In a recent post, I mentioned that I would begin studying individualist anarchism to determine whether I would be comfortable in applying the label “individualist anarchist” to myself. I have made good on that promise, and based on what I’ve read so far, I can say that I am comfortable with that label, with a few caveats:
- I still think that labeling one’s self is problematic because it leads others to make assumptions about you. Labeling others, of course, is equally problematic. It ignores the uniqueness of the individual.
- When I say that I’m comfortable with the label “individualist anarchist,” that doesn’t mean that this is set in stone. Learning is a lifelong process. As I continue to learn and grow, my political philosophy is subject to change.
- A more accurate or specific label for myself would be individualist veganarchist. (Veganarchism is a portmanteau of veganism and anarchism.) However, I haven’t quite worked out to what extent individualist anarchism and veganarchism are compatible. For example, how can we reconcile the sovereignty of the individual with the idea that individuals should not exploit nonhuman animals? I’m sure this can be worked out, in the same way that individuals should not exploit other human individuals. The key is moving beyond speciesism, and viewing animals as individuals deserving the same sovereignty as us.
- All these labels/ideologies are problematic in another way: they are “fixed ideas” or “spooks in the mind,” to borrow from Max Stirner.
I am currently reading Stirner’s The Ego and Its Own. So far, I am in love with this book. Many passages send shivers down my spine, while, admittedly, other parts seem long-winded, clumsily worded, pedantic, and/or obscure. But I suppose they seem that way to me mostly because I am far removed from the historical context in which Stirner was writing.
I’ll try to summarize what I’ve read of the book so far, giving myself the liberty to word it in a way that makes it more relevant to my historical context:
I am told that I must concern myself with many things other than myself. If I concern myself with only myself, then I am selfish, and that is bad. Religious people tell me that I should concern myself with God. Nonreligious moralists, who are really no different from religious people in my eyes, tell me that I should concern myself with the “good” — which, you will notice, is only one letter removed from “god.” There are many fixed ideas, all external to myself, to choose from. I can devote my life to my nation, to the revolution, to capitalism, to communism, to anti-fascism, to social justice, and so on.
But to what external cause or idea does God devote Himself? None. God is concerned only with Himself. So God is an egoist. “The nation” is an egoist, for it does not care if I die fighting for it. To sacrifice my own self-concern is to be subservient to someone or something else which, hypocritically enough, is only concerned with himself or itself. I reject this subservience. Rather than serve an egoist, I will be an egoist myself.
My only concern is myself. I am unique. I am not “human,” I am not “man,” I am not “straight, able, white man.” Those are generalities, and they ignore the reality of my uniqueness as an individual.
I am not the categories into which I have been lumped. I am Johnny Fucking Tisdale. Hear me roar!
My own experience confirms that many “nonreligious” people have not truly freed their minds of religious baggage. They still think in terms of good and evil. They instinctively utter the names of deities in times of great pleasure or distress. They say “God bless you” when I sneeze. But most importantly, they moralize things that shouldn’t be moralized. (What really should be moralized?) They moralize politics, and this has disastrous consequences. Religious zealotry is replaced by ideological fervor.
This moralization of politics is the focus of Jonathan Haidt, a moral psychologist. In his cross-cultural research he has found what he calls “the five foundations of morality.”
Haidt has determined that political divisiveness results primarily from the fact that liberals focus on the first two while conservatives focus on the latter three.
To moralize something is essentially to make it “sacred.” And when we view something as sacred, Haidt says, we are prevented from thinking objectively about it. In Stirner’s words, “Before the sacred, people lose all sense of power and all confidence; they occupy a powerless and humble attitude toward it.” Whatever is sacred cannot be questioned. And this is why, in my opinion, nothing should be sacred, especially in the realm of politics, where it is of utmost importance for us to question everything, to use science to determine the best methods for arranging society in such a way to maximize sovereignty for the greatest number of individuals.
Haidt says that in leftist thought there are seven “sacred” groups:
- African Americans
- Native Americans
The more your group has been victimized historically, the more weight your opinion should be given. In social justice circles, if a white man and a black woman disagree, the disagreement is not solved on the basis of the merit of the individuals’ ideas. The white man will be silenced. After all, if he has his own opinion and tries to express it, he is just “whitesplaining” and “mansplaining.”
