Psychological anarchism

This is an outline of an essay I planned to write back in 2005. The project was put on hold, but I’ll give it some new life by publishing the outline here. In time, I will try to translate it, bit by bit, from the original Swedish.

Two main strands of libertarianism can be distinguished. Firstly an economic one, which is oriented around demonstration the superiority of institutions based on voluntary exchange over state intervention. The philosophical tendency of this type of libertarianism is utilitarian. Secondly, a philosophical one, which often [avvisar] utilitarian ideas with [emfas]. Instead, this type of libertarianism revolves mainly around various concepts of rights and the non-aggression principle.

In my paper i want to examine what I see as a related third tendency, which has long led a somewhat obscure life in the shadows of the two mentioned above. If the first tradition is economic and the second philosophical, I would like to call the third onepsychological or perhaps existential. Focus is not on utility or rights, but on autonomy and self-interest.

First and foremost among thinkers in the psychological, existential, autonomistic tradition of radical libertarian thought is Max Stirner, and my paper [tar avstamp] in his book, Der Einzige und sein Eigentum (1844). Stirner’s ideas are timeless and if anything they still seem very futuristic, but they were formulated in a cultural and philosophical context that stopped being relevant long ago. My first ambition is therefore to recunstruct a case for psychological anarchism from Der Einzige and put the ideas in a relevant contemporary context, namely libertarian and anarchist theory.

How does psychological anarchism relate to libertarianism and anarcholiberalism? What are the strenghts and weaknesses of the respective traditions? Can psychological anarchism be developed to a modern alternative to economic and philosophical libertarianism? What could contemporary psychological anarchistic strategies be?

Some sketchy comparisons:

  • Established libertarian theories have trouble explaining why the world is not libertarian, a question that becomes secondary to the presentation of libertarianism as a superior idea. The question why the overwhelming majority of people accept what libertarians describe as outrageous oppression, remains hanging in the air(?). In the psychological approach however, the question of voluntary servitude is central from the beginning, and primary in relation to questions about how societies should be organized. Stirner’s analysis of voluntary servitude revolves around a radical critique of ideology and internalized social control.

  • Despite libertarian ideas being hostile to all common types of politics, almost all libertarian strategies are political. More and more libertarians and anarchists are beginning to realize the futility of attacking the whole of the oppressive order of society, but their political theories are no good foundation for other strategies than political ones. The psychological tradition on the other hand is fundamentally antipolitical, and devises only radically non-political strategies. Liberation is liberation från internalized social control, ideology and voluntary servitude, and thus becomes a fundamentally psychological project and by necessity an individual self-liberation. Stirner’s discussion of this question revolves in part on an affirmation of insurrection, as in contrast to revolution.

  • Libertarianism insists on a striclty negative conception of freedom, which is tightly bound up with the focus on politics, while psychological anarchism is based on a positive concept of freedom, which is closely bound up with the focus on psychology. True freedom can not be attained by liberating people from other people, but must be created by every individual for himself. Stirner’s positive conception of freedom is ownness, which is a form of autonomy and self-interestedness.

  • Private property rights are central to libertarian thinking. Stirner [förkastar] all concepts of property rights, but property or possession is very much central in his thinking, integrated in an analysis of power, freedom, autonomy and self-interest.

  • The vision of a libertarian society can seem very utopian when one considers its psychological presuppositions, and libertarians must take seriously the objection that their ideas may presuppose a “libertarian man”, a psychological ideal that can seem unrealistic. By making a psychological analysis a central point and ground libertarian ideas psychologically, this problem is taken seriously by thinkers in the psychological tradition and answered in a defense of a psychological ideal which indeed is very different from normal human psychology and psychological ideals.

  • Psychological anarchism is founded neither on theories of society or philosophical principles, but on the subjective situation of the individual. Therefore it is even more simple, coherent and intuitive than established libertarian theories. If nothing else, this may be a pragmatic-pedagogic point to take into consideration.

Libertarians of different kinds will of course have many objections to psychological autonomism. A critique formulated already by Karl Marx, but one with which many libertarians will surely concur, is that Stirner’s ideas are too idealistic, that they overlook the very concrete nature of oppression. To consider the state not as a concrete machinery of oppression, but as an oppressive abstraction, can of course seem unrealistic. Furthermore, most libertarians would naturally critizise the idea of non-political strategies, and point to the risk that such strategies become harmless to the oppressive system as they strive for a psychological autonomy that is attainable without reshaping society.

The conflict is most apparent between what I call philosophical and psychological libertarianism or anarchism. The latter attacks the former on all fronts, and their premisses are so different that it is doubtful that they could be conciliated. On the other hand, it seems to me that the anarchoeconomic tradition is largely compatible with the anarchopsychological. The former begin where the latter ends and perhaps these perspectives can complement each other in a harmonious way, in a economic-psychological rather than political-philosophical libertarianism/anarchism.

Besides Stirner there are contributions to what I call a psychological libertarian tradition in the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche, Ayn Rand and Michel Foucault among others. Etienne de la Boetie can perhaps be seen as a precursor in some ways. In the literature on Stirner, two authors are worth special mention here. John Carroll har written about Stirner, Nietzsche and Dostojevsky as engaged in an anarchopsychological critique, and Saul Newman har written on parallells between Stirner and Foucault, who’s thinking on power and freedom like Stirner’s is in search of a post-Kantian freedom. This connects with postanarchism, that is, moves to combine anarchism and poststructuralist thought.

In libertarian thinking there are certain tendencies that fits well with ideas like those of Stirner, not least concerning the question of non-political strategies, both from the perspective of individual self-liberation and from the perspective of building alternative institutions that can exist parallell with the state and with time outcompete it.

If you would like to read the rest of this essay in English, consider sending me a message with your thoughts. If someone does this, it just might give me the extra incentive necessary to finish the translation.