Friday, January 14, 2005

Competition in Capitalism, Melville and Office Space

A discussion of Herman Melville's Bartleby the Scrivener got me to thinking about capitalism: the indignity of wage labor, the totalitarian nature of corporations, the waste and destructiveness, and so on. That in turn got me to thinking about one of the best arguments in the pro-capitalists' arsenal: The idea of competition producing superior knowledge and production. I can think of roughly three answers.
1) This is, at best, a footnote. If sacrificing competition to gain cooperation, non-adversarial work roles, democracy in the workplace, and an end to externalities and commodity fetishism, the impact of a loss of competition would be negligible. Most of the impacts of competition (i.e. higher wages, lower prices for products, higher quality) are in fact simply alleviators for markets' destructive aspects. Every actor in a market has the interest to see every other actor do worse; in technical terms, markets are "zero sum". That means that a firm has every interest in externalizing costs onto others, reducing the wages of its workers, acquiring additional power by leveraging amassed profit for psychic warfare (i.e. advertising) and bids for the public sector (i.e. campaign contributions), reducing the cost of production, raising the cost of products, and similar. Competition encourages the opposite, in general (except for the case of externalities, regulatory capture incentive and psychic warfare). I've sen very little material on how much competition does in terms of unique benefits. For example, a lot of good R&D is done where one would expect it to be done: state-subsidized universities.
2) Insofar as competition may have positive effects, cooperation is equally likely to produce positive effects. Here's a list of reasons: a) Research is best done when scientists and researchers are able to network information b) If 8 food companies had different aspects to make a good recipe, the social good would be best served if they could share their advances. c) Balancing comparative advantage and autarky intelligently requires some degree of rational planning
3) Competition doesn't necessarily manifest fully in capitalism either. Because workers and managers have every interest in extorting as much as they can from the capitalist, their competition is intrafirm, not interfirm. Anyone can recognize that that competition is economically inefficient, but it also reduces the net amount of competition. A firm that truly was innvoative thanks to competition would have to have a high degree of motivation internal to it.
I don't see why parecon wouldn't have competition. Because pay is keyed to effort, people may compete to demonstrate effort. Parecon could also easily include rewards for more effective compliance given from an industry to an individual exemplary workplace.
I also was thinking of Office Space and Bartleby, both having archetypal American slacker characters. During discussion, an Asian student in our class commented about Bartleby's boss that "He doesn't have an obligation to tell his worker what to do." No, he sort of does: if you are going to be a boss, be a boss. The reason why Bartleby is so disarming is that he says "I don't want to do any of the shit you're telling me to, I don't want to be a machine, I'll do it of you tell me to do it and drop the bullshit." It's an example of passive resistance which involves uncloaking the brutality of the system and saying, "If you're going to do this, do it honestly." It forces people to face the magnitude of what they are doing.
I have had numerous interactions with Asian immigrants who seem to have internalized, without thinking (and this is true of the society writ large, but even more so regarding this group), capitalist values. A lot of Asian philosophy (Bushido, Confucianism, etc.) has a lot of great stuff about societal duty, but it also has nasty aspects of subverting one's interest to masters and patriarchs. As Buddhism and Taoism tell us, it's not money or "success" as defined by society that's important, it's your ethical character, and that ethical character involves not being complicit in oppression such as telling others what to do.
Bartleby is clearly intelligent and was motivated at one point, but he doesn't want to work for someone else. Like Peter Gibbons, he wants to do work of some kind, but he wants to have it feel authentic and real to him, coming from the source of his own inspiration. This is, of course, not new to philosophy: Humboldt, Rousseau, Kant, and most of the Enlightenment had this same idea, of wanting to develop one's own initiatives and control of labor and life without external command or guidance.


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