I’m going to work through the essays in The Anarchist Handbook (Amazon affiliate link), written/edited by Michael Malice, over the course of the next several weeks. It’s a collection of works by an eclectic brand of thinkers who align, at times, only on their opposition to the state.
Because Malice organized The Anarchist Handbook in chronological order, the enigmatic Max Stirner is the second person to be covered in the anthology. I like Stirner, but he’s difficult to follow. This is not entirely accidental.
There’s a reason why I joke “Never go Max Stirner, just go a little Stirner.”
Who Is Stirner?
As one of the Young Hegelians, Stirner is associated with a group that I would normally reject outright. However, he’s equally fond of attacking Marx and Proudhon as he is any other target, and while the left-wing anarchists like to claim Stirner as their own I find this difficult to accept.
My reason for this is simple: Stirner is an individualist.
Stirner rejects collectivism, using his trademark term “spook” (used interchangeably with the phrase “wheel in the head”) for even quite revolutionary things. He rejects organized religion and organized society, but also attacks the radicals (especially those who espouse Hegel’s idea of Geist or any of its permutations, such as Marx’s class consciousness) as fervently as any reactionary.
Every State is a despotism, be the despot one or many, or (as one is likely to imagine about a republic) if all be lords, that is, despotize one over another. For this is the case when the law given at any time, the expressed volition of (it may be) a popular assembly, is thenceforth to be law for the individual, to which obedience is due from him or toward which he has the duty of obedience. If one were even to conceive the case that every individual in the people had expressed the same will, and hereby a complete “collective will” had come into being, the matter would still remain the same.Max Stirner, The Ego and Its Own
Stirner’s staunch individualism should not be mistaken for the later work of Nietzsche, though the two share some similarities.
Stirner begins The Ego and Its Own with a remark about how spooks keep us from reaching absolute truth; how the wheels in our head implanted by society and even our understandings of the world–whether formed independently or taken from others–can stop us from reaching that goal.
It is not, strictly speaking, correct to say that Stirner has something like Montaigne’s skepticism. This pursuit of absolute truth for him is less focused on a “what do I know?” attitude so much as the negative form of that attitude: Stirner acknowledges the potential for error, but in a far different way.
If you were to ask Stirner about humility, he would likely say “I know what I know, and it is my knowledge. I will use it for myself.”
In this sense, he carries the same torch as other individualist thinkers like Rand, though with a distinct philosophical tradition and underpinnings.
I must concede the point that left-anarchists and European anarchists consider Stirner one of their own. Given that I am generally prone to concede membership in philosophical traditions based on known associations, and Stirner was involved with the Young Hegelians, I do not think that this claim is without basis.
But it is also true that if you were to look at Tucker’s two socialisms–by which he means collectivist socialism (what we would consider, generally speaking, the political left) and independent individualism (what we would consider libertarian thought)–Stirner falls strictly on the latter front.
While Stirner’s work is dedicated to the tearing down of idols, and he must be classed as an iconoclast, it is not clear that he is anything other than a reactionary figure. That he reacts against the old and the avant-garde alike makes him a revolutionary, both in the colloquial sense and in his own terms.
Nor should we mistake Stirner’s egoism for Nietzsche’s idea of the over-human. Stirner does not seek to preach that we should create a new morality due to the death (philosophically understood) of God.
Rather, he advocates a found morality, absolute truth with the spooks stripped away and all things revealed.
In this sense he is a deontologist, in that an antinomian. This is not a contradiction, because it is his way.
“All Things are Nothing to Me”
One paradox of Stirner is that he espouses a theory that sounds a lot like the idea of will to power. However, this is not what I believe Stirner advocates.
When Stirner speaks of right–in a conflation of the idea of “right” as in “right and wrong” and right as in “human right”–he often says that rights are that which one takes for oneself. The Ego–the unique one, the individual, the person–has the right that it takes over the world around it.
But this is reading as literal something which Stirner does not seem to mean literally. Consider the following passage.
