In this essay I shall be arguing for the outlook which became known as ‘existentialism’ to be taken seriously, but in a quite different way from the mid-twentieth century when existentialism had a vogue, at least in some intellectual circles. As a social or political theory existentialism appears as a very peculiar case. The thinkers we call ‘existentialist’ (they did not all adopt that label for themselves) typically adopted what might be considered an extreme individualist position as well as one of opposition – a standpoint Dostoevsky called that of ‘the man from underground’.1 Nietzsche in the nineteenth century, and then Heidegger and Sartre in the twentieth, acquired the reputation of radical critics specifically of the modern social condition, as understood in a Weberian perspective with its styles of conformity and bureaucratic orgnanistions; a reputation actually enhanced by their disturbing political positions. Even when Sartre moved from metaphysics to a theory of sociality and groups using ideas of dialectical materialism and necessity, he insisted upon individual goals and action as the starting point for development and maintainance of groups. Kierkegaard and Berdaeyev were Christians in contrast to either Nietzsche or Sartre, but a Nietzschean theme of championing the individual thinker who refuses to conform to accepted ideas appeared in their thought whilst, significantly, advocacy of individual enterprise in economics or necessarily individual property ownership did not. For purposes of the thesis I wish to argue in this essay the very peculiarities of existentialism are an advantage, since existentialism has not been ipso facto tied to a particular ideological stance. ‘Existentialism’ itself, as distinct from the political or religious movements certain existentialist thinkers were involved in, was never a mass movement or represented by political parties. For that reason what existentialists said about society and the position of the individual person has been less often distorted by polemics, although for a time after the Second World War association with the continental avant-garde and then student restlessness projected an image of narcissitic self-indulgence. Although, or perhaps because, its individualism runs contrary to much established sociological thinking existentialist thought can be very useful, perhaps not as a platform or some kind of counter-ideology, but as a model of how contemporary ‘liberal’ democracies in fact operate even when ostensibly there is a common structure of values, sometimes vaguely expressed as tolerance, freedom, civic patriotism, and so on, so that individual persons do not face the degree of radical choice that an existentialist outlook would suggest.

Existentialist themes

Although existentialist writers typically prided themselves on their attention to personal motivation rather than abstract social theorising, there are certain themes which may be drawn out which are common to all or some of the thinkers we call ‘existentialist’ and which none of them would have opposed. This is a general point in the history of ideas that even those who expressly reject ‘systems’ and ‘system building’ (including Kierkegaard and Nietzsche amongst existentialist thinkers themselves) nonetheless may be treated on a thematic basis. Simply they did have ideas and arguments which go to make up the outlooks which they had and believed in, and which may be none the less compelling because they refused to present them in a strictly formal rationalistic format.

Themes in existentialist thinking which may be expressed as specific propositions for a model of contemporary (democratic) society are the following:

1) Both action and belief are matters of free choice not restricted by demands of reason. Sartre claimed that:

‘… freedom has no essence. It is not subject to any logical necessity; we must say of it… “In it existence precedes and commands essence.” Freedom makes itself an act…but precisely because this act has an essence, it appears to us as constituted; if we wish to reach the constitutive power, we must abandon any hope of finding it an essence.’ Sartre, Being and Nothingness, (1958), p. 438.

Sartre in fact accepted the classical conception of reason or rationality to be found throughout the history of philosophy all the way from Plato or the Stoics to late twentieth century liberal (e.g., Rawls) or democratic (e.g., Macpherson) thought which holds that the rational person or society will respect certain standards of harmony and conduct as well as the norms of rational thought and argument. Accordingly, he encountered the Kantian problem of reconciling freedom with rationality, but unlike Kant tried to meet it by saying that reason does not limit the free chooser. The existentialist writers themselves interpreted this condition as one of absurdity. However, much contemporary social science, including Public Choice theory, tackles the problem of freedom in the opposite way by restricting the conception of rationality, and saying that provided the ‘rational’ chooser is aware of his/her preferences and can order them, nothing else is required. Ironically, the issue between defenders of what Downs (1957) called ‘the economic theory of democracy’, i.e., that democratic citizens can be likened to consumers and parties and lobbies likened to competing sellers in a market, and advocates of a more participatory concept often revolved around rationality rather than the presence of freedom itself. Both agreed that in the modern economy people actually have a degree of free choice unlimited by any notion of rational control on their desires or the common good. Whether or not that situation is believed to be absurd (the opposite of rational), it is thought to characterise the world in which we live.

