Why Competition Is Not Working
Deakin, Quentin, Contemporary Review
SUPPOSEDLY we live in an age of "liberal consensus" where competition is frowned upon. (1) Many schools, for example, resist traditional speech-days for fear of upsetting the losers and inflating winners" egos. The notion that modern Britain is competition-shy doesn't come from a single wing of the political spectrum. The Right complains that attempts lo compensate for under-privilege, such as women-only shortlists, put obstacles in the way of fair competition. The Left counters that genuine meritocratic competition is impossible when money, private education and inherited privilege guarantee preferment. However, Left or Right, few seem to challenge the notion that competition as an organising principle is intrinsically good. My argument is that competition's benefits are exaggerated and its dangers largely ignored.
Competition is the main organising principle in Britain today. It is inescapable. Anxious parents compete to get their children into the right schools, often moving house to do so. Schools, teachers and pupils have been forced into fierce competition through targets and league tables, enforced by a tough inspection regime and the threat of closure. Many pupils now sit public exams over several successive years. On leaving school most will compete to get into a university, particularly one of the elite Russell group. Should they succeed in getting a job, target-driven American-Japanese management models demand ever greater productivity, pitting country against country, workplace against workplace, colleague against colleague. From nurseries to nursing homes, cheap flights to beach huts, we compete for almost everything.
Of course, the centrality of competition to human existence s not new. All species compete for food and territory and the human species has proved particularly fierce. Re-branded as "nations', human tribes compete for resources. As individuals humans love to compete. In medieval times, artists angled for patrons, nobles for higher rank, craftsmen for 'master' status in their guilds. From antiquity to the present, political rivalries have spilled over into intrigue, corruption or bloodshed. The great formal competitions have a heriage of millennia, whether it be the Olympics or the Mandarin civil service entrance exams. The power struggles after Lenin and Mao remind us that, however egalitarian a society may profess to be, the urge to outdo others, rather than simply achieve a personal best, clearly answers to deep human needs. The imperative of biological reproduction no doubt plays a large part. (2)
Nevertheless, my hypothesis is that British society is now imbued with a culture of competition that was less to the fore even fifty or sixty years ago. However, let it be conceded that the head-line evidence makes opposite claims. In 1950 we had grammar and secondary modern schools. Sixty years later these have been largely replaced with all-ability, non-selective comprehensives. However, the requirement for intellectual skills in jobs is greater than ever; where once many could offer their muscle power every child must now compete with their brains, no matter if their IQ is in single figures. Although we still have the minimum wage and benefits, wage cutting and a quick dismissal are once again becoming the order of the day especially as the Coalition Government emphasises its need to 'cut the deficit'.
Looking further back, the British Empire trade monopoly has given way to a deadly struggle for global investment. Emotionally, the public seems in two minds about competition. In Britain most seem to have adjusted to work place assessment as the norm without contemplating industrial action (unlike France) and many choose the viewing of competition as their main form of leisure. On the other hand, we are coy, even disdainful, about winning, we cry with the losers and we back the talentless underdog in a plethora of TV talent contests. My students may be competitive, but it certainly isn't 'cool' to show it.
In spite of these mixed messages, I suggest there is compelling evidence that we now live in a more competitive world. Three factors-demographic, ideological and technological - have converged. At every level, from the global to the individual, population growth has increased the number of competitors and raised the stakes. The global natural resource base of water, food, fossil fuels and minerals is running out, thereby increasing sources of conflict. As people live longer in developed countries, pressure is increasing to finance long-lifers and tension is mounting between the 'working young' and the 'dependent old'. Higher expectations and the greater absolute volume of applicants chasing fewer jobs inevitably mean greater competition. The welcome removal of the sex barrier in the twentieth century has doubled the field. It is harder than ever to enter into and then succeed in the arts, the liberal professions and sport. Currently a graduate will compete against seventy applicants for a graduate-level job. Journalism, law and medicine, faced with rising demand, have set the bar higher than ever. There are more media graduates than jobs in the entire British media industry. There is a large oversupply of PhDs for full-time academic jobs. In my own experience, both as teacher and evening class student in recent years, exams have been made more demanding, contrary to popular belief.