Obviously, the individualist anarchist will not blindly go along with this, for a couple of reasons. First of all, the goal of anarchism is a world without hierarchies. It doesn’t matter if you invert the prevailing hierarchy to create a new one in a misguided attempt to serve justice. An inverted hierarchy is still a hierarchy. Secondly, individualist anarchism is all about the sovereignty and uniqueness of the individual. In this respect, hierarchical thinking and identity politics are an affront to all, whether you’re at the top or the bottom of the hierarchy, because they ignore your individuality and reduce you to being nothing more than a member of your group.
Post-left anarchism (also influenced heavily by Max Stirner) presents a cogent critique of identity politics:
Post-left anarchy tends to criticize what it sees as the partial victimizing views of identity politics… Accepting the social role of victim — in whatever one of its many forms — is choosing to not even create one’s life for oneself or to explore one’s real relationships to the social structures. All of the partial liberation movements — feminism, gay liberation, racial liberation, workers’ movements and so on — define individuals in terms of their social roles. Because of this, these movements not only do not include a reversal of perspectives which breaks down social roles and allows individuals to create a praxis built on their own passions and desires; they actually work against such a reversal of perspective.
Of course, the right moralizes other things, like sexuality, tradition, and authority. Those political moralizations are to be rejected as well, as will be discussed briefly below. But I focus my criticism on the left, because the left is the tribe to which I have so long been a member, so it is leftist groupthink from which I must liberate myself. Besides, it is obvious enough that tradition and authority must be rejected to maximize individual sovereignty, so there is no need for me to discuss that at length.
I have been dealing with a lot of leftist ideological fervor lately, because I have been openly criticizing certain tactics and ideas trending in the antifa movement. In particular, I criticize unprovoked attacks on people we disagree with (Nazi punching) and any limits on free speech. One friend suggested that I am trying to portray antifa as “evil” (there goes that religious baggage again). Another said that I am not an anarchist but a liberal, and that the “hundreds” of anarchists he knows would laugh me out of the room for the liberal nonsense I’ve been peddling. I sent him a message, saying that I value his input and would love to discuss ideas and tactics with him. But I suggested that his criticism should be a little more constructive if we were to have a productive and meaningful conversation. He obviously wasn’t interested, because he blocked me without bothering to respond.
Given the prevailing political polarization, many are unable to see that I am not engaged in a project of wholesale demonization of antifa, but rather a careful strategic analysis of certain tactics and ideas. Every group, every movement, must be open to criticism, especially from within, lest its members succumb to groupthink. But many antifascists seem to think that if you criticize any aspect of antifa whatsoever, then you must be (*gasp*) one of them — a Nazi sympathizer at best, an actual Nazi at worst.
What now follows from this for the judgment of the moral man? This: that he throws the egoist into the only class of men that he knows besides moral men, into that of the — immoral. He cannot do otherwise; he must find the egoist immoral in everything in which the egoist disregards morality. If he did not find him so, then he would already have become an apostate from morality without confessing it to himself, he would already no longer be a truly moral man.
In other words, the moral man’s mind is so enslaved to the dichotomy between morality and immorality that he cannot comprehend the transcendence of this polarization — the amoral. Similarly, leftists are so accustomed to assailing the right, and defending themselves from attacks thereby, that they view any divergence from leftist groupthink as centrist or rightist.
At this point, while we’re on the subject of the left-right spectrum, I believe a brief digression is in order. Where in the left-right spectrum does anarchism fit? An answer to this question on the Anarchy101 forum is worth sharing (edited slightly):
Historically, anarchism arose out of left-wing movements; that ground has been covered in other answers so I’ll leave that at that. However, if you’re intent on forcing all political ideologies and philosophies into this narrow framework of understanding, and somehow want to find some utility in it, I think it’s also worth examining and understanding the history of this framework.
