Chapter 3: Competition

Chapter 3: Competition

If you ask any man in America, or any man in business in England, what it is that most interferes with his enjoyment of existence, he will say: 'The struggle for life.' He will say this in all sincerity; he will believe it. In a certain sense it is true; yet in another, and that a very important sense, it is profoundly false. The struggle for life is a thing which does, of course, occur. It may occur to any of us if we are unfortunate. It occurred, for example, to Conrad's hero Falk, who found himself on a derelict ship, one of the two men among the crew who were possessed of fire-arms, with nothing to eat but the other men, When the two men had finished the meals upon which they could agree, a true struggle for life began. Falk won, but was ever after a vegetarian.
Now that is not what the businessman means when he speaks of the 'struggle for life'. It is an inaccurate phrase which he has picked up in order to give dignity to something essentially trivial. Ask him how many men he has known in his class of life who have died of hunger. Ask him what happened to his friends after they had been ruined. Everybody knows that a businessman who has been ruined is better off so far as material comforts are concerned than a man who has never been rich enough to have the chance of being ruined. What people mean, therefore, by the struggle for life is really the struggle for success. What people fear when they engage in the struggle is not that they will fail to get their breakfast next morning, but that they will fail to outshine their neighbours.

It is very singular how little men seem to realise that they are not caught in the grip of a mechanism from which there is no escape, but that the treadmill is one upon which they remain merely because they have not noticed that it fails to take them up to a higher level. I am thinking, of course, of men in higher walks of business, men who already have a good income and could, if they chose, live on what they have. To do so would seem to them shameful, like deserting from the army in the face of the enemy, though if you ask them what public cause they are serving by their work, they will be at a loss to reply as soon as they have run through the platitudes to be found in the advertisements of the strenuous life.
Consider the life of such a man. He has, we may suppose, a charming house, a charming wife, and charming children. He wakes up early in the morning while they are still asleep and hurries off to his office. There it is his duty to display the qualities of a great executive; he cultivates a firm jaw, a decisive manner of speech, and an air of sagacious reserve calculated to impress everybody except the office boy. He dictates letters, converses with various important persons on the phone, studies the market, and presently has lunch with some person with whom he is conducting or hoping to conduct a deal. The same sort of thing goes on all the afternoon. He arrives home, tired, just in time to dress for dinner. At dinner he and a number of other tired men have to pretend to enjoy the company of ladies who have no occasion to feel tired yet. How many hours it may take the poor man to escape it is impossible to foresee. At last he sleeps, and for a few hours the tension is relaxed.

The working life of this man has the psychology of a hundred-yards race, but as the race upon which he is engaged is one whose only goal is the grave, the concentration, which is appropriate enough for a hundred yards, becomes in the end somewhat excessive.
What does he know about his children? On week-days he is at the office; on Sundays he is at the golf links. What does he know of his wife? When he leaves her in the morning, she is asleep. Throughout the evening he and she are engaged in social duties which prevent intimate conversation. He has probably no men friends who are important to him, although he has a number with whom he affects a geniality that he wishes he felt. Of springtime and harvest he knows only as they affect the market; foreign countries he has probably seen, but with eyes of utter boredom. Books seem to him futile, and music highbrow. Year by year he grows more lonely; his attention grows more concentrated and his life outside business more desiccated. I have seen the American of this type in later middle life, in Europe, with his wife and daughters. Evidently they had persuaded the poor fellow that it was time he took a holiday and gave his girls a chance to do the Old World. The mother and daughters in ecstasy surround him and call his attention to each new item that strikes them as characteristic. Paterfamilias, utterly weary, utterly bored, is wondering what they are doing in the office at this moment, or what is happening in the baseball world. His womenkind, in the end, give him up, and conclude that males are Philistines. It never dawns upon them that he is a victim to their greed; nor, indeed, is this quite the truth, any more than suttee is quite what it appeared to a European onlooker. Probably in nine cases out of ten the widow was a willing victim, prepared to be burnt for the sake of glory and because religion so ordained. The businessman's religion and glory demand that he should make much money; therefore, like the Hindu widow, he suffers the torment gladly.
If the American businessman is to be made happier, he must first change his religion. So long as he not only desires success, but is whole-heartedly persuaded that it is a man's duty to pursue success, and that a man who does not do so is a poor creature, so long his life will remain too concentrated and too anxious to be happy.
Take a simple matter, such as investments. Almost every American would sooner get 8 per cent from a risks investment than 4 per cent from a safe one. The consequence is that there are frequent losses of money and continual worry and fret. For my part, the thing that I would wish to obtain from money would be leisure with security. But what the typical modern man desires to get with it is more money, with a view to ostentation, splendour, and the outshining of those who have hitherto been his equals. The social scale in America is indefinite and continually fluctuating. Consequently all the snobbish emotions become more restless than they are where the social order is fixed, and although money in itself may not suffice to make people grand, it is difficult to be grand without money. Moreover, money made is the accepted measure of brains. A man who makes a lot of money is a clever fellow; a man who does not, is not. Nobody likes to be thought a fool. Therefore, when the market is in ticklish condition, a man feels the way young people feel during an examination.

