Politics

We are All Egoists – and Why That’s a Good Thing

Many of those who end up exploring the political fringe – particularly on the Right – end up obsessed with various forms of what might loosely be called egocentricity. In those of a libertarian bent, this usually expresses itself as an obsession with contrasting honorable “individualism” against slavish “collectivism.” In the more anarchic and nihilistic types, it often expresses itself as an obsession with contrasting proud “egoism” against naïve “altruism.”

As an example of a typical statement from the former type, we can cite Ayn Rand in the January 1944 edition of Reader’s Digest: “Collectivism means the subjugation of the individual to a group – whether to a race, class or state does not matter. Collectivism holds that man must be chained to collective action and collective thought for the sake of what is called ‘the common good.’”

The problem with a characterization like this is that Ayn Rand wants to “subjugate the individual to the group” as well – the sole difference being that she wants to subjugate different individuals to a different group, for different reasons.

In The Virtue of Selfishness she writes, “Individual rights are the means of subordinating society to moral law.” “Society?” Doesn’t it border on becoming a fallacy of the stolen concept for Rand to use that word? According to her, “Society is [merely] a large number of men . . .” And the very problem with “collectivism” is that it “see[s] society as a super-organism, as some supernatural entity apart from and superior to the sum of its individual members.” What we’re really talking about here is still nothing other than imposing restrictions – violations of which will be met with violence – in how one individual is allowed to relate to another. If she had been asked about why it is that I cannot kill a random person if I would really enjoy doing it, and if I were certain that I would never suffer any adverse consequences from doing so in the future (say, because no one would ever find out), and could even walk away with spoils from the deed, Rand’s answer can’t ultimately be any more coherent than the so-called “collectivist’s” rationale concerning why I cannot stop paying taxes. The differences wouldn’t lie in the reasoning they use so much as in what it is they decide to apply that reasoning to.

And the reason for that is simple: when it comes down to it, Rand likewise wants to live in a “collective” which – to some degree “altruistically” – acts to defend a certain kind of social order. She simply wants that social order to be centered upon a Right-wing conception of human rights rather than a Left-wing conception of human well-being. And she understands perfectly well that the individuals who comprise this social order would have to sacrifice some of their desires if they were to fulfill their greater desire to live within this type of society – namely, they would have to avoid actions that would “violate individual rights,” even if they would tangibly benefit both in the present and long-term from doing so.

She tries to get around this by engaging in some very unimpressive rationalization of the claim that there are “no conflicts of interests among rational men.” But this premise is self-evidently absurd, and it can be demonstrated in less than ten short sentences: I come across a homeless man under a bridge. I am a sadist, and I would enjoy torturing him for an hour and killing him. No one would ever find out. He has “an interest” in staying alive. I have “an interest” in killing him. We therefore have a conflict of interests. Trying to deny that situations like this occur in the real world is as preposterous as claiming to have used a philosophical argument to disprove the existence of gravity.

To briefly address the “reasoning” she uses to try to defend this claim: “A man’s ‘interests’ depend on the kind of goals he chooses to pursue, his choice of goals depends on his desires, his desires depend on his values – and, for a rational man, his values depend on the judgment of his mind . . . A rational man never holds a desire or pursues a goal which cannot be achieved directly or indirectly [i.e., by trading] by his own effort . . . He never seeks or desires the unearned . . . The mere fact that two men desire the same job does not constitute proof that either of them is entitled to it or deserves it, and that his interests are damaged if he does not obtain it.” (The Virtue of Selfishness, pp. 50-56)

The first major problem with this bit of sophistry is that it conflates deserving with having interests. Whether my interests are damaged by failing to acquire a job has nothing to do with whether I “deserved” it, much less whether I deserved it equally as much as my competitor. I literally have “an interest” in taking the job if taking it would benefit me, and whether the job would benefit me (and is therefore in my interests) has nothing to do with how much I “deserve” it. The second major problem is that the definition of “rational” applied here is completely unclear, and is thus really nothing more than a crooked stick rigged to try to prop up the incoherency of the whole philosophical system. “A rational man . . . never seeks or desires the unearned”? Would a “rational man” not only refuse to pick up a million dollars he found lying on the side of the road, but in fact never even desire to, according to Rand’s definition? Then damn near everyone has a completely different understanding than the one Rand proposes in terms of what it means to be “rational,” namely one that comprehends the first point: that what a person’s interests are and what a person deserves are at best only tangentially related.

