Late last year US Secretary of State, Hilary Clinton, crossed the Pacific and came to hang out with her Australian counterparts. At a news conference in Perth she said that the rise of China, in the context of the political economy of the Asia-Pacific region, was not a “zero-sum game” and that the region was “big enough for us all.” She continued, saying that “we” stand to benefit from China’s increased political and economic participation “as long as there is a level playing-field and everybody knows what the rules are and everybody is held to the same standard.”
I recall being a little puzzled by this. Not by the simple matter of shared access to booty, that wasn’t a puzzle. The China-market trope has been capitalism’s yellow brick road for so long it’s economic yawnsville. Specifically I was puzzled by the zero-sum game reference. That phrase is everywhere, applied all over the shop to all manner of things: education, climate change, Australian cricket, cultural monotheism. Sometimes it’s used accurately, sometimes as shorthand for an unrewarding activity, and sometimes as a financial Sword of Damocles which it would be best to avoid being underneath.
The gist of the zero-sum game is that what is won is equal to what is lost. There is no scope for more to be put in; Player A loses what Player B wins, or vice versa. But what zero-sum game really reflects is a finite number of options; the game is constrained by the materials in play. A non zero-sum game is one where the game is not constrained by pre-existing resources, or choices. It is possible at this point to really go down the rabbit hole and follow game theory all the way to Ayn Rand and a discussion of altruism. And once you’re at that point it’s probably time to think about subsistence agriculture. The gist of it though is that for zero-sum games the world is finite and in non zero-sum games the world is infinite.
As you can probably tell, game theory is terribly useful for economists, statisticians, poker players and marketing types because it’s about mapping and predicting choice. It’s a tool for thinking about the possible. But it troubles me that in so many contexts the zero-sum game is rhetorically deployed as a euphemism for failure of imagination, as if failing to recognize that the whole universe (all of time, space, matter and their antibodies) is within the scope of human sovereignty is somehow a lack of ambition. As if limits on the possible are a ball & chain for humanity.
It strikes me that comprehending the finite scope of human existence and potential human existence is actually a good deal more imaginative than succumbing to a kind of universal imperialism. To see the universe as a system with constraints and boundaries and mortality is much harder than waving to non-specific spots on the horizon and saying we (just like x) can be anything!
Game theory and the zero-sum game are also completely useless for changing anything. More than this the whole idea of zero-sum and non zero-sum games rely on the premise that nothing does change and that the thing that doesn’t change is competition. The game, whatever game, is a contest and for a situation not involving contestation there is nothing that game theory can add, or value add. The use of game theory terminology is always about the centrality of contest and conflict, the positioning of competition as the unavoidable fact of our Hobbesian lives.
This is, of course, exactly what Hilary Clinton and so many others are doing when they talk about the (not) zero-sum game. They are saying that nothing will change with regard to the disposition of resources, or the distribution of wealth, or the processes by which those have been arrived at, or the way of the world. It’s capitalism baby! Except it’s rolled into a neo-Darwinist discourse in which constructs capitalist/imperialist competition as a subset of evolutionary processes, as if the trade surplus is like opposable thumbs or bipedal motion, all leading toward some ultimate growth in which humanity and the universe we inhabit are indistinguishable: the ultimate imperialism, uber-sovereignty.
This horrid confluence of discourse is dehumanizing and destructive of agency: we are not people, just blades of grass on a level playing field.