Stirner and the Politics of the Ego
“Man is the God of to-day, and fear of Man has taken the place of the old fear of God.”
The previous chapter suggested that anarchism, like Marxism, had fallen victim to a theoretical ruse: instead of seeing the principal source of oppression in society in capitalism, as Marxism did, anarchism saw oppression emanating mostly from the state. Both fell victim, therefore, to a reductionist logic— Marxism fell into the trap of economism , while anarchism fell into the trap of statism. This still leaves the problem of power unanswered. Moreover, in the last chapter we found that anarchism relies on an uncontaminated point of departure, a place of pure resistance that will overthrow state power. However, as we have seen, this pure place, embodied in human essence, is possibly unstable and open to the temptation of power. Anarchism, therefore, cannot achieve a complete theoretical closure, and this leaves it open to various theoretical interventions. This chapter will look at one possible intervention— that of Stirner. It will use his ideas to explore this opening left by anarchism.
Anarchism, like Marxism, has failed to grasp two fundamental problems: the problem of power, and the problem of place. Anarchism remains buried within an Enlightenment political paradigm that is inadequate for dealing with questions of power today. Perhaps what is needed is a rethinking of the relationship between power and the subject. This is where the work of Max Stirner comes in. Although writing in the nineteenth century, he presents us with a critique of modern forms of power, particularly ideology. His book The Ego and His Own [Der Einzige und sein Eigenthum] shows the way in which ideas can become, in themselves, a form of domination—a proposal which was never fully grasped by either traditional anarchist or Marxist theory. He discovers a new arena of power, going beyond the epistemological categories that bound both Marxism and anarchism. Perhaps the most important question for Stirner was not how power comes to dominate us, but why we allow power to dominate us—why we willingly participate in our own domination. These were problems that neither anarchism nor classical Marxism could address. Above all, Stirner was concerned with the problem of place, the problem which has plagued radical political theory: how can one be sure that in acting against a particular form of power one does not merely put another in its place? Stirner argues that humanist philosophies such as anarchism fall very neatly into this dialectic which constantly reproduces power. Like poststructuralist thinkers who were writing over a century later, Stirner is troubled by the whole question of essentialism. I argue that he uses a war model of relations, like the one constructed in the previous chapter, to untangle the modern bind of power, identity, and essence, and to unmask the domination and antagonism behind its serene humanist veneer. It is for this reason that Stirner is relevant to our analysis: he represents a decisive break with the Enlightenment rationality that informed Marxism and anarchism, placing himself within an altogether different problematic—one which anticipates, as we shall see,
Stirner, like Nietzsche who was clearly influenced by him, has been interpreted in many differentOne possible interpretation of Stirner is that he is an anarchist. Indeed, he has much in common with the anarchist position—particularly in his rejection of the state and political authority. Stirner argues that the state is an apparatus that denies the individual the right of self-realization, the expression of his value: “The State does not let me come to my value, and continues to exist only through my valuelessness.”153 It is a despotism wielded over the individual: “The State always has the sole purpose to limit, tame, subordinate, the individual—to make him subject to some generality or other.”154 For Stirner, the state is the new church—the new place of power, the new authority wielded over the individual. Moreover, it operates through the same moral hypocrisy—now shrouded in legal Stirner, therefore, displays an anti-authoritarianism that shares much with anarchism. He wants to lay bare the vicious, oppressive nature of political power: to unmask its underlying morality that might is right, and to examine its effect—to stultify and alienate the individual, instilling in him a dependence on the state.
Rejection of the State
Like the anarchists, moreover, Stirner attacks state power itself—the very category or place of the state—not just the different forms that it assumes. What must be destroyed is the “ruling principle.”156 Stirner is therefore against revolutionary programs, such as Marxism, which have as their aim the seizure of state power. He shares anarchism’s distrust of the Marxist workers’ state: it would just be a reaffirmation of the state in a different guise—a “change of masters.”157 Stirner suggests, then, that: “war might rather be declared against the establishment itself, the State, not a particular State, not any such thing as the mere condition of the State at the time; it is not another State (such as a ‘people’s State’) that men aim at.”158
Revolutionary action has been trapped, according to Stirner, by the paradigm of the state—it has remained caught within the dialectic of place. Revolutions have only succeeded in replacing one form of authority with another. This is because, as Stirner argues, they do not question the very condition, the category, the idea of state authority and, therefore, remain within itsThe state can never be reformed, Stirner argues, because it can never be trusted and this is why the place of power itself must be destroyed. Stirner rejects Bruno Bauer’s notion of a democratic state which grows out of the “power of the people” and which is always subordinated to the people. For Stirner, the state can never really be brought under the control of people—it always has its own logic, and it will soon turn against the will of the
Stirner’s notion of the state put him at odds with Marxism. Stirner, like the anarchists, believed that the state was an independent entity. This is particularly so in its relation to economic power. Stirner analyzes noneconomic forms of repression, and he believes that the state, if it is to be fully understood, must be considered independently of economic arrangements. The power of bureaucracy, for instance, constitutes a noneconomic form of oppression: its operation cannot be reduced to the workings of theThis is contrary to the Marxist position, which, I have argued, sees the state as largely reducible to the workings of the capitalist economy and subject to the interests of the bourgeoisie. Stirner suggests, for instance, that while the state protects private property and the interests of the bourgeoisie, it also stands above them and dominates For Stirner, as with the anarchists, the political power enshrined in the state has predominance over economic power and its related class interests. The state is the primary source of oppression in society, not the capitalist economy as Marxists would argue.
Stirner reveals himself as an anti-authoritarian thinker par excellence. Moreover, his critique of the politics of place is useful in a number of ways. Not only does he continue the critique of Marxism elaborated in the first chapter, he also applies the same logic to anarchism itself—he allows us to think beyond the epistemological categories which inform anarchism.
It is clear that Stirner’s antistate philosophy has a great deal in common with anarchism, particularly his rejection of the Marxist conception of state power as being subordinated to class interests, and his implied critique of Marxist revolutionary politics. However Stirner sits almost as uncomfortably with anarchism as he does with Marxism. It will become increasingly clear that Stirner cannot be confined within the category of traditional anarchism. He breaks with this category on several grounds: he rejects the notions of human and social essence which are the foundation of anarchist thought; he eschews the moral and epistemological discourses which are based on this essence; and this leads him to an entirely different conception of revolutionary action. These points however will be discussed later. First we must look at the philosophical background which gave rise to Stirner’s thought.
