Who am I?

Anthony Hatzimoysis explains why existentialism is still a highly influential philosophical movement

Existentialism is a rare philosophical breed: a theory that prioritises not lofty abstraction but responsible action. Arguably the most influential philosophical movement of the past century, existentialism is currently re-gaining the attention of people who take seriously the complexity of human life in its personal, cultural, and political context.

What makes the existentialist mode of thinking so attractive is that it respects two important needs of human beings: first, the need to understand our own experience of the world; secondly, the need to act in a way that best reflects our genuine beliefs and desires. Both of these issues require careful analysis, which can proceed only by steering clear off the various stereotypes attached to existentialist thinkers. It might thus be helpful to state not only what existentialism is, but also - and, perhaps, most importantly - what existentialism is not.

At a very basic level of discussion, existentialism asserts that existence is irreducible to thought: the world is not the creation of a web of ideas, and depends for its existence on no design, human or divine. As such, all entities are ‘contingent,’ since they form part of a reality which exists without necessity or reason, and ‘gratuitous,’ as they lack justification, and serve no purpose: they simply are. Among the many naturally existing entities, there is one type of entity that has the distinctive capacity of not only being aware of the rest of the world, but of being aware of its own awareness.

A human being is characterised by the fact that he is conscious of his conscious engagement with reality. That self-conscious dimension creates a distance from his own self, that is necessary for setting and answering questions about the meaning of one’s engagement with the world. Sometimes, existentialists put this point by saying that a human being is a being for whom his very being (his existing, his thinking, his feeling, or his acting) is in question.

At other times, a similar point is made by claiming that, in contradistinction to other entities, what oneself is, is always an issue for oneself. All other natural things are what they are by realising a pre-determined, pre-existing, pre-conceived type of being – a pine chair is a pine chair because it came to be as a thing of a particular material, shape and form, that would function precisely as a sitting device. Ordinary things obey the law of identity: every thing is identical to itself. Not so for human beings.

According to existentialism, my awareness of myself - the fact that I am conscious of my (past) history, my (present) concrete situation, and my (future-directed) intentions - means that no attempt to fix my being along some one characteristic can ever succeed. I am always more than what a theoretical account attributes to me, not because there are no ‘facts’ about my self – of course there are various physiological, economic, social and other facts about me – but because how I relate to that fact about me is, in an important sense, up to me.

The situation in which I find myself, however hospitable or adverse might be, cannot impose a character on me; rather it is the way I stand towards the situation, the specific patterns of understanding, feeling and responding towards it that makes me the person I am.

Therefore, the question of ‘who I am’ is not answered by pointing to some fixed, a-historical, abstract ‘essence’, but by interpreting adequately the ways in which I experience and interact with the world.

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Labour can be populist and English without copying Donald Trump

There's nothing deplorable about discussing the common interests of the people.

As Labour’s new populism gears up for Copeland and Stoke-on-Trent, it will be tested on voters who are, by a significant measure, more likely to see themselves as English. In the 2011 census, both constituencies scored "English" identity nearly 10 per cent higher than the English average and still 5 per cent higher than England outside of London.

It’s no surprise that both Ukip and the Tories have polled well in these places. In the 2015 general election there was strong correlation between feeling "English", or feeling "more English than British", and voting Ukip and Conservative. Indeed, amongst the "English not British" Ukip took about a third of the votes across England, and the Tories a fifth. Labour lagged below 15 per cent.

Labour’s problems may be getting worse. A recent YouGov poll, commissioned by the Centre for English Identity and Politics at Winchester University, showed "Englishness" gaining at the expense of "Britishness" in the year of Brexit. At the extremes, "English not British" rose by 5 per cent (from 14 per cent to 19 per cent), with ‘British not English’ falling by a similar amount. If past relationships hold, these voters will become harder for Labour to reach.

Although most people in England would favour an English Parliament, or English MPs alone voting on English issues, these have not yet become the political demands of an explicit nationalism as we might find in Wales, Scotland or Catalonia. Indeed, there’s no actual evidence of a direct link between feeling English and the way people vote. It well be that the underlying factors that make someone feel English are also those that incline them, overwhelmingly, to vote Brexit or to support Ukip.

