I’m not all that familiar with Sartre, or indeed the work of many philosophers. Having said that, I recently came across an interesting description of what I gather is one of his most famous philosophical novels, Nausea. According to the brief blurb I read, Nausea tells the story of a lonely young artist undergoing something of an unfolding existential crisis after he settles in a seaport town. Over time the central character begins to sense that certain things are encroaching on his ability to be himself. He feels as though he cannot enjoy the things that he once did, from everyday activities to the memories of past lovers, and accordingly begins to search for the meaning in things that should be, or at least once were, there. Looking further on Wikipedia, the book is said to finish with the artist accepting that people are free to make their own meaning, but that this freedom also has to be a responsibility, ‘because without that commitment there will be no meaning’.
Sartre’s work is sure to have been analysed from all directions and by people of all stripes. I don’t intend to interpret his work as such, but it did occur to me that Nausea presents something of an interesting metaphor for the changing role of citizen and state. The state, as we know, has for a long time now been the subject of much derision and neglect from across the political spectrum. The right, particularly movements like the Tea Party, have jumped upon the current economic maelstrom to launch fierce attacks on the incompetence of the state and its inability to defend its hard-pressed citizens from the greed of banks and the prospects of a further economic meltdown. All the while, the left continues to squabble amongst itself, presenting a tired, apprehensive and often contradictory defence of what a good state-driven social democracy should look like; the economic policies of New Labour being a case in point.
The result is that the focus for policymakers, many of whom are desperate to find answers to some of the most troubling challenges seen for decades, has shifted from what the state can do for and with citizens, to what citizens can do for and by themselves. The Big Society and Localism agendas typify this new approach, opening up greater freedom for people to shape the places they live in and the services they use. The freedom, for instance, to set up and run their own school, the freedom to take over and run their own public services, the freedom to bid for and take ownership of public assets, and above all the freedom to live their life as they see fit.
But is freedom, at least in this sense, such a good thing? As the critics of these and other initiatives have noted, freedom often brings with it implicit unseen demands, many of them mentally trying. While active citizenship requires, among other things, time, skills, a certain level of confidence and even perhaps a bit of money, is it not also true that it requires a certain sense of self; an awareness of our place in the world and an ability to generate our own meaning where once it was generated for us?
To be an able and willing participant in improving the places in which we live means recognising that we have a certain responsibility to change things, that we are often the sources of much that is wrong with our communities, as well as the cause of much that is right. To be able to live without the state therefore means being able to have a strong narrative of giving and doing for others in the community, and to derive some kind of genuine meaning from these actions. In short, participation has to be meaningful to us.
The concern is that this is seldom the case, at least among the vast majority of the population. We have a deep and entrenched narrative in our society that pits citizens as the ‘recipient’ and the state as the ‘provider’. The narrative of the recipient, demanding citizen is where we derive most of our meaning from; we simply haven’t experienced anything else. In fact, we never had to. In many ways our interactions with the state presented us with an all too easy means of crafting meaning. It was black vs. white, and we knew who the go-to person was if we wanted to blame someone, or to derive meaning from being against something. And this was usually the actions of government, local authorities and public services.
But when the state withdraws and we find ourselves becoming the go-to person – in other words, the new agent of change in our communities – we are effectively thrown off balance, and meaning becomes so much harder to locate. Just like Sartre’s young artist, the encroaching feeling that something is chipping away at our sense of self could simply be the prospect of greater freedom, opportunity and choice; key tenets of the new relationship between citizen and state. The problem is that we have for so long derived our meaning from our antagonistic relationship to the state that we don’t have the ‘meaning making’ ability to rebalance ourselves. The result is the emergence of what could be termed a ‘post-state nausea.’
Ironically, this may be one of the reasons why we are seeing such fierce attacks on the state. As it ebbs slowly away, we long for it even more as a source of meaning so that we can rid ourselves of this 'nausea'. This might explain the emergence of movements such as the Tea Party which appear to use ‘big government’ as a form of collective catharsis (and as a justification to hold big vitriolic rallies). A similar phenomenon witnessed in gender studies is described as a ‘post-feminist anxiety’. This is the belief that as social differences have fallen back over the years, we now increasingly cling to gender stereotypes and black and white narratives in order to retain some semblance of identity and meaning.
The metaphor of nausea may not be all that useful, but the point I’m trying to make is that we need to somehow develop our own internal mechanisms for deriving meaning where it was once practically given to us. If left unaddressed, the sense of ‘unbalance’ which many are likely to experience will end up severely limiting their ability to take ownership of problems and to shape their lives and the lives of others for the better.