Irrationalism, immoralism, individualism

Anthony Hatzimoysis explores notions of individualism, rationality and moral psychology in the work

Every human being exemplifies a most interesting paradox: I am not what I am (I am not merely a ‘business associate’, an ‘Anglican priest’, or a ‘barman’), while I am what I am not yet (all those minor or major projects - such as buying on Saturdays a particular paper, saving the Earth, watching the next episode of ‘Lost’, or fostering close relationships with my partner and friends - which give me a sense of identity in terms of the kind of life I am leading). The existentialist approach implies that we are responsible for many more things than we usually like to think. Indeed, there is nothing of what we do, think, or, even, feel, that just ‘happens to us’.

The extent and importance of personal responsibility for the way we both ‘read’ and ‘respond’ (emotionally or practically) to a situation is one aspect that is often missed in popularised accounts of existentialist thinking. It is thus worth dispelling the view that existentialism is guilty by association to the three ‘I’-s: Irrationalism, Immoralism, Individualism.

In their writings, existentialist philosophers engage with our reason: they put forward arguments, worked through in meticulous detail, paying close attention to the phenomena under consideration, offering illuminating narratives of the actual experiences that form the topic of their discourse, while subjecting their own views, no less than that of others’ work, to rigorous critical examination. Part of their endeavour is to undermine certain philosophical conceptions of reason, and to question its employment in various theoretical, cultural, technological, religious and political contexts. Their stated aim, however is not to offer a new dogma that would replace ‘rationality’ with ‘irrationality’, or that would substitute for ‘reason’ some other fixed mental entity (such as ‘instinct’ or ‘drive’), but to rethink, delimit, and relocate our reasoning and discursive activities in the conceptual map of lived experience.

Existentialists have offered some of the most thorough studies in the field of moral psychology. They have analysed the way in which a situation elicits certain ways of attitudinal or behavioural response, how values inform our perception of the world, and how a correct understanding of being in the world may properly ground the possibility of leading a meaningful life. Part of their work in this area involves a criticism of theoretical misapprehensions of human action, of social practices that legitimise the objectification of human subjects, and of psychological discourses that sublimate patterns of self-denying behaviour. If immoralism is the view that a person ought to choose what she herself believes to be really bad precisely because she believes it to be bad, then none of the existentialist philosophers would count as immoralist. On the contrary, several existentialists were quite preoccupied with the ethical and political dimension of one’s actions, and with the moral values engendered by one’s stance towards others - if anything, some of the existentialist diagnoses of cultural malaise at the dawn of the last century might sound unhelpful precisely because they occasionally verged on the moralistic end of cultural criticism.

Regarding the issue of individualism, it might prove difficult to disentangle the conceptual from the imaginary. However, popularised images of the existentialist thinker as a tortured individual who gazes from his intellectual heights up above society, and into the depths of the human psyche, should not obscure our perception of what the existentialists actually claimed, i.e., that the notions of ‘the individual’, no less than that of ‘the world’ are abstractions from the concrete reality of ‘being in the world with others’.

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Meet Anne Marie Waters - the Ukip politician too extreme for Nigel Farage

In January 2016, Waters launched Pegida UK with former EDL frontman Steven Yaxley-Lennon (aka Tommy Robinson). 

There are few people in British political life who can be attacked from the left by Nigel Farage. Yet that is where Anne Marie Waters has found herself. And by the end of September she could well be the new leader of Ukip, a party almost synonymous with its beer-swilling, chain-smoking former leader.

Waters’s political journey is a curious one. She started out on the political left, but like Oswald Mosley before her, has since veered dramatically to the right. That, however, is where the similarities end. Waters is Irish, agnostic, a lesbian and a self-proclaimed feminist.

But it is her politics – rather than who she is – that have caused a stir among Ukip’s old guard. Former leader Paul Nuttall has said that her views make him “uncomfortable” while Farage has claimed Ukip is “finished” if, under her leadership, it becomes an anti-Islam party.

In her rhetoric, Waters echoes groups such as the English Defence League (EDL) and Britain First. She has called Islam “evil” and her leadership manifesto claims that the religion has turned Britain into a “fearful and censorious society”. Waters wants the banning of the burqa, the closure of all sharia councils and a temporary freeze on all immigration.

She started life in Dublin before moving to Germany in her teens to work as an au pair. Waters also lived in the Netherlands before returning to Britain to study journalism at Nottingham Trent University, graduating in 2003. She subsequently gained a second degree in law. It was then, she says, that she first learnt about Islam, which she claims treats women “like absolute dirt”. Now 39, Waters is a full-time campaigner who lives in Essex with her two dogs and her partner who is an accountant.

Waters’s first spell of serious activism was with the campaign group One Law for All, a secularist organisation fronted by the Iranian feminist and human rights activist Maryam Namazie. Waters resigned in November 2013 after four years with the organisation. According to Namazie, Waters left due to political disagreements over whether the group should collaborate with members of far-right groups.

In April 2014, Waters founded Sharia Watch UK and, in January 2016, she launched Pegida UK with former EDL frontman Steven Yaxley-Lennon (aka Tommy Robinson). The group was established as a British chapter of the German-based organisation and was set up to counter what it called the “Islamisation of our countries”. By the summer of 2016, it had petered out.

Waters twice stood unsuccessfully to become a Labour parliamentary candidate. Today, she says she could not back Labour due to its “betrayal of women” and “betrayal of the country” over Islam. After joining Ukip in 2014, she first ran for political office in the Lambeth council election, where she finished in ninth place. At the 2015 general election, Waters stood as the party’s candidate in Lewisham East, finishing third with 9.1 per cent of the vote. She was chosen to stand again in the 2016 London Assembly elections but was deselected after her role in Pegida UK became public. Waters was also prevented from standing in Lewisham East at the 2017 general election after Ukip’s then-leader Nuttall publicly intervened.

The current favourite of the 11 candidates standing to succeed Nuttall is deputy leader Peter Whittle, with Waters in second. Some had hoped the party’s top brass would ban her from standing but last week its national executive approved her campaign.

Due to an expected low turnout, the leadership contest is unpredictable. Last November, Nuttall was elected with just 9,622 votes. More than 1,000 new members reportedly joined Ukip in a two-week period earlier this year, prompting fears of far-right entryism.

Mike Hookem MEP has resigned as Ukip’s deputy whip over Waters’ candidacy, saying he would not “turn a blind eye” to extremism. By contrast, chief whip, MEP Stuart Agnew, is a supporter and has likened her to Joan of Arc. Waters is also working closely on her campaign with Jack Buckby, a former BNP activist and one of the few candidates to run against Labour in the by-election for Jo Cox’s former seat of Batley and Spen. Robinson is another backer.

Peculiarly for someone running to be the leader of a party, Waters does not appear to relish public attention. “I’m not a limelight person,” she recently told the Times. “I don’t like being phoned all the time.”

The journalist Jamie Bartlett, who was invited to the initial launch of Pegida UK in Luton in 2015, said of Waters: “She failed to remember the date of the demo. Her head lolled, her words were slurred, and she appeared to almost fall asleep while Tommy [Robinson] was speaking. After 10 minutes it all ground to an uneasy halt.”

In an age when authenticity is everything, it would be a mistake to underestimate yet another unconventional politician. But perhaps British Muslims shouldn’t panic about Anne Marie Waters just yet.

James Bloodworth is editor of Left Foot Forward

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear