The Domestication of Competition

My new book (title above) is now out with Cambridge University Press.  See:

I reproduce the description from that webpage:

Book description

Competition is deeply built into the structures of modern life. It can improve policies, products and services, but is also seen as a divisive burden that pits people against one another. This book seeks to go beyond such caricatures by advancing a new thesis about how competition came to shape our society. Jonathan Hearn argues that competition was ‘domesticated’, harnessed and institutionalised across a range of institutional spheres in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Responding to crises in traditional forms of authority (hereditary, religious), the formalisation of competition in the economy, politics, and diverse new forms of knowledge creation provided a new mode for legitimating distributions of power in the emerging liberal societies. This insightful study aims to improve our ability to think critically about competition, by better understanding its integral role, for good and ill, in how liberal forms of society work.


‘Only a scholar from social anthropology could have written this book! It locates and analyses the cultural code on which our societies depend, that of competition. It does so with skill and nuance, stressing the role played by regulation and law in ensuring social progress. This is a wholly original, path-breaking book, challenging assumptions about competition found on both the left and the right, and likely to cause a stir in many disciplines.’ — John Hall – McGill University

‘The principle and practice of competition is central for social life in modernity. It underpins the dominant political system (liberal democracy), the hegemonic economic system (capitalism) and it also permeates the cultural sphere (from fashion trends to university life). In this innovative and wide-ranging book Hearn offer a comprehensive historical sociology of this phenomenon. He explores how competition has historically been domesticated and how this process operates in the contemporary contexts. This is an excellent contribution that will influence future debates across social sciences and humanities.’ — Siniša Malešević – University College Dublin and CNAM, Paris

‘Jonathan Hearn notes that ‘competition’ is often used as a boo-word – something always to regret or despise. Against this simplistic view, Hearn shows that competition, in both nature and society, has complex forms and functions. It can be damaging, but it is often a means to spur cooperation or mutual advantage. It is not confined to markets, as competitions in sport attest. This a fascinating, rich and timely book that will transform thinking on this topic.’ — Geoffrey Hodgson – Loughborough University

Conservatism, tradition, and ‘the canon’

Increasingly in these disorienting times labels of left and right, liberal and conservative, don’t seem to mean what they used to.  I see myself as fairly tradition social democrat, supporting liberal democracy from a ‘left’ vantage point, and believing in a need for a balance between public and private power in society.  But when encountering polarised criticisms from the left and the right I find myself more ‘centrist’ than I once would have thought.  And I find myself rethinking the basis on which I stand where I do.

Originally trained as an anthropologist, it has always struck me as ironic that ‘left’ anthropology fails to recognise the Burkean conservatism that is often implied by its views.  A typical and justifiable argument has often been made that attempts to impose ‘western’ models of production, e.g. in farming, have disrupted well-established ways of doing things that have maintained ecological and economic balances.  The deleterious and disruptive effects of alien ways of doing things on all kinds of traditional practices and has been criticised.  On the one hand this is an objection to the presumption that ‘the West knows best’.  But at the same time it is an affirmation of situated traditional knowledge that has been built up over time, and been tested by long and hard experience.  This is the idea that provided the basis of Edmund Burke’s famous critique of the French Revolution, and his warning against the presumptions of rationalist revolutionaries convinced they had the knowledge to redesign society in a fell swoop.  It is a general principle, articulated by Burke as an internal critique in regard to the western tradition of thought, and not one that only applies to encounters between the ‘West and the rest’.

This has bearing on the idea of ‘decolonisation’, and particularly ‘decolonising the curriculum’.  What critics of the ‘western’ liberal canon of ideas seem to fail to appreciate is that it too is a tradition, built up out of a strenuous history of experience, the product of centuries of dispute and debate.  It is not some contraption dreamed up for the purpose of dominating non-western peoples.  Moreover, for every idea and text that persists in getting attention and focussing minds, hundreds more have been abandoned and forgotten.  It is a tradition of ideas that have stood the test of repeated scrutiny by powerful minds, and been winnowed and refined.  To assess this tradition on the basis of how well it represents a crude demographic of selected traits, such as race, ethnicity, sex, gender and sexuality, makes no sense.  Those are not the relevant criteria.  What matters to the tradition is what survives intellectual criticism.

If one were to seek some form of proportionality in terms of these demographics among authors one confronts two issues.  First, what is the relevant population from which one draws a baseline of proportionality.   A profession, a class strata, a nation-state, a continent, the world?  How do we know what the proportions ‘ought’ to be?  Secondly, if the tradition as it currently stands is largely the result of winnowing the work of white men, who have had privileged access to contribute to that tradition over the centuries, then even now as the demographic of contributors has diversified and access to contribute has opened up, as witnessed by the incorporation into this tradition of fields such as women’s studies, black studies, and critical race theory, those more recent contributions must still undergo the same winnowing process.  In each generation, most of the intellectual product is mediocre and soon to be forgotten, or at least located on the far back shelf of the intellectual warehouse.  Logically, it will take time for the increasing diversity of the cast of authors to work its way through ‘the canon’ because much of the canon has already been been established.  The value of enduring contributions to a long and complex tradition of thought cannot be measured directly in relation to any current demographic.  They are two different things.

