Union of Intelligible Associations
Union of Intelligible Associations

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Global Strategies Project (Explanations)

Patterns of alternation: Cycles of winning and losing

Global Strategies Project


1. Striving for the "win-win" solution: win mania

Prior to the end-game, the dynamics of a game as examined by Sallantin (1976) may be seen for each participant as an exciting alternation between conditions of "advantage" and "disadvantage". With the termination of the game and the alternation process, the identity of one participant is "exalted" and that of the other is "extinguished", crushed or dissipated. There is a distinct transformation of state, achievement of which is usually the object of the game, whether sought or feared as a resolution of uncertainty. This change of state constitutes a form of development. According to conventional thinking, winning is obviously better, since it ensures immediate "development" (for the winner), whereas losing is to be avoided at all cost (as an unwelcome increase in personal "entropy"). Winning is perhaps the most widely accepted social indicator of development. Development theorists seek "win-win" solutions to avoid the unfortunate loss of identity, or the continuous generation of "losers" in a two-class society: we should all be "winners".

2. Avoidance of constraint: loss phobia

The preoccupation with winning is also confused with the cult of the new, the cult of youth, the cult of the beautiful, the cult of "bigness", and the cult of "wealth". These reinforce each other so that achievement of any of them is to some degree an achievement of the others. Unchecked, such cults respectively favour: the exploitation of non-renewable resources and the erosion of collective learning, the rejection and institutionalization of the elderly, the avoidance of unbeautiful realities (including toxic waste dumps, slums and the deformed), the inhibition of grass-roots initiatives, and the marginalization of the poor. It is precisely this obsession with winning and the avoidance of loss which obscures a more fundamental alternation process on which long-term human and social development may well be grounded.

3. Constraints on winners

The problem with win maximizing is that success tends to be due to the deployment of a particular set of attributes which confer advantage under particular environmental conditions. The winner is however trapped by these attributes when the environment changes and other sets of attributes have an advantage. New "winners" then tend to emerge from the pool of "losers". It is in fact in this pool that are conserved those "psycho-social genes" governing attributes not currently manifest. But whilst the winners have relatively little freedom within their defining attributes, new forms can emerge from the pool of losers into which all winners must eventually be reabsorbed. In terms of long-term human and social development, there is therefore in operation an ecocyclic process. Focus on a single game merely offers insights into a portion of that cycle - a broken cycle. It does not show what happens to the winner after reaching the state of identity exaltation, nor to the loser after having been exposed to identity extinction.

4. Identity death

A new dimension may be added to Sallantin's analysis by introducing the concept of "degree of identification" as the basic distinction between gladiators and bettors. The identity of the gladiator tends to be engaged in the game, through his physical "self-bet", to a far greater degree than that of the bettor. But clearly if the bettor's self-image is identified to a very high degree with his possessions, which he then loses, then he too may well be psychologically destroyed by the outcome of the game. This kind of identity "death" has been shown by R D Laing to be a powerful existential experience in that it opens up the possibility of a "rebirth", if the player can then reformulate his identity on a new foundation through radical reassessment. The winner, once exalted, does not however have access to this possibility of rebirth, which necessarily requires a destruction of the set of characteristics by which his identity as a winner is defined. Even if the winner wins in a new game, this merely confirms and extends the exaltation of his identity, but he does not renew it. It is the difference between a quantitative and a qualitative development. Identity may be linked to geometry (see Note 14.1).

5. Learning through loss

The loss phase can be related to the learning process. As Kenneth Boulding points out: "Disappointment forces a learning process of some kind upon us; success does not". (1978, p.133). There is then a need to change the image of the world (p.145). He suggests that science itself is essentially a system of organized "learning from disappointments" (p.135).

By designing strategies to minimize disappointment, there is clearly the risk of minimizing learning. Again, Boulding notes: "One of the most striking phenomena of the human learning process is the extent to which it is self-limiting. Far beyond the physiological capacity of the human nervous system, we learn not to learn. We paint ourselves into a tiny corner of the vast ballroom of the human nervous system". (p.1567). We learn not to develop.

6. Learning and risk

This suggests that long-term human and social development is based on a process involving risk of identity loss, winning and losing. Periods of losing are then as important as periods of winning to the development process. Just as "small is beautiful" so "decay is OK" (obvious in the case of ecological processes. Real strength, in military terms, comes with the ability to accept loss and the lessons it brings, including the ability to be weak and disorganized. Real weakness results from an identification with the need to win always and be permanently strong - in judo terms, the inability to take a fall and learn to lose as part of a larger process. Development through alternation between the conditions of winning and losing is then associated with the ability to "disintegrate" at will and to "reintegrate" at will - without long-term identification with the forms used in this process.

7. Sacrifice

This recalls the arguments of de Nicolas (1978) concerning the fundamental importance of sacrifice as part of the renewal of form in the Rg Veda. Educating a child, for example, involves an understanding of when the child should lose and when the child should be allowed to win - accepting the fact that at some stage it will no longer be a question of "allowing" him to win. The teacher, like the parent and the psychoanalyst, must accept rejection if the student is to be free.

The win mind-set is partly responsible for the inadequacy of the response to economic cycles. Troughs are necessarily experienced as regrettable, and efforts are necessarily made to maintain peaks - but it would probably be extremely unhealthy to eliminate the cycle, even if that were possible. The problem is that the transitions and associated transformations are spastically forced upon the relevant actors for lack of any sense of the developmental significance of any cycle involving loss. To employ a biological metaphor, deciduous trees are a more advanced evolutionary form than evergreens precisely because of their ability to engage in a cycle of leaf loss and subsequent regeneration. The combustion engine is possible because it integrates a cycle of ignition/combustion with extinction/evacuation, in which the latter makes possible the power stroke of the former portion.

Loss phobia and win mania, which are themselves integral and necessary features of a larger alternation cycle, obscure the nature of that cycle and its significance for human and social development. It is unfortunate that lack of awareness of such cycles may well contribute to the ambiguous status of widely used techniques common to political "re-education", business executive "re-motivation" (in Japan), religious "conversion", and military manpower "training". In these highly successful processes, whose phases are now well-defined, "stripping" of identity is one of the techniques applied as a preliminary to forcing the person to "win-through" to a new understanding and self-image. Greater understanding of such cycles is required to determine to what extent the "manipulative" nature of such techniques of "human development" is acceptable, under what conditions, and to whom - and whether more acceptable processes can be envisaged.

From Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential