Society is a Zero-Sum Game

We measure (and therefore value) ourselves on the basis of how other people see us and this – although we can’t see it – involves us in a vicious circle, a ‘runaway tautology’. Society is all about ‘measuring ourselves in terms of how others see us’ (whether we want to admit this or not) and that means that the social world – which is the only world we know – is a vicious circle, a self-devouring loop of logic that is constantly going around and around without the possibility of ever getting anywhere. The very ground we stand on (or think we stand on) is nothing more than a cheap hoax, in other words.

We stand to gain in the world that has been created by us comparing ourselves to everyone else – we stand to gain because there’s always a chance of us coming out on top, because there’s always the possibility of us ‘being admired rather than despised’ (to put it crudely). We stand to lose – therefore – for the very same reason. If we wanted to be more exact about it, we could say that, on balance, we stand to gain to the very same extent that we stand to lose.

Everyone playing the game knows this, of course (on some level, at least) but it doesn’t put us off because we’re willing to bet that we’re going to find ourselves amongst the winners rather than the losers. It seems perfectly reasonable to take this gamble, after all. We’re just as likely to come out as winners as we are to end up as losers and so this seems like acceptable odds as far as we’re concerned. ‘Seize the day’, we say. ‘Be positive and give it a go’. God loves a trier, after all, and ‘if you’re not in then you can’t win…’

From a purely personal point of view this logic would appear to make sense. This is the way games are played, of course – all games come with an equal risk of losing and winning and this is the challenge, this is the risk. Accepting the challenge posed by the game is widely held to be ‘the healthy thing to do’. This is pretty much our whole ethos right there – we have the greatest possible admiration for someone who boldly accepts the risk and then comes out on top. This is the glory we all aspire to – the glory of the winner.

Curiously however, we do not show much (if anything) in the way of sympathy for those of us for whom the venture turns out badly, which seems bizarrely arbitrary of us. They too have accepted the challenge of the game, after all; they too have taken the chance that they might not come out on top, just as we have. Why then do we look down on them as if there was something inherently unworthy or inferior about them? This hardly seems fair. It doesn’t seem very logical either – it isn’t actually logical at all. Why – we might ask – is there such a thing as ‘the indelible stigma of failure’ when it’s all just ‘the luck of the draw’.

There is a type of logic to this however, albeit it a very narrow and shortsighted type. There’s a brand of logic here, but it turns out to be not a very pleasant one. It’s certainly not a way of thinking that we’re in a hurry to admit to! The point (which we are so reluctant to dwell on) is that if I see I have come out on top purely by chance, purely because ‘someone had to’, then I don’t get to experience the glory that comes with winning. I could equally well not have won, so how can I possibly feel good about myself on this basis? The fact that I have done well in the game has nothing to do with any personal virtue of mine, after all. Being a winner doesn’t really say anything about me in this case. It’s true of course that I might have done better than my fellows because I’m smarter, or stronger, or better looking (all of these factors can confer advantage, of course) but the same point applies – I was born with those advantages, it wasn’t something special that I did and can take credit for…

We don’t just want to win, therefore – we want to win and feel worthy of it. We want the personal validation; we want to experience the glory that comes with being a winner! That’s what we wanted all along, not simply the bald fact that we have ‘come out on top’ in the system of ranking that makes up this inherently competitive society of ours. We’re ‘glory hounds’, we’re perennially hungry for the sweet taste of success. Basically, we want to feel that we’ve got to ‘where we are today’ by our own steam. As we’ve already said, it can’t just be that we were born into a better situation, or that we are gifted with more intelligence or cunning than our fellows, it has to be some sort of genuine honest-to-goodness personal virtue that we ourselves are responsible for.

The euphoric ‘hit’ of success is founded purely upon this belief – the belief that the fact I have excelled in the struggle demonstrates the existence of some special quality in myself that I myself am responsible. This is what the ego covets above all else – the feeling that we are ‘special’ (in a good rather than a bad way). This feeling – entirely illusory as it may be – is what all finite game-players are playing for. There is therefore a deliberate (if unconscious) dishonesty in this, and because of this dishonesty (which underpins everything we do in social life) we are obliged to live our lives in an entirely superficial or shallow way. We have no choice in this – as soon as we start playing the game we’re ‘locked into it’; that’s what the game is all about – we can’t go deeply into anything because that would blow the whole thing. Not being superficial would be a disaster because it necessarily invalidates the foundation upon which we are playing.

The flip side of this is that we automatically believe that if someone doesn’t make it in society or doesn’t do particularly well then that must be because of some personal flaw or weakness in their character. They deserve what they get (just as we deserve what we have got) and so we can rest content that ‘all is well in the world’. Without this ‘excuse’ for our shocking lack of compassion, our ruthlessly competitive way of life simply wouldn’t be able to continue, and we don’t want that. The game must go on, no matter what the cost. And if our circumstances change for the worse, we will judge ourselves just the same because that’s the way it works – ‘What’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander’, after all.

Seen from the broader perspective it is abundantly clear that there’s no overall advantage to playing this game; this whole business of ‘basing our view of ourselves on what everyone else thinks of us’ is – if only we could see it – the worst idea going! Overall, it always comes down to ‘investing in a zero-sum game’. [‘Player one’s gain is equivalent to player two’s loss, with the result that the net improvement in benefit of the game is zero’. Wikipedia] Playing the game necessarily makes us selfish – ‘playing the game’ is a selfish (if not flat-out narcissistic) thing to do and this means that we don’t ever take the wider view of what’s going on. As long as we have our fun then that’s all that matters. The logic of the game means ‘not caring that society is a zero- sum game’ – that’s how the whole thing works. That’s what we’re buying into.

Even if we look at it in a totally one-sided way (the ‘I’m alright Jack’ kind of a way that the system encourages us to) it still doesn’t work out for us. There’s no satisfaction to be had in ‘getting caught up in a vicious circle’, only the tantalising (and ultimately frustrating) promise of it. Our stark absence of compassion towards others rebounds on us as ‘the inability to be compassionate to ourselves’ and so – even if, by some freak chance, we were able to dodge the principle of ‘what goes up must come down’ – we’ve still ‘done the dirty on ourselves’. We’ve still done the dirty on ourselves since (as we’ve said) to enjoy ‘being a winner’ we are obliged to live life in a crassly superficial way. That’s the trap we’re caught in. Ultimately – no matter how skillfully we play the game, no matter how much pain we deflect onto our less fortunate fellow human beings – there’s no escaping the truth that ‘winning only exists in relation to losing’ and that – therefore – it’s only a hollow illusion.

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