The idea of there being a spectrum from left wing to right wing originates from the French Revolution, where those who supported the establishment sat on the right, and those who sought to overturn it sat on the left of the assembly room. Throughout history, movements, ideologies, and philosophies have been categorized as left or right according to a large array of criteria. The definitions from Wikipedia are a pretty good summation of this array. Now if we look closely at that array of criteria for assigning the labels “left” and “right,” the common threads that appear are that leftists tend to be opposed to the establishment, concerned with change and “progress,” whereas the right wing tends to support the establishment and is concerned with opposing change and maintaining existing (or reverting to historical) arrangements of social relationships. Even fascism (which is another ideology which defies the right-left dichotomy) can be placed on this one-dimensional axis using these boiled down criteria.
According to this analysis anarchism is broadly speaking a left-wing grouping of philosophies, as opposition to hierarchical authority (which is the common thread uniting all anarchists) can’t be reconciled with supporting the establishment or conserving existing social arrangements. Anarchism is inherently opposed to the reality we live in.
The question is why would you want to use a reductive framework to try to all-encompassingly organize the history and current reality of political thought when to do so you have to reduce the framework even further? The only use I can see is if you’re trying to make sense of politics objectively, assigning essential meanings to the names of ideologies like “anarchism” and “communism” which are supposed to mean the same thing to everyone. The problem is that politics is subjective and can’t be made sense of objectively. Trying to do so is a particularly bad habit of Westerners, and more specifically Anglophones. Maybe it’s because we’re raised in liberal democracies, and the political language of liberal democracy — the words, phrases, and concepts that liberal democracy uses to define itself, and as it happens our native political language — doesn’t allow for subjectivity. Liberalism after all is a child of The Enlightenment, a period of time when we became obsessed with science, assigning essential meanings to things, and naming them to add to our ever expanding lexicon of nouns; and so it makes sense that the political language (and intellectual technology) that our upbringing equips us with is unable to deal with the fact that ideas and their names mean different things to different people at different times, and so words and concepts like “anarchism,” which are highly disputed and whose locus of ideas (the desire to not be ruled) doesn’t have anything to do with the loci of the objective right-left axis (progress/change vs conservation/stasis), are something that we have trouble assigning essential meanings to.
My solution has been to shed the political language that liberal democracy uses to define itself, to stop using it to try to understand ideas that are opposed to it, to stop trying to assign essential meanings to things and instead look at what things mean to me, what they mean to other people, and acknowledging any differences between the two, instead of trying assert an objective judgement of them. Of course I’ll still assert subjective opinions, like “anarcho-capitalism isn’t consistent with anarchism,” but that doesn’t mean I have to assert an objective judgement — I can say “anarchism means X to me, to me that is what anarchism is, even though you disagree” without asserting that someone else’s anarchism is objectively wrong. Instead of trying to understand an ideology or philosophy from an external locus, I try to understand them by seeking out their own locus. I don’t try to understand anarcho-capitalism by looking at it with anarchist concepts and frameworks in mind; I go to its origin and focal point: classical liberalism. It’s also why I use the term “anarcho-capitalist” instead of some derogatory term, because it’s the label anarcho-capitalists use to describe themselves. Anarchists have over hundreds of years developed their own frameworks of concepts and language to describe and discuss anarchism; they are the most relevant and useful frameworks to anarchism because they originated within it.
I think this entire answer is beautfully written, but a couple of points resonate with me in particular (and evoke some thoughts not necessarily endorsed by that writer):
- “Leftists” need to stop using “liberal” or “centrist” as insults for people they disagree with if those people do not consider themselves liberal or centrist. Marxists, in particular, seem especially guilty of this, and it is highly counterproductive to meaningful discussion. Try to understand the person from their point of view rather than forcing their view into a reductive framework.
- Attempting to understand people from their point of view is necessary because politics, at least as it stands now, is so subjective. People do not approach politics scientifically. Rather, they approach it ideologically. An ideology is little more than a religion, a dogma. It is a set of “fixed ideas” which one holds to be sacred. Social psychologists have found political attitudes, like religious beliefs, to have an affective (emotional) basis rather than a cognitive basis, which is why it is virtually impossible to change anyone’s mind on any political issue. You cannot reason someone out of a position that they did not reason themselves into.
