William Irvin, a professor of philosophy at King’s College, has written a book on the overlap between existentialism and capitalism — not the crony tax-and-bailout kind that epitomizes modern-day America but rather the laissez-faire brand idealized by libertarians:
I define existentialism as a philosophy that reacts to an apparently absurd or meaningless world by urging the individual to overcome alienation, oppression, and despair through freedom and self-creation in order to become a genuine person. … The main link between existentialism and libertarianism is individualism. In both systems of thought, the individual is primary and the individual is responsible.
Irwin’s book, The Free-Market Existentialist, is subtitled Capitalism Without Consumerism. It’s a little strange to connect existentialism with anti-consumerism for over 200 pages (I would give it a chapter, tops), though admittedly the emphasis on authenticity has always been at odds with the bourgeois materialism disdained by the likes of Kierkegaard and Nietzsche (a theme best expressed by that book and film regarding a certain pugilistic fraternity). Yet ultimately what is and isn’t consumerism is in the eyes of the consumer. We all know people who spend their money unwisely but very few of us eat and sleep between Spartan white walls furnished with a single lawn chair and a mattress on the floor. I have been somewhat mystified by the recent publishing boom in coloring books aimed at adults — or at least I was until I remembered that I periodically enjoy buying and assembling Lego sets, which I find soothing and peaceful. Is it consumerist to blow my money on children’s toys? To a stranger the answer is probably yes, but to me the calm it brings is worth the expense. As Nietzsche said, there are no moral phenomena, only moral interpretations of them.
While embracing existentialism doesn’t require a concomitant bear hug of libertarianism (or even capitalism), a natural fit between the two exists for the reason Irwin underscores: both position the individual in the bull’s-eye. Put differently, existentialism is not defined by its compatibility with libertarianism as it is with its incompatibility with centralized or autocratic systems that throw personhood into chains. In an interview with Nick Gillespie, Irwin commented that Sartre’s apologism for Stalin and Mao (and Castro too — Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir nearly wore their tongues to stubs licking Che Guevara’s Soviet-issue calfskin) is something that “just always puzzled me.” It’s less puzzling when you consider the context of Paris in the 40s and 50s. Hitler hated Communists as much as he hated Jews (having read Mein Kampf, I’m not sure he even distinguished between them), so when the German tanks rolled through the Arc de Triomphe, many French Communists took their fight underground. After the war, when the Resistance literally climbed out of the sewers and catacombs, they became the rock stars of French society. Poor Jean-Paul, who had also fought with the Resistance, found himself sitting in the Parisian cafes espousing a philosophy of individualism to crowds of Marxists who, like Hegel watching Napoleon at Jena, believed that individuals were disposable — that only waves or movements mattered and only a person’s contributions to the revolution were worthwhile (Marx was the ultimate exploiter of labor). It is impossible to reconcile a philosophy of individualism with its goateed antipode, though Sartre sure tried (that’s what all that nonsense is regarding anguish in Existentialism and Human Emotions: “For every man, everything happens as if all mankind had its eyes fixed on him,” etc.), and eventually his desire to fit in with the cool kids outweighed his attachment to the philosophy he christened, so he abandoned it. It’s notable to reflect that at the end of his life Sartre deserted Communism too, and death found him a sad and broken figure as lacking in fidelity to his own ideas as he was to Beauvoir.
In his promotional pieces for Reason, Irwin complains that he is “all alone” at the intersection of the invisible hand and the uphill struggle against the boulder. It may usually begin with Ayn Rand for some but not for me — I can’t stand Rand. I arrived at the crossroads by my belief in the sovereignty of the individual and my skepticism of authority, aided and abetted by the literature of Camus, Chandler, Sartre, Salinger, and a whole bunch more. If it happened for me, it probably happened for others too. Irwin isn’t as alone as he thinks.