WHAT must it be like to reject all of our beliefs? Liberalism, humanism, neoliberalism, socialism, Christianity – indeed, all religion – in fact ALL the characteristics and ideas with which we define ourselves. All gone. Even the category of being human. What if we only care about ourselves and have no interest in others?
Well, that’s the startling position of the maverick philosopher Max Stirner (1806-1856) demands that we do.
He is anti-moral, anti-political and anti-social philosophy – indeed, at first sight at least, he is anti everything. It does at least have some resonance with our atomistic society. And a common response to this is to build communities again, to build a political and social system that reconnects isolated individuals in order to create the sort of society that enables autonomous individuals to flourish across all demographics. Stirner, however, is utterly contemptuous of such efforts but, surprisingly, he is not a nihilist. According to Jacob Blumenfield in All Things are Nothing to Me Stirner argues that it is ‘only after we learn learn how to care for ourselves can we begin to care for each other as singular equals, and not as generic representatives of groups, classes, identities, and states’.
This, claims Blumenfield, is ‘Stirner’s provocation’. From this hollowing out Stirner ‘defends insurrection, advocates crime, and incites individuals to find each other in free unions or communes that can expand ones power against the state’.
For Stirner ‘any theory which only considers the aggregate of conditions…from which something emerges will never be able to fully show how that emergent something becomes itself in all its singularity’. And he includes all theories including the ones mentioned above but also materialism, empiricism, idealism – even humanness itself. Because, as Blumenfield explains, what Stirner calls the ‘unman’ refers to the uniqueness of the individual ‘which is not explainable by humanness’.
Interestingly, it has been noted that Stirner’s ideas seem to chime with the ancient Hellenistic philosophy of Stoicism, which asks how ‘I should live’ not how ‘I should live in a community’. But, writes Blumenfield, Stirner’s position has nothing to do with egoism. And that is because the ego is a concept, not a real thing. To recycle a phrase by Gilbert Ryle when he was attacking Descartes’s mysterious immaterial self, the ego is just a ‘ghost in the machine’. “In other words,” writes Blumenfield “the actuality of any unique ‘I’ is not identical with its expression in language or thought.” For Stirner, we must bring to the fore all our theories and preconceptions – and then dissolve them.
One of Stirner’s central claims is that freedom cannot be given by a government, state or political party – it can only be taken. Freedom is not a gift. It is, rather, appropriated by the individual. And while political liberalism is a positive development, it is not the answer because it ‘pierces through the veneer of freedom, but goes no further’. Meanwhile, socialism unmasks exploitation and inequality, but is problematic because labour is taken to be the new essence of humanity – and, like humanness, labour is only on of the individual’s properties, not its core essence.
The key shift is to regard individuals as owning themselves and, as owners, they ‘make themselves individuals’. Blumenfield writes: “To be an owner is to individuate oneself through the appropriation of one’s own conditions and the dissolution of everything alien to them.” But, and this is crucial, owning oneself does NOT mean self-interest or selfishness. So there is no succour here for Ayn Rand or the libertarianism of Robert Nozick. Blumenfield argues that the modern fashion for ‘finding oneself’ often means simply ‘adapting one’s soul to the needs of the market’. It is a critique of ubiquitous mindfulness in the West that it merely helps the individual to adapt to poor working conditions, rather than fighting to change them, thus normalizing the poor working conditions. Stirner exhorts us not to ‘know oneself’ but to ‘own oneself’.
One of the main criticism of political liberalism is that it often relies on a mythical pre-civilized state of nature in which humanity is either in a brutish and chaotic state (Hobbes) or in a noble one which is destroyed by civilization (Rousseau). But Stirner will have none of this, even though he is often accused of holding such a position. According to Blumenfield, Stirner argues that ‘society precedes individualism, binding us in all sorts of relations of dependency from birth onwards’. Indeed, although Marx was severely critical of Stirner, the latter’s position is actually closer to the former than to the individualism of Hobbes or Rousseau because, for him, society is the state of nature. And leaving society means not alienation but an ‘association of free individuals, building the commune’ sounding now more like the anarchist Kropotkin than Marx or the liberals. As Blumenfield writes: “Breaking social ties allows us to associate ourselves freely and create new forms of intercourse.” And in the process of breaking down the barriers between US and THEM we must, urges Stirner, unite with others to ‘abolish the conditions that constrain us’, again sounding like Marx but moving beyond his insistence that humanity if defined by work.
For Stirner, then, individualism, properly understood, just is communism and Blumenfield bewails that, sadly, ‘but unsurprisingly’ the secret of communism has not been taken up up since Stirner ‘neither by communists not individualists, Marxists nor anarchists’. Maybe that’s because Stirner’s vision is psychologically impossible. Is it really possible for humans to dissolve all their preconceptions without creating new conceptions; to reject humanism as being only a part of what it means to be an individual? Maybe not – and maybe Stirner serves as reminder that communism, properly understood, may be unachievable. But he may still also serve as a purge or corrective to our fondly held beliefs. And, perhaps, an assault on the selfish egoism of Homo Economicus, while reinforcing the need to ‘abolish the conditions that constrain us’.