BY JAMES TYNER
On May 12, 2020, during a Senate Health Committee hearing, Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) questioned Dr. Anthony Fauci about the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic and efforts to ‘reopen’ the U.S. economy. Paul’s frontal attack on Fauci, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, was part of a concerted effort among many Republican politicians to marshal public support for the Trump administration to bypass scientific expertise and downplay the pandemic. During his remarks, Paul asserted: “I don’t think you’re the end-all. I don’t think you’re the one person who gets to make a decision. We can listen to your advice, but there are people on the other side saying there’s not going to be a surge [in infection] and that we can safely open the economy.” Importantly, Paul’s comments were premised on the (unproven) notion that children are less vulnerable to the viral disease, and that it makes no sense to continue to shutter schools in a slowing economy. In response, Fauci warned that much was not known about the virus, that scientists were learning new information on a near-daily basis about the disease, and cautioned that we should not be cavalier in our response to the pandemic, especially as it relates to the health and welfare of our children.
The verbal exchange between Paul and Fauci provides interesting insight into the false dichotomy presented by Republicans and the Trump administration, notably their failure to recognize that the deepening economic crisis (more than 30 million out of work in the U.S.) is also a public health issue (with more than 80,000 lives already lost to the disease in the U.S.). On this score, many commentators have weighed in. Fareed Zakaria (2020), for example, explained in March (two months before Paul’s diatribe) that the Trump administration’s focus on economic responses to the pandemic—with talk of tax cuts and corporate bailouts—is important but misplaced, for the crisis confronting the United States (and the world) is not an economic crisis but a health-care crisis. Here, I want to follow a different albeit intersecting path, namely, a consideration of our ability to live meaningful lives not simply in the face of a viral pandemic but in capitalism itself.
In Dead Labor: Toward. Political Economy of Premature Death, I began with a central question: to ask who lives, who dies, and, who decides. I argued that one’s exposure to death is conditioned by one’s position in capitalism; that is, the relationship between people laboring within the capitalist mode of production and the market-logics of capitalism necessarily and materially mediate the relations between life and death. Inequalities that are manifest along the familiar axes of exploitation and oppression (such as ethnicity, gender, sexuality, citizenship, and physical and mental abilities) materialize as inequalities in the vulnerability to premature death. Here, I want to deepen the argument and to consider the possibility of having a meaningful life within capitalism.
Capitalism, as Marx argues, cares little about the life of laborers unless society compels it to do so. Moreover, capitalism values only those lives that are deemed productive, that is, those lives capable of producing objects not to sustain life but to accumulate profit. Valuable lives, increasingly, are those lives valuable to capital. We readily see this, for example, in calls by conservative pundits—and politicians—that the elderly should sacrifice their lives so that the young (and productively employed) can return to work.
The Covid-19 pandemic offers an opportunity—and I use this term cautiously—to think more deeply on who and what we value in society, with value determined not on conditions set by capital but instead based on our achieving meaning in life. Importantly, this shift strikes at the heart of a fundamental and steadfast concern of Marx, expressed most clearly in his so-called early writings but also apparent in his later works, including the Grundrisse and Capital, this being the capability of human beings to enjoy a flourishing life.
To begin: what does it mean to have a meaningful life? How do we achieve meaning in life? Traditionally, religion has provided answers to these and related questions. In Christianity, for example, a meaningful life may be achieved by fulfilling God’s purpose. This begs the question of what God’s purpose is for us, and how to we divine that purpose. Sidestepping overtly theistic perspectives, though, I follow Fischer (2020: 9) who suggests it “prudent to explore conceptions of meaning in human life that do not require a belief in a perfect being.” He (p. 9) explains, “some might retain the view that meaning in life is fulfilling God’s purpose for us, but even someone who is inclined toward this view will benefit from considering other ideas.”
To this end, I am increasingly interested in the possibility (or not) of enjoying a meaningful life in capitalism. I maintain that there is no universal or transhistorical meaning of life or meaning in life. Instead, meaning in life is mediated by one’s material conditions. This is not to say that meaning is dictated or determined by one’s wealth or lack thereof. Rather, it is to call attention to the constellation of social relations that comprise one’s quotidian existence; and how these social relations are organized such as to make life itself possible. As Fischer (2020: 5) writes, “a meaningful life is not just a matter of pleasant internal states—pleasures or other experiences. It is in part a matter of how we are connected to the external world.” In other words, a meaningful life is (should?) also be a meaningful social life; and this means we must consider how life is experienced not as isolated individuals but as members of something beyond our immediate self-interests, that is, an awareness that is discordant with the individualistic, competitive focus of capitalism.
Conceptually, I frame my discussion of meaningful life within historical materialism. Both Orzeck (2007) and Rioux (2015) call attention to the natural, laboring body. On the one hand, there is the ‘natural’ body, the living organism subject to death in the absence of food, water, and shelter. For Rioux (2015: 195), the importance of the natural body lies precisely in its foundational, transhistorical character, for it is the natural body that must inevitably die. On the other hand, there is the ‘laboring’ body, that entity “engaged in the social production of material life by metabolizing nature through labor in order to meet human needs and survive” (Rioux 2015: 195). It is important, also, to acknowledge the unity of these bodies; the natural body and the laboring body are neither oppositional nor separate but instead related dialectically. We observe, concretely, the laboring (human) body as it works to attain the material resources necessary for life to continue; and we observe, abstractly, the death of once-living (human) bodies unable to attain these resources. Simply put, humans must produce those conditions necessary to survive; and it follows, therefore, that any attempt to understand meaning in life—but also meaning in death—must be grounded in particular modes of production and, by extension, definitive social relations (Tyner 2020: 3). This is why Marx and Engels (1998: 37) declare that “The first premise of all human history is the existence of living human individuals.” As Fracchia (2005: 40) explains, “the manifestations of human beings are produced by humans living in specific sets of social relations and thus vary accordingly.”
