COMPETITION AND SPIRITUAL
John M. Hull
Four levels of competition are distinguished: the local, face-to-face level, the industrial level, the level of government and the level of global currency competition. Influence seeps down to the local level from the global level, turning otherwise healthy forms of competition into destructive patterns, in which human relations are modelled upon the relations between currencies. The result is a spirituality of money, which shapes the image of the self, the symbols of achievement and expectations of the future. Theological resources for resistance are suggested and several policies for pacifying the unethical aspects of financial competition are mentioned.
Analysis and Commentary
Competition is one of the most powerful forces which shape the spiritual, moral and social lives of both children and adults in our society but, like aspects of spirituality, it is ambiguous (Hull, 1996a). When it is well managed, competition adds enjoyment to our lives and is a stimulus for attaining higher quality, but when allowed to fall into the hands of the strong and the able, it can lead to discouragement and low self esteem for others, and it can serve as an instrument to widen the gulf between the powerful and the powerless.
Competition takes many forms and is manifest at every level of life, from the biological right up to the most abstract aspects of our cultural life. My method will be first to clarify the concept of competition, then to distinguish four layers of competition as it affects our lives today, and to arrange these four spheres or layers of competition in descending order from abstract to concrete, showing that the influence permeates down from the higher levels. I shall accept a broadly Marxian understanding of the spiritual life as being influenced by the material life rather than the opposite, Hegelian view of the spirit realising itself in human history and society (Marx, 1992), but I shall follow Antonio Gramsci (1971), Cornelius Castoriadis (1984, 1987) and other contemporary theorists of ideology in suggesting that the influence of the material base upon the spiritual and cultural super-structure is more mutual than was apparent to the 19th century founders of social theory. In addition, I will show that the material basis of culture and spirituality in daily work has itself been spiritualised through the encapsulation of work, especially dead labour, in the form of money, and that money has become yet further spiritualised and abstracted until reaching the extra-territorial and globalised forms of today. As we attempt to understand the role of competition in the lives of young people today we must grasp the fact that the Marxian concept of inversion has been itself inverted. Using the concept of projection, Marx showed that the material relations of society produce a mirror-like image in the realm of culture, law, the arts and especially religion. This inverted social reality in the sense that whereas the mythology declares that the earthly realm is a replica of the ruling heavenly realm, the truth is exactly the opposite - the heavenly realm is merely a picture of the earthly realm, confirming and justifying it (Marx, 1992). The secondary inversion, which is the crucial feature in understanding spirituality today, occurs as work is turned into capital, and capital becomes more and more abstract and increasingly alienated from work. The layer of highly abstract money which now surrounds the earth and dominates human culture is not so much a projection of the material base as its sublimation or distillation into forms which are almost entirely invisible and imperceptible and yet which shape the immersions, the dreams and the general character of human beings. This heavenly realm of globalised money is no mere projected picture which can be changed by attacking the material base from which it springs, but is the most powerful social and political force in the world, having attained autonomy. The base has been transfigured into the superstructure. The base can only be reached through the superstructure. Moreover, whereas the God who reigned in the old projected superstructure was nothing but a reification of material power, the deity which now reigns in the basic superstructure is no phantom, no mere epic adventure film shown on the darkened screens of our imagination, but is the actual source of the power of the world (Hull, 1996b). This power is money and its energy is competition.
We who seek to understand the spirituality of young people today must therefore become labourers in the symbolic superstructure, and from this vantage point we will learn how to understand the hearts and minds of our boys and girls.
The Concept of Competition
Competition occurs when life strives with life for success and mastery. Inanimate things cannot be said to compete. Although they vary in brightness the stars cannot be said to compete for our attention. We may, however, say that crowded plants compete for the sunshine and that the hundreds of thousands of sperm compete for possession of the ovum (Smith, 1984). When life is conscious, competition takes more deliberate forms. All competition involves striving but not all strife is competitive. If I struggle to strengthen my muscles by lifting weights alone in my room, I can only be said to be competing in the attenuated sense that I may compete with myself. Similarly, I may play chess against myself, but genuine competition requires the presence of another person since in real competition there must be a loser as well as a winner. When I play chess against myself there is no loser. Competition is often contrasted with cooperation but there are many mixed forms (Colman, 1982). Opposing sporting teams must cooperate in observation of the rules of the game, and individual members of a team cooperate with each other to compete with the rival team.
