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Egoism

    What do I mean by egoism? Before going into this, I am going to summarily dispose of two misunderstandings of egoism that I have encountered – one that is utterly ridiculous, the other a bit more understandable (especially in light of the lack of modesty among egoists).

     First of all, egoism has nothing whatsoever to do with Freud or Freudianism![1] In fact, the egoist theorist best known in both anarchist and philosophical circles, Max Stirner, wrote his central work, Der Einzige und sein Eigentum[2], more than eleven years before Freud existed and died in the year of his birth. Unlike Freud, Stirner had no interest in dividing an abstract notion of the human mind into parts in order to map it out. Stirner’s “Ich” (translated “I”) often refers to himself and always to specific, concrete living individuals, whereas Freud’s “Ich” (translated “ego”[3]) is merely one part of an allegedly three-part psyche. Hopefully, this is sufficient to dispense with such silliness…

     Secondly, egoism is not the same thing as egotism. If some of us egoists consider ourselves to be among the most intelligent, most talented, wittiest and sexiest people existing on the planet today, this doesn’t stem from our egoism, but from intensive self-analysis grounded in the cold, hard realism of our immodest dreams and boundless aspirations. And besides why would we succumb to the falsehoods of humility when, in this case, the truth serves our interests much better?

     Having dealt with both the ridiculous and the sublime, I now want to begin meandering toward the heart of the matter: what is egoism?

     Of course, the egoism I describe will be my egoism. Anything else would not really be egoism. But like all that is my own, I have taken my egoism from many different places, a few of great enough influence that they indicate a line of thought and a way of encountering the world that has developed historically and theoretically since at least the time of Stirner. So it is worthwhile to look at some of the basic ideas in this line of thought.

     A distinction is sometimes made between descriptive egoism and prescriptive or ethical egoism. The former simply declares that human beings always act in what they perceive, on some level, as their own interests. This perspective makes no claims that this process is always conscious or that the decisions are based on real knowledge of what one’s interests are; it only claims that there is always a factor of perceived self-interest in our decisions.[4] Thus far, I don’t really think that this perspective says much of interest; it’s a banality that, though unassailable, is nonetheless inadequate in itself for fully explaining religious, patriotic, maternal and similar sacrifices. Left at this point, descriptive egoism leaves an essential question unanswered: what leads people to see their interests as something external to and greater than themselves?

     Ethical egoism proclaims that if we were to consciously and willfully create our lives on our own terms, each of us would tend to live more fully and probably more enjoyably than we do when we let life happen to us. While most ethical egoists accept the basic premise of descriptive egoism, they also realize that most people live unconsciously most of the time. When people are unclear of their real interests, the latter become alienated, standardized and crystallized into values and ideals perceived as greater than any individual interest. In this form, these interests come to dominate the individual to whom they once belonged. But they don’t dominate an individual as abstractions, but in the social, institutional forms into which they solidify: the state, private property, religion, the law, rights, etc. (as well as various petty obsessions that express the deformed interests behind these institutions on the level of our individual daily lives[5]). Thus, the decision to become consciously egoist, to begin the project of grasping one’s life as one’s own, is also a decision to rise up, to create one’s life against the ruling institutions.

     The reason The Ego and Its Own stands out as the central text of egoism is that it was the first, and perhaps still the best, book to develop an egoist critique in depth. It actually wrestles with the questions raised by descriptive egoism in a forceful way and in the process develops one of the strongest critiques of ideology. And in the process it develops an egoist method that goes beyond either “descriptive” or ethical egoism, a method that uses phenomenology and dialectics in both a critical and constructive way.[6] Unfortunately, this has not prevented some people from misreading the book and developing doctrines from their misunderstandings that undermine the core of egoism.

     One such doctrine that I have occasionally encountered in Stirner-influenced literature is that which sees the “unique one” as an essence to which we must aspire, thus turning it into another spook. This reading of Stirner misses one of his central points: that our uniqueness does not exist outside us as an essence, but within us and our relationships as our existence. Thus egoism, as Stirner understood it, is neither the petty economic self-interest[7] that early political economists spoke about as a central impetus to social relationships, nor is it essentialist individualism. Rather it is an idea about how real individuals do and could interact with and in their worlds. I am going to try to clarify this – hopefully, like a clear, clean magnifying glass, and not like a mudball in your eye.

     In recent years, it seems that the very existence of individuals, of “I’s” has come into question – at least in certain theoretical circles. I am not referring here to the tiresome puritanical leftist litanies that condemn the so-called “individualism” of the most boringly conformist and standardized society to ever mar the face of the planet. These strident sermons, calling for yet more sacrifice, deserve no more response than our sneers of contempt. I am rather talking about the idea that the individual is merely a social fiction, since we are all merely products of the social reality that surrounds us. There are a number of fallacies in this. I will only briefly mention a few: 1) Those who make this argument will also generally argue that “race”, “gender” and similar categories don’t have an essential existence, but are rather merely social products. Nonetheless, they don’t consider these categories fictions, but rather social realities that have to be taken into account. Only ideological considerations can explain why the same recognition is not granted to the individual. 2) This way of thinking conflates the actual individual with the concept of the individual put forth in essentialist individualism – in other words it assumes that “individuality” means the existence of an essence in each of us that is separate from our relationships and other activities. There have been other, far more nuanced ways of thinking of the individual, among them those of Stirner. 3) This perspective forgets that society itself does not have a concrete existence of its own. It is merely a product of the activities of individuals interacting and relating in specific, generally standardized ways. In fact, it may be more accurate to say that “society” is verbal shorthand for describing the more standardized, formalized and institutionalized aspects of how we relate and interact, of how we create life together, particularly in their current, unconscious, habitual forms. In other words, this perspective is a classic example of reification, which turns the activity done into the actor, and the actor into the product. And like all examples of ideological reification, this one seems to be aimed at undermining the will to act in the world.

