Competition is idolized by egotists. To be sure, although most animals in the wild can’t be arrogant because they have little self-control or even the concept of a self, they nevertheless struggle in that they make forceful or violent efforts to free themselves from difficulties, and they even compete in the sense of striving for superiority or supremacy. From rams’ head butting to peacock dancing to spider wrestling matches, males engage in ritual combats or other tests of excellence with rivals to attract a mate. But the price of initiation into the cult of competition is the going awry of personal autonomy. Notice that poorer societies are more interested in charity and other forms of sharing than in following the logic of competition to its bitter end, that end being that there can be no worthwhile victory for the winners without an abundance of losers. The richer you are, the more likely you’ll pretend, at least, to be a manly social Darwinian, whereas peasants and outcasts throughout the ages have practiced communism to avoid starving to death. Poor folks can’t afford to pit their skills and resources against those of their society’s dominators. Indeed, not only is the underclass historically distanced from the rat race by welfare programs, but so too is the upper class that worships the ideal of competition—even as the oligarchs strive ultimately to be monopolists who can afford to stand above the lower world like gods.
Like most cults, free market ideology is based on a confusion that obscures natural reality with religious nonsense. But those whose financial success permits them to pretend to favour the results of fair competition do so because they’ve been sufficiently corrupted by that success to possess an outsized estimation of their self-worth. Those who naively sing the praises of ruthless rivalry, as opposed to entering the arena with grim knowledge of the absurd tragedy of any natural struggle, do so only because they think they would inevitably triumph in that conflict. And those who know themselves well enough to recognize their animalistic weaknesses and ridiculous biases are too plagued by self-doubts to welcome the chance to let the chips fall where they may. When they lose to some rival, self-doubters are more likely to accept the result with honour, and that detachment from chance and from other pitiless natural forces that zombify the result of even the most artificial games playing out in our microcosms enables those introverted losers to live with their baneful self-knowledge. Thus, both winners and losers are typically confused about the meaning of competition.
Competition and Meritocracy
According to the capitalistic myth, a competitive society is a meritocracy, meaning that those who deserve to succeed because of their virtues and hard work do succeed as long as they’re allowed to compete fairly. The truth is supposed to out in such a contest, because each competitor is free to showcase her talents, producing some good or other for which certain judges are free to reward or punish her as they see fit. In a capitalistic system, the judges are none other than the consumers whose demands are met by the goods’ suppliers. Notice how all products are considered “goods” by definition, just as long as they satisfy some actual demand, because the consumer’s will replaces God’s in a free market. Such a market must be liberated from either human or divine regulation. Thus, economic competition should be understood in rather Daoist terms: competitors allow the natural Way to pass through them so that their task is to avoid interfering with natural destiny. For theists, that destiny is preordained by a personal deity, but this is inconsistent with free market ideology. An all-knowing God would have planned our transactions prior to creating the universe, whereas the cult of competition dictates that there’s no such esoteric knowledge, that any attempt to rationally preplan a society is doomed to fail, and that our recourse is to trust in nothing more than the heat of glorious battle. When selfish beings inevitably come into conflict, they necessarily solve all of their problems with perfect justice—not because they individually understand what’s happening, but because their rivalry is a natural form of creativity and nature is the final arbiter. The selfish person’s irrational desire to dominate her rivals as well as the environment that throws up obstacles is at the root of the aphoristic necessity that’s the mother of invention.
Why does the result of a natural, which is to say an unregulated and thus wild competition deserve praise on moral grounds rather than just fear of the power that thereby transfers to the victor? Well, as the myth has it, capitalism harnesses the original sin of human selfishness. Assuming, for example, that there’s a demand for food and people are allowed to compete to satisfy that demand—not for the sake of altruism but for self-enrichment, since hungry people will appreciate that effort and reward the producer as an incentive for her to keep at it—rival producers will strive to end hunger with the greatest efficiency. Those with the initial demand, namely the consumers, hold all of the power in this myth, since they have the ability to boycott inefficient or disreputable producers. If consumers want low prices, they’ll reward firms that keep their costs down or that minimize their profits. If the masses want quality, they’ll disregard cost and shop at businesses that attract the more talented craftspeople or that use the finest materials. Either way, both consumers and producers win when a demand is taken as is, with little if any moralizing, and when producers compete to satisfy it, driven not by anything as abstract and unnatural as goodwill towards everyone, but by narrow-minded greed. Greed for short-sighted gain, reinforced by all manner of other vices is nature’s instrument for solving all social problems, whereas when we intend to be moral our efforts ironically lead to disaster, since we then presume to usurp nature’s prerogative to create whatever it’s destined to create. Indeed, we can’t sustain the moral enterprise since we’re animals, not angels, but according to the pagan myth in question, this is a cause for celebration since animals are playthings of nature and nature is plainly a place in which majestic, sublime events happen as a matter of course. Worshipers of "free" (wild, unregulated) competition are thus effectively pantheists.
