[OPE] competition and cooperation (was: Working Overtime Is Linked to Depression, Anxiety)

From: Jurriaan Bendien (adsl675281@tiscali.nl)
Date: Wed Jun 25 2008 - 20:59:00 EDT

I can only sketch very briefly and simply what my trend of thinking is about this complex subject. Like I say, I am still working on certain problems in this area. What I am concerned with myself primarily in this context is the dialectics of cooperation and competition, and how these are reflected in personality structure and social values. But because I am not a doctrinal-type Marxist, I think about these things not simply philosophically, but more flexibly in terms of history, archeaology, psychology, anthropology and sociobiology (the subject sociobiology per se is, I think, quite valid, but obviously it is often riddled with very false analogies between biological and social processes, and hence often ideologically biased, insofar as it naturalises and eternalises irreducably social processes which are historically contingent).

Competition of one form or another already occurs in nature, and it occurs in any kind of society. Animals already compete for territory and resources, and so on, indeed, any day now I expect to read about the animal origins of imperialism. Competition is a broad, general category of transhistorical application. Because this is so, nothing is easier than to mix up different forms of competition occurring in different times and places with forms of competition which are specific to a particular type of society. In this way, there is plenty scope for mystifying what the competition is really about.

Marx for his part intended to demonstrate that the fulcrum of competition in capitalism is specifically the battle over the unpaid surplus labour pumped out of the direct producers as surplus value - hence, the obsession of the economists with value-added statistics and with productivity, with the "produit net" of human labour. But aside from that fulcrum or pivot (the "essence" of capitalist competition, pitting one class against another, which reveals itself clearly only in critical moments) there are many more kinds of competition because, as Marx himself says, bourgeois society is effectively a bella omni contra omnes, a war of all against all, dominated by considerations of self-interest.

Yet, even if we have pictured all the forms of competition among capitalists, among capitalists and workers, and among workers, among producers and consumers, among citizens and civil servants, among nations etc. etc. this only ever provides just one half of the story. Because the other half of the story is that any society cannot exist at all, without very extensive cooperation among people, which is, incidentally, the mainspring of their socialistic inclinations. The very same economic actors who are locked in competition also have to cooperate, otherwise social and economic life breaks down. Somehow this contradiction must be mediated, morally or otherwise, as no market can exist without much non-market cooperation. This cooperation is partly coerced and partly voluntary, in other words it is partly freely chosen and partly forced on people, just as with competition. In this sense, you might picture social life as a totality which is "a contradictory unity of competition and cooperation".

The serious theoretical literature on the foundations of competition and cooperation, and how they are related, is relatively speaking extremely small, perhaps a few hundred works if that, but there is of course a very extensive literature on all kinds of particular "forms" of cooperation and forms of competition, in all sorts of contexts. Bourgeois academia can abstractly understand cooperation really only in terms of game-theoretical analyses, in which the question is, whether or not rational actors have a self-interest in cooperation or not, and for the rest, competition is regarded as a natural constant, a human constant; the idea that people are by nature cooperative, gregarious beings who like to associate, with all sorts of motives ranging fully from pure altruism to aesthetic notions to naked self-interest, is not really admitted. 

For this reason, the interrelationship between competition and cooperation is explicitly theorisable in a foundational sense really only for pre-bourgeois epochs - anthropologists and archaeologists inquire into what the motivations could have been for social behaviour, if you didn't have capital, wage labour, markets and profit. For the rest, the topic of the theory of cooperation is largely the preserve of management theory, but this provides very few universal, useful and durable generalisations. The manager has the power to say how people must cooperate, and how they must be organised, with respect to the goals of a group, but this power is never absolute and must be constantly renegotiated; it is constantly subject to change, and to shifts in the balance of power. This being so, the problem of social order also is never satisfactorily resolved - it is a perpetual puzzle "what is the "glue" that holds society together?" and reference is made to concepts such as "social cohesion" and so on.

The contradictions of competition which John McMurty mentions with reference to the Canadian game of ice-hockey are just one angle of looking at the topic, but it involves much more. Among other things, the prevailing pattern of competition and cooperation shapes up a specific morality. The basis of all morality is the (dual) social survival principle "do unto others as you would have them do unto you", and "don't do unto others as you wouldn't want them to do unto you" and according to this principle, moral codes can be drawn up, which can be rationally developed further in a legal sense, such as e.g. the idea that people are treated the same way in the same morally relevant circumstances, as a basis for consistent and predictable behaviour (integrity and trust) that can orient interactions. We can then evaluate behaviour with reference to principles and consequences. However defined, moral behaviour is always non-arbitrary behaviour (even if it is not fully explicable in purely logical terms). Truly arbitrary behaviour is non-normative, i.e. it does not follow any norm, whereas morality implies more or less consciously applying some explicable rule, norm, criterion or value, which informs a choice, preference or decision.

A social order based only on brute repression of unwanted behaviours typically does not last very long - a stable social order requires something like a shared justifying ideology which allows people to live and let live. Sociologists refer to this as "legitimation" or "conformity" or  "consent" etc. but whatever term is used, the idea is that people will voluntarily cooperate in the ways that are socially expected of them, without direct coercion. This is absolutely necessary for a social order, since it is practically impossible to codify and enforce all behaviours with rules and commands - people have to act in line with social expectations voluntarily (out of their own volition) when there are no rules or enforcible commands to say what they may or may not do, in the given context. They must, in other words, have some personal (internalised) values or morality which prioritise some behaviours over others, within a framework of freely (i.e. autonomously) made choices. 

