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Malaise, or The Future of Our Illusions

Death is not necessarily the first thing that comes to mind when thinking about how to build a better economy. In fact, it’s probably the last thing that comes to mind. Yet it is always there in the background, whether we like it or not.

As humans, we constantly live in the shadow of our own obsolescence, conscious of the conflict between our desire to live and the knowledge that death is inevitable. This paradox, this terrifying reality, can often force many of us into a state of denial.

Yet, perhaps even somewhat counter-intuitively, the inevitability of death has driven human civilisations to achieve a great many things in the short time we have been around. Take for example the improvements in life expectancies for men and women in the UK over the past 200 years. Regardless of gender, you and I can now expect to live almost twice as long as our ancestors could have hoped for in 1841. Much of this is down to improvements in health, including childhood immunisation and healthier lifestyles in later life. Of course many things have driven this change, but there is only one constant. Without consciousness of our own mortality, and how to keep death at bay, it is debatable as to the extent these developments would have occurred.

Death, the greatest illusionist

All of this has relevance when it comes to the economy. Death has enabled us to create a world far different from that of our ancestors or any other species. In satisfying our most basic needs, whether this is food, clothing or shelter, we have in the process constructed a world of solid objects which create the impression of longevity and permanence. The house you live in may well have been built before you were born, and may only finally fall down long after you have left this world.

Yet a curious by-product of our frenetic activity in the shadow of death has been the creation of a whole host of illusions, things which don’t exist in nature but which provide us with meaning and value. Nations, religion, even money. These illusions help us climb the hierarchy of needs away from our mortal condition, and affirm our significance in the universe.

Yet as these illusions, while increasingly sophisticated and complex, are ultimately fragile and replaceable, as we all too well know. Capitalism is one such illusion, yet its ability to help the majority of us find meaning and value in life is diminishing. The spectre of Death once again looms large.

The future of our illusions

Despite the incredible advances capitalism has brought in terms of prosperity, science, technology and of course life expectancy, death remains omnipresent. On the face of it, this need not be a bad thing. From Socrates to Hegel, philosophers have long argued that this is one of the principle reasons for the emergence of culture and materialism. Even though we are each here for but a blink of an eye, we live on through art, music, literature and an array of objects. Modern social psychology provides further empirical evidence to support this, most notably Ernest Becker’s work in the 1970’s, and more recently through ‘Terror Management Theory’.

Yet increasingly capitalism is failing help us forget about death. In the UK we remain unable to provide food for everyone, with a million people living off donations from food banks in order to eat. An incredible 50,000 families a year are being made homeless, whilst house prices are now almost seven times people’s incomes.

For those of us lucky enough to have satisfied our most basic needs, the housing example also alludes to an even more complex problem. The growing concentration of ownership, whether this is housing or even who owns the vehicle you use most (you or Zipcar), is making it harder for us to find meaning and value within tangible objects.

We thus are increasingly looking to the intangible for value and meaning, though the increasing irrelevance of many jobs and continued climate change (among many other things) have thrown into question whether work and consumption under capitalism continue to be viable ways of finding meaning in life.

A Western malaise

These constant reminders of our own insignificance are contributing to a widespread malaise through Western societies, and increasingly throw into question the future of our illusions. The constant, reoccurring crises common to contemporary capitalism — whether this be poor growth, stagnating productivity or recession, all serve to remind us of our own mortality. Something is always going wrong with our economic system. There is no third party arbitrator to help us, and increasingly no safety net to protect us from nature and our mortal condition. We are on our own.

The natural response to these issues is the same as when we first realise that we’re doomed to die — denial. Many of us continue to deny that these seemingly disparate but frequently occurring crises represent flaws in our greatest illusion. We treat them as individual cracks which can be papered over because to do otherwise would be to acknowledge the inevitable.

Yet Becker and proponents of ‘Terror Management Theory’ argue it is the denial of death which is at the root of all evils. Psychologists have found that this process, of denying the fallibility of illusions and acknowledging your mortality, creates in-groups and out-groups, fostering prejudice and contributes to aggression. Some continue to believe in supranational trade blocks, other’s question their legitimacy and look for answers elsewhere. This is arguably one of the reasons for instance we have seen a rise in nationalism since 2008 — nationalism enables us to believe we can live on as part of a greater whole, dampening the effect of life affirming events, such as a recession. It arguably also helps explain the simultaneous rise of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, Nigel Farage and Jeremy Corbyn. People are frightened to death of death, and want someone — anyone, to make it all better.

The positive side of death

This highlights an important distinction between conscious and unconscious reminders of death. The latter is what results in people trying to protect the values of their community and reality as they know it. This can be positive if those values themselves are positive. Yet it can also be negative if it results in us vehemently defending those values against others. It can be the difference between helping your fellow humans, or letting them drown in the Mediterranean.

Modern capitalism is rife with unconscious reminders of mortality — low paid, precarious, repetitive employment which is at risk of automation; bullshit jobs where a considerable amount of time is spent reading, replying to and sorting emails, colour coding spreadsheets or moving boxes around a Power Point slide; stagnating productivity meaning we are working harder to stand still and receive less and less of the pie. Modern capitalism amplifies our mortality and the passage of time.

Yet despite its dark side, the fear of death has an obvious plus side — the desire to leave a legacy. Some of the greatest achievements in human history are attributable to this urge, from the tangible, such as the Great Pyramids to the Taj Mahal, to the intangible, such as Beveridge’s ambition for the welfare state and the creation of the NHS. In contemporary times, and at an individual level, psychologists have found how contemplating your own mortality can be good for you, whether this is prompting you to cut down on your smoking or to exercise more regularly. Yet what is the legacy we are currently leaving for future generations?

When we are conscious of reminders of death, we are likely to have a more considered response, and will think about what really matters in life. The more we think about death, the more focused we become on personal growth or building positive relationships. We move beyond materialism and satisfying our most primitive requirements to advance towards higher, more differentiated needs — needs which are no longer animal but human.

This is the choice we know face in the UK — huddle together and live in denial of our mortality, or open up and embrace the best life has to offer.

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