Jean-Paul Sartre’s politics are deeply interwoven with ethics and philosophy, and provide lessons not only on how politics should be conducted but on our own responsibilities as individuals in society. His focus on individual responsibility is paired with an analysis of structural causes, producing an empowering and proactive approach to politics which has never been more needed than at this time.
Sartre argues that material scarcity determines our social relations and that this is the main source of violence in human history. This observation is very relevant right now, as wars are fought over oil, trade, territory and influence. In this new crisis, we can again see conflict being created over competition for resources, both on a personal level as people fight over toilet paper, and on an international level as countries compete for coronavirus tests or ventilator production. The solution to scarcity, Sartre proposes, is through socialist measures. The free market, left untamed, produces conflict. Scarcity can only be eliminated, therefore, through cooperation and distribution based on need.
Whilst not denying the influence of structural oppression, Sartre emphasises individual moral responsibility based on radical free will. This means that we are always responsible for the consequences of our actions, even if we are in situations we did not choose, because we can always act otherwise. Each of us have an obligation to change the failed systems we are participating in. Political action is not an option but a responsibility. If an individual sees that the country they live in fails to provide for those in need, inaction is equal to condoning this state of affairs. We must take ownership of our own roles in exploitation, inequality and discrimination, and act to change how society operates.
Sartrean freedom may impart upon us responsibilities, but it is also an empowering message. It is easy in the modern world to feel that we lack capacity to change things, especially when crises such as the Coronavirus outbreak seem to impact every aspect of our lives. What Sartre reminds us is that we can change how we respond to the world around us: “You can always make something out of what you’ve been made into”. We must make deliberative personal and political choices to improve our lives, and change society for the better.
Image: Manolo Guerrero & Eréndida Mancilla via Creative Commons