure class will want more control of their lives than playing X-Box and smoking out, and so the forces of authority have had to come up with other ideas about how to handle the new leisure class.

        The elite may not be worried about their children, but they worry about themselves.

        1. Jeremy Grimm

          I read this as the core of your argument:
          “all ideology is driven by the material environment and simply adapts to reality.”
          “Three material factors are driving change in our world: technology, globalization, and over-population. All of these factors are driving down the cost – and value – of labor. “Competitiveness” is simply code for the fact that labor must compete globally.”

          As to your other points the three causes for increasing competitiveness you identify I view as the creation of powers whose interests were to increase and justify “competitiveness” in order to “drive down the cost – and value – of labor.” I view them as deliberate creations of a power elite intent on driving down the cost and value of labor. The ideology of competitiveness is a creation of this same power elite — not an idea somehow solidifying from the material environment and reality.

          As for some of your other arguments which I left alone: Brexit does not mean Britain can no longer engage in trade as your concern about food would seem to suggest. I’ve seen the argument about resource limitations leading to the “Islamic Extremism” but cannot regard that as more than one of many causes. And I rather doubt the diminishing natural resources caused the 1% to reject “fairness” in favor of their “champagne and caviar.” The 1% were rejecting “fairness” long before anyone noticed “diminishing natural resources.”

          Your response to my initial disagreement really confuses me. I agree with everything you said in your response but I fail to connect your responses to the point of my disagreement with you.

          I disagree most strongly with your assertion at the head of your arguments that all idealogy is driven by the material environment and adapts to reality. I can’t argue against your assertion because I don’t understand what it means. I don’t like it because it suggests ideology mysteriously happens because of material environment and reality. I prefer to imagine mysterious actors creating and promoting an ideology with a deliberate intent — actors like the people who bombard us with their concepts of competitiveness — the neoliberals, their think tanks and their professors of economics — all beholden to the power elite who pay their salaries publish their writings and pump their speech over our airways. I feel slightly less hopeless contending with neoliberals than trying to wrestle the material environment or “reality.”

          In short I agree with the greater part of your end conclusions but find great objection to your premises. Forgive me if I’ve beaten this horse past the point — I have too much time on my hands.

          1. Sluggeaux

            While you were writing, I was on a boat out over the Monterey Canyon observing Blue, Humpback, and Sei Whales, the largest creatures on the planet. Incredible and majestic. I believe that the over-used phrase is “awesome.” Seeing those enormous creatures in the vastness of the ocean, the land obscured by a thick fog, reminded me of the insignificance of human beings and of our schemes. These mighty whales were hunted by my ancestors to near extinction, but perhaps to them we are nothing but a nasty parasite.

            Living near the ocean probably explains why I take the dim view that I do of human agency and of our schemes to hoard resources for ourselves. I hope that this reply helps us to understand one another!

            1. Norb

              I once had the same experience looking out an airplane window, contemplating the revealed vastness. It was the acknowledgement of human insignificance when compared to the expanse of nature. It was a thought that whatever we do as humans to destroy this natural environment, the planet was too vast for us to completely destroy. We can easily destroy enough to drive humanity into extinction, but life generally would survive and carry on. A very melancholy moment, but in an ironic sense very hopeful too.

              The power felt by the human psyche in transforming nature will be our undoing if not directed away from self congratulating hubris. We are not Gods. We are part to the chain of being and at best stewards.

              Humble defenders of the earth. The future needs a broader vision, a broader narrative. Striving to become an isolated individual, dedicating ones life to a particular professional class, mastering an isolated skill in order to make money to provide for life needs, is the surest way to oblivion. A life that cannot be contemplated in any deep manner.

  24. Jeremy Grimm

    The race is on between us proles. I don’t have inside knowledge having been “trained” in our public school system. C. Wright Mills argued that our “elite” class gets a very different training.

