The Rites of Play

Introduction to The Baffler number 24, published in January 2014.

Competition is the legitimation device in the American system. Long ago enshrined in our laws as a mechanism for regulating goods and deciding value, competition is also our testing field for personal worth. From today’s tech entrepreneurs to yesteryear’s captains of industry, the players who emerge victorious from the contest must be pronounced meritorious too. The losers of the market game, likewise, have seemed to deserve their fate.

’Twas ever thus, but it’s hard to think of a time when the competitive ethos has so fully dominated our style of life. In the great game called America, 2014 edition, the sport of choice is ambition itself. The system may produce fewer tangible goods, but we can never praise the entrepreneurs enough—even if the specifics of their bold quests against the odds matter little to us.

This is why we cheer and boo the procession of ordinary people who appear on reality TV to participate in talent shows and character-defining contests. And it’s why we subject our schoolchildren to endless rounds of testing and spend millions of hours playing video games. Our legions of fans pay ever-higher ticket prices to collectively pour into splendid, capital-intensive stadiums and arenas, to scream for their favorites in football, basketball, baseball, auto racing, and related forms of noble combat, while our sports-obsessed chief executive follows the league action from the White House.

Is the fabled playing field on the level? Most people suspect not; our sports heroes, like our business stars, have never been untainted by force and fraud. Even as the myth of the self-made man took shape back in the nineteenth century, the business corporation was busily forming itself into a collective credit transaction for seizing political control of the industrial process from workers and farmers, in the name of competition.

Twentieth-century monopolies wound up turning those same workers and farmers into dependent employees and salaried professionals. And ever since, the angle of competition has turned big corporations against us. At least we have developed a tradition of “positive thinking,” a consolation prize to keep us all in the game.

Today, five years (and counting) after the computer games concocted by Wall Street’s corporate players went haywire and plunged the country into a prolonged economic crisis, the system of power has no obvious justification. Yet the competitive ethos that’s long been its signature product in the field of human relations has gone positively berserk. Global corporations, not small businesses, write the rules of the market game by which we all play. Nonproductive, uncreative rent-seeking accounts for a larger-than-ever share of wealth. Yet the mythos of the self-made man has never appealed so broadly.

That the traditional rites of competition would spread into every part of life when power is actually concentrated in global bureaucracies does make some sense, in a perverse sort of way. The ethos of competition was never exclusively concerned with justifying the spoils taken by life’s winners; it was at least as concerned with managing the fate of the losers. To play the game of America is, inevitably, to learn how to lose.

And that’s where The Baffler no. 24 cuts in, analyzing the culture of competition amid the inglorious and unglamorous social facts piling up around it.

Read here of a whole city turned into a talent contest for entrepreneurs, look through the trophy rooms of hedge-fund-managing art collectors (assuming none have gone to jail since we went to press). Consider how the competitive ethos determines the design of online videogames, produces self-defeating economic doctrines, infiltrates evolutionary biology, and warps science fiction novels. Not to win or lose, but to be free of the system of winners and losers—that’s the jackpot. There were always alternatives to business. “Feminism for Men,” a 1914 essay by a forgotten writer that’s excerpted and remembered here, contains a still-subversive flourish—“the adventure of life”—that ought to be the aspiration of all our issues. So read on, demand with us the freedom of play, and enjoy.