To some extent, Stirner's work The Ego and Its Own is like a Rorschach test. Depending on the reader's psychology, he or she can interpret it in drastically different ways. Hence, some have used Stirner's ideas to defend capitalism, while others have used them to argue for anarcho-syndicalism. For example, many in the anarchist movement in Glasgow, Scotland, took Stirner's "Union of Egoists" literally as the basis for their anarcho-syndicalist organising. Similarly, we discover the noted anarchist historian Max Nettlau stating that "[o]n reading Stirner, I maintain that he cannot be interpreted except in a socialist sense." [A Short History of Anarchism, p. 55] In this section of the FAQ, we will indicate why, in our view, the latter, syndicalistic, interpretation of egoism is far more appropriate than the capitalistic one.
It should be noted, before continuing, that Stirner's work has had a bigger impact on individualist anarchism than social anarchism. Ben Tucker, for example, considered himself an egoist after reading The Ego and Its Own. However, social anarchists have much to gain from understanding Stirner's ideas and applying what is useful in them. This section will indicate why.
So what is Stirner all about? Simply put, he is an Egoist, which means that he considers self-interest to be the root cause of an individual's every action, even when he or she is apparently doing "altruistic" actions. Thus: "I am everything to myself and I do everything on my account." [The Ego and Its Own, p. 162]. Even love is an example of selfishness, "because love makes me happy, I love because loving is natural to me, because it pleases me." [Ibid., p. 291] He urges others to follow him and "take courage now to really make yourselves the central point and the main thing altogether." As for other people, he sees them purely as a means for self-enjoyment, a self-enjoyment which is mutual: "For me you are nothing but my food, even as I am fed upon and turned to use by you. We have only one relation to each other, that of usableness, of utility, of use." [Ibid., pp. 296-7]
For Stirner, all individuals are unique ("My flesh is not their flesh, my mind is not their mind," Ibid., p. 138) and should reject any attempts to restrict or deny their uniqueness. "To be looked upon as a mere part, part of society, the individual cannot bear -- because he is more; his uniqueness puts from it this limited conception." [Ibid., p. 265] Individuals, in order to maximise their uniqueness, must become aware of the real reasons for their actions. In other words they must become conscious, not unconscious, egoists. An unconscious, or involuntary, egoist is one "who is always looking after his own and yet does not count himself as the highest being, who serves only himself and at the same time always thinks he is serving a higher being, who knows nothing higher than himself and yet is infatuated about something higher." [Ibid., p. 36] In contrast, egoists are aware that they act purely out of self-interest, and if they support a "higher being," it is not because it is a noble thought but because it will benefit themselves.
Stirner himself, however, has no truck with "higher beings." Indeed, with the aim of concerning himself purely with his own interests, he attacks all "higher beings," regarding them as a variety of what he calls "spooks," or ideas to which individuals sacrifice themselves and by which they are dominated. Among the "spooks" Stirner attacks are such notable aspects of capitalist life as private property, the division of labour, the state, religion, and society itself. We will discuss Stirner's critique of capitalism before moving onto his vision of an egoist society (and how it relates to social anarchism).
For the egoist, private property is a spook which "lives by the grace of law. . . [and] becomes 'mine' only by effect of the law" [Ibid., p. 251]. In other words, private property exists purely "through the protection of the State, through the State's grace." [Ibid., p. 114] Recognising its need for state protection, Stirner is also aware that "[i]t need not make any difference to the 'good citizens' who protects them and their principles, whether an absolute King or a constitutional one, a republic, if only they are protected. And what is their principle, whose protector they always 'love'?. . . interesting-bearing possession. . .labouring capital. . ." [Ibid., pp. 113-114] As can be seen from capitalist support for fascism this century, Stirner was correct -- as long as a regime supports capitalist interests, the 'good citizens' (including many on the so-called "libertarian" right) will support it.
Stirner sees that not only does private property require state protection, it also leads to exploitation and oppression. As he points out, private property's "principle" is "labour certainly, yet little or none at all of one's own, but labour of capital and of the subject labourers." [Ibid., pp. 113-114] In addition, Stirner attacks the division of labour resulting from private property for its deadening effects on the ego and individuality of the worker (see section D.10, "How does capitalism affect technology?"). However, it is the exploitation of labour which is the basis of the state, for the state "rests on the slavery of labour. If labour becomes free, the State is lost." [Ibid., p.116] Without surplus value to feed off, a state could not exist.
