Last week I read an article entitled: “Existentialism for Entrepreneurs By Larry Page“. The article talked about how businesses and individuals could leverage existentialist principles in order to successfully make their businesses better. The article refers to some common existentialist ethos like “existence precedes essence”, but overall misses the latter part of Sartre’s thoughts in regards to the social and political nature of the existentialist project. It is fun to watch people accept the idea that man is free, while also not accepting the second aspect, namely that our freedom makes us responsible for others, and how they live. Everywhere I go, businesses are popping up offering ‘authentic experiences’ of their product (a term made popular by Sartre), and talking about how their business can be in ‘bad faith’. I’m going to say that the anarcho-socialist/radical marxist’s that both Sartre and Beauvoir were do not really allow such an interpretation. Their words are meant for how to live while recognizing your freedom, and your responsibility to other people, not some new trend to make your startup “not a business, but an experience.” This appropriation of ideas is not something new, but is heavily entrenched in a society that wishes it could eagerly follow Roland Barthes “The Author is Dead” philosophy.
Let us look at Sartre and where his philosophies have led him. We have to think of Sartre not as a philosopher with various disconnected ideas, but rather a philosopher with a holistic philosophy. Sartre’s ideas for the most part flow from one to another. His idea of radical freedom is met by facticity and the fact that we are responsible. In Freedom and Responsibility Sartre begins to allude to an ethics of existentialism, and how they are grounded in the responsibility for others. Beauvoir expands on this in her Ethics of Ambiguity, which point out some of the pitfalls people run into when trying to assert their freedom, and also how existential ethics are grounded in the real world.
Sartre, while not a member of the communist party was fairly radical in terms of his support of communism and even anarchism sometimes to a flaw. His Marxism sometimes ran up against his thoughts on freedom. His friendship with Albert Camus was ended when Sartre stated that workers in France should not hear about the negative conditions Stalin was imposing on the workers. He threw soft balls for Mao’s government too. The fact that Sartre was heavily affected by Marx is no surprise to anyone who has in fact read Sartre and Marx. Sartre even identified his own thoughts with the idea of “Young Marx” whose philosophy of historical materialism (as opposed to what later became dialectical materialism) was seen as more ‘idealistic’ (in the philosophy sense, not in its colloquial use nowadays). Sartre’s idea of a being-in-itself and a being-for-itself also follow Marx’s understanding of a class-in-itself and a class-for-itself.
While I am constantly baffled (as was Albert Camus) about Sartre’s defense of the soviet union because it directly conflicts with his idea of radical freedom, if we imagine that Sartre’s end goal was the supposed emancipation of workers (which we can see from his heavy involvement in workers rights in France), then he might not have wanted the workers to know because it would be fodder for the right. In achieving that goal, we might argue that Sartre was being disingenuous to his project of freedom for all, as part of being responsible for all ‘men’, and acting as others should act would imply treating people like they have critical thinking skills. It makes Sartre not the perfect existentialist, but it does not take away from existentialism’s incompatibility with free market capitalism, insofar as it is not particularly ‘free’ for most of the people involved in it, we start to see how/why Sartre’s ideas on capitalism were heavily connected to his ideas of freedom, and control over one’s own life. Sartre’s positions also shifted throughout his life, and while he was caught up in the Marxist trend, he tended to stay pretty attached to anarchism. While I think Sartre’s position is one that leads people to be critical about the things they do and the life they live, and while that is still going to be true in a capitalist system, we cannot ignore Sartre’s own intent with his work.