2) Freedom in this radical sense exists despite being difficult or painful for many people. Perhaps the strongest case for applying in social and political analysis the existentialist conceptions of Angst or Angoisse (‘dread’ or ‘anguish’) used to represent the emotions felt by people confronted by Nothing, which may be understood as an absence of meaning in their lives – other than whatever thay can make for themselves – comes through the negative, i.e., efforts made to conceal the reality of moral or ‘existential’ choices. In the work of Sartre, the recognition that freedom is a disturbing and difficult condition is extended to discussion of how we often try to avoid it. Sartre (1965, 147-186), true to his psychological and inward-looking approach, concentrates on personal psychology when discussing mauvaise foi (‘bad faith’) but the concept of bad faith need not be confined to cases of individual self-deception. Sartre’s attention to attempts to avoid freedom through self-deception as integral to the ‘faith’ element in bad faith is at least as relevant to political situations as to personal ones. We might notice such cases as the practice of ‘free votes’ in the British parliament on so-called ‘conscience’ questions which sidesteps the presence of strong moral themes and issues of personal conscience within matters such as welfare and taxation or defence which routinely feature in party programmes and normal party politics. That particular form of evasion has not occured in the USA, for instance, but on matters of foreign policy evasion of moral conflicts, and therefore existential disruption, is commonplace. The evasion extends even to dissenters like Chomsky, who may be unwilling to acknowledge that refusal to adopt their own values may not be merely due to the people being deprived of sufficient and accurate information, but also a matter of some people’s opposed commitments in what are often called the 'culture wars' but which are also ethical. It is hard to doubt that in both the Vietnam and Iraq cases bitterly opposing reactions to anti-war protestors – extending in the latter case to boycott of music from a band (the Dixie Chicks) one of whose members had been seen to criticise President Bush’s policy – reflect opposed sets of values, and opposed conceptions of what American patriotism or American values themselves entail, thereby becoming what we customarily call matters of ‘personal conscience’. Such commitments would be little affected by accuracy or otherwise of information about the specific issues involved. That point is harshly demonstrated in the 2020 crises about alleged election fraud and measures to combat the Covid pandemic.

In more routine instances, the moral force associated with ‘bread and butter’ issues like taxation and incentives; jobs vis-a-vis restricting trade in certain areas like arms or tying aid to trading facilities; affirmative action for equal opportunities vis-a-vis fairness in allocating jobs or educational opportunities; funding public services by taxation or private finance; and so on, tends to be recognised only when the task in hand is rallying the already committed rather than speaking to a broader political debate. It is interesting that on occasions when difficult issues are faced openly we applaud those concerned for their courage and honesty in a manner similar to the existentialist writers’ notion of resolution. Jaspers (1969, 158-9.3) saw resolution as necessary for accepting and facing up to choices. He identified ‘resolution’ with ‘self-being’ or finding oneself, a conception which relates closely to the Heideggerian concept of authenticity and authentic existence. Heidegger (1992) had defined authenticity as ‘what constitutes [Dasein‘s] most extreme possibility of Being’. That meant that an ‘authentic’ existence is one with the most distinctive presence; and resolution or courage will be important for anyone prepared to live the authentic life.

3) The manner of respect and recognition for death is a matter of personal choice. In our societies death is generally treated in the way put by Heidegger (1978) thus: ‘Dying is essentially mine in such a way that no one can be my representative’. Even if we do not subscribe to Heidegger’s idea of death as the ultimate expression of a being or existence, we treat a person’s death as subject to personal choice and commitment. In recent decades it has become common for a relative or funeral officiant to talk about the deceased’s life for a short time, but they are expected to present that person’s life and achievements without the discretion we assign to a representative. A variety of cultural practices – including funeral ceremonies and conceptions behind them – are to be found within contemporary societies, but from the point of view of the wider society it is the individual’s decision which culture if any to follow. Currently there is a noticeable growth in non-religious funerals, such as those conducted by officiants belonging to humanist groups. However, the current situation where cremation has become more common than the Christian tradition of burial has for most people little to do with adoption of other religious ideas and much to do with land being scarce and expensive. There is an apparent divergence from existentialism here in the sense that existentialist freedom would tend to reject even practical constraints on itself. However, there are many issues of ethics and politics where there is a contentious question as to what is practicable and what is not.

4) According to existentialist thinking freedom is an extant condition of human life, not an aspiration. In some ways most important of all is the way existentialism contrasts with other streams of thought like liberalism, socialism, anarchism, or neo-conservatism; each of which have set achievement of human freedom (however defined) as one of their prime goals. Existentialism represents perhaps the only group of philosophies in the ‘West’ (aside from the rather convoluted case of Kant) which treats freedom as already needing to be dealt with in human life, rather than as an aspiration at best partly achieved. The question of how far contemporary democracies can as a matter of fact be described as ‘free’ introduces two, related but nonetheless distinct, issues in political science and sociology. First, there is the question of how far individual persons can be said to be ‘free’, not only vis-a-vis the state but also other influences like availability of information and who controls it, to make their own choices and decisions. Second, even if it is clear which communities, geographical, ethnic, religious, and so on, any given person belongs to, each of these finds itself placed within a wider system. That includes both informal structures such as the ‘global economy’ itself, which may be seen as composed of a mix of both commercial and governmental organisations and their interactions, or the pattern of charitable organistations which operate on a global scale; and formal structures like Nato, the United Nations or the European Union. (Some organisations like the Roman Catholic Church blend into both formal and informal categories.) Even in cases where these could be said to be ‘independent’ or ‘self-determining’ in the formal sense of the national self-determination idea employed in the early twentieth century, they are all interdependent on each other and informal influences. Such informal contstraints apply, of course, even in the cases where the individual members actually can exercise rights to join or leave the societies or communities concerned (freedom of association, discussed later). Yet, whatever qualifications may need to be put on the existentialist claim about existing freedom, the existentialist approach always refused the assumption that growth of freedom is necessarily progressive and beneficial. The proposition that freedom already exists can still be true even if people find freedom to be a burden.

