The Cult of Competition in our pop-culture fairy tales (2002)

The Sopranos, a television series that offers a thug’s-eye view of the world, has returned for a fourth season.

The mob family are caught up in a hell of deceit and denial. Tony Soprano’s covert criminal activities are mirrored in his wife’s attempts to deceive herself and the family about her husband’s line of work. The rot runs throughout the clan. In the second season, Uncle Junior wanted his nephew Tony whacked, and his own sister made overtures to her boyfriend that the top Soprano had got to go.

It’s prime-time Darwinism, and The Sopranos are the Bradys for the new millennium.

For some critics, The series roll the rock of American "family values," revealing the things slithering beneath. That may be a bit of a stretch, but the series resonates with viewers for a reason. In our slash-and-burn culture of privatized profit and socialized losses, where civil rule is secondary to the rule of capital, the similarity to The Sopranos is obvious. The goomba goodfellas of the series have loyalty, ultimately, only to Number One — just like the suits in the US who presided over the real-life robbery of their employees in floundering, number-fudging corporations.

Tony, in his unreflective way, would probably justify his predatory behaviour by saying its a ’dog-eat-dog world’. This is the hard-headed philosophy of neoconservatives and their media offspring: the Michael Campbells, the Elizabeth Nicksons, and the Michael Gees. They believe competitive behaviour is hard-wired into animals and humans alike. As for the "nanny-state" that’s now being sold off for parts, their attitude is good riddance to bad rubbish, and a system that runs retrograde to basic human nature.

Of course, cheerleaders for the so-called free market don’t endorse criminality — at least not in its chump-change, break-and-enter varieties. Legal limits need to be set on to what human beings can get away with, since human beings are rapacious creatures by nature.

Yet parodoxically, neoconservatives respect rapaciousness as force for good, citing economists’ description of the individual as a "self-interested utility maximizer." Neocons profess to believe that wealth will accrue across the board, as citizen-shoppers compete in the free market.

Like all religions, this one is based on faith. (if we wait patiently, the free market will save us all.) I’m not sure if human sacrifice comes naturally to it, but the neo-con doctrine is certainly founded on a belief that cruelty is the defining principle of the world.

And who’s going to argue that the world isn't a cruel place? Back in the Seventies, Oxford biologist Richard Dawkins penned The Selfish Gene, which argued that all living creatures, including humans, are just Darwin’s wind-up toys, their genes blindly set to maximize their numbers in future generations.

In the microworld of the fertilized cell, genes have to cooperate to produce the bodies that will bear them forth into the world. But there are some genes that become ruthless when the opportunity arises. Recent research indicates battles even take place among human sperm, where genes on one variety of sperm assassinate other sperm lacking the gene.

Family loyalties, a la Tony Soprano.

Looking at the world of nature, you might conclude that the "war of all against all," which philosopher Thomas Hobbes took to be the natural state of affairs before the introduction of civilization, is the default condition of genes and humans alike.

"The world is a jungle," matriarch Livia Soprano tells her grandson Anthony Junior in one episode, warning him to never trust anyone. With the survival of the fittest as the final arbiter of Soprano loyalties, the fictional family are the neo-con dream turned nightmare.

Yet is it actually correct to generalize from Darwin to the day-to-day, as neocons do? Is it right to extrapolate from the ‘survival of the fittest’ to a corporate winnowing of the weak? More on that next week.


In his book Fast Food Nation, Erik Schlosser quotes MacDonald’s founder Ray Kroc. “Look, it is ridiculous to call this an industry,” he told a reporter in 1972, dismissing any high-minded examination of the fast food business. “This is not. This is rat eat rat, dog eat dog. I'll kill 'em, and I'm going to kill 'em before they kill me. You're talking about the American way of survival of the fittest.” 

The topic here isn't fast food per se, but the down-home Darwinism championed by Kroc and his kind. If self-interest works in the wild, it will work for us, say the champions of the unregulated free market.

Yet even the free-marketers must feel a bit uncomfortable at the places social Darwinism has been — most significantly, in Nazi Germany under the guise of Aryanism, a genetic pseudoscience used to justify the Final Solution.

A less extreme version of social Darwinism was floated the late nineties, with techno-libertarians like Wired magazine editor Kevin Kelly citing the “out of control” systems of nature to argue for an economy without top-down controls. It sounded all very nice at the time, what with dot-com stocks spirally ever upwards, but we know now where that road leads: to the executive suites of Enron, WorldCom, and any other place of privilege where market forces are unrestrained by civil law or governmental oversight.

But the attitude persists. Pop-science neoDarwinism inflects the calculating cynicism of the Fraser Institute and other right-wing bodies. It echoes in the vernacular expressions in the business world: ‘dog eat dog’, ‘swimming with the sharks’, and the like. Occasionally, even the great captains of industry, like Walt Disney, give away the game with a priceless quote.

Walt Disney remains one of the glowing icons of American success. Before he was cryogenically frozen (presumably with the intent to waken one day to a world ruled by The Mouse), he served as secret former for the FBI, and strongly supported the Hollywood blacklist. During the height of labour tension at his studio, Disney addressed a group of employees, telling them why unionization was a non-starter.
“Don't forget this,” he told them, “it's the law of the universe that the strong shall survive and the weak must fall by the way, and I don't give a damn what idealistic plan is cooked up, nothing can change that.”

With sentiments like that, Is it any surprise that for a time the American CEO displaced the Arab terrorist as evil villain in the pop-culture imagination? Robocop, Total Recall, the Alien series and other action films, all featured glad-handing suits as the
REDUCTIO AD ABSURDUM of self-interest.

“I am not a destroyer of companies,” said the lizard-like Gordon Gecko in Oliver Stone’s 1988 film Wall Street. “I am a liberator of them.”

“The point is, ladies and gentlemen, that greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right. Greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit.” Gecko goes on the describe how “greed, in all of its forms... has marked the upward surge of mankind.”

Scripts like this makes for great entertainment, but not the best science. Sir Julian Huxley, the great British biologist, said the grand aim of human existence was to “redeem evolution,” by refusing to allow culture to follow the same predatory pattern as natural selection. A similar sentiment was expressed by Oxford neo-Darwinian biologist Richard Dawkins, in a recent BBC roundtable on religion and science:

“We largely get our immorality from our Darwinian past,” said Dawkins. “We get our selfishness, our drive for self interest, our ruthlessness, for cruelty perhaps....and (if we’re) trying to come to some agreement on morality, the first thing we should do is throw out Darwinism.”

“We should regard Darwinian natural selection as a great evil. It’s out there, it’s true, it’s what is causing the whole living world to be way it is, including ourselves -- and we humans uniquely have the power to gainsay it. We uniquely have the power to say we can throw off our Darwinian past, and using our conscious brains, we can make a world which is anti-Darwinian -- anti-Darwinian as far as morality is concerned....”

That being said, I don’t think the caring and sharing should necessarily extend to defreezing Walt Disney.

Geoff Olson