Species-Being

By Sophie Williams

Art by Julia Lee



WHAT IS SPECIES-BEING?

Species-being is a philosophical proposition about the essential being that characterizes the human species. It focuses on two main concepts: human nature and alienation. It conjectures that it is human nature to labor spontaneously and productively, but that under capitalism, laborers are alienated from the products of their labor (which belong, instead, to their employer) and therefore from their own nature.

Let’s explain this more directly, beginning with human nature.

HUMAN NATURE

The character of a species is displayed in its life activity — that is, what it does with its life. For animals, there is no distinction between their self and their life activity. A bear, for example, eats berries, hibernates, and watches its cubs; in short, it simply “acts on its external world to maintain its physical existence.”[1] When animals produce things like beaver dams, bird nests, or beehives, “they do it in pursuit of the immediate needs of themselves or their offspring.” The beehive is a magnificent and beautiful creation. But still! The bee produces not creatively, but by instinct and for necessity. But human beings produce “even when we are free from immediate need,” and because we can step back and reflect abstractly on what we do, “we aren’t strictly determined in our behavior.” As Marx writes in Capital: “What distinguishes the worst architect from the best bee is this: the architect raises the structure in imagination before erecting it in reality. At the end of every labor process, we get a result that already existed in the imagination of the laborer,” well before the manual work ever began.[2]

Like God created Man in God’s own image, so humans create in our own self-image, turning our imaginations and reflections into objectified products. This is our life activity. Look at astronomy and astrology, writing and painting and sculpting and weaving, storytelling and language, philosophy and science and engineering and architecture. This “free and productive activity” encompasses our species-being.

SOCIAL CREATURES

Human nature is not static and impermanent, and our activity inevitably changes as history progresses and contexts change. However, if there is any really universal aspect of the human species, it is social activity.

The COVID-19 pandemic lays bare the stir-crazy isolation people experience after losing their jobs or switching to online work or school, seeing people only through a laptop screen. Depression and anxiety symptoms have drastically increased, even for those lucky enough to have a safe home and enough to get by, and the year-long loss of social communities is highly tangible to most. Animals “are not conscious of themselves as a member of a species, but exist only in the immediacy of their individual lives, whereas human beings have the capacity for… self-consciousness.”[3] We understand ourselves as part of humanity broadly, both historically and in the moment. Early humans depended on being social creatures, banding together to hunt and survive, forming rituals and building entire civilizations, developing language to communicate, evolving our very ability to think with built-in linguistic brain structures (to paraphrase O’Shae again).

The ideology of capitalism assumes that people are fundamentally self-interested and individualistic, and that “social solidarity is not the basis by which we get by.” But Marx suggests that this self-centered, wealth-obsessed individual is the product of the conditions of capitalism, not the fundamental being of humanity. It is not entirely alien — there is also a human desire to pursue greed and status — but capitalism “preys on and incentivizes the lesser angels of our nature.” The quarantine period also demonstrates how naturally creative and productive people are and want to be. If we have the time to “paint, dance, and experience things,” we create and produce, even without the so-called incentive structure of a mere sustenance wage.[4] The lazy person is the result of not their inherent laziness, but their exhausting, alienating workday.

In sum, species-being is a humanist take that says, “humanity is a social species that objectifies the surrounding world through labor, because we are just beings that labor.” While this essentialism can’t be proven or disproven, it is a cogent assumption that is extremely relatable to humans living under an economic system of capitalist alienation.

With that, let’s briefly explain alienation.

ALIENATION

It can be a lengthy, clumsy process to explain in words, but the experience of alienation of labor, and (if labor is our nature as homo sapiens), consequent alienation from ourselves, each other, and our entire species, is no secret. Franz Kafka illustrates it in his 1915 novella The Metamorphosis: a working man with no interest in life wakes up as a giant insect with no interest in life and withers away to his death (after evading a few housecalls from his supervisor just double-checking that the insect really can’t come into work today). Kafka’s “monstrous vermin” is capitalism’s twisted caricature of a human being, a life where being physically ill (or becoming a huge fucking bug) is a welcome alternative to attending another nine hours of your lifeblood-sucking job.

Under capitalism, the working class has nothing to sell but their labor. They use their productive labor power to create value, a portion of which is returned to them in the form of wages, which are used to purchase the means of living. Profit wouldn’t exist if workers received the full value they create. The other portion of that value is kept by the capitalist/owner, who owns the means of production and a sum of other private property. The owner rents out the worker’s time and energy to keep producing, and the worker is dependent on the owner’s redistribution of wages to keep living. Capitalism changes “necessity” for the worker from “human thriving” to “the bare bones minimum for survival.” Meanwhile, necessity for the capitalist becomes the accumulation of wealth that is more immense and luxurious than could be used in a thousand lifetimes.