Models and Model building

There is a problem which applies to any sort of model-building in social science; viz., that of obtaining measures for the concepts employed which might be sufficiently reliable and precise to add anything to a purely literary or anecdotal account. That problem certainly applies to those concepts used by existentialists which could also be relevant for social analysis; including freedom, absence or nothingness, authenticity, necessity, and anxiety or dread. It will be helpful to comment briefly on each of these:

(i) Freedom has been the most extensively employed in social and political thought generally, but when it comes to quantitative analysis it is commonly necessary to isolate particular forms of freedom like economic freedoms including work organisation or market choices, or political freedoms including ability to canvass contrary policies and opinions. There is nothing wrong with this as a basis for an empirical study, including cross-cultural or cross-polity comparisons, but such study needs to avoid the tendency of ideologies of ‘left’ and ‘right’ to carve freedom up into cultural and economic segments, which can be grossly misleading through ignoring interaction between the differing applications of freedom; reflected in the fact that regimes which curtail freedom are likely to curtail it in any context.

(ii) Nothingness or absence (Sartre’s Le Neant) is perhaps more familiar through Durkheim’s concept of anomie, which was defined as normlessness or confusion and uncertainty about norms, so that people do not know what to expect from one another. Durkheim himself came to empirical analysis of this concept through his belief, formed from his studies of suicide and the division of labour, that a state of anomie leads to deviant behaviour. His prescription for anomie typically took the form of seeking reinforcement of the conscience collective which is weak or non-existent in conditions of anomie, whether through religion or other common values. Now, the existentialist notion that a condition of freedom, which also emerges when social norms are weak or absent, and the anxiety or dread which nothingness carries with it, are unavoidable would imply that Durkheim’s prescription for deviance is doomed to fail. Although, no doubt influenced by a training in more traditional philosophy, Heidegger and Sartre tried to build their theories on a metaphysical ground (it is interesting that the earlier writers Kierkegaard and Nietzsche did not employ a metaphysical argument and in fact came closer to a purely empirical approach), the claim that freedom and nothingness are unavoidable is (potentially) a testable proposition which might be examined by looking at particular cases where education, political or religious authority, and other such means have been invoked in an effort to combat deviant or ‘anti-social’ behaviour, and seeing what, if anything, has been achieved. But with respect to anomie, or even a still more general conception of nothingness, a similar problem arises to that which applies to freedom itself: namely, that much argument about the significance of statistics on social phenomena is polemical and ideologically driven. It is notoriously difficult to cut through claims and counter-claims from particular ideologies and their opponents, who commonly have preconceived ideas about both freedom and its opposites, so as to arrive at reliable conclusions about what statistics of (say) crime, mental illness, marital breakdown, learning difficulty, or drug abuse can tell us about the effects any such conditions as anomie, nothingness, and freedom; or of attempts to combat them. Accordingly, when thought moves back to the concepts we use for interpreting the significance of social data, we find that the polemics are already in the dominant position and so-called ‘value-free’ social science fades into the background.

(iii) It is actually the idea of anxiety or dread itself where direct quantity measurement has the best chance of being feasible, by means of psychological studies, investigation of trends in mental illness, or patterns of therapy. It might be remembered in this context that Jaspers and Sartre in particular paid much attention to therapy and criticism of psychoanalysis and the former was himself a therapist. But the problem with polemical interpretation of statistics still attaches to those relating to health, and not least mental health. That may be modified by the fact that such possible causative factors as stress, levels of prosperity and poverty, employment, and crime are not necessarily found to connect in any simple way with health and measurements thereof. It should be noticed that this problem is in no way confined to existentialism. One reason for revival of interest in the ancient theme of happiness for purposes of political debate (the vogue for 'flourishing' remains more confined to intellectual circles) is that a mounting body of evidence, beginning with surveys in the United States since 1972 and Japan since as early as 1950, has emerged suggesting that a higher standard of living in the conventional sense of that term does not correlate with a greater sense of happiness and well-being amongst the general population. Professor Vani Borooah (2006) argues that health, quality of area where people live, and age are all much more important than income for happiness (however defined). But a focus on happiness in no way renders social phenomena easier to measure and interpret, whilst one way to understand existentialist themes would be as a warning against any simplistic view that human beings are motivated by desire for happiness.

For these reasons applying the model approach to ‘existentialism’ faces the problem typical in social science of starting from philosophical concepts and then having to break phenomena (including social phenomena) down into easy compartments for collection of empirical data. The question arises: can existentialist concepts can be helpful for understanding the condition of complex technological societies and the position of individual people living in them, even when prospects for obtaining measured variables in the conventional fashion of model-building are limited? This would still be distinct from adopting existentialism as a philosophical position, whereby the ‘existential’ condition might be argued to be inherent in the nature of human existence. It would still follow the logic whereby using a model in social affairs does not mean having no concern with values; rather it means that (ideally) such concern is deferred to a subsequent stage of thinking about what the model predicts, given that it is judged on the basis of observation to be useful, and then making any necessary value judgments and, in turn, decisions on that basis.

Yet the process of thought might have to find a different way of applying the logic of Abell’s 'hierarchy of scientific sophistication’, which he applied to model-building in sociology, in which one proceeds from concepts to development of propositions which may be related to one another and examined empirically in whatever ways that may be possible. That is, given that the usual method of using that logic is to break the concepts, and the categories which they cover, down into smaller sections from which it is easier to formulate propositions amenable to empirical examination. Professor Ball’s (1970) point that ‘[models are] not intended as descriptive per se, but to provide a conceptual framework with which to bring together information’; information which then backs up a decision, implies almost the opposite way of thinking to Abell’s; i.e., collect the information first and then try to work out a conceptual structure that will help in understanding it. With benefit of hindsight that can be seen as how Durkheim had proceeded in his study of suicide.

