Involution: when competition makes everyone's life worse

maybe taco trucks on every corner is a bad idea after all?

Last week a friend of mine from China introduced me to a new word that popped up in Chinese culture last year to describe the point where competition switches from being productive to destructive. It’s called involution and if you haven’t heard of it yet, you’re missing out on an important concept that helps explain the greatest paradox of our time:

Why does everything keep feeling worse the harder we work to make things better?

While the term was originally invented by anthropologists to describe a particular kind of agricultural society where competition in food production causes standard of living to stagnate, the term has broadened in definition recently to describe the futility of the modern 996 rat race.

To get an understanding of the concept my friend introduced me to a simple example story.

The town of Involution

Imagine there was a town that was totally self-sufficient. The citizens of the town were farmers who made the food, factory workers who made the clothes, and construction workers who built the houses for everyone. Because the town has been established for a while there is a good balance of each kind of worker so everyone works an 8 hour day and makes enough money to earn all the things they need to survive in town.

Now imagine there are two people who make all the shoes for the town, but one day one worker who makes shoes decides that they are going to start working 16 hours instead of 8. They suddenly start producing enough shoes for both workers. At first everyone is happy because now they have more shoes to choose from, but eventually they notice a problem.

The townspeople can’t afford to pay any more overall for their shoes so now the hyper-productive shoemaker makes 66% of the shoe related income, while the less productive shoemaker takes in 33%1. In order to earn enough to live with the same standard of living as before, the less productive shoemaker will have to respond by doubling their working hours as well. Now, both shoemakers are working twice as much as before, but they are both earning the same amount of money as when they started. The townspeople now have twice as many shoes to choose from, but they don’t actually need any more shoes so half of the shoes made in town are just wasted anyway.

Now instead of this extreme example, imagine instead just one person in every industry in town starts working just slightly harder than their neighbor. Ultimately the same thing will happen to everyone, there will be no choice but to work more and more for no substantial material gain until literally everyone is pushed to their breaking point.

The obvious oversimplification

The oversimplified story presented in the town of Involution misses that displaced workers can go on to do other new things that make people’s lives better in unforeseen ways. Throughout much of the globe in the 20th century, there were still massive improvements in quality of life that were possible by getting everyone to work harder, and creating new industries with the displaced workers.

But at some point, unlimited expansion and material improvement stops being possible. It can happen for various reasons, like reaching the limit of natural resources (in the basence of some technological invention) or satisfying nearly all the material needs our minds can imagine. But whenever that point is reached, society undergoes a kind of cultural phase transition, from growth to involution, where we switch from competition being useful to being counterproductive for our own happiness.

To me it seems fairly apparent2 that there was a point at some time in the past 100 years where the global economy transitioned from a point where the material needs of all humans were unsatisfiable to a point where we could satisfy all material needs. And now, we are living with the consequences of failing to recognize this major structural change.

This outcome is not inevitable

If this was the end of the story, there’d be no point in discussing it. The reason this concept is really valuable is that organizaing society this way is not inevitable.

While reading about this, I came across an article where anthropologist Xiang Biao was describing why involution is a cultural choice. In it, Biao points out that the problem is that we are holding up competition for the sake of competition and focusing our competition too narrowly on arbitrarily constrained resources. He describes how modern society has inextricably linked the means of material substistence with the mechanism of social good standing. He contrasts this with more primitive society where prestige was measured separate from wealth.

People’s lives [were] often made up of two parts: the sphere of prestige and the sphere of subsistence. Subsistence refers to hunting and farming, in which people usually cooperate rather than compete so that everyone can be fed. However, competition still exists in this kind of society […] What are they competing for? Prestige. 3

To me this really sits at the heart of our society’s involution problem. For 90% of people in developed economies, their social standing is directly connected to their ability to succeed in an ever dwindling set of high-paying careers. This is why we have to keep working ever harder, and why we have to keep concentrating wealth more and more tightly.

I personally think that migrating to a socialist society in both material conditions and mental framework is necessary for overcoming the death spiral of involution. For material conditions this is obvious. We have the ability to cooperatively satisfy all the needs of our society, but we choose not to because we use the hoarding of these tokens as measures of social status, which in turn are concentrated away from those who need them.

For mental framework, it can be harder to see why socialism is so important. By my reckoning, we need to move away from any single measure of value (like money) as advocated in our current capitalist mental framework. Right now, it doesn’t matter what role you fill in society as long as that role makes as much money as possible. In other words, vast amounts of social contributions are effectively invalidated, and this is why there becomes such intense competition for a few high paying jobs.

In the article, Biao suggested that we can redefine our social value system based on a diversity of goals, which would make it easier for people to show their value in a diversity of ways without creating artificial competition. The only trick: we have to do it together as a society or we risk leaving more people trapped even further behind.

1

We’ll ignore the additional problem that they also are both producing 50% more shoes than they can sell, and that they could start to drop prices to sell more and undercut their competition.

2

but I’d love a citation for this :)

3

https://www.sixthtone.com/news/1006391/how-one-obscure-word-captures-urban-chinas-unhappiness