Competition, Paranoia, and Cannibalism

March 14, 2013
"k1f" Kirby Farrell

“k1f” Kirby Farrell

Is that paranoia you hear around you? [1] The airwaves sizzle with suspicion. Crime’s down, gun sales up [2]. Drones are tracking you. Your food will kill you. The president is a closet Muslim, climate change a scientific conspiracy. What gives?

Here’s one piece of the puzzle: American culture prizes competition. And competition and paranoia are incestuously connected.

We like to think of competition as a handy tool for boosting morale and profits. It whips up “team spirit” and “fighting spirit.” You get a bonus for “beating the numbers” and your colleagues.

The catch is that “good” competition is actually a form of cooperation. On the playing field or in the office, the players—even opponents—cooperate for the good of the game. Whether it’s called good sportsmanship or civility, this ethos tries to prevent opponents from becoming paranoid enemies.

In the heat of the action, cooperation easily slides into paranoia. The search for strategic advantage is intoxicating. It summons up extraordinary emergency resources rooted in survival physiology. Under stress, competitors can feel “high” the way soldiers experience battle trance, with diminished fear and sensitivity to pain. In such a state boundaries blur. As you go all-out against opponents, you can be competing with yourself, trying to pump up that winning extra burst of fighting spirit. Next thing you know, competition becomes “do-or-die” and paranoia replaces cooperation.

You can think of culture (“good sportsmanship”) as a technology for managing the connection between competition and paranoia. Rules and referees work to regulate the feedback loops that tap into rage. But violent competition can become a cultural style, with fans deliberately looking for a chance to run amok. On the job, the “loser” passed over or fired “goes postal” and shoots up the office. Thrilled by the sensational headlines, the copycat killer tries to break the record. In the corporate military, your paycheck literally depends on keeping up an arms “race” and the assumption that rival nations are always wannabe “enemies.” In politics nobody blinks at the idea of “competitive battleground states” and “attack” ads.

In a culture that prizes do-or-die ambition and snarls at regulations, it seems natural for violence to be sublimated in competition. You can forget that at bottom, winning and losing are associated with survival and death

In such an atmosphere you may be so used to competition that you may not even realize that you’re caught up in it. You’re just teasing or being idealistic or “going for it.” To “win” a boyfriend, a high school kid posts blue-ribbon nude snapshots of herself that go viral. Lovers compare themselves and their partners to rivals and ideals, and worry about “performance.” Invisible competition can break up relationships, with plenty of opportunity for the love of your life to become a silent adversary or, with the help of a divorce lawyer, your enemy.

The paranoid side of competition helps to explain some bizarre anomalies. California, for example, has over a third of young black males in some phase of the justice system, many imprisoned for nonviolent drug offenses. You can point to racism, but racism is in part a paranoid reaction to competition for status, sex, jobs, and not least, self-esteem. The justice system is taking rival males—and their frustrated energy—out of circulation.

Or consider the fight over government debt. If the debt is at crisis levels, as radical conservatives insist, higher taxes could pay it down. But they balk at taxes, demanding spending cuts instead, especially in social safety net programs. In an era of “free market” and Ayn Rand ideology, they believe they’re “producers” competing with the 47% of the nation they label “takers”—parasites and welfare cheats. Supposedly they vote for Obama because he gives them “stuff” such as medical coverage and food stamps.

The underlying theme is Social Darwinism. It assumes that evolution advances through fatal competition, ignoring the reality of interdependence and symbiosis. Only the fittest survive. Winners live, losers die. If you support “takers,” you encourage fatal weakness in the body politic. If you think this way, a little deprivation motivates people, whereas rewards risk spoiling them. You recall the old bumper sticker:



If you have the power to set salaries, you don’t want to endanger the organization’s survival by overpaying weak players. If you have power, you earned your status through sweat and sacrifice. You feel good about it. Why shouldn’t obviously less worthy competitors undergo the same healthy lean and mean trials? Toughen them up. Make them compete.

The 47% theme is paranoid insofar as it imagines half the nation as a threat, exaggerating whatever cheating there is and ignoring actual needs. It views the competition between rich and poor not as class warfare, but as virtuous reform of “entitlements.” The stance is also paranoid inasmuch as conservatives never restrain the bloated corporate military budget, which pays for actual warfare against weak rivals. For good measure, the debt fighters ignore the recent epidemic of corporate crime, which has given us such colorful coinages as “banksters” and “too big to jail.”

It’s tricky, because once you’re a winner, you can bend the rules of good sportsmanship in your favor. Trying to keep up, your opponents will follow suit, raising the contest to a new level that’s likely to beget yet another level, so that competition becomes a funhouse of crazy mirrors.

