The “good” of humanity
July 17, 2013 § Leave a comment
We read, go to the cinema, play at cards & love, joke about earning while worrying about it veritably, & all the while the social question gnaws at us. It divides our responsibility & is, at least partially, the source of our human conflict. The There is more suffering than I can bear thinking leads one into existential hermitage. Here, all responsibility for suffering is brought upon the individual (exempt from social responsibility), philosophy is preferred to politics, the exterior world is not something in which we are a speck but a false backdrop.
For these reasons, existentialism tends to be associated with youthful brashness, defence technology.
It starts with the self. The idea of the self is an invention, whether we accept Foucault’s claim that it is two centuries old (in the opening pages of The Order of Things), trust narratological representation of individuality which generally suggests individualism to have been invented in sixteenth century Spain & France, or adhere to a more Kierkegaardian perspective that it is a product of the Christian assertion of the soul.
There is probably some continuity between the idea of the soul & that of the self. Both propound a centre of percipience lodged within, yet not quite of, the body[…] In these ideas of soul & self there is a dualism of self-consciousness that forms, [Irving Howe in his 1990 Tanner Lecture on Human Values] believe[s], a historical advance. & there is a similar link between the idea of the self & modern notions of alienation, since both imply a yearning for — with knowledge of a usual separation from — a “full” or a “fulfilled” humanity, unfractured by contingent needs. (205)
The pertinence of the Judaeo-Christian invention claim is in the notion of salvation: that there should exist an eternal, unchanging part of the self which we can cling to. This comes with the double-edged side-effect of “a social & moral claim. A claim for space, voice, identity. A claim that man is not the property of kings, lords, or states. A claim for the privilege of opinion, the freedom to refuse definitions imposed from without” (210). These we readily associate with our basic human rights & the foundation of the United States, based on the same Christian doctrine. Capitalism is its adopted child.
The historical advance, or premonition, of the country & its economy was necessarily to settle on the masturbatory ‘invisible hand’ of self-interest once individualism was privileged. This individual has no ideal, only the condition of being a choice-maker. We exist in time & space, we must do something with these resources [inertia, too, is a choice]. Time & space are our common inheritance. The individual is the thing that is in possession of these commodities, responsible for their utilization & their protection. Howe has called this the “social & moral claim” of individuals; he believes that the idea of the self is the ultimate step toward true liberty.
I must disagree, taking up another strand Howe only glosses over: “The self carries the brand of alienation, the consciousness of consciousness” (218). At the same time, individualism brings about its opposite, dehumanization. Its coronation ensures the hegemony of capitalism — the only economic suppliant of individualism — a system based on the commodification of all goods, including the human as good [“human resources”]. This question is of particular importance during war-times when the resource of a body becomes carnally literal. It was during such times, at the beginning of the last century, that our present models were being revised & enforced. Life had to be rethought, the wounded rehabilitated, the oppressors educated, the disturbed taught to forget in the aftermath. The private tales of these people share a narrative arc with one another & with the myth of capitalism of reinvention. To survive outside the trenches, they had to create a marketable self. It was seen that although chaos cannot be avoided, it can be lived in. These are the two major conditions that made capitalism feel like the naturally superior choice.
The alternative was much grimmer. “Totalitarian movements arise in a soil of decomposition, such as the decomposition of bourgeois society in the early decades of th[e last] century, partly as a consequence of an unprecedented pace of social change leading to spiritual disaffection, widespread anomie, & extreme social confusion” (235). The masses are rallied in times of lack of consciousness (self- & social-) which give the quality of value to life, &, ultimately, make a people choose to defend their freedom — their time & space resources. Embracing totalitarianism is a forfeit of individual responsibility, a resignation to fate.
Existentialism appears from the gloom as a reaction against totalitarian states; it is a war cry against submission. As a theory it works, is complete, but only when applied to an individual living alone in an undiscovered land. We would be wrong to judge the subjects of totalitarianism on existential grounds. “What may seem the apathy of people held down by oppressive regimes & forced to keep chanting & marching also contains a streak of good sense, of saving skepticism, or rudimentary resistance” (243). Apathy is a yet another defence technology, the one responsible for the perseverance of the world: “it turned out that history did not end, it just dragged on” (248).
There is no ethical ground here. In either case, only self-preservation & the survival instinct are at play. The social question remains unresolved — to our knowledge, we can only contribute the addition that the social question is a luxury. The idea of goodness is perfectly subjective. The good of humanity can only be discussed in its economic definition; people are the forces of production [philosophically, people are inessential, unnecessary]. They cannot be separated from the labor question or, its sister curiousity, method.