In Defence of Competition

I’d like to argue, in a way perhaps uncharacteristic of the left, in favour of competition.  Not for blanket endorsement, but qualified recognition of the value of competition.  A basic premise to my argument is that the work of criticism, to be such, has to be concerned with differentiating the good from the bad in some area of phenomenon, according to some clear criteria.  By definition, wholesale condemnation is not critique, it is just rejection.  We learn much more about the world, and ourselves, when we try to clarify why we approve of some versions of a phenomenon, and disapprove of others.  For those in the habit condemning competition wholesale, as the pernicious effect of life under omnipresent capitalism, I hope to convince them that, on reflection, they are in fact deeply committed to competition in some of its forms, and there is value in understanding which forms and why.  Indeed, being able to do so may be the path to the most robust critique of competition.

We live in the era of ‘neoliberalism’ in which capitalist competition has indeed been ramped up, intensified, ideologically glorified.  This is especially a condition of the old Euro-American core of the capitalist world economy, where structural constraints on the realisation of profit through capital investment within those regions has created a certain heady desperation in efforts to sustain capitalist profitability.  Over-reliance on consumer debt/credit, ‘storing’ lots of un-investable value in real estate, and severe over-estimation of the capacity of a roboticised ‘knowledge economy’ to sustain widely distributed economic growth, are all symptoms of this.  My first point is simply that living in this period is likely to colour our judgement.  The one-sided and naïve glorification of competition that accompanies this condition is apt to drive one to the contrary position.  But we should think twice.

Neoliberalism as a concept is of course a characterisation of the current phase of capitalism.  Competition is one of the defining characteristics of capitalism more generally (although capitalists on the contrary, are often deeply attracted to monopoly).  But this observation, for those immersed in capitalist societies, often leads to the false assumption that capitalism is the ultimate source of all competition—that outside of capitalism, one could lead a life unburdened by competition.  There are two major reasons for doubting this assumption, one historical-comparative, the other more structural, concerning the very nature of power in complex society.

The historical-comparative argument:  The evidence of ethnology and comparative historical sociology shows us that there are no societies free of competition.  They just deal with it in different ways.  Granted in small scale, low environmental impact societies, the stakes of competition are lower because there is less to compete over, and more opportunities to deal with conflict through fission.  But even there, we find jealousies and rivalries over the fair distributions of goods and positions of prestige[i].  When we move to more large scale and complex societies, bound up with what the anthropologist Eric Wolf called tributary modes of production, long before capitalism, we find societies characterised by intense military competition between states, ideological battles between religious factions, and often violent dynastic struggles to acquire rulership.  Though the average peasant may have found their economic activity relatively prescribed and circumscribed, petty struggles over local resources were routine, and the competitions of high politics often bore down on local life.  Considering non-capitalist systems of recent times, we know that intense political struggles go on within the Ruling Parties of single-party states, and bureaucrats compete over limited resources.  In short, there is no evidence of any society free from competition.  It is true that in periods of abundance and economic expansion, competition may slacken, but such periods are not permanent, and of course are cyclically followed by contraction and intensified competition in capitalism (to wit, the neoliberal period we are in).

This leads to the second, more structural argument.  Societies always face questions of distributions of key resources and social goods.  That certain goods should be as widely distributed as possible—adequate food, health care, education, public safety, and so on—is a common view of most left-liberal thinking, and one which I share. That artificial scarcities of such goods should be opposed and counteracted, and that doing so will probably reduce levels of competition in daily life I accept and support.  I am not a champion of competition in any form, or simply for its own sake.  As much as possible, I am in favour of making people’s daily lives and pursuit of necessities stable and successful, and no more fraught by rivalry than necessary (I am a garden variety democratic socialist).  But here’s the catch.  There are some goods that by their nature, must be scarce and objects of competition, and for them not to be has dire social consequences.  My primary concern is with two of these: rule (i.e. the power to govern) and truth.

Rule:  In simple foraging and horticultural societies the power to govern, leadership, is relatively modest, often situational and challengeable, although there are tendencies towards the domination of elders and men.  But as societies grow larger and more organisationally complex tendencies towards hierarchy and chains of command become inevitable, and eventually bureaucracy becomes a dominant social form.  Complex divisions of labour with centralised direction are necessary to carry out the effective coordination and integration of complex activities.  To deny this is to subscribe to some Hayekian/libertarian fantasy about the spontaneous coordination of as much activity as possible, and inevitably leads to prioritising markets as a mode of social coordination.  Markets are not evil and can do some things well, but they can’t resolve the fundamental question of how to distribute power in society, especially when power needs to be concentrated for some purposes.  The current wave of societal responses to the spread of coronavirus Covid 19 provides a powerful illustration of the value of a well-coordinated and centralised state in responding to a collective crisis.

A classic premodern answer to the problem of rule is that a strata, an aristocracy, engages in ongoing rivalry to lay claim to the supreme position of authority in monarchy.  Whoever wins, rules.  The peculiar innovation of what became modern liberal democracy, was to transform this frequently violent competition for rule into a law-governed, institutionalised process of electoral competition.  Admittedly imperfect and frequently corrupted, nonetheless this made it possible to address the need for leadership in the modern bureaucratic state while minimising violence.  Democracy, for all its flaws, is a great achievement.  And for democracy to be democracy, organised competition for office is essential.  Positions of leadership must be constructed as artificially scare, because the nature of a governing hierarchy is that it leads to various apexes that can only be occupied by one or a few.  One valid criticism here is that while hierarchies of government bureaucracy are subject to the democratic principle of competition, the other dominant bureaucracy, the corporation, with such powerful influence on people’s lives, is much more immune.  Another is that modern democracy (especially in its present state in the US) is deeply corrupted by the power of funding, which narrows competition at the upper levels to an intra-elite struggle, which few can gain entry to.   Both these points are true.  But note, these are arguments for more, and better constructed competition, not against it.