Stirner’s Epistemological Break
Critique of Feuerbach
Stirner’s thought developed in the shadows of Feuerbach’s The Essence of Christianity. It was this work which Stirner came to reject—and in doing so, he broke decisively with the theoretical category of humanism. In The Essence of Christianity Feuerbach applied the notion of alienation to religion. Religion is alienating because it requires that man abdicate his own qualities and powers by projecting them onto an abstract God, beyond the grasp of humanity. In doing so, man displaces his essential self, leaving him alienated and debased. Man’s qualities, according to this argument, become the characteristics ofFeuerbach argued that the predicates of God were, therefore, really only the predicates of man as a species being. God was an illusion, a hypostatization of man. While man should be the single criterion for truth, love, and virtue, these characteristics are now the property of an abstract being who becomes the sole criterion for them. In claiming, however, that the qualities which we have attributed to God or to the absolute are really the qualities of man, Feuerbach has made man into an almighty being himself. Feuerbach sees will, love, goodness, and thought as essential qualities in man—he wants to restore these abstracted qualities to man. Man becomes, in Feuerbach’s eyes, the ultimate expression of these qualities. He becomes almighty, sacred, perfect, infinite—in short, man becomes God. Feuerbach embodies the Enlightenment humanist project of restoring to man his rightful place at the center of the universe. Feuerbach’s intention was to make the “human the divine, the finite the infinite.”
It is this attempt to replace God with man, to make the finite infinite, that Stirner condemns. According to Stirner, Feuerbach, while claiming to have overthrown religion, merely reversed the order of subject and predicate, doing nothing to undermine the place of religious authorityThe alienating category of God is retained and solidified by entrenching it in man. Man thereby usurps God, capturing for himself the category of the infinite, the place of God. Man becomes the substitute for the Christian illusion. Feuerbach, Stirner argues, is the high priest of a new religion—humanism: “The HUMAN religion is only the last metamorphosis of the Christian religion.”165
Let us follow Stirner’s argument here: it will be the key to the critique of essentialist politics that I am trying to construct. Stirner starts by accepting Feuerbach’s critique of Christianity: the infinite is an illusion, being merely the representation of human consciousness. The Christian religion is based on the divided, alienated self—the religious man seeks after his alter ego that cannot be attained because it has been abstracted onto the figure of God. In doing so he denies his concrete, sensual
However, Stirner argues that by seeking the sacred in “human essence,” by positing an essential man and attributing to him certain qualities that had hitherto been attributed to God, Feuerbach has merely reintroduced religious alienation. The individual finds himself alienated within the symbolic order: he is subjected to a series of signifiers—man, human essence—that imposes an identity on him which only half represents him, and which is not of his own creation or choosing. This is similar to Lacan’s theory of subjectification, and will be discussed in later chapters. Stirner shows that by making certain characteristics and qualities essential to man, Feuerbach has alienated those in whom these qualities are not found. And so man becomes like God, and just as man was debased under God, so the concrete individual is debased beneath this perfect being, man. Like the Marxist revolution that only reaffirmed state power, Feuerbach’s “insurrection” has not destroyed the place of religious authority—it has merely installed man within it, replacing God. For Stirner, man is just as oppressive, if not more so, than God: “Feuerbach thinks, that if he humanizes the divine, he has found truth. No, if God has given us pain, ‘Man’ is capable of pinching us still more torturingly.”167 The essential man of Feuerbachian humanism is a new ideological construct, a new deception which, according to Stirner, oppresses and denies the individual. It is a mutilating, alienating idea—a “spook,” or a “fixed idea,” as Stirner calls it—something that desecrates the uniqueness of the individual by comparing him to an ideal which is not of his own creation. This is Christian alienation all over again, according to Stirner: “To God, who is spirit, Feuerbach gives the name ‘Our Essence.’ Can we put up with this, that ‘Our Essence’ is brought into opposition to us —that we are split into an essential and unessential self? Do we not therewith go back into the dreary misery of seeing ourselves banished out of ourselves?”168
Stirner’s critique of the idealism latent within Feuerbachian humanism had a resounding effect on Marxism. It forced Marx to take account of the ideological constructions in his own notions of human essence that he derived to some extent from Feuerbach. Although Stirner never directly criticized Marx, The Ego and His Own inspired criticism of Marx’s latent humanism from manyMarx himself was shocked by Stirner’s work into what is seen by some Marxists as a decisive break with humanism and with the notion of a moral or humanistic basis for socialism. He was clearly troubled by Stirner’s suggestion that socialism was tainted with the same idealism as Christianity and that it was full of superstitious ideas like morality and justice. This is manifested in the relentless, vitriolic, and sarcastic attack on Stirner, which the largest part of the German Ideology is devoted to. The German Ideology represents a cathartic attempt by Marx to tarnish Stirner with the same brush that he himself had been tarnished with—that of idealism—while, at the same time trying to exorcise this demon from his own Marx saw the application of Stirner’s work for his own revolutionary socialism and he used Stirner’s critique of idealism while, at the same time, accusing Stirner himself of idealism. Stirner showed Marx the perils of Feuerbachian humanism, forcing Marx to distance himself as much as possible from his earlier stance.
The early humanism of Marx, found in the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, stands in contrast to his later materialism. The Manuscripts are founded on the notion of the “species being” and they describe the way in which private property alienates man from his own species. There is a notion of human essence—an image of a happy, fulfilled man who affirms his own being through free, creativeMarx’s early humanism bears the unmistakable imprint of Feuerbach. For Marx, man is estranged from his “species being” by abstract forces such as private property, and it is with the overthrow of private property that man reclaims himself—thus everything becomes “human.”172 For Marx, man is essentially a communal, social creature —it is in his essence to seek the society of others. Man and society exist in a natural bond in which each produces the other. Man can only become complete, become the “object” when he affirms this social essence, when he becomes a social
Marx relies on an essentialist conception of man and an anthropological notion of species. Stirner, as we have seen, rejects these categories, seeing them as religious postulates. For Stirner—and this is the crux of his critique of the humanist Marx—man creates himself. There is no essential human nature—it is merely a construct. Stirner wants to strip away the layers of human existence. He wants to go beyond “essences” till one finds the individuum. This is the foundation for what Stirner terms the “creative nothing,” “the unique one.”174 Rather than there being a set of essential characteristics at the base of human existence, there is a nothingness, something that cannot be defined, and it is up to the individual to create something out of this and not be limited by essences —by what is “properly human.” This idea of emptiness or lack at the base of identity will be crucial to the theorization of a non-essentialist politics of resistance. As Stirner will show, the old Enlightenment-based politics founded on an essential identity—like anarchism and Marxism—is no longer relevant to today’s struggles; it can no longer adequately resist modern forms of power which work, as we shall see, through an essential identity. The lack that Stirner finds at the base of identity will allow the individual to resist this modern subjectifying power.
