Readers Write In #222: Was man made only to survive and accumulate?

Posted on July 15, 2020


(by G Waugh)

The realm of freedom actually begins only where labour which is determined by necessity and of mundane considerations ceases

This was Karl Marx as early as the 1800s. Marx wanted to divest labour from its criticality in ensuring survival and its indispensability in the pursuits of acquiring one’s own basic requirements for a decent living. He was the first among human thinkers who fully appreciated the creative potential inherent in the human creature and imagined a society that holds no artificial barriers towards fully realizing it. He was the first one probably who was clearly able to distinguish between the purpose of existence of man and those of other living beings and trusted deeply in man’s capacity to transcend his earthly limitations towards attaining glorious heights. As many of us might have wondered quite often, after close to 40000 years of walking the earth, it is a shame to realize that man has still not been able to fix the pettiest and the most primal of all of his issues – survival. Marx believed strongly that man was actually made for better things and considered socio-political structures that kept him from fully exploring his creative side as grave injustices to be obliterated as quickly as possible.


To count, study, analyze and train oneself for greater things while growing up, only to end up obsessed with issues of survival all the time once you are done, why didman have to evolve from chimps and apes at the first place? Why did we have to grow a massively complicated network of neurons that store, process and analyze billions of bytes of information in our heads if all we are bound to do with it is to worry and brood over how to save our jobs and beat the next recession? Do any of us really spend millions of rupees on a home theatre set with woofers and voice control systems only to watch never-ending TV soaps that relentlessly infest our High-Definition televisions?


Marx keenly believed that man could attain this state of deserving glory only in a fully developed communist system. He was sure that technological advancements would one day take us to a level where man’s essential requirements are easily fulfilled by complete automation or with very minimal labour and all man had to do was to sit and pursue his favourite occupation. With this fantastic idea in mind, the eternal optimist Karl Marx wrote the following lines:

In a higher phase of communist society, after the enslaving subordination of the individual to the division of labor, and therewith also the antithesis between mental and physical labor, has vanished; after labor has become not only a means of life but life’s prime want; after the productive forces have also increased with the all-around development of the individual, and all the springs of co-operative wealth flow more abundantly—only then can the narrow horizon of bourgeois right be crossed in its entirety and society inscribe on its banners: From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs!”

The mere fact that most people consider these ideas as either too impractical or ridiculous even more than a century after Marx wrote these words, speaks volumes about how stunted the growth of human civilization has been ever since the beginning of man’s hitherto greatest achievement- the Industrial Revolution of the 1800s. If critics of Marx are not willing to countenance his ‘utopian’ idea, it bears reminding that John Maynard Keynes, capitalism’s favourite child of the last century also bore visions along similar lines of a fifteen-hour work week where his grand-kids would spend the rest of their time doing what they really wanted to do.


It is of course, a great tragedy of the last century that movements that bore the name of Marx and occupied hegemonic political positions in various countries developed and imposed completely contrarian labour practices resembling conditions of barbaric slavery killing millions due to overwork and starvation. It is of course extremely difficult to separate Marxist theory that envisioned societies of maximum freedom – both social and economic and, Marxist practice that created brutal conditions totally unsuitable for human living bearing literally no resemblance to its founding tenets and successfully take an objective view of the Communist phenomenon. But this is not a place where I would want to meditate on these discrepancies and write a letter of apology on behalf of the Marxists.


When these questions arise of what would man do when divested of responsibilities to take care of himself as well as his family, people often tend to take a conservative opinion with a view to endorsing current economic structures and preserving the status quo. Some of them also would like to argue that artists deprived of preoccupations with regard to survival and economic well-being would create art of literally no emotional value. In a world where no artificial divisions and moral restrictions exist, someone like Imtiaz Ali would be thrown out of his job, finding virtually nothing to do. But this view is something that I would like to differ much from.

Pain, anger, poverty, losses all of which no doubt have given rise to beautiful works of art in the past and, freedom from all of them would to an extent throw obstacles in the process of creation for artists who generally thrive in conditions of misery. But the advantages of such an environment would, in many other ways be unquestionably rewarding. It needs no reminding to my lower and middle-class readers of the threatening conditions under which they were forced to abandon their favourite occupations in the past such as writing, painting, singing, dancing,etc. and of the tons and tons of unused potential that were laid to rot at the altars of survival. An artist untrammeled by issues of survival, rat-race and other forms of artificial competition would find no hindrances to the complete unleashing of his throbbing potential and bless the world with all his divine grace and glory.

But in a world where fifty hours of work a week is just not enough, mastery of one or two languages of programming is too common and unattractive, ownership of a two-bedroom apartment is not a matter of achievement at all and life without a weekend visit to malls and plazas is a crime, an appeal for freedom from survival battles is nothing but asking too, too much.

And in an age of cryptocurrencies and Artificial Intelligence, a throwback to age-old Marxist adages and cogitation with the purposes of human existence could amount to even accusations of heresy. But that’s the maximum an artist can do, when he is forced to write under duress trembling meekly all the while under the looming shadow of the ‘survival’ ogre.