The triumph of Brexit and Trump is the lazy eye of a perfect storm—populist fears filling expanding cracks in our social contracts.
The world is going to hell, and it turns out Jean Paul Sartre almost got it right: Hell is other people(s). It starts as a lame joke: a pacifist, a lesbian and a murderer die and go to hell. But in Sartre’s wartime play, No Exit, the cruel joke is on them. There are no corporeal flames, only a conscious, and a conscientious, inferno: the intolerable and inescapable presence of others in life – and death. The pacifist realizes it well, “So this is hell... I’d never have believed it. You remember all we were told about the torture-chambers, the fire and brimstone, the ‘burning marl.’ Old wives’ tales! There’s no need for red-hot pokers. Hell is—other people!”
Sartre, an ardent atheist, believed there is “no exit” from this hell here on earth. More than seventy years later, a plurality of voting Britons and Americans begged to differ. Brexit and Trump’s election has all the markers of our age: clashes not merely of civilizations but of generations, of classes, of nations, of preferences. The young, the metropolitans and the well-off overwhelmingly opted for the liberal, tolerant, choice, and it wasn’t enough. But underneath the apparent divisions, a deeper divergence lurks, a mismatch between philosophies of life – existential anxieties, and their moral corollaries.
The People’s Return and Rousseau’s Revenge
When existentialism goes political, hell is not merely other people (read persons); it is also other peoples (read collectives). Populist leaders – like Erdoğan, Farage, Netanyahu, Putin, and Trump – get it, and the masses follow suit. Sure enough, liberals, and neo-liberals in particular, are quick to point out that people seek a healthy, wealthy, happy life. John Locke championed one’s natural rights to “preserve his property, that is, his life, liberty and estate,” so as to foster “a careful and constant pursuit of true and solid happiness.” British philosopher Isaiah Berlin called it “negative liberty,” the emancipation from external impediments, and extolled it as the pinnacle of liberalism.
But the Lockean social contract falls apart at the seams of human complexity. Yes, we want to own; yet we also want to belong. Politics is not just about adjudicating what we control. It is also about determining that masterful we, the coming together of people into a people, the crafting of a whole greater than the sum of its parts. People want peoplehood. Liberalism captures well the individual’s yearning for independence, but fails to grasp the equally powerful drive of belonging to a collective – and of protecting it. When fears mount, many people (re)turn to “the tribe”; and when the tribe ascends, other tribes are often seen as threats.
The Parting of Lot and Abraham mosaic from Santa Maria Maggiore
Whether ethnic, national or religious, the tribe runs deep precisely because it meets human needs, creeds, and admittedly, greed. Since the dawn of humanity, the tribe has helped us survive, feel safe, gain esteem and find love. But beyond a healthy, happy life, the tribe has also helped us alleviate alienation, a group therapy greatly in demand throughout modernity. Few understood this appeal of “the people” better than Jean Jacques Rousseau. Berlin, wary of the implications, warned of succumbing to the “positive liberty” of the Rousseauian social contract. Like Sartre, Berlin too took his cue from World War II, observing how readily the “general will” turns totalitarian and xenophobic, how “we the people” implies “us and them,” presaging “us vs. them.”
The liberal conclusion has since crystalized: tame the tribe. Turn those perilous peoples into civic, multicultural, cosmopolitan societies. Globalization, with the EU as its beloved offspring, should have fostered that vision. In practice, we should have foreseen, it also spurred the return of, and to, the tribe, which now strives to reclaim the state that sought to tame it. We could have consulted Friedrich Nietzsche. The “coldest of all cold monsters,” he called the state, “for this lie creepeth from its mouth: ‘I, the state, am the people [volk].’” The state Leviathan may profess to protect the people, but vainly speaks in its name. To grasp the electoral triumph of Brexit and Trump, and the global existential crisis both unearth, it is the people, not the state, we should listen to more closely.
The Politics of Fear and Freedom
And we hear fear, the voices of people favoring exit over coexistence. “It is worth reminding ourselves,” President Obama recently said, “of how lucky we are to be living in the most peaceful, most prosperous, most progressive era in human history.” Statistically lucky, perhaps, but in the minds of many, these best of times are the worst. It is thus not the revival of fears, but the dying of hopes, that should concern us most. Hell looks near when the Heavens disappear, dystopian visions superseding utopian.
Modern fears typically reveal what they seek to conceal: anxiety. Whether factual or fabricated, fears are concrete, concerning tangible threats. Anxiety is abstract, its origins elusive. Fearing for our “lucky” life veils anxiety about its meaning. We turn to survival instincts we share with all animals in order to run away from what makes us human: our freedom, the capacity to choose and to justify our choices. We scare ourselves to death when living loses meaning. Fear often triggers flight, but here fear itself becomes our flight – from freedom – and fight it we must.
Fight it we can, partly through thought. As our fears of other people – and peoples – mount, so will our wonder about the real value of what we desperately want to protect, about what “we, the people” stand for, as well as about what we are willing to die, and kill, for. Probing those questions through “Brexistentialism” takes its human hell from Sartre, but its illusive heavens are drawn by his frenemy Albert Camus. Opening The Myth of Sisyphus, he famously avers: “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy.” Here too, however, political existentialism requires an extension.