Using existentialist concepts for present societies

Would the ‘bottom up’ approach to using a model suggested by Ball, i.e., forecast individual elements in a system first and then attempt to combine them for the system as a whole, work with concepts found in existentialism?

1) Freedom and choice in contemporary societies – the very notion of freedom connects with the idea of making decisions and using information (including deciding which information to take seriously) for judging what is the best decision available. On the surface of things, there is currently an increasing trend to use of popular votes for applications ranging from talent shows to televised moral arguments. But at a deeper level more guidance may be obtained from the extent of exercise of individual freedom of association, especially right to membership of societies with controversial aims. In particular, that can be shown by how far this right is restricted, for instance by the perceived need to outlaw certain associations in the interests of security – leading to the old question of how far legitimate political process can meet the aspirations of groups which an outlawed association claims to represent; for instance, in case of ethnic or religious minority groups. That in turn becomes a crucial question for peacemaking and peacekeeping.

From the early nineteenth century to recently arguments about the reality and extent of freedom as an actual condition focused on capitalism and markets under competition. In my view the impact of capitalism and markets on freedom as we see it today is more ambiguous and uncertain than partisans of either ‘neoliberalism’ (formerly often known as New Right libertarianism or simply as following the market) or the radical democrat critique of capitalism would have us believe. Both of these outlooks assume there is no need to confront existential freedom extending to the basic principles which people follow in their lives. New Right apologists accepted that economic freedom can be combined with religious, family, or cultural constraints on individual behaviour; a presumption which such present day phenomena as the growth of mobility and resulting social and ethnic diversity within ‘multicultural’ societies must render extremely dubious. It is notable that earlier conservatives did not accept that presumption, although they tended in the Burkean tradition to concentrate on resisting radical blueprints for social change rather than looking at the routine operation of a market system which may have shown its full impact only with the coming of ‘affluent’ consumerism.

Where radical critics of capitalism’s contribution to freedom in the tradition of Herbert Marcuse or C. B. Macpherson are concerned, the position is somewhat different in the sense that they were more inclined to emphasise the emptiness of consumer indulgence. Central to their entire argument was the claim that the political system of ‘liberal’ democracy replicates the economic model of the maximising consumer and that this, together with accompanying inequality, breeds apathy. Macpherson (1977: 87-8) says ‘…a party system in an unequal society with a mass franchise….[requires] a blurring of issues and a diminution of the responsibility of governments to electorates, both of which reduce the incentive of the voters to exert themselves in making a choice.’ When the argument is moved onto prescription for the future there is once again an assumption that freedom in existential sense will be a rarity. Green (1985: 76-7) acknowledges that democracy, even in the participatory sense, will not do away with conflict, even fundamental conflict. But without the distorting effects of capitalism and its adjuncts of misallocation of resources and advertising, freedom and even diversity would not lead citizens to challenge the basic values (including equality) in the democracy. It is not possible to test this assumption decisively, especially as those who have experimented with cooperatives or neighbourhood action are probably self-selecting at least in some degree; that is, ipso facto they share a commitment. Contemporary charities and local activities certainly display a large measure of community spirit in many people but they can also frequently display discord, as is well illustrated by cases like transport or the gun culture in the USA. The sheer persistence of modern society in face of its critics; conservative, ecological and radical democrat alike, may indicate that the idea that removing capitalism would be sufficient for creating a community where freedom still exists is much too simplistic.

2) Anxiety – although currently the most prominent debate falls into the area of equality (of income) and its possible part as an antidote to social problems like crime and illness, these clearly influence the extent of anxiety. So do other factors more closely related to modernity, such as those discussed by Giddens (1991) of uncertainty and multiple choice and the increasing degree of interaction between globalising influences and personal dispositions. Needless to say, people with dispositions critical of global influences, for instance in the economy and culture, can be expected to be particularly affected as regards their levels of anxiety. But alongside any broad theoretical interpretations there can be empirical survey evidence available such as the surveys reported in 2007 from the life assurance firm CPP and by Travelodge indicating high levels of stress and anxiety – the latter especially in relation to identity theft, terrorism, and health risks – leading to widespread insomnia problems. Naturally, that sort of empirical evidence will be more significant if it is replicated across varied states and cultures, but the effect on anxiety of some characteristic modern (or ‘post-modern’) developments ranging from multiple choices and loss of traditional guidelines to health risks from drug-resistant diseases must be expected not to be confined to any one state or society.

3) Authenticity – this is probably the hardest of the existentialist concepts to study in any remotely scientific fashion. If we think of ‘authentic’ in the dictionary sense as ‘reliable’, ‘trustworthy’, ‘of undisputed origins’, or ‘genuine’; it already carries the implication that an authentic way of life would be one which avoids bad faith, i.e., pretence, so that it would be authenticity’s absence which is poblematic. Authenticity might indeed be thought to be at least as conspicuous by its absence in modern societies as in more traditional ones. Heidegger’s analyses of language which sought usages of words with genuine and undisputed origins (‘primordial’ in Heidegger’s terms) can have their place in addressing false information or propaganda, hopefully furthering authentic thought in the process. Where existentialist writers were concerned, the point was not that they claimed authenticity to be commonplace in everyday human affairs – quite the contrary – but authenticity is necessary for true being. In light of the problems with truth in modern societies it may be argued that the existentialists still have a real point to make here in connection with values of honesty, pursuit of truth, and trustworthiness (to oneself as well as others).