In order to highlight my view about the values of competition cascading downwards, I will discuss the four spheres of competition in descending order of power. First, we will deal with pure money competition, then with competition between national and transnational companies, then with competition between governments or countries and finally we will consider competition at the immediate of face-to-face relationships, in the home, the school and on the sporting field.
Competition at the Level of Pure Money
In order to create economic stability following the second world war, the Breton Woods agreements of 1944 fixed the value of the major world currencies to the US dollar while the price of gold was fixed at 35 US dollars an ounce (George & Sabelli, 1994). However, in the early 1970s the US dollar was allowed to float against the price of gold and gradually the various world currencies were permitted to float against the dollar. The result was the creation of the modern money market, which has several important features. First, the fact that the currencies float against each other has introduced a volatility of currency prices which has led to a whole new series of financial measures to protect investors and traders against the risks of this volatility (Dixon & Holmes, 1992). This has led to the creation of several subsidiary money markets in which the various instruments and products used to hedge the risk have themselves become tradable. Not only is the volatility a source of risk; it is also a source of profitability. Next, because some currencies were able to maintain their value in competition with each other whereas other currencies were not, a distinction developed between the hard and the soft currencies (Brown, 1978), which is a way of speaking about the rich world and the poor world. Not only was the value sucked out of the weaker currencies by the stronger ones, so that poverty grew rapidly in the societies with soft currencies, but a kind of money-curtain was created around the rich countries, protecting them from intrusions from the poor world. The money-curtain which is a metaphorical way of describing the difference between the hard and soft currencies of the world, replaced the iron curtain. Whereas the purpose of the iron curtain was to keep people in, the purpose of the money-curtain is to keep people out. Another difference is that the iron curtain was most palpable to those inside it, whereas the money-curtain is almost invisible to those who are inside it. It is the people outside the money-curtain who become intensely aware of it.
The result is that whereas in the 1960s there seemed to be a real possibility of global development, so that the poorer countries might close the gap with the rich world, the last thirty years have seen the opposite tendency (Kothari, 1993; Bello, 1994). The gap between the rich and the poor countries, the strength (in other words) of the money-curtain, has grown greater. In 1960 the gap between the richest twenty percent and the poorest twenty percent of the world was thirty to one. By 1991 this ratio had grown to sixty-one to one and by 1994 the ratio was seventy-four to one. In the third place, it is important to realise that this can no longer be described as a competition between nations or even between national currencies. The countries of the OECD regard themselves as ‘natural competitors’ because the poor countries are not able to compete with them. Presumably they should be regarded as unnatural competitors but this expression is never used. The new factor which has entered into this international competition, however, is the growth of the off-shore banking and taxation havens which, commencing in the early 1950s, have now developed into a network of about a hundred such locations (Martin & Schumann, 1997). It is now reckoned that the money circulating between the tax havens is far greater than the money under the control of the treasury departments of national governments. Approximately seventy percent of the worlds liquidity is in the form of the US dollar, but only a small proportion of that seventy percent is under the control of the American tax payer. While it is true that Japan is in competition with the USA, in a more powerful and fundamental sense, the Yen is in competition with the US dollar. Thus the territorial competition between the European powers in the 17th and 18th centuries turned first into the commercial and financial competition of the 18th and 19th centuries and finally into the pure currency competition of today. Of course ultimately any given currency can be traced back to its originating government but so great is the power of the extra-territorial funds that no national government can withstand them. Any national government which tried to institute financial controls today, in an attempt to offset the harmful effects of the de-regulation of the financial markets which took place in the 1980s, would be severely punished by international finance. The truth is that money is no longer under political and democratic control.
Not only has the link between money and democracy been effectively broken but the fact that far greater profits can be obtained through trading on the pure money markets than in trading for commodities shows us that the link between finance and labour has also been broken. Indeed, the interests of money and those of labour are diametrically opposed on many occasions, as can be seen from the fact that the market value of a company normally increases rapidly when it is announced that the labour force is being cut back. Since finance is far more mobile than labour, it is easy for labour forces in various countries to be thrown into a helpless competition with each other whilst finance roles the dice.
