A Note on Stirner, Egoism, and Anarchism

This article was in the archives of Egoist Archive, a missive from Tracy Harms in response to material on Stirner in a once published Anarchism FAQ by Bryan Caplan.  Doing a quick search, it’s difficult to determine what version of Mr. Caplan’s FAQ this is in response to, nor when this response was made. That said, there are some perfectly good points that should be considered regardless of anything else.

A Note on Stirner, Egoism, and Anarchism
by Tracy Harms

Egoism is somehow akin to anarchism, but the differences overshadow the commonalities. As one would expect of anarchists, egoists wholly reject alleged duties of citizenship, requirements of law, loyalties of patriotism and every other imposition which attends the State. But whereas anarchism involves advocacy of social reform, egoists are just as scornful of any duty to reform society as they are scornful of duties to the State. To the egoist, the State calls for each to set aside personal interest in favor of the good of society (as dictated by law or patriotism), and anarchists call for each to set aside personal interest in favor of the good of society (as dictated by anarchist theory).

In this rejection of moralism there is a remarkable consistency to the egoist position. The total amoralism which results by taking this idea to its extreme is similar to the anti-authoritarianism produced by pressing to the anarchist extreme, and indeed includes that as a subset. The individualist biases in anarchism are enormous, but egoism goes much further: All questions are resolved by consideration of the will of the individual alone.

So it is that egoism is simultaneously inside and outside the anarchist milieu. Some threads of anarchist theory are a perfect fit with egoism, particularly those which make no retreat from the radical vision of anarchism as an absence of any authoritative prohibition. Yet most are in stark conflict with egoism, especially where cooperation, non-aggression, or individual rights are ranked as moral imperatives.

Even as egoists reject the “shoulds and oughts” by which anarchist social forms are promoted, egoists will favor whatever they like in the way of interpersonal interaction. Not surprisingly, egoists are often very comfortable with anarchistic relationships, especially those of the most spontaneous, existential, immediate, and non-utopian forms. But because egoism is formulated in terms of the attitude of the egoist, and not in terms of social structures or content of choices, there is no limit on what an egoist might choose. Egoist theory makes it impossible to characterize or constrain what actions might come out of fully egoistic motivation.

Bryan Caplan’s Anarchist Theory FAQ incorrectly suggests that egoism entails “opposition to everything.” That idea is in fact very prominent in nihilism, yet the FAQ contrasts this with nihilism. Nihilists think that pretty much every aspect of modern society must fall before a decent society can rise. The opposition which is native to egoism is much more focused on a particular type of idea.

First exposure to egoist ideas is typically shocking, for the morality which most everybody takes for granted is tossed away like a worn-out rag. It is easy to interpret this as blanket rejectionism, but a closer look will show that Stirner, Walker, Marsden, Badcock, et al. build around a positive focus on self-interest. Stirner’s writing on family is especially clear in this regard. A man loves his family; is he an egoist? Unless there is actual conflict between his personal interests and affectionate treatment of his family, there is no telling. An egoist loves his family because it is his family, because affectionate interactions are personally rewarding, and because his interests are served. Contrast this with a love for family which arises out of awe for the duty to familial responsibility, to being a good son, etc.

The error in explaining egoism in terms of “opposition to almost everything” is that it makes such opposition appear to be what egoism is mostly about. No matter how readily it occurs, opposition which arises from egoist attitude is but a side-effect. Always more basic is total, unreserved individualism; an exaltation of the self and personal interest. The only opposition which is characteristic of egoism is opposition to all ideas which exalt alien concerns. One cannot rightly presume an egoist will oppose “the family, traditional art, bourgeois culture, comfortable middle-aged people, the British monarchy, etc.” Anything might be broadly pleasing to an egoist — insofar as it is separated from the notion that he should elevate alien or transcendent ends above his own purposes.

Tracy Harms
Boulder, Colorado