From that perspective, it can be said that while in contemporary societies activities contrary to authenticity, like pretences to various forms of status, or misuses of language in contexts ranging from advertising to jargon or slang of some groups of younger people, are common in the present, the search for authenticity may be found also to be widespread. In some cases like a participatory democrat or ecologist critique of capitalism and its alleged irrationality examples of what might be called non-authenticity, such as the manufacture of consumer wants, are used to make the case with the implication that a healthier society would be more authentic. Other instances might include spread of populist forms of religious worship or spiritual practices including meditation which do not require sacerdotal intermediaries between the individual and the spiritual, or even the self-mockery displayed by much contemporary dress, music and social behaviour, where more traditional standards appear as pretentious.

There is, of course, no guarantee that any such attempts to pursue authenticity will in fact succeed in enabling people to live a more authentic life than they were before – indeed each can turn into new forms of pretence. An intellectual critique of society can become a pretence to intellectual superiority, whilst unconventional forms of behaviour, worship, or dress can each become artifices of their own. But the existentialist viewpoint might be said to predict that, as soon as that happens in the outside world, new forms of search for authenticity (perhaps still more bizarre) will appear to take their place. It might very well be the case that the plethora of fads or ‘movements’ in our societies, some of which, like participatory democracy, neo-conservativism, Christian evangelism, environmentalism, or meditation, have already proved significant in a public sense, whether or not they prove to have ‘staying power’, displays search for authenticity repeatedly at work. When existentialists spoke of authenticity or authentic life as essential to true being, they clearly connected with a real element in human psychology.

Distinction of existentialist model from pluralisms

The very use of existentialist concepts leaves a sharp divide between a social model based upon existentialism, and any of the positions known as pluralism. For purposes of explaining this further, I propose to make a distinction between two pluralisms: one most prevalent in political theory and one most prevalent in ethical theory. These two forms of pluralism in contemporary thought in fact contain two very different theses about contemporary societies.

The political theory of pluralism, as expounded by such writers as Lipset (1960) and Dahl (1965) since 1950, typically argues that groups and interests in contemporary democracies (sometimes called ‘liberal’ democracies) are sufficiently diverse and spread through the community to guarantee democratic freedoms.2 Dahl in particular was responsible for the so-called ‘arena theory’ of democracy, according to which government is the crucial area for the study of power. There are numerous elite groups and bases of power but none is able to dominate over a wide range of issues and thereby overshadow the government arena. The other groups are fragmented and variable – they shift in and out of the poltical arena, and therefore leave the diffusion of power which democracy needs.

Now, this form of pluralist argument has already been subject to repeated criticism from exponents of a more proactive type of citizenship for ignoring the degree to which market and capitalist relations are taken for granted by all concerned. I would, however, take issue with both the pluralist argument and its radical critics in a different way because I believe both assume a degree of consensus about fundamental values within contemporary democracies which appears not to exist. In some common cases, like human rights vis-a-vis loyalty to country and related issues like aid and trade; taxation for social purposes and incentives or reward; or the presence of diverse religious groups and, perhaps, division between traditionalist and modernist or militant and moderate groups within each of them, the diversity seems to extend beyond what would be implied by either political pluralists or the proponents of what Mark Warren (1992: 8-20) has called ‘expansive democracy’. Certainly some of these issues do bear on the operation of capitalism and markets and whether other principles are required, but more generally they can throw up conflicts and choices of moral significance, and indeed existential significance for those individuals who confront them, and must cast doubt on the assumption of a common political and moral culture. Moreover, the very presence of such issues within the liberal democracies as we find them comes in face of official assertion of shared values – well exemplified by the motto ‘In God we Trust’ – and suggests that an existentialist approach to thinking about them would be nearer the mark.

The ethical version of pluralism, as represented by writers such as Browne (1990), John Gray (1995), and B. Parekh (1994), takes a quite different stand from its political counterpart. Here, we find the argument that diverse cultures do indeed have different standards and ideals and the point for society and government is to find ways to enable these to live together side-by-side as it were. A common target in these arguments is any philosophy like that of John Rawls (1971: 227), for example, which tries to set up a universal standard by which everyone can be judged. (Rawls himself later moved to a more pluralist position than in A Theory of Justice but that is not the concern here.) At the same time, the individualist assumptions of political pluralism – most notably the notion that a right of freedom of association holds ensuring that groups and associations with which government has to deal are voluntary in the sense that individual members are free to join or leave without social or financial penalty, and that people can be expected to remain in associations which further their interests – are typically not accepted in the ethical version which emphasises the involuntary nature of cultural groups to which we belong. Here again I would take issue, but in part for a different reason from the case of political pluralism.

Michael Walzer (1983) provides an example of overlap between the political and ethical strands in pluralism outlined above, since he links his concern for justice and social democracy together with sympathy for an active conception of citizenship with a recognition of the ‘thick’ (his term) complexity of real communities. In some ways, including his idea that social justice need not be a single principle or even set of principles about distribution but a dialogue through which different ‘spheres’ of social life may adopt differing principles, Walzer finds a more realistic version of pluralism than many others. However, there is still the problem that room needs to be found for mobility of individuals between the ‘spheres’ of industry, religion, leisure, and so on, together with arguments and fluidity of decisions within each of them as well as within a wider state or society. The sheer rapidity of technological change ensures that the rules within particular spheres will remain liable to uncertainty and change. The effect of new technologies on medical ethics illustrates the point well with regard to one of the most conservative of professions.

