Anti-natalist philosophy: hysteria, pessimism and capitalism’s decline

Readers of US-based magazine the New Yorker may have read a recent and sensationally-titled article, “The Case for Not Being Born”, by Joshua Rothman (27/11/2017). The article itself is a good introduction to a relatively recent school in bourgeois philosophy known as “anti-natalism”. The basic thrust of anti-natalism is that the trappings of modern life – and life in general – are so full of suffering and pain, that these outweigh the positives of living, and so to have children is an inherently unethical act as one is condemning a new life to these same miseries. Therefore, according to this philosophy, the only moral remedy for eradicating these sufferings is to voluntarily allow the human species to become extinct, chiefly by making a collective decision to stop having children and allowing our species to slowly die out.

The main subject of Rothman’s article is the “philosopher” David Benatar (head of the Department of Philosophy at the University of Cape Town). To sum up anti-natalism in his own ludicrous words, from his 2006 book Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming Into Existence, Benatar writes:

“While good people go to great lengths to spare their children from suffering, few of them seem to notice that the one (and only) guaranteed way to prevent all the suffering of their children is not to bring those children into existence in the first place.”

Ignoring the obvious paradoxical detail in this argument, that children who don’t even exist can somehow be saved from suffering (I myself am not nor ever have I been a father – I wonder how many non-existent children that means I’ve saved!), this short statement contains a more than adequate demonstration of the state of modern “philosophy”.

An important note to be made here is that Better Never to Have Been was written two years before the beginning of the worst crisis capitalism has ever experienced since the Great Depression: the 2008 crash. Now, nearly a decade after that great recession – from which capitalism has still not recovered – Benatar has released a new book, The Human Predicament: A Candid Guide to Life’s Biggest Questions, as a sort of appendage and contextualisation of his previous work.

A great part of Marxist philosophy is the realisation that it is the material conditions of a given society which ultimately determine the ideas of that society. To quote Marx; “It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness.”

This materialist explanation for society is lost on Benatar. In his latest book, he writes “The quality of human life, contrary to what many people think, is actually quite appalling,” and, quoting from the New Yorker:

“He [Benatar] provides an escalating list of woes… We’re almost always hungry or thirsty… when we’re not, we must go to the bathroom. We often experience “thermal discomfort”—we are too hot or too cold—or are tired and unable to nap. We suffer from itches, allergies, and colds, menstrual pains or hot flashes [sic]. Life is a procession of ‘frustrations and irritations’—waiting in traffic, standing in line, filling out forms. Forced to work, we often find our jobs exhausting; even ‘those who enjoy their work may have professional aspirations that remain unfulfilled.’ Many lonely people remain single, while those who marry fight and divorce. ‘People want to be, look, and feel younger, and yet they age relentlessly’” [My emphasis].

What Benatar has succeeded in doing here is recognising a lot of the main miseries stemming from the capitalist system, experienced by the working class the world over. He happens to have forgotten to mention, however, the other and more serious miseries of the modern world which are a lot worse than the apparently “appalling” cruelty of “filling out forms”; for example things such as job insecurity, food poverty, violent repression of organised labour, modern slavery, homelessness, famine, death from easily curable disease, war etc. But what he has failed to do is recognise the roots of such miseries in the first place: capitalism and class society.

Anti-natalism is inherently an idealist philosophy, littered with moral grandstanding. Furthermore it is a petty bourgeois (read: middle class) philosophy. Recognising it is a philosophy of the middle class is key to understanding why it exists at all, and why it is gaining popularity now.

In his 1938 book Their Morals and Ours, Trotsky recognised three main bases for the emergence of new idealisms and ideas of universal morality when capitalism finds itself in deep crisis. These are the class, political, and psychological bases. Trotsky wrote:

“The class basis of this false and pompous sermon [that morals are universal] is the intellectual petty bourgeoisie. The political basis – their impotence and confusion in the face of approaching reaction. Psychological basis – their effort at overcoming the feeling of their own inferiority through masquerading in the beard of a prophet.”