Ideologically, the apparent eclipse of socialism and communism over this period has meant that 'those who still held to the original socialist hope of a society built in the name of cooperation instead of competition' have had to 'retreat again into ... theory'. (3) Hobsbawn's argument is that, distorted and inadequate as it was, the 'actually existing' Communist world at least provided a model where cooperation and the collective good were idealised and opposed the dominance of money. 'Man ... humanism', wrote Marx, would be brought back to centre place with socialism. (4) Any careful student of the history of 'actually existing' communism knows the reality to be a gross distortion of his ideal. Nonetheless, even non-socialist observers of Russia report a chagrin amongst the older generation for the loss of cooperative ways that is more than mere nostalgia.
We have seen a sea-change in Britain too. Whereas capitalism was widely pilloried as a crude 'dog-eat-dog' philosophy in the 1960s and 70s and the media frequently lampooned the excesses of 'yuppies' in the Thatcherite 1980s, now they laud 'entrepreneurs' and the 'free market'. Quasi-sympathetic television coverage of trade union campaigning on the TV has long ago given way to The Apprentice, with its championing of sharp business practice. (5) If bankers are currently in the dock it is because they and the nation came unstuck playing the game not because of any wider belief that the game itself was ill-conceived. China's endorsement of capitalism and the British Labour Party's 'New' departure in the 1990s all point in one direction. In spite of the crash of 2008, capitalism is still king.
Competition is ever more central to today's capitalist societies. The private sector is encouraged to grow at the expense of the public. Post-Maastricht EU legislation not only opens up all member states to competition from any firm within Europe but also prohibits national governments from supporting industries. Britain's Office of Fair Trading monitors anti-competitive laws and stops firms working together. In November 2010, for example, it prevented banks collaborating to reduce bonus levels. Competition in the economy is today a legal imperative. The Coalition Government's laws, following the lead of the Blair-Brown Labour governments, increasingly seek to impose competition in social provision, such as health and education. Technologically, the direct market provided by the internet has provided a faster and more efficient mechanism for capitalist competition. In the Road Ahead (1995) Bill Gates predicted that computers would facilitate the market economy, speeding it up and eliminating uncompetitive (for which we should read 'more expensive') players. This has been a self-fulfilling prophecy, our high streets rapidly losing bookshops, travel agents and independent retailers of all kinds.
Popular culture, as seen in the broadcast media, provides us with a barometer of attitudes to competition. There are far more competitions on TV and radio than there were sixty years ago. Today 20 per cent of the output of the four main terrestrial TV channels consists of competitions, 28 per cent shown in prime time. (6) Compare this with 2 per cent in 1953 (a cricket match on the Light programme) or 11 per cent in 1966. In the 1950s and 1960s there were many more documentaries, plays, films, comedies and educational programmes. On a typical weekday in 1966 Top of the Form and Top of the Pops were the only competitions. The idea of making a competition out of amateur wild-life filming or people trying to lose weight would have seemed absurd. The difference in culture is apparent if we contrast Strictly Come Dancing with Dance Round Europe, broadcast at 10pm on the Light channel on Saturday 4th June 1966, billed in the Radio Times as follows: 'You are invited to dance or listen to some of the top orchestras in Northern Europe'. Of course, there were countless wine, jam, vegetable, cooking, music, comedy, drama and sporting competitions at local level half a century ago, but these were not considered worthy material for national broadcast. Seemingly, we cannot any longer learn and laugh without seeing people compete. A great increase in the number of arts competitions since the 1970s is another measure of this. (9)
Is there any harm in this? It is generally assumed that greater competitiveness is good and necessary. Here are the arguments. Competition motivates and elevates the best. Its utility in the classroom is undeniable, even if the current received wisdom that 'boys need competition' is over-egged and sexist and its entertainment value has been appreciated by teachers since time immemorial. Competition, it is claimed, encourages personal and institutional accountability. The failing child (or teacher) cannot hide in the shadows. Competition undoubtedly answers to our post-Enlightenment desire for meritocracy. It is the key to fulfilling this ideal, the modern world's answer to the absurdity of coupling power and responsibility with inherited privilege. Finally, competition can raise quality. A very good deal for the consumer results, keeping prices low and quality high. Whatever the merits of Soviet communism it did not encourage 'friendlier faces at the tills'. (7) These are powerful arguments. However, they are not irrefutable. The practice does not match the theory and the theory itself has become a mantra, crowding out the equally strong case for a more cooperative approach.