If political pluralism sometimes errs through understating the range and depth of diversity and conflict in modern democracies, the weakness of ethical pluralism may be also a matter of understating that range, but in a different way. Political issues such as low taxation and incentives or reward vis-a-vis welfare benefits, including perhaps for those like single parents who may be said to be blameworthy for their predicament; or claims of national interest vis-a-vis environmental considerations, are seen to be contentious not just between states or cultures, but also within them, frequently including within religious communities. In many cases issues of this kind, which are simultaneously political and ethical, define subgroups or subcultures within a larger community which may play a larger part in the lives and attitudes of their members than the larger units to which they all belong. The divisions between these subgroups both cut across and supplement divisions between ethnic and religious communities which also form part of the rough texture of modern liberal democracies. An argument like that of Gray (1995) for a legal framework which recognises plural communities within a society (not least a democracy) has to confront the sheer number and fluidity of groups which may be informal at the best of times, but which form and reform constantly as specific issues wax and wane in the public view. Yet it is a common experience for members of these opposing groups and lobbies to despise one another, sometimes more deeply than opposing professional politicians ever would.

Adopting an existentialist viewpoint can take account of these points in a way that either form of pluralism cannot. This is principally because the concepts associated with existentialism can serve to characterise phenomena, both political and psychological, which tend to be specific to contemporary societies, or, at least more prevalent within them. Just because it makes no use of these concepts, political pluralism does not offer an account of phenomena like anxiety or search for authenticity. Alternatively, in the case of ethical pluralism the point is taken that a state of normlessness would be both painful and harmful, but we are left with the task of reconciling conflicts between norms in the first place. Even Taylor’s (1992) effort to address the ‘politics of recognition’ which developed into another instance of blending political and ethical pluralism, tried to place the diversity of values underneath a rubric of unassailable rights guaranteed in a constitution. Perhaps the especially far-reaching sense existentialism gives to that idea of freedom allows it to fit with a context where people can decide which association they wish to belong to; sometimes even which state they will belong to, and through such choices, which principles and meaning they intend their lives to follow. Pluralism in either form is apt to become too confident about this world, as it does not permit the concepts of anxiety and authenticity (more accurately, search for authenticity) to point to tension and confusion therein.

Freedom of association and thematic decentralisation

It seems that the nearest to a legal structure for pluralism compatible with the scale and extent of freedom that we actually experience is already in place in contemporary democracies; i.e., freedom of association. Now, freedom of association as a human right or as one of the rights held by citizens in a constitutional democracy means the right to join, set up, belong to, and leave any association, party, club, or society. This applies the form of associationalism argued for by Paul Hirst in Associative Democracy (1994), because the right of freedom of association is a guaranteed right for individuals, subject to the contentious matter of banning and ruling illegal associations like terrorist organisations or political parties which are held (or declare themselves) to be a threat to constitutional process. As such it contrasts with membership of kinship, tribe, or medieval guild associations not seen as matters of individual choice but as the position into which the individual is born.

Hirst had supposed that freedom of association is typical of the rights and freedoms accepted under liberal democracy in this, as in other ways, because it takes for granted a ‘liberal and pluralistic society’. Yet there may be good reasons to argue that even the notions of ‘liberalism’ or ‘liberal democracy’ do not convey in full what freedom of association in such societies really means. That is to say, in the case of freedom of association as it is actually practised within existing legal frameworks without arguing that it applies only to some ideal type of that freedom, such as Hirst might be said to have in mind.

The reasons I would offer for arguing that freedom of association is better interpreted in terms of existentialism rather than either liberalism or the different forms of pluralism can be placed under two broad headings: (i) Freedom of association is an individual right; illustrated through the simple fact that I may resign membership of an association, club, society, party, or whatever, and leave to join something else instead. In contrast to what Hirst calls ‘communities of fate’ my membership is not determined by my birth and social position, but is left to my own decision to continue or leave as I see fit. If I disapprove of the direction an association is taking, or simply wish to leave for personal reasons like financial straits making the subscription unaffordable or lack of time to devote to its activities, I can do so at any time. In a confused way highlighted by the questions of terrorism and bans on political parties held inimical to (liberal) democracy, there is likely to be a prohibition on membership of associations which threaten to use violence and intimidation to further their aims – a prohibition supplemented by the normal criminal law. The confusion here is illustrated by a case like Hamas, who may say that in circumstances of a military occupation they are not permitted to pursue their objectives in ways compatible with a ‘liberal or pluralistic society’ – because such does not exist – and therefore violent methods are legitimate, even in democratic terms. Defenders of the Isreali state say that it already is democratic in its domestic arrangements and so Hamas’ claim is not valid. What a case like this illustrates is that, as the advocates of multiculturalism realise, there has to be at least a measure of reconciliation sufficient to agree on the presence of a state at all before liberalism or pluralism can become effective. Yet even when we think of the regular forms of association in liberal and pluralistic societies, and accept prohibition of violent methods (anti-democratic aims are more debatable), we find freedom of association going beyond usual notions of liberalism. For example, it extends to my right to join and work for a society like the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children holding values sharply contrary to those normally understood as ‘liberal’.3 For leisure activity I may join a medieval society and take part in combat tournaments on the same basis as any other sporting activities involving danger like mountain climbing or canoeing. Just as important is that whatever associations I belong to, I can try to persuade others to join also, subject only to the proviso that illegal methods of persuasion and fundraising, such as violence or fraud, are not permitted.

