What’s the point of living longer if we face more years of isolation, poverty and neglect?
When he declared that death was the ultimate enemy in life, evolutionary theorist Stephen Jay Gould implied that the battle wasn’t over: enemies can be fought, and partial victories are possible. Imagination is our compensation for a life span that is limited, but it’s also a means to counter that oversight of evolution.
But death is not the only enemy. There is also the machine called capitalism, which both builds and blocks the future. As it mobilises resources to accumulate economic value, the potential for liberation unfolds in terms of technological advancement—including new drugs and treatments that extend our life-spans significantly. But so does the human cost of its economic imperatives: costs that extend into an old age of isolation and poverty for too many people.
Capitalism might acknowledge the existence of inequality, but not the degree to which this system thrives on it, nor the responsibility to attend to those who are rendered more vulnerable to poor health, low education, poverty and crime—facts that are falsely attributed to personal as opposed to structural failings. The mismatch between the promise of an extended life and the reality of declining living standards in old age forms a central dilemma of contemporary capitalism.
Faced by these dilemmas, social philosophers like André Gorz have proposed a succession of clear, practical and democratic alternatives to capitalism. Gorz articulated an alternative, red-green, direction for leftist politics, a model of political ecology that challenged the logic, morality and efficiency of capitalism, along with its constant drive for profit. These critiques rendered him almost mute in the mainstream media (or what Gorz referred to in his book Paths to Paradise as the “oblivion merchants”). He was eager to stress the psychological devastation that arose from the rapid and widespread degradation of skills as capitalists increasingly sought ways to casualise labour, mechanise work, and maximise profits.
Motivated not least by the idea of ‘socially useful production,’ Gorz proposed a range of ways to revitalise these skills, minimise work, and maximise people’s free time. In short, where capitalism produced alienation, Gorz proposed extending the sphere of autonomous human activity in order to increase the scope for self-fulfillment. Among his many practical proposals (which included a universal basic income as an interim measure until money was eliminated), he laid plans for the development of democratically organised communities that would determine, among other things, production values, planning and provision for local needs; explore liberation from hierarchical forms of work organization; and implement post-productivist practices.
In another of his books called Farewell to the Working Class, Gorz described existence under capitalism as ‘social death;’ he believed that living longer means little if we are not living well. It’s an observation that feels increasingly relevant in advanced capitalist societies, which in turn are responding in a variety of ways. In Japan for example, the number of centenarians has risen above 50,000 while total population has fallen by a million, and it continues to fall as fewer people choose to have children.
Faced with the prospects of at least 35 per cent of the country being over 65 before the end of the century, a rapidly diminishing population, and the need to recruit more immigrant labour, the Japanese government has expressed concerns about its inability to pay off the country’s rising debts. Reflecting in part the sources of alienation in this intensely competitive and increasingly insecure society, it has appointed a Czar with the job title of ‘Minister for 100 million active people.’ Presumably that means sexually active too.
As if things weren’t hard enough for the government, a peculiar psychological condition called Hikikomori has reduced the future workforce in Japan by a further one million people and rising. Characterised by social withdrawal and a poor sense of self, Hikikomori appears to be the response of many young Japanese to the acute stress that’s brought on by the less than satisfying prospects of modern day capitalism and its lack of provision for a meaningful existence. By ‘meaningful’ they include the possibilities of enjoying outdoor pursuits, since many remain in their homes for periods that range from six months to several years and never venture out.
Under conditions like these, the gift of youthfulness may no longer be so attractive, or perhaps young people simply dread the reality of the alternative: of ageing and losing control, of entering the realm of the forgotten. Better nutrition, environmental improvements, and medical advances have greatly increased the chances for most people in Japan and elsewhere in the West to live considerably longer lives, but there has been no corresponding advancement in terms of their long-term quality of life: the prospects of longevity don’t coincide with the prospects for people’s future happiness. As the late Jenny Diski put it, “Old, lonely, unwanted, invisible…we see them repeatedly on the television news, dying of solitude and neglect, even in the crowded day room of a care home… I can’t think of anything about the reality of ageing which improves a person’s life.”
Hence, a fear of ageing might be greater than a fear of death, and for good reason. Physical decline is increasingly accompanied by the loss of those ingredients that make up a meaningful life: family, friends, social networks, experiences, accomplishments, recognition and knowledge. Consciousness itself is formed through social engagement: the concept of self, of our identity, can’t be separated from human action and interaction. Therefore, it’s hardly surprising that growing older should drive many people to desperate responses like compulsive working, excessive exercise, diet regimes, ‘think yourself younger’ fads, and cosmetic surgery. Equally, it may tempt them into the solitude of their private spheres through television, drugs, alcohol and depression.
In these circumstances suicide may present itself as a reasonable option, and it has increased dramatically in recent years—up by around fifteen per cent among the over fifty-fives in Britain, for example, and standing at a thirty-year high in the USA. Capitalism articulates the meaning of ‘independence’ in the language of market fundamentalism, showing the ideal form of individual behaviour to be competitive, autonomous, possessive, self-reliant, self-sufficient and self-interested—or as greedy, grasping and egregious if you prefer.
Community is more or less disregarded, and dependency is equated with sickness or inadequacy. It’s against this backdrop that age-related increases in suicide rates must be considered. As Lynne Segal points out, around 20 per cent of the older UK population live in poverty, and their plight is intensified by the infirmities that are associated with old age, and by older people’s increasing dependence on diminishing resources of quality elder care in an age of austerity and budget cuts.
On the other hand, the prospect of death might also be life-affirming. According to Terror Management Theory or TMT—an approach that emerged from existential social psychology—contemplating your demise improves psychological health by bringing a sense of purpose to one’s life and reducing the fear of death. It does this by encouraging people to increase their investment in social and cultural structures—the very resources that provide meaning, dignity and identity to our lives.
TMT implies that there is no mind without language, and no language without social interaction. After all, people are social beings, and their conceptions of themselves develop through interdependence. But if the structures that form the basis of human communication are diminishing, what will that mean for personal identity and fulfilment?
Death comes to all of us as the saying goes, whether by design or an accident of evolution, though no doubt people will still try to beat the grim reaper in a variety of ways—or die trying in the process. But what is the point of channeling our energies into living longer if it’s only to face increased years of isolation, perhaps in poverty or circumstances of neglect?
When they were proposed in the early 1980s, Gorz’s ideas were marginalised by the mainstream media, and were met with varying degrees of ridicule and contempt by business leaders, the left, academics and trade union leaders. The term ‘utopia,’ for example, was often used pejoratively towards Gorz and his work, yet he calmly and gladly embraced it. Today, by contrast, his arguments have become commonplace in political discourse, particularly with regard to ecological catastrophe, neo-liberalism, austerity and globalization. It seems this voice in the wilderness was ahead of his time.
Following Gorz’s utopian yet highly practical ideals, the proper response to aging should be to work on strategies that liberate time for creative pursuits, build community networks that are antagonistic to profit and conducive to shared caring, cultivate resources for regeneration, and enhance the quality of life for everyone. In other words, to guarantee a social order beyond capitalism that allows human beings to flourish however old or young they are.
This article was originally published in the independent online magazine www.opendemocracy.net