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Is a Fear of Death at the Heart of Capitalism?

Donald Trump is a personification of capitalist values: He’s elitist, possessive, exploitative, and always hungry for more. Having multiple buildings emblazoned with his name is not enough. The presidential pantheon is the next prize he wants to devour, perhaps with dreams of becoming immortalized on U.S. currency, the yardstick for contemporary worth. What compels Trump’s oversized appetite, a hunger that mirrors capitalism’s drive for endless and rapacious growth?

Pulitzer Prize-winning anthropologist and social theorist Ernest Becker conceived of capitalism as a contemporary search for the Holy Grail: immortality itself. According to Becker, it is easy for the human animal to feel small and servile in the face of death. We seek power over each other and the more-than-human world to compensate for felt smallness. As Becker wrote in his final book, Escape from Evil, “power means power to increase oneself, to change one’s natural situation from one of smallness, helplessness, finitude, to one of bigness, control, durability, importance.”1 Money offers this vitalizing power. For Becker, “money is the human mode par excellence of coolly denying animal boundedness, the determinism of nature.”2

Fantastical efforts to escape natural finitude by endlessly accumulating wealth are, ironically, undermining the environmental preconditions for modern life. As accelerating climate change has us teetering on the edge of the Holocene, there is heightened urgency to understand the driving forces behind consumer capitalism, the economic system that has prevailed over the great acceleration in ecological impact since 1950.

Making sense of capitalism’s more motive

Karl Marx brilliantly explained the human toll of capitalist exploitation and alienation. Similarly, contemporary Marxists like David Harvey helpfully account for the ecological effects of endless compound growth. But what compels the more-seeking, the insatiable hunger, at the heart of capitalism? Marxism has not sufficiently answered this question. In his recent book The Enigma of Capital, David Harvey notes how the “lust for gold is nothing new” and that the “underlying desire for money power has always been around.”3 But how can we explain, and ultimately transform, this underlying hunger that finds contemporary expression in the capitalist profit motive?

Ernest Becker’s existential analysis of capitalism is helpful in this regard. For Becker, all economic systems and cultures are ultimately expressions of our relationship to mortality. We collectively cope with our fear of death, and the insignificance it suggests, by creating opportunities for “earthly heroism.” All cultures and economic systems, according to Becker, are organized around providing possibilities for heroism and the symbolic immortality it provides. Heroes in capitalist economies are coronated with monetary wealth. As Donald Trump likes to trumpet: “I’m really rich.” In other words: “I matter, I am not servile to my animality, I can heroically vanquish finitude.”

In the forty years since Becker’s death, a whole field of social psychology has emerged to test his theories. Terror Management Theory, or TMT, has resulted in over 500 experiments that have consistently confirmed two hypotheses derived from Becker’s work: First, when reminded of mortality we become more attached to our preferred worldviews. Second, we also become more likely to pursue self-esteem, as it is defined by that worldview. In one early study, for example, participants who were reminded of their mortality consumed significantly more resources than control subjects in a forest management game, with the intent of accruing profit and besting competitors. Being reminded of death apparently increased participants’ adherence to a capitalist worldview.

Economic insecurity, symbolic immortality, and death rates

Millions of Americans are experiencing profound economic insecurity. The suppression of wages and the outsourcing of jobs, aggressively pursued as capital accumulation strategies over the past forty years, are largely to blame. The economic precarity being experienced by the American workforce is helping fuel popular enthusiasm for Bernie Sanders and his democratic socialism. But it is also leading millions to double down on a capitalist worldview, and gravitate towards Trump. Donald Trump is a capitalist hero. You can even buy an action figure in his likeness. Aligning with him provides feelings of victory by association: “He will make us great again!”

Noam Chomksy has recently put forward an existential explanation for Trump’s support, especially among the working-class white men who are fuelling his rise. Death rates among this constituency are considerably higher than the national average. The causes of mortality are also unique. Instead of more common ailments like heart disease and diabetes, an epidemic of suicides, drug overdoses, and liver disease caused by alcohol abuse are to blame. For Chomsky, Trump is “appealing to deep feelings of anger, fear, frustration, hopelessness, probably among sectors like those that are seeing an increase in mortality, something unheard of apart from war and catastrophe.”

Working class white men are feeling particularly powerless, since they are slowly losing the racial and gender privileges that have historically softened the blow of economic marginalization. White supremacy and patriarchy remain sickeningly sturdy, but movements for racial and gender justice have cut into the material and psychological “wages” of white manhood. When Donald Trump stumps about making America “great again,” he is promising a return to gold standard racial and gender privilege, while peddling false hopes of material wealth.

In a recent Salon article that applies Becker and TMT to Trump’s electoral successes, Chauncey Devega argues that “Trump is communicating and displaying a strong ‘life force’—and this is closely tied to questions of virility and masculinity as well—to a people who are awash with anxieties about death, weakness, impotence and loss.”

Trump is a superhero of capitalism, patriarchy, and white supremacy. All three systems are arguably rooted in fear of death; they offer a select group feelings of strength and superiority that help protect against the sense of smallness and insignificance that death can engender (and that economic insecurity can intensify).

