Competition is cooperation: It just depends on how you look at it.
This article seeks to respond to an important issue that arises a lot in the conversations and spaces in which I participate. Moreover, I think it is timely and important in relation to the divisiveness made apparent by the recent election of Donald Trump to the presidency of the United States.
There is a general usage in our language (which doesn’t necessarily indicate a cognitive consensus) that cooperation and competition are opposites or mutually exclusive. More importantly, there is a conviction that competition and cooperation are somehow ontologically “real,” which is to say that they exist, i.e. that they are a property of the system being observed, rather than a property of the observer.
An alternative viewpoint, however, and one that I find crucial, is that the presence of cooperation or competition is in the eye of the beholder.
We will look at three examples:
- Predator/Prey interactions
- The Nation-State system
An example from complex systems is illustrative. Take an ecology of predators and prey with complex systems dynamics between, say, wolves, sheep, and grass. There are several competitions happening here.
- sheep compete for grass
- wolves compete to eat sheep
- sheep compete to not be eaten by wolves
- grass competes to not be eaten by sheep
However, out of this complex system we get Lotka-Volterra cycles of the rise and fall of populations. An increase in grass can feed an increase in sheep which, in turn, can feed an increase in wolves. An increase in wolves results in less sheep, which takes pressure off of the grass, but subsequently puts more pressure on the wolf population as food becomes scarce. Populations rise and fall over time, a dance across time. These dynamics have been extended to any system containing resources and consumers of those resources, such as economics. The parts of a systems are always cooperating to maintain the system as a whole in the midst of larger systems and dynamics.
Another useful example is the dynamic between sports teams in competitive sports. Certainly we are all familiar with the arena in which one sports team competes against another in a match where there is only one winner and one loser. Beneath the surface however there are other complex dynamics occurring.
The resources for both teams are not infinite: financial resources, time, attention, etc. Many resources are in scarce supply. The ecology of sports teams and individual players seeks to maintain its popularity and importance inside larger systems. Sports desires our attention; it requires our resources, and it takes actions in order to achieve those goals, e.g. to keep sponsorships alive, and to keep salaries high. Even when competing, sports teams strive to bolster and sustain the network. Even a simple chess game between friends, while seeming competitive, may serve broader goals of companionship and time spent. When we zoom out from a limited viewpoint, we can see that competitions serve cooperative ends.
The Nation-State System
Another place where competition and cooperation occur simultaneously is in the nation-state system, i.e the realm of international politics. This does not refer to competition and cooperation between states, however. Instead we are talking about a level of understanding that shows that even when states are apparently competing (even when they are at war), their activity, seen through another lens, is fundamentally one of cooperation.
A quote from Hedley Bull is instructive:
“[States’] goal [is] the preservation of the system and society of states itself. Whatever the divisions among them, modern states have been united in the belief that they are the principal actors in world politics and the chief bearers of rights and duties within it. The society of states has sought to ensure that it will remain the prevailing form of universal political organisation, in fact and in right.”
— Hedley Bull, “The Anarchical Society,” 1977, p. 16
For some scholars, this is demonstrably evident with regard to the 1936 anarchist revolution in Spain. Foreign powers, both capitalists and communists, many of whom were already in direct conflict, cooperated to eliminate the success of Spanish anarchism because it was not merely a threat to individual states themselves but, more importantly, a threat to the entire nation-state system’s validity as the dominant means of managing peoples (internally) and international order (externally).
Competition IS Cooperation: Seeing Differently
The crucial consequence of the perspective that I have attempted to illustrate above is this.
Even when we are in conflict with an opponent, there is some cooperative dynamic that is occurring by our acting in relation to that opponent.
For example, in society and politics, when social groups oppose each other with hatred and violence, there are those who benefit. The media and the arms industry supply us with both the pens AND the swords for us to keep the merry-go-round revolving. In addition, the larger system that defines the terms of participation, benefits whenever players slip themselves into predefined slots that the system knows how to handle: predator; prey.
The solution then is neither to disavow competition in favor of cooperation, nor disavow cooperation in favor of competition, but, instead, to realize that:
Competition and Cooperation have no independent existence, i.e. they are not objective properties of the world. Competition and Cooperation are called-forth into being, into the world, only as a function of the way in which we choose to observe a domain.
Consequently, the challenge for us all is to be more cognizant, open and aware, of the contexts in which competition and cooperation are highlighted by our choices. The responsibility lies squarely in ourselves.
In other words:
Competition is Cooperation: See Differently