  25. Ulysses

    For some reason this conversation puts me in mind of J.K. Rowling:

    “I chose to remain a domiciled taxpayer for a couple of reasons. The main one was that I wanted my children to grow up where I grew up, to have proper roots in a culture as old and magnificent as Britain’s; to be citizens, with everything that implies, of a real country, not free-floating ex-pats, living in the limbo of some tax haven and associating only with the children of similarly greedy tax exiles.

    A second reason, however, was that I am indebted to the British welfare state; the very one that Mr Cameron would like to replace with charity handouts. When my life hit rock bottom, that safety net, threadbare though it had become under John Major’s Government, was there to break the fall. I cannot help feeling, therefore, that it would have been contemptible to scarper for the West Indies at the first sniff of a seven-figure royalty cheque. This, if you like, is my notion of patriotism. On the available evidence, I suspect that it is Lord Ashcroft’s idea of being a mug.”

    Now of course one could argue that Rowling might have done more good by evading the taxes, some of which undoubtedly funds warmongering by the U.K. government, and lavishly funding an anarcho-syndicalist commune in the North– to show the way to a brighter tomorrow. Nonetheless, I still admire her staunch refusal to heed the advice of an army of Ayn Randian suits in her employ, all of whom were aghast that she refused to act like the “winner who takes all,” and shares none.

    1. Skip Intro

      One could also argue that taxes don’t actually pay for government spending, and even if they did, deficits only impact social spending, never ‘defense’ budgets.

    1. MyLessThanPrimeBeef

      Will he work with a president Trump to get it done in Congress?

      Is bipartisanship still possible?

  26. blacky

    Very interesting post.

    “condemns the majority of spaces, people and organizations to the status of ‘losers’. ”

    One thing I would change would be to add the cult of personal responsibility to this conceptual framework. Nowadays, winning and losing is always deserved and therefore empathy need not apply.

    That’s how we’ve arrived where feeding the poor and healing the sick are no longer obvious positives. Crazy ayn rand would be so proud.

  27. KPL

    This is a great piece. A competitive society will ultimately leave a world of small haves and many havenots. I feel the moment competitiveness leaves the corporate space and moves to social space, it creates havoc. In the corporate space it (without interference from governments and regulators and same laws applying to all (Yeah, I know it is a dream:-)) enables better products and services and it should be welcome, otherwise it will lead to exploitation of customers.

    When the competitiveness descends on society, then we have to necessarily end up being cannibals (cooperation… what is it?)to become successful (as per definition of society), as there is always someone to eat up unless you are Bill Gates. May be it makes sense to remember Mahatma Gandhi, who is supposed to have said, “Even if you win the rat race, you are still a rat.”

    I do not know how this can change as it has been brought about over a period of time. But IMO, families can show the way. They show middle finger to the media and society’s way of defining success and define it for themselves and lead a happy, contented life.

    1. Norb

      24/7/360 , MSM broadcasts the language and images justifying the corporate worldview. The citizenry is immersed in corporate propaganda. Using the language of community to describe the important values of life is necessary for anything to change. Shutting down the propaganda and showing the middle finger indeed.

      As you note, the family is the basic support structure in life. When the mind is refocused on this fact, by the language and images of community, a sense of agency and purpose can be cultivated. That language must be focused on the disastrous consequences of capitalism as the larger organizing structure outside the family. If the elite are allowed to redirect individual effort into relationships that strengthen and maintain the underlying corporate structure, the basic power relationship will not change. Individuals and families will always be operating at a disadvantage relative to their larger corporate masters. A reprieve from misery might be granted, but it will only be temporary because the underlying worldview is not one of unity. It is conquest and exploitation.

      Seeing the dangers that capitalism poses to life on this earth and building new structures from the bottom up is the hope for the future. This is clearly seen once one turns away form the propaganda machine. When the language and images supporting the worldview that we, all living things on this planet, are interconnect and reliant on one another for survival prevails, balance in the world can be restored.

      Middle fingers and rejection is a start. Followed by cultivating empathy and cooperation. Learning how to live this way is a process.

  28. low integer

    A concise piece, with which I am in total agreement. By “winning” and then rigging the game, you can be a “winner” forever![1] Yay!

