Masters Without Slaves:
A Discussion on Individualism, Subjectivity and Revolution.
I want to learn how to live…
Such a statement vibrates like an arrow – it is pure violence. It’s the kind of statement that could only have meaning within the context of violence, an utterance that passes between son and father, student and teacher, or slave and master. It’s a much more insidious and much more powerful form of violence than your standard, boring, everyday state regulated coercion. This is essentially self-mutilation, self-alienation.
Isn’t this, after all, the generative basis for all authority, the most human desire to bow down and serve a fixed idea, the enticement to renounce the self and follow a spook which is neither of our creation nor in our power, the religious seduction to ‘serve something bigger than oneself’? The desire for immersion in ideology, to forget oneself, whatever it may be labelled; socialism; fascism; Christianity; nationalism; individualism or anarchism, is without doubt a primary human drive - it is the desire to serve.
Whether this desire for self-renunciation is a product of the soul or the psyche is not the topic of this article, I am simply restating its existence. Any movement aimed at total social change which fails to take these basic elements of human motivation into account, the subjective desire for authority and its unconscious origins, or attempts to explain them away with simplistic excuses and platitudes relating to ‘social conditioning’ is built on sand. This was the major poverty of scientific Marxism and orthodox socialism, its analysis of domination rarely probed beyond the materialist and the economic. And why would it? The imagination of the orthodox socialist and their conception of social change is limited to the alteration of societal power relationships, they want the humanisation of domination, not its eradication. No matter how benevolent or democratic a master may be, no matter what class they may have been plucked from, their existence still depends on the consent of a peonage.
True egoistic self-mastery is the greatest threat to such an order and has been either subtly ignored or rabidly condemned by both Marx and the vast majority of his followers. Self-renunciation is the bald logic of a ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’, just as it is the bald logic of all other forms of totalitarianism.
But anarchism, a radically unique emancipatory project, one which is concerned with every dimension of human feeling, need, desire, subjectivity, consciousness and psyche, has developed a radically unique emancipatory ethic: liberation must be self-liberation or nothing at all. The subjectivist/individualist perspective, as elaborated by such diverse thinkers as Stirner, Nietzsche, Dostoyevsky, and the Situationists is this desire for self-liberation, the will to transcend the religious drive and break the back of ideology, to subordinate ideas to individual interest and our own subjective paths to self-realisation.
At its best, anarchism stands for the inseparability of subjective self-fulfilment and collective insurrection, it means liberation both from introverted forms of authority and from its external, social manifestations through the reappropriation of the totality of life by every individual on their own terms, and in their own way. Isn’t this, the essence of anarcho-individualism, what so distinctly separates the anarchist current from the rest of the leftist paradigm?
I would bet that not many people reading this would object that a free society must exist in the interests of all, and must be based upon the self-fulfilment and enjoyment of the individual, and that any future society worth living in must be organised in such a way as to remain the ‘possession’ of the individual, so that the (by no means false) dichotomy between the ego and the collective, while not necessarily resolved, will at least cease to be a such a relentless and bloody battle where one element must tirelessly fight for supremacy over the other.
I would also hazard to speculate not many readers would dissent to the statement that in a revolutionary struggle means will always define ends, and that our daily subversions are the testing ground for the future society, an effort to create and expand spaces of relative autonomy within a system of relative totalitarianism.
Why then should so many anarchists go by the same materialist/positivist frame of mind that characterises Marxism, the idea that the religious drive will simply disappear once the social and economic institutions that encourage and reproduce it are destroyed? Marx assumes that economic relations determine the psychological characteristics of the individual, that their motivations are cast essentially in material terms, and hence the alleviation of economic dislocation, of commodity scarcity and oppressive capital-labour relations will automatically translate into the creation of a “non-alienated generation”.
This is only a very limited picture of human in society, as a description it fails to recognise that ideology (and thus power and authority) are rooted in psychological needs, and that it is structurally consolidated into an individual’s consciousness through the various processes of socialisation. The anarcho-individualist perspective, as first seen in the works of Stirner and Nietzsche, and then later elaborated on by Freud and other contemporary psychologists penetrates the problem of ideology much more satisfyingly than any of the Marxists in the sense that it demonstrates the need for spooks, illusions, universals, teleologies and religion are all rooted in the individual psyche, irrespective of the nature of the society that determines their particular shading. A new society will not usher in a new self, and a new society will not be achieved unless people learn to take responsibility for themselves and create new forms of living.