The class basis of anti-natalism is evident throughout Benatar’s work. Not least because he himself, being a philosophy professor, is a member of this intellectual petty bourgeoisie. But also, as is often the case to be found with the petty bourgeoisie, is his naked and unashamed ignorance of the real struggles experienced by the majority of the human species under capitalism. The fact that in The Human Predicament, the worst examples of day-to-day drudgery he can think of are mere trivial matters (traffic jams, queues, filling out forms) shows just how detached he seems to be from the real plight of the global working class.

To dig deeper into these petty grievances, when complaining about the fact that “we’re almost always hungry or thirsty… when we’re not, we must go to the bathroom” – essentially inevitable and frankly, non-problematic “issues” naturally arising from being an organism that requires an external source of nutrition to survive – he overlooks the fact that the real misery with regards to food is actual starvation! To imply that simply feeling hungry between meals is a sign of an insufferable existence is at its very best woeful pig-ignorance and blindness to the very real and alarmingly high mortality rates from starvation across the world.

Furthermore, the incredible conclusion Benatar draws from these more trite matters of day-to-day life – that we must volunteer our own extinction lest future generations suffer these same “plights” – smacks of class privilege and therefore class ignorance of the real problems in society. If his lists of problems are the worst he can come up with then he’s clearly living a life of relative luxury compared to most of us.

From the second of Trotsky’s three points of analysis, the political basis for anti-natalism has already been touched upon in brief. It has already been mentioned the historical context in which Benatar’s books have been published in the post-2008-crash era.

The bourgeoisie offers us no way out of the impasse capitalism has found itself in since the 2008 crash. This is not just because they obviously do not want to change or move past capitalism, it is because they cannot begin to even think of how this could even be achieved. This impasse naturally finds expression therefore in the media, public “discourse”, the arts, bourgeois economists, and, of course, philosophy.

A prime example of this expression is from Benatar himself. Speaking to the New Yorker when asked if there could ever be a better world in the future, he says, “It’ll never happen. The lessons never seem to get learned.” Put simply, Benatar and other bourgeois thinkers in this age of crisis simply cannot imagine a world beyond capitalism. In the case of the anti-natalists, this dearth in forethought has led to the unbelievably reactionary conclusion that the only choices we face are either the continuation of human suffering, or outright extinction of the human race. In other words, the conditions that we ourselves as a species have created, are somehow now completely out of our control. Never does it occur to Benatar that if we have created these conditions then surely it is possible to change or even completely overhaul them.

But this is no accident. This mindset is ubiquitous throughout mainstream philosophy and is simply a continuation of the false analysis of the American economist Francis Fukuyama who, not long after the collapse of the Soviet Union, claimed in 1992 that humankind had reached “the end of history” and that capitalism under western-style liberal democracy was the end result and height of human development and the future will continue in perfect harmony and stability.

These illusions were exploded sixteen years later by the crash of 2008. Though, to give credit where credit’s due, even some mouthpieces of the bourgeoisie eventually recognised this mistaken view of Fukuyama themselves years later (“It’s Still Not the End of History”, the Atlantic, 1/9/14; “Francis Fukuyama: Yes, history’s death was exaggerated”, the Times, 28/9/14).

Trotsky also wrote of the petty bourgeois “impotence and confusion in the face of approaching reaction”. Across the world we have seen and continue to see the growing polarisation of politics to the Left and to the Right in the years following the 2008 crash. The petty bourgeois can’t help but focus on and over-exaggerate the most reactionary results of that polarisation, without seeing them in context. For example they will whip themselves into a frenzy over the the fascist Golden Dawn party in Greece; the right-wing governments in Hungary and Poland; the popularity of UKIP during the 2015 UK general election; the existence of English and British fascism in the form of the EDL and Britain First; the scourge of ISIS across the Arab world, and its lure for a tiny minority of people in the West; the rise of Marine Le Pen; the right-wing AfD party gaining seats in the German Bundestag; and of course – the source of liberals’ most white hot anguish – the election of Donald Trump to the office of President of the United States.

