Imagine we live in a world of delusion. A world where everything we do and see, even the language we use, are based on a delusion. And the delusion is so complete that we see this as the only reality. In fact, it never even occurs to us that there could be anything else.
That’s the theme of Beyond the Culture of Contest by Michael Karlberg.
He makes the case that the delusion of western-liberal societies is normative adversarialism – the culture of contest, and its corollary, the culture of protest, grounded in the belief that human beings are incorrigably aggressive and selfish:
“Throughout the contemporary public sphere, competitive and conflictual practices have become institutionalised norms. Indeed, contest models of social organisation and protest models of social change have become so ubiquitous that they tend to appear normal, natural and inevitable to those raised in western-liberal cultures.”
So it becomes difficult to imagine alternatives to partisan politics, to legal advocacy and to unfettered aggressively competitive economies.
This is a serious book, meticulously researched and intricately woven. What excites me about it is its breadth – it draws upon Marx and Gramsci and Habermas and feminist thinking and communication theory, and far more.
It explores the hegemonic dominance of adversarialism and its destructive impact. It explains the concomitant marginalisation of mutualism. It suggests that much feminist and ecological thinking, as well as the work of systems theorists and others, has as its start point, or is converging towards. the ideas of mutualism.
It suggests that the core of adversarialism lies in three interlocking sets of institutional contests: political contests, legal contests and economic interests. And that the economic contests dominate.
Published in 2004 (no idea why it took me so long to find this book), this is much more than an academic book. It’s a convincing argument that the culture of contest has created, and continues to maintain, a socially unjust and ecologically unsustainable world. More controversially perhaps – for many sincere people are involved in this – it argues that the culture of protest ultimately reinforces adversarialism and has reached a point of diminishing returns. It makes the case that, in an age of increasing interdependence, social change can be pursued more effectively in a non-adversarial manner.
A final word of caution to atheists: this book works even if you ignore chapter 5, which looks at the experience of the worldwide Bahá’í community as a model of a non-adversarial community. I think it’s quite a compelling case study – an experiment that will take generations to evaluate – but this book’s analysis of the iron grip of adversarialism, and its devastating impact, is fascinating without the case study and stands by itself.