Constructing Anarchisms: The Anarchist and « Their Own »

Suggested readings:
Related readings:
From last week:
Ways to get lost for a while:
A neo-Proudhonian Synthesis:
A Tour of the Lost Continent:
    Constructing Anarchisms:

      The level of difficulty in this works varies considerably from post to post—or from paragraph to paragraph—and from moment to moment. Thoroughly stuck in the middle of this post, for example, I turned to the material on collective force and worked through it in record time. Then I puttered at translation and went to bed. Or tried to go to bed. Got up and re-outlined the opening for this post. Went back to bed. Got up again and scribbled a bit more in a notebook. Made a bit of headway the next day. Ran errands. Took the afternoon ramble—and came back with the outline for a short, but potentially useful book on individualism and anarchist practice…

      So now it’s a matter of pulling what is immediately related to our joint project, while perhaps gesturing at the range of other pieces that fairly suddenly seem to have fallen into place.

      I’ve started to talk about the shift from governmentalism to collective force in terms of a shift in vocabulary. What would we talk about and how would we talk about it, if we could manage to stop talking about governmental norms and institutions? And that’s not a simple question. A certain kind of subversive use of governmentalist language is traditional and has, with some mixture of positive and negative effects, provided the traditional with some of its most durable phrases: property is theft, the authority of the bootmaker, I am an anarchist… In that last case, there has certainly been some progress in giving the language of anarchy a distinctly non-governmental sense, but it seems hard to deny that some of anarchists’ struggles with the concept of anarchy reflect a failure to let go of old notions. Stirner’s critique of “property is theft” as a moralizing affirmation of sacred property is arguably a very bad reading of Proudhon, but perhaps applies to a lot of the subsequent success of the phrase, divorced, as it has been in most instances, from the specific critiques with which it was originally associated. And how do we explain the way that Bakunin’s aside about expertise has overshadowed most of the rest of the discussion of authority in “God and the State”—including the remarkable passages on the anarchistic “revolt of life against science”—if they are not a reflection of a failure or unwillingness to let go? The strictly rhetorical defenses of the language of democracy, which lean on its familiarity—as if not even another rhetoric was possible—seem like more of the same.

      We have to ask ourselves, I think, if these issues haunt our encounters with the idea of “making anarchism our own.” There is, after all, nothing particularly simple about the notion of property in an anarchist context. So it is comparatively easy to talk (and talk and talk) about the potential and potential hazards of anarchy and anarchism, but, when we try to come to grips with the notion of « our own », the difficulties seem much greater.

      Stirner arguably provides us with one of the most direct approaches to a theory of anarchistic individuality or personality, but the einzige can be slippery, elusive, particularly when we try to put it to use in a shared context. That shouldn’t surprise us, particularly as one version of Stirner-inspired egoism—as we find it in John Beverley Robinson’s essay “Egoism,” for example—starts with the premise that “each one of us stands alone in the midst of a universe.” Egoism seldom stops there. We soon find ourselves back in the realm of egoistic unions, camaraderie, even encountering the egoism of collectives in the work of James L. Walker, but we are seldom far from the solitaires and only ones, vagabonds and hermits.

      The obvious question is whether or not a theory of anarchistic individuality influenced by Stirner is going to be any use to us, when the alternative to governmentalism already proposed is one rooted in an analysis of collective force—an analysis that takes as its basic premise that individuals are always already associated—so very clearly not “alone in the midst of a universe.” Those who accompanied me on the “Rambles in the Fields of Anarchist Individualism” won’t be surprised to hear me say that, yes, I believe that Stirner and Proudhon can work together well in this context. But I want to make the argument in a considerably less meandering form here.

      For those who haven’t read the “Rambles…,” there are links to both the original posts and a pdf collection in the sidebar—and much that will be addressed rapidly here is dealt with there in more detail.

      We want to “make anarchism our own” and we want to conceptualize ownness—a matter of individuality and of property—in as non-governmental a manner as we can. Having pointed out some of the ways in which we tend to fall short of non-governmental conceptions, we should be prepared to perhaps be a bit extreme in our attempts to strip away all of the archic trappings. And, of course, Stirner is a fine guide in that sort of project.

