Philosophy and Ethics

This blog follows up issues and ideas from my website: Philosophy and Ethics.

Wednesday, 27 July 2016

What the hell? I'll do it anyway!




I sense rebellion in the air, and it even extends to the normally law-abiding Dutch. This sign clearly forbids the parking of bikes against the railings, but - hey - this is Amsterdam chock-a-block with bikes on a warm summer's afternoon, so I'll just go ahead and chain it up there anyway!

There is great power in the word 'no'. I shall not obey your petty rule, especially if it is imposed arbitrarily. If you insist in telling me what is in my own best interest, I shall challenge you. Line up all the political and economic authorities to tell me to vote for 'A' and I shall opt for 'B'.

The appeal of existentialism when it burst upon the world (well, upon Paris actually) in the years following the Second World War, was its appeal in enpowering individuals to say no to dull conformity and assert their right to be different, to shape their own lives. The 'yes' of self-affirmation can onlyfollow the courageous 'no' to conformity. Rebels tend to have a cause, and it is their strength - even if it all ends in tears.

But this year I sense that a rebellion is taking place on a scale that transcends the problem of finding a place to park your bike in the centre of Amsterdam: a general sense of 'What the hell? I'll do it anyway!'

Talking to some peole who voted for Brexit, it is clear that the attraction of voting to leave the EU was not generally the result of a careful cost-benefit analysis of membership. Even if the country is the poorer for it, many wanted to say No to the EU, especially when the Prime Minister and every authority, political and economic, that he could muster lined up to plead for 'Remain'. Sick of the political elite in Westminster, a referendum is the one occasion in British politics when everyone's vote actually counts, and it gives an ideal opportunity to offer those in authority the two-finger salute. You've told me I shouldn't, but I can so I will! This is not to suggest that all who voted for Brexit did so as a gesture of defiance - there were many good reasons why one might have despaired of the EU or the possibility of its reform - but an element of defiance, against the establishment, gave emotional weight to the arguments.

And do I sense the same thing happening with Corbyn and the Labour Party? An idealist and a rebel, he is most unlikely ever to compromise sufficiently to enable the Labour Party in Westminster under his leadership to present itself as a realistic alternative to the Conservatives in government. He's not an insider as far as the parliamentary machine is concerned - but that is exactly his appeal. And in the USA, the unthinkable is happening on the political front - Donald Trump receives the Republican nomination, against the wishes and expectations of the establishment. And that is his appeal. Free from political experience gained by being an insider, he can say whatever he likes. He can sell himself, rather than explain the nuanced business of government, a rebel of the political right.

A rebel wants - needs - something different from the present establishment, even if the result is chaos. But when Nietzsche saw that God was dead, he recognised the seriousness of the plight in which humankind found itself, with the consequent loss of goal, directin and horizon. He recognised that God needed to be replaced by a human construction - in his case the Ubermensch - to take up the role of direction-giver, motivator and inspirer. What troubles me, as I feel the attraction of the political and moral rebellions today, is that I do not see what is being offered to replace the present order of things. Protesters seldom do contingency planning for what happens if their demands are suddenly met.

We live in a dangerous, violent and unpredictable world, faced with the most daunting challenges in terms of security, terrorism, displaced populations seeking asylum and the growing economic gulf between rich and poor. There are no easy answers. But in such a world, a cry of frustration is both understandable and, hopefully, therapeutic - just as long as the two-finger salute is not mistaken for policy.