Life as a Zero-Sum Game: How We are Taught Resentment

American society is all about being competitive. A component of the conservative divide and conquer strategy is convincing the American people that what is good for another is bad for you. When we look a the situation in Wisconsin where public sector workers have lost their collective bargaining rights, some of the fiercest critics of those workers were workers in the private sector, who have already lost many of the gains that unions won for them decades ago. Instead of supporting the efforts of the public sector workers in order to at least prevent further attacks on their own rights in the future or at best to unify and regain some of their losses, they opposed and attacked.

This view of life as a zero-sum game is taught to people as soon as they begin their education as children. The education system itself developed as an institution for social control. From A People’s History of the United States:

Joel Spring, in his book Education and the Rise of the Corporate State, says: “The development of a factory-like system in the nineteenth-century schoolroom was not accidental.”

This continued into the twentieth century, when William Bagley’s Classroom Management became a standard teacher training text, reprinted thirty times. Bagley said: “One who studies educational theory aright can see in the mechanical routine of the classroom the educative forces that are slowly transforming the child from a little savage into a creature of law and order, fit for the life of civilized society.”


These educational institutions did not encourage dissent; they trained the middlemen in the American system–the teachers, doctors, lawyers, administrators, engineers, technicians, politicians–those who would be paid to keep the system going, to be loyal buffers against trouble.

In the meantime, the spread of public school education enabled the learning of writing, reading, and arithmetic for a whole generation of workers, skilled and semiskilled, who would be the literate labor force of the new industrial age. It was important that these people learn obedience to authority. A journalist observer of the schools in the 1890s wrote: “The unkindly spirit of the teacher is strikingly apparent; the pupils, being completely subjugated to her will, are silent and motionless, the spiritual atmosphere of the classroom is damp and chilly.”

In the modern era the school system has become a gladiatorial arena, with students constantly pitched in battle with their peers over grades, scholarships, admittance to internships and colleges, future job prospects, etc. This competition begins at the elementary school level with science fairs, spelling bees, student of the month honors, and writing and art competitions. In high school the stakes become higher and the competition even fiercer.

Class rankings determine your scholarship eligibility, leading students to hope for a slip from a fellow high-achiever, in some cases actively engaging in sabotage against them. Certain classes have weighted grades, with the bulk of the class resenting the student who set the curve. Students are afraid to cooperate on group projects since they are worried that part of their grade will rely on something outside of their own determination, and trust is not exactly flowing freely in these classrooms. In the United States, we practice competitive as opposed to cooperative learning, and this affects students once they have graduated from the classroom and into working society.

In reality, life is not a zero-sum game. Most of the time what is good for someone else will also be good for you, or at least not harm you at all. There are exceptions, such as job promotions, but these are only those situations where you actually are in direct competition with another person.

For example, if a friend of mine gets a great new job with a lot of influence and money, the taught instinct would be to resent her because she might now appear to be more successful than me. In actuality, her gaining in influence is a good thing for both of us: she has the job and my network of friends has become more powerful. You can’t have friends in high places if you stop being friends with them because they made it there.

Envy and resentment keep people from joining together and fighting for each other. It may take time to grow out of this adversarial perspective that we have been taught all our lives, but when we do we will all be better for it.