This weekend something happened that profoundly altered the way I think about the world and our relationships with other people. The event itself, which I will not go into great detail about, involved a friend of mine who needed help, who just needed a friend. We have all been there — bad day and we just need someone to talk to — and we all know what it feels like to be in a situation where friends seem to be the only thing going right in the world. It astonished me how something this simple has such deep and philosophical roots; it goes so much deeper than simply being with a friend.
Existentialism is a school of thought centered around the idea that existence precedes essence. Our existence is meaningless and our lives, at the beginning, are a blank slate on which we can build ourselves, create ourselves, and give our own meaning to our lives. It is rather simple, nothing is planned out ahead of time, not by God or any divine being and there is no providence that influences or changes the course our life takes. The only thing that matters is us, what we choose, and how we choose to act. This school of thought was pioneered first by Friedrich Nietzsche (who boldly proclaimed “God is dead.”), then Martin Heidegger, and lastly Jean-Paul Sartre. In this blog post, I am going to take particular issue with Sartre and how he views humans in their natural state.
Born and raised in France, Jean-Paul Sartre became the modern face of existentialism throughout the 20th century. His work includes such foundational materials as “Being and Nothingness” and “Nausea.” However, the most famous and well known play he wrote was “No Exit,” and within this play is, arguably, the most famous line he penned: “Hell is other people.” According to him, human beings were naturally isolated beings, we do not posses any special inclination towards community or towards other people. In our natural state, when we are doing nothing else, we prefer to be alone. Simply put, human beings will always choose loneliness because being around other people is sheer hell — as he wrote in “No Exit.”
When I first began reading Sartre (and Marx), I gave this notion a lot of attention. As I read the classic texts written by Sartre, I could feel that he was going somewhere, I could feel myself choosing isolation over being with other people because I believed that is how we naturally are. However, that isn’t how we are.
The cruel reality of life is that the world stinks. It really does. War, poverty, oppression, and injustice are everywhere. People have become greedy, self-obsessed, and egotistical animals that seek to maximize their material possessions, even at the expense of everyone and everything else. We hear it constantly from older people who were born in the middle of the 20th century, “Back in my day we……” Yes, things have profoundly changed from decades ago and they have changed in the direction that makes the world a more hostile and dark place to live.
In this dark world, why would we choose to be alone? How could we choose to be alone? The simple answer? We don’t. It’s not how we are. We, as humans don’t choose to be alone, we choose to be with other people and experience the generous warmth of other people. We choose to have friends. We choose to be with family. We choose to wave and smile and talk to passersby on the street. That is who we are, we are naturally and inherently inclined to seek out the love from our fellow humans. We have all been there, most recently, for me, was this weekend when my friend needed help. In one way or another, we have all felt how awesome it is to have people in our lives who care and they are the people who make the journey through this life so much gentler. We cannot hope to emerge from this life unhurt unless we seek out people and build friendships with them.
That is how we are. We need people in our lives and we need the warmth and love they bring us. Sartre was wrong, hell isn’t other people; isolation is.
As usual, the first Friday of the month means a jobs report will be released from the federal government. Today, the Labor Department is reporting that the economy added 165,000 jobs in April, which brings the unemployment rate down to 7.5%, a four year low.
What does this mean? Well, it means that President Obama and Congressional Democrats are correct, and have been all along. In the wake of the most severe economic collapse since the 1920s, it is not enough to say that government will cut taxes and spend less. Reality is the exact opposite, less government involvement in the economy is what brought about the recession. Deregulated markets and unfettered capitalism plunged this country into recession and Republicans are still proposing those same failed and bankrupt policies (which they have been preaching for decades). In a time of recession, it is the job of government to pave the way for a recovery; its that simple. This newest jobs number vindicates the stimulus and every other investment by the government in its people.
Now, just imagine for a second that Republicans weren’t obstructionists in the most perfect and annoying sense of the word. President Obama’s countless jobs bills would have been passed and the unemployment rate would be much lower than it is now. Well, it’s something to hope for!
I am writing this from the United States of America, where on this International Workers’ Day, the union movement is failing, worker wages are down, and the brutal attack on the middle class and workers is taking on new strength akin to the Roaring 20s right before the Great Depression. By all objective measures, conditions for American workers are looking very grim. Even more grim is the brutal reality that, among advanced and industrialized nations, America is one of the most unequal. Wealth inequality is at its highest level in American history since the 1920s.
Yet, we are led to believe from those in the Obama Administration that things are getting better. I am not denying that the American economy has improved since President Obama took office. However, at some point our president needs to engage in a full frontal attack on America corporations and stop the endless assaults on American workers. He should stop by the Senate the next time Sen. Bernie Sanders or Sen. Elizabeth Warren are giving a speech. We need their brand of democratic socialism, not pragmatism that continues to benefit the uber rich.
All that said, I am very happy today. How could anyone who stands with workers possibly be happy today? Well, I will tell you.
I am a Marxist and, more specifically, a Democratic Socialist. At their core, the ideas of Marx are about hope. They were written by a man who enthusiastically believed that a better world lie ahead for workers. Every word written by Marx was written with a spirit of love, brotherhood, comradeship, and (yes) hope for a better world and better conditions for workers. This means embracing hope when everything around you is falling apart. Even if the plight of American workers is looking grim and even if wealth inequality is growing, there is still reason to hope. In fact, this hope can be most effective when it is being attacked on all sides. It is at those times that we really learn to embrace our hope and vision for a better world.
As did Marx believe, so do I; and that hope is the only thing keeping me smiling on this May Day. Things will get better, they must get better. They cannot get worse. We on the left, and those of us who still proudly wave the Marxian banner, must embrace Marx’s call for a better world and we must use his ideas to fight for this better world. In the ensuing insanity, we must embrace Marxism as a shining light and build a niche of sanity that will inspire us to continue fighting and to finish the fight.
I wish I could say it as well as my professor, but I cannot. Below is a quote from “Dialectics of Disaster,” by Dr. Ronald Aronson, a man with whom I have had the great privilege of studying under.
“If our final victory is not foreordained, neither is our defeat. And so we fight on, sometimes grimly but some times joyously. There are, after all, many reasons for joy. Our own self-empowerment, our learning to appreciate each half-step of victory, our experiencing the richness and depth of the we– these are some of the joys of struggle. We wish it were not so, but today the commitment to sanity, to truth, to humanity, to survival, means doing battle. Accordingly, we must learn to cultivate the pleasures of collective action.”
Similarly, we must take increased inspiration from Marx’s call to workers in the final lines of the “Communist Manifesto.”
“The Communists disdain to conceal their views and aims. They openly declare that their ends can be attained only by the forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions. Let the ruling classes tremble at a Communistic revolution. The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win. WORKERS OF THE WORLD, UNITE!”
Let that be our call today. Let that be our call forever. Solidarity and love to all my comrades. The fight goes on!