Wednesday, May 06, 2015


The popular quotation, "Winning isn't everything; it's the only thing,"* is not just about sports (where it's manifestly untrue**) is at the very heart of capitalism. The marginal utility of a dollar is usually negative; the marginal value of the dollar that makes someone a "winner" is everything. No matter how many dollars a loser makes, the loser has the negative utility of losing; once a winner has won, and gained the positive utility of winning, there's no point in accumulating more dollars. However, we don't know which dollar is the winning dollar until after the game — and the game of capitalism never ends — so we have to fight over every dollar as if it's the winner.

*Henry Russell "Red" Sanders; incorrectly attributed to Vince Lombardi.
**Sports are not really about winning; they're about entertainment. Winning is just a part of the entertainment.

To the extent that capitalism is "designed" (more precisely, justified ex post), the primacy of winning is by design. Supposedly, we want every firm and every worker to fight to the death over every dollar, which affords the motivation to ruthlessly cut costs and build efficiency. No one gets to rest on his or her laurels; even the richest, most powerful individual or corporation needs to fight off potential challengers.

Capitalism is not about maximizing one's material, economic well-being. If it were, Bill Gates and Warren Buffett would have stopped after a million dollars; maybe two or three million, but not ten thousand times more than that. Empirical evidence has shown that after about $75,000 per year, more money (and more stuff) stops making people happier. If it ever were just about maximizing material, economic well-being, capitalism stopped being about that in the early 19th century.

Capitalism is about winning and losing. Winners are good. Losers are bad. We reward winners, not because we want everyone to be a winner (obviously, everyone can't be a winner), but because winners are good, and that good deserves reward is just what good means. Similarly, we punish losers not because we want no one to lose (we can't have winners without losers), but because losers are bad, and that bad deserves punishment is just what bad means.

I think that Republicans want to punish poor people not because they're evil or sadistic, but because they're moral. If we reward the bad and punish the good, we become immoral; if we do not reward and punish, then we become amoral: we fail to distinguish between good and bad. Poor people are losers, losers are bad, so to not punish them is contradict or abandon morality itself.

I am an atheist for the same reason I'm a communist: because I'm a utilitarian. Utilitarianism (if it is not trivialized to narrow expediency) necessarily rejects the reward/punishment dichotomy. Utilitarianism is not about locating good and bad, and rewarding the good and punishing the bad. It is about making as many people as possible as happy as possible, and making as few people as possible suffer as little as possible. In theory, a good utilitarian wants to reward everyone and punish no one. (In practice, we cannot reward everyone and punish no one, at least not today, which is what make utilitarianism interesting. And, of course, the inventors of Utilitarianism, especially Jeremy Bentham, had some crazy stupidideas about punishment . So what? They were wrong about those points.) If one constructs the reward/punishment duality as inherent to morality, then utilitarianism is necessarily "amoral."

It is both necessary and sufficient to have a reward/punishment view of morality to support any oppressive social relations. So long as the reward/punishment idea exists, those who have "power", who can exercise physical, violent force, will define what is good (to be like those who have power) and bad (to be like those who don't have power). It then naturally follows that the good should be rewarded and the bad punished. Even if some people disagree about what is good and bad, once those with power establish what is good and bad, reward and punishment will follow.

A lot of leftist don't like this idea. It burns the ass of many feminist women that I know that I think that men who use prostitutes shouldn't be punished, that I think (ideally) rapists shouldn't be punished. It's not that I think prostitution is great (or even not bad), or that rape is no big deal (of course it is); it's that, first, I think that punishing rape doesn't eliminate it, and second, so long as we punish a thousand rapists, we implicitly permit the punishment of tens of millions (soon to be hundreds of millions) of poor people.

(To be honest, I do think that because we are in a social context that strongly relies on reward/punishment, it is presently expedient to punish rapists; we have to do the best we can with what we have, and rape is a problem that cannot simply wait until after the revolution. I'm not strictly against expediency ("in the long run, we're all dead"), but I do not see expediency as a moral ideal. And, of course, when punishment is not even expedient, I'm against it, even if I think some underlying activity is harmful.)

So long as we have capitalism, we will have economic winners and losers, and we will believe socially that winners are good and deserve reward and that losers are bad and deserve punishment (whether of the "hard" Republican punishment of poverty and suffering or the "soft" Democratic punishment of servile dependency). Even if we get rid of the idea that winners are good and losers are bad, even if we get rid of the idea of winners and losers, so long as we have the idea that good people should be rewarded and bad people should be punished as an essential (and not merely expedient) component of morality, we will end up replacing the relations of capitalism with some other oppressive, dominating social relations.

Keeping this idea of reward/punishment as essential to morality is, I think, one important reason why (in the small) the Kerista commune failed, and why (in the large) both Soviet and Chinese communism failed. In Kerista, it was good to be "pure," to be perfectly aligned with the explicit and implicit standards and ideals of the commune; it was bad to be "impure," to have reservations or hesitations with the standards. To be pure, to be good, was to be rewarded with inclusion; to be impure, to be bad, was to be punished by expulsion. In the Soviet Union and China, to be "good" was to be a good communist; to be bad was to harbor "capitalist" sentiments. And, of course, those with power constructed good and bad to reproduce and perpetuate their own power.

Fundamentally, communism is, to be moral, not something that simply changes, either at the fundamental economic level or at the social level, what kinds of behavior is good or bad, and deserves reward or punishment. And, technically, we could have (and, arguably did have) "communist" societies that did reward the good and punish the bad. I maintain, however, that any system, communism included, must abandon the idea of reward and punishment, and their connection with good and bad. Building such a society is a much harder task, I think, than just overthrowing capitalism.

1 comment:

  1. It would seem you're operating off of a dichotomy that's a rather poor representation of the system, and indeed sports. I agree, of course, that sports aren't about winning, but I don’t think they’re really about entertainment either. I mean sure, we may all be entertained, however that entertainment is subordinate to a big driver in sports, which of course is competition.

    Furthermore, I no doubt agree that with competition comes winners and losers, but at the end of the day a good test of that system is whether or not it has foundation enough to allow those who lose the ability to stay competitive. Additionally, it seems a bit shallow to define, view, or state the purpose of something relative to its outcome. I mean it’s easy to say that the reason people climb mountains is to get to the top; or the reason people work a job is to make money; or have sex for an orgasm; or watch movies to see the guy get the girl. These things may be trivially true at best, but they ignore the 99.999% of the time we spend trying to achieve these results, which is always the journey there.

    For me, then, I tend to ask myself a different [set of] question[s] which probably carry the same spirit. Inherently with competition is the underlying idea that, relative to whatever system you’re operating in, your worth is being defined. Now in most cases this worth is in itself a rather trivial thing, particularly if ones emphasis is on the quality of ones journey; i.e. failing to reach the top of the mountain is meaningless relative the challenge you placed on yourself.. The same is of course true of sport, getting the girl, and so forth. On the other hand, within a system whose resources are abundant and worth assigned by ones ability to compete and achieve livable access to those resources, failure can mean that many journey in vein. So I always have to ask myself if competition is the proper model to achieve access to life. That seems a bit shallow to me too, especially considering when the competition is over the winner is (in some cases) unable to appropriate all of their resource gains. We’re essentially creating resource starved people for no other reason than that the system demands we compete…. Two man enter, one man leave. That’s the moto of someone who sees no virtue in the journey.


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