    [1] For the low, low price of your soul.

  29. dk

    At a key moment in the history of neoliberal thought, its advocates shifted from defending markets as competitive arenas amongst many, to viewing society-as-a-whole as one big competitive arena.

    Hmm. What if that wasn’t just a change of thinking on the part of neoliberals (and/or oligarchs)? What if that actually changed? The lending boom of the 90’s and 00’s suppressed the signal of the feedback circuit, by which people (of a set of classes) know they couldn’t afford things past some cost ceiling. The perceived suddenness of the lowering of that ceiling (from disappearance of credit, disappearance of jobs and small private capital, and the cost of bailouts) caused a great shock and reassessment, and political skepticism burgeoned. I saw this in poll results, but the political class ignored it for nearly a decade. I also saw it in marketing, in people’s school/career goals, in the investments of the super-wealthy (food, water… hmm). All of these things operate in the same world, they respond to the same pressures; economic (class) isolation is subjective.

    Not to say that neoliberal thought didn’t shift, of course it did. Everybody’s thought shifted… well, at least everybody that had to spend a lot of time and energy to maintain their socio-economic standing. That’s poor people, and the more aggressive social climbers. If you were economically comfortable in the month-to-month and year-to-year senses, and you weren’t an aggressive climber, you’d be looking elsewhere (the latest buzz in one’s field) and not pick up on it immediately, or at least not see it as systemic.

    Davis seems to think (along with many here), that competitiveness as the primary economic/social attribute is a fiction of the politicians and oligarchs. What if it’s a consequence of population, at least in part? That would mean that it’s not just a fiction, and that it can’t be eliminated (or even controlled) by mere conceptual juggling or philosophical reorientation. I remember wondering about this as a little kid, being forced into metrics that had nothing to do with my skills, so that I could “acheive” (the old word for “compete”), but everybody else seemed blase about it; didn’t they realize they were being constrained to a limited range of options, the prelude to competition? Now the population has doubled, and the pressure seems to have increased so significantly that it appears on more and more local scales (defunding of government and institutions which forces service departments to compete with each other for funds, increased competition for jobs despite low wages, etc).

    Also, (Davies may go into this in his book) “competitive” requires conforming, in order to fit into the competitive arena one must operate under the arena’s rules. Companies like Google and Uber may disrupt an existing revenue flow, but they’re still operating within the revenue paradigm; they have to to get revenue benefits; their disruptions are localized. Of course, repeated disruptions alter the arena’s rule set, and this drift leads to a drastically altered economic scenario, with theoreticians playing catch-up.

    The discovery that, if you cut a ‘winner’ enough slack, eventually they’ll try to close down the game once and for all, should throw our obsession with competitiveness into question.

    Lessons, history, doom, repetition… Actually, I think that the middle class perquisites are so distracting that people are lulled into letting things roll on without involvement or oversight.

    1. Skip Intro

      And why didn’t the game of ‘Musical Chairs’ we played as children allow sitting on laps?

  30. I Have Strange Dreams

    A very good book which analyses the intellectual history of neoliberalism and its survival of the crash of 2008 is Philip Mirowski’s Never Let a Serious Crisis Go to Waste. He talks about the neoliberal ‘double truth’ concept: there is one version of the truth, e.g. competition, for the proles, and another version of the truth for the golden circle – e.g. promote the myth of competition for the proles while cooperating to ensure that there is no competition to the Neoliberal Thought Collective – TINA.