For Stirner, the state is the greatest threat to his individuality: "I am free in no State." [Ibid., p.195] This is because the state claims to be sovereign over a given area, while, for Stirner, only the ego can be sovereign over itself and that which it uses (its "property"): "I am my own only when I am master of myself." [Ibid., p.169] Therefore Stirner urges insurrection against all forms of authority and dis-respect for property. For "[i]f man reaches the point of losing respect for property, everyone will have property, as all slaves become free men as soon as they no longer respect the master as master" [Ibid., p. 258]. And in order for labour to become free, all must have "property." "The poor become free and proprietors only when they rise." [Ibid., p. 260]
Stirner recognises the importance of self-liberation and the way that authority often exists purely through its acceptance by the governed. As he argues, ". . . no thing is sacred of itself, but my declaring it sacred, by my declaration, my judgement, my bending the knee; in short, by my conscience." [Ibid. p. 72] It is from this worship of what society deems "sacred" that individuals must liberate themselves in order to discover their true selves. And, significantly, part of this process of liberation involves the destruction of hierarchy. For Stirner, "Hierarchy is domination of thoughts, domination of mind!," and this means that we are "kept down by those who are supported by thoughts" [Ibid., p. 74], i.e. by our own willingness to not question authority and the sources of that authority, such as private property and the state.
For those, like modern-day "libertarian" capitalists, who regard "profit" as the key to "selfishness," Stirner has nothing but contempt. Because "greed" is just one part of the ego, and to spend one's life pursuing only that part is to deny all other parts. Stirner called such pursuit "self-sacrificing," or a "one-sided, unopened, narrow egoism," which leads to the ego being possessed by one aspect of itself. For "he who ventures everything else for one thing, one object, one will, one passion. . . is ruled by a passion to which he brings the rest as sacrifices." [Ibid., p. 76] For the true egoist, capitalists are "self-sacrificing" in this sense, because they are driven only by profit. In the end, their behaviour is just another form of self-denial, as the worship of money leads them to slight other aspects of themselves such as empathy and critical thought (the bank balance becomes the rule book). A society based on such "egoism" ends up undermining the egos which inhabit it, deadening one's own and other people's individuality and so reducing the vast potential "utility" of others to oneself. In addition, the drive for profit is not even based on self-interest, it is forced upon the individual by the workings of the market (an alien authority) and results in labour "claim[ing] all our time and toil," leaving no time for the individual "to take comfort in himself as the unique." [Ibid., pp. 268-9]
Stirner also turns his analysis to "socialism" and "communism," and his critique is as powerful as the one he directs against capitalism. This attack, for some, gives his work an appearance of being pro-capitalist, while, as indicated above, it is not. Stirner did attack socialism, but he (rightly) attacked state socialism, not libertarian socialism, which did not really exist at that time (the only well known anarchist work at the time was Proudhon's What is Property?, published in 1840 and this work obviously could not fully reflect the developments within anarchism that were to come). He also indicated why moralistic (or altruistic) socialism is doomed to failure, and laid the foundations of the theory that socialism will work only on the basis of egoism (communist-egoism, as it is sometimes called). Stirner correctly pointed out that much of what is called socialism was nothing but warmed up liberalism, and as such ignores the individual: "Whom does the liberal look upon as his equal? Man! . . ., In other words, he sees in you, not you, but the species." [Ibid., p. 123] A socialism that ignores the individual consigns itself to being state capitalism, nothing more. "Socialists" of this school forget that "society" is made up of individuals and that it is individuals who work, think, love, play and enjoy themselves. Thus: "[t]hat society is no ego at all, which could give, bestow, or grant, but an instrument or means, from which we may derive benefit. . . of this the socialists do not think, because they -- as liberals -- are imprisoned in the religious principle and zealously aspire after -- a sacred society, such as the State was hitherto." [Ibid., p. 123]
So how could Stirner's egoist vision fit with social anarchist ideas? The key to understanding the connection lies in Stirner's idea of the "union of egoists," his proposed alternative mode of organising modern society. Stirner believes that as more and more people become egoists, conflict in society will decrease as each individual recognises the uniqueness of others, thus ensuring a suitable environment within which they can co-operate (or find "truces" in the "war of all against all"). These "truces" Stirner termed "Unions of Egoists." They are the means by which egoists could, firstly, "annihilate" the state, and secondly, destroy its creature, private property, since they would "multiply the individual's means and secure his assailed property." [Ibid., p. 258]
The unions Stirner desires would be based on free agreement, being spontaneous and voluntary associations drawn together out of the mutual interests of those involved, who would "care best for their welfare if they unite with others." [Ibid., p. 309] The unions, unlike the state, exist to ensure what Stirner calls "intercourse," or "union" between individuals. To better understand the nature of these associations, which will replace the state, Stirner lists the relationships between friends, lovers, and children at play as examples (see No Gods, No Masters, vol. 1, p. 25). These illustrate the kinds of relationships that maximise an individual's self-enjoyment, pleasure, freedom, and individuality, as well as ensuring that those involved sacrifice nothing while belonging to them. Such associations are based on mutuality and a free and spontaneous co-operation between equals. As Stirner puts it, "intercourse is mutuality, it is the action, the commercium, of individuals" [Ibid., p. 218], and its aim is "pleasure" and "self-enjoyment."
