Paul's Internet Landfill/ 2015/ Capitalism as Cooperation

Capitalism as Cooperation

Some of the fonder impressions I have of high school took place during high school English class. As usual, I recall emotions much better than the details, but my recollection is that we had to form groups to present great works of literature for the class. At one point we had to analyze great plays and then give a mini-lecture about them; I vaguely remember something by Ibsen (Ghosts? A Doll's House?) but I can't remember whether this assignment was the one that initiated the competition. I definitely remember our play unit as culminating in the hilariously ridiculous film adaptation Fatal Fury Under the Elms, so it could have well been the same phenomenon.

Being coerced into group presentations is nothing unusual when you are incarcerated in high school. Anxiously obsessing over grades is nothing unusual either, especially among the enchanted (aka "enhanced") courses. Many of us obsessively chased high marks so we would get into good universities so we wouldn't ruin our lives so we wouldn't end up homeless on the street. (I'll leave it to the Gentle Reader to judge how well that strategy worked in my case. HINT: not well.) So there was nothing particularly unusual about this assignment in English class. What was unusual was the magic. The first groups presented their plays, and they were pretty good. As the presentations went on, they became more entertaining and more elaborate. Usually, classroom presentations were boring and uninformative; I started looking forward to these ones. I felt a compulsion to make sure our presentation was as high quality as the presentations before ours. But unlike other projects I was not motivated by anxiety over getting a low mark; I was motivated to produce something entertaining, so that I could contribute back to the class some of the same enjoyment I had received. I wanted to keep the streak of good presentations going. I was not out to make the previous presentations look bad; I wanted to make ours look good. In my mind (but maybe nobody else's) it was a kind of friendly competition in which we collectively strived for greatness, that we were doing good work because the people around us were also doing good work.

The unit ended because high school incarceration is organized into units that prevent inmates from building momentum in anything. The magic ended as well; I do not remember that feeling of magical friendly competition occurring again. There were other competitions, of course; I famously melted down during every programming competition even though I enjoyed working on programming competition problems. But the other competitions were not magical.

Part of the reason I am being so garrulous about trying to describe these feelings is that I find it difficult to distinguish the feeling of friendly competition (in which we compare our work to others so we can individually do better and improve everybody's lot) the hope of doing better and improving the whole) unfriendly competition (in which the goal is to "beat the other guy"). These concepts are near enemies because they are so easily confused; one way to "beat the other guy" is to do better work than the other guy, which improves the whole. But a different way to "beat the other guy" is to sabotage the other guy's work, so that our work looks better in comparison. In unfriendly competition sabotage is a tempting strategy; in friendly competition it is off-limits.

Now consider capitalism. Capitalism is all about competition; individual firms act in their own self interest to generate profit, and magically society as a whole benefits. Business people are always talking about market share and beating their competitors. They complain about the cutthroat tactics their competition engage in, and defend their own cutthroat tactics as being necessary for survival. Sometimes business people tut-tut over especially abhorrent tactics, but tactics like engaging in price wars or buying up competition to dissolve their firms are seen as perfectly legitimate. This conceptualization of capitalism nauseates me, because I am particularly ill-suited to competition. My anxious monkey-mind sabotages me by comparing my performance in competitions against everybody else's. When I am ahead I start gloating and becoming obnoxious. When I am behind I feel dejected and give up. I have never done well in team sports. I despise all of the "hackathons" companies put on where people are supposed to code up a world-changing app in a weekend, because the pressure is too intense and because I work so slowly that I can never keep up with the pace of development.

These conceptions of competition feel very similar to capitalism to me, and so I have avoided working for capitalist firms. As a result I have been stuck in the nonprofit sector, which is wearing thin. Nonprofit organizations chase after dollars just as aggressively as capitalist ones, and there other ugly aspects to that world.

The stupid thing about characterizing capitalism as endless competitive conflict is that this characterization misses large swathes of what makes capitalism work. Real organizations function better when people trust each other as coherent units; without that trust people feel suspicious of each other, sabotage each other's work, and spend a great deal of energy deciding whether particular transactions will work out in their favour or against it. That is remarkably inefficient. It leads to toxic workplaces and toxic interactions. Employers go out of their way to avoid hiring untrustworthy people. There is an entire industry of management books dedicated to making teams more cohesive and trustworthy; that completely belies the myth that every employee is a capitalist actor selfishly maximizing their individual good even at the expense of others.

Similarly, capitalist organizations work hard to establish trust relationships with their suppliers, because finding the lowest-cost trustworthy supplier for each transaction on the open market is exhausting and risky. Maybe nine times out of ten you would get a supplier whose quality of product is "good enough", but that tenth time can sink your business.

On the consumer side, the entire field of branding is a psychological trick to make us trust certain goods and services, precisely so that we consume the brands we trust without thinking too much. When those brands let us down then we get mad, because they have betrayed our trust. Then we are forced to evaluate alternatives on the open market, which is stressful and a waste of energy.

Even companies that compete in the open market have opportunities to learn from each other and make their products better and more efficient. In that sense even competing firms are in cooperation with each other. There is no question that capitalism has managed to make us rich in material goods, and that even though those goods have some deeply troubling biases (planned obsolescence, anyone? climate change?) on the whole most of us would be reluctant to give them up. Even hippies on communes are not self-sufficient, and scramble to get the cash so they can get the capitalist market goods they cannot create themselves.

Similarly, people move to Silicon Valley (and to a lesser extent the Kitchener-Waterloo area) so they can be around other smart, motivated people. Smart motivated people push each other to make their products better, even when those people work for different (or even competing) companies.

This perception of capitalist cooperation feels to me the same way that our friendly competition from high school did; every company does the best that it can, trying to fill market niches and not obsessing over destroying the competition. Their primary motivation is to serve their buyers well while sustaining their business. That is the kind of capitalism that I could get behind. But I do not know that it can exist. For one thing, such a narrative might depend on endless growth, which in the long term is a losing strategy. Secondly, the narrative of capitalism as cutthroat competition is too strong; if my company engages in friendly competition and your company works hard to smash me by undermining my business, then your company will probably win and I will be homeless on the streets.

It makes me angry that we cannot emphasise cooperation over competition. It feels inefficient. It makes me despair for my future employment. Part of me wishes that I could participate in the capitalist economy (and reap the capitalist salary that goes with it, because money makes people happy), but I know that I am such a terrible competitor that it could never work. Any time I have ever been successful it has been when I have been able to put competition aside and focus on going through processes independent of what other people accomplish. That is how I have been able to skate, to juggle, or to take bicycle trips. But when my mind starts comparing my performance to others my performance suffers, and when other people start competing with me then I get really really upset. As a result, I am growing more and more convinced that I really am unemployable, and that once I lose my current job I will never work again.