Updated: Mar 22
It quickly became the word of Brexit, but what does it mean? And how did Brexit become such an existential crisis? For some people, if not for everyone, obviously.
The phrase of 2016, prompted by the result of the UK EU referendum, would soon be applied to almost every major event that followed, as well as finding itself on the lips of media commentators worldwide.
The election of Donald Trump as US president five months after the UK EU referendum would be the next great existential crisis, followed by the victory of the Italian Five Star Movement and (former Northern) League in 2018, prompting Europe’s second Existential Crisis in two years.
In this context, in the Age of Division ‘existential crisis’ can best be viewed as having its roots in the 20th-century philosophical movement that emphasises the uniqueness of each human existence in freely making its own self-defining choices. On this basis, the starting point of any existential enquiry is the experience of the individual human subject (not merely the thinking subject, but also the acting, feeling and living human individual).
So, while the predominant value of existentialist thought is commonly believed to be that of freedom, its primary virtue is authenticity and, in the view of the existentialist devotee, the individual’s starting point should be characterised by an ‘existential attitude’ or by a sense of disorientation, confusion or dread in the face of a meaningless or absurd world.
Existentialism is a philosophical movement that became popular after World War II, thanks to its popularisation by Sartre (oh no!) who read Heidegger while in a Prisoner of War camp. It also strongly influenced other disciplines during this post-war period apart from philosophy, including theology, drama, art, literature and psychology.
Aa a result, a foregrounding of the existential principle in political analysis and debate became a key feature of the New Left canon (Sartre again), which may explain why in the post-New Left political universe it almost immediately became a starting point in any discussion about Brexit.
Confusing, disorientating and illogical to free-thinking 21st-century individuals, Brexit was almost destined to be an existential crisis, if only because it seemed to those opposed to it, to be so absurd.
But, if so, Brexit is an existential crisis most pressingly for whom, exactly?
Or, to put it another way, which moral-political universe and whose place in it was disintegrating in the festival of democracy that defined 2016 (and anon)? Was it an existential crisis, for example, for those voters who had taken the opportunity to reject the Centre Left and Right in Europe and the United States? Or for those (in many instances) former workers who had seen their jobs and security outsourced to another country, was it really the potential downfall of their meaningful and moral universe?
Or was it only an existential crisis for those who had not so much lost the debate(s) and their control of power, but who had never for a moment assumed that they could lose their grip on power in the first place? For the apparent winners and liberated individuals of the New World Order, did an outbreak of democracy threaten how they believed the world was and should always be?
In the media, in a certain dominant part of the media (what would soon be dubbed ‘Big Media’), the existential crisis found its nervous flowering just as the world decisively changed at a speed that left even the potential winners spinning. It was also in this Big Media maelstrom that the drumbeat of Crisis! Crisis! Existential Crisis! would beat on and on until it no longer had any meaning.
At which point it became the new normal.