In an elementary sense what may be called the housekeeping rules for a club or society, like obligation to keep accounts and election of officers, are the legal framework for a plural system that we have. It should be recognised that rules of that kind restrict societies only in a procedural sense, they do not limit them as regards their values or aims. But for many people membership of clubs and societies; whether attached to their work or careers, beliefs, residence, or hobbies, is a mainstay of their social life and this is where we may find the dimension of community within contemporary societies. It is certainly possible to argue that the dimension of community is not adequately represented thereby in our lives, and there is a large turnover in the world of associations of all kinds, although many people will know of some clubs like the Football Association which have survived through to a long history. Yet the very turnover follows naturally from freedom of association, and reflects the fluidity of modernity in all its forms.

(ii) The core of a participatory or communitarian critique of contemporary societies and democracies since the 1950s had been the demand for devolution of power down to smaller units than the structures of the nation state or business corporations; a demand partly reflected in movements for workers’ cooperatives in industry or decentralisation of government. But none reflected it entirely because those movements meant decentralisation only by place, area, or function and also recent events around the world have shown that many contrasting political or religious movements can devolve power in those ways. The phenomenon of clubs and societies reveals a different way to decentralise power.

Some associations are indeed definable by place or function, such as trade unions and trade associations, or local government associations and even neighbourhood and residents’ associations. Yet even in these cases there are typically objectives which go beyond simple representation of place and function to involve the quality of members’ lives, protection against unfair practices and so on. However, the broad class of associations includes a vast array of clubs and societies not defined by place or function at all (or only to the limited extent of being the society for that interest or activity in this particular town, village, or neighbourhood), but by objectives, interests, activities, and aims. The extreme case is religious societies or moral cause groups which take their entire raison d’etre from the beliefs and principles they stand for. These are the ultimate in decentralisation by ideas, values, and principles – in the broadest sense by themes. Such societies have participating members, officers, funds, and rules as much as any others, and they can provide – sometimes more strongly than most – a community and public life for those involved in them.

The reason I would give for suggesting that this phenomenon which I term thematic decentralisation is better understood through existentialist ideas than (ethical) pluralism, or even liberalism, is that within contemporary democracies the individual holds the rights of freedom of association with regard to these societies whose principles can reach to the very core of a person’s idea of self, meaning, and value. It is true that what happens when anyone exercises freedom of choice about such an association is not actually a matter of ‘creating’ values from nothing in the more florid language of existentialist writers, but there is a process of selecting out values for oneself from those on offer and sometimes doing so at a far more fundamental level than is typically implied (rather than stated explicitly) in pluralist political theory. In the contemporary democracy there is either strict separation of religious societies from the state or established churches have lost the power they once had, and their own members may leave if they wish. That in itself is a kind of decentralisation of power.

The most controversial application is probably in the area where place and themes overlap most consistently: namely, ethnic groups. Contemporary democracies do permit people to adopt or discard ethnic identities existing within the state but the question of how far they have, or should have, the right to become citizens of a different state is one of the hottest issues in contemporary politics. An example of the tensions that can arise is the German state requiring immigrants to learn German language and culture whilst the German government made an attempt to persuade computer programmers from India to come to Germany in order to fill a shortage in the labour market. Similar issues around migration and labour skills are now prominent in much of the world as communication problems around diverse languages and cultural differences of dress become commonplace. Whether such cases and the broader questions raised by efforts in Europe and North America to clamp down on illegal immigration must be seen as qualifying my argument in this paper: that is, whether they are best understood through cultural and political pluralism or still through a form of existentialism, is a matter for debate. It is clearly true that migration is restricted and that different states, even within the supranational association of the European Union, have differing policies for dealing with actual or potential migrants. Yet the very political tension created by immigration issues and populist movements claiming to address them is a powerful example of the way individuals within each state or political community have differing feelings and concerns about issues crucial to their own identities and sense of worth and, however uneasily, cannot be prevented from showing them.


A further point which is illustrated by migration issues is that thematic decentralisation does not necessarily mean people beoming detached from orthodox political structures. In that case, divergent viewpoints can be expressed through political parties, which at once work through the state or provide legitimate opposition and at the same time express divergent ideas and aspirations of individual persons. In one sense, that sort of development has vindicated Macpherson’s view that participation might be fostered and apathy countered by reforming existing democracies rather than by simply bypassing them with smaller structures. But in another sense it suggests something very different: whether decentralisation by aims and objectives and thence by values and interests means devolving power down to small communities defined in these ways or means involving people in the existing system of a democratic state depends upon the particular issues and themes at stake, and whether they involve legislation or other action by a government, not upon the structures per se. Countering apathy can be simply a matter of ensuring that politics does not remain beached on issues that no longer concern the people as they may have done in the past. As for questions about the effects of capitalism and markets, the ambivalent attitude of a business community which demands a skilled and educated workforce whilst sharing popular anxieties about migration illustrates that these may appear indirectly as well as in a direct form.