All these developments are of course themselves symptomatic of this period of capitalist crisis, and so it is no surprise that the petty bourgeois intelligentsia desperately try and grasp for answers to combat these reactionary movements. But, in the words of Trotsky, “their impotence” to deal with these forces has found expression in the total bankruptcy of their morals and idealism. Bereft of solutions, they inevitably gravitate towards defeatism and appeasement. Anti-natalists like Benatar are the faces of this trend in naked form. Defeated to a most disgraceful degree, as they would rather put an end to humanity rather than actively make the world a better place than ours for future generations.

In reality this is the surest appeasement of the forces of reaction, as by the very act of literally doing nothing to change society on progressive lines by opting to wait for death instead, barbarism in the form of the far-right, war, and terrorism is allowed to fester unimpeded around the world. And so the apparent moral virtue of extinguishing the human race will actually cause more suffering than we see now as the first victims of reaction are always the proletariat and poor peasants, who make up the overwhelming majority of the human race the world over.

Indeed, we may look no further for this petulant defeatism than from the words of Benatar himself:  “We’re asked to accept what is unacceptable. It’s unacceptable that people, and other beings, have to go through what they go through, and there’s almost nothing that they can do about it.” (The New Yorker, 27/11/17). The use of the word “almost” betrays a deep-down acceptance that actually, things can change for the better, but that is clearly too much effort for Benatar to properly consider.

Towards the end, the article speaks of Benatar’s own pessimism towards his own philosophy:

“He doesn’t imagine that anti-natalism could ever be widely adopted: ‘It runs counter to too many biological drives.’ Still, for him, it’s a source of hope. ‘The madness of the world as a whole—what can you or I do about that?’ he said, while we walked.”

Here, Marxists are in full agreement with him.  Anti-natalism certainly isn’t nor can ever be an actual threat to human existence (although the fact it might be is a source of morbid hope for Benatar). The reason why it is nevertheless worth analysing and criticising is because as Marxists, it is useful to recognise symptoms of the bourgeoisie in crisis through the emergence of reactionary and, in this case, plainly bizarre and unhelpful, ideas. Secondly, the very emergence of such ideas proves again the need for a revolutionary alternative to this crisis.

No other epoch or situation other than that of a world system in interminable decline world could explain why anti-natalism exists. It would be inconceivable if we lived in a world where the positive experiences of life far outweighed the negative, and yet such ideas are openly discussed as a respectable contribution to philosophy. The very fact that modern “philosophers” can see no other alternative to the suffering and insanity of capitalism than the ending of all human life tells us everything we need to know about the futility of all ideas which take the permanence of capitalism as their starting point.

Far from falling into anti-natalist or other such defeatist “philosophies”, we say, there is a solution! As the experiences of history shows, no economic and political system lasts forever, and capitalism is by no means exempt from this rule. The anti-natalists say: “Extinction or barbarism!” Marxists say: “Socialism or barbarism!” Only through the collective mobilisation of the proletariat to overthrow this decrepit system can we begin to hope not for the end of life, but for a life worth living for all.

Only through the expropriation of the commanding levers of society out of the hands of the capitalists and into the hands of the workers, can humanity raise itself into a new epoch of a heightened society based on a democratically planned economy run by everybody. We call this socialism. In this new age of socialism, the needless horrors of curable disease, starvation, poverty, and all the fetters in the way of fulfilment of a long and happy life will be swept away and consigned to the past! Capitalism has already laid the foundations for this new society for us; it is simply our task to piece it together!

As a total rebuke to the notion of deliberate extinction of the human race espoused by the anti-natalists, let us end with a quote from one of the greatest minds ever to contribute to the canon of Marxist theory and the history of revolutionary practice:

Life is beautiful. Let the future generations cleanse it of all evil, oppression, and violence, and enjoy it to the full.

~ Leon Trotsky

by Patrick Byrne, Manchester Marxists