Right—is a wheel in the head, put there by a spook; power—that am I myself, I am the powerful one and owner of power. Right is above me, is absolute, and exists in one higher, as whose grace it flows to me: right is a gift of grace from the judge; power and might exist only in me the powerful and mighty.Max Stirner, The Ego and Its Own
Stirner spends much of the passage that Malice includes castigating the very idea of rights. This selection comes from near the end of the passage, and before this Stirner has skewered the idea of the collective will and the state being a basis of rights.
He has done this by pointing out the incoherence of the statements made about rights. All people are capable of claiming rights, both in a negative sense (freedom from interference) and a positive sense (freedom from need).
But the claim of a right does not make it so. Whereas progressives may say that people should have freedom from illness and conservatives may say that people should have freedom from state-sponsored propaganda (if only), Stirner would reject rights as a spook altogether.
After all, do people not claim that which is not theirs?
What is the ordinary criminal but one who has committed the fatal mistake of endeavoring after what is the people’s instead of seeking for what is his? He has sought despicable alien goods, has done what believers do who seek after what is God’s. What does the priest who admonishes the criminal do? He sets before him the great wrong of having desecrated by his act what was hallowed by the State, its property (in which, of course, must be included even the life of those who belong to the State); instead of this, he might rather hold up to him the fact that he has befouled himself in not despising the alien thing, but thinking it worth stealing; he could, if he were not a parson.Max Stirner, The Ego and Its Own
It is in this context that Stirner’s claim that “all things are nothing to me” should be considered.
Stirner’s egoism is a rejection of rights–of others’ and one’s own–not because of any objection to the ideals of freedom but because freedom itself is not a product of claims.
To claim the right to be left unmolested by the government in one’s own home does not guarantee this lack of interference. Even without any supposed violation of this pillar of our constitution the state will nonetheless poke its head into our affairs. Do we have a right for the state not to tax us based on what we produce? Do we have a right for the state not to monitor us? Do we have a right…?
And this is what Stirner realizes. The claim of a right is meaningless.
Rather, Stirner posits that we should live as we are able, to pursue freedom where we can find it. What seems at first to be a rejection of morality and virtue is not: we are free to pursue these things, and Stirner would have no objection to this presuming that the seeking were earnest and we were not to merely make subjects out of ourselves in doing so.
That something is a spook does not necessarily make it less true. As a Christian, I interpret Stirner in this way: that religion imposes on us as a spook does, but that this imposition is not a product of its falsehood. There is a balance to be struck between orthodoxy and the self, because a misunderstood or uninvested orthodoxy lacks all purpose. Each must mediate the other.
Stirner and the State
One thing to note is that Stirner never really calls himself an anarchist. All the same, he decries the state (both in its various structural forms and as a mental construct more generally) as nothing more than a spook.
A consequence of this is that the state must in the end be something artificial, but also something tyrannical. The state is a spook. People with a shallow understanding of Stirner often take this to mean that it does not exist, because this is an intrinsic property of the spook, and forget the greater point. It is not merely that the state does not exist, but that the idea of the state is nothing more than a way to enforce behavior.
Note: It may be objected that in claiming that the state does not exist one is committing a farcical error. After all, I comply with the law because there are real consequences for not doing so (plus my own personal moral code, though there are always laws that have no bearing in morality or ethics as I understand them).
But this is not to say that there is a state in reality. It is a spook precisely because there is no physical state, no essential state. The philosophical understandings of being do not apply to a state, except to say that it is a concept. It is a concept that a man may claim when he kicks down my door, or a concept that a man may apply when going to war, or a concept that a man may shed tears for when he salutes a banner, but it is still a concept and nothing more. Ergo, it is a spook.
Now, if I wanted to act ridiculously, I might, as a well-meaning person, admonish you not to make laws which impair my self-development, self-activity, self-creation. I do not give this advice. For, if you should follow it, you would be unwise, and I should have been cheated of my entire profit. I request nothing at all from you; for, whatever I might demand, you would still be dictatorial law-givers, and must be so, because a raven cannot sing, nor a robber live without robbery.Max Stirner, The Ego and Its Own
When understood this way, it is clear that the state has one purpose: to restrict and modify the behavior of those it governs.
