After we have felt, in our bodies, that we are still worthy even if we create nothing – how would we create?
The corona crisis is a special time for nihilists. The clean separation of society in essential and non-essential activities signals that money is not the only dimension of meaning that informs our political decisions. In normal times, we are used to thinking of “the economy” as a whole, as a benevolent Chimera measured by the holy number GDP. In times of a global pandemic, it becomes apparent that there is something more valuable than the “health” (note the medical metaphor) of “the” economy. Governments assume a role they haven’t played for a long time. Instead of merely being an umpire in the process of privatization and boundless progress, they now act to defend our bare life.
What was the highest value under normal circumstances, the maximizing of GDP, loses its status as the best measure of societal success. Pundits who still claim we should, when in doubt, favor the economy, often face ridicule. Their argument requires quantification of the value of human life, which is anathema to classical humanistic thinkers. Human life is supposed to be invaluable. But it was precisely this perceived sacredness of human life, that provided the implicit ethical foundation of the ideology of infinite progress. The ultimate goal was to be more and better alive, and the only conceptualization of that which could count on global consensus, was maximizing the GDP.
Of course, the medical reasons for the distinction between essential and non-essential are obvious. But such a distinction was never needed, at least not in such a consequential way in which it is needed now. It makes tangible the forgotten assumptions, the tacit ultimate purpose of “the economy”. And society is very confused because of it. Philosophers typically say that we have forgotten about mortality and part of what keeps the economy going is our drive away from a confrontation with the grim reaper. The metaphor of infinite progress helps us to forget about our own mortality.
We have organized our economic lives in the light of infinite progress. Living has taken on the meaning of a journey along its endless slopes. This dominant idea of living is now restricted in the name of bare life. At its most basic, the assumption that is required to overcome nihilism is the idea that being alive is better than being dead. During the pandemic, bare life (being barely alive) becomes a direct source of value globally. The mediation by the superstructure of the idea of infinite progress is no longer required to justify political action.
At least, that was the initial reaction. It was comfortably obvious that society should not let people die. But both rationalist pundits and immature morons begin to undermine the narrative of the sacredness of individual life, perhaps unaware how this serves as the implicit foundation of their own ideology.
Life doesn’t go anywhere. The nihilist has always understood what is now laid bare: that the ideology of infinite progress is moot and at best a functional framework to safeguard social order. The nihilist has always understood the distinction between essential and non-essential activity. The non-essential activities derive their ultima ratio from the ideology of progress, but the essential activities can justify themselves directly by appealing to our ur-decision to overcome nihilism. The distinction tears the veil of the leading ideology and invites other stories immediately following the existential ur-decision that being alive is better than being dead.