Our reproductive and technological success as a species has transformed the conditions of our own existence. The defining characteristic of the age we now live in is global interdependence. Within this context, the prevailing culture of contest is proving unjust and unsustainable. In order to move beyond this culture of contest we need to debunk the myths that perpetuate it. Then we need to exercise constructive agency on three fronts: the education and empowerment of individuals, the construction of radically new institutional forms, and the development of organic modes of community life. But this constructive agency will only be effective if it is informed by a culture of purposeful and systematic learning on each of these fronts.
I think we all recognize that we live at a very critical juncture in human history. There are now 7 billion of us on this planet, and we are wielding technologies that increase our impact and our interdependence a thousand-fold. We’ve literally, as a result, transformed the conditions of our own existence on this planet. But we haven’t yet adapted to these new conditions that we live in. And we urgently need to, because until we do, the scale of human suffering and the scale of ecological degradation on this planet will continue to increase.
What is the Culture of Contest?
One of the things I believe we need to do, in order to adapt to this new reality we live in, is to move beyond what I call the “culture of contest”. The culture of contest is a culture that organizes almost every social institution as a contest, with winners and losers. Today, most of us live in a culture of contest to varying degrees. We organize governance as a contest for power. We organize justice as contest of legal advocacy. We organize the market as a contest of capital accumulation and consumption. We organize education as a contest for grades and recognition. We even organize many forms of recreation and leisure as mental or physical contests.
Problems with the Culture of Contest
But there are some major problems with the culture of contest, that make it inherently socially unjust and ecologically unsustainable. Some of those problems include the fact that when you organize every social institution as a contest, what you are doing by design is serving only the interests of the most powerful segments of society; only their short-term, material interests to be precise. The culture of contest by design, perpetuates social disparities. And as a result, it creates continuous cycles of conflict, instability, and crisis.
Now as a result of this conflict and instability, the culture of contest also prevents us from solving the increasingly complex problems that face us on this planet today as a result of our numbers, our technology, our growing interdependence. Solving these increasingly complex problems requires the highest degrees of cooperation and collaboration over sustained periods of time among people with diverse insights, experiences, talents, and capacities. But the culture of contest sets diverse people against one another in ways that actually confound our ability to solve the increasingly complex problems facing us today.
De-Mything the Culture of Contest
So how do we move beyond the culture of contest? Well, I think we can begin by dispelling a few very influential myths that actually help to perpetuate the culture of contest.
The first of these is that human nature is inherently selfish, aggressive, and competitive. This is a myth. All of the human sciences today are demonstrating is we are wired for both competition and cooperation, for both egoism and altruism, and which of these potentials is more fully developed depends on how we are raised, on our social environment, on our education and training, on our social institutional structures and incentive systems, and on the choices we make as we navigate those systems. The culture of contest actually cultivates our competitive and egoistic potential. It actually causes our cooperative and altruistic potential to atrophy.
The second myth that helps perpetuate the culture of contest is the myth that excellence, creativity, and productivity are best promoted through self-interested competition. Again, this is another myth. Humans are not only motivated by self-interest, nor is self-interest actually our most powerful motivation. Creativity and the pursuit of excellence are in themselves powerful, intrinsic sources of motivation. But beyond those, the desire to find meaning in life, the desire to align our life’s energy with a higher purpose or cause, the desire work with others in order to contribute to the betterment of society, those are deep sources of human motivation, which the culture of contest fails to tap into. It is only when we tap into these deep wells of human motivation that we are going to actually release the true sources of excellence, creativity, and productivity in society.
The third myth is that the culture of contest is premised on is the myth that competition is the driving force of evolution itself. This is just another myth. Evolutionary biologists are beginning to demonstrate that mutualism is an equally powerful, if not more powerful, evolutionary force. Mutualism gave us nucleated cells and multi-cellular organisms that are the basis of all complex life today. Mutualism gave us the balance of oxygen and carbon dioxide in our atmosphere today, that sustain all complex life. Mutualism between species, which is abundant in nature, confers powerful survival advantages. And mutualism within species, which in human societies we simply call ‘cooperation’, also confers powerful survival advantages. This is one of the reasons our species has been so incredibly successful, because we have unprecedented capacities for cooperation.
The Culture of Protest as part of the Culture of Contest
So if we can push those myths aside, we can ask ourselves how to we get beyond the culture of contest? Well, there is one strategy we have tried, and I think we have learned that it doesn’t work. Every time the culture of contest perpetuates some social injustice – which is all the time, because that is what it does by design – every time this happens, we can’t simply respond with a “culture of protest”. Now protest, and other oppositional strategies of social change have undoubtedly led to some very important historical advances. We can all conjure up in our memory recent or distant examples of those. And it’s entirely understandable that thoughtful, caring, well-intentioned people will respond to social injustices and oppression with protest and opposition.