It does this as any philosophy would, but at least philosophies do not (of their nature) mug us or draft us or blow up children in distant lands as the state does.
Stirner, La Boétie, and Elite Theory
As someone who is vain enough to say that I am well read, I have noticed some shared threads across about five hundred years of thought that can be summed up in a single statement by Stirner:
Solely from the principle that all right and all authority belong to the collectivity of the people do all forms of government arise. For none of them lacks this appeal to the collectivity, and the despot, as well as the president or any aristocracy, acts and commands “in the name of the State.”Max Stirner, The Ego and Its Own
This is something that echoes La Boétie’s Discourse on Voluntary Servitude. I do not have a copy close at hand to reference, but one of the theories espoused in the discourse (which, by the way, makes a fantastic companion to Montaigne’s essays) is that people always serve governments because of their consent.
But La Boétie argues in the exact opposite direction from later thinkers like Locke, who argue that this consent legitimizes government (see my post on William Godwin for more details). He is an advocate for peaceful revolution, the idea that one should throw off the shackles of tyrants by refusing to associate with them. Hans Herman Hoppe takes this to its logical conclusion in Democracy: The God that Failed (Amazon affiliate link) with a modernized version of the creed that calls for people to treat government employees like moral lepers, regardless of the fact that they claim to serve “free” and “democratic” societies.
The elite theorists (such as Pareto, Mosca, and Burnham, who are intellectual heirs of Machiavelli), would similarly argue that any state is going to be run by a small elite who establishes a sufficient consensus through power or persuasion to control a regime.
The reason why this is important is that it out to disabuse us of any notion of the state as a servant of the people. At the best, it may purchase the consent of a plebiscite, but the goal of the state is not to serve its people, and the ideological purity and earnest servant leadership that a single generation may be able to achieve will never be the stable pattern of a government.
Instead, the state will optimize to provide power to those whose skills and demeanors permit them to rise to the top. This is not necessarily a strictly meritocratic hierarchy, since bureaucrats and statesmen are going to represent the optimal set of skills (either deliberately or through circumstance) that a particular hierarchy values.
Compare this to something like a free market, where the consumer is a tyrant (see Mises’ Human Action) and it is direct value given through the production of useful services or goods that earns one a place in the social hierarchy.
The arbitrary vestiture of right in a state by necessity creates this elite; it is this claim to right that is the inherent foundation of a state according to Stirner (and this view seems as correct to me as any other) and which marks the foundational conflict between state conspiracy and individual liberty.
Did Malice Make a Good Choice?
Grudgingly, I have to say that Malice selected a good portion of Stirner to grasp his political thought. It’s not his most flashy or interesting section, but what Malice has chosen is perfect for showing the way that Stirner has been interpreted in the realm of politics.
And there is something Stirnerite in the use of Stirner’s work to focus on a particular idea, as it aligns with his concept of the egoist.
I would strongly recommend reading “Wheels in Your Head” (also from The Ego and Its Own) for a segment of Stirner’s work which I consider to be the philosophical equivalent of a chocolate cake from a decadent French patisserie; rich and indulgent yet surprising in its sophistication.
I’m personally a fan of Stirner, and I enjoyed this chance to dig into his work.
There’s something that’s important to remember about Stirner, and it’s the fact that he’s deliberate about being whimsical in his approach. That’s not to say that he shouldn’t be taken seriously–I consider him among the top ten political thinkers in human history–but it is a suggestion that one approach with caution.
Much of what Stirner speaks of is approached in an idiosyncratic manner. That makes him unique, and he’s bright enough that his work is worth reading despite the difficulty. But he’s not going to make sense on a first read, and if he does you’ve probably got it wrong.
Heck, I’m probably wrong about Stirner’s work. But I make of it what I will, and in that way I am following in his footsteps.