I think it should be admitted that an element of genuine though irrational fear as to the consequences of ruin frequently enters into a businessman's anxieties. Arnold Bennett's Clayhanger, however rich he became, continued to be afraid of dying in the workhouse. I have no doubt that those who have suffered greatly through poverty in their childhood, are haunted by terrors lest their children should suffer similarly, and feel that it is hardly possible to build up enough millions as a bulwark against this disaster. Such fears are probably inevitable in the first generation, but they are less likely to afflict those who have never known great poverty. They are in any case a minor and somewhat exceptional factor in the problem.
The root of the trouble springs from too much emphasis upon competitive success as the main source of happiness. I do not deny that the feeling of success makes it easier to enjoy life. A painter, let us say, who has been obscure throughout his youth, is likely to become happier if his talent wins recognition. Nor do I deny that money, up to a certain point, is very capable of increasing happiness; beyond that point, I do not think it does so. What I do maintain is that success can only be one ingredient in happiness, and is too dearly purchased if all the other ingredients have been sacrificed to obtain it.

The source of this trouble is the prevalent philosophy of life in business circles. In Europe, it is true, there are still other circles that have prestige. In some countries there is an aristocracy; in all there are the learned professions, and in all but a few of the smaller countries the army and the navy enjoy great respect. Now while it is true that there is a competitive element in success no matter what a man's profession may be, yet at the same time the kind of thing that is respected is not just success, but that excellence, whatever that may be, to which success has been due. A man of science may or may not make money; he is certainly not more respected if he does than if he does not. No one is surprised to find an eminent general or admiral poor; indeed, poverty in such circumstances is, in a sense, itself an honour. For these reasons, in Europe, the purely monetary competitive struggle is confined to certain circles, and those perhaps not the most influential or the most respected.
In America the matter is otherwise. The Services play too small a part in the national life for their standards to have any influence. As for the learned professions, no outsider can tell whether a doctor really knows much medicine, or whether a lawyer really knows much law, and it is therefore easier to judge of their merit by the income to be inferred from their standard of life. As for professors, they are the hired servants of businessmen, and as such will less respect than is accorded to them in older countries. The consequence of all this is that in America the professional man imitates the businessman, and does not constitute a separate type as he does in Europe. Throughout the well-to-do classes, therefore, there is nothing to mitigate the bare, undiluted fight for financial success.
From quite early years American boys feel that this is the only thing that matters, and do not wish to be bothered with any kind of education that is devoid of pecuniary value. Education used to be conceived very largely as a training in the capacity for enjoyment - enjoyment, I mean, of those more delicate kinds that are not open to wholly uncultivated people. In the eighteenth century it was one of the marks of a 'gentleman' to take a discriminating pleasure in literature, pictures, and music. We nowadays may disagree with his taste, but it was at least genuine. The rich man of the present day tends to be of quite a different type. He never reads. If he is creating a picture gallery with a view to enhancing his fame, he relies upon experts to choose his pictures; the pleasure that he derives from them is not the pleasure of looking at them, but the pleasure of preventing some other rich man from having them. In regard to music, if he happens to be a Jew, he may have genuine appreciation; if not, he will be as uncultivated as he is in regard to the other arts. The result of all this is that he does not know what to do with leisure. As he gets richer and richer it become easier and easier to make money, until at last five minutes a day will bring him more than he knows how to spend. The poor man is thus left at a loose end as a result of his success. This must inevitably be the case so long as success itself is represented as the purpose of life. Unless a man has been taught what to do with success after getting it, the achievement of it must inevitably leave him a prey to boredom.
