Anarchism Cannot Contend to be Liberation of the Individual

By T’hom

Anarchism cannot contend to be liberation of the individual. The truth is that there is no such viable concept. One can submit to the hierarchy of the state and capital, or one can demand its destruction, forming in its place horizontal power structures “built from the bottom up” as they say. Why should this horizontal power be any less restrictive to the individual than power built in a top-down fashion? Will authority have disappeared, or will it only have changed its form? 

Now, we know that direct democracy requires a rule of the majority, and furthermore a submission of will by the minority. We also know the major alternative, consensus democracy, can stifle real decision-making and create a “tyranny of the minority”, whereby entire discussions can be derailed by a single dissenter.

Well, what of free association? This is hardly a solution. The free ability to move between institutions that limit the individual is not individual freedom, in the same vein that being able to “choose” your boss is hardly fair at all. That is, for the first reason that living in a community is hardly ever a voluntary action, as Malatesta notes:

“[It] would be very simple if every group and individual could live in isolation and on their own, in their own way, supporting themselves independently of the rest, supplying their own material and moral needs. But this is not possible, and if it were, it would not be desirable because it would mean the decline of humanity into barbarism and savagery.” 

Just as labor is not voluntary, so too living space is not. The second reason is that this so-called “choice” to associate how one chooses, even if we assume is a truly valid choice, still does not solve the issue of the enslavement of the individual, it merely abstracts it by pretending it is “voluntary”. Likewise, if we assumed labor was voluntary, does being able to choose one’s boss solve the issue of exploitation at all?

To further note anarchism’s tendency to constrict the individual, Malatesta was explicit in the necessity of the individual to submit his will to the collective when he wrote:

“[…] every individual or group must therefore understand the ties of solidarity that bind them to the rest of humanity, and possess a fairly developed sense of sympathy and love for their fellows, so as to know how voluntarily to make those sacrifices essential to life…” 

He was also implicit in his defense of prisons and punitive justice when he wrote to the individualist anarchist Enzo Martucci in 1922:

“Martucci, in the name of the sacred rights of the individual, does not want that there remains the possibility of harming a ferocious assassin or a ravisher of children.” 

Such organization demands conformity because it is a transformation of power from hierarchical to horizontal. What it would lack in the oppression of man by man it would gain in the oppression of man by society. Is it not surprising then, that those primitivist societies which had no state made up for it in the form of stringent collective enforcement of traditional values?

It is true, therefore, as Renzo Connors writes:

“No societies are voluntary. All have always been based on the domestication and enslavement of the individual. And for that I am at war with society (whether capitalist or communist) because all its institutions and systems of domination and domestication are at war with me as a unique individual, wanting to control and force me into socially constructed roles, such as wage slavery and to be a good and obedient citizen.” 

I close this argument with a large section by Martucci:

“Communism, on the other hand, even if it is not authoritarian and Marxist, but libertarian and Kropotkinist, would be a society in which the legislative and executive power would be exercised either by acephalous mass assemblies (Populism) or by delegates elected by the masses (democracy). Both would mean that the individual would always be governed by the many. And this would be a government worse than any other, whether by one or a few, because the mass is stupid, ferocious, tyrannical, and worse than the lowest individual.

How could libertarian communism be brought about?

It could be by means of absolute conformism to the industrial-machinist society that man has already achieved. This would reduce all to a mechanical equality, feeling, thinking, and acting identically – in this way making control and repression by the State unnecessary. Then there would be a standardized anarchy.” 

This is, of course, ignoring three other important issues. Firstly, it should be noted the vast array of anarchist theory dedicated to detailing all sorts of “councils” which operate at different levels of organization, each with their own “representatives”, and the like. These are all quite clearly identical in their purpose and conception to the state. They serve as abstractions of the people, something beyond the self which make decisions on their behalf, and at least at the local level will enforce such community decisions upon its subjects. Only in attempts to make this hierarchical democracy more moral by way of methods such as sortition can they even pretend they are not merely selling a statist status-quo dressed in anarchist garb.

The second of the remaining issues is if this grand “liberation” supposedly granted to the individual is truly desirable. Slavoj Žižek was quick to point out that becoming “master of oneself”, the anarchist ideal, would entail a massive undertaking of labor and ultimately unhappiness. Labor, in that it would not only mean the vast numbers of decisions normally made on your behalf would now have to be made yourself, but also that any issues that arise because of these decisions will leave you directly to blame. This generates large amounts of stress on the individual. Furthermore, Žižek points out that living in an anarchist community would not only entail such an undertaking (Žižek succinctly called it “hell”) but would subsequently mean an encroachment of solitude and privacy. Such a vast network of self-management within a community would necessitate a tight-knitting of all social relations, potentially to extremities. The individual, in his liberation, moves himself into merely another form of totalitarianism, now with a communal face.

