Is competition killing capitalism?

One of the most famous experiments in social science is The Prisoners’ Dilemma. Two men, A and B, are arrested on suspicion of committing a crime. The prosecutor doesn’t have enough evidence to convict either on a principal charge but is confident he can successfully prosecute both on a lesser charge. Keeping them apart, he offers both men the same deal in the hope that one may be persuaded to betray the other and testify that they committed the principal crime. The offer is as follows. If both men remain silent, each of them will serve one year in prison, if they betray each other they will both serve two years and if A betrays B, while B remains silent, A will go free and B will serve 3 years in jail (and vice versa). The only logical answer is for the men to ‘compete’ by betraying each other, and to each serve two years in jail, even though ‘co-operating’, by staying silent, would result in lesser sentences for both. The logic goes like this. B will either stay silent or betray A. If he stays silent, A is better off by betraying B because he will walk free rather than serving 1 year. If B betrays A, A is better off by betraying B because he will serve 2 years rather than 3. The same reasoning applies for B, so if both are thinking logically each will arrive at the same conclusion - that they should ‘compete’ - and both will serve 2 years rather than taking the mutually beneficial, but illogical, decision to co-operate which would halve their sentences. The Prisoners’ Dilemma highlights brilliantly how it is perfectly possible for individuals to make logical decisions which appear to be in their own interests, but which actually cause self-inflicted damage.

Exactly the same principle applies on a much larger scale, where the coherence of our whole human system requires healthy competition to take place within an overarching spirit of mutual co-operation. This is the context within which modern capitalism, driven by the competitive spirit and logic of the left mind, has inadvertently led us to the potentially disastrous consequences of impending climate breakdown. Yet, must we really ‘declare capitalism dead’ as George Monbiot suggests?

Under our globally dominant culture of scientific materialism, our key societal structures have all been designed by a left mind largely unfettered by the moderating influence of the right, with its big picture perspective, sensitivity to nature and primacy of human relationships. It is, of course, these tendencies which make the right mind far more able to comprehend complexity and to create structures which harmoniously balance the needs of individuals and our whole ecosystem. Instead, our current cognitive imbalance has created structures which bring forth excessive competition and discourage co-operation, via the amplification of positive feedback for the accumulation of economic capital, and a dearth of human, social or moral capital which could have an essential moderating effect. Do we therefore really need to kill capitalism or simply counter-balance its undoubtedly damaging impact?

Our capitalist system remains based on Adam Smith’s insight that self-interest is the primary motivator for economic activity, as captured in his famous observation that ‘it is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest’. However in Smith’s conception, competition, far from being selfish, would actually serve as a regulator of economic activity by keeping self-interest in check, as a result of the individual’s desire to maintain a positive personal reputation. In Smith’s era, of course, the ‘market’ was arranged around the village green and trade was conducted directly between producer and customer. In this idyllic scene, the principles of free market capitalism as a redistributive mechanism are sound. Power lies with the customer and the ‘invisible hand’ will indeed reward those who provide best quality at fair prices. However, Smith could never have envisaged that 21st century trade would be conducted on such a global scale or that any single company could generate revenues greater than the GDP of most nations.

The corporation was first created in Smith’s 18th century to ‘incorporate’ (meaning to form into one body) the rights of several shareholders as one legal ‘person’. In doing so, we effectively created ‘super-human’ beings with the aggregated self-interest of many people, yet with limited liability for their own behaviour. As their scale grew we shifted power away from the customer, diminishing the essential moderating effect of desired reputation and replacing it with marketing muscle and an insatiable desire for shareholder returns. As commerce shifted from being a relationship-based activity between individual humans, to a transactional activity between corporations and anonymous consumers via the medium of brands, the moderating effect of intrinsic morality also fell by the wayside. A free market, with no restrictions on the size of the companies in it, is like a boxing tournament with no weight categories - no matter how skilful or fleet of foot the flyweights are, the heavyweights will always knock them into oblivion. By creating ‘super-human’ corporations, we inadvertently undermined the ability of civic society to moderate self-interest by ensuring the social sanction of errant individuals.

Our left mind loves companies because they are decontextualized, abstract referents for real world human-beings, but deliver far greater potential for power, status and material wealth than could ever be accrued by a single individual. By incorporating the muscle and brain power of thousands of individuals into one ‘body’, they amplify their ability to compete and in doing so negate the necessity for them to co-operate. As smaller players are put out of business or bought by larger rivals, categories inevitably consolidate until only a few behemoths are left slugging it out. Wealth quickly becomes unevenly distributed as success accrues to the bigger players, with capital and talent flowing to those who already have scale, further amplifying their advantage. Chasing the delusional dream of perpetual growth drives overconsumption to the detriment of the only planet which can sustain us, while the desire to increase year-on-year profits keeps jobs and wages growth behind the earnings curve. Even for employees, therefore, wealth isn’t shared evenly but is disproportionately awarded to shareholders and to the Directors shareholders retain and reward (also disproportionately) for providing them with superior returns.

Corporations are just one aspect of the capitalism we have created, which does not serve the best interests of most humans, nor does it contribute towards a coherent global ecosystem by encouraging healthy competition within an overarching spirit of co-operation. Yet it’s not Adam Smith’s fault. Our current system has been created by our collective left mind. As a consequence it takes a very narrow focus, prioritizing only economic growth while decontextualized from the wider civic, social, moral and spiritual framework within which it should operate. However, it doesn’t have to be as it is. A new system could be developed which has a better chance of delivering behaviours which better balance the wellbeing of both the individual and the collective, but it’s a difficult thing to do. Such is its complexity, there’s not a single person on our planet with the intellectual ability to design such a new system, which would be guaranteed to spread wealth evenly, stop us killing each other over oil, or prevent the irreparable damage we are doing to nature. What is certain, however, is that such a system could only ever be the product of a collective right mind which is conscious of the context in which we live, and which, while valuing the many talents of the left mind, is able to synthesise and therefore moderate the more dangerous aspects of its output.

What is equally certain is that the very people who are best placed to change current capitalism - our societal elites - are also the least vested in creating the systemic change we desperately need. Genuinely democratic political systems are therefore pivotal to changing our thinking and changing our future, for only elected governments, authentically representing the best interests of our planet and everyone on it, have the power to enact the political, economic, social and technological structures we need, if we are to peacefully transition to a higher level of consciousness in which the natural balance of our collective mind is reflected in the dominant global culture we create.