Competition Corrupts Minds and Actions


The 12 billion US $ festival of football (the most expensive in its 84 year history) has reached its climax; a month more or less of nationalistic competition has enthralled, appalled and disappointed. The sponsors return with gold galore, Germany triumphantly parks the Jules Rimet Trophy alongside its economic supremacy and Brazil wakes to face the plethora of social ills, chronic state corruption and raging inequality that have been filed away for the duration. It’s ‘the result that matters’, ‘competition is about the winning, not the competing’, ‘football is big business’: clichéd truisms espoused by pundits on all channels in all languages. If competition has a natural home within our society it is surely sport. Under the governing body of football, which is not FIFA, but Corporate Commercialization, even competition – itself a social poison – has been polluted; the goal (excuse the pun) is not to compete, but to win, to win at all costs, and these winnings are stratospheric (the average wage for a player in the English premiership is $50,000 per week).

Corrosive Competition

Since the ‘Revolutions of 1989’ and beyond, unprecedented numbers of people throughout the world have taken to the streets demanding change. Large groups of demonstrators and activists are calling for a new way of living, a new type of civilisation. One based on social justice and freedom, and firmly rooted in ‘principles of goodness’: cooperation, sharing and tolerance; one which cultivates selflessness and social responsibility that, whilst encouraging the greatest level of diversity, recognizes and works towards a realisation of the underlying unity of humanity.

These are transitional times, and as we move from one outdated inadequate model to a new and altogether different paradigm, creative imagination is required to re-define how we live together. Familiar ways of living and organising society once thought to be positive and beneficial, do not serve the majority of humanity – or indeed the planet; they are detrimental and no longer relevant. They serve as obstacles to the manifestation of the new and need to be relegated to the past and replaced.

One such corrosive element of contemporary life is competition. Together with ambition and reward and punishment, it forms a divisive motive-based system that pollutes action, fuels desire, encourages selfishness, and is, in a very real sense, violent. “There can be no peace, no enduring happiness for man as long as we – the individual, the group and the nation – accept this competitive existence as inevitable. Competitiveness, ambition, implies conflict within and without.” [Krishnamurti] It has infected every area of contemporary society and is a major contributor to the worldwide environment of division and separation. Competing ideologies, religious, social (including environmental) and political, tussle for dominance, each maintaining they are ‘right’ and hold the solutions to society’s ills.

Together with profit, competition is the driving force in business: these ugly sisters of market fundamentalism sit festering behind a plethora of violent practices and conflicts, from corporate government corruption, to the displacement of indigenous people, the abuse of migrant workers, and all points murky in between. It poisons education, has corrupted sport and undermines the arts (the commercialization of the film industry is a key example, as too is the factory production of pop music), and as William Morris made clear in ‘Art Under Plutocracy’, as “long as the system of competition in the production and exchange of the means of life goes on, the degradation of the arts will go on; and if that system is to last for ever, then art is doomed, and will surely die; that is to say, civilization will die.”

Competition is the sacred cow of the neo-liberal project; to criticize either, suggesting there are more just, alternative ways of living, relevant to the times, is to be branded a utopian, sandal-clad dreamer. ‘Not only is competition good, it’s part of human nature; it’s the only means to motivate and regulate.’ So say the fundamentalist believers. Competitive markets, from dog biscuits to health care, pension schemes, to education and trafficking of persons, are good, reducing prices and raising standards; it is as Henry Ford put it “the keen cutting edge of business, always shaving away at costs.” Without it, mediocrity would prevail, apathy and indifference triumph. So argue the deluded yes campaign. Complacent and resistant to change, they fail to recognise the broader negative impact of the doctrine; are unaware that we are living in new times and appear blind to the fact that humanity and the planet need new ideas and revolutionary, re-imagined ways of living.

Together with ambition and reward and punishment, competition is seen as the optimum way of maximizing achievement in any given area of life, forcing the best to surface. The ‘collateral damage’ or ‘dangerous side effects’ of this rather crude outdated approach to human affairs is far-reaching division and separation, leading to conflict, suffering and violence. All attention is focused on the ‘end’, or ‘result’ – on winning, largely ignoring the means. If, for example, driving costs down entails employing children to work in sweatshops for pennies, that’s fine as long as prices are competitive and sales increase. It is a prehistoric method of control and motivation which fails to recognize that the means and the end are one; that the end is inherent in the means. If the means of bringing about peace is to initiate war, the result (as we repeatedly see, but learn not) will be violence and further conflict. ‘Winning’, ‘succeeding’ is all that matters, no matter the impact or effect – human or environmental. “We all want to be on top, and this desire creates constant conflict within ourselves and with our neighbour; it leads to competition, envy, animosity and finally war.” [Krishnamurti] Take the politicians for example. Ideologically driven and relentlessly ambitious they want one thing only – to secure votes and climb the greasy political pole. And as we know, they will say anything to get there. They talk of peace but as Krishnamurti makes clear, “an ambitious man is not a peaceful man, though he may talk of peace and brotherhood.” His motives distorted, his words dishonest, manipulative and hollow, leading in varying degrees to inevitable disharmony – individually and collectively.

