“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:
- Weighing the subjective truth claims about its perceived value with
- 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.
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.