life as a zero-sum game
personal log // entry 0008
One of my traditions as a politically-involved person is to rewatch The Alt-Right Playbook each year. For the uninitiated, The Alt-Right Playbook is an ongoing series of video essays made by writer and YouTuber Ian Danskin which seeks to identify and deconstruct the rhetorical tools the alt-right and other far-right groups use to spread their ideas. I would consider it an essential watch for any leftist looking to understand what makes fascists and other right-wingers tick and how to fight them more effectively. For myself, I’ve always been morbidly fascinated with these creeps, and Danskin’s deep dive into how neo-Nazis, antifeminists, homo- and transphobes, and other bigots operate has been invaluable to my own political and cultural education.
One particular entry in the series which I always come back to is Always a Bigger Fish. In it, Danksin, makes the argument that the most fundamental difference between right-wingers and left-wingers is how they view social and economic hierarchies. Both groups, as internally disparate as they are, recognize that such hierarchies exist, but they differ on how they view them.
A right-winger, whether they are a run-of-the-mill conservative, a neo-con, a “libertarian”, or an outright fascist, would examine such a hierarchy through the lens of capitalist hegemony, which co-opts social Darwinism to justify its inherently unequal distribution of wealth and power. According to this logic, people at the top of the hierarchy belong there because the system should only reward the smartest, hardest-working people, and those living in poverty and oppression have only themselves to blame.
Working-class white folks are likely to view calls for dismantling and/or replacing unjust systems as some sort of denunciation of their very identities as Americans.
However, a left-winger would examine such a hierarchy through a more egalitarian lens, recognizing that such hierarchies are inherently unnatural and are rigged in favor of those who already have more than they need. Where left-wingers differ is on the solution to the problem of hierarchies: liberals typically want to keep capitalism and representative democracy but use the state to level the playing field, while leftists want to dismantle the system altogether and establish a new, more equitable one under socialism, with or without a directly democratic government. There are further divisions, but I believe these broad strokes always apply.
Put another way, a right-winger sees inequality and says, “that’s just how the world works”, while a left-winger sees inequality and says, “that’s not good enough”.
Why right-wingers tend to believe such organizational modes to be natural and necessary is a topic unto itself, but lobster-boiled into the concept of a hierarchy is the premise that there are only so many spots at any level. Hierarchies are usually depicted as pyramids, where the higher you go, the fewer peers you have. They’ve been used for ages to try to understand the natural world, despite the fact that every time we try to apply a hierarchical framework to a biological system it breaks down under scrutiny.
One consequence of hierarchies is if one person gets more power or influence or resources, they must necessarily take it from someone else. Like I said before, there only so many spots at the top of a pyramid. Psychologists and other researchers like to call this way of thinking the zero-sum bias, from the concept of a zero-sum game, which game theory was developed to study. If you don’t care about complete accuracy, you can apply the concept of a zero-sum game to a wide array of things, from monetary theory to the Earth’s carbon cycle, and get a generally useful approximation of the way systems behave. But problems arise when trying to apply this way of thinking to everything, including human behavior, hence the bias.
One of the fallacies implicit in game theory is that human beings are entirely rational decision-makers, which is a nice thought and also complete bullshit. Human psychology is inherently messy. Rather than perfect enlightened beings, we are irrational creatures who instead of constantly weighing variables while disregarding emotion and outside influence, tend to be guided by our circumstances and societal pressures, much the same as our primate cousins. Capitalism necessitates that humans be viewed as inherently rational and self-interested, elsewise the facade of meritocracy crumbles.
But it doesn’t stop with capitalism, because this is the twenty-first century and everything sucks. If you view everything as a zero-sum game, if you view life itself as a zero-sum game, then any time someone’s material situation improves, it means someone else losing something. This classical way of thinking permeates social discourse as well, as evidenced by trying to talk to almost any white person in the U.S. about race. Full disclosure: I am a white person, so take my words with a small Siberian salt mine, though I try to be conscious of my privilege at all times. A truism you often hear repeated in left-leaning circles is “when you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression”, and while this can certainly be a though-terminating cliché, it can also help to understand the mindset of conservatives who complain about social movements like Black Lives Matter or the push for equal rights for trans people.
This realization was a game-changer for me; knowing that right-wingers view the march of progress towards a more egalitarian future as taking away something from them, the mostly white, mostly Christian folks who’ve been fucked over the least by centuries of capitalist exploitation, and who’ve been propagandized to believe they are the truest Americans — it put everything in perspective, and made me really understand what I was fighting against. It’s not just the capitalist hegemony, but those who benefit from it.
A right-winger sees inequality and says, “that’s just how the world works”, while a left-winger sees inequality and says, “that’s not good enough”.
I’d love to be allied with working-class white people, like I want to be allied with working-class people everywhere, but unfortunately in my home country, working-class white folks are more likely to view myself and my comrades’ calls for dismantling and/or replacing unjust systems of economic and state control as some sort of denunciation of their very identities as Americans, something they hold more precious than anything else, except maybe their die-hard Evangelical Christianity and its included martyr complex. And in some ways, such calls to action are a denunciation, because if to be a true American one has to be exclusively white, Christian, cisgender, heterosexual, and brainwashed by bourgeois propaganda, then maybe being a true American isn’t something for anyone to strive for.
Life isn’t a zero-sum game, and neither is politics, no matter what any pompous psychology professor or grifting political pundit says, willing mouthpieces of the capitalist elite that they are. You lose nothing if material conditions improve for someone else, and if you think you do, then your true enemies — the ones with all the money and power over you — have already won.