Rebels in Need of a Cause
Peter Kellow writes
In the men's room of a jazz pub in London, I used to frequent in the 1980s there was memorable piece of graffiti. It went:
“To be or not to be” – Shakespeare
“To do is to be” – Sartre
“Doo be doo be doo” – Sinatra
The joke is probably way out of fashion and I assume that one good reason for this is that today’s jazz pub goers would be less familiar with the ideas of French Philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre. After all, Sartre’s version of the philosophy of existentialism came to the fore in the 1950s in France and transferred to post war Britain as a philosophy of protest against the conformity that was still strong in western countries. It was taken up by the beatniks who formed a conspicuous alternative culture before the Sixties revolution came along.
Although never that well understood by the general public (unsurprisingly in view of the cultivated difficulty of most existentialist texts) awareness of it was sufficiently current for it to be subject to a fine Mickey take in Tony Hancock’s only feature length film The Rebel of 1961. In it Hancock styled himself as pretentious but talentless modern sculptor who fooled enough people to achieve success. He made a trip to Paris as the then artistic Mecca and duly ran into a group of existentialists – as you would. They were all clad from head to foot in black with turtle necks and tights. Hancock recounted his difficulties with conformity at home in suburban London and how everyone looked the same. “Imagine that” they exclaimed “everyone looking the same!”
I may be quite wrong but I suspect that fewer people today would get the reference leave alone understanding that existentialism was a philosophy of inner development and so differences between individuals are not defined on the exterior. The jazz pub graffiti similarly hit the nail on the head by caricaturing Sartre’s thought by the slogan “to do is to be”.
Sartre said that we should look at the world subjectively not objectively and in this he was expressing a radical twentieth century idea. In the nineteenth century people were inclined to see the real world scientifically and objectively as something “out there” in which we as individuals could play a part. Existentialism reversed this view and put forward the inner self as having the prior claim on reality. The point about “to do is to be” is that we only realise fully and “authentically” this sense of self by acting or “doing” in some way.
According to Sartre, whatever the physical and social situation we find ourselves in we still have ultimately complete freedom to act and we define ourselves by the way we exercise this freedom. Because the world at large has a lesser role in this vision, the actual nature of the act itself, as it involves the individual, is far more important than the impact we hope to have on the world. This bias meant that Sartre could flip-flop his political allegiances although he always remained of the left and for a time the Stalinist extreme left. Sartre is not remembered for his political philosophy and you feel it was barely developed. His choice of the Marxist left seems to be a lurch into the contemporary default anti-establishment setting more than a deeply held belief. For him, what mattered was that you just acted with reference to your inner compulsions. The effect of the actions was not the point.
The biggest demonstration of this impulse to action was in the 1968 student revolts in Paris when for a moment it seemed as if there was going to be a radical outcome, but it soon became apparent that there was no real political objective behind which the protesters could coalesce
The most extreme version of this interiorization of political action were the terrorist cells that became notorious – the Baader-Meinoff group in Germany and the Red Brigades in Italy. The killed and blew up people just because they believed actions were in themselves sufficient justification. The actions had a political meaning but no political programme.
But the idea of political action with only the vaguest of political objectives did not die in the 1970s, at least not in France, for French philosophy had an even more compelling and charismatic figure in Michel Foucault to carry on the fight. Foucault’s contribution was to persuade people that “knowledge is power” and by inversion the route to having power is by controlling knowledge and constructing the intellectual paradigms of the time. Behind Foucault’s voluminous writing is the sense of a brooding paranoia that ultimately makes him difficult to agree with and rather difficult to like. You feel that he is something of a maker of trouble for trouble’s sake. But he was continuing the existentialist tradition of insisting on the need for action and for action to be motivated you need something to kick against.
The heady days of such unfocused, if understandable, protest came to a halt during the 1980s when the world became much more directed towards economic problems and how to solve them. Society became more atomized and the Thatcherite philosophy of looking after number one started to permeate everything. Money seemed to dominate everything and if you did not get swept along there was the danger of being left behind. The shear competitive shift that society underwent from then and into the late noughties distracted many from the wider political issues. When demonstrations took place they were sharply focused as in the anti-Iraq war demonstration of 2003 or that of the Countryside alliance.
However things may be changing and we were given a little taste of the old self-motivated protest of the sixties in an interview on Newsnight. I am indebted to Adam Curtis writing in the Observer for the following:
At the end of March this year there was a wonderful moment of television interviewing on Newsnight. It was just after student protesters had invaded Fortnums and other shops in Oxford Street during the TUC march against the cuts. Emily Maitlis asked Lucy Annson from UK Uncut whether, as a spokesperson for the direct-action group, she condemned the violence.
Annson swiftly opened the door that leads to the nightmare interview, saying: "We are a network of people who self-organise. We don't have a position on things. It's about empowering the individual to go out there and be creative."
Ahh! So we are back at “to do is to be”. No direction. No objective. Just “go out there and be creative”. The “being creative” included attacking Fortnum and Masons, the up-market grocery store on Piccadilly.
"But is it wrong for individuals to attack buildings?" asked Maitlis.
"You'd have to ask that particular individual," replied Annson.
"But you are a spokesperson for UK Uncut," insisted Maitlis. And Annson came out with a wonderful line:
"No. I'm a spokesperson for myself."
“A spokesperson for myself” – here again, as in the fifties, political action becomes totally interiorized. I doubt whether Ms Annson was familiar with the existentialist programme of obeying inner compulsions but in her interview with Emily Maitlis there is a strong echo of this.
Of course, the demonstration in which Miss Annson participated did have a point as it was part of the protest against the government austerity programme and cuts. But without a wider programme such actions are in danger of losing direction and initiative. The media will all too easily forget as they have done with the student protests against fees. The good intentions and the energy behind the actions are to be admired but it is not clear what they will achieve. It is getting a bit too close to existentialism's protest for protest's sake.
Not that I would defer entirely from existentialism. On the contrary its development as a philosophy, to counter the crude search for objectivity that characterises much twentieth century thought, presents a lifeline to those looking for a deeper understanding of the human condition and the nature of reality. Its impact together with its sister philosophy of phenomenology is far from spent.
The problem comes when the emphasis on the self becomes the basis for “political” action. We cannot all just be “spokespersons for ourselves” who “self-organise”. That is a road to anarchy in the short term and failure in the longer term.
There is clearly strong feeling around at present about the way we are governed and the direction society is taking. We need to channel this feeling into a positive programme. More than that we need to recognize that some radical changes are necessary. Those who wish to tinker with the present political and economic systems will achieve precisely nothing.
Sartre was right to say that “doing” something is the way to feed a positive sense of our selves. What he talked less about was the importance of community and collective ideas. His radicalism was neither directed against justifiable targets nor towards realizable goals. The civic republicanism proposed in these newsletters would no doubt not satisfy his desire for extreme radicalism. I have no idea whether it would satisfy Lucy Annson, the Newsnight interviewee, but I hope that it would.
Recommended view of the week
The Story of Ayn Rand, the Apostle of Selfishness, and the Triumph of Cybereconomics
As with all Adam Curtis's documentaries a lot of the connections are dubious. But he picks up on historical themes that others ignore and so you come away informed even if not convinced. It is probably true that he puts style over content, but he makes television in the style of pre-reality show days. This is Part One.
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