We may identify the drivers of English identity - the declining power of the idea of Britain, the assertiveness of devolution, rapid migration and the EU - but we know little about the idea of England than lies behind these polls. There’s almost certainly more than one: the England of Stoke Central imaginations may not be identical to the Twickenham RFU car park on international day.

One of the most persistent and perceptive observers of alienated working class voters sheds some light on why these voters are turning towards their English roots. According to The Guardian’s John Harris:

"When a lot of people said ‘I’m English’, they often meant something like, ‘I’m not middle class, and I don’t want to be…. I’m also white, and coupled with the fact that I’m working class, I feel that somehow that puts me at the bottom of the heap, not least in the context of immigration. But I am who I am, and I’m not apologising for it.'" People who said "I’m English" seemed to be saying, 'I’m from somewhere' in a ways that politicians and the media did not."

Given Labour’s history in seats where support is ebbing away, it’s reasonable to think that the party’s target must be the voters who Martin Baxter of Electoral Calculus describes as "left-wing nationalists". In this definition, "left-wing" attitudes tend to be be anti-capitalist, hostile to business, generous on benefits, support the welfare state and redistributive taxation. "Nationalist" attitudes are seen as isolationist, against immigration, disliking EU freedom of movement, thinking British means "born here" and that Britons should be put first.

For many in Labour, those nationalist attitudes might bring "a basket of deplorables" to mind.  In recent days both the Corbyn left, and centrist MPs like Alison McGovern and Wes Streeting, have warned against meeting these voters’ concerns. Progressive Labour populists must also calm those fears. But Labour will be doomed as a party of government it it can’t reach these voters (even if it does hang on in the forthcoming by-elections). The obstacles are formidable, but with the right language and framing, Labour may find an appeal that could cut through without alienating the party's more liberal support.

Just acknowledging that England, and the English, exist would be a start. The reaction to Birmingham mayoral candidate Sion Simon’s appeal to England in a campaign tweet simply emphasised how much of Labour prefers to say Britain, even when they mean England. We don’t need a swirl of St George crosses at every event; we just need to use the word in normal everyday conversation. At least we would sound like we live in the same country.

The defiant cry to be recognised and heard should trigger another Labour instinct. The demand that the nation should be run in the common interests of the people runs deep through radical history. Jeremy Corbyn reached for this with his talk of "elites rigging the system". But no ordinary English conversation ever talks about elites. Instead of "mini-me Trumpism", English Labour populism needs careful framing in the language of day-to-day talk. Labour's target should be not be the wealthy per se, but those powerful people whose behaviour undermines the national interest and by doing so undermines the rest of us.

This language of national interest, both conservatively patriotic and politically radical, meets the mood of the moment. The select committee challenges to Amazon, Google, Philip Green and Mike Ashley struck a chord precisely because they revealed something deeply true and unpleasant about this land. We can defend the national interest without invoking a racist response. Why are our railways sold to other governments, and our companies sold abroad for quick profit? Why should it be easier for a foreign gangster to buy a house in Surrey, and hide their ownership overseas, than for an English family to get their own home?

By asking what any change means to the people of England, we might bridge the divide on immigration. If the impact of migration is exacerbated by the pressure on housing and service, let Labour make it clear that the rate of immigration should not exceed the pace we can build homes for those already here, as well as any newcomers. The government must be able to expand services to meet additional needs. If every policy should work in the interests of the people of England, migration which improves our services, creates jobs and grows the economy is to be welcomed. It is hard to see a genuine liberal objection to posing the migration challenge in that way. With the exception of refugees, immigration policy cannot be designed to benefit the migrant more than the resident.

Let the test of every policy be whether it works in the interests of the people of England, or works only for a few. That’s a simple test that would appeal to widely shared values. It could be the foundation of a genuine Labour populism that speaks to England.

 

John Denham was a Labour MP from 1992 to 2015, and a Secretary of State 2007 to 2010. He is Director of the Centre for English Identity and Politics at Winchester University