Stirner’s implied critique of Marx is expressed in an antidialectic that he constructs to challenge the Hegelian dialectical process that culminates in the freedom of humanity. Stirner, in opposition to this, charts the development of humanity in relation to the political institutions that it corresponds to, and instead of this culminating in freedom, it ends with the enslavement of the individual. The analysis starts with liberalism, or what Stirner calls “political liberalism,” characterized by equality before the law, political equality, and political liberty. As Stirner shows, however, political liberty merely means that the state is free, in the same way that religious liberty means that religion isHe writes: “It does not mean my liberty, but the liberty of a power that rules and subjugates me.”176
Stirner’s differences with Marx become more apparent in his dissection of the second stage of the dialectical process—“social liberalism” or socialism. Social liberalism comes about as a rejection of political liberalism, which is perceived as tooFor Stirner, on the other hand, political liberalism was characterized not by too much egoism, but by too little, and he sees the enforced equality in socialism as a further destruction of the ego, a further desecration of the individual. Instead of the “property”—or the ego—of the individual being possessed by the state, it is now possessed by Once again, according to Stirner, the individual has been subordinated to an abstract power, a place outside him: first the state, and now society. Society has become the new place of power to which the individual is subjugated. Stirner, in opposition to Marx, does not believe in society: he sees it as another abstraction, another illusion like God and human essence. They are all ideological devices that the individual is sacrificed to. The individual is not an essential part of society, as Marx believed. Society means nothing more to the egoistic individual than God or the state: “That society is no ego at all, . . . that we owe society no sacrifice, but, if we sacrifice anything, sacrifice it to ourselves—of this the Socialists do not think, because they—as liberals—are imprisoned in the religious principle, and zealously aspire after—a sacred society, such as the State was hitherto.”179
For Stirner, then, socialism is just another extension of liberalism: both are systems that rely on an ideal or essence deemed sacred—the state and law for political liberalism, and society for social liberalism—and which the individual ego is subordinated to. Stirner then proceeds to examine the third and final form of liberalism in this dialectic: “humane liberalism” or, for our purposes, humanism. Humane liberalism is based on a critique of both political and social liberalism. For the humanist, these two liberalisms are still too egoistic: the individual should act for selfless reasons, purely on behalf of humanity and one’s fellowHowever, as we have seen, humanism is based on a notion of human essence that, as Stirner has shown, is fictional. Moreover, it is an ideological device used to judge and condemn individuals who do not conform to this “essence.” The discourse of humane liberalism is centered around this standard of judgement. As Stirner argues, humanism forces everyone to be human beings and to conform to a human essence. It contends that everyone has within them an essential kernel of humanity that they must live up to: if they transgress this essence they are deemed “inhuman.” The humanist insists, for instance, that if one goes beyond the surface differences between individuals, one finds that we all share a common human essence—we are all Stirner, on the other hand, wants to assert the individual’s right to be an individual: to be different, to not be part of humanity—to eschew human essence and recreate oneself. Man is a religious ideal, according to Stirner, an ideological construct that restricts individuality—it is a “fixed idea” that oppresses the ego. It is this religious ideal, however, which has become, in the discourse of humanism, the principle governing the individual’s activity: the only labor which will now be tolerated is “human labor,” labor which glorifies and benefits man, and which contributes to the development of one’s essential
For Stirner, then, humane liberalism is the final stage in both the liberation of man and enslavement of the individual ego. The more man frees himself, through “human labor,” from the objective conditions which bind him—such as the state and society—the more individual ego, the “self-will,” is dominated. This is because man and human essence, have conquered the last bastion of the ego, the individual’s thoughts or “opinions.” Political liberalism tried to destroy “self-will,” Stirner argues, but it gained refuge in privateSocialism abolished private property, making it the domain of society, and so the ego then found refuge in what Stirner calls “self ownership”—the individual’s opinions. Humanism now seeks to abolish even this domain of the individual, making personal opinion refer to a generality—man. Personal opinion becomes “general human opinion,” and individual autonomy is thus The humanist Enlightenment fantasy of man’s liberation, now fulfilled, is therefore concomitant with the slavery of the individual. At the heart of this dialectic of liberation there is nothing but domination.
However the supremacy of man is always threatened by what Stirner calls the “un- man,” that element of the individual that refuses to conform to human essence, to the ideal ofThis is the other of man, a Dionysian force that cannot be contained—both a creation of man and a threat to it. As Stirner says, then: “Liberalism as a whole has a deadly enemy, an invincible opposite, as God has the devil: by the side of man stands the un-man, the individual, the egoist. State, society, humanity, do not master this devil.”186 The un-man may be seen as a figure of resistance against the subjectifying power of Enlightenment humanism: it is something which makes problematic the idea of the essential human subject by transgressing its narrow boundaries and thus breaking them open. This idea of excess has many connections with poststructuralist thought: Derrida’s notions of “supplementarity” and “difference,” Deleuze and Guattari’s figure of the “war-machine,” and Lacan’s idea of “lack,” can all be seen as examples of this desire to find a point of transgression and resistance to subjectification. This convergence between Stirner and poststructuralism will be explored in subsequent chapters, but it is clear already that he shares with poststructuralism a fundamental rejection of essentialism and dialectical thought.