But that’s not all.

The twist of the knife is this: intense competition kills competition. “Free market” doctrine is absurd, for example, because business drives toward monopoly. It’s the corporation and the boss striving to be “last man standing.” They concentrate wealth at the top, but have kept wages stagnant for decades. Today they’re fighting a rise in the minimum wage that still wouldn’t be enough to live on. For them, it’s a contest. Keeping employees at survival wages in a time of high unemployment is a good gaming strategy. It keeps them locked in, alone, powerless to compete. But whoa. Labor unions can muster enough strength to bargain. Hence the paranoia about unions and the relentless “free market” determination to kill them off.

What can you expect? Even God likes monopoly. He banished the competitive angel Satan to Hell. When Adam and Eve tried to be “as gods,” knowing good and evil, the cosmic Dad punished everybody who will ever exist with death, work, and the small human pelvis that makes childbirth painful for women. As Abel found out, even his brother Cain preferred monopoly.

Still, like individualism and survival of the fittest, monopoly has some drawbacks. The last man standing is the cannibal, who has no rivals left, but also no groceries, and no fun on Saturday night. In today’s version of this, the top 1% have swallowed so much of everybody’s income that consumers can no longer buy enough to keep the economy from stalling.

Trading, by contrast, requires imaginative sympathy. To make a deal you have to be able to imagine what others want and value. Trading has always created rules and rituals, because both parties need to feel satisfied or somebody gets hurt.

Competition is the snake in that Eden. It promises ultimate security and yet it’s inherently unstable. It’s like keeping a gun—the power to kill—in your dresser drawer. It promises mastery and survival, but it’s much more likely to deliver gruesome insurance statistics.

Remember the old saying: You can take the cannibal out of the village, but you can’t take the village out of the cannibal.

1. We think of paranoia as a disorder, even when we use it casually. Here’s The World Health Organization‘s ICD-10 shopping list of symptoms. Three of more of these constitute what WHO calls paranoid personality:

  1. excessive sensitivity to setbacks and rebuffs;
  2. tendency to bear grudges persistently, i.e. refusal to forgive insults and injuries or slights;
  3. suspiciousness and a pervasive tendency to distort experience by misconstruing the neutral or friendly actions of others as hostile or contemptuous;
  4. a combative and tenacious sense of personal rights out of keeping with the actual situation;
  5. recurrent suspicions, without justification, regarding sexual fidelity of spouse or sexual partner;
  6. tendency to experience excessive self-importance, manifest in a persistent self-referential attitude;
  7. preoccupation with unsubstantiated “conspiratorial”  explanations of events both immediate to the patient and in the world at large.


2. http://www.csmonitor.com/USA/Justice/2012/0109/US-crime-rate-at-l…



  1. Nicely done. I’m working on ‘the homelessness issue’ in our lovely valley here and it’s clear that people want to ‘help’ the homeless, give them blankets and soup and feel sorry for them. Yet they also express an underlying assumption that the homeless have made a number of bad choices in their lives and we can’t really approve of people making bad choices, now can we? So, we’re willing to help if people express the proper level of remorse and guild but we won’t go so far as giving them some dignity by providing them with decent housing and effective help with their personal issues like addiction and mental illness, issues brought on as much by homelessness as by anything else. The stress some people have to live under is appalling and leads to drug and alcohol abuse. I know that if I were forced to live on the street I’d be looking for whatever chemical escape I could find.

  2. That was most enjoyable. ..”Competition is the snake in that Eden.”..

    I was wondering how the “High Self-Esteem” movement in public education bumps up against this…

    ..[Here’s one piece of the puzzle: American culture prizes competition. And competition and paranoia are incestuously connected.]..

    At my young grandson’s last baseball game I was amazed to see that there are no longer “3 strikes-n-you are out”! Now, so the kids don’t feel bad, they get as many pitches as they need and a guaranteed trophy at the end of the season.
    Is less competition giving us less paranoia? Is that the idea? All I can see it producing is a person with less ambition & achievement… BUT, who feels great about themselves in spite of it. (anybody?)

    • Interesting questions… our symbolic worth, in the Western world at least, is dependent to a large degree on ‘success’ and ‘achievement.’ We want children to always feel worthy, so in our guilt, we allow them to all feel like they are all successful. Unfortunately, they do not have to do anything, and they never learn how to fail at something (while still having worth)… so they naturally grow up either feeling entitled (and are thus unprepared for true competition) … or highly anxious and fearful of failure (competitive and paranoid?).

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