Therefore, anarchist organisation should be the practical expression of anti-authoritarianism, both ideological authoritarianism as well as the authoritarian role the group often assumes when it takes the character of a totality, that is, when it threatens to negate the autonomy of the individual. In this way we forge the new society within the shell of the old, one in which hierarchy and domination are prevented from re-emerging precisely because individuals have reached a level of self-realisation whereby they recognise all authority as simply a figment of their imagination (to paraphrase Stirner, “every person carries their own policeman in their breast”). A form of organisationalism is required whereby the interests of the individual are never allowed to be subjected to the interests of the group. It must be the practical expression of a total transparency of human relationships, one which acts as a medium for the participation of everyone, and the self-fulfilment of everyone.
This form of organisationalism would be defined as anarchist in the original sense, and would represent no platform or ideology except that which could be generalised from the similarities existing between the beliefs, desires and goals of the individuals who choose to be involved. It must be possessed by all and the property of none. The group has no value other than as a tool for individuals to use in their own struggles against domination, once it ceases to provide this service it becomes worthless and should be promptly discarded.
Often anarchists have attempted to escape the full implications of this kind of egoism, afraid that it might shatter the frail unity of a weak and embryonic movement, one which, like a child, needs the constant care of a doting mother. We pay lip service to egoism and subjectivity, but only as an abstraction, something which should be viewed at an ironic distance. Solidarity must be constantly insulated, regularly galvanised. I often smell a kind of fear of the egoist among many anarchists, an unstated caution that if such principles really became the basis of revolutionary organisation the glorious cause would prove itself to be nasty brutish and short, a degeneration into war of all against all. Even more horrifying, the whining of the chauvinists may turn out to be wisdom, anarchy does mean chaos after all!
Scepticism is a synonym for intelligence perhaps, I’m happy to splash around in my puddle of optimism, for now at least. The most depressing irony of all this however is when anarchists, in their service to the cause, feel obligated to lower themselves to the tried and true tactics of the socialist orthodoxy, who, confusing quantity with quality and chasing after the lowest common denominator, spout their moral euphemisms and vulgar teleologies and universals that reduce all social oppression, and all revolutionary action to a simplistic formula (workerism, classism, etc). This kind of ethic, with its attempt to fish-hook adherents by doing their own thinking for them is certainly consistent with the project of transforming power relations, making peonage more comfortable, because it fails to engage authority at its psychological roots. This approach panders to the same religious drive the Bolsheviks were able to so artfully manipulate in the heart of the Russian muzhik.
This germ of teleological thinking is also the germ of identity politics. The political tactic of identity categorisation leads to the valorisation of people in terms of their exclusive membership to certain oppressed groups, ‘gays and lesbians’, ‘workers’, ‘people of colour’ etc. All too often such categorisation (the aim of which is always to construct a counter power-bloc) means self-sacrifice, service to a cause, something higher than the individual. At base, identity politics means that people must organise within in the socially constructed categories which perpetuate their oppression in order to fight against this oppression. This is a form of organisationalism that aims at turning the will to power around on the masters, stabbing them with their own knife so to speak.
Again, such an ethic, one which demands the individual sacrifice the domination of the ruling order for the domination of a reified identity and program has always been successful for the reformists, it seeks to engage power on its own terms, fight hierarchy with hierarchy, rather than transcend it. What people gain in strength as a group, they lose in strength as individuals, thus guaranteeing the continuation of the power relationships which secure their subordination. You cannot fight power with power without becoming like power. In this way, the disillusion of mental hierarchy is imperative to the disillusion of material hierarchy.
Such ideas resonate well in rhetoric, but grounding them in praxis is a different subject altogether. This is something I intend to write more on, and I can admit that these thoughts are stitched together from limited and disparate reading (university is constantly getting in the way of my education). It is here however, that I think the Situationists, significantly Debord and Vaneigem, with their attention to the unitary triad that should be the basis or any free society: self-realisation, communication and participation, have contributed immeasurably to anarchist emancipatory discourse.
