Anti-rivalrous conversation

Wholesomeness is the new punk rock—Akira The Don

Cain Slaying Abel, by Jacopo Palma, 1590

Anti-rivalry may be one of the more vital ideas circulating these days—a term I learned from Jordan Greenhall and Daniel Schmachtenberger, and which was invented by the economist Steve Weber. Its meaning is more or less self-explanatory but its implications are vast. According to Laurence Lessig, speaking about computer code and language in general: “It’s not just that code is non-rival; it’s that code in particular, and (at least some) knowledge in general, is, as Weber calls it, ‘anti-rival’. I am not only not harmed when you share an anti-rival good: I benefit.”

To be anti-rivalrous is, in essence, to reward good faith and excellence rather scarcity and dog-eat-dog competition. To consume an anti-rivalrous production is to increase its value for yourself and others. To illustrate: a rivalrous product like Coca-Cola produces little sustainable value but a lot of addiction, thirst, and scarcity; whereas an anti-rivalrous production, such as a good story, a brilliant computer code, or conversation will increase value and knowledge rather than exhausting material resources.

The original inspiration for this article

The more you think about it, the more it makes sense that—for survival needs alone—we need to learn to act, think, and behave in an anti-rivalrous fashion. This term anti-rivalry is beautiful, for one thing because it allows us to bypass both hyper-capitalist and Marxist collectivist logic — the former being about rivalry for resources, the latter a rivalry of classes.

Anti-rivalry has been used mostly in an economic context but it may be helpful to think of it in psychological or even spiritual terms. Deep spirituality is anti-rivalrous by nature, as it is about the development of the soul rather than the ego. To be anti rivalrous is to be generous, it is to decry bad faith, to be soulful rather than shallow. Only by renouncing rivalry can one occupy that in-between space which Martin Buber calls ‘thou’ instead of ‘it’. Only in the intimate space of anti-rivalry can you create real spiritual value rather than resource depletion.

Jordan Peterson’s often used example of marriage illustrates the psychological benefits of anti-rivalry pretty well. If you want your marriage to succeed, he tells us, it’s better to lose one battle against your wife or husband than to crush him or her with your superior reasoning. This doesn’t mean, however, that conflict, competitions—a fight now and then—isn’t also a good thing for the marriage. However the basis of anti-rivalry relationship must be trust and generosity—anti-rivalry should be the higher principle that guides a long term relationship. A good marriage is not about winning or losing, obviously, but flourishing over time.

The anti-rivalrous mentality is born in the death throes of the rivalrous mode, when toxic communication reaches its maximum pitch. As Andrew Sullivan has described in his recent article America, Land of Brutal Binaries: ‘Dox, harass, troll, lie, smear, mock, distort, harangue, and preferably ruin: those are the tools of the alt-right just as much as they are the tools of the woke left.” Internet communication brings out the worst in people and the entire toxic ‘alt’ community—but it also creates the possibility of long form conversations and deep learning. If the old media is dying, the dead matter of this caterpillar can become the butterfly of new form of anti rivalrous media. Or it can become the ‘alt’ monster Sullivan describes.

Anti-rivalry is the antidote to the toxicity of a polarised media. Its mode is a long form conversation rather than a revolutionary program for change. The old self, the old system, the old mechanical way of thinking, will die of its own accord; you don’t have to ‘overthrow the system’ to be anti-rivalrous particularly, you simply have to allow the behemoth of the collective or personal ego to collapse. Anti-rivalry could be a form of active non-doing like Zen meditation: the space for the answer to your Koan—or the seemingly impossible riddle of existence—to emerge.

An anti-rivalrous conversation can be awkward and may be less satisfying in the short term — but it will be alive rather than mechanical and formulaic. For the right ‘code’ of communication to emerge, a living space has to be first established. It is like a good conversation between friends—which is generative by nature. Such a conversation is more like a path through a forest than a highway; it is slow and meandering but rich, meaningful, and never expedient—again, it is a marriage rather than a one-night-stand.

Anti-rivalry could be a mode of listening and becoming, as opposed to rivalry that makes us either tone deaf or ideologically possessed. The point is: we cannot grow by trumpeting our ideologies and certainties, by erecting our ‘empire of dirt’. If you put two people in a rivalrous space, the result is conflict and polarisation and war. On the other hand, if you put two people together in an anti-rivalrous space, the result is friendship.

An anti-rivalrous conversation is different than a battle of wills: it creates an upward trajectory rather than a field of corpses. It is about lifting the other up, finding the beauty and meaning in the stranger other. It is also about finding the gravity and presence to avoid an ideological war—or actual war, for that matter.

The reason that long form podcasts and and videos are popular these days is that they are, or at least can be, anti-rivalrous in spirit. When the culture becomes transparently toxic and superficial then people will look for meaning, depth, and long form anti-rivalrous conversation. As Akira the Don says ‘wholesomeness is the new punk rock’.

The original cautionary tale of rivalry, the story of Cain and Abel, tells us why we need to adopt spiritual anti-rivalry. Cain kills his brother out of envy and resentment, and the cycle of violence and war begins. The logic of Cain is one of poverty and resentment. Rivalry and envy may have helped us build the shiny office towers of the modern world but it is also what will bring them down in the end. Rivalry is the nightmare of history, the story of empires which rise and fall—the story of Cain. Rivalry is binary — it is brother against brother.

An anti-rivalrous conversation, on the other hand, requires time, space and good faith. It is a slower and more organic in development; however it can also simplify your life and be highly efficient. When people take the time to unfold their feelings and ideas, their souls appear, rather than their masks and personas—and the soul always knows what to do. The soul, meaning the greater aspect of the person, has no room for hubris and goes strait to the point.

Another thing to point out: anti-rivalry doesn’t mean that we have to throw away competition or even some free market mechanisms. Healthy competition can still remain as long as the anti-rivalrous spirit is the overarching principal. The difference is that an anti-rivalrous system rewards good faith rather than rent seeking, virtue rather than greed. Anti rivalry is the bridge to a world of plenty rather than poverty, in the material, but also the deeper spiritual world.

This strategy is anti identity politics or cutthroat competition as well. It supports neither social justice kangaroo courts nor a libertarian dystopia based on Ayn Rand novels. Anti-rivalry creates value rather than waste — it is both altruistic and self serving. Perhaps it can only happen in a mixed economy that values intelligence and complexity over ideology.

The extraction economy (stealing a term from Jordan Greenhall again), with its rivalry dynamics, is not only unstable, but eats itself in the end — unless anti-rivalrous structures are instituted. The sharing economy is an example. However, the foundation for anti-rivalry are with what is most intimate and near. To clean your own room first, in Petersonian lingo, is to create an anti-rivalrous relationship with your world. There is no harm and only good generated from an ordered and creative space.

To conclude: if we are too rivalrous with our intimate partner, we will end up destroying the relationship. So, too, with our relationship with the larger world. On the other hand, if we listen, appreciate, and lift each other up, especially when we are in conflict, there is no end to the learning and depth that can occur. The key point is that anti-rivalrous systems are not only sustainable and inexhaustible but they generate a richer and more complex environment. In a world of toxic communication and disappearing resources, anti rivalrous conversations and economics may be our only chance to save ourselves.

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Thanks Stephen Lewis for the edits

Compressed scraps of angel melody, stories, essays, rants against reductionism, commands from the deep.