As said in Estranged Labor from the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, "The product of labor is [intangible] labor embodied in a [physical] object; the objectification of labor." Because, under capitalism, the worker doesn't own the materials, factory, tools, or other means of producing the product — nor the product, once it is produced — this "realization of labor is a loss of realization for the workers." Jobs take up the majority of time awake: the worker's "life no longer belongs to him but to the [owner of the] object" he creates. Here, “the height of this servitude is that only as a worker can he maintain himself as a physical subject, and is it only as a physical subject that he is a worker.” In other words, he needs to labor for wages to attain his food and shelter. Moreover, he doesn’t freely imagine a product in his mind's eye and creatively pursue it (as is our species-being), but completes a small portion of the process for a product that wasn't imagined by and doesn't belong to him, but to another. Being robbed of creativity and sustenance leads to “the loss of his self.”

To paraphrase more of Estranged Labor: nature provides us with the ability to labor by providing the raw materials (wood, water, ivory, et cetera) to labor on. Nature also provides the physical subsistence of the worker — food and water, air and lungs and a heartbeat, the ability to sleep and eat, the desire to create, and a body to do it with. So what "constitutes the alienation of labor? … [This wage labor] does not develop freely his physical and mental energy, but mortifies [i.e. self-sacrifices] his body and ruins his mind.... It is forced labor. It is not the satisfaction of a need; it is merely a means to satisfy needs external to it,” to buy groceries and pay rent.

In sum: “As a result, man (the worker) only feels himself freely active in his animal functions — eating, drinking, procreating … and in his human functions [that is, labor] he no longer feels himself to be anything but an animal,” mechanically and habitually addressing the immediate physical need. Eating and procreating “are also genuinely human functions. But taken abstractly, separated from the sphere of all other human activity and turned into sole and ultimate ends, they are animal functions.” And so, labor is estranged.

Feeling only free in our animal functions — whether that be at work while on our lunch break or on the toilet, or at home in the shower or in bed — is easily recognizable to anyone doing any labor they are compelled to do. But playing music, working out, cooking, welding, painting, gardening, building a fence, fishing — these pursuits, when done freely and creatively, make us feel human again.

THE CONCEPTUAL USEFULNESS OF SPECIES-BEING

Because species-being is a humanist theory that relies on appeals to moral standards of some universal, trans-historical human essence, it can’t be the core component of any critique of capitalism. (That is, merely the existence of conditions that are unethical and harmful to human life wouldn’t make capitalism a contradictory system on course to be overturned like the feudal system was; it could be both unethical and non-contradictory.) Species-being describes the experience of capitalism, but it isn’t the best argument against it. However, as a supplement to the logical, practical, scientific social critique found in further-developed theory, species-being is perfect.[5]

Species-being is a good combatant to other humanist arguments — namely, the bold assertion that “capitalism is just human nature” (and that any collaborative economic system is antithetical to it). It evokes the lived experience of capitalism, something extremely relatable to almost any working or worked person, and offers hope that it doesn’t have to be like this.

I imagine that, absorbed ideology aside, many people who praise capitalism with no intentions of moving past it have never experienced being anything but upper-class. This reality is heightened at “elite” places like Dartmouth, where forty-five percent of the student body is from the top five percent of the wealth distribution — in other words, wealthier than 95% of people.[6] As such, being split from the necessity of working simply to exist in the world, many people have never fully experienced alienation.

This isn’t an accusation or an insult. I was born to generational wealth — a member of the petit bourgeois, the regular bourgeoisie, the ruling class, the owning class, those making over $75,000 a year, those who “have enough money” or “life comfortably” or however you think best describes the social group that is decidedly not working for a wage. (Classin this economic analysis is about relation to the means of production — who owns it, and who doesn’t own it but owns only their labor — not necessarily status. A small business owner may be a member of the bourgeoisie while a professional athlete making millions could still be a member of the proletariat.) This also has nothing to do with work ethic, but simply the fact that not needing a constant job is an entirely different experience than that faced by most of the world’s people. If alienation doesn’t sound real, you might not be naturally equipped to identify with the worker’s plight.

And yet — something so compelling about species-being is that almost no one is immune to this alienation. Even the most successful people in the most privileged positions buy into the trappings of work-hard, play-hard hustle culture. They become beholden to the dollar and the accumulation of massive wealth; just watch the Paris Hilton documentary to see this addictive, corrosive quality on heartbreaking display.[7]

CREATIVES

(as in, photographers, singer-songwriters, YouTube fashion bloggers, actors, pianists, and so on)

“Creative” is a catch-all for all the arts — drawing and painting, writing stories or poetry or even research papers, playing instruments and singing and dancing, skating and running, gaming and reading. These “creative arts” are only practiced full time by a lucky few exceptions able to successfully monetize these pursuits. We fall victim to the stereotyping, “starving artist,” “What are you going to do with that Film and Classics degree?” mentality because the practical situation of capitalism threatens to make it true. But people still create, and not with the aim of making a mass profit, even if they are compelled to desperately monetize any and all creative activity to stay alive and fed. Most painters aren’t wealthy, but they still paint.

