current affairs

A pursuit of competition and its consequences

In a happy circumstance of timing between two games of the World Cup, I stumbled across a fascinating post on the LSE British Politics and Policy blog about the

In a happy circumstance of timing between two games of the World Cup, I stumbled across a fascinating post on the LSE British Politics and Policy blog about the cult of competitiveness. It is written by Will Davies, who is a Lecturer in the Politics Department of Goldsmiths, University of London.

Amidst recent political and journalistic fervour about the 1 per cent and growing inequality, Davies presents the notion that political authority has been reconfigured in terms of the promotion of competitiveness. It struck my interest as for some time I have believed that too much competition is bad for us. What elevated status we give to winners when we can view Luis Suarez biting a player but at the same time congratulate him for finding such success. For example.

A theory of losing

The presumption about competition is that competitors have some vaguely equal opportunity at the beginning. But this belief that equal opportunity at the beginning of a competition somewhat blurs the reality of a competition: winning creates losers.

Davies describes the loser(s) as those suffering maximum inequality at the conclusion of the competition. Therefore, when we compare ourselves against another in a competition we see ourselves either as a winner or a loser. And, in this world, winner(s) take all, and the loser suffers from an inequality.

In a tweet directed to Davies, I made the point that the competitive spirit is in many ways forced upon us in our early days at school with events like Sports Day. A visiting professor at my university explained to me in a bemused tone that he did not understand why so much emphasis was placed on academic and sports success at such an early age in English schools.

He is Belgian. His child, he felt, was growing up in a culture, at such an early age that emphasised success. If you are not competitive enough you are a loser, and the implication is that you will be left behind.

This sense of competition, Davies argues, pervades all aspects of British life. He uses the theoretical framework of Foucault to explain that, “the extension of competitive principles into all walks of life, with the force of the state behind them” defines what neoliberalism is.

And the fundamental driving force behind the neoliberal ruling elite is that we, as a society, embed the concept of competitiveness into our psyche. Feeling competitive drives us to work harder at school to get better results, to get into better universities to get a better job, and have a better life. This example can then be touted out by the State as an example of success, which is used as a model for the future.

Davies, for instance, makes the claim that universities must be ‘excellent’ or else they will dwindle. And, at this time of the year where so many futures are decided by the outcome of the class of students’ degrees, and indeed the subject in which people have chosen to attempt to specialise, we must ask ourselves at what cost is all of this competition?

The inequality question

My sister recently received her degree results in a BA in English Literature and French (she received a First-Class honours). Throughout her degree she felt pressured to exhibit “academic excellence,” primarily by the language of job websites. Even when speaking to her brother (me), who holds a degree in Economics, she asked about whether employers prefer one type of degree over the other (I received a 2:1, for full disclosure).

Degree results are then passed on to the local newspaper in and those with a 1st class will get a star by their name. And it won’t end there. In jobs people will be asked what they studied, where they studied and what they received as the outcome of their work. A constant competition that never ends. And a competition in which we all take part, some unwittingly, some revel in the atmosphere.

But what about the inequality angle? This is where Davies introduced his thesis and it seems an appropriate note on which to end. In order to succeed, we might ask, what does it take? Are the rules of the game bent in favour with those who have more anyway? And, is inequality in the beginning of the competition leading to a widening of inequalities anyway?

This culture of heaping admiration on those who have found success condemns those who have not found any success to be losers. And condemning those losers to a self-defeating cycle perpetuates the feeling of inequality.

We should question the value we place on success when it appears the game we are playing appears to be rigged in favour of those who have more chances from the beginning anyway.

But maybe I am just a sore loser.

What do you think? Have your say in the comments section below.