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Beyond the Culture of Contest: From Adversarialism to Mutualism in an Age of Interdependence, by Michael Karlberg:
Review

by Brad Pokorny

published in One Country, 16:3
New York: Baha'i International Community, 2004
"How everyone can win": review of Beyond the Culture of Contest: From Adversarialism to Mutualism in an Age of Interdependence
Author: Michael Karlberg
Published by: George Ronald (Oxford, 2004)
Review by: Brad Pokorny

In the West, it is pretty much taken for granted that the best way to settle political, economic, or legal differences is by putting two or more sides together in a contest and letting the best (or biggest, truest, cleverest, richest, or most popular) side win.

But the adversarial system has distinct flaws. There is always a “winner” and a “loser.” Somewhere along the line, compromises are usually made, which may not be in the best interests of the whole. And there is always the possibility — and an increasing one as corruption of various forms creeps into the system — that money or power will win out instead of truth or justice.

What if there is a better way?

In considering this question, Michael Karlberg's Beyond the Culture of Contest is a ground-breaking and much needed book. It calls into the question the series of assumptions on which the adversarial system is based, asking whether they are not more products of culture than of our underlying nature. Moreover, it offers a hopeful new model of “mutualism” in which non-adversarial decision-making could become the norm.

“[A]dversarialism has become the predominant strand in contemporary western-liberal societies,” writes Dr. Karlberg, an assistant professor of communication at Western Washington University . “Throughout the contemporary public sphere, competitive and conflictual practices have become institutionalized norms…. Because of this it is often difficult for people to envision alternatives.”

But, Dr. Karlberg writes, “a proper accounting should reveal that while oppositional strategies have reached a point of diminishing returns, non-adversarial strategies are emerging as the most effective methods for lasting social change in an age of heightened social and ecological interdependence.”

Making the case that humanity can, indeed, move “beyond the culture of contest,” Dr. Karlberg starts with a critique of the current system of “normative adversarialism” — the “assumption that contests are normal and necessary models of social organization.”

In Western societies, he writes, there are three “core institutions” of society: politics, economics, and the legal system. Each is structured as a contest, he writes, designed to pit various parties, interests, or litigants against each other. And all three institutions are based on the notion of self-interest as the primary motivation.

“[T]he political arena has been structured much like the capitalist free market,” he writes. “It is an arena within which individuals, and the parties they construct, try to advance their particular ideals and interests in a self-interested and competitive manner.”

The norm for adversarialism goes largely unquestioned, Dr. Karlberg adds, because it has become part of our “culture.” And that has occurred largely because of an assumption that human beings are by nature essentially selfish and aggressive.

The key to re-evaluating the culture of contest, then, is to re-evaluate our conception of human nature, Dr. Karlberg writes. “[H]uman beings appear to have the developmental potential for both conflict and cooperation,” he writes. “Which of these potentials is more fully realized is largely a product of our cultural environment — as demonstrated by the fact that different societies vary considerably in their expressions of conflict and cooperation.”

Acknowledging that there will be a considerable number of skeptics who will remain wedded to the idea of contest, competition, and the efficiency of self-interest, Dr. Karlberg then examines various past and present forms of “mutualism.” In particular, he suggests that the various strands for a new kind of cooperative global culture are emerging in such areas as the feminist and ecological movements, modern systems and communications theories, and alternative systems for dispute resolution.

“[M]any environmentalists, while working for ecological stewardship, are also working to cultivate more cooperative models of political practice,” he notes.

In systems theory, too, he sees new modes of cooperation and mutualism. “Complex systems are integrated wholes that are more than the mere sum of their parts,” he writes.

Ultimately, however, Dr. Karlberg suggests that none of these strands can be fully integrated without an overall change in our culture as a whole — which, in turn, will require a re-conception of human nature and social structures.

What is needed, Dr. Karlberg writes, is “an alternative cultural formation” in which mutualism replaces adversarialism. And he suggests a “case study” for such a model in the worldwide Bahá'í community, “which has over a century of experience applying non-adversarial models...in an integrated and mutually reinforcing manner.”

With some five million members, organized into some 11,700 local self-governing councils in more than 180 countries, Dr. Karlberg writes, the worldwide Bahá'í community can be seen as a “vast social experiment that is testing the assumptions about human nature, social organization, and social change” that prevail in the adversarial system.

“[T]he Bahá'í community has emerged as a global phenomenon worthy of both public and scholarly attention,” he writes.

Dr. Karlberg, who is a Bahá'í, notes that the Bahá'í community follows a set of teachings that emphasizes cooperation, harmony, and unity. Moreover, he writes, its institutional structures are built around a non-partisan yet fully democratic electoral system that likewise embodies non-adversarialism as one of its highest principles. In that system, he observes, there are no nominations, no campaigning, and no underlying concept of interest groups or constituencies.

“[T]he Bahá'í electoral system embodies neither a contest nor the pursuit of power,” he writes. “In contrast to partisan electoral systems the process is unifying rather than divisive. Since no one seeks election, there is no concept of ‘winning.' At the same time, the electoral process remains eminently democratic.”

Dr. Karlberg also examines the principles of “consultation,” the non-adversarial decision-making system that is used by all Bahá'í institutions. In part, consultation is “an inclusive model of collective decision-making that involves all segments of society in conceptualizing, designing, implementing, and evaluating the policies and programs that affect them,” he writes. It also seeks to “transcend the adversarial posturing and partisanship” and “patterns of negotiation and compromise” that mark traditional adversarial decision-making.”

As a social experiment, Dr. Karlberg observes, the Bahá'í experience is only in its earliest stages. Yet, he concludes, “although individual Bahá'ís struggle with varying degrees of success in their efforts to subordinate their immediate self-interests to the long-term welfare of the entire social body, the history of the Bahá'í community is, by and large, a history of individual self-sacrifice and dedication to collective interests. In and of itself, this history presents a significant challenge to the assumption that human nature is incorrigibly selfish and aggressive.”

In the end, Dr. Karlberg believes that the nature of global interdependence requires just such new modes of mutualism and cooperation in human endeavor.

“Because our reproductive and technological success as a species has led to conditions of unprecedented interdependence, no social group on the planet is any longer isolated,” writes Dr. Karlberg. “Under these new conditions, new strategies are not only becoming possible, they have become essential. An interdependent social body cannot coordinate its collective actions as long as its component members are locked in adversarial relationships.”

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