It’s no surprise that we feel personally close to celebrities, musicians, actors, writers, poets, athletes, designers, videographers, directors, and artists. And as their lifework is their creative labor (even if it’s topsy-turv-ily rigged as their livelihood as well), it’s even less surprising that we want to idolize them. We recognize the realization of the human species in them. They exemplify our nature as homo sapiens to labor freely and creatively — at least on first impression.

Late one night, I was reading this interview SZA did with Rolling Stone. (Sometimes I wonder if Spare Rib is an intersectional feminist student magazine or a SZA fan club.) In one paragraph, it was midnight. She was getting on a plane at 6 a.m. bound for a recording studio at Rick Rubin’s house in Kauai, taking only t-shirts and her chakra singing bowls. Later, after the trip, she met the interviewer again to share how she spent her trip: making music, making food, and swimming alone at night, seeing a sea turtle under the stars. As I read, a sense of affection came over me, and I felt grateful that her monetary musical success gave her this life, which seems full of self-actualization. In return, we non-creatives get her music. It gives us solace throughout our daily lives. Even if we have little time to really find out what we’re passionate about or good at due to compulsive lifelong hyperfocus on a “career,” we have the auditory result of night swims and day recording sessions in Kauai. The main point of this late night introspection: I want more people to have chances to live like that, even if they’re not exceptional at anything.

I was thinking, too, about what makes life meaningful — creative exertion and social interaction, not the pursuit of wealth or status. As put by Breht O’Shae, “People get fame and money and they go crazy, realizing they’ve been lied to about the path to happiness.” The article carried on. SZA says she’s still “always shocked that people are there” when she steps onstage to perform, and the interviewer notes her “external curiosity and inward-facing thoughtfulness” that glows through her lyrics, melodies, and speaking voice. The interview also got into some “intense personal losses.”[8] It felt intimate, but at points also felt invasive, misleading, and downright exploitative. She’s selling her labor just as well, and literally selling herself, too. After the Rolling Stone content was released, SZA wrote on her Twitter account that she wasn’t doing any more photoshoots, videos, or interviews. I can understand why.

IN CONCLUSION

I heard something at a church recently. I keep thinking about it. The speaker talked about all the things we do — for faith, or family, or friends, or work, or recreation; what we think we should do, what we want to do, what we have done and what we will do. Then they said, “Are you a human doing, or a human being?”

We’re only supposed to be human beings. We don’t need to “make a living” — our living is made with our mere existing aliveness, and yet, that aliveness is put in jeopardy when people can only maintain their physical existence as workers. Even the phrase “make a living” exemplifies how our species-being is turned upside-down.

Realize that much of the pressure of our lives is antithetical to our nature, and it is only natural to feel lost, lazy, overworked, and alienated from ourselves, our lives, and each other. Embrace free and creative labor whenever you can… and try to find some haven in the philosophy that our nature is probably pretty beautiful.






[1] O'Shae, Breht, and CommieCon. "Defending Socialism: Human Nature and the Nightmare of History." Libsyn.com (audio blog), January 4, 2021. https://revolutionaryleftradio.libsyn.com/commiecon.

[2] Marx, Karl, and Friedrich Engels. 1967. Capital; a critique of political economy. New York: International Publishers.

[3] O'Shae, “Defending Socialism.”

[4] Escalante, Alyson, and Breht O'Shae. 2021. “Intro to Political Economy.” Audio blog. Red Menace on Libsyn (blog). January 31, 2021. https://redmenace.libsyn.com/political-economy.

[5] O'Shae, Breht, and Alyson Escalante. 2020. “Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 - Karl Marx.” Audio blog. Red Menace on Libsyn (blog). March 31, 2020. https://redmenace.libsyn.com/economic-and-philosophic-manuscripts-of-1844-karl-marx.

[6] The Upshot, 2017. “Economic Diversity and Student Outcomes at Dartmouth College.” The New York Times, 2017. https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/projects/college-mobility/dartmouth-college.

[7] Dean, Alexandra, dir. 2020. This Is Paris: The Real Official Paris Hilton Documentary. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wOg0TY1jG3w&ab_channel=ParisHilton.

[8]Carmichael, Emma. 2020. “The Rebirth of SZA.” Rolling Stone, February 26, 2020. https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-features/sza-interview-new-music-950364/.