Throughout his writings Marx evinces a concern with the capability and capacity of human beings to live a flourishing, non-alienated life. Indeed, the concept of alienation is a key intellectual construct “in which Marx displays the devastating effect of capitalist production on human beings, on their physical and mental states and on the social processes of which they are a part” (Ollman 1976: 131). However, whereas Marx finds the key to a flourishing life in laboring activities (see especially his discussion in the third volume of Capital), I focus attention toward our awareness of death.
As Bauman (1992: 50) writes, “the fact of human mortality, and the necessity to live with the constant awareness of that fact, go a long way toward accounting for many a crucial aspect of social and cultural organization of all known societies.” In other words, meaning in life is mediated by our awareness of death, of our finite mortal existence. This is not the same as one’s fear of death; this is too limiting. Instead, the primary factor is the awareness of death. One may fear death; or one may welcome death. And one might even be ambivalent toward death. These attitudes, moreover, are (generally) conditioned by one’s belief about the existence (and experience) of an afterlife. Regardless of one’s attitude toward death, however, the point remains that humans are aware of death and that this may condition how we live our lives. Crucially, an awareness of our shared mortality (potentially) informs and mediates how we treat other living beings, human and non-human.
Covid-19 pushes our awareness of, and response to, the specter of premature death to the forefront of our daily lives. For many of us, we no longer take for granted mundane tasks that, in measures small and large, give us meaning in life. Now, for many, a trip to the grocery store or to the barber shop reveals our vulnerability to premature death. From weddings to birthday parties, vacations and playdates: all of these activities that help nurture meaningful lives suddenly force us to stare into the abyss of our own mortality and the mortality of those who give meaning to our lives.
There is no consensus among philosophers or theologians if death (in the abstract) is good or bad. For Epicureans, for example, you must exist in order to be harmed. Since death negates the existence of someone, no harms can come to the dead and thus we should not fear death. For others, however, the badness of death results from the opportunities lost. As Fischer (2020: 81) explains, “As we live our lives, and even as we get older, we have preferences for pursuing projects that give our lives meaning. . . . Death now, rather than later, may thwart these preferences.”
It is largely the ‘deprivation theory’ of death’s badness that conditions many people’s attitude toward death in general, and premature death specifically. Death is a bad thing for an individual insofar as it deprives them of what could have been on balance a meaningful continuation of life (Fischer 2020: 40). Not surprisingly, it is this attitude that often informs our response to learning of the death of an infant or child as opposed to a more elderly person. For some people, the death of a young person is more tragic than that of an older person, for the simple calculus that the former has had fewer years to pursue their dreams whereas the latter, supposedly, has already achieved theirs.
Governmental and public responses in the United States (and elsewhere) reveal particular attitudes—both subtle and direct—toward the vulnerability of different persons to premature death. Most clearly expressed in policies geared toward the meat packing industry, the Trump administration and (mostly) Republican governors have laid bare a callousness in their calculus of human life. Workers—especially migrant laborers and persons of color—are confronted with a Hobson’s choice of two equally and potentially fatal choices: go to work in unsafe conditions and risk exposure to a deadly virus, or stay home and get fired, thereby losing both income and insurance. And those persons (mostly Trump supporters) who protest the imposition and continuance of shelter-in-place orders and other measures designed to minimize the deadly effects of the virus are egotistic in their response, expressing minimal regard for the well-being of others as they promote their own self-interests.
It needs stressing, however, that Trumpism is symptomatic of the disease and not the source. Capitalism itself is a form of social organization purported by bourgeois ideology to provide for the material necessities that produce and reproduce life. In actuality, we see that the market-logics of competition and capital accumulation are structured not to promote life—meaningful or otherwise—but to transform the living into dead. In turn, alienated workers see salvation not in the collective care of others but through the coveting of commodified articles of consumption. We are witness not only to the ravages of a pandemic and economic crisis; we also are witness to a gradual unfolding of a crisis of indifference, in which the plight of the poor and the vulnerable are neglected and ignored, as an alienated society protests in deference to false profits rather than in the promotion of an ethics of meaningful empathy.
James Tyner is professor of geography at Kent State University. His books include Dead Labor: Toward a Political Economy of Premature Death and War, Violence, and Population: Making the Body Count, winner of the Meridian Book Award from the American Association of Geographers.
Bauman, Z. Mortality, Immortality & Other Life Strategies (Standford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1992).
Fracchia, J. “Beyond the Human-Nature Debate: Human Corporeal Organization as the ‘First Fact’ of Historical Materialism,” Historical Materialism 13, no. 1 (2005): 33-61.
Marx, K and Engels F. The German Ideology (Amherst, NY: Prometheus, 1998).
Ollman, B. Alienation: Marx’s Conception of Man in Capitalist Society, 2nd edition (London: Cambridge University Press, 1976).
Orzeck, R. “What Does Not Kill You: Historical Materialism and the Body,” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 25 (2007): 496-514.
Rioux, S. “Embodied Contradictions: Capitalism, Social Reproduction and Body Formation,” Women’s Studies International Forum 48(2015): 194-202.
Zakaria, F. “To Solve the Economic Crisis, We Will Have to Solve the Health-Care Crisis,” The Washington Post, March 19, 2020; at http://www.washingtonpost.com.