• Toby Irwin

Lives vs Livelihood: A Philosophical Defence of Life as Necessary for Constructed Value

This Article was submitted by Brandon Tan. Brandon is a History and Politics graduate from the University of Warwick, currently undergoing an MA in Religion in Asia and Africa and Arabic at SOAS University of London.

Existence precedes essence’, that is the famous mantra of everyone’s favourite existentialist twentieth century French Philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre in the near sacred tome, Being and Nothingness. In, essence, forgive the pun, it puts forward the proposition, that a thinking subject must first exist prior to the subject’s own abstraction of what the identity of the subject is.

The Existentialists might seem like a morbid bunch, and to search in them for the defence of life during the Covid 19 pandemic might seem counter intuitive, if not for the mind than for the heart. There is no denying we are living in crazy times. Socio-economic forms of human organisations that seemed so natural just a few months ago have been decentred, by of all things the most pointless and meaningless form of organic replication. Almost like a perverted Hegelian geist moving from East to West, cities have been stripped bare of their once bustling inhabitants. From the first occurrence in the markets of Wuhan, and like a dark cloud spreading not just to neighbouring provinces but to surrounding states in the Pacific, to the shocking experience of Iran already suffering from sanctions imposed by the ‘policeman’ of the world, it has now burst through the fortified walls of once almighty Europe and the United States. We have seen that imaginary lines that separate nation-states are just that, imaginary, no matter the illusions of containment by thickening those lines.

Despite the already one million infected and eyewatering fifty thousand dead, there is a debate that dominates the discourse of mitigation – lives vs livelihoods. Anyone who has had at least one eye or ear to the ever present media will remember the, I hope now infamous, line by the most powerful man in the ‘free world’, ‘We can’t have the cure be worse than the problem.’ Perhaps this exposes the crisis of the 21st century despite the materialist miracle that are the fruits of the neo-liberal project that has gained currency since the nineteen-eighties. States have been slow to choose between measures that would curb, contain or at least delay the spread of the virus, on one hand, and the detrimental impact it has on our increasingly volatile economic structures, with its already apparent antagonisms in the best of times. The lukewarm response over the choice between capital and lives makes visible the moral crisis that has plagued us as a globe.

Marx once commented that an effect of the capitalist structure, ‘has resolved personal worth into exchange value’. No doubt that is what we are observing in the way many global authorities are dealing with the health crisis. Viewers will remember the statement by Prime Minister Boris Johnson, ‘many more families are going to lose loved ones.’ Is this an instance where it is easier to think of, proclaim and accept a loss of life than a reality that the virus does not recognise state distinctions? That such a system of social organisation is ill-suited to meet the challenges of pandemics or wider ecological threats that transcend state boundaries. This was the knee jerk reaction by authorities, and who can blame them when even we struggle to think beyond a system of sovereign nation states. The difficulty of thinking of an alternative and that this is the best response we have, proves the very weakness in the structure in which we as a globe organise ourselves. Reflection is a necessary activity that we all need to undergo during the lockdown wherever we are. Weeks into the lockdown and within the UK there is an ongoing debate of what counts as ‘essential’ work, exposing the unwillingness of employers to call off production, despite the already more than extraordinary times.

The East is not without blame. Considering the status of Taiwan, who has maintained somewhat of a control over the outbreak, it is downright baffling that the WHO during a health crisis, refuses to even use the name ‘Taiwan’. It is careful of course not to poke an already posed and frightened dragon which is the People’s Republic of China. Revelation of the economic potential and the fear of Chinese retaliation, forces even the WHO, which calls for putting aside state politics to participate in it tacitly. The status quo must be preserved no matter the cost, especially when the cost is the wrath of the second biggest world economy. Power exposed as predicated on economic worth. One only needs remember the status of Taiwan prior to the integration of China into the global economic system. It is now in exile. In times when the global economic structure is already ontologically at a hiatus, the future ‘cost’ is worth the safety of lives in Taiwan. So much for solidarity to save lives. In the decision between Asian values and capitalism, the two often being branded together since the Chinese economic miracle. We chose capitalism.

Value it seems rest on what we can abstractly hold as valuable, i.e. what we have achieved in life, and across generations, increasingly conflated with capital that is extrapolated from what is owned by individuals and companies. To claim the ownership or the grasping of abstract ‘value’ seems to imply a god complex, taking abstract value as a universal that can be ascertained. This results in a utilitarian like calculation that supports the notion that one death is worth everyone else's livelihood. It is vital that we rethink our fundamentals.

A Pandora's box has been opened, considering the way in which information flows. Once something is exposed as life threatening, the only justified thing is to react against it, like a Sisyphean myth. There is no closing the box again, the temporality and constructed nature of what was valuable is exposed, pushing us towards a position of up-coming existential crisis. Because of the exposed pointlessness of what was valued, we are once again thrusted into the full weight of consequences that is the result of human choice and freedom. Is that night out or one more day in the factory worth the life of a not very familiar neighbour in her 80s? Worst still is the integrity of the global structure of socio-economic forms of organisation worth preservation if it is no longer fit for purpose, where threats to lives are increasingly faceless and borderless. Are our livelihoods worth the life of another, precisely because those livelihoods have been exposed as not mechanical but organic, as in because we collectively constructed it by virtue of belief what is of value.

Life of an individual is equal to another precisely only because we did not ask for it. The next best thing is, as far as humanly possible, the prevention of pointless death when something does not want to die. Because life in itself is already pointless, why trade the products of life with life when a thinking subject already has some purpose for itself? Even though at its bare minimum it is not wanting to die by virtue of the ‘will to live’ as put forward by Schopenhauer.

The premise is not so much that life is pointless, it's only objectively pointless, the subjectivity of life and death on the other hand, I like to think of as the unfolding of that objective pointlessness. We brand it pointless I guess in both the secular and the religious precisely because ultimate meaning, and by extension objective value, is inaccessible to the living who at the end of the day are finite representations of the infinite which in itself, back to the point here, is worth saving. Hence the existence preceding essence. The issue is that precisely because objective abstract value cannot be ascertained and yet we use abstract value, be it economic value or the exceptionalism of ones own national or ethnic group to judge the value of a potentiality, the life of another. We do not need another all-knowing godlike being, be it the sovereign state or economists or multinational corporations to tell us what is objectively valuable in the abstract, all having been exposed to be temporal and subject to even the most meaningless of self-replicating organisms. The pointlessness is in the ‘ultimate’, but we are not that. That is objective while we are subjective beings in nature no matter how much at face value, we are distinct from it. We must preserve that thinking subject that is manifested in every living human being, which value, and by extension livelihood is predicated upon.

Cover image courtesy of Exeunt Magazine.