What Is Existential Politics?

“To see the universal and all-pervading Spirit of Truth face to face, one must be able to love the meanest of creation as oneself. And a man who aspires after that cannot afford to keep out of any field of life. That is why my dev­otion to Truth has drawn me into the field of politics; and I can say without the slightest hesitation, and yet in all humility, that those who say that reli­gion has nothing to do with politics do not know what religion means”.[i]


To base a political ideology or program on an entirely “rational” or “sec­ular” foundation is and remains a fool’s errand. Pure rationality can never answer what politics ultimately should be about, only how we’re most likely to achieve what we set out to do. The means of politics can be more or less rat­ional; yes, there are ways of orga­nizing society which are more well-reasoned than others, but it remains utterly beyond the scope of rationality to determine which goals are worth striving for in the first place.

The following is a slightly edited extract from Hanzi Freinacht’s book ‘Nordic Ideology: A Metamodern Guide to Politics, Book Two’. This is the second book in a series on metamodern thought, a work of popular philosophy that investigates the nature of psychological development and its political implications. In this post you will be introduced to the idea of Existential Politics, one of six new forms of politics proposed in Nordic Ideology.

Credit goes to the talented Berlin-based artist Sina Goge for the artwork used in the thumbnail picture.

What we cherish most in life determines the goals we set for society. Poli­tics is thus deeply subjective. I dare to say that it is inherently existen­tial, since how we relate to the world, one another and ourselves determine what we believe to be just and ethical. The political thus cannot be red­u­ced to a purely secular and objective affair.

Reason is forever destined to be the slave of passion, as David Hume once famously argued. So as rational creatures, we’re stuck with serving the will of the political animal.

We are emotional creatures, first and foremost, and what we feel deter­mines what’s rational to do. We are also ideological creatures, whose ideas about society are always dependent upon that same society and our posi­tion within it. And we are religious creat­ures, who always adhere to some overarching narrative about reality, some kind of religion in the most gen­eral sense of the word. And, we are existential creatures; beings that can only be by some­how relating to “what is”.

That the aim of politics, then, should be to find rational objectives, in-and-of-themselves, free of any beliefs and assumptions about what’s just and beautiful, must remain a fairytale.

Rationality can only be applied to factual truths claims; it can establish how well-reasoned a particular line of action is in regards to the objective it is to address. How well-reasoned the objective itself may or may not be, however, can only be established by:

  1. Weighing the subjective truth claims about its perceived value with
  2. the intersubjective truth claims about its justness.

Hence, what’s rational to do is simply senseless to ask without first hav­ing established what’s beautiful and just. And in turn, what’s beautiful and just depends on our narratives about the world, which in turn are the res­ult of how we relate to existence as such.

Politics is thus a deeply existential affair. It is and will always remain utterly impossible to detach the political from the huge diversity of differ­ent personal experiences of being-in-the-world and the ways in which we relate to existence accordingly.

As such, if the political is already undeniably existential, does it then make sense to lea­ve the existential permanently beyond the political; confi­ned to the per­sonal or “private” realm? Doesn’t that leave the whole realm of the pol­it­ical—the arena of human self-organization into a soci­ety—completely sub­jected to the inner processes and deep psycholo­gies that determine why we act as we do, why we want what we want? Should we really shut down all processes of openly discuss­ing how we can support one another to reach, in a deep sense, more productive funda­men­tal rela­tions to ourselves and our place in the universe?

Such questions drive us beyond conventional, instrumental rationality and into the realm of a deeper, second layer of shared, spiritual ration­ality; if you like, into the realm of transrationality. What we are looking for, then, is to create a society that is, yes, more rational and secular, but also—and perhaps primarily—more transrational and secular in a deeper sense. This second secularism, which I described in The Listening Society, does not take the modern rationality and its gods for granted.

Schopenhauer once wrote that “Man can do what he wills. But he can­not will what he wills.”[ii] But that is true only on an individual level of ana­lysis. There is crushing and conclusive evidence that our wills, hopes and desires are shaped by sociological circumstances—and these circumstan­ces, in turn, can be affected by deliberate human agency. Wouldn’t it make sen­se, then, to try to collect­ively develop what “man wills” in the first place?

Doesn’t the future of life and civilization depend upon what wants and hopes guide human activity? Jeremy Rifkin has made a similar case in his 2010 work The Empathic Civiliza­tion. I feel Rifkin is on to an important trail, but he doesn’t quite see the distinct features of Gemein­schaft Politics and Exist­en­tial Politics. He misses the mark: an exist­ential civilization.

Is and Is Not

Existential Politics is the practice of making the foundational existent­ial relationship that all of us have to reality itself into a political quest­ion, into an issue that can be openly discuss­ed, so that measures can be taken to develop it. To develop the subjective states of human experien­ce, to clear the depths of the human soul.

This in­visible depth is always-already there in all of us. We relate to our “self”, and the self is always defined in terms set by society. Existential Politics is about cre­ating a framework, and a language, for tackling these issues.

Before I go on to explore this topic, I’d like to point out what Existen­tial Politics is not. It isn’t reading “existentialists” as in philosophers com­monly considered representatives of the “existentialist school” (from Kier­ke­gaard to Schopenhauer to Heidegger and Sartre) and to somehow try to base one’s political ideology on these. That would be silly, and not very pro­ductive.