With that specious excuse out of the way, we’re back to the fact that Ayn Rand, too, wants to be part of a collective. And she does indeed want people to practice “altruism” by sacrificing some of their interests in order to acquire their greater interest in maintaining a collective social order which is cemented upon the principles she puts forward. What she proposes is a type of social contract just as much as are the views of Hobbes or Rousseau. She simply proposes different terms for the contract, demanding different requirements from its parties, and different benefits in exchange for meeting those requirements.

The more nihilistic and anarchic brand of egoists – who are often iconoclastic admirers of the nineteenth-century philosopher Max Stirner, whose The Ego and Its Own helped inspire Nietzsche – will have already concluded that Ayn Rand’s “individual rights” are nothing more than a “spook” to which people irrationally sacrifice themselves, which is right on par with all of the other “spooks” Ayn Rand already condemns: religion, the state, “society.” As Ulrike Heider explains in her survey, of Anarchism: Left, Right, and Green, Stirner wants to abolish “not only the state but also society as an institution responsible for its members.” Thus, he would abandon not just the idea of society as an institution responsible for its members’ well-being, along with Rand, he would also abandon the Randian or libertarian idea of society as an institution responsible for protecting its members’ rights.

What Stirner’s admirers miss, however, is that when the masses of people reject this brand of egoism, they are already in fact behaving “egoistically.” In my time within libertarian and anarchist circles, I’ve seen countless pasty white men in their early 20s acting dumbfounded that people are attacking them for endorsing this brand of pure egoism: “Why would people be offended by the suggestion that they should look out for their own interests?!” What they’ve failed to wrap their minds around is that the vast majority of psychologically healthy people want to be part of a community, and are therefore already acting precisely as “egoists” in their pursuit of that goal when they condemn the self-proclaimed “egoist.”

From romantic relationships, to families, to community clubs, and even political movements, we spend the better part of our lives not just in but seeking prolonged relationships that require the sacrifice of whatever momentary value we might gain from indulging some of our desires in order to preserve our greater desire for the continuing value derived from a communal relationship. Relationships and communities, both public and private, are thus a type of commons – and single-minded pursuit of transient self-interest thus leads to a tragedy of the commons just as much as it does when cows graze on unregulated common land. I may have a transient interest in stealing a few groceries, for example, but I have an even greater interest in being able to live in a society where groceries are sold in open aisles instead of under lock-and-key beneath the watchful eye of CCTV cameras. Stirner’s is the philosophy of the run-down inner city; when actually lived by, it leads to a world in which none but the most nihilistic thugs and anarchic ruffians actually want to live.

Thus, the contempt directed by some towards the Stirnerites seems to me to be perfectly justified by the fact that what the Stirnerite is really signaling – if he is indeed signaling anything at all – is an unwillingness to compromise in order to maintain values that others would like to preserve within the shared social commons. What differentiates the Stirnerite from others is not that the Stirnerite is a woke egoist, whereas everyone else is acting mindlessly. What the Stirnerite is saying is that he “egoistically” desires and intends to take actions that would put him at odds with the sort of social commons those around him would like to maintain. Meanwhile, those around him are responding that if that is indeed the case, then they intend to just as “egoistically” run him out of that commons in order to preserve the things they value in it. Wouldn’t it be a detestable form of altruism for them to sacrifice the commons they desire just for him? And would it not be pathetic for a declared egoist to beg for altruistic sacrifice from those around him?