Truth:  Since the appearance of postmodernism (and various subsequent ‘posts’) it has become fashionable to be sceptical about the idea of ‘truth’.  Avoiding the murky epistemological depths here, suffice it to say that it is much easier to reject the idea of truth, than it is to live as if there were no such thing as truth (‘It says “poison” on the bottle…but who knows?’).  For the present argument the point is that once again the refinement of knowledge depends on communities of discourse oriented to the idea that truth is a scare resource, and that truth-claims must compete.  Science and scholarship are premised on this competitive ideational structure, in which claims to truth must prove themselves and win assent, and other claims must lose out.  If truth becomes a matter of private preference, to each her/his own, these practices fall apart, having nothing to orient themselves to.

Similarly, in the wider discourse of public opinion, if the general premise of a collective struggle towards truth is lost, then public opinion becomes merely an array of siloed ‘echo chambers’, in which no refinement of common knowledge is possible.  And this is precisely the situation that we increasingly find ourselves in and that we decry—a ‘post-truth’ hall of mirrors and ‘alternative facts’.  My point here is that this sad state of affairs is due to a collapse of competition.  Significantly however, unlike democracy, where the very structure of the practice entails that political office be a scare resource, the struggle for truth in civil society offers no such constraint.  Truth claims are cheap to produce (especially with the advent of the internet) and subject to massive over-supply.  The more circumscribed and rule-governed sphere of science and scholarship, with cannons of proof, is more able to enforce the scarcity of truth, although there is internal variation.  Areas of the arts and humanities have been more receptive to ‘postmodern’ theories than supposedly ‘hard’ sciences, and are more likely to be divided around theoretical preferences than matters of substantive fact or research methods.

I have argued that ‘rule’ and ‘truth’ are of value and depend on competition for their realisation.  For the rest of this essay I’ll explore two ways of relating competition to the practice of social criticism.

The ‘game’ paradigm:  The rise to dominance of highly abstract economic science was accompanied by the refinement of ‘game theory’ which at the same time radiated out more generally into social and behavioural sciences.  The basic procedure here is to abstract all kinds of social interactions into model paradigms of competitive (and sometimes cooperative) interactions, to extract certain general rules of rational behaviour.  The approach can be seen as part of a ‘naturalisation’ of competition as a principle of social interaction.  For precisely this reason, those critical of the negative effects of intensive competition in capitalist society have often been hostile to ‘game theory’ as a kind of legitimating ideology of capitalism[ii].

I would approach it from a different angle.  If games do provide an ideal model of how competition works, as well as the problem of whether such models lose too much in their abstraction from complex social reality, there is a normative problem of how well real-world situations measure up to such abstract ideals.   Games may provide a poor estimation of reality, but a relevant criterion for the critical evaluation of real-world arrangements.  Competitive games, as the most refined enactments of competitive behaviour, are heavily conditioned by rules.  Far from being ‘natural’ they are highly artificial and constructed.  To serve their purpose of identifying ‘the best’ or ‘most skilled’ at whatever the activity in question is, the circumstances of the practice need to be highly controlled: the playing field level, the referee impartial, all starting at the same time, and so on.  This gives the lie to relationships between real world economics and politics and game theory.  If we really believe that competition should be promoted, then we must also believe that economics and politics should be as fairly structured as possible: competitors should be well-matched, hidden advantages eliminated, undue influence on judges prevented, and so on.  Again, the organisational concentrations of power in capitalist society tend to undermine competition, not promote it.  Genuine competition becomes a stringent test that real world capitalist societies struggle to measure up to[iii].

Competitive spheres:  Finally, there is another issue, which is the orientation of different forms of competition towards their proper object.  Michael Walzer argued in Spheres of Justice (1984), that questions of justice or fairness are particular to the distributional good in question, and that different spheres need to be kept separate.  Markets may be suitable for distributing consumables, but not a parent’s love for their child.  Just as distributive principles have a tendency to transgress their proper boundaries (e.g. the rich can buy favourable justice), competitive activities have a tendency to get ‘distracted’ from their proper objects, and displaced onto other proximate objects.  The competition for artistic achievement becomes a competition for celebrity; the competition for political office becomes a competition for campaign funding; the competition to advance academic knowledge becomes a competition to publish in prestige journals; the competition to provide the best product becomes a competition to maximise shareholder value.  It can require an inordinate amount of integrity to keep one’s competitive activities focused on their proper object.

In sum, a serious critique of competition will not reject it altogether, but instead identify when, where, how and why it operates to human benefit, and when it doesn’t.  It will use that knowledge to argue for social and political reform.  And in my view, properly pursued it will provide a more exacting evaluation of capitalism and liberal democracy than more utopian imaginings of a competition-free world. 


[i] See, for instance, Marjorie Shostak’s Nisa: the Life and Words of a !Kung Woman (1981), or Roger Keesing’s Elota’s Story: the Life and Times of a Solomon Islands Big Man (1978).

[ii] Although there are interesting exceptions such as the rational choice elements in the work of Michael Hechter, and Adam Przworski’s analytic Marxism

[iii] Without going into it here I acknowledge the resonances of this argument with certain strains of ordoliberal thought, although my approach looks at society as a whole, not just the economy.

Published by jshearn

Professor of Political and Historical Sociology, University of Edinburgh.

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