I suggest that the practice of the 'free market economy' no more matches the theory of Adam Smith than twentieth-century communism answered to the theory of Marx. Again, a big part of the problem is human nature. Smith himself emphasised the high level of cooperative endeavour required to manufacture successfully: 'without the cooperation of many thousands, the very meanest person in a civilised country could not be provided". Again 'in civilised society (man) stands at all times in need of the cooperation of multitudes'. Self-interest he sees as the motivator for most people, but cooperation rather than competition the key to his ideal society. (8) Today, perhaps Smith might conclude with me that the competitive urge goes too far, falsifying the outcome.
It has been calculated that in Britain half of an individual's earning power derives from inherited social position and half from effort, whereas on the continent only 20 per cent derives from social position. (9) We don't just compete as individuals, we compete through our children. Partly out of love, partly from self-interest, parents thrust their children beyond their true ability level. To survive in a harshly competitive environment schools and teachers assist in the great deception, helping the weak student reach a higher point than they truly deserve and in the process making institutional accountability a farce. (10) Those with money and influence find it easier to make the necessary manipulations. The result is that the top professions are still occupied by children from the highest social classes who have been to private schools. Seven out of ten doctors, three quarters of judges and one third of politicians come from the top 20 per cent of the social hierarchy. This is bad news for Britain because research shows that fairer societies such as those in Scandinavia, which utilise more of their talent, are also more successful. (11)
What of competition's claim to raise quality? What seems to have happened with sport in Britain might be taken as an allegory for our larger problem. Obsessive competition has damaged sport and led to drug-taking, with cycling and athletics the best known examples. It hasn't produced the desired result in our 'national game' either. Top football clubs and players call the shots. Over-spending on over-priced overseas players has driven clubs into debt and England's home-grown talent has not been developed sufficiently for it to win the World or European cups for many years. The economies of Germany and Britain have been running in parallel with their football teams' fortunes. While Germany continued to manufacture its way to the top of the economy league, Britain relied on an army of property speculators encouraged by bankers more interested in personal gain than the national interest, so creating a property-led bubble that burst in 2008. Unlike small businesses, schools and hospitals, banks 'haven't been allowed to fail'. (l2) Successive governments' obeisance to international capitalism, drawing bankers and their investments to wherever the tax regime is lightest, has supported them. Even at the time of writing, these banks are still being allowed to pay bonuses that reward profit rather than service to the nation. Banks flourish while small businesses are going under. As Business Secretary, the Liberal Democrat Vince Cable acknowledged the 'rigg(ing) of markets' by the stronger players means that 'capitalism is kill(ing) competition'. (13)
If capitalist competition is flawed in its day-to-day operation, perhaps this is ultimately because its lacks any solid moral foundation. Since its claims are utilitarian why bother with morality? Modern exponents seem to have concluded that Smith's self-interested entrepreneur requires freedom of operation and maximum material incentive. The fact that Smith's stress on the need for cooperation is largely ignored, suggests that cooperation is ultimately incompatible with self-interest. Energy and entrepreneurial skill is, in theory at least, rewarded materially, a problem for many religious anti-materialists. However, the difficulty many of us have with capitalism is that, even when efficiently productive, the price in terms of suffering can render the whole enterprise morally reprehensible. Those who win the orders are always likely to be those who are most ready to reduce labour costs and use unscrupulous methods of production. To take one example, in order that cut-price fruit covered with chemical residues can grace our tables, Costa Rican pineapple producers pay poverty wages and use violence to intimidate would-be trade unionists. (14) Whether seen in the eclipse of good quality state-sponsored TV in Italy by cheap and nasty commercial rivals or in the demise of small quality shops, capitalism inclines to the lowest common denominator. As for the arts, the triumph of sensationalism over substance from soap operas to art galleries is often argued. Commercial competition often involves a great deal of duplication, so wastefulness is another problem. In arguing that government health reforms will encourage health providers to compete rather than collaborate and waste resources in the process, the British Medical Association is adumbrating a phenomenon long evident in the private sector.
