This tendency, to couch our privilege in terms of luck, breaks with the meritocratic myth that those who reap society’s highest rewards do so purely through their ingenuity, toil and virtue. Researchers have outlined the many faults in this belief system. And it can be particularly galling today, when the coronavirus pandemic has revealed with thundering finality that the world does not depend on the powerful and the celebrated so much as the earnest, anonymous workers — hospital support staffers, supermarket clerks, delivery people.
Recognizing the value of their work is a good thing. But replacing our meritocratic understanding with a luckocratic one is not the most meaningful way to do this. Ascribing things to luck does little to change the fact that our good fortune often depends on the misfortune of others. We need to find a language that better registers this relationship.
Counting one’s blessings is a healthy impulse, a way to acknowledge that our lives are, in part, products of circumstances beyond our control: being born into the right family, having talents that enable us to advance beyond our initial standing in the world. The gesture to luck grants that our individual success does not eradicate the underlying inequalities. We may be lucky to be doing well, but we feel the pain of those who are not.
Nevertheless, calling ourselves lucky incorrectly names the problem, and it (unwittingly) produces three feelings that undermine our intentions. First, it creates an individualist feeling (“I am the lucky one”), when what we actually need is a deeper appreciation of our social connections. Second, it produces an incapacitating feeling: If everything just comes down to luck, then there is not much to be done but hope for grace. These two feelings may be why a recent survey produced the paradoxical result that even as people care more about social solidarity since the coronavirus emerged, they are also more willing to accept luck as a justification for why some are doing better than others these days.
Finally, in a world where good fortune is said to determine who suffers and who is safe, the logic of luck can also lead to a corrosive feeling, making us more conniving rather than more connected. Because we may at any moment fall prey to good or bad fortune, we had better have as much power and stability as we can to stave off any turns in fate. It is not a coincidence that Machiavelli wrote extensively about luck. In “The Prince,” with dreadful misogyny, he advised: “It is better to be impetuous than cautious, because Fortuna is a woman and it is necessary, in order to keep her under, to beat and maul her.” Acknowledging our luck may provoke these Machiavellian extremes.
Those who speak about luck as a critique of meritocracy are trying to express the understanding that humanity is inextricably interdependent; that our own success means very little if our loved ones and neighbors are falling ill or plunging into poverty. But if that is the case, then where is our good fortune? I may be spared by the plague, but I am not lucky to live in a world where so many others were not. I may still have an academic job after the downsizing of higher education, but it is unfortunate that it comes at the expense of my colleagues.
Instead of speaking of being lucky, then, we should use a language closer to the truth of the matter. In tragic human-caused circumstances, such as after a genocide, the political scientist Robert Meister has encouraged us to think about what he calls the “beneficiaries” of the tragedy. These are the people who did not directly commit acts of violence but profited materially from the system and, in many cases, continue to do so. The pandemic is creating new kinds of beneficiaries — the perpetrator is both natural (the virus) and human-made (inequality). Any serendipity we feel right now maps onto Meister’s logic: “The time after evil (and before justice) is . . . a time when beneficiaries feel lucky.” Taking a step toward justice is to move from acknowledging our luck to recognizing that we are beneficiaries.
In that spirit, let me say that I do not consider myself lucky. I do not believe I am lucky to have health care. I do not believe I am lucky to be able to receive food and packages without contact at my door. I do not believe I am lucky to have a teaching job for at least another year. I am, rather, a beneficiary of the wretchedly uneven health and income system that has enabled me to safely keep my distance. I am a beneficiary of a logistics network that forces some to work to bring me my food, even though it puts them in drastically increased danger. I am a beneficiary of someone else not having my job and thus living a life of greater precarity, even though he or she surely works just as hard as I do. There is no luck here. There is only being spared for no good reason.
Being lucky is the opposite of being a beneficiary of another’s demise. We can be truly lucky only when we live in a world where we are all called upon equally and justly to do our part. We can be lucky when we have competent leaders, adequate health care and shared risk to maintain the essentials. We can be lucky when we live neither in a luckocracy nor a meritocracy, but a genuine democracy, where everyone, regardless of chance, is guaranteed the rights necessary for a secure and meaningful life. We can be lucky only when all of us can be lucky, when luck accedes to its proper place in our lives: as momentary grace that came at no one’s expense.