The essence of the relationship between the currencies is competition. In this competition, each trader on the market seeks to maximise his or her own selfish interest which must necessarily be at the expense of others (Wuthe, 1992, p.22; Dixon & Holmes, 1992, p.10). If the pound grows stronger against the Deutschmark then the Deutschmark grows weaker. A remarkable fact is that in the financial trader we have a professional who openly admits that his or her motivation is entirely selfish. This does not mean that the individual trader as a person is a particularly selfish person. It means that the competitive structure of the financial markets themselves inevitably leads to the search for profit at the expense of others’ loss. If the structure of any other profession were so geared as to promote competition at the expense of others there would be an outcry, although it is true that as the influence of money competition seeps downward into governments and their agencies, increasingly both schools and hospitals are being cast into the same competitive mould. In spite of this, I am not aware that any school or department of economics in Europe has a lecturer in the ethics of economics. I am not speaking of business ethics but of money ethics. This is in striking contrast with medical research where specialised units in medical ethics are becoming more common. I can only assume that the reason for this is that the problems with which the ethics of medicine deals are extremely concrete and human whereas the problems which the ethics of economics gives rise to are global and abstract. Nevertheless, the competition between money is undoubtedly a factor contributing to the sickness and death of millions of innocent children every year.
In ordinary life, competition brings excitement, happiness, and an increase in standards, but what are the benefits of competition between the currencies of the world? Far from producing zest for life and excitement, this remorseless competition produces anxiety, stress and ruin for thousands of business people, while the downward pressure of this competition upon family life means that those who are employed are forced to work harder and harder to keep their heads above water, whilst those who are unemployed sink deeper into the trap of poverty. Competition between runners keeps them at the peak of their form, but is the British pound healthier because it competes with the French franc or with the US dollar? All that can be said by those who support the currency competition is that without it there could not be national competitiveness. So competition is justified by the way it creates more competition in another sphere.
Not only does one look in vain for any benefit or good to be derived from this competition between currencies, but the competition is producing enormous evil on a global scale. It is now a matter of urgency that the money markets should be restrained but before I comment on how this might be done, I want to trace how the stress and strain at this superior level seeps down into the lower levels.
Competition at the Level of the Company, the Transnational Company and Government
It is the universal desire of manufacturing and trading companies to do away with competition and to establish a monopoly of their section of the market. It would then be possible to enjoy a vast increase in profitability, not only because sales would be far greater without the interference of competitors but it would be possible to win further profits through allowing the products to deteriorate in quality. So intimate is the link between profitability and competition that the management of competition is the principle responsibility of management today (Porter, 1985). The task of government in regulating this competition is to protect the public interest (Wilkes, 1999). As the power and size of companies has increased dramatically in recent decades, it has been matched by a huge growth in competition law. The principle function of competition law is to prevent a company from obtaining a dominant position in any sector of the market, and to encourage competition in the interests of helping the country to become more competitive with other trading blocks or countries.
Governments, however, are territorial but following its de-regulation in the 1980s money has become globalised. The appearance first of international and then of transnational trading companies has made it possible for national governments to be manipulated and marginalised, while the structural adjustment policies of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund have also diminished the size and scope of national governments. It is easier for corrupt and dictatorial governments to impose unpalatable measures upon their people than it is for democratically elected governments to do this. This is one of the reasons why western financial institutions have encouraged the appearance of corrupt third world governments, a fact which has then been used to deny aid to those same nations.
The unhappy situation of the trading company controlled by the remorseless grip of money can be seen in the desperate race to increase margins of profit not so much to repay dividends to the shareholders as to maintain the market value of the company. Only in this way can hostile takeovers be avoided. Meanwhile, nothing must be allowed to stand in the way of money (Schutt, 1998, p.115). Public assets have to be disposed to make room for more and more investment opportunities. Governments are starved of legitimate revenues not only by their fear that the companies will move abroad but by the fact that their own institutions are investing money in the tax havens thus avoiding returning to the people a dividend of their labour through taxation. Thus governments, starved of money, must appeal for yet further private funds encouraging yet more disposal of public assets and the result is that in the midst of unprecedented wealth we find that we cannot afford to maintain our railways, our hospitals or our schools (Goudzwaard & de Lange, 1995, p.2).