The question of how to organise in such a way that the group is barred from taking on a totalising character so that individuals retain and strengthen their capacity to determine the principles of their own existence must be dealt with on two levels, that of organisation and that of action. Of course, these are simply two sides of the same coin, but for purposes of clarity I will attempt to partially separate them.
Instead of attempting to create dissatisfaction (the logic of advertising), it is infinitely more intelligent to seek out the areas where dissatisfaction is most pronounced. In the era of Bakunin and Marx, the utter, total, abject impoverishment of the working classes meant the need for survival all but negated the desire to live, economic dissatisfaction was the primary locus for the development of revolutionary consciousness.
Today, now that the overwhelming productive power of the capitalist system has been adequately harnessed (inside hyper-industrialised Western societies at least) and it has been necessary to create markets for mass-consumption, capital has been obliged to significantly raise the living standards of the lower and middle classes, contributing to the token alleviation of economic dissatisfaction and thus the erosion of class-consciousness.
Immiseration proceeds everywhere without doubt, while capitalism has proved itself master in the sphere of material production, it is continually demonstrating itself to be manifestly moth-eaten in its ability to provide any meaningful form of human existence. Like Debord wrote, “What is missing from everyday-life? Quite simply life itself, which is cruelly absent.” This is the new crisis of capitalism, grist for all those catastrophe theorists who eagerly follow the cyclical ebb and flow of the rate of profit - the only difference being this is a perpetual catastrophe, as capitalism grows it produces and reproduces its own enemies. In its parasitic inability to create, only appropriate and reify, capitalism soiled its logic throughout every sphere of social life, the factory has become inescapable.
Individuality and community have been reduced to atomised conformity and internet avatars. Relief from mechanistic labour is only found in an alternate, equally mechanistic leisure (no longer able to be called ‘free’ time) in which, unless hidden away in the thoroughly private sphere, individuals are allowed to participate only as consumers. There is no need to lecture about a culture that’s lurid bankruptcy is apparent to all, the point here is that everyday, everywhere and all the time there are subjective micro-insurrections being perpetuated against this totality, people rebel through their own subjective dissatisfaction, their own anomie.
It’s true that many people feel this kind of dissatisfaction most keenly, at times it may manifest itself in the fleeting sensation of desolation, an odd and disagreeable moment when one feels that perhaps I do not really belong to myself, that I am becoming alienated from my real self, that maybe I am squandering something, something which I have never had but I feel as though I have lost. And what is the base cause behind this kind of alienation? Individuals have renounced control over their own destiny, over their own self, they have given it away to others, those who they trust must naturally share their interests, their subjectivity.
Many people will arbitrarily censor the question of their everyday life, just like Americans arbitrarily censor the questions of their politics and religion while still making them the centre of their existence. The typical case, a person who’s daily work-life was so miserable and empty that all and any energy they may have left in their ‘free’ time is used anaesthetising themself, self-medication via alcohol and whatever digital they might find on the TV, or whatever other plastic opiates might find within our ironically labelled ‘leisure industry’. Empty consumption is the only comfort, the only payback for dead-time, lost and gone forever in empty labour. In the end, the only variation in their life exists between the pursuit of affluence and the pursuit of numbness.
Still, for all their unhappiness, they are still absolutely incapable of reflecting on their own situation, the terror of coming to terms with their own frustrated desires has literally petrified them. They may be an stupid, but entirely self-made. A person becomes stupid when they forget how to have fun with their subjectivity, forget how to use their imagination, they become impotent in the most dehumanising way.
The awareness of the squandered richness of everyday life ultimately leads to the definition of everyday life, and everything that goes along with it as poverty, prison and nothingness. Just like the horse that is blinkered so as not to be distracted from the road by the forest it is tramping through will eventually learn to focus on nothing but the road. Some people learn to blinker themselves. Imagination is revolutionary praxis or it is nothing.
