Against the case against zero-sum positionality

by Rob Horning

25 October 2006


Cato Instituter Will Wilkinson makes a valient attempt to argue against the zero-sum nature of status games—comparing ourselves to others and deriving our satisfaction from that rather than the utility of whatever we possess or are capable of. The essence of his argument seems to be positionality is inevitable, but we can always change the game we’re playing until we find one we can win.

Crucially, there is no limit to the possible forms of excellence. So, while the number of positions on any single dimension of status may be fixed, there is no reason why dimensions of status cannot be multiplied indefinitely. It does not in fact require a violation of mathematical law to produce more high-status positions, for it is possible to produce new status dimensions.

This seems to ignore the fact that some status games are more significant than others and that ultimately society confers significance on these things; it’s not a product of an individual’s force of will. I really want to believe that Wilkinson’s right about this:

We are not destined to want fancier cars, bigger houses, and more upscale outfits, nor are we helpless to feel diminished by those who out-consume us. We can opt out by opting in to competing narratives about the composition of a good life. And we do it all the time. We can, like Gauguin, quit law and family to paint naked natives in Tahiti. Or, better, we can move the family to a quieter place where houses are cheap and schools are good. (‘Is this heaven?’ ‘No, Iowa.’) If we are aggrieved by the rigours of the rat race, the answer is not the clumsy guidance of a paternal state. The answer is simply to stop being a rat.

But the problem is not that we internalize the rat race and are unable to let it go and be happy. The problem is the races we want to run are not necessarily recognized as relevant socially, and ultimately, the pursuit of social recognition is not a race we can easily opt out of, no matter how libertarian we seek to become.

No matter how hard I might want thorough knowledge of 1960s rock music or Dylan albums or 18th century novels to be an important status signifier, in the eyes of most everyone I encounter or ever will encounter, it’s not and it’s not going to be. So I can be king of an insignificant hill, put my blinders on, block out the rest of the world and be satisfied with that—or as Wilkinson spins it, “The cultural fragmentation some critics lament is precisely what liberates us from unavoidable zero-sum positional conflict. Surfer dudes don’t compete with Star Trek geeks for status.” Apparently you use the Internet to discover a niche in which you can dominate and excel. In his view, the benefit of technology is precisely the alienation and isolation it produces—it allows you to construct a fiefdom in which your own predilections and proclivities are the defining traits of importance and influence. But if you are the only resident of that fiefdom, you only influence yourself. This solipsistic game gets boring, just as playing chess versus yourself does. Of course positional conflict isn’t unavoidable. It only becomes so if there are actually others present to position yourself against. If you want to take part in an intensely competitive society like ours in a meaningful, recognized way. If you change the rules of the game to make social recognition an insignificant by-product to the pursuit of the joy of winning, rather than its very essence, then yes, status games are not zero-sum. They are just pointless. And I generally disagree with the logic here—I think zero-sum positionality infects these niches once we import the urge to dominate them for status purposes. Under the spell of capitalism’s standard operating procedures (creative destruction for growth, etc.) we bring the fashion imperative to spheres of culture that were once immune to it; and then suddenly it’s not about the thing itself but where you stand in relation to others on the competitive field supplied by that thing. That thing recedes in significance, and becomes interchangable with any other.

Still, Wilkinson’s ideas, if not feasible as an overall strategy, do make for good tactics for resisting positionality in everyday life, for imagining alternatives, for trying to conceive other means for deriving recognition. They sound a lot like the ideas the downshifters put forward. (To get utopian for a moment, these individual efforts are likely the minucule building blocks for building a different kind of society, one less reliant on the fashion and novelty within consumerism for perpetuating economic growth. Wilkinson’s right that a paternalistic state wishing competition into the cornfield and guaranteeing equal outcomes isn’t the solution.) The key is to oppotunistically seize on those moments wherein one escapes the pressures to rank oneself and is lost in an activity. Every week I get together with friends and we play music in a practice space we rent. It doesn’t matter, to me, if anyone else ever hears the music we make, beause right now it’s an oasis for me where those pressures of positionality are suspended, held at bay. Suddenly I’m in a world where collective action is all; in our all too temporary society of three there is for those two hours no distinction between personal and social goals, and recognition is as immediate and reciprocal as a picked-up change, an established groove that’s otherwise inexpressible and intangible.

Addendum: At Crooked Timber, Henry Farrell takes similar issue to Wilkinson’s argument: “Wilkinson’s claim implies, unless I misunderstand him badly, that it doesn’t matter very much to me if I’m a despised cubicle rat who can’t afford a nice car and gets sneered at by pretty girls, because when I go home and turn on my PC, I suddenly become a level 75 Night Elf Rogue who Kicks Serious Ass! Now this example is loaded – but it’s loaded to demonstrate a serious sociological point that Wilkinson doesn’t even begin to address. These indefinitely proliferating dimensions of status competition are connected to each other in their own implicit meta-ranking, which is quite well understood by all involved.… In short, people are highly aware of the relative rankings of their obsessions.”

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