Competition at the Face-to-face Level
It is the purpose of this section to show that the competitive values of money, where human values are replaced by exchange values, is having an effect upon the spiritual and moral character of our children. Elsewhere I have traced the striking parallels between the development of economic awareness and the development of religion (Hull, 1999). I have shown that where the ultimate or the transcendent in a society is indeed divine, the development of the religious and moral life shows a pattern of increasing spiritualisation in the direction of altruism and social solidarity (Oser & Gmunder, 1991), but when children perceive that the ultimate or transcendent reality in their society is represented by money, and that this is after all what their parents and the world around them want above all else, the effect upon their characters is to distort human spiritual and moral growth and to create individuals who are modelled upon the units of the money which they have come to desire.
I shall illustrate this through some comments on the current vocabulary of school children in England. It is considered cool to be fashionable, to be aware of the most popular or trendy films and music, to wear the most prestigious clothes and to be quote "laid back", uncommitted, uninvolved, and unmoved. To be sad is to display concern for commitments, to be religious, to reject or ignore fashionable clothes. Generally speaking, you need money to be cool, and it is sad to be poor. My two sons aged twelve and fifteen run a young peoples branch of Amnesty International in their school but not on the school premises. The group meets in the home of a nearby student. If they were to meet on the school premises, they would become known as ‘saddoes.’ Children implore their mother not to pick them up from school in the old family car because they might be thought to be sad. A child begs its mother to buy a pair of trainers with a fashionable brand mark, even although it is four or five times as expensive as the same product without the brand. He explains that his mother must consider his own reputation with his friends. A sixth form physics teacher who explained the beauty of crystals was told by the students that he was sad. Why sad? Because he was not committing himself to utilitarian and monetary values, because he was not engaged in the search for individual success, because he had paused to consider the beauty of the natural world.
Against the pressure of such values, young people continue to have a vocabulary of protest against injustice. To treat someone unfairly is "slack", it is slack when injustice triumphs, slack when the innocent are trampled upon. The problem, however, is where the imaginations of young people can find support in their struggle against what is slack. How can one cry out slack without being sad?
These features of vocabulary indicate the values which shape many young people today. They are very largely the product of symbolic merchandising, which itself is the aftermath of product or consumption advertising. When people can consume no more, symbolic advertising will still induce them to purchase more, since the human appetite for symbolic superiority is never satisfied. This is given additional urgency by the growing gulf between the rich and the poor within each nation, which is as we have seen a consequence of the money competition at the highest level. Because it is becoming easier to fall out of the middle class, middle class parents are becoming more anxious about the success of their children, and children are forced into more and more competition with each other for success. The continued existence of about one hundred and sixty selective grammar schools in various towns and cities of England is a witness to this parental desire. The anxiety associated with the old selective examination at 11+ is now focused upon the examinations held by these various individual grammar schools in order to select for entrance. In this way, low self esteem and a sense of having failed their families become widespread amongst twelve year olds while the competition and the self-deception of their parents grows more intense. In the name of higher standards more and more competitive tests are introduced and schools are thrown into more and more intense competition between each other.
Our national education systems thus confront a painful dilemma. On the one hand they must educate their citizens for successful international competition and for successful entry into the secure havens of money. As I have shown, this leads to unethical forms of life and to practices which are not consistent with good citizenship. At the same time, national governments want to create education systems which will advance the spirituality and morality of their children, because politicians are also fathers and mothers, but are torn between incompatible views of what is in the best interests of their children’s future.
In this section we will consider policies which may help to overcome the destructive forces of futile financial competition, and will help to harness the positive aspects of competition in the interests of spiritual and moral growth.