These are implications of taking the ‘canon’ (whatever that is) seriously as a tradition, with its own internal integrity, worthy of respect.  I know that some critics of that tradition will argue that it is no such thing.  That it is, as adverted to above, a malignant ideology of domination, designed to distort and exclude, through its rationalism, patriarchy, racism, etc..  But if that is the case, improving it through better representation of author demographics, and ideas supposedly from outside that tradition, is pointless.  Surely the only solution is to start an altogether new and separate tradition of thought?  And in one sense this is what has happened.  A great deal of work in the social sciences and humanities has tended to diverge onto two different paths, one more ‘realist’, ‘western’ and, well, ‘traditional’, and the other more postmodern, poststructuralist, postcolonial, social/de-constructionist, and so on.  But on the other hand, as I’ve already suggested, this second strand does not really come from outside the tradition.  As much as key progenitors of ideas such as Antonio Gramsci, the Frankfurt School, Michele Foucault, Jacques Derrida, and Edward Said, were critiquing aspects of that tradition, they didn’t come from outside of it, but from deep within it.  And this is one of the distinctive (which is not to say unique) aspects of this tradition, that it is characterised by great intellectual counter-movements from within, as in the response of romanticism to enlightenment thought, or philosophical materialism to idealism.  It is difficult not to see current critiques of the ‘colonialism’ of the western canon as one of these internal movements, rather than an ‘external’ response of the colonised. 

However we understand this current dynamic of critique and its origins, the point still stands that the body of ‘western’ ideas associated with the history of Europe and its influence, is a tradition, with its own intrinsic value that deserves to be respected like any other.  Any complex tradition of thought—religious, philosophical, scientific—will contain some dark and troubling ideas, and if it is not dead, will generate intellectual resistance.  But the test of that resistance is its capacity to become an enduring part of that tradition itself.  The only alternative is to break away and establish a separate and possibly rival tradition.  

Finally, and perhaps uncomfortably for some, there is the complication that this tradition, or at least aspects of it, has spilled past the usual cultural and territorial boundaries of such traditions.  As modern ‘science’ it has become highly universalised and cross-cultural, and so have institutions it has developed in dialogue with, such as capitalism and democracy.  It is not only that its fiercest critics do not recognise their own embedding within that same tradition, but they fail to grasp the degree to which it has spread, been widely adopted, and become part of the collective human legacy, not just a localised tradition.

On Respect

We talk a lot about ‘dignity and respect’ these days, and large organisations usually have ‘dignity and respect’ policies that seek to regulate conduct among staff in regard to things such as harassment and bullying.  For instance, the University of Edinburgh Dignity and Respect Policy states:

Integrity, collegiality and inclusivity are central to the University’s values. In accordance with these values the University is committed to providing an environment in which all members of the University community treat each other with dignity and respect, and where bullying, harassment and discrimination are known to be unacceptable.

One question that arises is—what’s the difference between these two terms, as they are so often run together?  Are they not almost synonyms?  Here is one way of answering this.  ‘Dignity’ indicates a basic worth we attribute to all human beings, as human beings (hence we often refer to ‘human dignity’).  In this regard, as individuals, we are all equal, of value, and deserving of a baseline of humane treatment.  ‘Respect’ on the other hand indicates recognition of achievements.  It has to be earned.  This can be in a specific practice, e.g. as an athlete, a musician, a manager, a business person.  But it can also be in regard to personal character, a sign of recognition of someone’s integrity, honesty, fair-dealing, good judgment, and so on. 

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Moral Responsibility, History as Rhetoric, and Henry Dundas

A few months back a piece I wrote for The Spectator (9 January 2022) provoked a stream of negative and hostile reaction on Twitter from Professor Geoffery Palmer.  I was objecting to the approach and basic assumptions of the Edinburgh City Council’s Edinburgh Slavery and Colonialism Legacy Review Group, as revealed in a recent public poll it had taken on its proposals.  In passing, I mentioned that the way the City had handled the revision of the text on the Dundas monument in St Andrews Square did not bode well for this project, as it had mangled the historical facts.  It was this claim that seemed to draw the harshest response from Professor Palmer, with little attention to the wider point I was making.  Here I will begin by stating as succinctly as possible the problem with the new text on the monument.  But then I will go on to elaborate my reasons for arguing that it is wrong to try to attribute moral responsibility to large, ill-defined groups that are not coherent social actors, and wrong to bend history to suit such moral arguments.  I conclude with some reflections on how we learn moral lessons from history.

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Cutting the corpus callosum

I remember one of my graduate school teachers, Eric R. Wolf, describing anthropology, the discipline I was studying, as ‘the most scientific of the humanities, and the most humanistic of the social sciences’ (this was a recurring theme in his writing).  I always identified with this characterisation, refusing a strong boundary between the sciences and the humanities, and believing that both were underpinned by common principles of intellectual discipline involving commitment to empirical evidence, reasoned argument, and conceptual precision.  I have always felt that middle ground to be the heart of the entire intellectual enterprise, a meeting ground, but it is disappearing, and I am becoming homeless. 