Inevitably, competition creates many losers and the winners may also be damaged. Winning becomes more important than taking part. For a champion sportsman winning can become an obsession which destroys private life. Competitive self-interest all too easily destroys generosity of spirit, making some entrepreneurs amoral or unscrupulous. In the public sector too, the drive to win may lead to cheating, as has been described previously with regard to schools. Failure causes stress. Rejection is something that we all learn to live with as we move from childhood to adult life and up to a point it is character-building. However, in a culture where so much emphasis is placed on exams and celebrity success, is it surprising that Britain's youngsters suffer higher levels of mental health problems than anywhere else in the world?" The qualifications they must achieve to attain even a relatively menial job have steadily increased.
As a teacher I see failure on the faces and in the body language of my low ability students every day. If academic failure is compounded with failure in other respects the result can be devastating. When absurdly high numbers of youngsters enter for TV's X-Factor competition (some 200,000 in 2010) that double failure manifests itself in bitterness or tears that are surely not one of the many manufactured features of this programme. Are we thinking enough as a society about what our school failures will do? Once they leave my class and they cease being important other than as another result to be crunched in the statistics I hear nothing more about those who leave school early. A good number of the kids of class 11Z, barely literate or numerate, too limited to manipulate the higher functions of a computer and too depressed to interact socially with good 'emotional intelligence' will leave for a life of unemployment, petty crime and spells of casual employment in 'dead-end' jobs. However hard the task, we should surely be seeking to provide meaningful employment for all, not just leaving it to market forces.
The veneration of competition has led to a neglect of alternative routes to personal fulfilment and quality assurance. When I was young many of us talked about 'job satisfaction' as our number one criterion for selecting a job, no doubt in part a by-product of youthful naivete and a middle-class upbringing. The culture was different. Today's youngsters emphasise monetary rewards, many believing that six-figure salaries are a realistic possibility within a few years. To change this unhealthy culture it would be good to see more examples of cooperation in the broadcast media. The Young Ones, featuring elderly celebrities, was a breath of fresh air in the reality TV output of 2010. It showed the stronger helping the weaker and all of them attaining a good measure of rejuvenation, achieved without the familiar framework of a competition. It's surely not irrelevant that these people had been through the sharing experience of the Second World War.
In Finland, they apply the same cooperative principle in their schools, with the brightest students seated next to the weakest, with the expectation that they will offer help. Finland's educational output is amongst the best in the world, higher than Britain's. (16) Mutual benefit is a key feature, those who help gaining morally as much as those who are helped gain practically. The less able are supported rather than discarded or ignored as unworthy failures. The result often seems to be more, not less productivity. The success of the British Home Front in the Second World War or the resourcefulness of Cuba's poor today are examples of how necessity is often the mother of cooperation as much as of invention. In the latter case the people have withstood potential starvation and malnutrition by turning every available space into local community gardens, 'production by and for local communities working together'. (17) How many allotment producers share their gluts in Britain? When there is a sharing of ideas, more possibilities arise and more diversity of experience is drawn upon. Quality can be assured by the setting of minimum standards and endangered by the removal of 'red tape' often demanded by the proponents of competition.
