The great engine behind capitalism and the free market is supposed to be competition. But I wonder what competition is still happening just now as we head towards the winter of 2013-2014. Small towns from coast to coast have lost their competitions with Wal-Mart and its ilk—towns where people once supported each other saw themselves put out of business as they put their neighbor out of business, both of them saving money by shopping at a big store chain, and both eventually left bankrupt, homeless, and worse.
Perhaps there is some friendly competition going on between the CEOs of those few giant corporations—not as interesting as a game of golf, perhaps, but something that keeps their egos pumping. But outside that, all the competing is over. Multi-billion-dollar, multi-national corporations—petroleum giants, pharmaceutical giants, entertainment media giants, etc.—may see themselves in competition with each other, at least in the minds of the top management and board-members. But today’s major players in our global marketplace are so beribboned with both vertical and horizontal diversification, so invested in the overall stability of the global economy, and required to have such cold-blooded, implacable ambition—those people expend their energies on office politics, influence peddling, and investment poaching to an extent that leaves most of the ‘competition’ in their own heads—and, more importantly, without any effect on the regular people.
The regular people, the lower-income-to-high-middle-class income, the hoi polloi, the little people—call them what you will—they be us. We no longer compete in meaningful ways. Our children can study until they’re blue in the brain—there’s still a chance we won’t be able to foot the bill for Harvard or Princeton—and that our children may not be among the select few who win the scholarships that may or may not make an ivy-league degree affordable. So we no longer have any significant competition in scholarship—excepting those rare scholarships and grants. The vast majority, however, see college costs recede further and further from reality—and that’s only to get a bachelor’s degree—the post-graduate world is a maze of student loans, part-time jobs, and constant struggle to achieve what comes to the families-of-wealth’s kids as a gift.
Want to start a coffee shop? Starbucks has you beat. A book store? Amazon’s already there. A hardware store? –Home Depot is already there. A restaurant? Well, they were never great investments to begin with—and all but the hoity-toity-est can’t compete with the prices at Outback, Red Lobster, or Appleby’s. Drug store chains make the town pharmacists redundant. And at this point, if any kind of small business isn’t doing business inside a mall or some other high-foot-traffic area, they will shrivel on the vine.
Can boutique, community-conscious shops get by? Yes, but there had better be at least one necessity being sold there, or their solvency will fade with the novelty of their existence. And this is all beside the point that, if you were to come up with some tremendous new thing that drew crowds of shoppers, it would be imitated, mass-produced, and available at the mall within a single fiscal period.
When Europeans first began emigrating to the New World, competition was everywhere, businesses were fighting right and left in a world of disparate, mom-and-pop farms, shops, transport, communication and services. This rising of the dough of Capitalism had plenty of yeast, and the chaos of the free market made commerce an almost Brownian-motion pattern of new, starting, growing, dying, and expanding ventures. The passage of centuries has brought all that to a stagnant precipitate of big corporations and huge personal fortunes—the reaction has reached equilibrium.
Obama says there are not enough ladders to prosperity anymore—and I agree with that—but I see it as the obvious end result of free-for-all capitalism, as it went from land invasion (or pioneering, as some call it) to industrial revolution, to urban-centric economies and the world of modern business. The land has been parceled out, competition in industry ended in one or two giants controlling the field or product, and chain stores and the internet have destroyed entrepreneurship as we once understood it.
Now that those currents of history and development and growth and consolidation have slowed to a molasses-like oozing that allows new business only sparingly—and with few of those making the grade. Even the once famously individualistic business of digital software has become a two-sided struggle between two giants which become less distinct from each other the longer they compete for the bigger half of the pie.
Even businesses that have just been created, such as private space-based technology companies and genome-research firms are so complex and expensive that they hardly lend themselves to small business start-ups—they all come as off-shoots of one or more already-large-and-successful multinational corporations.
In short, ‘competition’ is disappearing just as quickly as our environmental stability. Even pro sports—the very embodiment of competition—have become as much businesses as teams-in-competition. And with the loss of that beating heart, the tension of competition, the thrill of the contest, Capitalism becomes just another word for Oligarchy—a set-in-stone society of the super-wealthy and their seven billion servants.
America’s growth into the greatest super-power in history was possible partly due to the fact that we could start from a tabula-rasa continent. Our government wasn’t an amalgam of centuries of war and despotism—it was something we could design with an 18th century understanding of ourselves. Our societies didn’t have millennia of embedded classes, castes, lordship and slavery—we could invent a new society that had a more modern populism as its defining characteristic. And with the industrial revolution coming fast on the heels of our wars for independence and unity, we found it much easier to embrace the quickening tempo of a civilization on the cusp of modernity.
But now America’s arcane, baroque-filigreed legislation, our corporate culture become more a thing of inertia than healthy growth, and our fairly complete distribution over every square inch of habitable real estate—have all brought us to a situation wherein we see ourselves as we used to be, while the truth eludes us. America’s culture is still younger than Europe’s, but it is no longer ‘young’.
Our best years may still lie ahead, as a nation, but our easy-going, whimsical days are over—from here on out, we must (like all the other nations) approach change slowly and with more forethought than Americans are generally comfortable with. And most importantly, we must reexamine Capitalism in the era of Corporate Consolidation, a Capitalism without significant Competition as its driving force.
We do have stress, of course. There is plenty of stress, everywhere you go. But stress is just fear of being fired, it isn’t true competition. Instead of struggling and working harder, we hunch into our cubicles and try not to think about being downsized, or being rendered obsolete by technology. Indeed, the worst symptom of our present culture’s dysfunction is the fact that working harder, working faster, making an effort of any kind, no longer has any relevance to our incomes, or to our success in the business world.