Existentialism in society today

It seems to me that in the wake of the two World Wars there was a general upsurge in the principles of equality, justice, democracy and fraternity. Naturally, changes were far from instantaneous, but the old order (based primarily on class superiority, assumed authority and position) was challenged and largely overhauled due principally to a spirit of entitlement, openness and impartiality in recognition of the fact that members from across the spectrum of society had defended its fundamental values and then participated in its post-war reconstruction.

This may be viewed as a practical embodiment of the philosophy and values upheld by the Enlightenment Movement wherein the principles of equality, reason and accountability are held paramount.

However, as time passed and the direct threat of injustice and subjugation for all mostly subsided, the intense flames of the fight for freedom and integrity calmed to mere embers and a large swathe of people have come to adopt an almost existential acceptance of political, social and commercial chicanery (perpetrated by those unfettered by a sense of rectitude and responsibility for impacting on others’ lives), provided the quality of their own lives remains intact or is even improved.

Schemes and conspiracies have been conducted behind the scenes, often involving hardship and injustice for many who oil the machinery of such commercial enterprises and political machinations, while maintaining a façade of political and commercial correctness and legitimacy which most are more than willing to accept.

As one-time military and political conquests and subjugations have been insidiously replaced by commercial acquisition and financial control, values and principles once considered worth defending are in danger of being invisibly but steadily eradicated, swallowed by an existential fog of self-centred apathy and abandonment. Careerism and hedonism appear to be steadily replacing professionalism and purpose, yet apparent impassivity, lack of direction and lack of positive action are being recognised and rejected by some and this is evidenced by a trend toward independence and self-determination. This is born of frustration and discontent in the face of apparent inability or unwillingness on the part of governing bodies to tackle ongoing urgent social, political and economic issues, exacerbated by the perception that an influential minority seems to actually gain through their protraction.

In the past, when people faced common external issues and threats (crushing social injustice leading to the French Revolution, industrialisation and its attendant social pressures and reforms, and attempted subjugation leading to two World Wars), they united to fight for a cause, for values and for a common purpose, reflecting the spirit of the Enlightenment Movement.

However, after the immediate post-war period there followed a turbulent period in the sixties and seventies, characterised by confrontation over workers’ rights, conditions and wages, social and political upheaval, huge economic pressures and rising unemployment. As a result, there was a return to more conservative policies in the eighties, involving the re-establishment of traditional working practices and an emphasis on market freedom, and the suggestion that the individual should act in his/her own best interests, with the view that this would strengthen society overall. This philosophy was reflected in the famous line “Greed is good” in the film Wall Street (1987).

Today, it might be said the problems we face are increasingly internal as we encounter political, administrative, financial and socially divisive issues. We appear to have lost the perspective of “the bigger picture” and focus instead on individual satisfaction, maintaining our own standard of living or making our way in the society we have built. We appear to be losing sight of values, purpose and the common good, opting instead for a self-centred path toward “success”. This may be said to reflect the spirit of existentialism wherein the existence of God, morality and principles are refuted and we are invited to think only of ourselves and the place we can make for ourselves in society.

This attitude has led to inward-looking and defensive governance, administration and law-making which conceal inaction, indifference and lack of comprehension and empathy and this has, in turn, led to frustration and discontent, causing some to want to break away from traditional and accepted government.

However, as I suggested previously, existentialism is not the same as nihilism. If we accept responsibility for one another and our impact on one another, we can achieve far more together than if we limit ourselves to what is best for individuals or small groups with shared interests.

Careerism, self-gratification and a blinkered outlook have insidiously crept in to our political and administrative systems and this has led to many sections of society feeling disenfranchised and willing to pursue change, any change, as an alternative to a system they feel has failed them. That is not, however, a reason to reject the structure itself. Structures and systems can be re-invigorated and re-imagined with fresh, practical and positive ideas put into practice by constructive and conscientious personnel resulting in tangible change and improvement for all instead of apparently incessant discussion and pompous focus on procedure and position resulting in inaction and indolence.

Threat and danger have previously united people in a common cause. Today need be no different, but now the threat lies within our society and the loss of perspective we have developed by encouraging members of society to focus on individual success. We need to develop an awareness of and a sense of responsibility toward others if we are to evolve as a society.

Even if principle, morality and values have no celestial authority, the concept exists and therefore we can create, adopt and enforce values when dealing with fellow human beings. Success does not necessarily mean self-serving. While a degree of selfishness may be required to inspire or stimulate action, that action should ultimately serve others if it is to have any lasting value, and that precept may be seen as one of the corner-stones of a healthy and enduring society.

My thanks for taking the time to read this page. I hope you found it of some value.

Stuart Fernie

I can be contacted at stuartfernie@yahoo.co.uk .