Becker is not the only thinker to connect fear of death with compensatory desires for dominion. In his classic book, The Fire Next Time, James Baldwin wonders if “the whole root of our trouble, the human trouble, is that we will sacrifice all the beauty of our lives, will imprison ourselves in totems, taboos, crosses, blood sacrifices, steeples, mosques, races, armies, flags, nations, in order to deny the fact of death.”4 We find a similar connection between existential doubt and worldly dominion in Buddhist philosophy. In his recent book, The Shambhala Principle, Buddhist teacher Sakyong Mipham argues that “when we feel inadequate, we consume the world around us rapaciously.”5

What is to be done?

Where does an existential explanation of capitalist profit-seeking in general, and Trump’s successes in particular, leave us politically? For Ernest Becker, the solution was to develop alternative hero systems that allowed for people to experience distinction, while still promoting relative equity. He admired indigenous gift economies, for example, where prestige is won by giving wealth away, not by accumulating.

A gap in Becker’s work, however, was his inability to explain why some cultures could negotiate existential anxiety more gracefully than others—why some developed competitive and exploitative hero systems like capitalism, while others crafted more regenerative systems of exchange like the potlatch.

One possible answer is that the reality of death is more workable than Becker allowed. He insisted that we needed symbolic immortality to cope with existential terror. For Becker, “the real world is simply too terrible to admit; it tells man that he is a small, trembling animal who will decay and die. Illusion changes all this, makes man seem important, vital to the universe, immortal in some way.”6

But what if gift economies are not illusory, but instead healthy interpretations of the earthly wealth that makes human life possible? What if death itself is emblematic of life’s generosity? As the philosopher Georges Bataille once observed, death “constantly leaves the necessary room for the coming of the newborn, and we are wrong to curse the one without whom we would not exist.”7

Becker is quite right that the reality of impermanence can make us humans feel belittled and hungry for compensatory power. But perhaps our fundamental situation is less terrible than he thought. Might it be possible to transform existential fear into gratitude for our precious lives (which are even more precious since they are temporary)?

Becker interpreted ritual and ceremony as means for achieving symbolic immortality, for gaining imagined control over “material decay and death.”8 But what if ritual, ceremony, and meditation are instead vital technologies that have historically allowed some cultures to befriend death and impermanence? And might this more affirmative relationship to the existential real be a key reason why some cultures have been more successful at pursuing relative equity? If we encounter our earthly lives as basically rich, then we should have nothing to compensate for.

“For the true warrior there is no warfare,” insists Tibetan Buddhist teacher Chögyam Trungpa. “When you are all-victorious, there is nothing to conquer, no fundamental problem or obstacle to overcome. This attitude is not based on suppressing or overlooking negativity, particularly. But if you look back and trace back through your life…you won’t find any fundamental problems.”9 For Trungpa and other Buddhist teachers, meditation is a key way of experiencing our “basic goodness,” a goodness that includes impermanence. If we cultivate appreciation for our earthly existence, we are more likely to approach the world with generosity, instead of a hunger for control.

If a cultural fear of death is at the heart of dominative systems like capitalism, white supremacy, and patriarchy, then we need political strategies that can transform this existential fear. Suddenly seemingly apolitical practices like ritual, ceremony, meditation, and yoga can take on new political importance.

Given the material force of a system like capitalism, and of personalities like Trump who embody its values, it would be naïve to think that more affirmative accounts of earthly reality—and practices for embodying them—will by themselves vanquish systemic injustice. While the interlocking systems of capitalism, hetero-patriarchy, and white supremacy may have common roots in existential fear, they each have their own logics that need to be targeted directly through indigenous sovereignty, direct action, state action, community organizing, and the forging of alternative economies.

But understanding that existential drivers lurk beneath dominative systems—feeding them endless fuel—should encourage us to begin integrating “micropolitics” like ritual and meditation into our social movements. To fundamentally transform capitalism we must transform the existential fear that feeds it.

All power is solar power

According to Becker, the original inspiration for the round shape of gold coins was the life-giving sun. To control coinage was to possess elemental power. Donald Trump, who already has mountains of money, wants to be further immortalized as one of the heroes minted onto bills and coins. To be president is to possibly become money incarnate, to not only have worth but to be worth itself. Trump’s Icarus flight betrays fear, hunger, and insecurity more than it does strength. Continued protest will hopefully melt his wings.

True wealth and power are found in collectives of people working together to radiate out justice and equality. Achieving a lasting justice means, paradoxically, accepting that none of us will last forever. Even the sun’s days are numbered. Impermanence is woven into the fabric of earthly life. To affirm death is to love life in all of its richness.

James K. Rowe is an Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies and Cultural, Social, and Political Thought at the University of Victoria. He is writing a book on the political effects of existential resentment.

Illustration by Alicia Brown

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  1. Ernest Becker, Escape from Evil (New York: Free Press, 1975), p. 81.
  2. Ibid., p. 82.
  3. David Harvey, The Enigma of Capital: And the Crises of Capitalism (New York: Oxford, 2010), p. 44.
  4. James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time (New York: Vintage, 1993), p. 92
  5. Sakyong Mipham, The Shambhala Principle (New York: Harmony, 2013), p. 108.
  6. Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death (New York: Free Press, 1973), p. 33.
  7. Georges Bataille, The Accursed Share: Volume I (New York: Zone Books, 1988), p. 34.
  8. Ernest Becker, Escape from Evil (New York, Free Press: 1975), p. 81.
  9. Chögyam Trungpa, The Collected Works of Chögyam Trungpa: Volume 8 (Boston: Shambhala, 2004), p. 49.


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