Saturday, December 2, 2006

Co-operation Not Competition

From the December 2006 issue of the Socialist Standard

Competition, we are told, is the lifeblood of capitalism. Firms compete with each other, thus leading to lower prices and technical innovation. In a monopoly situation, without competition, there would only be one seller, so there would be no motivation to cut prices or introduce new products. But, so the theory says, competition keeps companies on their toes and guards against complacency and inefficiency. Firms that cannot compete go to the wall, but that does not matter, as these will necessarily be offering the wrong products or charging too-high prices. Equally, competition for workers means that wages will increase, as firms will need to offer higher wages to keep their existing staff and hire new employees.

The idea of competition is drummed into us at school. From sports days to quizzes to exams, it's a matter of competing against others. Not just a question of doing your best but of doing better than other pupils do. It's all good for us, we're told, it gives us an incentive to improve and it fits us for the wider world of work.

So supporters of capitalism claim that competition is good for us as individuals and for society as a whole, but the question is - is this an accurate picture? does competitive capitalism really deliver the goods?

We can note firstly that even under capitalism competition is limited to fairly small areas of life. Most of the time we don't compete with other people; instead, we co-operate with them, working together to achieve our aims. So people may take it in turns to drive on a long car journey, may combine their efforts to tidy up a garden, may share out various household chores. Paid employment too would be impossible without co-operating with our fellow-workers. Whether in factory, office, shop or call-centre, most work nowadays is divided up so that any one worker only performs a small part of the whole productive process. This means that working with — not against — others is an essential aspect of work. If you're snowed under with work, you may well ask another employee to help you out. Outside employment, many people spend time working in trade unions, tenants' associations, choirs, sports clubs, and a myriad other organisations that work on the basis of voluntary co-operation. In a mining disaster, do rescuers compete to see who can save the most of those trapped? No - they all work together with a single aim, that of saving as many people as possible.

Of course there is such a thing as piece work, and salespeople who compete to earn the biggest commission. But these still involve co-operation with others, and moreover they are often high-pressure jobs, where the worker is constantly urged to work harder and harder. In short, they're not much fun, and realising this is a key to realising what's wrong with competition.

Now, even supporters of the current system would probably accept that most of the time people work together in producing things. They might even say that this is part of the essence of capitalism: people voluntarily co-operating or entering into contracts with others (such as contracts to buy their goods or labour power). Yet competition, they would repeat, is necessary too, to boost performance and efficiency and to keep prices down.

Look, though, at the bad sides of competition. For one thing, it involves workers competing with each other, trying to get a job and therefore deny the same job to someone else, or offering to do the job at a lower wage. And competition must involve winners and losers: many workers will lose out in the job market, having no job at all or one that in no way matches their abilities or aspirations.

Competition in production, too, involves not looking at producing the best or safest widget. Instead, it requires producing what can be sold at a profit, probably tailored to the wallets of the prospective buyers. It also involves looking over one's shoulder at one's competitors, to see what they are doing and try to put one over on them. Inevitably much research into improved products is duplicated by national or international rivals. Someone involved in competition can never stay still, never rest on their laurels; they must always be striving to stay in the race, at least keep up with the others.

And why should anyone have to compete with other people in order to live a decent life? Socialism implies a world based on co-operation, on people all pulling in the same direction. Nobody will be forced to be competitive, rather everyone will produce for human need without fear of being out-competed. Likewise the establishment of Socialism requires co-operation, requires the world's working class to combine in a movement aimed at getting rid of the dog-eat-dog world of capitalism.
Paul Bennett