Some years back, Wendell Berry published an essay collection with the pertinent title: What are people for? (Counterpoint, 2010; ISBN 978-1582434872), and it’s a very good question. What, according to the commonly-accepted values of our civilisation, are people for? Economists will tell you that people are producers and consumers of goods and services. But both of those functions could be completely automated. We could have a world in which economic activity is reduced to computers selling one another financial instruments, and economists would pronounce it good – indeed, far better than the one we live in now. From the perspective of economics, people are just a nuisance.
I am going to come right out and say it: people are not a nuisance. Okay, some people are a nuisance, but human beings have a part to play in the world. Some of us aren’t playing that part very well, and that includes almost everyone in what I call industrial civilisation, but it remains an option for all of us to be human.
What do I mean by that? I mean that there is a larger picture, a dance of all living things, and that we have our part in that dance alongside everything else that lives, from grass to mosquitoes to crocodiles to hummingbirds to sticklebacks to mangroves. In that dance, we are both the eaters and the eaten. When I die, I want my body to go back to the land, because from the land it drew its nourishment. I don’t want it to go up some industrial smokestack: that was the premise of Auschwitz.
More than that, I mean that there is a vast source of meaning there. Modern life has been pretty thoroughly stripped of meaning, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that a mental health epidemic has ensued. We are now at the point that we have a Soviet-style definition of mental health as being a state of well-adjustment to a profoundly sick society. You may already know what Jiddhu Krishnamurti had to say about that.
We are at a moment now when the merely economic concept of what it is to be human is being exposed as the empty husk it is. Our culture has nothing to offer us any more, a point which is brutally apparent to the younger generations. There used to be a story which went like this (I know, because it was told to me, amongst many others): “Get a job. You’ll be able to keep doing that job for many years, so it makes sense to get a mortgage and buy a house – who knows, as the value of that house keeps on rising, you may be able to sell it and get a mortgage on a better one. You’ll be fine: your corporate employers will look after you. And at the end of it, you’ll be able to retire, on a comfortable pension.”
I don’t think anyone believes that story any more. I’m not sure if it’s even being told any more. Frankly, the one about being rescued by space unicorns from Alpha Centauri is more plausible at the moment. And some commentators appear to be surprised by the Great Resignation! Frankly, the only surprising thing about it is that it took so long.
Who in their right mind would choose a life in which they are no more than a corporate serf, doing some dull repetitive chore on a zero-hours contract for the smallest wage that some office drone has determined the company can get away with? Too few people now have the prospect of anything else. So they will choose some combination of living on benefits, petty crime, and the black economy. This is not new. Exactly the same thing happened with the collapse of the Soviet Union and its satellites. Much the same thing, really, happened when the Western Roman Empire fell. Ultimately, people vote with their feet.
The industrialised West is currently suffering what they are pleased to call a “labour shortage.” This is really just a sucker shortage. Nobody believes the fairy stories any more. They have been contradicted too often and too brutally by the reality of lived experience. This article gives a nice summary for the UK; I would be surprised if the reality in other industrialised countries is much different. (Feel free to weigh in below in the comments section below. More data is always welcome.)
So we have some collective clarity about what life is not about. The task now is to get some clarity about what it could be about, and how that could work in practice. Because if your life isn’t yielding the things required to sustain you – nourishing food, drinkable water, breathable air, and a supportive community – then that isn’t working. I’d draw your attention to the fact that few if any of the things on that list are presently being supplied by the arrangements we have in place, unless you’re very, very lucky.
Human beings have inhabited this planet for quite a few millennia – exactly how many depends on who you believe, but a lot. They have done so successfully; if they hadn’t, we wouldn’t be here today. For the most part, they managed to do this without the aid of economists, or of the industrial model, or even of science. I see no good reason to assume, as many people seem to, that their lives were, as Hobbes famously put it, “solitary, poor, nasty, brutal and short.” Certainly they were not solitary, and there is no indication that they felt human existence to be meaningless. On the contrary, so far as we can tell from the observation of indigenous peoples, they felt their lives to be crammed with meaning and purpose.
There are people living today – perhaps you, dear reader, are one of them – who can imagine nothing good of a world without iPhones. You may encounter some of them ranting about people who insist on having children, since assuredly those children will not have iPhones, the facts of geology being what they are. Well, I am old enough to have grown up without an iPhone or indeed the Internet, and you know what? We coped. Your children will also cope, and your grandchildren won’t even feel the lack. People adapt. This is how we got to a world containing Inuit and !Kung and Maasai and Wall Street day-traders and you, dear reader.
I am not here to tell you what your life ought to mean. I have no idea what your life ought to mean, because I have no idea who you are or what place you are in or how you got to that place, let alone what that place might look like in ten or twenty or a hundred years’ time. These are questions only you can answer. What I will tell you, however, is that you can make a meaning and a purpose that will make sense to you out of your present circumstances. I will assert the possibility of doing that even if you happen to be on Death Row, although I hope you are not. The meaning of a human life does not have to end when that person’s life ends.
It is better to die for an idea that will live, than to live for an idea that will die.Steve Biko
People are not there to serve an economic or ideological end. Economics and ideologies are there to serve the needs of people. If the present arrangements fail to recognise this – and they do – so much the worse for them. Whatever the future holds, the one thing you can be sure of is that it won’t be business as usual. This is a moment where, collectively and individually, we can and should be asking the big questions. What are you for?
Comments are welcome, but I do pre-moderate them to make sure they comply with the house rules.