Have we lost our Stranger? The Existential Self and the Global Economy

Review of Albert Camus' L’Etranger 1942. (French), (Paris:Gallimard).

“I opened myself to the gentle indifference of the world” (Camus, 1942:122)

Albert Camus’ L’Etranger (1942) is fundamentally grounded in the notion that our very own existence is bound by our perceived understanding of ourselves as the Stranger, the Outsider, the Outcast. We are the ones that individually recognise, due to the angst brought about by our sheer existence, that it is necessary to at some point lie defenceless in the broad open space of an “indifferent world.” As we do so, we fundamentally rely on the universe’s void in order to exploit it as a blank canvas onto which we can define ourselves. This exercise’s paradoxical implication suggests, in accordance with Existential Philosophy, that while we seek to lead our lives amongst others as an “aware self” we must work to do so alone. The anomie/oddity of this exercise quickly makes us feel like an outcast or stranger to the rest of the world in which we are seeking to meaningfully exist. If we choose to empathise with these notions of existence, and realise the value of being “L’Etranger,” we concede thus that being takes precedence over knowledge, and existence lies before essence. We reject empiricist doctrines and rationalist understandings that conceive the universe as being a determined structure wherein rationality orients the compass of human activity.

I do not here dare to represent a full comprehensive study of Camus and his legacy, nor to summarize all the various interpretations and arguments surrounding just his 1942 publication. Furthermore , the ongoing debate surrounding existential philosophy reflects countless different developments of thought impossible to singularly contextualize. However, I do wish to bring Camus’ understanding of the individual self, as explicated within L’Etranger, into the realm of the existing literature that studies how existential authors have influenced economics’ academia by further discussing the role his work plays in understanding the endless complexities of globalization.

"No longer can we think of ‘strangers and the strange’ as dislocated entities that are peripheral to our own lives" (Sanderson, 2003:1).

Now, almost 80 years after L’Etranger was published It is interesting to see how existential conclusions are practiced within the confines of our modern lives. Today, if we consider ourselves “existentialists” then we aren’t be bothered by the idea of proudly wearing a badge labelled “outsider” on our Nike Made in China cotton t-shirts. As Camus, Sartre, Kierkegaard, and Nietzsche have become the common currency of philosophy students worldwide, the sheer thought of this metaphorical trope and its plausibility is vastly humorous. Yet, little literature analysing existentialist works has looked to see how globalisation redefines the existentialist journey. Recent transformations in spatial organisations have generated “transcontinental or interregional flows and networks of activity, and interaction” (McGrew et al, 1999:16) where one must now determine their existence within global processes of heightened portability and contact that increasingly merge the significance and definitory realities of one’s existence to that of another individual, an individual who should be to us in many ways a stranger.

The globalisation of economies, social realities and ideas has called on the notion of a “global me” a “citizen of the world.” Too often, this discourse is deemed unproblematic and for many is a joyful reflection of the ubiquitousness of international progress. Yet the danger of these labels’ consequentiality is eminent, considering how quickly these might spark transcendence into an inauthentic existence.

Not only do we lose touch of the individual effort needed to calm our existential anxieties but we risk pushing them to the wayside as globalisation seeks to define the world’s blank canvas onto which we are meant to paint our existence. It is no news that globalisation has for so long discursively framed itself as “an inevitable element of our lives.” Countless teleological arguments have discussed the “necessity” of liberalised trade, and the uncontrollability of market forces. As Skonieczny eloquently states: "the natural, progressive increase of economic exchange ‘evolves’ like an organism far beyond the purview of human control” (2010:2). Rationalist justifications are thus globally institutionalised via globalisation making it increasingly harder to diverge from these conceptions when understanding the defining nature of our individual self.