     I have brought up this perspective because it helps me to clarify my own egoism. Each one of us is an utterly unique being, beyond description, beyond words. This does not mean that we share nothing with any other, but rather that even the way in which each of us encounters the shared thing is unique. This uniqueness does not stem from some individual essence – that would be metaphysics and imply the possibility that we might fail to live up to this essence. Thus, it would transform uniqueness into a power above us to which we must conform, and this would require the creation of a shared, value-laden language to describe what uniqueness was, destroying it as uniqueness. My uniqueness, your uniqueness, every individual’s uniqueness originates from the fact that the endless interweaving of relationships that go into creating each of us in every moment is unique to each of us. No one else could possible have precisely the same fluctuating patterns of acting, perceiving, consuming, transforming and relating as you or I going into the creation of who she is in each moment. This has a few implications. First of all, it undermines any concept of an essential self, since the relationships that make me unique in each moment change from moment to moment. This doesn’t deny continuity, which is necessary for self-consciousness (and the ability to make decisions and act), but makes it clear that this continuity exists as a relationship with my previous uniquenesses, in other words as an action I take, a choice I make in how I interact with the world, not as an essence, a “soul”. Secondly, it makes it clear that not all relationships are social in nature. In fact, I think that the term social relationship is best applied to those relationships that seek to standardize and institutionalize our interactions in order to minimize the effects and experience of the uniqueness that is the one thing we all share in common. Thirdly, it implies not only the possibility of becoming aware of our uniqueness, but also of choosing to become its conscious creator. This is the most important factor. Within the context of society as we know it, our uniqueness seems to be an accident that happens to us. We could describe society as a buffer to prevent the negative aspects of this apparent accident, as it encounters the same apparent accident in others, from causing too much damage (at least to the larger network of relationships). This buffering process takes the form of the imposition of standardization and institutionalization upon the broader relationships that exist.[8] This creates a social system in which nobody actually gets what he desires, but rather everyone compromises to varying extents in order to minimize pain. Everything is measured; survival dominates over life. This is the petty world of the economy in which egoism is shrunk down to the atomized competition for material goods. This competition has the effect of hiding our uniqueness behind identities, the most important of which are worker and consumer (citizen runs a distant, but necessary, third).

     But we are not all content with the dominance of survival over life. And there is only one way to overturn this way of “living”. Each of us has to become the creator of her own uniqueness in each moment, making it her own. This is an ongoing activity that would continue even after the institutions that rule us have been destroyed Since this uniqueness is an interweaving of relationships that is specific to each individual, it is necessary first of all for a person to take his past as his own, using it as a tool for understanding the possibilities of the present. Then she also needs to grasp and begin to create present relationships, learning to make affinity, complicity, mutuality and solidarity, as well as hostility, enmity, contempt and hatred into conscious choices reflecting the desire for the fullest, most intense and beautiful life, a desire that insists on creating itself in each moment. And if each of us, or even a substantial minority of us were to truly begin this process of creating our lives on our terms, it would upset the stability of standardization and institutionalization. It would be an insurrection against the ruling order.

     When I speak of egoism, I mean precisely this desire to make my uniqueness, the relationships through which I come to be, my own in rebellion against the institutions that seek to standardize our relationships, to bury uniqueness under habit. Thus, I will always begin my analyses from this desire and meander with it down various paths through cities and gardens and jungles, exploring the possibilities for realizing this desire. And believe me, I’m egotistical enough to believe that I can realize this insurgent egoist dream here and now, in every moment.


[1] Sadly, this is a real misunderstanding that I have encountered. Judging from the way it is expressed, I can say with some assurance that those who make this false connection are to a person (how do I say this nicely?… fuck it, I don’t) deluded feminist ideologues who find their ideological enemies everywhere, since that is the only way to assure themselves that they are right…

[2] Which would translate as The Unique and Its Property and The Unique and Its Own, but unfortunately entitled The Ego and Its Own in the English translation.

[3] Neither Stirner nor Freud use the word “ego” in their works, but Stirner does refer to egoism and egoists.

[4] For example, the good christian is convinced that her willingness to give up immediate pleasures here on earth will help him build up “treasure in heaven” by pleasing god. Thus, though his perception of his own interests is delusional, she is nonetheless making her choice based on perceived self-interest.

[5] Stirner describes the obsession with acquiring material wealth as this sort of domination: “…an avaricious man is not a self-owned man, but a servant; and he can do nothing for his own sake without at the same time doing it for his lord’s sake – precisely like the godly man.” (The Ego and Its Own, p. 266, Cambridge University Press, 1995). I would say the sexual drive as portrayed by Sade is also such an obsession – an interest that is no longer one’s own.

[6] The phenomenological aspect of Stirner is essential to understanding what Stirner is pointing to when he uses the term “der Einzige” (“the Unique”), a reference to each of us as the creator/creature/consumer of our self and our world in each moment.

[7] Although Stirner talks about “property” quite a bit in his book, he so subverts its meaning (quite explicitly declaring that private property requires the permission of the state to exist and is thus hostile to the unique one and its “property”) that he turns it into an anti-economic relationship. This is another reason way I consider his work significant – he broke egoism loose from the economic values to which it was (and, unfortunately still is) often connected, opening the way for expansive, boundless dreams…  

[8] I won’t go into how this serves a specific minority here, but if we consider that each one is acting in her own interests as he perceives them, it should come as no surprise that the process of control acts in the interests of specific people.

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