The Chinese and Vietnamese nationals found dead in a container in England were ultimately victims of a society where people are objectified for profit, writes Vittorio Bufacchi.
THIRTY NINE people suffocated in the refrigerator unit of a truck, in temperatures as low as -25C (-13F), this week. But desperation was the real cause of their deaths.
The misery and hopelessness of these 31 men and eight women, from China and Vietnam, induced them to pay a lot of money to risk death in pursuit of a more dignified existence in the West. (Their bodies were found in a truck in Essex, in England, the container having arrived from Belgium.)
They were unlucky. The lucky ones are their fellow nationals who made this trip before them, and who are now being exploited for a pittance, with their full consent, in our rich, Western economies.
The driver of the truck has been charged with multiple counts of manslaughter. The owner of the truck has been questioned. But they are small fish.
What killed these 39 people is the global ideology we know as neo-liberalism, which claims that social justice is a mirage, the free market is a moral imperative, and the state should not interfere with the private sphere.
In our neo-liberal society, the market reigns supreme, and we know that markets are fuelled by the craving for profit.
Our society admires and rewards people who are rich, and as night follows day, people will do anything to make a profit. And there is a lot of money to be made in human trafficking.
The problem with unregulated free-market capitalism is that everything has a price.
Neo-liberalism is much more than an economic system; it is also a social, cultural, and moral paradigm, grounded on competition and greed, private interests and profits.
In our neo-liberal society, people are objectified for the sake of profit, or, as the German philosopher Karl Marx said, humans are degraded to the most miserable sort of commodity.
It is only when we read of the brutal, shocking, shameful deaths of these 39 foreign nationals that we are reminded of the extent to which neo-liberalism has gradually stripped us of our human dignity.
Writing in 1785, Prussian German philosopher Immanuel Kant reminded us that things either have a price or they have a dignity, and the moment we give them a price, we take away their dignity.
It may be morally acceptable to put a price on a car, or a house, or a book, but not on a person. People have dignity, or at least should be treated with dignity, which is why a human being “is raised above all price”.
We have forgotten this basic moral lesson, since, today, everything and everyone has a price.
Those 39 people had a price, and thus were not treated with dignity. The global reaction to their deaths has been disbelief and indignation, but why should anyone be surprised by the fate of these human beings?
The only reason we know about them is because something went wrong. Neo-liberalism and human trafficking share the same logic.
In 2004, 21 Chinese, illegal immigrant labourers were drowned by an incoming tide while picking cockles in Morecambe Bay, in north-west England.
We have not learned anything from that tragedy, 15 years ago.
And thousands of souls die every year making a similar journey from North Africa to southern Europe, seeking what another German philosopher Hannah Arendt called ‘the right to have rights’.
Today, we are saddened, but by tomorrow we will have forgotten, until the next tragedy of human trafficking makes headline news.
And even if some individuals are eventually brought to justice over this terrible affair, nothing will change.
Much more radical reforms are needed: our moral culture needs to change, our social philosophy needs to change, and our expectations of what constitutes a good life need to change, starting with the recognition that neo-liberalism is a brutal, lethal ideology.
Dr Vittorio Bufacchi is senior lecturer in philosophy at University College Cork, and author of Social Injustice (Palgrave); www.vittoriobufacchi.com