In order to ensure that those involved do not sacrifice any of their uniqueness and freedom, the contracting parties have to have roughly the same bargaining power and the association created must be based on self-management (i.e. equality of power). Otherwise, we can assume that some of the egoists involved will stop being egoists and will allow themselves to be dominated by another, which is unlikely. As Stirner himself argued:
"But is an association, wherein most members allow themselves to be lulled as regards their most natural and most obvious interests, actually an Egoist's association? Can they really be 'Egoists' who have banded together when one is a slave or a serf of the other?. . .
Societies wherein the needs of some are satisfied at the expense of the rest, where, say, some may satisfy their need for rest thanks to the fact that the rest must work to the point of exhaustion, and can lead a life of ease because others live in misery and perish of hunger . . . [such a society or association] is more of a religious society [than a real Egoist's association]" [No Gods, No Masters, vol. 1, p. 24]
Therefore, egoism's revolt against all hierarchies that restrict the ego logically leads to the end of authoritarian social relationships, particularly those associated with private property and the state. Given that capitalism is marked by extensive differences in bargaining power outside its "associations" (i.e. firms) and power within these "associations" (i.e. the worker/boss hierarchy), from an egoist point of view it is in the self-interest of those subjected to such relationships to get rid of them and replace them with unions based on mutuality, free association, and self-management.
Given the holistic and egalitarian nature of the union of egoists, it can be seen that it shares little with the so-called free agreements of capitalism (in particular wage labour). The hierarchical structure of capitalist firms hardly produces associations in which the individual's experiences can be compared to those involved in friendship or play, nor do they involve equality. An essential aspect of the "union of egoists" for Stirner was such groups should be "owned" by their members, not the members by the group. That points to a libertarian form of organisation within these "unions" (i.e. one based on equality and participation), not a hierarchical one. If you have no say in how a group functions (as in wage slavery, where workers have the "option" of "love it or leave it") then you can hardly be said to own it, can you? Indeed, Stirner argues, "[a]s a unique individual you assert yourself alone in association, because the association does not own you, because you are the one who owns it" and "I have no wish to become a slave to my maxims, but would rather subject them to my ongoing criticism." [Op.Cit., p. 17] Thus, Stirner's "union of egoists" cannot be compared to the employer-employee contract as the employees cannot be said to "own" the organisation resulting from the contract (nor do they own themselves during work time, having sold their time/liberty to the boss in return for wages -- see section B.4). Only within a participatory association can "assert" yourself freely and subject your maxims, and association, to your "ongoing criticism" -- in capitalist contracts you can do both only with your bosses' permission.
And by the same token, capitalist contracts do not involve "leaving each other alone" (a la "anarcho"-capitalism). No boss will "leave alone" the workers in his factory, nor will a landowner "leave alone" a squatter on land he owns but does not use. Stirner rejects the narrow concept of "property" as private property and recognises the social nature of "property," whose use often affects far more people than those who claim to "own" it: "I do not step shyly back from your property, but look upon it always as my property, in which I 'respect' nothing. Pray do the like with what you call my property!" [The Ego and Its Own, p. 248]. This view logically leads to the idea of both workers' self-management and grassroots community control (as will be discussed more fully in section I) as those affected by an activity will take a direct interest in it and not let "respect" for "private" property allow them to be oppressed by others.
Moreover, egoism (self-interest) must lead to self-management and mutual aid (solidarity), for by coming to agreements based on mutual respect and social equality, we ensure non-hierarchical relationships. If I dominate someone, then in all likelihood I will be dominated in turn. By removing hierarchy and domination, the ego is free to experience and utilise the full potential of others. As Kropotkin argued in Mutual Aid, individual freedom and social co-operation are not only compatible but, when united, create the most productive conditions for all individuals within society.
Therefore Stirner's union of egoists has strong connections with social anarchism's desire for a society based on freely federated individuals, co-operating as equals. His central idea of "property" -- that which is used by the ego -- is an important concept for social anarchism, because it stresses that hierarchy develops when we let ideas and organisations own us rather than vice versa. A participatory anarchist community will be made up of individuals who must ensure that it remains their "property" and be under their control; hence the importance of decentralised, confederal organisations which ensure that control. A free society must be organised in such a way to ensure the free and full development of individuality and maximise the pleasure to be gained from individual interaction and activity. Lastly, Stirner indicates that mutual aid and equality are based not upon an abstract morality but upon self-interest, both for defence against hierarchy and for the pleasure of co-operative intercourse between unique individuals.
Stirner demonstrates brilliantly how abstractions and fixed ideas ("spooks") influence the very way we think, see ourselves, and act. He shows how hierarchy has its roots within our own minds, in how we view the world. He offers a powerful defence of individuality in an authoritarian and alienated world, and places subjectivity at the centre of any revolutionary project, where it belongs. Finally, he reminds us that a free society must exist in the interests of all, and must be based upon the self-fulfilment, liberation and enjoyment of the individual.