The competitive habit of mind easily invades regions to which it does not belong. Take, for example, the question of reading. There are two motives for reading a book: one, that you enjoy it; the other, that you can boast about it. It has become the thing in America for ladies to read (or seem to read) certain books every month; some read them, some read the first chapter, some read the reviews, but all have these books on their tables. They do not, however, read any masterpieces. There has never been a month when Hamlet or King Leer has been selected by the Book Clubs; there has never been a month when it has been necessary to know about Dante. Consequently the reading that is done is entirely of mediocre modern books and never of masterpieces. This also is an effect of competition, not perhaps wholly bad, since most of the ladies in question, if left to themselves, so far from reading masterpieces, would read books even worse than those selected for them by their literary pastors and masters. The emphasis upon competition in modern life is connected with a general decay of civilised standards such as must have occurred in Rome after the Augustan age. Men and women appear to have become incapable of enjoying the more intellectual pleasures. The art of general conversation, for example, brought to perfection in the French salons of the eighteenth century, was still a living tradition forty years ago. It was a very exquisite art, bringing the highest faculties into play for the sake of something completely evanescent. But who in our age cares for anything so leisurely? In China the art still flourished in perfection ten years ago, but I imagine that the missionary ardour of the Nationalists has since then swept it completely out of existence. The knowledge of good literature, which was universal among educated people fifty or a hundred years ago, is now confined to a few professors. All the quieter pleasures have been abandoned. Some American students took me walking in the spring through a wood on the borders of their campus; it was filled with exquisite wild flowers, but not one of my guides knew the name of even one of them. What use would such knowledge be? It could not add to anybody's income.
The trouble does not lie simply with the individual, nor can a single individual prevent it in his own isolated case. The trouble arises from the generally received philosophy of life, according to which life is a contest, a competition, in which respect is to be accorded to the victor. This view leads to an undue cultivation of the will at the expense of the senses and the intellect. Or possibly, in saying this, we may be putting the cart before the horse. Puritan moralists have always emphasised the will in modern times, although originally it was faith upon which they laid stress. It may be that ages of Puritanism produced a race in which will had been over-developed, while the senses and the intellect had been starved, and that such a race adopted a philosophy of competition as the one best suited to its nature.
However that may be, the prodigious success of these modern dinosaurs, who, like their prehistoric prototypes, prefer power to intelligence, is causing them to be universally imitated: they have become the pattern of the white man everywhere, and this is likely to be increasingly the case for the next hundred years. Those, however, who are not in the fashion may take comfort from the thought that the dinosaurs did not ultimately triumph; they killed each other out, and intelligent bystanders inherited their kingdom. Our modern dinosaurs are killing themselves out. They do not, on the average, have so much as two children per marriage; they do not enjoy life enough to wish to beget children. At this point the unduly strenuous philosophy which they have carried over from their Puritan forefathers shows itself unadapted to the world. Those whose outlook on life causes them to feel so little happiness that they do not care to beget children are biologically doomed. Before very long they must be succeeded by something gayer and jollier.

Competition considered as the main thing in life is too grim, too tenacious, too much a matter of taut muscles and intent will, to make a possible basis of life for more than one or two generations at most. After that length of time it must produce nervous fatigue, various phenomena of escape, a pursuit of pleasures as tense and as difficult as work (since relaxing has become impossible), and in the end a disappearance of the stock through sterility. It is not only work that is poisoned by the philosophy of competition; leisure is poisoned just as much. The kind of leisure which is quiet and restoring to the nerves comes to be felt boring. There is bound to be a continual acceleration of which the natural termination would be drugs and collapse. The cure for this lies in admitting the part of sane and quiet enjoyment in a balanced ideal of life.