It’s time to send salaried work, even if only little by little, to the memory trunk from an inglorious time, and once and for all, turn our organizational present into what one theorist of the 19th century called “Humanity’s true prehistory.”
We’re often amazed when someone tells us that “we need more cooperation and less competition,” and all the more when they present the market as the antithesis of cooperation. “But it’s obviously just the opposite!!” we say. Just go to any industrial zone, and you’ll realize: productive specialization is extreme. The world of the automobile, for example, is incredible: each part –and there are hundreds — has producers, technologies, quality rankings… forming a cloud of supply which the big brands don’t even directly integrate into — it would be very expensive to manage — except through lower-level integrators. The car, any car, symbol of the decentralized world, is a radical example of cooperation. And if you open up a monitor, a computer, a telephone, or a simple appliance and analyze the components that are placed on the motherboard, you’ll see another example — on a smaller scale, but no less clear.
It’s obvious that the integrators pressure the parts and component manufacturers to compete among each other to produce at a lower cost, and to improve quality. But what’s dominant is cooperation, not competition, among other things, because the market for automotive parts is not a true market, but rather a oligopsony (there are only a few buyers at the end of the chain).
And, of course, cooperation among oligopolists is not a positive example. Why do pharmaceutical companies, telecoms, car makers, etc., cooperate? To flee from competition and the dissipation of rents it creates, to assure themselves positions of excessive scale…. and to be irresponsible. Cooperation among big businesses should worry us, not make us happy.
But, still, both for good — the marvel of industrial complexity – and for evil — the capture of consumer rents and states — real existing capitalism is based more on cooperation than on competition.
What are critics of competition referring to?
For its part, the zero sum shows up in a large part of exchanges between humans. Contracts and professional promotions are governed at this level. Competition requires that where one wins, another loses: there isn’t space for everyone on the podium. However, a certain degree of cooperation is required, at least on the part of those who are on each side (we can see it as a process between groups of individuals). Also, it’s rare for the win-lose dynamic to be total, because then those who lose would want to stop playing the game, which doesn’t usually interest those who win. Sennett reminds us that in classrooms, a large part of the exchanges are governed by this kind of process.
Needless to say, in the mentality of artisan-merchants like us, every exchange that is a zero-sum game is a bad exchange, something that shouldn’t be done because either you lose, or it’s no good at all (when both sides remain the same), or, worse still, if you win at the cost of the other in the exchange, you mine the trust of the other, and you sow an impending, inevitable, and painful betrayal. So, does it really materialize in “a large part of exchanges between humans?”
If we read the paragraph, we realize that the setting Julen is talking about is a well-defined institutional environment: labor scales and classical teaching organizations. We’re far from schools of the commons or cooperation based on the deliberation of a phyle.
So, the question that arises is, does it really make sense to propose rule changes in those environments? Is it possible to hack them? Obviously, if we didn’t think so, we wouldn’t be selling consultancy on the market, but if we thought that was enough, we wouldn’t be committed to building alternatives for ourselves and inviting others to make their own. And I think that Julen or Jorge wouldn’t hesitate to participate in this “bietan jarrai” (onward with both).
Is cooperation the value that’s missing?
While the cooperation-compeition dichotomy within the old organizations can be presented as a description of the problem, above all for salaried relationships, in the bigger picture, they are surely no more than a consequence of a deeper phenomenon. Values take hold in different ways, according to the social structures in which we try to develop them. For example, if we put ourselves in the P2P mode of production, the issue is not whether one produces for the commons or for the market, because one will produce with and for both, creating competition and cooperation at the same time, as in the “coming capitalism,” or in every alternative model based on the dissipation of rents.
The question is whether or not we think that salaried relationships will continue to be the basis of what we call a business, which organizes a good part of the co-opetition between people to reach the market. Because cooperation in that mold creates that whole gamut that Sennet and Julen talk about, and generally, apart from an arduous and conscious battle like ner is fighting, lists towards the dark side and demands an awful lot of specialized work to recover from the stumbles of the structural design itself.
So perhaps instead of focusing on a debate in moral terms –cooperation vs. competition — the meeting point that can orient us towards a successful change is in the debate on deeeper cultural values that will let us send salaried work, even if only little by little, to the memory trunk from an inglorious time, and once and for all, turn our organizational present into what one theorist of the 19th century called “Humanity’s true prehistory.”
Translated by Steve Herrick from the original (in Spanish).