Stirner’s critique is important here because liberalism has the same ontological framework as anarchism. Indeed “humane liberalism” may be seen as a kind of anarchism. Anarchism is based, as I have shown, on a notion of human essence—this is its point of departure. Anarchism is part of the Enlightenment tradition, which has as its goal the liberation of man and human consciousness from oppressive external conditions. It is deeply influenced by Feuerbach’s humanist insurrection against God. Anarchism is the most radical expression of humanism, and it is therefore possible to apply Stirner’s critique of humanism to anarchism, to uncover its essentialist postulates. Stirner’s rejection of human essence is particularly important here. For anarchists, human essence is the point of departure from which state power will be overthrown. However, Stirner has shown that human essence is thoroughly questionable. He has argued, first, that human essence is a fiction, an abstraction invented through Feuerbach’s “theological insurrection.” Human essence has not broken with the religious categories it purported to overthrow. On the contrary, it has become installed within these categories: man has become just as much a fiction as God, an ideological construct which alienates and oppresses individuals. Anarchism contends that human essence is the true basis for individual activity. However as Stirner argues: “Intercourse resting on essence is an intercourse with the spook, not with anything real.”187 If we accept Stirner’s critique of man, then the entire philosophy of anarchism is based on a religious illusion—it falls victim to the very idealism which it claimed to transcend.
Second, Stirner argues that not only is human essence an illusion, but it is also a pernicious illusion. It is linked fundamentally to state power—it is the discourse through which this power operates, and it is itself a structure which oppresses individuals. Just as God was a power that subjugated the individual, now it is man and “the fear of Man is merely an altered form of the fear of God.”188 Man and human essence have become the new criteria by which individuals are judged and punished: “I set up what ‘Man’ is and what acting in a ‘truly human’ way is, and I demand of every one that this law become norm and ideal to him; otherwise he will expose himself as a ‘sinner and criminal.’”189
Thus, human essence, which for anarchists contains the seeds of revolution and liberation, is seen by Stirner to be the new machine of punishment and domination; the basis of a binary discourse which persecutes those individuals who do not measure up and conform. Human essence is the new norm that condemns difference. Kropotkin’s treatment of crime as a disease to be cured is an example of the way that this punitive discourse functions. As Stirner argues: “‘curative means’ always announces to begin with that individuals will be looked on as ‘called’ to a particular ‘salvation’ and hence treated according to the requirements of this ‘human calling.’”190 In other words, crime being treated as a disease, as the anarchists propose, is no better than crime being seen as a sin: crime is still seen in terms of a failing, a lack of some kind—only this time it is condemned as a failing of human essence, as a transgression against “human calling.” For Stirner there is no difference between cure and punishment—it is a reapplication of the old moral prejudices in a newThis is precisely Foucault’s argument about the modern formula of punishment: a formula in which medical and psychiatric norms are only the old morality in a new guise. For Stirner, punishment is only made possible by making something sacred. Anarchism, in making human essence sacred, in making it an uncontaminated point of departure, has perhaps only recreated in a new form, the authoritarian discourse it was meant to destroy. Maybe it has created, in Stirner’s words, “a new feudalism under the suzerainty of ‘Man.’”192
Moreover, for Stirner, human essence being posited as a point of departure uncontaminated by power is naive and politically dangerous. Human essence is not a pure place untouched by power: on the contrary, state power has already colonized human essence. For example, Stirner posits a theory of state power that is altogether different from that of anarchism: while anarchists argue that state power subjugates and oppresses man, Stirner suggests that the state rules through “man.” Man is constructed as a site of power, a political unit through which the state dominates the individual: “The kernel of the State is simply ‘Man,’ this unreality, and it itself is only a ‘society of men.’”193 The state and man are not opposed as the anarchists would argue. On the contrary, they are part of the same political discourse in which one depends on the other: the state relies on a conception of man and human essence in order that its rule be legitimized. In other words, the state subjectifies the individual: it demands that the individual be man, be human, so that he can be made part of state society and thus dominated: “So the State betrays its enmity to me by demanding that I be a man . . . it imposes being a man upon me as a duty.”194
Stirner here has defined a new operation of power that completely eluded political theories like anarchism. He describes a process of subjectification in which power functions, not by repressing man, but by constructing him as a political subject and ruling through him. It is precisely this fundamental undermining of Enlightenment humanist ontology that will allow Foucault, and Deleuze and Guattari, to see political action in an entirely new way. He has broken with traditional political theory in seeing the individual and human essence as separate. Human essence is not a transcendental place created by natural laws which power comes to oppress. Rather it is a fabrication of power, or, at least, a discursive construct that can be made to serve power.
Stirner’s rejection of essence, then, has dealt classical anarchism a severe blow. First, it has made impossible anarchism’s notion of a pure point of departure, a place of revolution uncontaminated by power. Power, argues Stirner, has already colonized this place and uses it for it own purposes—it is no longer a place outside power. Second, Stirner has shown that in subscribing to a Manichean political logic which conceives of a place of resistance outside the realm of power, anarchism has failed to grasp the new functioning of power: domination through subjectification, rather than repression. The implications of this are enormous: the reliance of revolutionary theory on human essence is not only questionable, but immanently dangerous.
Stirner has shown, moreover, that in order to study state power one must analyze it at its more minute levels: what is important is not necessarily the institution of the state itself, but the way it functions, and the sites—like human essence and man—through which it operates. There is exactly the same emphasis in Foucault’s study of power. In particular, Stirner stresses the importance of ideas, “fixed ideas”—like human essence and man—as sites of power. He is talking about a hitherto neglected area of power, namely ideology.
An important site of ideological domination is morality. Morality, Stirner argues, is a “fixed idea”—a fiction derived from Christian idealism, which dominates the individual. Morality is merely the leftover of Christianity, only in a new humanist garb, and as Stirner argues: “Moral faith is as fanatical as religious faith!”195 This is what Stirner objects to, not morality itself, but the fact that it is a sacred, unbreakable law. Stirner exposes the will to power, the cruelty and the domination behind moral ideas: “Moral influence takes its start where humiliation begins; yes, it is nothing else than this humiliation itself, the breaking and bending of the temper down to humility.”196 It is based on the desecration, the breaking down, of the individual will—the ego. Morality mutilates the individual: the individual must conform to prevailing moral codes, otherwise he becomes alienated from his “essence.” For Stirner, moral coercion is just as vicious as the coercion carried out by the state, only it is more insidious and subtle—it does not require the use of physical force. The warden of morality is already installed in the individual’s conscience. Morality is fundamentally linked to political domination, legitimating the continued existence of the policeStirner’s critique of morality has implications for anarchism because, as we have seen, anarchism relies on a moral discourse to distinguish man from the power that oppresses him: human subjectivity is essentially moral, while political power is fundamentally immoral. However, Stirner has shown that not only does the discourse of morality subjugate the individual, it is also inextricably related to the very power it is meant to oppose.
