Competitiveness vs. Cooperation 4.0: The War of the Worlds?

by Deborah Liebart. First appeared on DisputatioMagistrorum. DOI: 10.5281/zenodo.3243597

Classical economists, with the possible exception of Malthus, were sure that the human being was able to create on earth an idyllic utopia based on the idea that the acceleration of economic activity would lead to material abundance and equilibrium, and not one could imagine that this acceleration pushed to the extreme, can have such a heavy environmental impact. The concepts developed and defended by the classics have had the effect, of introducing at a paroxysmic point the competition between economic agents by developing at an unprecedented rate production and especially productivity. The market mechanism, which has become Smith’s « invisible hand », regulates supply and demand, self-interest leading to a steady improvement in well-being and the general interest. Free competition and competitiveness are at the center of the prevailing economic theory of the century.

  Directly linked to the question of the energy available in the process, (use of fossil energies), the XXth century, with no apparent limit, seeks to carry out a task as quickly as possible, to increase productive yields. Developing productivity becomes an obsession at all levels of the chain and not one could realizing that the increase in CO2 levels in the air is the consequence of this acceleration because if the calculation of negative externalities is achieved at the level of the company, in its cost and profitability, it is never realized on a global scale.

  If the economics of the modern era feed on the theories of Newtonian1 physics, the appropriation of thermodynamic concepts such as entropy, gradually changes the situation, the economy seizing the questions of disorder, disorganization, unpredictability, but also finiteness and exhaustion of resources… all economic activity being progressively considered as a borrowing to natural energy and material reserves.

  N.Georgescu-Roegen’s work2 on the question and the conceptualization of his thermodynamic « fourth principle » suggesting that, just like energy, available basic material is doomed to deteriorate, marks significantly the development of the economic theory of the middle of the twentieth century and is now reused by the most radical supporters of degrowth. For the first time, it can be seen that the accumulation of entropic debts could bring about the collapse of the economic regime, giving way to a new economic one based on new energy source, new forms of extractions, new treatments, a new distribution whose costs naturally decline thanks to technological progress and economies of scale.

  Today, we are sometimes considering solving this question using renewable energies as being inexhaustible, without (perhaps) considering the fact that the tools used to capture these solar, hydraulic and wind energy sources are partly rare earth compounds whose available stock, just as for fossil energies, is limited. From this point of view, the exploitation of renewable energy resources on a global scale questions, beyond the situations of economic dependency that this entails, in particular vis-à-vis China. The same questioning arises with sources of vegetable origins, because using, for example, biodiesel, means that somewhere they are farming for your car rather than for food and livelihood. You are wasting lands… these could be used for food, diversification, for ecosystem diversification or for general livelihood (parks, rewildened green areas, etc).

  Faced with these political, economic and ecological challenges, some voices are rising to defend a model based on matching the use of resources to the rate of natural recycling of raw materials, thus raising the question of population growth (increase life expectancy + sustained birth rate on a global scale), constantly requiring greater consumption of resources. Biomimetics, for example, proposes balancing activities, reconciling productivity and sustainability, particularly by managing the issue of unused and destroyed surpluses.

  Behind this pattern, it is a « struggle » of economic models that is drawn by the actors, the theoretical opposition between competitiveness and cooperation. If it seems quite clear that in the past people have lived in cooperative models, the competition introduced in recent centuries still reigns through today economics laws, essentially because it touches on the key concept of property. To understand the recent advent (on a human scale) of the inalienability of individual private property, we must go back to the enclosure laws in Tudor and Elizabethan England3, to the disappearance of communal in Europe, the principle leading to the transition from the feudal system to the market era. The property is defended by the Enlightenment, in France, who see it as a key concept of the economy.

  The emergence of distributed systems redefines virtually, if not theoretically, the different dominant economic assumptions of the century. Distribution and cooperation, at work in free software4, open-source concepts, social networks, blockchain, NICTs, force us to examine again the individual relationship to private property5 as a natural lockian right. The rhetoric of a generation that has grown up with the internet designs an inclusive, peer-to-peer society sharing knowledge and skills, (Zenodo and Wikipedia are good examples), but also goods and services in open structures called « common ». The disciplinary field of collective action and self-governance of « commons » has been largely cleared by the work of E.Ostrom, distinguishing between exclusive goods, non-exclusive and non-exclusive public goods6.