Norman Rockwell, "Freedom From Fear," 1943
The Demographic Triumph of the Tribe
There are in fact two truly serious philosophical questions: Why breathe? Why breed? This existential B&B asks us to justify the decision to continue living, once we become aware of the possibility of suicide, and to justify the decision to make new lives, once we recognize we don’t have to. The fact that more people are killed these days by their own hands than by others’, and that many – from Europe, to Russia to Japan – prefer not to bring children into this world, suggests that both quandaries now transcend the confines of philosophical musings. Indeed, the Arab Spring, at the heart of numerous crises in and beyond the Middle East, started with a suicide – the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi, a Tunisian street vendor – and the immigration crisis plaguing Europe closely resonates with its own demographic decline. This fateful hour of humanity depends on whether or not we dare to ask, and try to answer, these life and death questions.
Many shirk this daunting challenge. Those carrying the onus of reasoning life itself – both its conservation and creation – are tempted to answer one question with the other. Some breed to breathe; they bring children into this world to make their own world meaningful, their private life justifiable. Selfish alienation seemingly gives way to altruism, never mind it obeys the Selfish Gene’s imperative to propagate. Others breathe to breed; they stay alive in order to make children so that their own people abide, and thrive. Selfish alienation seemingly gives way to altruism, never mind it often comes at the expense of other peoples. Still others see no point in either breathing or breeding, and opt out. Numbers matter. For individualists considering having children, one or none may suffice. Not so for collectivists; the more, the merrier. Global demographics belong to the latter.
No love is lost between these rival perspectives. Collectivists swiftly grasp Gershom Scholem’s letter to Hannah Arendt following the publication of her Eichmann in Jerusalem. Scholem deplored her “heartless” tone, and denounced her for lacking “Ahabath Israel: ‘Love of the Jewish people’.” Individualists can counter with Arendt’s answer: “You are quite right… I have never in my life ‘loved’ any people or collective... I indeed love ‘only’ my friends and the only kind of love I know of and believe in is the love of persons.”
And yet, Peoples vs. Persons may overstate the case. Certainly, throughout modernity some cultures have favored one stance over the other. Most cultures, however, harbor both. In the wake of the Holocaust, many Jews turned to parenthood as a source of individual comfort and purpose, and concomitantly vowed to stay alive to ensure that the Jewish people survived – Hitler defeated. More recently, in a desperate bid to boost Denmark’s falling birth rate and sustain its generous welfare state, a TV campaign encouraged Danes to have more sex – and make children. “Do it for Mom!” it repeatedly pleaded, then briskly added, “Do it for Denmark!” Either way, it worked quite well. A Danish baby boom is now making new grandmas, as Denmark toughens its already-strict immigration laws. If humanity is destined for a clash of civilizations, the delivery room may be more desirable than the battlefield. But the strategy of turning wombs into weapons may easily go astray, as the chronicles of numerous ethnic conflicts attest. And it hardly bodes well for the West, and for liberalism.
No Exit – from Collectives and Coexistence
For English or Danish collectivists, multiculturalism opened the gates of hell for other peoples to enter. Perhaps so. By embracing negative liberty’s philosophy of “live and let live,” multiculturalism offers no raison d'être. By espousing political correctness, multiculturalism may have tamed power, but it also tarnished passions and persuasions. By professing a higher moral ground, multiculturalism remains ethically confused and confusing. After all, the most ardent multiculturalist would typically favor his own mother or son over someone else’s. Why, then, not extend your love for thy kith and kin to thy tribe? The seemingly sinister drums of blood, of belonging to what we didn’t choose, also apply to our parents and children.
Ultimately, for all its flaws, multiculturalism has no claws. At its heart, sans the presumptuous “ism,” a multicultural perspective is simply a depiction of humanity since time immemorial. Monocultural society is a dangerous delusion. There is no exit from coexistence, save death. If we choose life, it’s coexistence, not merely individual existence, we must accept, and try to justify.
The triumph of Brexit and Trump is the lazy eye of a perfect storm. It conjoins the hellish others with the torn self to conjure up existential angst as to the future of the UK, the US, the EU, and indeed the West. Antony Miall once noted that as far as “the English are concerned, all of life’s greatest problems can be summed up in one word – foreigners.” Their American decedents too may live up to the stereotype. Facing foreigners, both Britons and Americans, like the protagonist in The Eagles’s Hotel California, may have been thinking to themselves, “this could be Heaven or this could be Hell.” As they rush toward the exit, however, they may soon discover that “you can check-out any time you like, but you can never leave!”
But can we, ought we, choose to stay, willingly embrace coexistence with others? Perhaps it is too much to ask. After all, the tribe got us this far. It is precisely because we feel we belong to our people and fear others that we have managed to deflect and defeat dangers. It is only when we pause to think about the purpose of living, not merely of protecting and propagating it, that coexistence starts to make sense. Such meaningful coexistence – let’s deem it coexistenz – is not about turning the other cheek; it is about looking deep into each other’s eyes. Only then and there can we transcend, if momentarily, the transient individuals that we are, and start living up to our humanity. We could do worse than take a cue from Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. Helping Jim, the runaway slave, Huck increasingly feels guilty, a religious remorse for his defiance of the Church’s sacred teachings about Us and Them. So he sits and write a letter telling on Jim.
I felt good and all washed clean of sin for the first time I had ever felt so in my life, and I knowed I could pray now. But I didn't do it straight off, but laid the paper down and set there thinking—thinking how good it was all this happened so, and how near I come to being lost and going to hell. And went on thinking. And got to thinking over our trip down the river; and I see Jim before me all the time… But somehow I couldn't seem to strike no places to harden me against him, but only the other kind… and then I happened to look around and see that paper. It was a close place. I took it up, and held it in my hand. I was a-trembling, because I'd got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself: “All right, then, I’ll GO to hell”—and tore it up.