Furthermore, unhappiness, in that it would eliminate a lot of leisure-time that could be spent whilst political decision-making was in the hands of others, and that it would eliminate the leisure gained from being able to blame these others for all issues in the community. Žižek says this is one of three major reasons why citizens under the totalitarian USSR were so happy. We can try to assert that happiness is not everything, and that self-liberation is more important than any happiness that can be gained from a lack of worries on political governance, but it is true that a certain degree of leisure and happiness would be sacrificed in the name of liberation, making this ideal somewhat less desirable.

This is not to claim that a total dictatorship would leave the individual the happiest, because at that point whatever happiness gained by not having to stress over participation in politics would be lost in stress created by a worry over what horrible acts the state will commit. It is also true a degree of autonomy of the individual is necessary for individual happiness. Rather, I am asserting that a total acceptance of self-governance, regarding happiness, is likely not the best option.

The third of the remaining issues is of the unviable nature of anarchist revolution. Huey P. Newton was quick to point out the failures of the anarchists in the 1968 revolution in France. They utterly failed to replace DeGaulle and his current government at the time due to the inherently disorganized nature of anarchist groups. This led Newton to conclude that in order to destroy an oppressive state and all of its apparatuses, one had to organize a vanguard party that is “even more extremely disciplined and dedicated than the structure you’re opposing.”

Newton was not opposed to individual liberation by any means, but was rather weary of the possibility of being able to overthrow an oppressive and reactionary state without organization, leadership, and discipline.

“But what they [the anarchists] don’t understand, or it seems that they don’t understand, is as long as the military-industrial complex exists, then the structure of oppression of the individual continues. An individual would be threatened even if he were to achieve his freedom he’s seeking. He’ll be threatened because there will be an organized lower group there ready to strip him of his individual freedom at any moment.

In Cuba they had a revolution, they had a vanguard group that was a disciplined group, and they realized that the state won’t disappear until imperialism is completely wiped out, structurally and also philosophically, or the bourgeois thoughts won’t be changed. Once imperialism is wiped out they can have their communist state and the state or territorial boundaries will disappear.

The anarchists are advanced a step higher, but only in theory. As far as actuality of conditions, they shouldn’t be advanced higher because they should see the necessity of wiping out the imperialistic structure by organized groups just as we must be organized.” 

Newton also did not think that a focus on individual liberation would be beneficial to his black liberation movement, as the latter was a liberation of an entire group, not merely of individuals. This reality can be applied to most any other movement focused on liberation of a group rather than of individuals.

“Blacks and colored people in America, confined within the caste system, are discriminated against as a whole group of people. It’s not a question of individual freedom, as it is for the children of the upper classes [the anarchists]. We haven’t reached the point of trying to free ourselves individually because we’re dominated and oppressed as a group of people.” 

Now that we have established the undesirability of the traditional anarchist movement, what is to be said of those anarchists that reject it? Indeed, if one truly believed in liberation of the individual, they would have to subscribe to one of the more extreme anarchist ideologies, such as the egoism of Max Stirner or the unapologetic individualism of Renzo Connors or Enzo Martucci, of whom I mentioned before. Such ideologies run rampant with moral subjectivity, which explicitly enable even those whose intentions are vile. Martucci embraced even those types as unique individuals who shall not be stopped, nor cured, nor punished for their actions.

“The pretense of curing, rectifying, or correcting is extremely odious because it compels an individual who wants to remain as he is to become what he is not and does not want to be.

A man who killed women in order to rape them so that he could obtain the spasm of his pleasure with the spasm of their deaths, confessed that ‘In those moments I felt like God and creator of the world’.

If one had proposed to this man a cure to make him normal, he would have refused it, knowing intuitively that normality would not give him a sensation so intense as that offered by his abnormality.” 

Many anarchists refused to be bothered by this, with Émile Pouget proclaiming thus:

“The ancients said: ‘The wise man carries his law within him.’ This is all of anarchy in one word. But it’ll be said: ‘Sure, but are all men wise?’ This would be misunderstanding the question, for no one has the measuring-stick to size up wisdom.” 

The kind of world Martucci (and by extension, Stirner and Connors) wish for even in his own words begins to suggest a sort of dog-eat-dog struggle of man against man:

“In a free world there would always be struggle, which is indestructible because it is natural. But it would be a struggle between the approximately equal forces of men strengthened by naturalism.

Again, if A finds B as resolute as he, then their forces will be equivalent. The case is clear and does not allow illusion. At that moment, the dispute between them will be resolved.” 

What is my conclusion here, and what do I mean by the title of this essay? I am saying that anarchism, in general, is neither the liberation of the individual nor is such a proposition necessarily even desirable. As anarchists we should leave all that talk of “individual liberty” to Enzo Martucci, Max Stirner and them. As anarchists we should not make our selling point the “liberation of the individual” because in most cases anarchy is not that at all. Anarchism should instead be sold as the most viable and sustainable system imaginable, and the only one capable of ending many current conflicts and saving our species from potential extinction. Anarchy should be sold as the most sensible way to organize, and that is all. Leave the liberation talk to those extreme individualists who lack a moral compass.

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