Simone de Beauvoir’s “The Blood of Others”

I’ve lately been reading ’s novel The Blood of Others. In general I seem to be able to get a better feel for French existentialists from their fiction than from their essays and lectures — at least where Camus and Sartre are concerned. De Beauvoir is considerably less coy here than they were, in their novels, about making her fiction primarily a way of illustrating existentialist philosophy. For example, this scene, in which Hélène ponders with her lover the question “why do we live?”:

“When I was small, I believed in God, and it was wonderful; at every moment of the day something was required of me; then it seemed to me that I must exist. It was an absolute necessity.”

I smiled sympathetically at her. “I think that where you go wrong is that you imagine that your reasons for living ought to fall on you ready-made from heaven, whereas we have to find them for ourselves.”

“But when we know that we’ve found them ourselves, we can’t believe in them. It’s only a way of deceiving ourselves.”

“Why? You don’t find them just like that — out of thin air. We discover them through the strength of a love or a desire, and then what we have found rises before us, solid and real.”

or this argument:

“People are free,” I said, “but only so far as they themselves are concerned; we can neither touch, foresee, nor insist on them using their liberty. That is what I find so painful; the intrinsic worth of an individual exists only for him, not for me; I can only get as far as his outward actions, and to him I am nothing more than an outer appearance, an absurd set of premises; premises that I do not even choose to be…”

“Then don’t get excited,” said Marcel; “if you don’t even make the choice, why punish yourself?”

“I don’t choose to exist, but I am. An absurdity that is responsible for itself, that’s exactly what I am.”

“Well, there must be something.”

“But there might be something else…”

or this steamy existentialist love scene:

“I need you because I love you,” I said.

You were in my arms, and my heart was heavy on account of those cowardly festive echoes and because I was lying to you. Crushed by all those things which existed in spite of me and from which I was separated only by my own anguish. There is nothing left. Nobody on that bed; before me lies a gaping void. And the anguish comes into its own, alone in the void, beyond the vanished things. I am alone. I am that anguish which exists alone, in spite of me; I am merged with that blind existence. In spite of me and yet issuing only from myself. Refuse to exist; I exist. Decide to exist; I exist. Refuse. Decide. I exist. There will be a dawn.

So, yeah… it gets a little heavy-handed at times. But sometimes a lay-it-on-thick melodrama is the best way of getting a philosophy across.

Coincidentally, de Beauvoir also features in a recent op-ed by Ross Kenyon from the Center for a Stateless Society. Kenyon is responding to Ron Paul’s recent appearance on The Daily Show in which Paul tried to sell his idiosyncratic libertarian-leaning Republican presidential candidacy to Jon Stewart’s largely liberal fan base.

If you believe that the global environment is in dire straits of a sort that are going to require drastic, compulsory, large-scale changes, you may ask incredulously how a small-government, regulation-loathing libertarian thinks they can handle it. Isn’t a libertarian paradise just one in which people are free to dump their sewage in the well (or, in Stewart’s question: dioxin in the river)?

Paul’s answer: “I think the environment would be better protected by strict property rights. I was raised in a city, in Pittsburgh, where the sewers were the rivers and the corporations did it in collusion with the government… All you have to say is you have no right to pollute your neighbor’s property, water, air, or anything and you wouldn’t have the politicians writing the laws and exempting certain companies. They come, they write the laws, then they exempt themselves and then they trade permits to pollute the air.”

This isn’t really a small-government solution at all, but one that takes environmental regulation out of the hands of bureaucratic regulators (who are easily captured by the industries they regulate) and puts it in the hands of judges who decide lawsuits based on actual damages and the laws in force. This might in fact be a better way of regulating something like dioxin in the river, but I have a hard time seeing it working for regulating auto emissions or fighting global climate change. There are lots of problems with bureaucratic regulators, but there are also lots of problems with judges and tort law. Simply kicking the ball from one to the other doesn’t solve anything. Paul’s call to simplify the law to a “thou shalt not pollute thy neighbor’s property” is better, but unrealistic and oversimplified. What counts as pollution, who counts as “thou,” and what counts as property are all political questions that are subject to the same political warping that plagues current regulations.

But I digress. Here’s what Kenyon has to say on the subject:

Ron Paul claimed on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart on that market discipline is stricter than government discipline. This claim depends upon a number of institutions being set up wherein the true costs of production and consumption are actually being internalized by those doing the producing and consuming rather than being spread between hapless taxpayers as they currently are.

Now, Ron Paul definitely thinks these institutions should replace our current framework as one can see if one watches the extended interview. In it he elaborates upon his position regarding how he believes stronger property rights and a free market would serve environmental ends. The merit of this ecological argument will not be examined in this op-ed; however, this abstraction of the market needs to stop immediately.

We are “the market.” We are all “market forces.” We are the ones Ron Paul is proposing to have more power to discipline wrongdoers via torts, direct action, voting with our dollar, and protest. Libertarians do not believe in delegating this authority away from ourselves as that act of concession will lead to regulatory capture and the centralization of power and economy. The market is absolutely not an external process we can afford to just sit back and watch transpire before us.

