The importance of authenticity

In his final column Anthony Hatzimoysis looks at the existentialist idea of living in 'bad faith'

As a final instalment to our brief tour on existentialist terrain, I would like to consider a phenomenon that has been closely associated with existentialist thinking: the phenomenon of living in ‘bad faith’. It is commonly thought that being in ‘bad faith’ is simply the practice of lying to oneself: one knows the truth about oneself, but instead of stating it, opts for deceiving (not others, but) oneself.

Thinking of ‘bad faith’ as ‘self-deception’ is a good way to approach the phenomenon, but it might make us miss what is distinctive about the existentialist view of human beings.

According to existentialism, each person is characterised by both ‘facticity’ and ‘transcendence’. The former includes all those aspects of someone’s being which are given for him, and that cannot strictly speaking be altered at will – his physiology, his past, his biological ties, his society, his place of birth, etc.

Transcendence refers to all the mental, emotional, practical, ethical or political activities through which, at each one moment, a person moves beyond – and in that sense, ‘transcends’ – his facticity, steering his way in the midst of all the conditions, the expectations, or the opportunities that each situation sets to a person.

Bad faith arises when one attempts to present oneself as being wholly facticity, or wholly transcendence. In the former case, a person chooses to resign in thinking that everything about his life is fixed and unalterable, and that he is true to himself only if he acts in terms set by his past, or by ‘the others’, or by ‘the society at large’.

In the latter case, when someone takes himself to be wholly transcendence, he believes that everything in his life is up to him, that nothing is fixed, that even his history, his past behaviour, or the details of his social condition are not real, but are entirely a matter of how he fancies to think about them. Both attitudes are mistaken – and yet they are so attractive because they can be the only way out of taking responsibility for our choices.

What would be a genuine alternative to living in bad faith? Existentialists have proposed different answers to that question, but they all seem to converge on the importance of being authentic. Authenticity, here, is not a matter of being true to ‘human essence’ – recall that no such ‘essence’ exists apart from how each being lives out his or her existence.

Authenticity is more a matter of being ‘the author’ of your own life, while avoiding the twin errors of (i) thinking that you are nothing but an ‘actor’ in some cosmic play over which you have no say, or of (ii) thinking that you can ‘rewrite’ and ‘make up’ everything irrespective of the needs and values that inform the human experience of reality.

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The English left must fall out of love with the SNP

There is a distinction between genuine leftism and empty anti-establishmentarianism.

After a kerfuffle on Twitter the other night, I am all too aware that writing something even mildly questioning of the SNP government is the British equivalent of approaching a lion pride on a kill. Nevertheless, seeing the almost hero-levels of mental gymnastics tweeted by Mhairi Black, in the week of the Hillsborough inquiry whereupon Nicola Sturgeon posed with a copy of The Sun endorsing her re-election, prompted me once more to consider just how spectacular the distance has become between the SNP that stood against Ed Miliband versus the SNP today and in government.

Mhairi tweeted: “So Kezia wants to put up the taxes of Scottish people to subsidise Tory cuts that her party supported in Westminster?”. Confused? So am I.

This follows in a series of SNP revisionism on what austerity is and the excuses the SNP has hidden, not quite so conspicuously, up its sleeve to not act on its new tax powers, so as not to break its bond with Middle Scotland. They insist that Labour’s plans for a penny tax are not progressive, and have framed it in such a way that an anti-austerity plan has now become a subsidy for cuts Labour actually haven’t supported for more than a year now. Just like that, the SNP is a low-tax mimicry of Toryism.

But it isn’t ‘just like that’. The SNP have governed from an economically cautious stance for seven years. For a brief period, they borrowed Ed Miliband’s clothes. But once the Red Wedding had been completed, they returned back to where they started: as successors to New Labour, though that is hardly fair: they are far, far less redistributive.

So why is it, in the 2015 election, and even today, many of us on the left in England still entrust our faith in SNP rhetoric? Still beat the drum for an electoral ‘progressive’ coalition with a party that doesn’t seem very happy to embrace even the concept of higher taxes?

My theory is that the SNP have successfully, indeed more successfully than any party in Britain, adopted the prime hobby of much of the Left: ‘againstism’.

‘Againstism’, clumsy I admit, is to be against everything. This can include a negative framing of being anti-austerity but not pro-anything in its place. But in this instance, it means to be anti-establishment. The latter, the establishment, is what Labour as a party of government always has aspired to be in competing to be the national government in Westminster - which is why elements of the Left will always hate it and will always vote against it. In a way, some of the left is suspicious of governance. This is occasionally healthy, until it prevents real progressivism from ever being elected.

While in government, Labour could be seen as sell-outs, rightly or wrongly, because they became the establishment and had no one but themselves to blame. The SNP are the establishment, in Scotland, but can nevertheless exercise ‘againstism’, even with new tax powers. They always will so long as Westminster exists, and so long as their main motivation is independence. This is why the bogeymans that sustain nationalism are not natural allies of social democracy; to achieve social democracy would be to remove the bogeyman. This means that the Lesser New Labour tradition within which they govern will continue to go unnoticed, nor be doomed to eventual death as New Labour itself suffered, nor be looked back on as an era of neoliberalism. The SNP can just avert attentions back to the Westminster establishment. ‘Againstism’. Paradoxically, the way the SNP have managed to come to exploit this is because of New Labour's devolution. Devolution has created, for the first time, the perfect environment for an establishment in one part of the country to blame the establishment in another. It has allowed for the rise of an incumbent insurgent. The SNP can campaign as insurgents while still being incumbents. It is a spectacular contradiction that they alone can manage.

Insurgency and anti-establishment politics are not, of themselves, a bad thing. We on the Left all dip our toes in it. It is a joy. It is even more fun for us to be successful. Which is why the celebratory mood that surrounded the SNP gains in Scotland, a paradigm shift against one incumbent for another, is, objectively, understandable. But these insurgents are not actually insurgents; they are the illusion of one, and they have had the reigns of power, greater now for the Scotland Bill, for seven years. And they have done little radical with it. The aim of an anti-establishment politics is to replace an establishment with something better. All the SNP have done is inherit an establishment. They are simply in the fortunate position of managing to rhetorically distance itself from it due to the unique nature of devolution.

This is why some of the Left still loves them, despite everything. They can remain ‘againstists’ regardless of their incumbency. They do not have the stench of government as a national Labour government did and inevitable would have. So the English Left still dream.

But now, with this mounting evidence and the SNP’s clumsy revisionism, it is up to the English Left to distinguish between genuine leftism and empty anti-establishmentarianism, and to see the establishment -via governance- as something to define for itself, to reshape as something better, rather than something to be continuously against. This is, after all, what Attlee's government did. The SNP have not defined the establishment, they have continued someone else's. It's up to us to recognise that and fall out of love with the SNP.