A while ago I posted this piece on the virtues of pursuing excellence compared to the downsides of competition:
Everywhere that commerce gets involved in what used to be public spaces, there is the same tendency to make exclusive of each other different products and services supplied by different providers. From software such as Microsoft Office which locks you into proprietary data formats to supermarkets with private malls and parking places which can only be used for a certain time and only for a certain purpose, the desire by powerful companies to own our physical and intellectual spaces only seems, as time goes by, to march unstoppably onwards and upwards.
And yet commerce wouldn’t have to be like that if excellence rather than competition were the name of the game. A massive evolutionary step forwards it – indeed – would be, in fact. And perhaps, in a way, we are in the anteroom of such a step forwards: whilst the web is still in its relative infancy, we – even so – are able to perceive on the social horizon many tendencies and tools which might allow for a perfect perception of true excellence – above and beyond the tricks of marketing and persuasion which currently tend to cloud realities.
I then went on to conclude that:
In the name of competition, specialisation arose. Through this process of specialisation, disconnection began to spread. Now we only know how to keep a community together by creating as big a sense of distance and difference as possible from those beings we are forced unerringly to compete against. By creating a worldwide web of interconnectedness on the back of such specialisation, we have created an impossibly gigantic circle the squaring of which can surely only break us.
My conclusion? We either stop using, at least as we have done to date, that specialisation I mention to advance our society – or we work out some pretty convincing alternative way of overcoming the Chinese walls that are breaking up our ability to share our evermore uncommon experiences.
Either way, it’s going to be an uphill battle for the cooperative instincts at the heart of humanity.
And an example, perhaps, of where a progress measured only empirically distorts a wider understanding of what excellence – and, as a result, our society itself – should really look like.
In the above piece, I set out the arguments in favour of moving on from the age-old competitive instincts of Darwinian capitalism to a more objective, more reality-grounded, more cooperative-focussed, goal of achieving excellence in all fields.
Yesterday, however, I was minded to recapitulate: I finally saw the film “El Caballero Oscuro: La Leyenda Renace” (the Spanish dubbed version of “The Dark Knight Rises”, the final film in the Christopher Nolan take on the Batman mythology). Amongst many other wonderful things (Blake is almost like a Luke Skywalker reprise; Catwoman a Hans Solo delightfully playing off the moral centre thus constructed), the film talks of the dangers of a just revolution – even when you are right, by acting on such righteousness you may further contribute to the destruction of civilisation.
And part of this righteousness lies in our competitive pursuit of excellence above all. If we teach, through our consumerism, our children and youth to believe in absolute notions of value for money, of best is first, of maximising outcomes in everything we do and everyone we get to know, we can only conclude that excellence must be applied to every field of human endeavour.
The nominal baddie in the film goes by the name of Bane. (The bane of Batman, in fact – even as Robin John Blake alludes to stealing the latter’s right to an autumnal morality, as the Batcave substitutes his beloved attachment to good policing.) At one point in the narrative, Bane and his gang invade Wall Street’s Stock Exchange. The following exchange sets up their moral justification for their violent occupation of those who have used other tools to commit injustices:
“Esto es la bolsa, aquí no hay dinero para robar.”
“¿De verdad? Y vosotros, ¿qué hacéis aquí?”
Which loosely translates as:
“This is the Stock Exchange, there’s no money here you can steal.”
“Really? And you lot, what are you doing here then?”
In this film, we see how the absolutism of corporate competitiveness has led all kinds of human beings – both good and manifestly evil – to acquire the same mindsets of excellence in what they do. Bane’s plan is as coherent and thought-through as any marketing of a global brand has ever managed to be: even, perhaps, as ingenious and effective as that plan which has sold us the narrative that contains his story.
“The Dark Knight Rises” explains history quite magnificently. From the dangers of a new French Revolution to the unhappy reality that, sometimes, evil individuals operating on the backs of masses do change the direction of humanity, Nolan’s images underline how fragile the order which contains our worst instincts really is.
In the light of the above, then, do I still believe in cooperative excellence over competitive Darwinism?
I think I do.
But after watching Nolan’s film, a single caveat: sometimes, civilisation needs uncivilised means to put evil genies back in their bottles. The problem we have, when we decide this is the case, is that the process we use to choose who and when is still fraught with the unempowering hierarchies of old.
We cannot solve our crises of morality if the genie-containing procedures are not in themselves shared moral acts.
That a Tony Blair or a George W Bush take it upon themselves to lie to us (as, in the film, Commissioner Gordon did to his people for eight long years about the true nature of their alleged saviour Harvey Dent) in order, that is, to save us from our enemies … well, this is not only immoral but also – as we have seen in both the cinema and our own realities – rankly inefficient. If for no other reason, then, than that of saving pecuniary pain, we should change not only when we go to war (whether figurative or literal) but also how we make that decision.
Perhaps, in truth, we need a little less excellence than we have always assumed. Perhaps it is time to stop stretching the envelope so competitively. Perhaps the mirror image of the Apples of this world truly is the Banes of cinematic existence.
Perhaps it is time to be less human – and more humane.