- Perhaps it’s my Anglophone upbringing, but I do believe that this subjective approach to politics can and should be overcome. I believe, like Jacque Fresco, that, “If science has a lot to do with what works, then clearly there’s much about today’s social and economic setup that isn’t scientific, because things aren’t working very well for a majority of the world’s population or the environment. If they were, war, poverty, hunger, homelessness, pollution, etc., would not be so prevalent today. Unfortunately, our social structures evolved with no overall global planning.”
As anarchism doesn’t fit neatly into the left-right spectrum, it’s no wonder that a “post-leftist” strain has emerged in anarchist thought.
Some post-leftists seek to escape the confines of ideology in general while also presenting a critique of organizations and morality. Influenced by the work of Max Stirner, post-leftists argue that the left, even the revolutionary left, is anachronistic and incapable of creating change. Post-left anarchy offers critiques of radical strategies and tactics which it considers antiquated: the demonstration, class-oriented struggle, focus on tradition, and the inability to escape the confines of history.
Now, to returning to my critique of antifa. Despite the accusations of tribalistic leftists who have difficulty thinking outside of the left-right dichotomy, I do not criticize antifa because I disagree with the end goal of opposing fascism. My concern is that the decentralization of the antifa movement makes it all too easy for the agents of the capitalist class to infiltrate it and sow the seeds of its destruction from within. We saw this with Occupy Wall Street. Undercover cops infiltrated and performed false flag operations, destroying private property to discredit the movement. It is entirely possible that the capitalist class are doing this with antifa, doing their best to portray the movement as sinister and violent so that it will be discredited. It is also possible that they are using neo-Nazis and the KKK as pawns to steer public opinion in the direction of accepting limits on free speech. I am extremely disappointed in the shortsightedness of many leftists, who seem to think that the limits on free speech would stop with Nazis. The neo-fascist administration would obviously use the limits on expressions of Nazism as a precedent to stamp out other forms of political dissent. Antifa would be next on the chopping block.
Historically, one alternative to decentralization is a vanguard party — a small group of professional revolutionaries who control the movement. As an individualist anarchist, though, I obviously have reservations about such an idea. I don’t want to be ruled by a vanguard party any more than I want to be ruled by the capitalist class. Lenin himself (who popularized vanguardism) was likened to Robespierre by Trotsky because he was unable to accept any criticism, even from his most dedicated followers. And if tomorrow’s revolution is controlled by a vanguard party, then I fear said party would be led by ideological zealots like the ones who have been attacking me for daring to think for myself. I would likely be sent to the gulag, if not outright killed, for my refusal to bend the knee.
Perhaps a vanguard party is a necessary evil. Then again, perhaps not. I think decentralization can work. But for it to work, and indeed for any kind of anarchist society to work, individuals must be just that — individuals. We must remain hypervigilant. We must be willing to call out bad ideas when we see them, because it’s possible that these bad ideas were sown by capitalist infiltrators. But it’s difficult to call out bad ideas when disagreeing ever so slightly with the party line gets you labeled a Nazi sympathizer.
One common thread among individualist anarchists is:
The rejection of, or reservations about, the idea of revolution, seeing it as a time of mass uprising which could bring about new hierarchies. Instead they favor more evolutionary methods of bringing about anarchy through alternative experiences and experiments and education which could be brought about today. This is also because it is not seen as desirable for individuals to wait for revolution to start experiencing alternative experiences outside what is offered in the current social system.¹
That’s the fun thing about individualist anarchism. You don’t have to wait for your fellow wage slaves to achieve class consciousness. Your personal revolution (your evolution?) can begin now. There are many ways in which the exertion of your will can result in a significant change in your experience. To use a very overused phrase, you can be the change you want to see in the world. And doing this is much preferable to sitting around waiting for some promised revolution. Of course, you can also change your lifestyle and work toward the revolution simultaneously, if you so desire.
One major difference between the left and the right seems to be their views on personal (i.e., individual) accountability. The left focuses on social and environmental factors, while the right focuses on personal choice. For example, suppose someone is addicted to nicotine. A leftist will likely focus on the fact that Big Tobacco targets low-income communities. In other words, the leftist will avoid blaming the victim. The right-winger, on the other hand, will likely focus on the individual’s choice to begin smoking cigarettes. While it may be true that the individual was bombarded with tobacco advertisements from a young age, no one put a gun to the individual’s head and forced them to smoke that first cigarette.