This may also be applied to rationality, which anarchists claimed to act in the name of. Rational truths are always held above individual perspectives, and Stirner argues that this is another way of dominating the individual ego. As with morality, Stirner is not necessarily against truth itself, but rather the way it has become sacred, absolute, removed from the grasp of the individual and held over him: “As long as you believe in the truth, you do not believe in yourself, and you are a—servant, a—religious man.”198 Rational truth, for Stirner, has no real meaning beyond individual perspectives—it is something that can be used by the individual. Its real basis, as with morality, is power and to ignore this, as anarchism does, is extremely perilous.
Stirner’s critique of human essence, morality, and rational truth has enormous implications for anarchism, and indeed any Enlightenment-based political theory. It has shown the danger in not questioning these ideas, in neglecting their malleability—the fact that they can be used as much by power, as they can against it. Above all, Stirner points to the fact that power operates at the level of the subject and his ideas, and that power relies on us allowing it to dominate us. This was something which anarchism was unable to fully come to terms with. Stirner is not so much interested in power itself, but in the reasons why we allow ourselves to be dominated by power: he wants to study the ways in which we participate in our own oppression. He wants to show that power is not only concerned with economic or political questions—it is also rooted in psychological needs. It has embedded itself deep within our conscience, in the form of fixed ideas such as the state, human essence, and morality. For instance, the dominance of the state, Stirner argues, depends on our willingness to let it dominate us:
The State is not thinkable without lordship and servitude (subjection); for the State must will to be lord of all that it embraces, and this will is called the ‘will of the State’ . . . He who, to hold his own, must count on the absence of will in others is a thing made by these others, as a master is a thing made by the servant. If submissiveness ceased, it would be all over with
Stirner argues that the state itself is essentially an abstraction, a fiction much like God, and it only exists because we allow it to exist, because we abdicate to it our own authority, in the same way that we create God by abdicating our authority and placing it outside ourselves. What is more important than the institution of the state, is the “ruling principle”—it is the idea of the state that dominatesStirner does not discuss the mechanics of the state. The state’s power is really based on our power. Is it not undeniable that any kind of rule depends on our willingness to let it rule us? Political power cannot rest solely on coercion. It needs our help, our willingness to obey. It is only because the individual has not recognized this power, because he humbles himself before the sacred, before authority, that the state continues to The dominance of the state is based on the moral and ideological indoctrination of its subjects and Stirner argues that if this indoctrination can be exposed, then this is the first stage in the state’s destruction.
Marx argues that this is an example of Stirner’s idealism. For Marx, Stirner lives in the world of his own illusions, mistaking them forThis idealism, Marx argues, ignores and, thus, leaves intact the real materiality of the state. However, this is a serious and deliberate misreading of Stirner. Rather than dismissing the reality of political power, Stirner actually sees it as the predominant force in society—more so even than economic power. Rather than Stirner’s conception of the state breeding inaction and apathy as Marx argues, it could actually have the opposite effect—it may give individuals a realization of their power over the state. Is it really possible, then, to say that Stirner frivolously neglects reality by stressing the importance of ideas? On the contrary, it may be that Marx, because he is trapped within the narrow confines of materialism and because he neglects the importance of ideas and their grip on the psyche, is doomed to perpetuating existing reality rather than changing it. As it was suggested in the first chapter, Marxism is limited by its economic reductionism: it neglects other arenas and sources of domination. Stirner merely argues that the state is based on illusory premises, like morality, which he intends to expose.
Stirner believes, then, that the state must be overcome as an idea before it can be overcome in reality. What must be attacked is the desire for authority. The state does not repress desire—rather it channels it to itself: “The State exerts itself to tame the desirous man; in other words, it seeks to direct his desire to it alone, and to content that desire with what it offers.”203 It is this desire for authority, this love for the state, which perpetuates its power. People are dominated, Stirner suggests, because they desire it. Deleuze and Guattari are interested in the same phenomenon. Self-subjection and its relation to desire is a problem that Marx as well as the anarchists did not foresee. It is the specter that haunts revolutionary theory. Stirner was among the first to recognize that statism exists as much in our heads and hearts, as it does in reality. It is only by getting rid of this internalized authoritarianism—this place of power—that one can ensure that the state is not perpetuated. As long as the idea of the state is left intact there is always the danger of it lurking around every corner.