1. In the school, competition can be used for motivation and for the increase of standards but only if it is conducted with a view to the welfare of all participants, and not just to the potential or likely winners. A competition which increases the achievement of half a dozen of the most able students but depresses the self-esteem and thus lowers the achievement of the rest of the student body is a futile and even harmful competition. It is important therefore to match competitor against competitor so that the competition takes place on a level playing field. Moreover, the range of achievements for which competition is encouraged must represent the widest values of the school community. There must be a competition for the best service to the school community, a competition for the most rapidly improved student, and recognition and rewards for those students who have had to struggle against unusual handicaps or difficulties. Those who have given their gifts and talents to the school whether in the orchestra or the playing field should be rewarded along side those who have earned the highest academic results. A competition must never be taken too seriously in schools. It must be so arranged that everyone will win at something. No pupil should ever experience losing at everything. The virtues and excitement of competition should always be placed beside the satisfactions and the happiness of cooperation. To work together as a team for some worthwhile cause does more to build up the moral character than to enjoy a success which was not available to ones fellow students.
At the level of educational organisation, it is important that the few remaining grammar schools should be reformed so as to be open to students of all abilities. In view of the fact that the best students from the comprehensive schools do as well as the best students from the grammar schools, and in view of the probability that less able students performed better in schools with high academic expectations, there can be little doubt that an extension of the comprehensive school system is in the best interests of most of the pupils. For this reason it is an educational duty to join the campaign for state education, and to encourage government to adopt educational policies which will be in the best interests of all and so prevent education from continuing to contribute to the widening of the gap between rich and poor people in our country. The enormous advantage which the richer parents enjoy in getting their children into and through university should be removed by creating a system of free higher education, funded by the income from a tax on hot currency flows.
2. At the level of the industrial company and the consumer/symbolic trade, the role of a critical approach to media studies in schools is increasingly important. Schools should become more actively involved in the fair trade movement and in the various campaigns which organisations such as Oxfam and Christian Aid organise. Education for the environment should be emphasised because it is industrial competition which has done most to degrade the environment.
3. The most important reforms should take place at the level of pure money competition. Reforms at the lower levels depend upon reformation at this highest level. First, it is necessary that the offshore tax havens should be declared illegal. Secondly, we should encourage the countries of the OECD, beginning with our own governments to impose the Tobin tax upon all intercurrency flows above a certain level. Third, it is necessary to reform the basic institutions which govern the worlds financial system, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. These organisations, although insisting that everybody else should be involved in competition, especially the poor countries, are noticeably without any competition themselves. These organisations must be brought under the control of the United Nations so that they can serve where the need is greatest. Instead of remaining as solitary monolithic structures located in New York, these financial institutions should be broken up and divided into regional bodies so as to create genuine competition between them (George & Sabelli, 1994; Dasgupta, 1998).
The Contribution of Theology and Religious Education
The social teaching of the Roman Catholic Church is absolutely clear on these issues. "God gave the earth to the whole human race for the sustenance of all its members, without excluding or favouring anyone…" (John Paul II, 1991). It is clear that the unrestrained money markets are not only failing to bring this about but are both directly and indirectly frustrating it. The church recognises that a free and efficient market could be a powerful instrument for the alleviation of human need. However, far from that happening the money markets are working in just the opposite direction. This is why the Pope refers to "destructive competitiveness" (John Paul II, 1991, para. 41.2) and "the spread of improper sources of growing rich and of easy profit deriving from illegal, purely speculative activity." (John Paul II, 1991, para.48.2). In an earlier encyclical John Paul II had already called for "the reform of the world monetary and financial system, today recognised as inadequate"… he continues … "the world monetary and financial systems is marked by an excessive fluctuation of exchange rates and interest rates, to the detriment of the balance of payments and the debt situation of the poor countries." (John Paul II, 1987, para.43).
The objectives of the World Council of Churches are similar and are clearly set out in the Programme for Justice, Peace and Creation which seeks to provide "a critique of and alternative to the injustice perpetuated by the economic powers and by globalisation" and consequently "to monitor the activities of the International Monetary Fund the World Bank transnational and regional finance institutions."