The idea that we should focus on either social/environmental influences or personal choice is yet another symptom of this polarized, tribalistic age. In truth, no model of human behavior is complete if it does not take both into consideration. Environmental forces definitely play a role in shaping human behavior, but humans are also capable of reflexivity, defined as “the capacity of an agent to recognize forces of socialization and alter their place in the social structure.”
A low level of reflexivity would result in an individual shaped largely by their environment (or “society”). A high level of social reflexivity would be defined by an individual shaping their own norms, tastes, politics, desires, and so on. This is similar to the notion of autonomy.
I can become aware of the environmental factors that are determining my behavior. Indeed, this ability is central to the definition of intelligence proposed by Robert Sternberg in his groundbreaking triarchic theory of intelligence. According to this theory, intelligence is the ability to:
- adapt to one’s environment,
- select one’s environment, and
- shape one’s environment.
So, while it is important to take note of social and environmental influences, it is also true that focusing exclusively on these influences treats the individual like the hapless victim of external forces. Anarchist education would, ideally, empower the individual by imparting a high degree of reflexivity.
Almost everyone on Earth seems to be addicted to something. Even Zen monks regularly drink green tea, which contains caffeine. More common, at least among Americans, is the daily consumption of coffee, which is not only much more addictive than tea, but also contributes to the exploitation of coffee farmers in the developing world. So by drinking coffee, not only do I sacrifice my own sovereignty by becoming dependent on an exogenous substance, but I am also complicit in the violation of the sovereignty of other individuals. And this should concern me, if not because of morality (which after all is just a spook in the mind), then because a system in which any individual’s sovereignty is threatened is a system in which my own sovereignty might be threatened.
Many anti-capitalists say, “There is no such thing as ethical consumption under capitalism.” And to a degree that is true, but it can also be a cop-out to avoid personal responsibility and to continue making extremely unethical consumer choices when there are less unethical choices available. It doesn’t have to be all or nothing. While it might be impossible to spend money in this economy without someone in the chain being exploited, you can still choose to spend your money in ways that minimize your contributions to exploitation.
So, what are some specific ways in which I can exert my willpower to cast off the chains of society and increase not only my own sovereignty but also that of other individuals, both human and nonhuman?
- Abstain from using all addictive substances — caffeine, nicotine, alcohol, etc.
- Abstain from using animal products — meat, fish, eggs, dairy, etc.
- Know where your food and other goods are coming from, and make your consumer choices as “ethical” as possible. Grow as much of your own food as possible.
- Live as healthy a lifestyle as possible. A state of vibrant health expands your possibilities and frees you from dependence on profiteering medical professionals and pharmaceutical corporations.
- Escape from mental prisons such as organized religion — particularly the theistic ones, which condition you to submit to “higher powers.”
- Reject unnecessary traditions such as marriage, monogamy, and heteronormativity. Do not allow your sexual expression to be limited by social acceptability. Just make sure your sexual expression doesn’t violate the sovereignty of other individuals. Consenting human adults only!
- Limit your exposure to mainstream media, which is a tool used by the capitalist class for mass conditioning and manipulating public opinion.
- Limit the amount of time you spend on Facebook, as its engineers design it to get you to spend as much time on the platform as possible, even against your will and to your detriment. The red notification symbol activates the brain’s dopamine reward system, thus allowing them to use techniques of operant conditioning on you. If you do use Facebook, and social media in general, avoid creating an ideological echo chamber, as this subjects you to groupthink. Instead of Google, use DuckDuckGo, which doesn’t create a filter bubble and doesn’t profit from your searches.
- Experiment with technologies of self-liberation, such as meditation. The responsible use of psychedelics is an extremely powerful way of dissolving the rigid mental boundaries created by social conditioning. While LSD is preposterously classified as a Schedule 1 substance, it has no addictive potential whatsoever, as its mechanism of action does not involve the dopamine reward system.
These are just some suggestions to help you get started. The key is to practice reflexivity. Notice when you are being influenced by external forces. If these forces are influencing you in ways that are not in your best interest, then reject them. Don’t be afraid to be selfish. Be your authentic self — unapologetically and wholeheartedly.