Can Adversarial Contexts Be Socially Integrating?

Recently, Michael Gillespie wrote an article on March Madness and the unifying character of sports in American culture.  What is it about sports, and March Madness in particular, that it is able to organize and direct a group of otherwise — to borrow a term from John Rawls — “mutually disinterested” individuals towards impassioned support of a common goal?  How can a mere game transform a diverse group of individuals into an almost singular consciousness, where personal identities dissolve into a shared communal existence?

Gillespie answers similar questions in terms of Nietzsche’s view of Greek tragedy, which is, at its core, a merging of both the individual and communal elements of life (or the Apollinian and Dionysian).  Nietzsche’s conclusion is ultimately that life is redeemed only as an aesthetic phenomenon, and a sense of meaning is derived from a sense of struggle in which the individual sacrifices his happiness for something greater.

College basketball, and indeed sports generally, might play this redemptive role in American culture, as it is through sports that we experience life in all its peaks and valleys — from the ecstasy of an unexpected win by a buzzer-beating three-pointer, to the despair over an impossible upset in a tournament’s first round.  Insofar as basketball is representative of the unifying character of adversarial institutions, how else might this dynamic play out towards a goal of social integration?  That is, how might conflict help transform a Gesellschaft (society) into a Gemeinschaft (community), to use Max Weber’s terminology.

A similar situation might be seen in the United States during World War II, where civilian support was widespread.  It is well documented that the U.S. contribution to the war effort increased U.S. GDP, through increased productivity and the better mobilization of the workforce.  This had a taxing effect on the U.S. population, but this struggle was tolerated because of, among other factors, some sense of unification expressed as patriotism.

Indeed, this point about economies and markets as an expression of social integration is interesting.  It has been argued* that Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, when interpreted in conjunction with his Theory of Moral SentimentsLectures on Jurisprudence, and Letters on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres, forms a comprehensive theory whereby markets are not exclusively constituted by interactions of “competitive and strategic individuals to secure their material preferences,” (553), but rather as a central mechanism for social order derived from the “inexorable struggle by human agents for moral approbation and social recognition” (ibid).  This reading, furthermore, goes on to state how Smith perceived markets as an analogue to the classical Greek polis, as the site where people seek mutual recognition.

Before we commit what Alfred North Whitehead termed the “fallacy of misplaced concreteness,” we would do well to recognize that this represents an idealization, which might be quite undersupported, especially in the context of contemporary market transactions.  While Smith’s Wealth of Nations argues for lack of government manipulation and intervention in markets, the events of recent years has made some people skeptical of the efficacy of this kind of unrestrained free-market capitalism.

Part of the problem is that there is rarely the sense of a common goal among actors within American corporations.  Some economists such as Paul Krugman claim that the U.S. economy has become dominated by the financial sector, and one criticism against financial institutions is that employee’s have no personal investment in the firm beyond their limited tenure.  Performance is usually assessed in terms of a very short time-horizon, and significantly long-term strategies to increase market capitalization might not be implemented if they sacrifice short-term performance.

Obviously, I have no resolution for these difficulties.  Perhaps adversarial contexts could be socially integrating, and the main issue is how might the unifying character of sports, for example, be applied to other adversarial contexts, like markets.  Smith’s model might have been descriptive for its time, but it’s a real question as to whether our contemporary economic climate is one that can ever be socially integrating in this way.  It might be that our attitudes towards the firm is unsupportive of individual responsibility towards the long-term financial health of corporations, insofar as this comes at the expense of short-term personal compensation.

* Kalyvas, A. and Katznelson, I.  “The Rhetoric of the Market: Adam Smith on Recognition, Speech, and Exchange,” The Review of Politics, Vol. 63, No. 3 (Summer, 2001), pp. 549-579.


One response to “Can Adversarial Contexts Be Socially Integrating?

  1. Hi– what an intriguing post: incisive and provocative ideas. I wonder though about how the author’s defining and exploring “aesthetic” dimensions. For aesthetic experiences, while they do involve self-forgetful, merging, and oceanic drifts, are nonetheless (or therefore) substantively pleasurable– the aesthetic’s the sensory dimension; it pertains to bodily enjoyment. And also I wonder if aesthetic pleasure may have contributed to the hopeful cohesiveness perhaps present among aspects of US society during even such grueling times as WWII. Additionally, I wonder if contemporary understandings of the definition and value of pleasure– simple and pure pleasure (or does such pure and simple pleasure exist anymore? How much persists free from commodification?) affect how or if we’re able to transform adversarial relations into community practices that cohere us, heal us.

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