  If at first this may seem to be a questioning of the classical and neo-classical theory defending a system in which the addition of individual egoisms would tend to an economic optimum, it is interesting to question these new modes of cooperation by distinguishing tools and economic strategy because of the multiple and possible uses of new technologies. The various realizations using the blockchain make it possible to understand the multiple possibilities of this technology, serving as well to establish land registers, as to mine virtual currencies. In the same way, the goals, the « philosophical » currents supporting the various social networks being broad, it is necessary to distinguish technology, motivations and real uses. Accessibility to the network, the right of use seems to have replaced the right of property in these open models, the sharing of files, data, codes, etc., inducing a common property beyond the intellectual property and copyrights. All these concepts remind the feudal common property right, the right to use the common oven and the mill, to meet in the public area… The concept of the inclusive right of access and use is again raised when it was marginalized in modern era, imbued with the idea of progress placing market relations and private property at the heart of its project, and developing the idea of an obscure Middle Ages. In the current globalized, ultra-competitive and ultra-individualistic world, the social network seems to be experienced as a vector of inclusion by the internet generation, as shown by the struggles of the younger generations for free access to the network during the Arab Spring.

  Beyond co-operation, the internet generation again raises the question of governance in many areas, at the corporate level, but also at the national and international levels, tightening again the « autocratic state », centralized, in its sovereign prerogatives, at a time when protectionism and therefore the role of the State seems to be accentuated. Generational conflict? Societal bipolarization ? The rhetoric 4.0 outlines this as a frontal shock between two economic systems7 and between two visions of the world opposing « old world » and « new world », « old model » and « new model », opposing the decision-making center and the decentralized decision in an open, transparent, borderless space, the public good, the common good having to prevail over the traditional system of monopolistic trusts of the first industrial revolutions. The questioning of the state by the economic discourse is not new. Already in the eighteenth century liberal rhetoric defended the freedom of trade to the detriment of any state intervention, the famous « laissez-faire » and « laissez-passer » that I have spoken to you so often …

  The current practices and the philosophical currents supposed to underlie them must question us on the basic concepts of the economic discipline :

  • wealth, profit (in a world where we seek to eliminate margins and transaction costs),

  • productivity and the relation to time in a world where long-term leasing seems to have to replace possession and property,

  • budget balance,

  • property rights,

  • social and work organization, particularly the centralized model of the factory8 and the necessary accumulation of capital,

  • competition between companies9

  It must also lead us to question the intellectual lineage of such rhetoric, at a time when inequalities and social gaps are widening all the more. Does the status of cooperator version 4.0, via the dematerialized platforms, really represent a return to the sources of cooperation10? Is it the transition between financial capital and a kind of social capital11 from the networked world as it develops (the disappearance of the intermediary, holocracy, intelligent economy, agile system, transition from the model of buyer to that of user …)?

  Google and Facebook as new social models of sharing, dematerialized cooperation ? GAFA and platforms as new collaborative and cooperative models for the common good ? Or new packaging for an end system, in search of renewal and acceptance in societies increasingly prone to revolt ? Will the emergence of new forms of governance profoundly transform the interindividual social models and current political models12 ?

  In order to understand what is happening, it is necessary to return to the roots of productivism. Born with the industrial revolutions, the competition between companies through the market has the effect of generating a race for productivity in which companies have learned to use their workforce more efficiently, in order to reduce production costs and ultimately to gain competitiveness. Tools available are mechanization, intensification, scientific organization of work, rationalization of production tasks … Do you hear the little music of the Modern Times of Chaplin? That’s the idea …

  Productivity and its « terrible child », the overproduction that generates job destruction that can be fight in two ways: by reducing working time or by increasing production. Baudrillard describes this by the concept of « consumer society », what H. Lefebvre calls « the industrial society of directed consumption13 » , the creation of a permanent need for consumption created at the consumer’s and that constantly prevails over all ethics and sustainability, generating a situation of overconsumption, consumption exceeding the average. If the interpretations vary from one author to another, it is reasonable to say that the consumer society becomes effective when economic growth becomes the goal of political and economic circles. This materialistic phenomenon of an excessive consumption was widely denounced by American and European sociologists in the 1950s.