Nor is Existential Politics the practice of being “deep and existential” when talking about political issues. It’s not about turning politicians into quietly smiling Buddha statues. It’s not about “being profound” while en­gaging in politics. It’s not about making all of politics about spirituality or New Age stuff. Please note the negation, dear reader.

The point is that the politics of the future must grasp greater complex­ity and depth. If we are to rise as an existentially mature civilization, we must find ways of engaging the inner depths of human beings.

Existential Politics is about creating better structures to support pe­o­ple in the long, treacherous inner journey that is life. In the last instan­ce, we are all alone on this path and we have to make our own choices; we have to relate to ourselves and to “what is”, to existence itself. But some ways of relating may be less productive and beneficial to our­selves and so­ciety than others—and hence nothing is more political than your inner­most rel­ation to existence.

Supporting Inner Growth

Yes, we are all alone.

In the discussion about inner subjective states in The Listening Society, we noted that each self-organizing conscious being is always in some kind of inner state or subjective experience. I am, I feel. Existence.

These inner states constitute some kind of unity-of-experience, some kind of integrated whole that is the experience horizon of each creat­ure, and this vast inner landscape is never entirely indifferent; it flows, soars and falls, rejoices and suffers.

In this inner world, we are alone. If there is a terrible infection eating away at our nervous system in a manner that causes sheer madness and hell, no amount of happ­iness of others will console us. This subjective world, this universe of mine, is still pure anguish and pain. My experience and all I know is still an un­fathomably great darkness and terror. It’s just me, all alone, with what appears to be inescapable and never-ending suf­fering itself.

This predicament creates an irreducible fundamental relation in reality: the relationship of the self to the self. Or if we dig deeper yet: the relation between the universe experiencing itself and the quality or content of that same experience viewed as an entirety. Being relating to being itself in 1st person.

The eye of the I.

No matter how thoroughly we kill off “the individual” as a political idea, and no matter how well we recognize the co-created nature of reali­ty—the transpersonal nature of all of society’s ail­ments—reality always splices off into a multiplicity of singular experien­ces, into you and me and every­one else.

It is true, that my experience this moment may have more in comm­on—more connections and more ways of inter­acting and shar­ing experi­ences—with yours, than it does with my own four-year-old former self. But unless we find a way of physically connecting our nervous systems, we are still sep­­arate. If I truly suffer, no expanse of heavenly bliss in your world will help me.

And yet—it is also true that these inner horizons are structured by soci­ety, by circumstance, by nature itself. Society can create preconditions for strong, healthy psyches that can deal with the adversities of life, who can act with wisdom[iii] and composure in confusing and pressing life situati­ons. It can work to create bodies and minds that ring with harmony, with mat­urity and contentment of old age. Or it can churn out armies of woun­d­ed, stunted and confused souls who lack the support to make it through diffi­cult transitions.

Society can be designed so as to support what Joseph Campbell famou­sly called “the hero’s journey”, the trans­itions between life phases; the dif­ficult times we all know are com­ing for us. Structures, norms and institu­tions can help us grow and turn our painful misfortunes into mean­ingful lessons learned and an awakened awareness of the suffering of the world, and they can help us rise to a capacity to act upon such a sense of tragedy. Or society can be designed with so many trapdoors and impos­sible para­doxes that life itself seems to turn into a cruel joke at our expense.

In the last instance, we are all alone in this mysterious journey. We are the sole seers with these eyes, the sole feelers of these worlds of emotions, the sole cosmic address of this inner spaciousness within which thoughts flow and all things arise. In the last instance, life is up to “me”. I am here alone, writing a book. I will never read it with your eyes, never hear your thoughts—my work is necessarily cast across time, space and per­spec­tive, intersecting another universe.

Alone. But only in the last instance. There is hardly a word in this book I have come up with myself. Everything I do rings with something lar­ger, something beyond me. Up until that last instance, up until the hour of death, I am thus not-alone. My existential predicament is set by the gods, yes. But my ability to respond is granted by you and your treatment of me from my first day onwards, by society, by the comfort of this great wood­en chalet, its jacuzzi and the majesty of the mountains—or the relative dep­rivation of such support structures.

Will I rise to the challenge or will I fold over a thousand times and lace the steel-hard truth with velvet lies and excuses? Will you? Will we retreat into fear and hide in the crowd, turn away from our life’s greatest miss­ion?

The answers to these questions depend upon our existential strength, health and development. Will society consist of people following profo­und dreams, ideals and moral aspirations—or will it consist of excuses for lives unlived, for creators dead-born?

These are the fundamental questions of Existential Politics.

We need to support the inner growth of human beings.

Hanzi Freinacht is a political philosopher, historian and sociologist, author of ‘The Listening Society’, ‘Nordic Ideology’ and the upcoming books ‘The 6 Hidden Patterns of History’ and ‘Outcompeting Capitalism’. Much of his time is spent alone in the Swiss Alps. You can follow Hanzi on his facebook profile here, and you can speed up the process of new metamodern content reaching the world by making a donation to Hanzi here.

[i]. Gandhi, M. K., 1948. Autobiography. Ahmedabad: Navajivan Publishing House. p. 615.

[ii]. Schopenhauer, A., 1839. On the Freedom of the Will (1839/1945), as translated in The Philosophy of American History: The Historical Field Theory (1945) by Morris Zucker, p. 531.

[iii]. Yes, I just used the word “wisdom” even as I said it’s a poor variable in The Listening Society. Get over it.