St Paul urges Christians to think of their lives as being an athletic competition. He tells us to run so that we may win the prize. He himself has run the straight race and finished his course (I Cor. 9:24; Heb. 12:1; Phil. 3:14; 2 Tim. 2:5). These references however are more to do with striving, particularly striving against our own sins, rather than striving against each other. In many places the New Testament warns against strife and emulation (Gal. 5:15). Of course, the biblical authors did not imagine the kind of highly competitive world of today, but the principals of biblical life and ethics are undoubtedly opposed to this competitive society. The jubilee law forbids the accumulation of power through the acquisition of land (Lev. 25: 12ff). We are to sustain each other through love and not destroy each other through competition.
In Michael Novak we find a contemporary theologian who places great emphasis upon competition. Novak sets out some of the important ideas within Christianity which have encouraged the emergence of democratic capitalism. These are not necessarily to be regarded as the central doctrines of the Christian faith but as aspects which encourage the emergence of liberal capitalism and probably have analogues in other religions. The first symbol which he selects is that of the Holy Trinity and the second is the symbol of the Incarnation. The third of his selections is the principle of competition, which Novak regards "as the form of every virtue and an indispensable element in natural and spiritual growth." (Novak, 1991, p.347). Novak concludes his survey of the New Testament by remarking "it does not seem to be inconsistent with the Gospels for each human being to struggle, under the spur of competition, with his fellows to be all that he can become." (Novak, 1991, p.348). He says that as an object of competition, money is neutral it can be used or abused.
The weakness of Novak’s argument lies in the fact that he does not analyse the concept of competition, distinguishing its ethical character in the various spheres of social and economic life. For this reason he emphasises the positive use of competition, with which I agree, but he fails to distinguish its abuses. He is quite clear, however, that liberal capitalism is based upon moral foundations, and remarks "if those who live under democratic capitalism lose sight of the moral foundations of the system, a loss of morale is likely to occur." (Novak, 1991, p.335). My discussion of the failure of currency competition to achieve any good apart from enriching a tiny minority of people while at the same time impoverishing millions shows quite clearly that the moral foundations of liberal capitalism have now been eroded. Surely Michael Novak should have been aware of this even in 1982 when his book was published. In view of the acceleration of financial competition in the last couple of decades and its appalling consequences in economic and spiritual life, both for the rich and the poor, I cannot but believe that if Novak were issuing a revised edition of his book today, he would take note of this development and provide a somewhat more penetrating analysis.
Competition and Citizenship
This analysis of various kinds of competition and the ethical distinctions which exist between them has significant consequences for the practice of citizenship in Europe. Those who invest in the offshore tax havens do so with the intention of avoiding forms of taxation imposed by national governments. In this way, the people of the nation in question are denied the legitimate fruits of their labours and national governments are consequently starved for funds to promote social good. It cannot be good citizenship to seek to evade the benefits which domestic taxation would return to ones fellow citizens out of whose labour and ingenuity the profits have been made. Can it be the intention of a good citizen to weaken the control which politics has over finance? Can it be the policy of a good citizen that his or her country should lose its sovereignty to international financial interests?
Similar questions must be asked about global citizenship. Those who invest in the tax havens might defend their actions on the ground that ultimately it will be better for everyone. However, the evidence of the past three decades does not encourage this point of view. There is no indication that without a substantial change in its values the competition which the present financial system generates will do anything except further enrich the rich and bring further sufferings to the poor. Programmes of citizenship education both for national and global citizenship must help students to grapple with these problems.
Elsewhere, I have discussed the ambiguity of spiritual values (Hull, 1996a). In the present essay I have clarified this ambiguity by distinguishing between the life-enhancing values of healthy and carefully managed competition from the life-destroying values of ruthless and unjust competition. I have traced the latter back into the destructive values which cascade down from the way that money is organised today (Hull, 2000) in the form of a vast competition between currencies, and I have shown that the greed and selfishness which that system inevitably promotes is the source of the culture of self-seeking which is so prominent in the spiritual lives of children and young people from advantaged homes, while it takes the form of apathy and defiance in the lives of disadvantaged young people. I have suggested that it will be impossible to manage the ambiguity of competition at the local, face-to-face level unless the ruthless competition at the highest level is humanised. In principle, the Christian faith in partnership with other religions, working through religious education, should be a valuable resource for promoting this critique and encouraging these reforms.
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