Max Stirner (1806-1856)
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Last updated 30 Dec 2018
Max Stirner (real name Johann Kaspar Schmidt) was a German philosopher and social critic, best known for his controversial and influential book The Ego and His Own (1845). He was the leading figure in the egoist sub-strand of individualist anarchism and a major influence on the development of nihilism and the radical philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900).
For Stirner, the essential core of human nature is the self-interested ego so each person should be able to express their individuality free from all constraints. Consequently, the self-interested and rational individual should be able to use anything or anyone they want to achieve their own purposes. At the centre of their own moral universe, Stirner’s individual exercises free will without limitations or inhibitions. Indeed, in his book, Stirner does not criticise a mother who kills her child, a man who commits incest and a murderer who no longer regards his action as wrong. Ultimately, such egoism represents individual self-autonomy or self-mastery. Stirner calls this ‘ownness’, declaring ‘I am my own only when I am master of myself, instead of being mastered … by anything else’. Thus, individuals have to avoid becoming subordinated to others or enslaved by personal appetites such as the desire for wealth. Stirner does accept that people can behave in altruistic ways but only if an individual concludes that altruism is in his or her own interest.
Given Stirner’s extreme individualism, there can be no compromise between egoism and the state. The two are in ‘deadly hostility’ since a person exercising self-mastery is in fundamental opposition to the state whose sole purpose is to ‘tame, limit, subordinate the individual’. Only the individual ego, in Stirner’s view, has a legitimate claim to sovereignty because the state, in whatever form, is inherently oppressive and invasive. Similarly, Stirner dismisses morality, religion and ideology as ‘spooks’ and ‘ghosts’ designed to convey the illusion of individual liberty when in fact they control people and suppress egoism. These constraints, together with the state, have to be removed to allow people to pursue their individual self-interest. Stirner also views existing society as a coercive entity that compels its members to consider the well-being of the community as a whole at the expense of individual freedom. Furthermore, individual self-interest leads to human conflict and turns modern society into a war of everyone against everyone. The solution to this problem, in his view, is not a powerful state but rather associations or unions of sovereign individuals (see below)
In economic terms, egoism rejects both capitalism and the work ethic that underpins it. Stirner dismisses the capitalist system as ‘machine-like labour [that] amounts to the same thing as slavery’. Factory work leads to alienation and exploitation but employment should, Stirner asserts, be fulfilling and useful to the person concerned and allow the individual to enjoy the fruits of their labour. Moreover, traditional concepts of ownership rights (such as private property and collective ownership), based on exclusive or restricted use, have no place in Stirner’s world. Instead, egoistic property, either in the form of things or people, can be used freely by self-interested individuals without moral constraints.
Stirner’s vision of a future free stateless society is based on the creation of unions of egoists and the transformative process of insurrection. Self-interested people would form unions of egoists – voluntary cooperative groups that enable individuals to pursue their personal objectives in a mutual and orderly way. Stirner maintains that such unions would enable people to obtain enough property to provide security and alleviate poverty. Crucially, these unions do not involve the subordination of the individual and represent constantly changing formations which permit people to come together without compromising their individual sovereignty. Therefore, such unions have no value in themselves and exist only as purely instrumental bodies for the pursuit of individual, rather than collective, goals. For Stirner, these associations would not constitute any form of organised society.
Stirner rejects revolution, arguing that movements seeking to overthrow the state this way end up creating new oppressive states and governments that constrain the individual. Instead, he calls for insurrection - a process whereby self-interested individuals elevate themselves above capitalist society and the state, leaving both to wither and die. Thus, becoming an egoist and freely associating in unions are insurrectionary actions. In this way, individuals should ‘rise or exalt’ themselves in personal acts of self-assertion and rebellion to reject all forms of external authority.