The Human Condition:

Creative Tension, Creative Destruction – April 13, 2014

Songbirds fighting

I’m not a fan of war, conflict, strife, or argument for their own sakes, but sometimes I prefer them to the alternative. The alternative to an ongoing argument or an unresolved tug-of-war is that one side wins finally and decisively, which means the other side loses finally and decisively. This can be a valuable and desirable outcome only if we know ahead of time that the winner is truly on the side of the angels and the loser aligned with the devils.1

Most conflicts involve life, safety, and dearly held principles and beliefs. In those cases, I’m not wise enough or powerful enough to have a final answer. And so I treasure the tension of continued argument, punctuated with negotiated truces and temporary settlements, rather than a winner-take-all final resolution. Things work better when both sides stand by their principles, argue as brilliantly as they can, fight as hard as their resources allow, and reach a resolution that neither much likes but both can accept, because they are too tired, too worn out, or too confused to continue.

Creative tension, the ongoing struggle, is the best situation for most human economic and political conflicts. When labor contends with management over money and job conditions, each side has its nonnegotiable minimums—safety and a livable wage for the workers; economic survival and a reasonable profit for the company—and each has dreams of enlargement and wish fulfillment—job guarantees and early retirement at full salary for workers; higher profits, a new corporate jet, and shareholder dividends for the company. They pursue these dreams though threat, bluff, and occasional sharp action—the sacrifice of a prolonged strike by the union; the loss of productivity through a lockout or plant shutdown by management. But what neither side wants is to destroy the other. Management does not want to eliminate workers or the union, because it would lose valuable skills and its investment through training, as well as known faces and predictable responses on the other side of the bargaining table. Labor does not want to eliminate management and the company it represents, because that would mean loss of jobs and the dues-paying workers who hold them.

Have you ever watched two male songbirds or two male stickleback fish in a fight for territory? Each stakes out ground around its nests, and then the males meet at the border and compete. With songbirds, the contest takes shape in the volume and strength of their songs. With fish, it’s the aggression of their postures and display of their spines. The interesting thing is that as one male advances on another’s declared ground and away from his own nest, he tends to grow weaker and more uncertain. When the other retreats and approaches his nest, he grows stronger and more aggressive. The two move back and forth until a balance of aggression and fear develops in the mind of each animal. That point of stasis, of stability between advance and retreat, defines the new border. Creative tension.

If the battle between economic or political forces goes on long enough, with serial agreements and compromises, periods of grudging status quo punctuated by occasional competitive maneuvers and pitched battles, conducted through product launches and sales campaigns between companies, or through legislative proposals and election campaigns between parties, with territory won and lost, voters or customers won and lost—then a new reality begins to develop in the minds of adherents on either side.

Among the party members or company leaders who see their side win more often than they lose, who sense validation and confirmation of their opinions and beliefs, a sense of complacency may set in. They cease to fight so hard. They expect to win by employing the same old maneuvers, maintaining the same old product or party line, and going through the familiar motions. Or they sense imminent victory and expand their demands and dreams into new and untried constituencies and customer bases. Like the songbird or the stickleback who advances too far from its nest, they become either less aggressive or unsure about exactly what they’re seeking and fighting for, unable to defend so wide a territory.2

Conversely, among party members or company leaders who see their side lose more than they win, a sense of desperation sets in. They reexamine their basic premises and tactics, abandon old arguments and worn-out ideas, and search for new grounds and methods in the fight. Like the songbird or stickleback pressed back toward his nest, they become more aggressive and reduce their requirements to core necessities. Creative destruction.

The marketplace is competitive in the same way as the political field. Buyers choose with their dollars just as political supporters choose with their votes. One brand or another in the market—Ford vs. GM, Hertz vs. Avis, Apple vs. Microsoft, Peet’s vs. Starbucks—is either up or down, winning customers through innovative products, aggressive marketing, and better customer service, or losing customers through lackluster products, complacent advertising, and arrogance. So long as buyers and voters are not locked into a single choice by market monopoly or political dictatorship, fortunes rise and fall between periods of stasis, of temporary stability, driven by complacency and desperation, by aggression and fear.

Please note that I am not calling for the old paradigm, attributed to German philosophers like Hegel and Marx, that when thesis meets antithesis the result must inevitably be conflict, mutual destruction of opposing positions, and a new synthesis. In that case, neither side really wins, and both sides lose, because they disappear into the new synthesis. I am not looking for a melding or a conquest of positions, the destruction or sudden transformation of either side. Instead, I treasure the balancing of forces.

Neither side in a situation of creative tension has to relinquish its principles or suffer a loss of identity. Both continue jostling until a point of balance is reached—not harmony, not necessarily cooperation, but an acceptable status quo. And that point of stability lasts until one side or the other seeks to renegotiate the terms or improve its condition. Is this endless strife and warfare? Yes, but it’s a condition built into the human psyche, because when you stop personally seeking, striving, fighting, and conniving, then you’re either a prisoner of war, a bound slave, or dead.

Creative tension and creative destruction are built into the world we see around us. They are certainly the basis of evolution by natural selection. Individuals and species are constantly competing—for mates, for territory, for the resources of a niche for which each is better or worse adapted. Evolution is not the survival of the fiercest or most ruthless, but survival of those who can best adapt to current conditions: offering in bodily form, appetite, hardiness, and flexibility the best use of the current conditions. A political party or competitive enterprise seeks the same in its economic or political environment through superior goals, better products, increased satisfaction, and the arguments and marketing maneuvers to support them.

Creative tension and creative destruction are what holds stars, galaxies, and living organisms together. A star is a stable—although, in cases like our own Sun, still variable—balance between expansive pressure due to friction and heat, and compressive pressure due to the attraction of gravity. A spiral galaxy is a balance between rotation and the centrifugal force pulling stars away from the galactic center, and gravity attraction drawing them inward. A living body is a balance between cell growth and development, and cell deterioration and decay. Nothing alive and moving in the universe is inert. And anything that isn’t being pulled in two directions at once can hardly be called alive.

Like volleyball and tennis, the game is over only when the ball stops moving. Keeping the ball in the air, while maneuvering your opponent into an impossible position, is the whole point of the game. But when the ball does hit the ground and go out of play, and the last person to touch it on the opposite side of the net is declared the winner, then the game ends—and no one really wants that to happen.

1. That was the case in World War II, where the losers were the aggressive and genocidal Nazis and the fanatically imperialist Japanese military, and the winners were the allied forces that opposed them in their quest for world domination. This is why many people call WWII the last “good war.” Most conflicts, however, are not so clear-cut. And on any side of any conflict, real human people are contending for the sake of—if not their own lives and those of people they hold dear—then for values that to them seem right, proper, and good.

2. At a Christmas party in Berkeley last year, I heard a lifelong Democrat—as were most of the people in the room—declare that the country still needed the two-party system, but that Republicans no longer counted as a major party. He thought the real contest should instead be between the old-style Democrats and the hard-line Progressives and Communists: they could form the poles of a new political axis. This confirms my belief that, as soon as one side thinks it has won, it will fragment over policies and priorities in order to continue fighting.
       In the same way, a dozen years ago Apple thought it had won in the computer market against Microsoft and its competitors and so expanded into music players, telephones, and television. And Hewlett-Packard was so successful in its market niche for instruments and calculators that it expanded into personal computers, printers, scanners, and other peripherals, until they didn’t know exactly what they were selling anymore. Creative fulfillment can lead to destruction.