Thursday, September 1, 2011

Fascism and radical egoism

Max Stirner (1806-1856) advocated absolute egoism: my ego is for me the only reality and the only value, and in affirming it I am simply myself. All general values and ideals (God, progress, humanity, etc.) are foreign to myself and do not concern me.

But Stirner believed that our minds are forever besieged and manipulated by such ideas and ideals which he saw as alien values, toxic abstractions:

"Man, your head is haunted ... You imagine great things, and depict to yourself a whole world of gods that has an existence for you, a spirit realm to which you suppose yourself to be called, an ideal that beckons you." The Ego and its own (Cambridge University Press, 1995, p. 43).

In the manner of memes (as described in recent years by Susan Blackmore and others), such ideas subject the individual to themselves: they call the tune.

On the face of it such a philosophy would encourage individualism and perhaps anarchism, and indeed Stirner's writings inspired anarchists in the 1890s and beyond. But, curiously, Stirner's ideas also inspired various German proto-fascist groups.

Leszek KoĊ‚akowski tried to make sense of this apparent paradox at a time when the chief threat to liberal democracy seemed to be from the left. Today, when the far right has regained a prominent place in the political landscape, his reflections are of even greater interest than they were when they were first published (in Polish) in 1976.

"At first sight, Nazi totalitarianism may seem the opposite of Stirner's radical individualism. But fascism was above all an attempt to dissolve the social ties created by history and replace them by artificial bonds among individuals who were expected to render explicit obedience to the state on grounds of absolute egoism. Fascist education combined the tenets of asocial egoism and unquestioning conformism, the latter being the means by which the individual secured his own niche in the system. Stirner's philosophy has nothing to say against conformism, it only objects to the Ego being subordinated to any higher principle: the egoist is free to adjust to the world if it is clear he will better himself by doing so. His 'rebellion' may take the form of utter servility if it will further his interest; what he must not do is to be bound by 'general' values or myths of humanity. The totalitarian ideal of a barrack-like society from which all real, historical ties have been eliminated is perfectly consistent with Stirner's principles: the egoist, by his very nature, must be prepared to fight under any flag that suits his convenience." (Main currents of Marxism (W.W. Norton, 2005, pp.137-138))

It seems clear to me that many of the 'historical ties' that once anchored Europeans and Americans have indeed been stripped away by various cultural and technological forces, so that large segments of the population in Western countries may now be vulnerable to something like a new form of fascism.