We must be weary of how an overly integrated collective erodes the individual freedom necessary to practice existentialism. Coming to terms with one’s authentic self is what, according to this philosophy, allows for a genuine understanding of the inherent governmentality of the systems in which we exist. Camus famously said “I rebel therefore I exist ”(1951:39); a collective can only exercise productive dissent, according to existential philosophy, if one has pre-emptively defined themselves first. As Sartre often strived to emphasise, existential freedom serves as a means to place responsibility on the individual. In this sense, in order to be free we must recognise the world’s dependency upon each individual (1948). Camus’ L’Etranger conveys this same message as it portrays the oddity of a man, who lives privy of a self defined moral compass and who pulls the trigger just to know how it would feel to do so.

“Interest is being-wholly-outside- oneself-in-a-thing in so far as it conditions praxis as a categorical imperative” (Sartre, 1984).

Moving now from a contextualization of existentialism grounded in globalization, to one which is purely economic, we must look to clarify the economy’s impact on our quotidian operations. Polanyi comes to an interesting conclusion in his works that provides a substantive definition of the economy. He concludes that its domain qualifies all societies and is necessary to collective/individual life. The economy in of itself comes to define the “empirical universe of the human condition”(Polanyi, 1944, 1957). It should be no surprise therefore that countless international organisations, economic bodies, and even our own professors or friends constantly dilute our existence to the value of our “human capital.” The individual is redefined as a function of the economic system, and lives according to material interests. Economics’ scope is often not considered as one which looks to reveal the essence of humanity, yet in many ways it does. As Sarte contends in his Critique of Dialectical Reason in chapters “Scarcity and the Mode of Production” (122-149) and “Scarcity and Marxism” (140-152) economics focus on interest does not account for its true driving force - eminent scarcity. It is besoin/need which makes humans define themselves via their material beings and propagate in turn their economic system. Notions of globalisation which justify the volatility of our economies define our world for us, making us believe we are the ones defining ourselves by our individual choices reflected in the material interests we profess. We are excited by the prospect of the infinite professional options globalisation offers, yet we often fail to realise that our excitement is rooted in the idea that we need to mitigate for the instability we are taught to accept. We almost feel a responsibility to declare our interests in so far as we believe they are needed to propel our economies forward. Our sense of self becomes utterly contorted as a means for pre-established and supposedly rationalist ends.

“There can be no conditioning without moralisation” (Kail and Sobel, 2005:48) this is how existentialism contributes to a new type of economics. Today’s mainstream economics is formed via a synthesis of Neoclassical and Keynesian thought, which despite their evident differences, both hinge on structuring the mechanics of our operations through supply and demand. Mainstream economics dictates the impetus behind globalization and advertises theories of individual rationality where the self is constantly expected to act “rationally” within all microeconomic decisions to maximise “utility”. Sartre in his critiques argues that these conclusions dangerously seek to provide for us a framework through which we must establish what we need. Considering the systemic instability globalization itself propagates we find ourselves in constant scarcity. This provides mainstream economics countless entrances into our thought processes through which it can look impact what we need. A need which we then believe is a product of our own choice and self interest. Luckily, existentialism can hold this economic thought accountable for how it seeks to define essence in a world where none should be dogmatically outlined. It highlights the problem of having a social condition turn into a moral law. Existentialism’s origins are grounded in Nietzsche’s rejection of a predefined religious morality, today we must look to Sartre and Camus to stand again as L’Etranger in stark opposition of today’s economic morality. Even though, as Camus argues we should look to live and define ourselves in an indifferent world the existential challenge of the modern self might likely be that to find indifference where none exists in hopes to rid oneself from reality’s definiatory limitations. As Camus’ book teaches us we must seek to become a stranger, not just to those who surround us, but a stranger to the world and economies via which we exist.

Yet, maybe despite the modern crises of our existential selves we should be reassured a story Camus recounts in another of his books. He pushes the reader to imagine Sisyphus, the Greek King who was punished to push a boulder up a mountain and then watch it fall back down again in perpetuity, as happy (1942)… If we wish to provide ourselves with our own sense of meaning in spite of the inherent problematics of our existence, then we too might wish to be this kind of Sisyphus.


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McGrew, Anhony, Goldblatt, David, Held, David, and Perraton, Jonathan (1999). “Global Transformations: Politics, Economics and Culture”, (Stanford: Stanford University Press).

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