Insurrection and the Politics of the Self
For Stirner, revolutionary action in the past has been a dismal failure. It has remained trapped within the paradigm of authority, changing the form of authority but not its place: the liberal state was replaced by the workers’ state; God was replaced with man. But the category of authority itself has remained unchanged, and has often become even more oppressive. Perhaps, then, the idea of revolution should be abandoned: it is based on essentialist concepts and Manichean structures which always end up perpetuating, rather than overcoming, authority. Stirner has unmasked the links between human essence and power, and has shown the dangers in building a revolutionary theory around this notion. Perhaps, therefore, revolutions should be about escaping subjectification—rejecting the enforced identity of human essence and man. Perhaps, as Stirner argues, revolution should become insurrection:
Revolution and insurrection must not be looked upon as synonymous. The former consists in an overturning of conditions, of the established condition or status, the State or society, and is accordingly a political or social act; the latter has indeed for its unavoidable consequence a transformation of circumstances, yet does not start from it but from men’s discontent with themselves, is not an armed rising but a rising of individuals, a getting up without regard to the arrangements that spring from it. The Revolution aimed at new arrangements; insurrection leads us no longer to let ourselves be arranged, but to arrange ourselves, and sets no glittering hopes on ‘institutions.’ It is not a fight against the established, since, if it prospers, the established collapses of itself; it is only a working forth of me out of the
It may be argued, then, that insurrection starts with the individual refusing his enforced identity, through which power operates: it starts “from men’s discontent with themselves.” Insurrection does not aim at overthrowing political institutions themselves. It is aimed at the individual, in a sense overthrowing his own identity—the outcome of which is, nevertheless, a change in political arrangements. Insurrection is therefore not about becoming what one is— becoming human, becoming man, as the anarchist argues—but about becoming what one is not. Stirner’s notion of individual rebellion involves, then, a process of becoming. It is about continually reinventing one’s own self—an anarchism of subjectivity, rather than an anarchism based on subjectivity. The self, or the ego, is not an essence, a defined set of characteristics, but rather an emptiness, a “creative nothing,” and it is up to the individual to create something out of this and not be limited by essences. The self exists only to be consumed: “I on my part start from a presupposition in presupposing myself; but my presupposition does not struggle for its perfection like ‘Man struggling for his perfection,’ but only serves me to enjoy it and consume it . . . I do not presuppose myself, because I am every moment just positing or creating myself.”205
The Ego as Subject
Many argue that Stirner posits an essential subjectivity—the ego—one which is entirelyHowever this is clearly untrue: Stirner does posit a self, but it is a self which is empty, undefined, and contingent. As Kathy
Ferguson argues, the self, for Stirner, is a process, a continuous flow of self-creatingThis is a process that eludes, to some extent, the imposition of fixed identities and essences: “no concept expresses me, nothing that is designated my essence exhausts me.”208 There is always an excess, then, which escapes identity. This excess may express itself in the un-man, the other of man,
but even this is only an ephemeral identity or nonidentity: the un-man exists only as a brief flicker of resistance to man. It too will die and change once this binary of man/un-man is overcome. The importance of Stirner’s notion of becoming for politics, particularly poststructuralist politics, is great indeed: he has shown that resistance to power will never succeed if it remains trapped within fixed, essential identities.
The other side to this question would be the argument that Stirner does not concede a stable identity and that for this reason he should be condemned: if he does not allow a stable identity, then how can there be any notion of ethics or ethical action? This is the same critique that has been directed against various poststructuralist thinkers, as we shall see. For Stirner, however, ethical action does not necessarily depend on there being a fixed, stable identity, or an identity that is dialectically mediated. On the contrary, the possibility of ethics would depend on the very openness, contingency, and instability of identity that his critics denounce. Although Stirner does not set down any ethical guidelines— this would be against the very spirit of Stirner—it could be argued that ethical action would involve questioning morality, unmasking the domination involved in morality; an ethical critique of morality, in other words. An ethical self eschews a fixed moral and rational identity and remains open to change and contingency. This would be Stirner’s political and ethical identity of resistance: it is political, not because it affirms a fixed political or moral stance, but rather because it rejects all such fixed positions and the oppressive obligations attached to them.
Related to the notion of self is the question of freedom. Freedom has always been the final goal of all revolutionary movements: the freedom of humanity, the freedom of man, the freedom of the self. Freedom still plays a dominant role in political discourse today. Anarchism is founded on the desire for man’s liberation from the oppressive external conditions, namely political power and economic exploitation. If man is to fully develop his humanity, anarchists argue, he must first be free. However, in response to this discourse of liberation, Stirner asks, what it is that should be freed—man, human essence? If, as Stirner has shown, human essence is a fabrication of power as well as a discourse of domination, then does not the desire for freedom play right into the hands of power? If what is being freed is itself an authoritarian structure, then does not this only facilitate further domination? This is what happens, Stirner argues, under humane liberalism. Man has been freed from external forces such as the state and society, and has thus gained a virtual supremacy over the individual ego. Surely, Stirner suggests, what should be freed is not human essence from external conditions, but the self from human essence, from fixed identities. The self must be freed from the self. Because the idea of freedom is linked fundamentally to the liberation of man, Stirner suggests that one should, instead, be seeking ownness:
What a great difference between freedom and ownness! . . . ‘Freedom lives only in the realm of dreams!’ Ownness, on the contrary, is my whole being and existence, it is I myself. I am free from what I am rid of, owner of what I have in my power to control. . . . To be free is something that I cannot truly will, because I cannot make it, I cannot create it: I can only wish it and—aspire toward it, for it remains an ideal, a
Freedom is only negative freedom, while ownness is a positive freedom, by which Stirner means freedom to reinvent oneself. Ownness means that one can be free even in the most oppressive situations, because it is a form of freedom that starts with the individual. Stirner believes that freedom must be seized by the individual for himself—if it is handed to him then it is always limited by oppressiveThis is because freedom is a diaphanous term: it is always someone’s particular idea of freedom which the individual is forced to conform to. It is a freedom, then, which entails further domination. Freedom is a “beautiful dream,” whose true basis is power. The individual must therefore seize or invent his own freedom, based on his own power: “only the freedom one takes for himself, therefore the egoist’s freedom, rides with full sails.”211 Stirner, however, does not believe that the concept of freedom should be completely abandoned. On the contrary, he wants to see the concept of freedom expanded to include positive freedom, which is contingent and is open to the individual to define. Freedom is not a fixed, transcendental concept: it is part of a struggle between the individual and authority, and it is constantly redefined within this struggle. Foucault will employ a similar notion of freedom in the next chapter. Freedom, then, cannot be separated from antagonism and power: ownness is the realization and, indeed, the affirmation, of this.
Society without Essence
The idea of antagonism is prevalent in Stirner’s work: he perpetuates the war model discussed in the last chapter. The war model, I have argued, is not a celebration of actual war, but rather a model of analysis that eschews essences and unities, and seeks out differences and pluralities. It revels in dislocation, disunity, and radical openings at the level of representations. It could be argued that Stirner applies the war model to the question of identity: he finds emptiness, rather than essence, at the base of subjectivity. This, however, is a creative emptiness—a radical opening which the individual can use to create his own subjectivity and not be limited by essences. Stirner says, then: “The essence of the world, so attractive and splendid, is for him who looks to the bottom— emptiness.”212
Stirner also applies the model of war to the identity of the social. Society is a fictional collectivity—it has no essence: “Who is this person that you call ‘All’? —It is ‘society’!—But is it corporeal, then?—We are its body!—You? Why, you are not a body yourselves. . . . Accordingly the united society may indeed have bodies at its service, but no one body of its own.”213 For Stirner, society is an ideological construct that imprisons the individual within a collectivity. Stirner sees this collectivity, moreover, as a unit through which state power is perpetuated. While anarchists see society as a natural communality that is oppressed and stultified by the state, Stirner sees the state and society as part of the same oppressive“The people” is a collectivity created by power—it has no If we accept Stirner’s argument, social essence cannot be the basis for resistance to domination, as it is for anarchists. Following this logic, we can question the idea of the social altogether: the social is not an essential organism but rather a discursive arrangement that, because it is based on a lack or constitutive emptiness, is always open to different articulations. This is an idea that will be explored later. However, Stirner’s critique of essentialist logic has forced us to abandon the idea of society as a stable, essential unity.