Some cooperative models place a heavy emphasis on voluntarism. Ironically, they have arisen from leaders whose core policies seemed to be much more to do with encouraging competition. So it is that we find Joseph Stalin and David Cameron as fellow-travellers, with the former urging tired workers to work longer for free to help the USSR win the world industrialisation competition and the latter urging tired workers and retired grandparents to volunteer their labour in his Big Society. Medals flowed for the Stakhanovites in 1930s Russia and New Year's honours will doubtless follow for a small army of Linda Snellites. (18)
Voluntarism may arise from religious or political ideologies that emphasise altruism, but if the mainstream economic and social model is mean and competitive, its call to arms is likely to be regarded as arising from ungenerous motives. If one believes that all labour should be rewarded by fair wages then asking people to do socially useful work for free will be seen only as a cynical extension of the mainstream policy of driving down public sector wages and welfare benefits. What Ed Miliband needs to do is to oppose this discordant Victorian mix of strident capitalism and voluntarist philanthropy with a cooperative model that has real institutional teeth to complement its emotional appeal. First though we need to dust off concepts like 'the common good' and 'cooperation' from the museum and reenergise the concept through our schools and popular culture. To do that Miliband will need friends in high places. Back in 1964 Harold Wilson, as newly elected Labour Prime Minister, argued that 'we are a frustrated society' where talent was going unnoticed. He declared that his purpose in politics was to pursue measures which would 'release the energies of (all) those who have a contribution to make'. (19) Sadly, his exhortation is as necessary now as it was then.
(1.) Howard Jacobson, The Observer, 30.10.10.
(2.) Darwin's theory of sexual selection is no longer universally accepted by the scientific community, but rival theories certainly seem counter-intuitive.
(3.) Eric Hobsbawn, How to Change the World, 2010, cited in Guardian review, 22.1.11.
(4.) Karl Marx, 1844 Manuscripts, cited in David McLellan, Karl Marx: the Legacy, (London, 1983), p. 23.
(5.) The Apprentice (BBC1) was first broadcast in 2005.
(6.) My own research based on comparison of the Radio Times May 31-June 6, 1953 and June 4-10, 1966. 'Prime time' taken as 5 to 9 pm.
(7.) The argument being that competition does. See The Independent 30.10.10.
(8.) Adam Smith. An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, (London, 1776), Everyman edition. 1904, pp. 11-13.
(9.) Who gets the best jobs?, BBC2 documentary, 2.2.11.
(10.) See Quentin Deakin, 'The Modern British Comprehensive School', Contemporary Review, Volume 291, No. 1692, Spring 2009 and Katherine Birbalsingh, To Miss With Love, (London, 2010).
(11.) Who gets the best jobs?. BBC2 documentary, 2.2.11.
(12.) Paul Turner, Deputy Chief of the Bank of England, interviewed on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme, 18.1.11
(13.) Vince Cable, interview on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme, 22.9.10.
(14.) Article by Felicity Lawrence. The Guardian Weekend, 2.10.10.
(15.) Cambridge Primary Review, 2009, research into primary education in England found evidence of exams and league tables increasing stress. Similarly UNICEF report of 2007.
(16.) Ellen Gamerman, 'What makes Finnish kids so smart?', Wall Street Journal, 29.2.08.
(17.) Monty Don, Around the World in 80 Gardens, (London, 2008), p. 106.
(18.) Aleksei Stakhanov in 1935 mined 102 tonnes of coal in 5 hours and forty-five minutes (x14 the norm). Linda Snell is a character in Radio 4's The Archers.
(19.) Harold Wilson, Purpose in Politics, (London, 1964), x.
Quentin Deakin is coordinator of citizenship at Beckfoot School in Bingley. He is the author Expansion, War and Rebellion: Europe 1598-1661 (Cambridge Perspectives in History, 2000).…
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Publication information: Article title: Why Competition Is Not Working. Contributors: Deakin, Quentin - Author. Magazine title: Contemporary Review. Volume: 293. Issue: 1703 Publication date: December 2011. Page number: 452+. © 1999 Contemporary Review Company Ltd. COPYRIGHT 2011 Gale Group.
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