  31. Ep3

    My reading comprehension did not fully gather the information I expected from this article. I found it to be more a “tease” to encourage us all to purchase the authors book.
    Yes, the author does have a grasp on what neoliberalism is. Yet, I think competition is only half of it; the other half being consumerism.
    So in essence, there are several providers of a product or service. They are in competition for the consumers dollar. Thus the new form of democracy within neoliberalism is voting with your dollars. The president only listens to those voices that scream loudest with their dollars. I would gather a guess that police organizations donate more to political campaigns than do “black lives matter” or the black population in general. Therefore he sees, thru competition, that then police organizations must be correct. And thru the articles authors words, those dollars must have competed somewhere at some different times, and won, only to have their voices loudest.
    Going back to the authors topic, to agree with him, I see a tremendous amount of this competition with school children. They have to compete for the best grades; they have to sign up for extra-curricular activities where in them they compete to be the best so that, turning back to school they can compete for the best colleges, so they can compete for the best grades so they can compete for the best jobs. And this is where the author makes the final connection. Neoliberalism tries to sell us a story that they will make for an equal playing field, which is not true. Actually I take that back. The playing field has two courts; one for the 1% where they all are privileged and protected, and another for the rest of us where the rules are like the Wild West.
    Now maybe the author says this in his book, but I believe that competition is a good thing for all of us. But the competition should not be between each of us (this concept gets into another topic, that while we are all competing against each other, distracted from what’s going on in the world, the 1% are picking our pockets clean), the competition should be inside ourselves. I should compete with myself to make myself the best me possible. I should hold myself accountable for my actions and how they will affect my life. I should not goto work and just “go thru the motions”. I should not just go vote in November and then sit on my couch for 4 years and complain at the tele. (this could lead me to talk about how religion affects a lot of people to be complacent because “when we all get to heaven what a paradise it will be”, so that I should just accept the misery I live in because things will be better when I am dead. But I wish to wrap up).

  32. Russell

    As a poet sinking for clear impacts of common words as ideal representations I found the article introducing his book great.

  33. Mark Panzieri

    What if the frame in which these human constructs (market, competition, liberalism etc.) are analysed is entirely the wrong one to begin with?

    I remember a thread here in NC, during the time in which Varoufakis was in power in Greece, in which the technical problems of leaving the euro were discussed. The main point was: it is not realistically possible to update all the electronic financial systems (banks, ATMs, etc.) by adding the dracma in a reasonably short time, therefore any plan based on such a change is only an interesting academic excercise, at best, a recipe for financial disaster at worst.

    Which, naturally, suggests Greek people (and by extension any other people or nation in the so called first world) can be held hostage without even having to wield a gun at anybody menacingly, because …that is the way it is, nobody can change it, apparently, without provoking major disruptions in the life of the masses. The effects would be a few order of magnitute less intense than dropping a nuke on Athens, but it would still be horrible.

    Yet, as no laws of physics are involved in this reified thing we call “the market” and its infrastructure, claiming that the Large Hadron Collider is going to turn the planet into a black is probably a more sensible nonsense than claiming that changing the infrastructure of the financial system is going to destroy the economy as we know it. Yet, many seem to be far more scared by the notion of tweaking with the financial system than by tweaking with the underlying forces that govern the physical universe.

    That suggest to me we are, again, scared of some god, some deity, something we do not entirely understand but whose presence is immanent, whose power is undisputed, but entirely misterious and unknown to us. We tremble at the idea of what another financial crisis might cause. We are admonished not to mess with the market forces, for they are mighty. We even bow before the complexity of managing an ATM system.

    What eventually undermined (and is still undermining) all the world religion was a few thousand years of discoveries which called into question the ability of the priest to provide an explanation for how the world work. As a consequence, many of the now abandoned moral codes were overturned or questioned because the authority of the sources of those moral codes (which are necessarily human) was put into question. Similarly, the authority of the various priests of the market ideologies are now more than ever under question, because some cracks are showing.

    Yet, are we looking at the right cracks? If the underlying authority is held in a financial system, too complex to be changed without disruption, should we be spending our time debating the dilemma of how societies and markets ought to work according to our models, or should we instead look at the minor cracks, such as the discovery that …no, you cannot put back the dracma in the system without, say, starving one million people.

    How would you, for instance, analyse the minor crack that shows, say, that LED light can indeed last for many thousand hours, but that the transformers and components that are needed to operate one fail a lot faster? That is of no consequence, of course, to a large theoretical discussion, but that hard evidence alone is enough to utterly destroy the commercial claim that LED light are money savers.

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