By Chris Conrad '21
It’s January 2018. I’m in Hawaii on vacation with my parents.
Suddenly, on our phones, a loud noise.
BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.
Frantic googling, the realization that Hawaii has no missile shelters, there’s no underground parking lot for us to flee to, there’s just hiding in a closet and waiting to
Text my friends goodbye, realize that I had so much more I wanted to do with my life,
Shouldn’t it have hit by now?
The Mayor of Hilo’s Twitter: It’s a false alarm.
But it’s also a reminder.
Life is short; sometimes shorter than we expect.
You will die one day. How do you want to have spent your life?
Your time (all our time) on Earth is finite. Time isn’t money; time is your life.
I want to contend that really grappling with this fact, truly internalizing it, has a radical political implication: capitalism is a death machine, and socialism is the answer.
Arguments for socialism take many forms. Some argue on utilitarian grounds – capitalism guarantees massive suffering of a permanent underclass, destroys the planet, etc; socialism could solve these problems and increase everyone’s well-being. Some argue on more deontological grounds, emphasizing the base moral wrongness of worker exploitation and the theft of surplus value – no one should ever be paid a sub-living wage, no one should be enslaved to produce chocolate for the Global North, even if these things somehow increased net utility.
These arguments are familiar, persuasive (at least to me), correct. But why is no one talking about death?
You have one life. Only one.
What things bring you value? What do you think the meaning of life is? What needs to happen for you to say you had a good life when looking back?
I suspect many of us, when thinking of what sorts of things give meaning to our lives, land upon similar answers.
Friends. Family. Loved ones. Significant others. Doing things we enjoy, things we care about. Traveling to new places, pursuing hobbies, going to concerts, relishing a sunset, savoring great art, great food. The raw unfiltered experience of being alive. Falling in love, starting a family, raising kids, feeling part of a community. Working on projects that matter, pursuing dreams.
I’m surely missing a lot; your answers almost certainly differ from mine.
Here’s a question. Would any of us, if we had a choice, choose to spend the next 40 years (forty years!!) working 40 hours a week for the vast majority of the year? Choose to sacrifice the hours we’re most awake? Choose to come home exhausted most days (for forty years!)? To be so tired from work that the remaining few hours in the waking day mindlessly slip away to cooking dinner, TV, phones? Week after week, month after month, year after year.
Until suddenly, you realize most of your life is behind you, not in front of you. That in your prime, you lost most of your time (your life) working a job at the expense of many of the things that bring your life meaning.
What sane person would voluntarily opt-in to this system?
Look. Even if you have your dream job. Even if you find meaning and purpose in your work. Even if you love your job most (or all) of the time.
What about all the other things that matter? Friends, family, loved ones, meaningful experiences. Your time is zero sum – time spent working is time not spent doing all these other meaningful activities. Even if you’re an outlier and derive a huge amount of meaning from your work, surely there’s something else that you care about. That you wish you had more time for.
No one dies regretting that they didn’t spend enough time at the office. Many, many, so many die regretting they spent too much time at the office. That they missed their kids growing up, that they fell out of touch with their friends because work took over their lives.
Of course, we all know why people end up working most of their lives. We have to. Under capitalism, you work or you starve.
We don’t freely choose to spend our lives working; we don’t have a choice to begin with.
We only get one life, yet we are forced against our will to sacrifice our time (our life) doing work instead of savoring our precious finite time on Earth.
What if we could build a different world though? One where everyone’s basics needs were guaranteed – food, water, shelter. Where we could work more if we wanted to, but could also choose not to. Maybe everyone would have to work fifteen hours week to produce the goods to meet people’s basic needs – Keynes certainly thought we’d be there by now.
An emerging body of scholarship demonstrates that we have reached the point where this utopian vision is possible. One recent paper argues, based on UN data, that countries could achieve high outcomes on key indicators – life expectancy, education, employment, nutrition, social support, democracy, and life satisfaction – for $10,000 per person, without exceeding planetary ecological limits. This is less than the global average GDP per capita, meaning redistribution alone would be sufficient to guarantee access to the good life to everyone, everywhere.
The world envisioned above is clearly a socialist one – public provision of essential goods, massive redistribution of wealth and power, the democratization of work, the end of endless GDP growth – these are all fundamentally incompatible with capitalism.
True recognition of our own mortality therefore necessitates some commitment to post-capitalism/socialism. Our current system of work amounts to nothing less than the systematic theft of a significant portion of everyone’s life.
Another world is possible. I think it’s worth fighting for. I could, at this point, make some large call to action – that we should all become organizers in our spare time and agitate for a better world.
But to do so would miss the point of this essay. My goal in writing this is not really a call to political action – after all, we shouldn’t let our lives pass us by while waiting for the revolution.
No, I just want us all to really think about what we want from life. What would you have to do to die without regrets? What do you want to have spent your life doing? What brings meaning and purpose to your life?
How do we live well in a world that is designed to take our lives away from us?
I am not sure how to answer this question. I have some preliminary guesses, but I’m not sure they’re very good. We should prioritize what we care most about. We should refuse to give in to the relentless pressure of a cultural milieu that equates working hard with value itself. We should not answer emails from our bosses after 5pm, we should demand shorter working weeks from our politicians, we should organize for a different economy. We should stop telling friends “Sorry, I’m too busy with (home)work to hang out.” We should care for the people who matter to us, and care for ourselves.
We should live.
I have been thinking about these ideas on-and-off for… god, it’s been years. This question weighed on me when I spent a week panicking about my own mortality in high school, when I believed I was ten minutes from death by ballistic missile, when someone from my high school class died last year, when I read Sally Rooney’s new book, and it weighs on me now as I begin to frantically apply for jobs.
So if you have a different answer, solution, suggestion, idea, on how we can find meaning under capitalism, please, please, send it to me. I’d love to hear it.