The “market” itself is conventionally viewed as a concept which symbolizes the aggregation of all acts of production and consumption committed under the institutions of private property and its subsequent division of labor and the price mechanism. When this process is unhindered by unwise barriers (government-enforced or market actor-endorsed) it generally allows for people to clear goods very successfully and to great material gain for all participants. However, the acts of producing and consuming in and of themselves have no moral content. All a free market means is that what is effectively demanded will be efficiently supplied, and if we demand garbage then we will have garbage. This freedom to choose connotes the responsibility to choose well or the world in which we might live may not be very much better than the one we have now.

Simone de Beauvoir writes astutely in The Ethics of Ambiguity, “…the present is not a potential past; it is the moment of choice and action; we can not avoid living it through a project; and there is no project which is purely contemplative since one always projects himself toward something, toward the future; to put oneself ‘outside’ is still a way of living the inescapable fact that one is inside; those French intellectuals who, in the name of history, poetry, or art, sought to rise above the drama of the [age of World War Ⅱ], were willy-nilly its actors; more of less explicitly, they were playing the occupier’s game. Likewise, the Italian aesthete, occupied in caressing the marbles and bronzes of Florence, is playing a political role in the life of his country by his very inertia. One can not justify all that is by asserting that everything may equally be the object of contemplation, since man never contemplates: he does.”

This freedom to choose is seen by most people with the same immobilizing terror which the existentialists rhapsodized upon. If we want our freedom to choose poorly, we must be wise enough to choose well. Faced with the responsibility to pay attention to the world around us and actually decide for ourselves what to support with our money and moral approval; with what to cherish and what to rally against for the sake of one’s principles, it is no real surprise that people generally favor delegating their role as a punishing or rewarding market force to someone with political power. “I have to think?! Get this terrible burden of responsibility away from me!”

Freedom is work, and there is no abstracting one’s self out of the market as if it were some independent process outside of ourselves that “will take care of everything.” The market is us. Push us toward a better world by demanding wisely if you can bear it, as anyone who would dare call themselves an adult should be prepared to do. Otherwise, we truly are not ready for the freedom Ron Paul and our American platitudes have prepared us for.

Kenyon made a similar point in a recent rejoinder to a common libertarian argument about sweatshop labor. In the argument he is responding to, sweatshop (and other degrading or dangerous) labor, while it may look unsavory, is perhaps the best option for those involved in it — that is to say that the available alternatives are even worse. If we were to boycott sweatshop-produced products or insist on only purchasing “fair trade” products, the unintended results of this would be to push the sweatshop laborers or “unfair trade” workers back on their next-best opportunities — that is, on options that are even more degrading, dangerous, or unremunerative.

The usual left-libertarian argument against this is that the fact that these awful alternatives are the only ones available to the workers is not a natural fact of the free market in operation, but is the result of a long history of abusive collusion between business and government to restrict the rights of workers and the availablity of resources.

That argument has the advantage of being correct, informative, and revealing, but has the disadvantage of skirting the issue of what the ethical thing is to do in the here-and-now with regard to sweatshop (etc.) produced goods. Boycotting them may very well screw the workers who are making them without necessarily doing anything to alleviate the conditions that make sweatshop labor relatively appealing to them. Sweatshop advocates, in contrast, can point to examples in which countries seem to have passed through a phase of sweatshop-dominated industry on their way to something better. Maybe, they suggest, supporting sweatshops is counterintuitively the best way of making them obsolete.

Kenyon responds:

If the market is to be free so that what is demanded is supplied, then we should accept the responsibility to demand in the marketplace production models which foster a fuller and more complete conception of human dignity than work in a sweatshop typically allows.

…I have come to believe that libertarianism is primarily cultural. If we want to be free from government regulation of our values and the perilous centralization of power which typically ensues then the responsibility will fall directly upon us to choose wisely and regulate the market ourselves via voting with one’s dollar, torts, direct action, and protest or the world which we will create under freedom may not be very much better than what we have now. We cannot abstract ourselves out of the market by saying things like, “we’ll just let the market take care of it,” because we are the market. If we don’t take our charge seriously of what to condemn and support financially and morally, then why are we even bothering with this freedom thing? If I wanted to just sit back and delegate all of my responsibility regarding what should be happening in the world to external forces then my selection of libertarianism as a philosophy would be a terrible mistake.

…[I]f there is no government but only the market, and we actually are the market, then it is up to us to create a better and more virtuous world. No one else is going to do it for us.

We don’t always have to just buy the cheapest goods. In fact, I think we as libertarians ought to make a commitment to being very conscious regarding what we consume, effectively shifting the demand curve toward more human dignity, which is constantly undervalued by virtually everyone. The signals that one sends in the marketplace clearly communicate what sort of world one wishes to live in and what one actually values. If one wants the freedom to choose poorly, one should take seriously the responsibility of choosing wisely. Otherwise, we aren’t ready for liberty, and it probably wouldn’t be worth the struggle anyways.