Photograph © Lisa Jane Persky
How equivocal the phrase is: it can mean to go on living, to let living go on, to keep it (living) alive, but also to keep it as one keeps something in the garage or in storage, to keep it secure under lock and key. All these uses and still others are possible. "What does it mean to keep living?" There's more than one way to answer the question.
Cultural anthropologists and paleoanthropologists suggest humanity has always divided around the question of how best to keep living. Look, they say, for instance, at the indispensable role storage practices played in the development of sedentary, agrarian societies. People really couldn't settle down in one place until they figured out reliable storage methods for the fruits of their labors. Because they don't store food in any quantity, hunter-gatherers have to keep moving to better hunting and foraging grounds. The anthropologist James Woodburn has made the distinction between "immediate return" and "delayed return" economies, terms he uses to classify foraging societies that consume their food within a day or two, as if there were no tomorrow, as distinct from social organizations that practice some kind of food storage. Most anthropologists agree that immediate-return societies are typically nonhierarchical and egalitarian, more egalitarian at any rate than delayed-return societies. Which suggests that social inequality couldn't really get a foothold until people developed a storage capacity.
Marx would no doubt be the last to disagree with that suggestion. He fulminates against the way what he calls primitive accumulation has been written off by other political economists as something as fated as original sin:
This primitive accumulation plays in Political Economy about the same part as original sin in theology. Adam bit the apple, and thereupon sin fell on the human race. Its origin is supposed to be explained when it is told as an anecdote of the past. In times long gone by there were two sorts of people; one, the diligent, intelligent, and, above all, frugal elite; the other, lazy rascals, spending their substance, and more, in riotous living... . Thus it came to pass that the former sort accumulated wealth, and the latter sort had at last nothing to sell except their own skins. And from this original sin dates the poverty of the great majority that, despite all its labour, has up to now nothing to sell but itself, and the wealth of the few that increases constantly although they have long ceased to work. (Karl Marx, Capital, Part 8, chap. 26, "The Secret of Primitive Accumulation")
In other words, there are ants and grasshoppers, your frugal elite and your lazy rascals. And that's the way it has been ever since Adam ate that apple instead of storing it up for a rainy day. So says his namesake Adam Smith, in a passage from The Wealth of Nations that Marx might have been thinking of:
There were some people that were hard working and some people who were not. Some people who could be bothered, and some people who could not be bothered. And the result of that was that, bit by bit, those who were hard w...read more