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Foucault, Marx, and pervasive power

One frequently hears the complaint about ‘identity politics’ and ‘critical race theory’ that they are obsessed with power and reduce all social relationships to power, and that this is a fundamental error, and overgeneralisation of power (see for instance, Lindsay and Pluckrose’s Cynical Theories, 2020).  On the contrary, I would argue that the thesis of the pervasiveness of power is correct, that power is fundamental to all social relationships, and always present.  But a lot depends on what we mean by ‘power’.  These bodies of theory deal with power rather poorly.  Identity politics and critical race theory are complex amalgams of many elements, but the influence of two ‘dead white European males’ is often pointed to: Michele Foucault and Karl Marx.  Looking at how they have been appropriated can help us see how these bodies of theory have mishandled the question of power. 

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US Presidential Election 2020: a failure of competition?

As I write this the US is in a strange limbo.  Joe Biden has been declared the winner of the November 3rd Presidential election by news media and poll analysts, and has been recognised as the President-Elect by many foreign heads of state.  All that awaits is formal confirmation through the reporting of the electoral college.  Meanwhile, Donald Trump continues to claim that the election was stolen by fraudulent practices led by the Democratic Party, and he and his supporters continue to legally contest results at state and local levels, despite little evidence in support.  Everyone is waiting.

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The Problem of Imaginary Agents

I have often pointed out to my students a kind of conceptual error endemic in the social sciences, a tendency to imbue names for large and complex processes with an imputed agency.  A familiar example is when we talk loosely about ‘neoliberalism’ or ‘globalisation’ being the cause of some result we decry.  For instance, if the university becomes more economistic in its cost/benefit calculations, this is an effect of neoliberalism.  In some very general sense this may be true, but to substantiate the claim we would need to trace out actual efforts by social actors to affect institutional policies, and the wider environments shaping those actions.  The promotion of formalised ‘workload allocation models’ in universities, which seek to standardise the amount of hours staff can claim for various activities, on one hand is driven by managerial objectives of rationalising the allocation of university resources.  But it is also driven by labour unions to insure equity among staff for their work contributions.  Together these bring about the more ‘neoliberal’ approach to labour calculations, even though we might only recognise the first as motivated by neoliberal assumptions.  However, the wider point is that ‘neoliberalism’ isn’t an historical actor doing anything.  It is a broad label for a set of ideas, policies, and processes.  But we very easily slide from this understanding to one in which we are readily complaining of neoliberalism doing bad things to our lives and oppressing us, of a dark ‘neoliberal project’, whose projectors remain unspecified.  This is partly an accident of language, in which the grammatical structure for saying an agent did something (‘Bob pushed me over’) and for saying a non-agent did something (‘The wind pushed me over’) can look and feel superficially the same.  And a complex object such as neoliberalism of course includes actors and actions, though it cannot be reduced to these, which makes the elision all the easier.

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Marxists or Jacobins?

One of the most disconcerting things about public discourse these days is the running together of ideas of ‘marxism’ and ‘postmodernism’, as though they are equivalent, or that latter grows directly out of the former.  This can be found, for example, in statements by YouTube pundits Jordon B. Peterson (Prof. of Psychology at U. of Toronto) and Douglas Murray (an Editor with The Spectator)[1].  Both might be described as conservative-leaning, but also hold strongly liberal views. 

The context is the current fusion of academic social theory and social movements based on identity politics. The argument seems to be that the defining feature of Marxism is an analysis of society in terms of a fundamental opposition of power, namely between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie, and a political call to overturn that power relationship, so the oppressed (the proletariat) are on top, and the oppressor (the bourgeoisie) is on the bottom.  What later postmodern, postcolonial, and identity-based theories supposedly derive from Marx is this same basic analysis and problematic, of a world defined by oppressed and oppressors, and a revolutionary call to overturn the relationship.  But now the bi-polar relationships concerned have both multiplied, in terms of axes of sexuality, gender, race, ethnicity (class is often weakly in the mix), and yet also amalgamated into a macro-pattern of oppressed and oppressors.  Figures like Peterson and Murray understandably express frustration with how this model tends to over simplify the world, and become an ideological banner under which people march.  Marxism persists in a new outfit. 

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Remembering Hume

My university has recently announced its intention to ‘temporarily’ rename David Hume Tower by the more harmless ‘40 George Square’,[1] in light of a recent petition calling for its renaming on the basis of objection to a notorious racist footnote in his essay ‘Of National Character’ (1753).  One can read extensive comment on the footnote and its history[2], so I will not go into it again here.  Suffice it to say that the views Hume expresses there are racist, offensive, and worthy of condemnation. 

Let me start by saying I don’t have any deep commitment to the naming of buildings.  This will always reflect the times in which a building is named, or renamed, and there is not much at stake in the names of buildings (unless one is a rich benefactor wanting a building named after yourself).  But I suspect that if we did an exhaustive review of the histories of all persons with buildings names after them, we would end up working largely in numbered addresses.  Indeed, the petition in question originally proposed renaming the David Hume Tower after Edinburgh graduate Julius Nyerere until it was pointed out that he held homophobic views.

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