      Consider this passage from “Stirner’s Critics:”

      Only when nothing is said about you and you are merely named, are you recognized as you. As soon as something is said about you, you are only recognized as that thing (human, spirit, christian, etc.). But the unique doesn’t say anything because it is merely a name: it says only that you are you and nothing but you, that you are a unique you, or rather your self. Therefore, you have no attribute, but with this you are at the same time without determination, vocation, laws, etc.

      So what if we were to at least begin with this goal of saying nothing about the individual—or of unsaying, rejecting the full range of things that tend to subordinate the individual as a being in constant evolution to any number of types, models and standards—”human, spirit, christian, etc.”? (“As long as even one institution exists which the individual may not dismantle, my ownness and self-possession are still very far away.”) As an exercise in anarchistic analysis, peeling back all the various layers by which the unique is reduced to types seems likely to be both satisfying and useful. It’s also likely, at times, to be awkward and perhaps painful, as we can hardly help but have attachments to at least some of the things that are said about us and that connect us with others about whom similar things are said. Some of those things will, in fact, be of vital importance to us under present circumstances. While we may dream of a kind of radical anarchistic self-creation, in the context of which we would no longer have any use for attributes and expression (to pick up some of the details of Stirner’s exposition), that doesn’t seem to be a space in which even Stirner can remain for long.

      That shouldn’t bother us, I think—and it certainly shouldn’t bother us here, where we are quite explicitly treating Stirner’s thought as “our food,” consuming the bits that seem useful in an analysis that will at least flirt with the project of a type of anarchist individuality. This paring away of the layers of potentially archic associations—constraints on anarchistic thought—is just the first step of a process and we are almost immediately led to the second.

      Indeed, Stirner is one of those who suggests the next move, as we turn from the question of the individual’s proper name to that of their shape and extent. Having done our best to rid ourselves of phantasms, fixed ideas about our own being—a process much like Proudhon’s “elimination of the absolute”—we still want to know something about the “you and nothing but you,” with its “thoughtless content,” which “cannot exist a second time and so also cannot be expressed,” but does presumably exist once. We can accept that this constantly evolving individuality cannot be expressed in its fullness, but we might still find some uses for a rough sketch or approximation, a snapshot of sorts of its interactions with the world.

      We haven’t really strayed that far from Proudhon in all this. He had already made his case against fixed ideas before The Unique and Its Property was published. Where Stirner was thinking about the inexpressible content of the unique, Proudhon was concerning himself with the approximate nature of representation in the face of a progress understood in terms of constant change. Proudhon provoked Stirner with his declaration that “property is theft,” but the account that Stirner gave of property hardly seems incompatible with an analysis—if we are to concern ourselves with analysis, recognizing that it is not the same as expression of the unique—based in the theory of collective force. And I feel fairly confident that a more extended comparison would demonstrate that the ideas of both Stirner and Proudhon are largely assimilable to an anarchistic and at least minimally typifying account of individuality.

      So our search for a theory of the anarchistic subject might begin with an elimination of the absolute, a paring away of governmentalist and quasi-governmentalist elements and lenses, before turning to a sort of mapping of the individual in terms of the extent of its reach and its (no doubt complex) internal dynamics. The insistence on laying bare the solitary individual—the einzige as “only one”—would, of course, seem unlikely to result in a diminishing of that unique, which, to borrow a couple of phrases from Whitman, almost certainly “contains multitudes” and is “not contain’d between its hat and boots.” Sticking close to Stirner’s analysis, for example, we’ll have to account for the ways in which « our relations »—« our intercourse »—is not external to the solitary self. Even the “union of egoists” remains, in important ways, a part of the inexpressible content of the einzige. 

      That points us in a new direction, back away from the potential vanishing point of the solitary “only one,” but hopefully down some path that does not simply lead back to archic, governmentalist or sacred conceptions of the self. And, honestly, I’m still not quite sure where that road leads, either in terms of the new ways we might develop to speak about more fully anarchistic individuals and forms of association or in terms of the practices we might find ourselves elaborating in some new language. Being honest and a bit insistent about that is probably the best thing at this point, even if we have clues and glimpses of the language and practice to come.