Stirner is not opposed to all forms of mutuality: he wants to see mutual arrangements between individuals which are freely formed by individuals, instead of being imposed from above, and which do not deny the autonomy of the individual. He speaks of the “union of egoists” as such anSociety, argues Stirner, is a false tie: it is based on a notion of the sacred and is, therefore, a forced intercourse between individuals. The union, on the other hand, is based on nothing but the desires of the individuals who enter it: it is solely a relationship of expedience and utility, which dissolves any notion of
What Stirner is against, then, is the obligation to be part of a community, to live together. He is not necessarily against the notion of community itself. This is perhaps the same for morality, rationality, society, humanity. Stirner is not necessarily opposed to these ideas at all, if only they did not become abstract, sacred concepts; if only they were not taken out of the grasp of the individual and turned into an obligation. Domination lies, not in these concepts themselves, but in the way that they have consumed the individual. This is why Stirner talks about ownness: he does not mean ownership of material possessions, but rather the bringing down to the level of the individual these concepts which have become abstracted from him. They must become the property of the individual, something that can be reinvented by the individual. Stirner calls for these ideas to become contingent, open to change and redefinition. Stirner’s application of the war model has, therefore, not destroyed ideas such as morality, society, and humanity: it has merely freed them from essences, from the sacred. It has placed them within a field of struggle and contingency.
Stirner’s use of the war model, because it finds emptiness rather than essence at the base of existence, is nihilistic; but the nihilism that it produces is a creative nihilism. It creates a theoretical opening for a play of differences in interpretation. Gilles Deleuze sees Stirner as “the dialectician who reveals nihilism as the truth of the dialectic.”218 He exposes the nihilism, the closure, the denial of difference and plurality that essentialism and dialectical logic produce. However, for Stirner, the way to counter these discourses is not through simple transgression, not by affirming immorality over morality, irrationality over rationality, the un-man over man. This kind of transgression merely reaffirms, in a negative sense, the authority of the dominant idea. Crime, for instance, only reaffirms the law that it has transgressedSimilarly to Nietzsche, Stirner argues that it is only by thinking outside the binaristic logic of authority and its transgression that one can escape the oppressive dialectic of place, the constant replacement of one form of authority with another—the movement from God to man, from the state to society, from religion to morality. It is by inventing new ideas—like uniqueness and egoism—rather than reacting to the established ones, which allows thought, particularly political thought, to escape its own authoritarian tendencies.
It is perhaps this aspect of Stirner’s thinking that prompted John P. Clark’s criticism of him from the anarchist perspective. Clark argues that Stirner’s egoism leads him to defend the very authoritarianism that he would seem to denounce. Stirner’s position, claims Clark, would lead to a valorization of the will to power and individualFurthermore, Clark argues that Stirner’s rejection of social totalities and essences, and his positing of an ego which Clark sees as wholly autonomous and fictitious, precludes him from having any political or social This is in contrast to anarchism which, Clark argues, because it has a clear picture of human nature, of the self as essentially a social being, is ethically and politically valid In this chapter, however, I have argued precisely the opposite. The first criticism that Clark makes can be rejected: we have seen that Stirner’s egoism, and his use of the war metaphor, is more about achieving power over oneself—through the idea of ownness—than power over others. As to the second criticism, I have argued that it is precisely through Stirner’s rejection of essence and totality that we are able to engage in political action. Stirner has opened up a theoretical space for politics that was hitherto confined by the limits of essentialism and rationality. His critique of human essence has enabled us to theorize a political identity that is contingent and open to reinvention by the individual. So rather than classical anarchism, with its Enlightenment humanist paradigm of essence, being the way forward as Clark argues, it is precisely this paradigm that holds us back, theoretically and politically. Stirner’s fundamental break with this paradigm allows us to reinvent politics in ways that are not limited by essence.
I have argued so far that anarchism is reliant on an uncontaminated point of departure outside power, which is embodied by an Enlightenment notion of essential human subjectivity. Now, in light of Stirner’s critique, this whole paradigm of power and resistance needs to be rethought. Stirner’s rejection of humanism has shown that not only is the notion of human essence an illusion, it is also intimately linked to state authority and practices of domination. Stirner explores, in a way unprecedented, the subtle connections between identity, politics, and power. He rejects the old humanist politics based on essential identity, moral absolutism, and unquestioned rational truth, and forces us to look at the inadequacies of revolutionary political theory—its hidden perils; its silent authoritarian murmurings. Stirner thus goes beyond both Marxism and anarchism, creating the possibility for a new way of theorizing politics—a possibility which will be developed by poststructuralism.
Stirner occupies a point of rupture in this discussion: the point at which anarchism can no longer deal adequately with the very problematic that it created—the problem of the place of power. He is the catalyst, then, for an epistemological break, or perhaps more accurately, a break with epistemology altogether. Above all, Stirner’s explorations into the nature of power, morality, and subjectivity, have made it impossible to continue to conceptualize an uncontaminated point of departure, the pure place of resistance which anarchism relied so heavily upon. There is no longer any place outside power which political theory can find sanctuary in. Politics must now work within the confines of power—and this is where the ideas of Michel Foucault will be important. It is to his work that we now turn our attention.
- Max Stirner, The Ego and Its Own, trans. S. Byington (London: Rebel Press, 1993), 185.
- See Andrew Koch, “Poststructuralism and the Epistemological Basis of Anarchism,” in Philosophy of the Social Sciences 23, no. 3 (1993): 327-351.
- Stirner has been seen as a nihilist, a libertarian, an anarchist, an individualist, an existentialist, and even, rather unfairly, as a protofascist.
- Stirner, The Ego, 254.
- Stirner, The Ego, 227.
