Our Handbook / The Ego and Our Own by Vanoc II

I first heard of Vanoc II from a newspaper clipping laid into a second-hand copy of The Ego and His Own by Max Stirner (New York: Modern Library 1919). Vanoc II’s view is based on the irrefutable argument that if we all got along, we’d all get along. In researching Vanoc II I found no evidence that he did his best work for the betterment of all of humanity instead of for pay, and so perhaps the burden of modern capitalism falls entirely upon him. The argument for socialism, as usual, consists of “let’s all share – you go first.” I am glad for all who consider Stirner’s ideas, including those who reject them. This most thoughtful of audiences is often led to buy my books.

The newspaper clipping transcribed below does not include its source, but it is likely to be The Sunday Referee where Vanoc II had a regular column. The clipping is not dated, but is likely to have been published between 1925 (when Vanoc I died) and 1939 (when The Sunday Referee was absorbed into The Sunday Chronicle). The economist mentioned in the clipping is Wesley Mitchell, known for his book The Business Cycle (1913). Vanoc II’s quotation from The Ego and His Own is not identical to Stephen Byington’s translation. I do not know if if Vanoc II is paraphrasing or if he made his own translation, and I do not say the differences change the meaning of the text, but I note the two are not identical. The quote is found in Part Two (I), Section II (The Owner), Sub-Section I (My Power). – Trevor Blake

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The philosopher who airily exhorted men to know themselves did not condescend to point out a path to such knowledge. To know thyself is indeed easier said than done; and only by the dialectic of materialism is it possible to clear a way for an approach to the problem.

We may at once, therefore, strip this artichoke of its ideal leaves of delusion and see if there is a workable truth in the pith.

It is certain that at the beginning of his life the individual regards the subjective perspective into which he is accidentally born as objectively valid. In other words, he accepts the evidence of his imperfect senses and his limited experience.

This is true of peoples as well as individuals. Only through bitter experience does [sic?] a people learn that it is not the centre of mankind. It has taken thousands of years of physical science to prove to the satisfaction of a comparatively small number of individuals that the earth is not the centre of the universe.

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Yet in spite of broadened experience and developed senses it is still terribly difficult for even an acute individual to discover his right place in the world.

The child judges everything that falls with in its orbit only in relation to its own desires, its own pleasures, its own pains; for these things are the only things that it experiences directly.

This infantile attitude persists in the majority of men unto the end of their lives. No doubt it is true that every man in the course of time adapts himself to the limitations imposed by social life; but this sort of education can be carried out in two very different ways.

On the one hand, the individual learns only that there are powers in the world – irresistible powers which compel him to restrain himself. He is gradually able to distinguish what he may do from what he may not do. This educational form applies also to animals; and it is no exaggeration to say that most men in the first years of their lives are only just tamed.

Such is a typical result of the efforts of strict parents who educate without reasoning, and under this category falls the idyllic rural custom, which is still alive in certain parts of Europe, of making fractious children drowsy with poppy seeds. When I was a small boy many English mothers calmed their squealing babies with rubber comforters dipped in tincture of opium. Damage to the health of the children was payment for an escape from their troublesome liveliness.

This is the way of the unthinking world: one curses symptoms.

The proper kind of education, on the other hand, consists not only in bringing the child to act in the desired manner, but to think in the desired manner; to let it feel and understand that there are other individuals with equally justifiable wishes and rights, and that all the limitations of the individual follow necessarily and sensibly out of the collision of the spheres of interest.

He who has acquired the necessary knowledge and feeling that he lives as one among many will not demand more than his due; but the man who is only tamed will naturally always be on the alert to squeeze as much as possible for himself out of others.

There is a certain piquancy in the fact that we owe the most consistent propagation of might in opposition to the standpoint of right to a one-time teacher in a girls’ school – the celebrated Max Stirner.