Following from that it emerges that for individuals to be confronted with ‘existential’ choices as to values and meaning of their existences, they do not necessarily have to be detached from the social mainstream or even the state provided the latter permits them to express personal views and feelings which may diverge from whatever may be commonplace, as democracies most often do. This does not mean so great a departure from existentialist writers as might be supposed. As when Heidegger, for instance, analysed use of tools in work and use of language, the aspect of social construction was frequently present in existentialist thinking. Sartre insisted that political commitment can be an expression of existential choice. The difference between their arguments and the one in this paper is more one of extent; the argument here implies that the social context itself can place individual people in what the existentialists understood as freedom. A common theme between existentialism and democratic pluralism or even communitarianism may be that however much people try to escape from the condition of freedom the nature of many political and moral issues does not allow them to do so permanently, especially in a democracy where politicians and others in powerful positions (such as representatives of associations) so often depend upon the seal of approval from those who choose to support their positions.


  1. Dostoevsky’s dialectic in ‘The Voice from Underground’ is discussed by James C. Wernham in relation to Berdyaev and Shestov, both of whom had strong affinities with existentialism. (James C. Wernham, 1968, Two Russian Thinkers, An Essay on Berdyaev and Shestov, University of Toronto Press.)
  2. Theories of group activity in democratic politics, and American politics in particular, date back to The Process of Government by Arthur F. Bentley (1908, Chicago, University of Chicago Press) but the work of Lipset and Dahl is more recent: including Lipset, Seymour M., (1960) Political Man: The Social Bases of Politics, New York, Anchor Books, and Dahl, Robert, (1965) A Preface to Democratic Theory, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, Rand McNally, (1967), Pluralist Democracy in the United States: Conflict and Consent, Chicago.
  3. The extreme vagueness of the appellation ‘liberal’ is shown up by the way some features commonly included in liberalism will readily appear amongst those espousing causes not seen as ‘liberal’. For instance, Rebecca Kiessling’s pro-life website ( includes a rights-based argument against abortion except in cases where the mother’s life is in danger, and also provides a voice for a group (women pregnant from rape) which usually receives little public attention.


  1. Abell, Peter, (1971), Model Building in Sociology, London, Weidenfelf & Nicolson, pp 4-5.
  2. Ball, R. J., (1970), ‘Econometric Forecasting’, Mathematical Model Building in Economics and Industry, Second Series, Griffin & Co., pp 4-5.
  3. Borooah, Professor Vani, (2006) ‘What Makes People Happy? Some Evidence from Northern Ireland’, Journal of Happiness Studies, Vol 7,427-465.
  4. Derek Browne, (Dec 1990),’Ethics without Morality’, Australasian Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 68, No. 4, 395-412; John Gray,(1995), Enlightenment’s Wake, London, Routledge; Bhikhu Parekh, (1994) ‘Cultural Diversity and Liberal Democracy’, Defining and Measuring Democracy, David Beetham (ed.), SAGE Publications, 199-221.
  5. Dahl, Robert, (1965), A Preface to Democratic Theory, pp 32, 48-9, 145; Pluralist Democracy in the United States, p 38.
  6. Downs, Anthony, (1957), An Economic Theory of Democracy, Harper & Row.
  7. Gray, John, (1995), Enlightenment’s Wake, politics and culture at the close of the modern age, London, Routledge.
  8. Green, (1985), Retrieving Democracy, pp. 76-7.
  9. Heidegger, Martin, (1996), Being and Time, Joan Stambaugh (trans.), Albany, State University of New York Press; —–(1993),’On the Origin of the Work of Art’, Martin Heidegger, Basic Writings, Revised edn., David Farrell Krell (ed.), London, Routledge, 140-212;
    —-‘The Way to Language’, Ibid, 394-426;
    —–(1992), The Concept of Time, William McNeill trans., Oxford & Cambridge, Mass., Blackwell, 10E.
  10. Jaspers, Karl, (1969), Philosophy, Vol. II, E. B. Ashton trans., Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 158-9.3.
  11. Macpherson, C. B., (1977), The Life and Times of Liberal Democracy, Oxford, Oxford University Press, pp. 87-8, Ch. V. The classic statement of the critique of consumerism and notions of democracy allegedly based on it comes from Herbert Marcuse, (1964), One Dimensional Man, Boston, Beacon Press; but Macpherson, C. B., (1966), The Real World of Democracy, Oxford, Clarendon Press, and The Life and Times of Liberal Democracy; also Green, Philip, Retrieving Democracy, In Search of Civic Equality, London, Methuen, include this kind of critique in their prescriptions for the future.
  12. Rawls, John, (1971), A Theory of Justice, Cambridge, Mass., The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, p. 227.
  13. Sartre, Jean-Paul, (1958), Being and Nothingness, An Essay on Phenomenological Ontology, Hazel E. Barnes trans., Methuen & Co., Ltd, p. 438.
    —— (1965),’Bad Faith’, The Philosophy of Existentialism, Wade Baskin (ed.), New York, Philosophical Library, 147-186.
  14. Cited by George Steiner, (1978), Heidegger, Frank Kermode (ed.), Fontana Modern Masters, p. 102.
  15. Walzer, Michael, (1983),Spheres of Justice: A Defence of Pluralism and Equality, New York, Basic Books.
  16. Mark Warren, ‘Democratic Theory and Self-Transformation’, American Political Science Review, Vol 86, No. 1 (March 1992), 8-20.