This is discussed in detail already in classical Greek and Chinese philosophy, of course - questions arise such as "what ensures that people will naturally choose good over evil, and how do we know that". But this is a fairly idealist discussion of a social elite - the materialist discussion starts out from the empirical relations of cooperation and competition, and how these shape up a particular view of what is morally good, and what is morally bad. The ideology - which informs educational and socialization schemes, as well as legislation - is the reflex of the real relations among the people.

Characteristic of the time in which we live (postmodernity, neoliberalism or whatever), is that many traditional consensual values have broken down and power-brokers lobby to have their own values asserted. This is not simply an observation of a conservative politician, but a simple fact of life. Simply put, it is very difficult to unify the people on the basis of a clear moral code which defines what is good and bad, because there are relatively few things which can be unambiguously defined as good and bad, in such a way that everybody agrees with them. There are relatively few universally shared aspirations or exemplars beyond, perhaps, such things as the wish to live forever, security of existence, etc. This gives rise to considerable uncertainty, controversy and anxiety, since e.g. it becomes less obvious and predictable how people will act or interact, even semiotically. You cannot lead if only a few will follow. There is no longer any very clear distinction between the Left and the Right, and that distinction can often be maintained only by abstracting from everything that is vital to the discussion.

Politics in the polis then revolves around a populist search for the common denominator, and the debate is mainly about the limits of tolerance - what kinds of behaviours are tolerable, and which ones aren't. Often there is a retreat to traditional religion, which might provide the surety of fixed principles, a fixed code, but modern society displays many phenomena for which traditional religion, being traditional, has no cogent intellectual answer, with the consequence that there is also a crisis of religious authority. If people seek out an authority as a moral example or a secure power figure, it turns out that the authority hasn't much grip on its constituency and thus its pretension to authorativeness is itself questionable. But point is, this is only the surface appearance, the ideological reflex - beneath the surface are profound changes in the patterns of competition and cooperation, brought about by new technologies, new forms of commerce and new forms of organisation. These generate specific new moral crises which can obviously be understood only by reference to what the social circumstances are, that lie behind them. 

Frankly I do not really claim to truly understand what "value form" theory is about. Marx talked about the "forms of value" in the sense of increasingly more sophisticated trading relationships which contain contradictions which must be mediated somehow, giving rise to new contradictions and new forms. Typically, "value form theory" tries to deduce the social relations and institutions of bourgeois society from the contradictions of the commodity-form. But I think this attempt is not just rather scholastic, but also theoretically flawed, since many social phenomena, inherited or continued from previous epochs of society, cannot be reduced to the commodity-form, or explained in those terms - they have their origin elsewhere. 

Commerce is only one facet of society, a society which however contains many necessary processes that occurred throughout history, trade or no trade, and which cannot be easily mediated by commerce - giving rise to problems which cannot be commercially resolved. Consequently, they cannot be explained simply in terms of the laws of commerce, that would be an economistic error. Simply put, if many motivations that human beings have are non-commercial, you cannot explain them in commercial terms. If social problems were simply a question of money, they would be transparent and resolvable with money, but they aren't.

Ultimately, it seems Marxist "value form theory" is a kind of functionalism - social phenomena are explained in terms of (perhaps conflicting) functional requirements for capitalist trade and accumulation, articulated at various levels of analysis. But the first problem there, is - as any politician knows - that society has many functional requirements with respect to the perpetuation of civil or human life which have nothing directly to do with capitalist trade and accumulation. The second problem is that commercial forms are constantly negated, transformed, bypassed, subverted or resisted from a space external to those commercial forms, because human beings also have needs and interests beyond commerce. This is just to say, that bourgeois society is really always a combination of commercial and non-commercial forms of organisation and association.

This is already given in the very notion of "market expansion" (or what Marxists like to style as "commodification") - markets cannot expand, if there is no non-market region to expand to. More profoundly, the problem is that markets in and of themselves are fairly amoral - the buying and selling of wares or assets by itself does not generate or presuppose any particular operative morality, other than what is minimally required to settle transactions and financial contracts. At best you can say that some kinds of moralities are more conducive to commerce than others, or more compatible with it, and thus that commerce will reinforce or select out some, while rejecting others. But even this can be a highly problematic process, and the point remains that markets do not by themselves generate any particular moral code of their own accord. That is indeed the basis for the idea of "market freedom" - the idea that you are free to do and choose what you want, within certain very general limits defined in law. That law could obviously not exist without the state as its ultimate enforcer.

At a high level of abstraction, Marx tried to uncover the essence or basis of bourgeois society: its specific mode of producing and distributing wealth. This gives rise to a very lengthy debate on how this abstract essence can be related to the observable phenomena of bourgeois society, and how we can test all this out. What vantage point should be taken? If the essence is never observable and testable, as in Kantian transcendentalism, the theory is metaphysical, it cannot be proved, and is therefore unscientific - a philosophical interpretation, but not objective fact. 

Thus the first minimal requirement of essentialism in the scientific sense is that at least at some moment - perhaps not a "Minsky moment", but a moment nevertheless - bourgeois society really does reveal its essence observably, even if at most other times it is rather obscured. But another problem is how the mediations can be specified, which link the essence to observable phenomena, and about this there is much dispute. But the best answer to that, is that there is no one answer to that, but many - Marx's analysis can be developed further in all sorts of different directions, depending on the questions asked and the kind of subjectmatter. The mediations can, for instance, be viewed through the prism of competition and cooperation - the way those mesh or contradict each other. I find that vantage point interesting and relevant, because to my way of thinking it neatly encapsulates the essence of many modern-day dillema's.


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