The myth assumes that consumers have the information to choose wisely between products and that they’re inclined to decide what to purchase in a rational fashion, meaning not that they’re experts in science or logic, but that consumers act in their best interest. That is, consumers are supposed to be instrumentally rational, using products to efficiently satisfy their desires. Without the wisdom of the markets, nature would have no way to judge the rivals and so there would be no mechanism for the superior producer to reliably beat the inferior one. Of course, consumers compete too, since they can afford to back up their judgments with their money only if they participate in the production of goods, by earning money while at work. Moreover, consumers compete for status, displaying their status symbols to demonstrate their position in the dominance hierarchy. Consumers thus judge themselves and each other as well as the producers. The cult assumes also that it’s in the producer’s self-interest to cater to the consumer’s authentic demand, that persuading the consumer to demand something else isn’t more advantageous. After all, if the consumer wants a high-quality product, but you can carry out a fraud by convincing her to mistake low-quality for high-quality, you can better maximize your profit. So a free market must be regulated, after all, to prevent such abuse; otherwise, a competitive system won’t be meritocratic since the results may not be praiseworthy from an ideal spectator’s position.
The Transcendence of our Psychopathic Gods
It should go without saying that all of those assumptions are false. Freud by himself provides all the reason in the world to doubt that we can be relied on to act in our best interest. We’re not instrumentally rational because we don’t know what we really want. That in turn is because our deepest desires are unconscious, whereas the postmodern version of the capitalistic myth makes misleading use of the computer metaphor and a computer has equal access to every piece of information stored in its memory banks. (See Philip Mirowski’s book, Machine Dreams.) So for example, consumers want to be happy, but they don’t know what “happiness” means and so they only take a leap of faith in advertisements that associate happiness with the consumption of material goods. Consumers want sex but they’re also repulsed by the existential implications of their private sex lives, which is why they keep them secret. Consumers want to be free, but they’re unclear about the ultimate end of freedom, which is to say they don’t know what freedom is for. Is consumption an end or a means, and does the act of amassing wealth improve or corrupt our character, facilitating or degrading what Isaiah Berlin calls our positive freedom, our ability to fulfill our potential? Moreover, we’re generally not attentive enough to possess the information to judge the worth of products, to reward or to punish businesses according to the relevant facts. For example, even when a business presents us with the facts of how they operate, but buries them in the small print, we usually lack the patience to study the matter in depth. That’s because we’re precisely what the myth claims we are: animals rather than angels. We have cognitive biases which are exploited by large corporations so that they can continue their underhanded business practices with impunity.
What happens, then, when our animalistic traits are allowed to come to the fore in a wild competition is that excellence isn’t rewarded so much as there’s a race to the bottom. Consumers become rubber stamps, losing their power as judges, because they’re conned by the established corporations. Rather than looking within to discover their authentic standards, consumers succumb to easy materialistic answers to life’s philosophical questions, and so the tail wags the dog: producers which are supposed to be striving to satisfy the all-powerful consumer are left without any external check on their vices, since they’ve captured the consumer’s imagination if not also the more formal regulators such as the government and the media, as in the US. Even when consumers learn the unpleasant facts of how their favourite corporations behave, when the truth is somehow transmitted despite the corporate media’s filters, the supposed judges are trained not to care; their attention span is degraded thanks to the hyperactive postmodern environment, and so again the standards are lowered and the foul play continues. For example, most people know that McDonald’s hamburgers and Coca-Cola soft drinks are unhealthy, but these corporations exploit our evolutionary weaknesses for fat and sugar. Poor people can’t afford healthier alternatives, because organic foods are artificially expensive, due to lobbying from the more powerful fast food industry. So while it looks like the food situation in the US is optimal, since customers get what they want, this is obviously just a superficial interpretation. Consumers also want to be healthy rather than obese, and they have the potential to prefer organic foods, including fruits and vegetables, as evidenced by the healthier parts of the world such as Europe and Japan. Whether the outcome of the American food market is morally praiseworthy depends on whether the more important demands are being met.
