Le Matin's obituary for Jean Paul Sartre included "...this man who dared all on his own to insist that the only important action was justice for the oppressed, that the violence of the colonised against the coloniser was justified, that a man could be right even against his country in the name of a superior ideal, which is man himself." Is this a sentiment that is dead and buried on the bits of rock and dirt that make up the United Kingdom? Is it a philosophy that is more important than ever? Let's have an unreasonable debate...
We currently live in that interesting intersection of the Venn Diagram that is 'The communication age and Populism', crashing into a heady mix of spheres containing disinformation, empowerment, evolving AI and more opinions trampling on facts than you can shake a stick at. What would Sartre make of this world? Would he find the empowerment of the individual (let's update the 'common man' thing) through the rise of Trump and the success of the Brexit campaign justification of his views, or would he be disappointed with the ease at which the individual is manipulated by state or populist backed influencers and social media? Sartre championed intellectual freedom and independent press, acknowledging the power of the media to influence society and not afraid to use it himself to reach a wider audience for the promotion of existentialism philosophy. Having died in 1980 and not having witnessed the rise of the internet, how would Satre have adapted to it?
Sartre might have seen the internet as a tool that can empower individuals to express their thoughts and opinions freely, allowing for a greater exercise of existential freedom. The internet's capacity to connect people from various backgrounds and places could align with Sartre's ideas about the importance of recognizing others as free and equal individuals. On the other hand, Sartre was critical of the "bad faith," where individuals deny their freedom and conform to societal norms (TikTok trends anyone?). He might have been concerned that the internet, through social media and other platforms, could encourage people to conform, seek approval, or become inauthentic in their self-presentation. Then there's the internet's potential for surveillance and the collection of personal data, which may have raised concerns for Sartre, as it could be seen as a threat to individual privacy and freedom. He was, after all, arrested for selling his independent newspaper on the streets of Paris - the modern equivalent of shadow-banning through exclusion from algorithms or censoring of accounts not in step with the views of platform owners or states. A super-charged continuation of censorship.
'When the rich wage war, it's the poor who die.'
- Jean Paul Satre
I've often asserted that the great power and danger of the Communication Age is that, no matter how avant-garde, extreme or mainstream an opinion a person decides to campaign on, they will always find a supporter somewhere in the word to interact with and promote their point of view. Online interactions are governed by algorithms that are rarely set or influenced by the masses as much as people probably think - each platform will have its own signals and triggers baked in to decide what topics are to be pushed in the direction of users based on previous interactions with the app. This reinforcement of posts that the app believes the user is solely interested in, by their very nature, lead to group-think and echo-chambers. This classification of the user base makes it as easy as shooting the proverbial ducks in the proverbial barrel for organisations like Cambridge Analytica when they are employed to influence messaging around elections or social movements. As an aside, it was interesting to witness Facebook, with which I have grudgingly re-engaged in order to help promote my online jewellery shop, being very confused about what feeds to promote at me. I have spent a lot of time repeatedly telling Meta that my genderless jewellery maker account is not interested in women taking selfies of themselves, accentuating their gargantuan mammaries and short shorts. The algorithm seems to have got the message and is only recommending recipes for me. Now, if I can just train it to realise I am vegetarian...
My experience of setting up this new Facebook account, aside from my pithy humour about random ladies of the world offering to end any shred of loneliness I may have with their bouncy castle sized chests; there is little doubt in my mind that our growing reliance on Social Media has connected us with more people than ever, and simultaneously made us incredibly solitary. Sartre's existentialism also touches on issues of alienation and the feeling of being separated from one's authentic self, and the internet's virtual world might have raised questions for him about whether it can contribute to rather than combat this alienation. Ultimately, Sartre's opinion on the internet would likely depend on how he saw it affecting individual freedom, authenticity, and the capacity for people to engage in meaningful relationships and make meaningful choices. Just how free are we in the communication age when every app, site and service we use makes us the product and our data into corporate currency?
"Like all dreamers, I confuse disenchantment with truth."
- Jean Paul Sartre
There is a temptation to believe the age of populism is on the wane with Trump in numerous courts, Johnson relegated to the speaking circuit and most recently, the success of Donald Tusk and a coalition of opposition parties defeating the Law and Order party in Poland that had resided over policies from the populist play book such as removing the rights of women to abortion. But cast your eye to Argentina and you will see a chainsaw wielding, leather jacketed former economist leading the polls in the run-up to the countries upcoming election, purely on the power of TikTok and influencer campaigns. It's a familiar refrain - he has a new way! He is empowering the people and will drag Argentina from the brink of post-pandemic economic collapse! He will blow up the central bank (wait, what?) and adopt the Dollar instead of the Peso! His policies are not dissimilar from radical approaches tried before but, wrapped in glitzy, punchy, social media shorts a tired population appear not to have the energy to question the veracity of his claims, and are ground-down enough to grab hold of any saviour that might come their way. Sound familiar? Ah, those sweet, sweet algorithms and echo-chambers...
From a Scottish perspective, the spirit of fighting colonialism and acting in the interest of the authentic self seems to be on the decline with the implosion of the SNP (Scottish Nationalist Party), though support for independence remains steady at around 47%-49%. The rise of Labour in the polls is symptomatic of a nation deeply dissatisfied with the unmitigated disaster that thirteen years of Tory rule have culminated in, coupled with Labour's positioning of themselves firmly in the centre and, for some, not that dissimilar to the party they seek to replace. Like Argentina, a politically tired population appears to be seeking the sanctuary of familiar ground in the pursuit of change. How this plays out in Scotland and Wales in the future will be interesting to witness. The steady transfer of donors from the Conservatives and even Just Stop Oil to Labour means their coffers and social media presence will only get stronger - even the right wing press are starting to see the writing on the wall and are courting Keir Starmer, undoubtedly keen to make sure there are no grudges and pesky regulations on the way. If they can just avoid shooting themselves in both feet simultaneously, Labour should be home and dry. Their policies in regard to the increasingly independence minded Wales and Scotland, whose administrations both arguably embarrassed the UK government with their handling of the pandemic, will be key to the future direction of the United Kingdom. Independence movements may still be in the minority at the moment, but it only takes one kilted, daffodil waving (insert stereotype here) social media savvy show person to galvanise the independence minded into aggressively over-throwing the majority for all that to change.
Caber tossing going viral on TikTok anyone? Would Jean Paul Sartre approve of that?