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Chapter 9 asks how we can critically evaluate competition in this kind of society, particularly from within its own terms of reference - that is, as an ‘immanent critique’. The premise that domesticated competition is a work of human artifice implies that it is something we have some control over and can shape. I argue that the pervasive image of the rule-governed game, and ideas such as ‘the level playing field’, encode the basic cultural resources from which any criticism must be constructed. Moreover, competition works best within certain bounded spheres of practice - e.g. business, democracy, science - and its worst distortions are often a result of competition transgressing these boundaries, as when money interferes with politics. I argue that maintaining such separation and balances of power among distinct institutional spheres, arenas of competition, is critical for liberal society.
Chapter 8 articulates a conception of culture, and examines competition as a system of beliefs and practices legitimating the social order. I emphasise the prominent roles of science, games, and sports in formalising and naturalising competition in daily life, thereby legitimating distributions of social power. I push this argument about legitimation further by exploring competition as a form of ritual. While we often think of the modern period as one in which the role of ritual has weakened in social life, domesticated competition in its myriad forms exhibits many of the core features of ritual, such as liturgical form, specialist practitioners, and dramatization of the social order. Understood this way, the systematisation of competition in modern liberal societies suggests a society still legitimated by ritual, albeit of a secular form.
Chapter 4 looks specifically at the reorganisation of military power in this period, which is closely related to the declining power of aristocracies. The rise of the modern state and its monopoly of legitimate force made militaries and law enforcement bureaucratic functions of the state, rather than localised privileges of divided nobilities. The pacification of the nobilities, the subduing of their traditions of martial competition to the modern state, opens up the scope for the more civil forms of competition. The ‘wild’ can now be replaced by the ‘domesticated’.
Chapter 7 tackles what is by far the most diffuse and difficult arena in which to describe our theme of the social transformation of competition. Here the focus is on contestation in the arena of knowledge, ideas, beliefs, and truth claims. My narrative concentrates on the gradual emergence of the modern university out of its medieval forebearers, the disruptive impact of the Enlightenment, and the broader emergence of associational life in civil society. Here the range of corporate actors is more complex and varied, and interacts closely with those in the economic and political spheres. But competition is different here, because while economics and politics involve competition over more clearly limited resources (capital, market share, political office, administrative structures), truth claims can be, and are, produced cheaply and in abundance. The peculiarly pungent atmosphere of current social media-driven public debates is just the latest expression of this.
Chapter 5 turns to the economic sphere, with special attention to the emergence of the modern economic corporation, as a competitor par excellence. I examine its origins in medieval antecedents, how post-revolutionary US was the ideal environment for its initial cultivation and elaboration, and its subsequent development in Europe and beyond. The economic firm is in many ways the ‘ideal type’ of the modern corporate actor, but I am concerned to show in the next two chapters that new corporate actors in the political and ideological/cultural spheres are also crucial to the general domestication of competition in liberal societies.
Chapter 6 considers the transformation of competition in the political sphere and the functions of the state. While prefigured in British politics of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, like the modern company the modern political party and party systems first emerged in the young US, largely in the same period. Despite early condemnation of parties and factions by political leaders (Washington, Adams, Jefferson), within a few decades the modern party system had taken shape, emerging out of more rough-and-tumble, quasi-militarised factionalism, before spreading to Europe as democracy supplanted aristocracy across the nineteenth century. The chapter also briefly examines the rise of adversarial law, and the replacement of patronage by competitive examinations for government appointment, as two further examples of the state’s institutionalisation of conflict through formalised competition.
In a short Conclusion, I provide a final review of the book’s argument. Although much of the book is concerned with making the case for certain forms of competition, at the end I reflect with some trepidation on the current fraught state of domesticated competition and liberal society, and their possible futures.
Chapter 3 provides the key historical antecedents for Chapters 4-7, focusing on changes in the domains of kinship, religion, and law. It examines the decline of traditional authority in medieval Europe, specifically the weakening of inherited monarchical and aristocratic rule, and of the Church and associated belief in supernatural beings. At the same time, the power of state-based law was consolidating and expanding, developing new ideas of ‘legal persons’, as ‘fictions of law’, that would become crucial to the creation of new corporate actors and the domestication of competition. This shift combined with intensifying trans-Atlantic competition among European empires, and novel experiments in republican and democratic government in America and France, created a new context for the development of law and competition.
The Introduction presents the subject of the book - the causes of the institutionalisation of competition modern society - arguing why it matters, providing a definition of competition and how it relates to evolution, an initial elaboration of the central theme of the ’domestication of competition’, and an outline of the book’s chapters.
Chapter 2 presents the theoretical approach that informs the argument and analysis. I view the generation and distribution of power in society, and how and why that evolves over time, as inherently linked and thus the fundamental context for social inquiry. The chapter defines social power, arguing that power needs to be understood as something distributed among agents. Thus the definition of social actors is also central, and especially the fact that in the modern period these are increasingly collective, corporate entities, based on modes of association other than kinship. The sharpening and proliferation of such corporate actors, and the domestication of competition, are reciprocal processes. Competition and competitors are mutually defining. Drawing on the tradition of cultural ecology, I also clarify what I mean by ‘social evolution’, emphasising a shift in focus from ‘societies’ to forms of social organisation as the key units of analysis.
Chapter 1 examines three main historical processes that have framed and provoked my interest in questions of competition. First, the classic problem that has come to be known as ‘the rise of the West’. What caused the rise to global power of Western Europe and its settler societies in the last few centuries? I suggest the domestication of competition must be part of the answer. Second, the domestication of competition is associated with the rise of a particular kind of nation state, the currently dominant model of capitalist liberal democracy. Why is this? And third, does what has come to be known as ‘neoliberalism’ have a special role to play in explaining the current state of competition? One often encounters this idea in critical discussions of neoliberalism, but my argument suggests that the pervasive role of competition in modern society has historically deeper roots, whatever its current transformations.