The obsessions that occasionally spring up, especially within the political Right, in relation to “egoism” versus “altruism,” or “individualism” versus “collectivism,” are complete red herrings. The truth is that these obsessions emerge not because there is any real, fundamental dichotomy between the two, but simply because we find ourselves at odds with the particular kinds of commons those around us prefer. All of us, even the most self-sacrificing Christian socialist, are “egoistic individualists,” attempting to form the sorts of communities we wish to live in because life in such communities is what we desire. Likewise, all of us, even Ayn Rand, are “altruistic collectivists” because what all of us desire is a community in which both we and others sacrifice some things  – whether it is the right to keep our entire paycheck, or the right to kill random people we find alone in dark alleyways – in order to maintain and secure others. This is the case regardless of whether we are discussing a society that aims to secure certain levels of well-being or a society that aims to protect certain kinds of rights.

The divide is not between “egoistic individualists” and “altruistic collectivists.” It is rather between immature, anti-social, or sociopathic “egoistic individualists” who obsess with those terms and labels in order to signal immaturity, anti-sociality, and sociopathy, and “egoistic individualists” who understand that their enlightened self-interest lies in maintaining a certain kind of social order which requires placing limits on their behavior so that others might do the same in order to secure greater shared, lasting benefits for all within a flourishing social commons. The differences lie in what kinds of “altruism” we request from those around us, and are willing to submit to ourselves, in order to obtain what type of social collective to live within. The differences lie not in whether we propose a social contract, but rather to what terms we’re willing to submit in order to reap which societal gains.

One benefit of framing this issue in a better way is that it makes it clearer that there is no objectively, universally correct answer to these questions: different people are going to be willing (or unwilling) to sacrifice different kinds of things in order to create different kinds of communities, not to mention the fact that different people are going to have what it takes to build particular kinds of communities more so than others. Ironically, Austrian-style libertarian proponents of the “subjective theory of value” should be the most inclined to understand this: different people put different values on having different kinds of “rights” protected, thus achieving different kinds of outcomes – including when it comes to economics.

Allowing for the creation of communities possessing a relatively large degree of “authoritarianism” within, and a relatively large degree of freedom from interference without, is the only way to even begin to move in the direction of allowing a meaningful form of “diversity” to flourish once again in the world. When it comes down to it, we are all “authoritarians” by someone else’s lights; if given the option, we would all impose by force the sort of society we would prefer to live in over others, namely those who hold preferences different from ours and would likewise impose theirs by force over us. As Jack Donovan puts it, “violence is golden.” And this is no less true for someone like Ayn Rand than they are for the Social Justice Warrior. Of course, in the end, the consistent Stirnerian “egoist” would likely have trouble finding any community which desires his presence unless he effectively converts to some practical philosophy other than “egoism” as such. This, in the end, is why politics is more susceptible to the bias of tribal emotions than science, philosophy, or other fields: the first task of any real “political philosophy” is to define a community – and then, to negotiate terms. Those who deliberately eschew the very notion of community, or else are removed from or simply lack the capacity to demonstrate their value to one, therefore have no place in any “political” realm. And it’s very likely that this explains why Stirner’s so-called “union of egoists” has never manifested and why anarchists have so rarely built any meaningful organizations in the real world (though there have been a few), and why even organizations such as the Libertarian Party have only been marginally more successful.

Our first task then, if we want to become a serious movement, is literally to create communities. Forming authentic, spontaneous networks of personal relationships is to creating a political movement as tilling soil is to creating a garden: it is the prerequisite for building the foundation out of which everything else will ultimately be grown. Then, we must draw clear boundaries regarding what it is we are asking from those who want to join our ranks, and what we have to offer them if they’re willing to meet our requirements. The stronger our communities become, and the greater the standards of loyalty and cooperation we can maintain between ourselves, the more compelling our offers will become. These are the standards to keep in mind when outsiders dox, harass, or otherwise attempt to pit us against one another. We’ve grown substantially stronger recently by demonstrating to outsiders how ready the Left is to “eat its own,” as we see when the various special interest groups attempt to form coalitions, only to turn against each other when one trespasses on the perceived territory of another; for example, when “anti-racists” condemn “feminists” as harshly as they condemn any other perceived racist for their emphasis on combating the abuse and rape of women among blacks.

If we want to be able to make better offers as a community to ordinary people than the Left, and to continue to grow through the authentic and spontaneous evolution of our sphere of influence, then we need to do everything in our power to make sure that this critique doesn’t become applicable to us.

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