      I’ve said on various occasions recently—and will no doubt continue to insist—that I am neither an individualist nor an egoist, despite my rather obsessive engagement with the thought of figures like E. Armand. That doesn’t mean that a certain, and rather extreme, conception of the individual—one that hovers at the edge of various abysses and might, in a pinch, answer to the name of “creative nothing”—is not absolutely central to a recurring moment my understanding of anarchist theory. But, ultimately, my inspiration is more Whitman than Stirner—and there is another equally extreme moment in which the path from the individual through the various forms of its intercourse seems to lead to unity-collectivities on the largest of scales, without any very clear way to determine when or if we left a given individual behind.

      The oscillation between those extreme moments, and through endless complexities at a full range of intermediate scales, squares with my understanding of ecological realities and echoes what seems to me most usefully provocative about analyses like Charles Fourier’s treatment of the passions. (And my attachment to the papillon will perhaps not have gone unnoticed.) There seem to me to be purely practical reasons why an attempt to radically rethink our relationships to one another and to the world around us simply cannot afford to balk at confronting the extremes.

      It’s not like anarchists really shy away from extremity anyway. Instead, we seem most likely to have directions in which we will go to almost any length and others in which we’ll balk at the first sign of an unwelcome notion (“individualism,” “collectivism,” etc.) It just isn’t clear that the theories and theorists that we tend to attach ourselves to really back us up in our exclusive preferences.

      Anyway, as I said at the outset, once this material started to fall into place, it was clear that there was more like a book than a blog’s worth of exposition to tackle. We can only sketch an outline here. But I do want to return once more to the questions of anarchism as movement and tradition in this partially transformed context.

      The thing that Proudhon’s analysis confronts us with—something also perhaps implied by the suggestions about collective egoism in Walker’s work—is the possibility that it is not just human individuals that we have to account for, even when we are focused fairly close to the individualist end of the spectrum. Once we strip away all of the false claims to authority and all the legal fictions, there are still arrangements of forces on a scale that we would recognize as social that seem to have and pursue interests of their own. And not all of them are likely to be phantasms given flesh, so to speak, by our acceptance of them. Some will almost certainly emerge from the combination of more or less self-interested actions on the part of human individuals—and some of those will have the often laudable effect of amplifying the reach of those individuals. Without confining human relations to some rather simple, narrow range, the emergence of unity-collectivities of a rather persistent character seems hard to avoid.

      And one way of thinking about anarchism as such, rather than as the individual ideas of specific human beings or groups of human beings, is as one of these persistent presences, emerging and developing its vague and often changeable character as a result of a long and complicated history of more or less anarchistic thoughts and deeds. The relationship of individual anarchists to that kind of anarchism would necessarily be complicated, involving the transformation of individual acts by their connection to the emergent complex and transformations, probably much harder to achieve to any significant degree, of the complex by the more or less willing association of individuals with it.

      A few weeks down the road, I’ll be adding the notion of encounter to my list of concepts, drawing on an old claim of mine that within anarchy “every meaningfully social relation will have the form of an anarchic encounter between equally unique individuals—free absolutes—no matter what layers of convention we pile on it.” This was my first serious attempt to posit a basic model for non-governmental social relations, drawing on a passage from Proudhon’s Justice in the Revolution and in the Church, and I think that it still has a lot of power as a way to begin talking about how anarchists might interact among themselves, as well as how an anarchistic approach to the rest of the world might start to take shape. It is obviously much more difficult to apply to these unity-collectivities of more-than-human scale, but perhaps the start to that comes from taking the possibility of these entities seriously, applying all the tools in our Stirnerian toolkit to determine if they are a figment to be dismissed or an institution that should be dismantled, and then, if we find we can’t make one of those moves, perhaps the next step is to try to figure out how we can deal with them (in some one or more of the possible senses of that phrase.)

      About Shawn P. Wilbur 2496 Articles
      Independent scholar, translator and archivist.