Psychological anarchism

This is a version of a text I wrote in 2005, slightly edited and translated into English. It was part of an academic project which was later abandoned. Perhaps it can be given some amount of new life as I publish this outline. For reference, here is the unedited text in the original Swedish.

Two main strands of libertarianism can be distinguished. Firstly an economic one, which is focused on demonstrating the superiority of voluntary exchange over state intervention. The philosophical tendency of this type of libertarianism is utilitarian. Secondly, a philosophical one, which often emphatically rejects utilitarian ideas. Instead, this type of libertarianism revolves mainly around various concepts of rights and the non-aggression principle. The premise is often some flavor of natural law theory but thinkers vary in how explicitly they adopt this heritage.

A related third tendency 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 one psychological or perhaps existential. Focus is not on utility or rights, but on autonomy and self-interest.

The foremost pioneer of the psychological, existential, autonomistic tradition of radical libertarian thought was Max Stirner in his book Der Einzige und sein Eigentum (1844). Stirner’s ideas are timeless but they were formulated in a cultural and philosophical context which is hard for most modern readers to grasp. Valuable avenues of future work include reconstructing a case for psychological anarchism from Der Einzige and present its core ideas in a relevant contemporary context.

We may also ask ourselves questions such as: How does psychological anarchism relate to libertarianism and anarcholiberalism? What are the strenghts and weaknesses of the respective traditions? Can psychological anarchism be developed into a modern alternative to economic and philosophical libertarianism? What could contemporary psychological anarchistic strategies be?

Some overarching 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 largely unaddressed. In the psychological approach 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—but their political theories are not good foundations 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. 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 rejects 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 grounding 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 nor 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 or pedagogic point to take into consideration.

Libertarians will of course have many objections to psychological anarchism. A critique formulated already by Karl Marx, and one which will be echoed by many libertarians, is that Stirner’s ideas are too idealistic, that they overlook the very real 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 critizise the idea of non-political strategies and point to the risk that such strategies become harmless to oppressive systems as they strive for a psychological autonomy which is attainable without reshaping society.

The tension is most apparent between psychological anarchism and what I call philosophical libertarianism or anarchism. The former criticizes the latter and their premises are so different that it is doubtful that they could be conciliated. On the other hand, it seems to me that the anarcho-economic tradition is largely compatible with the anarcho-psychological. Simply put, the scope of the former begins where the scope of the latter ends, so these perspectives can likely complement each other—in an 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 has written about Stirner, Nietzsche and Dostojevsky as engaged in an anarchopsychological critique, and Saul Newman har written on parallells between Stirner and Foucault, whose thinking on power and freedom like that of Stirner 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.

Psychological or existential anarchism has three major thrusts:

  • Focus on voluntary servitude rather than what states do to their subjects in terms of coercion. Instead the central point is taken to be how the subjects keep themselves and each other in check. Authoritarian order depends on social control being internalized, so in an important sense people can not be controlled by others but only control and discipline themselves.
  • Focus on psychological development. This follows from the first point since if the essential unfreedom is psychological, any liberation process would have to be psychological as well. One of the recurring ideas of psychological anarchism is that freedom requires leaving parts of conventional psychology behind and develop alternative modes of mental operation.
  • Focus on individual and small-scale strategies rather than collective and societal ones. Rejection of changing societies, instigating revolutions etc—instead individuals are urged to liberate themselves psychologically and empower themselves. States are not to be defeated but rather circumvented.

These ideas found their original and inimitable expression with Stirner. Today they are perhaps most developed in a modern branch of the libertarian movement which abandons political work entirely in favor of building freedom in various practical ventures like private businesses as well as underground ones, aiming to create freedom for individuals and small groups, building an alternative economic sector and alternative economic institutions (e.g. private currencies) etc. There is clear traces of a similar perspective in the writings of Ayn Rand who parts ways with other libertarian thinkers on a number of issues and seems aligned with Stirner at times when other libertarians are not.

This line of thinking could become a coherent and comprehensive alternative to conventional libertarian ideas. At the very least, anyone interested in libertarian theory could benefit from dialog with related ideas in the psychological tendency. As far as I know there is no single text which present them in an integrated fashion which enables others to properly come to terms with them. I have thought about attempting to do this myself, having studied the relevant literature, written shorter texts etc for four or five years time.

To give some further sense of why I think something like this would be a fruitful endeavor, let me give some examples of how anarchopsychological lines of thinking seem to dominate corresponding ideas in conventional libertarian thought:

  • What libertarians and anarchists actually oppose is not coercion but something which individuals choose voluntarily. To focus on negative freedom and the non-aggression principle is not entirely a mistake but it can lead to missing deeper points. In many important situations the problem is not A forcing B to do something but rather B choosing to obey A. Put differently, to a large extent the problem is not states punishing lawbreakers but people seeing it as their duty to be law-abiding.
  • Conventional libertarianism is also all about psychology. A libertarian society would not be able to function if it consisted of the human beings we have today. In practice, libertarianism requires a different sort of psychology. Just like socialists eventually have to explain how to create a new socialist man, libertarians must explain how a new libertarian man could come to be. Some libertarians have chosen to bite this bullet, like Rand whose novels revolve around idealized heroes who are radically different in their way of operating. Stirner does it more explicitly, as does Celia Green.
  • Political action has no prospects of success. Even if political strategies are successful, political/authoritarian structures will reemerge unless institutional change is accompanied by psychological change. On the other hand, if psychological change comes first, political institutions can be suspended as a consequence. By their very nature political processes strive to expand; using states to promote freedom is like using churches to promote atheism. Lovers of freedom tend to be individualists unwilling to sacrifice themselves for a collective cause as required by political action. Effective strategis involve participants being motivated by self-interest, such as political candidates who seek power and money. Such incentives are incompatible with the libertarian cause.
  • It is possible to learn to live free in an unfree world. To a larger extent than most think, freedom is a matter of psychological strategies which allow individuals to have freedom despite being undermined by hostile parties in their environment. A vast number of methods exist to avoid paying taxes, circumvent state regulation and oversight etc. This is the anarchopsychological alternative to political action and societal change.
  • Political strategies require political activism which is in general altruistic in nature. Individualized strategies are based on the self-interest of individual activists which makes the strategies more realistic and in line with libertarian values. Not only do individuals benefit from liberating themselves, various means of attaining freedom can be created, marketed and sold to individuals wanting to liberate themselves. For example, a consultant can charge customers to shift their economic activities out of the state-controlled economy, a psychologist can charge people to help them break patterns of voluntary servitude etc.
  • Decentralized, individual strategies can lead to long-term societal change. People living “outside the system” can develop anarchical institutions which can later be expanded and introduced on a societal level. If the current system is to be replaced by something radically different, this radical alternative must be more than a utopia when the current system is dismantled. There is no way to create non-political institutions within the framework of political institutions, which means that they have to be created “underground”, i.e. outside the political framework.

Given that libertarianism and anarchism are founded on ideas about individualism and decentralization—it would only be natural to explore a more comprehensive shift from the collective, societal level to the individual, psychological. Why do individualists have theories and strategies oriented around collective, centralized phenomena?