I grew up expecting to compete in life. Competition was just part of the zeitgeist in the 1980s. America was competing with the Soviets for world domination. There was an Arms Race and a Space Race, and back here on earth, a race for everything else. We were told in school that we would be competing with each other and with thousands of other college graduates for jobs. Competition was good. Competition was natural.
This competition mania didn't end with the Cold War. Soon after the Berlin Wall fell, we were being sold on "the global economy" in which workers across the planet would be competing against one another in a vast new economic order. It was all one giant cockfight now, mono y mano. Let the strong survive. Strongest nation. Strongest corporation. Strongest individual. By the time I was thirty years old, it felt like the entire weight of the capitalist system was bearing down on me, expecting me to be some kind of alert animal, muscles tensed, ready to spring into action, ready to grapple and fight.
But fight for what, exactly?
Walter Benjamin famously wrote that capitalism is a religion, a cult. If this is true, I was never one of the faithful. Something went wrong (or right) in the process of my indoctrination to capitalism because even as a boy, I didn’t accept on faith the benefits supposedly conferred by Adam Smith’s “invisible hand.” Maybe I was skeptical about capitalism because both of my grandfathers were pro-union men. One of them died before I was born, but the one I knew, my mother’s father, was a long-time shop steward in the AFL-CIO chapter at his Continental Motors factory in Michigan. From these men, I inherited an innate sense that working people were not automatic beneficiaries of the free market. Workers had to fight for justice and a fair wage in the capitalist system, and the best way to do this was through solidarity not competition.
The Gospels also helped immunize me against unfettered faith in capitalism. This may sound strange to some readers because capitalism and Christianity have been such intimate bedfellows throughout history, the latter a handmaiden to the former, but some Christians at least have paid very close attention to the Gospels, which I first heard read in the little Catholic Church in Annandale, NJ, where my family attended Mass every Sunday. Jesus driving the money changers from the temple. The camel that can never pass through the needle’s eye. “No man can serve two masters.” “Give to everyone who begs from you.” The Beatitudes. In the basic architecture of my soul dwells my earliest memories of those simple messages, from which I gleaned an unwavering sense that the Godly approach to life did not always align with the values of the bourgeoisie.
While all of this hyperbolic life-is-a-competition nonsense was being drilled into me from nearly every angle, I was also quietly rejecting capitalism in my mind, sloughing off its cruel logic and its false assumptions about human nature. When I was sixteen, I read Henry David Thoreau's Walden for the first time. This was another kind of gospel altogether. In Walden I discovered the possibility of a reverse economy in which simplicity and frugality could yield great personal benefits, even spiritual transformation. Thoreau observed that many of his neighbors were living unconscious lives, pursuing status and material increase at the expense of their own psychological health and spiritual fulfillment. He preferred long walks in the woods or paddling on the river or taking notes about wildflowers in his journal over practically any activity his townspeople considered to be respectable or normative for a young man of his class. He rejected the competition game in his own town and set his mind to more valuable pursuits.
When I entered college, my American National Government class, the professor presented capitalism as a “system,"as though it was some kind of vast, unbreakable machinery that had seized hold of humankind and was now controlling our thoughts and actions. That word—system—is notoriously opaque. It sounds profound and grandiose the first time you hear it, but over time, it loses its power. “System” is so often an obfuscation, a word deployed to avoid the difficult work of showing how the delicately intertwined gears make the hands move across the clock face. I learned to be suspicious of grand theories and skeptical of theoreticians (though, I do love talking about theory). Big systems exist, but they are always more complex and chaotic than the theoretician's model for it.
And big systems can always be hacked.
One of my philosophy teachers (the same one who was enamored with Ayn Rand and made us read her awful novel Atlas Shrugged) presented capitalism as essentially logical, as if it were part of the superstructure of reality, like math or atomic physics. But by then I was already well aware that capitalism was a belief system that could be ferreted out from your mind like any other, rejected and left behind. It was not some immutable law of the universe. You could stop believing in it and the world would operate differently because you had.
I lived for a year in Camden, NJ, one of the poorest and most dangerous cities in America, helping a Catholic church set up a social justice center there. In Camden, I saw how the system works in America to segregate minorities and immigrants into poverty-stricken areas; to enable the outsourcing of manufacturing jobs to other countries, gutting the economies of entire cities in the process; to imprison hundreds of thousands of black men and women because that was cheaper than actually solving any of the problems of urban poverty. Around that time, I also began to follow and support the antiglobalization movement, which was an international revolt against corporate domination of the global economy.
So by the time I had turned 40, I no longer believed that "life is a competition." While I was living my life in the 1980s and 1990s, I was learning that most people are essentially decent and because of this, it is not necessary to construct a society around surveillance, behavior modification, punishment, and imprisonment. I learned this lesson gradually, through thousands of interactions with people in which I was not robbed, assaulted, abused, or exploited---any of things I was warned about as a child. In fact, most people I've met in my life have been kind, gracious, and helpful, a reality that completely contradicts the lessons I was taught about human nature in school, in church, and in my own household.
By the time I had reached 50, I had committed myself to the mantras "always connect" and "always collaborate." I've met many people along the way who essentially compete with themselves, setting personal goals that they intend to beat. I respect this kind of competition. And competition within sports and games is also healthy and beneficial. But I now know for certain that life is not a competition. Instead, I see myself surrounded by people who can potentially become allies, friends, collaborators, and partners.
And so on this Labor Day, I am not competing with anyone. Not you. Not anyone in my profession or workplace. Not my neighbors. And certainly not millions of workers I'll never meet in China or Indonesia or Mexico.
I am not competing for money or status. Status is an especially stupid reason to compete with anyone.
Some people say academia is competitive. I'm calling bullshit on that too. As a college professor, I spend most of my time collaborating with people, not competing with them, and I've had a wonderful career in Higher Education.
There are very few zero sum games in this life. I choose to live my life seeking collaboration and solidarity with others.