Such tragedies are not everywhere, yet, but this is where we are headed for sure. Because, in the end, our current hegemony relies on the perpetuation of just this kind of alienation, it must pray that either they remain firmly embedded within an individuals subjectivity and does not translate into action, or that the atoms of self-realisation the capitalist totality can permit to allow without risking self-annihilation will suffice to maintain the illusion that these dissatisfactions can be articulated and resolved without transcending the current order. Totality of oppression forces individuals to withdraw to the only sphere where they feel to be in control, to be in possession, their own subjectivity. The burden falls to us to ensure this violence will be totalitarianism’s downfall.
Thus a truly anarchist form of organisationalism must be the project of creating practical and coherent forms for the everyday assaults launched on external reality by the individual’s subjective dissatisfaction, that is to say, subjectivity’s actualisation. When individuals recognise the plain truth that their own will to self-realisation is intimately intertwined with the will for the transformation of society, of existence in total, and they enter into such a struggle according to their own passions and aspirations, they are much more likely to retain possession over their revolution, rather than renounce it to a leader, or infinitely worse, to a cause.
Fuck the satisfied! Let the armies of order find their recruits among the newspaper-reading maggots, power-fat serfs and breathing abortions. The only revolutionary association (again, friendship) I am interested in is with those who have at least begun to reclaim their humanity through their boredom and dissatisfaction. It is accurate that Vaneigem should refer to these individuals the ‘new proletariat’.
Of course, I am not talking about the negation of the economic struggle or sociological analysis, the need to understand the functioning of capitalist society and our place within it, and most importantly, the need to theorise on practical alternatives. Even the demolition-expert needs to understand the architecture of a building, although all he wants to do is destroy it. The point I am making is that the problem which we are faced with today is not the creation of a new economic or social system, but the creation of new lives. Here consciousness of individuality, consciousness of what one really is, of our desires and needs, and what connects us so closely to other humans beings is the is the transcendence of class-consciousness. Like Bookchin helpfully points out, inverting Marx, “The proletariat becomes revolutionary, despite of, not because he (sic) is a proletariat.” Could we say the proletariat also becomes human, despite of, not because he is a proletariat?
Indeed, the existence of contemporary totalitarianism is founded on a perpetual assault on difference, the ceaseless and frenzied effort to seek out and quash individuality wherever it appears, to strip it of its substance and leave only the hollow apparition of diversity. Isn’t that the fundamental function of hegemony, homogenisation? It is infinitely more efficient to indoctrinate the collective ego, rather than a population of individual egos. We shouldn’t be seeking a counter-hegemony like Gramsci described, the mass-diffusion of a revolutionary ideology from below, but rather the total and complete rejection of all ideology through each and every individual reappropriating their own property – themself.
Probably most egoist’s would assert that no matter what, the individual and the collective must always and will always remain in antagonism, the burden for us is seeking a equilibrium whereby they can remain in a healthy tension, rather than being mutually destructive. I think this is true, like Dostoevsky, the anarcho-indivdualist Christian who spent most of his life wrestling with his religiosity in order to find his self. But could anyone who knows anything at all about themselves and their fellow humans fail to recognise a will identical to their own, the same search for self-realisation, the same need for true participation and true communication, in a word, the need for true community?
Here I think the principle of play is fundamental. Play means true participation inside community, a community that facilitates the self-realisation of every individual involved. Participation within rules of course, but rules that can be played with, bent, subverted, transcended. Hierarchy is the antithesis to play, as soon as hierarchy is consolidated rules become sacrosanct, they can no longer be bent, only broken. This is what happens when an individual chooses to sacrifice themself to the service of a cause. As Vaneigem writes, “People rely on Causes because they haven’t been able to make their own life a Cause sufficient unto itself. Through the Cause and the sacrifice it entails they stagger along, backwards, in search of their own will to live.”
Archy either kills the play ethic or tries to harness it for its own purposes, this is why in capitalism we either participate in society and politics only as consumers or clients, within a strict and insoluble set of rules and conventions, or else play is cordoned off in an isolated sphere where it can be contained and prevented from contaminating, such as art and subculture. An-arche, by its traditional meaning, is play distilled, it means death to all causes and the end of self-sacrifice. Well, that’s what it means to me, at least.