This post is part 6 of my series on why I am no longer an anarcho-capitalist (ancap).

Ancaps will not let you define capitalism in any way but theirs. Instead of acknowledging the decades of debate surrounding the term and the history of actual capitalism, they will post a link to a dictionary, or quote their favourite economist, and ignore everything you say. As such, it can be difficult to have a conversation with them. You talk about what you dislike about capitalism and they interrupt with “that’s not capitalism”. They write articles talking up the good things that have happened under actually exisiting capitalism but distance themselves from the bad things, as if one could have existed without the other. They like to take all the supposedly good things from capitalism as evidence that it works, and call all the bad things it brings “socialism”. They attempt to have their cake and eat it too.

Not all problems stem from the state. Slavery could easily continue without a state. Slavery was not and is not a result of the state. Neither was the Irish Potato Famine, as landlords exported food they owned in a way that should be considered legitimate to propertarians. These are problems of capitalism that would be problems whether or not ancaps’ particular vision were realized. Another such problem is that of competition.

Not everything can be reduced to economics. You say we should stop competing with each other and share and ancaps will accuse you of wanting monopolies. But anarcho-communists do not want monopolies. They want gift economies. A gift economy is, essentially, where things are free. Yes, it is possible; indeed, unlike trade, gift economies have been the norm throughout human existence, just like anarchy, equality and mutual aid.

Alfie Kohn’s book No Contest: The Case against Competition dismantles every claim about the beneficial effects of competition. This post barely scratches the surface of his work. I recommend reading it through for a fuller understanding. (A lecture on the subject can be found here.)

Competition is not efficient: it is exceedingly inefficient. People who say capitalism is the most efficient economic system ever devised do not seem to understand how capitalism works.

–First, capitalism is not decentralized. Whether statist or not, capitalism necessarily concentrates money and decision-making in the hands of a small group of people, essentially the owners of the means of production. Concentrating wealth (and thus power) in such a way inevitably leads to violence. The rich would reconstitute the state in one form or another.

–Corporations spend money on taxes, managers, shareholders, lobbyists, security guards, lawyers, accountants, human resources, marketing and advertising, none of which would be necessary in a system where everything was free. Every dollar taken as profit, or spent on the above, is a dollar capitalism itself has taken from those who produce. If production was shared among everyone equally, far less work would need to be done at each job. Indeed, more time could be spent looking for ways to automate productive activity and further reduce the need for labor. And surely two goals of any liberatory philosophy worthy of the name are to liberate us from both scarcity and work, not just put a few more bucks in our pockets.

–Competition creates huge amounts of redundancy as firms spend huge amounts on R&D, producing competing but similar products, instead of pooling resources and creating something good for everyone. You have any number of people working for any number of firms to produce the same products and innovations. You have firms such as pharmaceutical giants all competing for scientific research into the same things, then spending a large part of their budgets on marketing, administration and other waste.

–Finally, competition among firms leads to paying the lowest possible wages, often resulting in slavery or near-slavery as people in places like China, the Congo and US jails receive pitiful wages and horrible working conditions when an efficient system could produce the same goods without inflicting such pain on its producers.

capitalism competition race to the bottom

But it’s “natural”, right? All creatures compete, right? Yes and no. There is an enormous amount of mutual aid in nature, even across species but especially within them. Some species engage in somewhat violent competition for mates, though that competition is rarely fatal. Is competition inherent in evolutionary success? Only a simplistic understanding of evolution would imply such. Stephen Jay Gould points out

The equation of competition with success in natural selection is merely a cultural prejudice …. Success defined as leaving more offspring can … be attained by a large variety of strategies – including mutualism and symbiosis – that we could call cooperative. There is no a priori preference in the general statement of natural selection for either competitive or cooperative behavior. (In Kohn, 21)

Besides, modern humans are a bit different from animals obeying the supposed law of the jungle. We have created a civilization where competition is no longer necessary, because abundance has become the norm. We do not need to compete over, say, food, water and land, because there is enough for all of us, and we value sharing and cooperation. Whatever nature appears to dictate through the lens of our culture, the reality is there is nothing inevitable about competing.

So why encourage it? Kids don’t like it. Kohn says “I am aware of no studies that found a preference for competition over cooperation – providing the subjects had experienced the latter in some fashion.” (32) If given a choice, children would rather cooperate and eliminate the need to divide winners from losers. While a few kids may enjoy competing over cooperating, the vast majority appear not to. Competition as we know it is largely a learned phenomenon, continually reaffirmed in school rankings, games and sports. This focus on competition, especially on creating the myth that it is inevitable and beneficial, serves those in power, who want us to compete with each other to serve the rich, rather than work together to make serving the rich unnecessary.

Kohn also asked the question “Do we perform better when we are trying to beat others?” and found overwhelming evidence to suggest the answer is almost never. Competition tends to bring down performance, not enhance it. (47) Competition puts intense pressure on us, and not even pressure to succeed (which in itself is not necessarily good) but pressure to beat others. Trying to do something right and well is quite different from trying to beat others. (55) It might result in lies, tripping other people up, heartbreak, and so on, when in the absence of competition we need not stress but simply be as good as we choose to be.

Competition encourages win-lose thinking, as opposed to win-win thinking. (127) It poisons our relationships. (132) It discourages altruism and empathy while encouraging envy, mistrust and contempt. (140-1) And it is unnecessary.

The results of the many studies, which clear away the myths about competition’s inevitability and benefits, should mean radical changes to the way we do things, from the market economy to kids in school and at home, from examinations to debates, from meting out justice to having fun. Unfortunately, it is fundamental to capitalism, so those who identify with capitalism are likely to have a hard time unlearning competition.

Workers should not compete with each other, locally or across countries, but unite to unionize or take over their workplaces or start cooperatives or overthrow capitalism altogether and begin sharing the product of our labor.

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