Editorial from the October 1988 issue of the Socialist Standard
Workers constantly compete with each other. We are taught to do so from a very early age. At school we run races against each other to prove who is the "fastest''; our school work is graded to see who is "top of the class" (and who is at the bottom); we sit examinations to find out who is the "cleverest"; we compete for the right to continue our education in polytechnics, colleges and universities. In adult life we are also forced to compete against each other - for a job, for promotion. And we also engage in vicarious competition - "our" football team against yours; "our" country against all the rest.
And yet the prizes on offer to the working class are both shoddy and few and far between compared to the glittering rewards that are theirs for the taking by the capitalist class. A very few workers may succeed in being catapulted out of their class by winning a large amount on the football pools or premium bonds. Others - because they won earlier competitions - acquire the kind of education or training which gives them access to employment that is highly regarded and highly paid. They become lawyers, consultants, dentists, accountants, or City whizz-kids. They are still, for the most part, workers but they have access to high salaries and the comfortable life-style that money can buy. And in the unequal race of life, their children will start out streets ahead of those whose parents were not the winners - the unemployed, the badly-paid. the badly housed.
Positions of wealth and prestige can only ever be open to a few. Not all workers can be winners in the capitalist race. For the vast majority the only prizes they will win will be a barely adequate standard of living, a life time of wage slavery constantly hedged around with fear and insecurity.
Some workers seek a different future. They will strive to excel in sports, the arts or entertainment - the only too common dream of playing for England or of being a superstar. In these fields of endeavour the prizes on offer are so glittering that some workers are willing to sacrifice their future well-being for the sake of grabbing a brief moment of glory. The joy of running and jumping, of playing a sport, or of singing, dancing, playing a musical instrument is overtaken by the grim determination of those who will succeed at whatever cost to themselves. They are prepared to torture their bodies - just think about those unnaturally thin female gymnasts who perform such amazing feats at the Olympics, or the emaciated bodies of ballerinas who know that to carry any extra weight will be the end of their dancing careers. Some are ready to use artifice to improve on what nature and hard work have given them - athletes who use anabolic steroids or testosterone to enable them to run faster, jump higher, throw further, no matter what the cost to the health of the very bodies in which they take such pride. Think of the rock stars and entertainers who cope with the heady brew of fame, adulation and punishing tours with an equally heady, but often fatal, cocktail of speed, acid, cocaine and alcohol. There is a cruel irony indeed in those workers who win the glittering prizes but end up destroying themselves in the process.
This personal self-destruction in the cause of standing for a few fleeting seconds on the winners' podium is one aspect of competition. Another is reflected in the waving of flags and the singing of national anthems as the winners receive their medals. "Our" team has won or lost, we are informed by the sports commentators. The focus is always on "our" team. The Olympic commentaries hold up the number of medals for each country to give a league table of sporting prowess. This is another form of competition we learn while we are still young. "My" country, right or wrong; the pernicious sentimentality of nationalism.
The capitalist class, however, has no such allegiance. Unlike workers they are rooted through economic necessity in the country in which they were born or live. In fact the ideal world for the capitalist class is one where national boundaries are only political boundaries posing no serious obstacles to the movement of money. The capitalist class may claim allegiance to the country of his or her birth but will nevertheless move investments from one part of the world to another according to the potential for profit. He or she may espouse a particular set of beliefs or principles - for freedom or democracy; against communism - but this will not stop him or her trading with or investing in South Africa, Russia, Chile or Korea, providing the price is right. In other words the capitalist class, in practice, recognises the world for what it is - a global village. Despite national boundaries, different cultures and languages, we are all part of the world system of capitalism whose lifeblood is competition.
As workers cheered on "their" team in the Olympics, at the football ground or wherever, they might have done well to reflect on their allegiances. The capitalist class recognise the global character of capitalism and despite the competition between individual capitalists or between sections of capital, in the final analysis they act as a class with common interests. Workers would also do well to recognise not only the global character of capitalism but the necessary consequence of that - the common class interest that unites workers wherever they happen to have been born. Perhaps then the destructive nationalist rallying cry of “Come on the Brits" will be replaced by the socialist call of "Workers of the world unite".