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Sunday, January 13, 2008

Business and social Darwinism - an uneasy mix?

Last weekend, I finished reading John West's Darwin Day in America, which I strongly recommend and will later review in some detail.

For now, I just want to say that Dr. West's thoughts on Darwinism and capitalism illuminated a problem from my work as an adult night school teacher.

For many years, I have taught adult night school - Freelance Survival 101.
Basically: How not to starve while self-employed in the communications industries (writing, editing, broadcasting, graphic arts, public relations, etc.)

West argues that the link between social Darwinism and capitalism is not nearly as strong as many authors have claimed.

In my experience, believing strongly in such a link harmed my students' success in business.

Their problem was that they tended to see each individual editor or writer as a competitor in a dog-eat-dog world that totally SCARED them.

I used to teach (and still do) that a business environment is best seen as an ecology rather than a Darwinian contest, as follows:

There is the global English language communications industry, and within that, there is the Canadian industry where most of my students will mostly work. Our industry has interests that unite us as a national group in relation to the world industry.

Within the national industry, there are many occupational groups: authors, editors, publicists, printers, book designers, booksellers - each group has interests in relation to the other groups, to the public, and to the government.

Each publishing company has interests in relation to other companies, and within each company, each department has interests in relation to other departments, and each employee to the others.

Yes, two freelance editors may be competing for a book manuscript this month - but next month they may be working as a team on another one. And the next month, one will subcontract from the other.

The skinny: Actual instances of dog-eat-dog competition are relatively rare because they are expensive and dangerous. Most parties try to reduce their frequency. True, competition deselects people who are genuinely unsuited to a given position in the industry, BUT that process does not, in isolation, describe how the industry's environment works. It's only a minor factor.

The most important thing I taught my students was the importance of social networking for attracting business, a skill which is largely non-competitive. That is, the social networker does not see everyone else in the industry network as a possible competitor or threat. Those who are a threat represent a special case.

Anyway, I expect most natural environments work like that too, absent a huge crisis.

Note: Earlier today I sent this post to some friends for comments, and one friend who produces summer stock theatre noted the same phenomenon. My friend was never annoyed when a competitor produced an excellent play, but rather rejoiced.

Why? The big problem the whole theatre industry faces is getting people to pay money and spend time attending any plays at all. A competitor's embarrassing flop discourages people from attending any further plays that summer. Worse, the dissatisfied playgoer may hold forth on really bad plays, and discourage other people from attending any of them.

By contrast, an excellent competitive entry opens wallets for further plays and encourages playgoers to explore - perhaps my friend's theatre will benefit in that round.

So much for dog-eat-dog Darwinian capitalism!

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