There is a curious statement in Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea’s novel Illuminatus!:
“Most anarchists hoped Joachim-like, to redistribute the wealth, but Rebecca had once told him about a classic of anarchist literature, Max Stirner’s The Ego and His Own, which has been called ‘the Billionaire’s Bible’ because it stressed the advantages the rugged individualist would gain in a stateless society.” (53)
For those of us who have read Stirner, this is an odd statement. It might be assumed that this was purposeful, one of Wilson’s guerrilla ontology tactics, and that it was put forward in such a manner only to later deconstruct its underlying assumptions. Of course, equally possible it was meant at face value, particularly considering Wilson’s soft spot for free-market libertarianism and capitalism. This sort of view of Stirner, and egoism in general, is an all too common assumption. Stirner is often viewed as a proponent of an extreme form of anarcho-capitalism. This view, however, is unfounded.
There is a common misconception that Stirner was some sort of rogue capitalist. Certainly some of his disciples have contributed to this notion. In his writings, Stirner rarely ventured into the realm of economics. When he did so it was to dispel the spooks of economics. He argued that people by nature are egoists, and that ideologies to the contrary merely serve as rationalization and justification for egoism. It would be better to be honest about motivation. It has been common for some to equate this viewpoint with capitalism. The underlying assumption made by many is that capitalism is individualist, thus Stirner supported capitalism. This is not what Stirner said.
Most of Stirner’s concepts and projects were negative, that is they were intended to break down structures and ideologies. One of the few positive projects he proposed is the “Union of Egoists”(79), which he did not really define. By nature this union could not be strictly defined, as it is fluid, open and dynamical. It was a proposal for individuals to come together with others, in a fashion that does not compromise the self, but rather amplifies it. He never proposed that individuals should not work together or share. On the contrary, friendship may be one of the most powerful egoist tools. The egoist can give up many things for friendship, as Stirner argued:
“I can with joy sacrifice to him numberless enjoyments, I can deny myself numberless things for the enhancement of his pleasure, and I can hazard for him what without him was the dearest to me, my life, my welfare, my freedom. Why, it constitutes my pleasure and my happiness to refresh myself with his happiness and his pleasure. But myself, my own self, I do not sacrifice to him, but remain an egoist and – enjoy him”(290).
Some might mistake his skepticism and criticism of alternatives, such as communism, as a defense of capitalism. I don’t think that it is. When he said “If you know a better medium of exchange, go ahead; yet it will be a ‘money’ again”(274), it seems to be a criticism that communism is merely a new form of capitalism. Really, the egoist wants autonomy and liberty for themselves, and the autonomy and liberty of others enhances this. The problems of capitalism, such as division of labor, were dealt with by Stirner, such as when he argued that “if I do not trouble myself about my affair, I must be content with what pleases others to vouchsafe me. To have bread is my affair, my wish and desire, and yet people leave that to the bakers”(275).
The structure of capitalism is not a reflection of individualism or egoism. It isn’t even necessary to refer to Stirner to come to this conclusion. Capitalism relies on a massive structure of manufacturing and social control. It has division of labor at its root. Division of labor is not the same as specialization. Specialization means that a person may have a particular set of skills that they are most adept at, or most enjoy. Division of labor means that each task is broken down into repetitive blocks in order to improve efficiency. A person cannot build a car themselves, they are reliant on a massive megamachine of manufacturing. Even if a person has all the mechanical skills to assemble the pieces, they do not have the capability to manufacture the pieces or to forge the necessary tools or to mine the raw materials for its production. This always relies on a collective form, and of the worst sort. This is a form that has alienation, boredom and even slavery as its component parts.
It may be beneficial to look towards Raoul Vaneigem for some ideas as to how to get out of this position. Vaneigem was one of the primary theorists of the Situationist International, and might have his philosophy defined as egoist communism. He criticized masters not on moral grounds, but because “masters, and God himself, are weak because of the shortcomings of those whom they govern. The master knows the positive role of alienation, the slave its negative one, but both are denied full mastery”(204). Capitalism eliminates the masters, leaving “just slaves-who-consume-power, distin-guishable from one another only by reference to the relative quantity of power they consume”(207). Vaneigem proposed a solution to this problem, the coming of “masters without slaves”(207). In his view, the proletariat should adopt an egoist position and become “the bearer of the end of class distinctions and of hierarchy”(213).
In the end, the egoist is no friend of capitalism. It is another spook to be destroyed. The writing of Stirner reflects this. Yet one doesn’t need Stirner to come to this conclusion, it is obvious when considering the nature of capitalism, the megamachine that turns individuals into components of an artificial system. Petit bourgeois tactics, such as becoming an independent craftsman, may be useful survival strategies on a temporary basis, but make terrible ideologies. The individual is never free under capitalism, even if they get a bigger cubicle. I want to destroy the walls of the cubicle, escape from work and production altogether. I don’t want to do this alone, though. I want a union of egoists to join me. At first a limited union may feel like enough but soon the mere possibility of having to encounter slavery in any form will feel disgusting enough that it will have to be destroyed, just out of fear that it might spread its infection.
Stirner, Max. The Ego and His Own. trans.
Stephen T Byington. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 1973, 2005.
Vaneigem, Raoul. The Revolution of Everyday Life. trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith. London, Rebel Press, 1983, 2006.
Wilson, Robert Anton and Robert Shea. The Illuminatus! Trilogy. NY: Dell, 1975, 1988.