In Der Einzige und sein Eigentum (The Ego and His Own) he sets forth the following proposition:

I decide what is right for me: outside of me there is no right. Is it right for me, then it is right. It may be that on this account it is not right for others; that is their concern, not mine; let them defend themselves. And were something not right for the whole world, but right for me – i.e., I wanted it, then I would not trouble about the whole world. Thus does everyone who knows how to esteem himself, everyone in the degree that he is also an egoist, for might precedes right, and, indeed – rightly so.

Let us look at the school – the place where, I like to think, Stirner spent his time in trying to manufacture co-operators from egoists.

We know from painful experience that the objective of the class cannot be attained with principles which underlie Stirner‘s proposition. But if in place of co-operation enforced from the lecture desk there stepped the natural feeling that in the work of the school the common interests of teacher and scholar interlock, then all limitations of ego would appear as useful and needed, and the step down from the lecture desk to the scholar’s desk would be superfluous.

But where conflict prevails, barricades are necessary.

In school one could learn that the necessity to adapt oneself does not spring, as Stirner believed, from regard for the idolatrous dogma of a consecrated right, but that adaption is practical and useful.

Yet school is commonly a battlefield on which one seeks to gain as easy a victory as possible by means of deception and cunning and the minimum amount of work.

When the ex-scholar enters the workshop of life, he finds that school has, in fact, fittingly prepared him. His experiences in the academic trenches, which he gathered in the course of a full decade’s war against the tutorial foe, stand him in good stead in the fight of greed and grab.

* * *

Our practice of remunerating human labour necessarily leads to an egoistic view of the world. The employee’s consciousness that he does useful work for the community is disturbed by the fact that he works at the same time for the profit of his employer, in whose enrichment he has no interest and whose contribution to the social labour process is too small.

From this arises a truly frightful state of affairs. The fine impulse to do work as well as possible, which resides in every normal being, impresses the wage worker to-day as foolish and vain.

A critical survey of the position is almost certain to kill love for work for its own sake, and ultimately the questioning worker too often resolves to do as little work as possible for the largest possible amount of money.

For he has grasped what the American economist, Mitchell, has formulated in the words: “Considered from a business point of view, the goods produced and essential to life are nothing more than incidental to the distribution of dividends.”

This shifting of the centre of gravity from products to profits results quite spontaneously also among small independent producers.

When, for instance, a watchmaker buys a pair of shoes, the shoemakers sells his goods to a man in whom he has no personal interest. If he made those shoes for himself, or for his wife, he would put his best work into the job; but the strange watchmaker is on an altogether different footing; he merely pays.

That the buyer, however, has a claim to the shoes not because he brings money, but because he on his part makes watches for the community, is a matter of which there is but a dim general consciousness, owing to contemporary economic relations.

The watchmaker goes to the shoemaker not to obtain good work as remuneration for good work, but solely as a customer in whom there is no interest beyond that of selling the cheapest possible work for the highest price.

If man’s needs were completely separated economically from that which he supplies – if the shoemaker had his livelihood gratis and at the same time the time the task of supplying shoes gratis – there would be a clear connection in which every person provided is at once the provider of the providers and vitally interested in good work.

* * *

Our method of individually remunerating the work done by individuals falsifies what is a part-process, within a great mechanism, into a self-contained individual process. Egoistic business principles follow of necessity.

Thus the co-operative organisation of the human community is converted into a system of mutually conflicting egoisms. And the impulse to supply good work is perverted through the correct business principle that an astute business man does not give away more than is specifically demanded.

Our methods of work urge to egoism, and it is just because of this that our official moral urges so fervently to self-denial. One ought to make sacrifices, to serve one’s neighbour, and to become selfless. Thus is disharmony balanced by disharmony. Tolstoy enters the list against Stirner.

The two conceptions, egoism and altruism, are thereby made worthy of one another. They are both equally awry because they are based on the senseless antithesis of I and not-I.

He who is only there for himself, and he who only wants to be there for others, do not know themselves.

Nor do they know that in ethics the important thing is to balance the needs of men, to start out from the human community as a whole, and thus ascertain the function of every part of the whole.

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Filed under 1845-1945, 1946-Today, Book, Historical Work, Journals, Max Stirner, Trevor Blake