  Overproduction, often accompanied by overexploitation of resources, exceeds what the market can absorb, distorting the supply-demand balance. Marx describes this phenomenon when he raises the issue of under-production crises in agrarian societies which lead to famine, while the crises of overproduction in capitalist societies lead to revolts during which workers break working tools to bring back production at a lower level… hence the idea of pooling the means of production as the property of the workers. Interesting to see that today’s giants societies take up some of the language elements of Marx, Proudhon and Gramsci, long relegated to the second rank of thinkers of political economy … Would we really have arrived at a revolutionary turning point or, more or less, the major corporations of the world would adopt these socialist and / or anarchist discourses ? In fact, the key concepts mobilized by this new rhetoric seem rather to be part of the liberal anarchist affiliation of F.Bastiat, a resolutely capitalist type of philosophy, which could be summed up under the slogan « live and let live ».

  The determinants of the productivist consumer society are advertising and marketing. Behind Facebook’s cooperative discourse hides another reality, an ultra-productivist economic system of the classic neoliberal type, both in its politics and in its way of thinking about the economy, far from the “cooperative model”14.

 Beyond shared posts, shared photos, Facebook, free for users, actually satisfies it real customers, companies willing to spend huge amounts of advertising to reach their target customer by an ingenious system of feedback, and collecting data, data which are used to personalize advertisements offered to the user so as to make it consume as quickly and as much as possible via a totally dematerialized system, almost painless, unlike the act of traditional purchase impacting on the consumer. In this way, Facebook, Google and buying platforms actively participate in old models denounced and decried by the intellectual currents that they mobilize the discourse : overconsumption, overexploitation of resources, exploitation of workers (now those of the click) …

  The dematerialized giants are at the heart of the overproductive and overconsumption system, each new order placed on these new merchant vectors contributing as much as the purchases made in the « old materialized world » of the consumer society at work since the 1960s, and participate to worsening the global ecological and economic crisis. This, without even addressing the question of the destruction of unsold goods by Amazon, widely denounced in a society where the ecology and the depletion of the resources are made more and more real15.

  Where are the cooperative values of the first mutualists? Mutual aid, foresight, shared management, risk sharing, pooling of resources? These are missing from these « emerging » business models.

  In a broader sense, the use of data collected for political purposes by Cambridge Analytica raises philosophical and ethical questions… as if the values advocated were actually diverted and included in a discourse aimed at the suppression of centralized state structures in capacity to control their activities, and « reconditioned », and redefined by a new discourse, an « Orwelian Newspeak » playing on words thanks to a fuzzy terminiology.

  What about human dignity in this system ? What would ultimately prevent a totally uninhibited system completely free of state barriers, to make man a commodity « in competition », « perpetually at war with others » in a model where socially, consumption becomes the central value ? Far from being a reminiscence of cooperative practices, this ultra-liberal model could very quickly revive the state of war underpinning the mercantilist political economy, in a closed, competitive world, the famous « zero sum game » 17th century.

  In 2019, the ecological debt day arrived on May 10 ; in five months, the world’s population has consumed what the planet is able to offer in one year … while at the same time, a third of world agricultural production is thrown away, in a world where nearly three billion people, almost half of the world’s population live on less than a dollar a day … Whatever our opinion, the conclusion seems to impose itself obviously, rethinking comsumption and production models is not/will not be an option in a world with the over-exploited natural resources but one of the central keys to the necessary adaptation that human being should make to preserve and perpetuate his living environment. A state decision, which in a courageous step, should make prevail the common good as « natural right of the humanity », on the powerful interests of lobbies working for their own interest within the national and international governmental structures.

2Georgescu-Roegen, N., Entropy Law and the Economic Process, 1971 … On the use of the concept of energy by economists, c.f., the works of S. Podolinsky, R. Passet, E. Solvay ….


4Proulx, S., & Couture, S., Pratiques de coopération et éthique du partage à l’intersection de deux mondes sociaux: militants du logiciel libre et groupes communautaires au Québec. Rencontres Intelligence Collective, 22-24, 2006.

6 E.Ostrom, Governing the Commons, The evolution of institutions for collective action, Cambridge University Press, 1990.



Conein, B., Communautés épistémiques et réseaux cognitifs: coopération et cognition distribuée. Revue d’économie politique, 113, 141-159, 2004.


13C.f, les travaux de D. Riesman.

14c.f., Liébart D., Manca, M., finance and care … available online for free on this blog.