Competition Corrupting Education

Perhaps the area where competition has done and continues to do most damage is education. It has poisoned education systems throughout the world, distorting educational methodologies and conditioning students. Students are conditioned into competition from an early age – making competition appear quite natural to them, and so fully indoctrinated they step into the marketplace to perpetuate the model. Schools and universities are forced to compete with each other for government approved gold stars, so they attract the brightest students who achieve the best results, enabling the school to ascend to the top of the league and continue to attract the brightest children. Competition has been married with its perfect partner – conformity: together they deny true individuality, inhibit creative thinking and the operation of intelligence and feed into the crippling homogenisation of contemporary culture. Market driven educational methodology which serves well the high priests and devotees of globalization.

Challenging ideological systems should be part of education, yet such a debate is threatening to the 1% whom the system serves; “anyone who has begun to think, places some portion of the world in jeopardy.” [John Dewey] To Noam Chomsky, Professor of Linguistics (Emeritus) at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), since 1955, “the goal of education is to produce human beings whose values are not accumulation and domination, but instead are free association on equal terms.” The focus on success at all costs and the cultivation of attitudes designed to exclude others, to see others as ‘the competition’ fuel divisions and separation, leading to conflict and suffering. Children are rarely seen as individuals, with certain innate gifts and talents, but as potential workers or economic assets; “we are turning out, as if through a mold, a type of human being, whose chief interest is to find security, to become somebody important, or to have a good time with as little thought as possible.” [Krishnamurti]

Individuals are encouraged to value their own progress, success and material acquisition over the wellbeing of the larger group, whether that is the class, the family or the community at large. This focus on the self runs in direct opposition to one of the underlying purposes of education – group awareness and social responsibility. Competition is a cornerstone of the neo-liberal ideology, which thrives on greed and selfishness. Contemporary society “as at present constituted is based on ambition and conflict, and almost everyone accepts this fact as inevitable. The individual is conditioned to its inevitability; through education, through various forms of outward and inward compulsion, he is made to be competitive.” [Krishnamurti]

The impact of this all-pervading pressure to compete and conform, to succeed and not fail – at all costs, don’t fail – is immense. The result is inhibition, suppression, anxiety, depression and stress. And whilst individuality and the space to make mistakes – at least up until employment – is superficially encouraged, dissent and freedom (there cannot be true freedom whilst conformity and competition dominate education as they do) is not really tolerated. Indirect, subtle methods of suppression are in place to enforce compliance to all constituent parts of the ideological body. Fear (reflected as anxiety and insecurity) is the major weapon of control. The fear of being different, of being unable to compete and therefore failing miserably; the fear of being marginalized, of destitution and death – not physical death, but being totally marginalized and isolated. Debt is another subsidiary tool, liberally and consistently used to engender and reinforce the primary weapon – fear.

Try Cooperation Instead

Once upon a time, long, long ago, in a cave in The Horn of Africa, the urge to compete with the other Neanderthals may well have been a positive and natural instinct for survival. We live in a world of abundance; there is food and water enough for everyone, there is no need for a single child to go hungry, or die of hunger related illnesses, as around 22,000 do today. [Unicef] All that is required is that we cooperate with one another instead of constantly competing, and we learn to share. Share the food and water and other natural resources of the world equitably amongst the people of the world.

Cooperation and sharing unites, encourages trust and builds relationships; competition divides, it sets people against one another and denies that essential ingredient to peaceful living – ‘right relationship’. For social harmony and peace to come about, social justice is essential. Cooperation and sharing are key requirements in bringing this about. Conversely, “there can be no peace, no enduring happiness for man as long as we – the individual, the group and the nation – accept this competitive existence as inevitable.” [Krishnamurti]

Graham Peebles is director of the Create Trust. He can be reached at: graham@thecreatetrust.org

Graham Peebles is director of the Create Trust. He can be reached at: graham@thecreatetrust.org

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