Human beings are the only species on Earth that do not know how they are supposed to live. All other species have a natural environment and a natural way to sustain their form of life. While some animals have to build things to make their environment what it ought to be (as in the case of beavers building dams), there is no question of what they ought to build and how the species ought to make a living for itself. As in all environments, things can go wrong: a falling rock can break the dam, the water can become poisoned, a virus may spread. Yet when something goes wrong in the life of beavers, it is not because they have the wrong idea of how to organise their lives. Indeed, beavers cannot have the wrong idea of how they should live, since it is set by their nature.
For human beings, by contrast, the question of how we should lead our lives is always at issue, even if we try to forget that fact. We can discover the ideal conditions for other species by studying their natural way of life. But we cannot discover the best way for us to live simply by studying our present or past societies. We are the only animals – among the species known to us – who do not have a given place in nature. We have to make a home for ourselves. By the same token, we are liable to create conditions that are inimical to our own flourishing. Thus, when we are hit by a pandemic, we cannot treat it merely as a natural, unfortunate event that happens to befall our form of life. Like all animals, we can be infected for contingent reasons, but unlike other animals, we are answerable for the social causes and consequences. A pandemic inevitably raises the question of who we are as a species and how we organise our societies.
Our ability to engage the question of who we are – and who we ought to be – is at the heart of what the young Karl Marx called our “species-being.” His notion is often dismissed as a naive appeal to a supposed human essence, but such a critique is misleading. The species-being of the human is precisely that we have no given essence. We are certainly subject to biological constraints – and we cannot even in principle transcend all such constraints – but for us there is always a question of how we are supposed to deal with these constraints.
Unlike other species where every generation repeats the same life cycle, our species has a history that reflects different ways of reproducing our life-form: we have been masters and slaves, lords and serfs, capitalists and wage labourers. Moreover, our species-being entails that we can take a stand on the goodness or badness of the way we live. As Marx underlines in Capital, we are the only animal that can imagine a better world than the one we inhabit, and transform the conditions of our existence in light of commitments rather than mere instincts.
Revolutionary change, however, cannot happen merely through imagination and ideas. It requires material transformation of how we sustain our lives through production and consumption. The existential questions of our lives – what we value – cannot be separated from the economic organisation of our society. We may profess that we value our lives, and the life of other species on the planet, as ends in themselves. But we live under an economic system where we cannot in practice treat one another as ends in ourselves. Rather, our economy requires that we treat one another as means (“human capital”) for the end of producing profit. What counts in a capitalist economy is that we are producing and consuming commodities, rather than that we are flourishing as human beings. Our well-being, and the well-being of the ecosystem of which we are a part, does not have any economic “value” in itself but only insofar as we can profit from it.
To grasp our responsibility for the environmental crisis, and have any chance of shaping a better world to come, Marx’s analysis of the problem of value is indispensable. As a result of the pandemic, many are now questioning our economic priorities and challenging production for profit. Yet these critiques are merely abstract and moralising unless they are linked to the objective conditions of our political economy. The generation of profit is our collective priority not because of what we have to think but because of what we have to do under capitalism. All of us depend for our survival on the profits that are accumulated in the form of capital and distributed as wealth. Without such “growth” in the economy there would be no wages, revenue, social welfare, or public goods, since the state itself is financed by the taxation of capital wealth.
As a consequence, production and delivery of vital goods was already built on sacrificing the lives of impoverished workers, even before the pandemic made that reality painfully clear. The generation of capital wealth has always depended and will always depend on those who have no choice but to be exploited as cheap labour, whether domestically or in poorer countries to which production is moved. If we are serious about learning from our historical experience, we will have to do more than applaud “essential workers” from our windows or change our priorities as individuals. Only the overcoming of capitalism through organised collective action can fulfil the commitment to a sustainable and flourishing world. We will be told that this is impossible, but the stakes could not be higher. The being of our species depends on it.
Martin Hägglund is the author of “This Life: Why Mortality Makes Us Free” (Profile)
This article appears in the 26 Aug 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Covid