But the fundamental problem with the myth that natural competition is meritocratic is that competition is destabilizing. Contrary to the economists, whose counterfactual obfuscations have theological rather than scientific status, free markets don’t tend to reach a point of internal equilibrium. Rather, as these systems become less artificial and more natural, as they shed regulations to allow competition to proceed according to nature’s undead will, their dreadful destiny is revealed: the systems become entrenched dominance hierarchies which minimize competition as well as other forms of mixing between rivals, such as upward mobility between the social classes. Paradoxically, a free market’s state of equilibrium follows its transformation into an altogether different system in which the role of competition is marginal compared to that of the monopolies, oligopolies, and oligarchies which the natural competition creates. A natural struggle for supremacy is only a means of developing the supreme beings that come to rule such a system—and beware what you wish for! Lower your standards, attempt to give free rein to your selfish impulses, and the ultimate victor will be the least scrupulous among us; nice folks will finish last, saddled as they are with a conscience and so they’ll lose in the rat race to the subcriminal psychopaths that stand in the end as undead nature’s champions.
There’s a vast difference, then, between competition as portrayed by the capitalistic cult and competition in its role in a natural process. In the myth, competition is the most efficient mechanism for ensuring that greatness rises to the top, that the demands of the consumers—who deserve to judge products because they have rational integrity as well as reasonable desires that make for a sustainable society—will be relentlessly fulfilled by an army of producers who in turn pursue their selfish interests indirectly by competing to best satisfy the customer, for profit. Thus, our flawed nature is ingeniously put to work for the greater good of establishing a meritocracy in which everyone gets what they deserve as long as they don’t pretend to be above the natural struggle. Ironically, greatness is supposed to triumph if only we follow the basest part of our nature and allow our destiny to work itself out, without trying to out-think natural forces.
In reality, though, such a system is the opposite of a meritocracy. What rises to the top is naturally the worst of our members, as power is concentrated in fewer hands which corrupts those who come to control the markets and who discover ways to exploit the consumers’ weaknesses so that black can pass for white, down for up, and no reason is left to praise capitalistic transactions in general. Customers may get what they want since they may be satisfied by this or that product, and producers may work hard to satisfy that demand, but this efficiency alone doesn’t entail that the transactions are particularly praiseworthy. Only were the consumer’s demands independently respectable, were her character untarnished by the free market’s cruelty could her judgments about the worth of products be trusted to vindicate the initial capitalistic risk to celebrate selfishness. Whether a desire ought to be efficiently satisfied depends on whether the desire rises to the level of some categorical, objective standard. Economists deny there’s any such standard, whereas what they should say is just that the question is philosophical and doesn’t lend itself to the economists’ method of pseudoscientifically rationalizing the capitalistic debasement of consumers and producers alike. Slavery was once legal in the United States, and humans were ably bought and sold, satisfying a demand with full instrumental rationality. Then a war broke out over the matter and a constitutional judgment was rendered according to which the desire for slaves is un-American, which is as good as saying that it’s universally reprehensible. Just because the morality of that reevaluation can’t be quantified in the confines of the economist’s toy models doesn’t mean a higher-order judgment of our interests is meaningless. It’s just rank scientism for economists to suggest otherwise.
In the capitalistic myth which has a clear exoteric function, consumers rule because all economic transactions revolve around their demands. In natural reality, consumers are ruled by the minority that’s outgrown the need to compete. Competition thus serves as a mechanism of selecting those who take selfishness to the furthest reaches of psychopathy and who form monopolies or kleptocracies precisely to end their need to compete. Those who emerge triumphant in a free market are inclined to destroy their rivals to consolidate their power, and this is the function of that marketplace, to produce inhumane gods who transcend the dirty business of having to struggle to survive. The greatest winners hardly need to pay attention to consumer demands since they shape those demands with demagoguery and they constrain consumer choices by targeting lawmakers with lobbyists and campaign contributions. So whereas the celebrators of competition appear to worship natural forces that mustn’t be interfered with by elitist regulators, what’s truly sacred in this cult is the product of that selection process, the godlike oligarch who’s no longer subject to those forces and whose existence in fact falsifies the exoteric myths of free market economics.
According to the esoteric interpretation of the cult, the true divine rulers of human affairs aren’t hidden because they’re disembodied and immaterial; instead, they’re removed from the majority because they occupy a higher social stratum. And the ultimate good isn’t to compete in a grubby race to kowtow to the churlish masses that are fit more to be judged like cattle in a blue ribbon sale than to appraise the handiwork of their wealthy overlords; rather, the goal is to achieve what’s called financial independence, so that you can amuse yourself with news of how the lower forms of humanity must toil in life-and-death skirmishes, always fearing that if they let down their guard and show just a hint of remorse for acting like a savage in a suit, they’ll be stabbed in the back by a more ambitious rival. Competition spawns the strong, but in the end this selection process is for the weak.