But in this age of ever-increasing interdependence, the culture of protest is reaching a point of diminishing returns. There are a number of reasons for this, that I explore more deeply in my own research and writing, but the fundamental reason, and simplest reason, is simply this: the culture of protest, ultimately, is just an extension of the culture of contest. They are part of one and the same thing. The culture of protest actually rests on the same underlying myths that I was just discussing. Engaging in a culture of protest actually reinforces those myths, and in the process it reinforces the culture of contest itself. This is quite ironic, because it is the culture of contest that is generating the injustices that are spawning the protest.
Developing a Culture of 'Constructive Agency'
So we can never truly move beyond the culture of contest, simply by engaging in a culture of protest. What we can do is strive to develop a more universal culture of “constructive agency”. What I mean by that is a culture in which we bend all of our energies, in conscious and intentional ways, toward the active construction of the world we want to live in, even as the old social order is falling apart around us, in more ways than we can count. And we can exercise this constructive agency most effectively, I believe, if we focus our energies largely on three fronts:
The first of these is the education and empowerment of young people, in ways that help them recognize that in this interdependent world they’ve inherited, their own well-being is inextricably bound up in the well-being of the entire social body that they are part of, and in ways that also empower them to develop their fullest, latent potentials, in ways that they can contribute to this wellbeing. Now this kind of education and empowerment has to begin in the earliest formative years of childhood, but equally importantly, it should be extended through those critical periods of adolescence and youth, if we want to begin to raise generations who can mature beyond the culture of contest in their minds, their hearts, and their actions.
The second front that I wanted to mention, that we can focus our energy on, is striving to develop more mature institutional forms and organizational structures, because almost all of the institutions and organizations of the culture of contest can and will have to be reconstructed along more mutualistic lines, in ways that actually foster and harness these latent potentials for cooperation and altruism, that are in all of us, and channel those energies for the greatest good. The culture of contest fails to do this.
The third front we can focus our constructive energy on, is striving to develop more mature models of community life, models that reflect our organic interdependence as a social body, models that are informed by an emerging consciousness of the oneness of humanity, models that value and actually nourish diversity as a source of well-being, and models that embody justice as the central organizing principle.
Developing a 'Culture of Learning'
So the good news is that on all three of these fronts, if we look carefully enough, amidst the sort of chaos and turmoil of a culture of contest that really is in its death-throes, if we look carefully enough, we can see emerging around this planet this culture of constructive agency, emerging in neighborhoods and villages everywhere. We would do well to seek that out, to actively participate, support, and encourage it, and widen the circle of those who are applying their energies in these ways.
The first thing we are going to recognize as we do that, however, is that we actually know relatively little about how to advance on these three fronts in sustained and effective ways, in the modern world, on a global scale. We are profoundly ignorant of how to do these things, because we didn’t learn within the culture of contest. So the culture of constructive agency ultimately needs to be coupled with a “culture of learning”, characterized by the active participation of an ever-widening circle of protagonists at the grassroots of society, not just in the ivory towers, who are committed to purposeful, focused and systematic learning about how to advance on these three fronts.
And again, the good news is that if we look carefully enough, we can see signs that such a culture of learning is also beginning to emerge in neighborhoods and villages around this planet. And we would do well to seek out and actively participate in these emergent processes. These are the ways we can move beyond the culture of contest.
A Naïve and Unrealistic View?
Now, cynics will say – and I hear this all the time – cynics will say that this vision I’ve just sketched is hopelessly naïve and unrealistic. Because if you look at what I have said through the lens of the culture of contest, which makes these assumptions about human nature and competition, and evolution, and so forth, that I was just talking about… if you look at what I have said through the lens of the culture of contest, of course it appears unrealistic! It is incompatible with those underlying assumptions. But remember that this lens is deeply problematic. In fact, all of the modern human sciences are beginning to disprove these underlying assumptions. But beyond that, this lens only serves the short-term, material interests of small portion of the human population.
What we urgently need to do is put aside that lens, and take a sober look at the conditions of the world we actually live in, and how we got here. And when we do that, I believe we can see that the truly naïve and unrealistic view is that the culture of contest can continue indefinitely. Because the culture of contest is causing us to liquidate the ecological capital of the earth that sustains us, in a frenzy of consumption and capital accumulation, even as it locks us into these perpetual cycles of conflict, and instability, and crisis that prevent us from addressing the mounting and increasingly complex problems that face us in this interdependent age. That is naïve and unrealistic – to think that we can do that much longer!
Moving beyond the culture of contest is an evolutionary imperative. And we can do this. We have the capacity. We’ve learned how to split the atom. We’ve learned how to map the genetic codes of life. We’ve learned how to send a man to the moon. We’ve learned how to probe the most distant parts of the universe. We have the capacity to learn how to move beyond the culture of contest.