The Future is Red in Tooth and Claw
Parting volleys on humankind’s arenas of contention
Cooperation is local, competition is pandemic. It has always been this way. We live in a churning cauldron of competitive vectors, of drags and accelerants. We compete for money, jobs, love, space and power. We compete, and we are competed for (for our votes, for our consumer dollars, for our admiration – desire desires desire). What goes for thinking these days is mostly competition; what goes for information is mostly shill and exhortation. The media world is a vast infomercial – competing for the mind of the reader, the e-reader or the (TV) e-watcher.
Conversation is a competition to have one’s voice heard; to have one’s ideas prevail. Languages compete and extend their reach or disappear. The world is a chessboard of international gamesmanship. In space, we are all competing for the higher ground. And, willy-nilly, the whirling, pulsing interactions of competition seem only to grow faster and denser as the world goes digital, and as connectivity multiplies arenas of contention. The individual human being wins and loses a thousand times a day – mostly without even knowing it, as the virtual and invisible electronic tickers mark the rise and fall of prices, currency and interest rates. Being alive, we compete.
We think of nature as “red in tooth and claw” (Tennyson’s phrase), in contrast to human society, which is polite, restrained, cooperative and civilized. We take it for granted that civilization has managed to evade the savage imperative. But the truth is that much of what goes for civilization is competitive – albeit competition conventionalized and channelled; civilized at least in the sense that war, rapine, pillage and slaughter are theoretically diminished as options.
Complex animals developed cooperative behaviours first as an aspect of reproduction, and then as a social adaptation in larger groups (such as packs). In humans, cooperation begins with mother, father and child, and expands to hunting groups, tribes, villages, cities and states – forging larger and larger units for competitive advantage. Still, just as the local competitive interfaces expand and grow more complex, the internal structures of cooperative units seethe with competition for power, hierarchy, position, love and wealth – units within units jockeying with each other down to the individual human being (who is probably torn by competing ideas and motives within his or her own heart).
The great religious and utopian ideas of the past were meant to redeem us from the world of struggle, work, error, guilt and knowledge – all the sins of the Fall – either in this world or the next. But the yearning for non-competition is paradoxical. As Schopenhauer so acutely noted, life itself involves desire, struggle and competition: to survive, we need something else to die. (Thus, it is not necessarily a very nice paradox – life itself is “red in tooth and claw.”) Schopenhauer’s notional embrace of what he understood of Hinduism – the quieting of desire through contemplation or personal extinction – derived from this tragic apprehension. The dream of (or nostalgia for) non-competition is Death.
The Nietzschean alternative is to renounce the fantasy of cessation and safety in order to embrace the seething flux of life – to do battle, to ride the whirlwind. Nietzsche invented the infelicitous phrase Overman or Superman for this – which got him considerable bad press. Think of him more as a romantic, Byronic hero with his nose to the wind and a look of joy on his face as he joins the fray. Free-market economists are Nietzschean; the de rigueur buzz-phrase ‘creative destruction’ is Nietzschean. What free competition destroys serves to create space and energy for renewal and rebirth. What Schopenhauer marked as universal slaughter, Nietzsche preferred to see as a dance (Nietzsche has that shady reputation – difficult sometimes to see him as the naïve, Pollyanna optimist that he was; but there you are).
Cooperation is the counterpoint to competition (indeed, competition is a nice dance until you or your people get caught in the meat-grinder of creative destruction). It is fascinating to think of society as formed in the tension (competition) between the two. Cooperation is local, but competition is everywhere. Cooperation is conservative. It is about barriers and safety nets. This is a battle of tempos. Competition accelerates, and cooperation slows the rhythm. Borders, bureaucracies, treaties, regulations, unions, political parties, service clubs, churches and even corporations create pockets of respite from competition, just as they also turn into competitive monads themselves.
Yet nothing avails, for the scale of competition waxes, and the trajectory of history is toward the unimaginable and the inhuman. It is exhilarating. It takes your breath away. It drives invention and efficiency. And it exhausts the heart. Nietzsche or Schopenhauer – it is difficult to decide. Sometimes you envy stones, they are so calm.
Douglas Glover is a Governor-General’s Award-winning novelist and short story writer. His last book was The Enamoured Knight, a study of Cervantes and Don Quixote.