- Stirner: “If the Church had deadly sins, the State has capital crimes; if one had heretics, the other has traitors; the one ecclesiastical penalties, the other criminal penalties; the one inquisitorial processes, the other fiscal; in short, there sins, here crimes, there inquisition and here—inquisition.” See The Ego, 23.
- Stirner, The Ego, 226.
- Stirner, The Ego, 229.
- Stirner, The Ego, 224.
- Stirner: “little scruple was left about revolting against the existing State or overturning the existing laws, but to sin against the idea of the State, not to submit to the idea of law, who would have dared that?” See The Ego, 87.
- Stirner, The Ego, 228.
- Frank Harrison, The Modern State: An Anarchist Analysis (Montreal: Black Rose Books, 1983), 62.
- Stirner, The Ego, 115.
- Feuerbach, The Essence of Christianity, 27-28.
- Stirner, The Ego, 58.
- Stirner, The Ego, 176.
- Stirner, The Ego, 33.
- Stirner, The Ego, 174.
- Stirner, The Ego, 32.
- Among them, Arnold Ruge and Gustav Julius who were both influenced by Stirner and who used Stirner’s critique, accused Marx of the Feuerbachian humanism and idealism that Stirner had linked to religious alienation. Following Stirner’s critique of socialism, Julius saw the socialist as a modern day version of the Christian, possessed with a religious fervour, and denouncing egoism as the Christian would have denounced atheism. See R. K. W. Paterson, The Nihilistic Egoist Max Stirner (London: Oxford University Press, 1971), 108.
- See Karl Marx, “The German Ideology: ‘III Saint Max,’” in Collected Works vol. 5, 117-427. It is interesting that, given Marx’s vitriolic attack on The Ego, it was initially welcomed by Engels. In a letter to Marx he wrote: “You will probably have heard of, if not read, Stirner’s book . . . this work is important, far more important than Hess believes, for instance . . . the first point we find is true that, before doing whatever we will on behalf of some idea we have first to make it our cause, personal, egoistic . . . it is equally from egoism that we are communists . . . Stirner is right to reject the ‘Man’ of Feuerbach . . . since Feuerbach’s Man is derived from God.” Engels was to change his opinion shortly afterwards upon receiving Marx’s reply. However it is interesting that Engels’ initial view was that Stirner’s work could have some relevance to communism in separating it from various forms of idealistic socialism. Stirner would argue that any form of revolutionary action must be made not in the name of ideals like man, or justice, or morality—it must be made by the worker for purely selfish reasons. See Paterson, The Nihilistic Egoist Max Stirner, 103.
- John Carroll, Break-Out from the Crystal Palace; The Anarcho-Psychological Critique; Stirner, Nietzsche, Dostoyevsky, (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1974), 62.
- Karl Marx, “Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844,” in The Marx-Engels Reader, 2d ed., 66-125.
- Marx, “Manuscripts of 1844,” 87.
- Stirner, The Ego, 39.
- Stirner, The Ego, 107.
- Stirner, The Ego, 107.
- Stirner, The Ego, 107.
- Stirner, The Ego, 117.
- Stirner, The Ego, 123.
- Stirner, The Ego, 124.
- Stirner, The Ego, 126.
- Stirner, The Ego, 131.
- By “property” Stirner does not necessarily mean material possessions, but rather an integral part of the individual—that which belongs to the individual as part of his individuality: this may be expressed in material possessions, or in something more indefinable. Stirner uses this capitalist terminology perhaps as a way of subverting it, but perhaps also because private property does guarantee the individual at least some freedom. It is this terminology of Stirner’s that has led some people—including Marx— to see him as a libertarian capitalist. While this is a little unfair, there is still a possible connection here.
- Stirner, The Ego, 128.
- Stirner, The Ego, 177.
- Stirner, The Ego, 140.
- Stirner, The Ego, 189.
- Stirner, The Ego, 185.
- Stirner, The Ego, 204.
- Stirner, The Ego, 240.
- Stirner: “Curative means or healing is only the reverse side of punishment, the theory of cure runs parallel with the theory of punishment; if the latter sees in action a sin against right, the former takes it for a sin of the man against himself, as a decadence from his health.” See The Ego, 240.
- Stirner, The Ego, 314.
- Stirner, The Ego, 180.
- Stirner, The Ego, 179.
- Stirner, The Ego, 46.
- Stirner, The Ego, 81.
- Stirner, The Ego, 241.
- Stirner, The Ego, 353.
- Stirner, The Ego, 195-196.
- Stirner, The Ego, 226.
- Stirner: “from this moment State, Church, people, society, and the like, cease, because they have to thank for their existence only the disrespect that I have for myself, and with the vanishing of this undervaluation they themselves are extinguished.” See The Ego, 284.
- See Marx, “The German Ideology: ‘III Saint Max,’” 161.
- Stirner, The Ego, 312.
- Stirner, The Ego, 316.
- Stirner, The Ego, 150.
- See John P. Clark, Max Stirner’s Egoism (London: Freedom Press, 1976), 38.
- Kathy Ferguson, “Saint Max Revisited: A Reconsideration of Max Stirner,” Idealistic Studies 11, no. 3 (September 1982), 279.
- Stirner, The Ego, 366.
- Stirner, The Ego, 157.
- Stirner: “The man who is set free is nothing but a freed man, a libertinus, a dog dragging a piece of chain with him: he is an unfree man in the garment of freedom, like the ass in the lion’s skin.” See The Ego, 168.
- Stirner, The Ego, 167.
- Stirner, The Ego, 40.
- Stirner, The Ego, 116.
- Stirner: “What is called a State is a tissue and plexus of dependence and adherence; it is a belonging together, a holding together, in which those who are placed together fit themselves to each other, or, in short, mutually depend on each other.” See Stirner, The Ego, 223.
- Stirner, The Ego, 232.
- Stirner, The Ego, 313.
- Stirner, The Ego, 306.
- Gilles Deleuze, Nietzsche and Philosophy, trans. H. Tomlinson (London: The Athlone Press, 1992), 161.
- Stirner, The Ego, 202.
- Clark, Max Stirner’s Egoism, 93.
- Clark, Max Stirner’s Egoism, 97-98.
- Clark, Max Stirner’s Egoism, 99-100.