On the road to May Day: A non-report-back from Denver 2017

Diogenes Asking for Alms
Figure 1. “Diogenes Asking for Alms” by Jean-Bernard Restout (1767). Here Diogenes is begging from a statue, which he did to practice being rejected.

A spectrum of beggars

Being asked why people give to beggars but not to philosophers, Diogenes said, “Because they think they may one day be lame or blind, but never expect that they will turn to philosophy.”

Every other day of the year I’m dismissive toward churches, parties, unions, and holy days; but on May 1st, I’m somehow always hopeful that a large number of radicals will turn out and cause trouble. It’s been a few years since I’ve written a post complaining about the tameness of May Day in Denver. That’s because I realized that I’m too shy to contribute to or get much out of protests and stopped attending them. This year, however, with good weather, the drama around Trump, and the centennial of the 1917 revolutions, I thought the demonstrations could be big. I searched online and saw that the Democratic Socialists of America and some other groups planned a “May Day Against Trumpism” at the capitol building. Wanting to not miss out, I took the bus to the city.

Between Union Station and Denver’s capitol building is a mile of pedestrian shopping called 16th Street Mall. Recounting one’s walk down 16th Street Mall is often to sketch a continuum-forming typology of beggars:

Diagram of begging typology.
Figure 2. A print-quality diagram depicting the perfectly sensible multi-dimensional typology of begging. I’m not at all embarrassed of the concept or drawing. The bus icon is by Naomi Atkinson; the capitol icon is by Loren Klein (CC-BY-3.0). The lines were drawn by me: ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. Click image for SVG version.

Almost as soon as I stepped outside of the bus station a woman approached me and asked if I had “a dollar or something to help with food.” I remembered that I had grabbed some extra change with my bus fare and handed her the two dimes. She cheerfully assured me that every little bit helps. This is the unpretentious beggar: she offers nothing in exchange for taking money except to live and beg another day. Every other beggar I’d meet on my way to the capitol would present their case as an exchange; they’d tell me that either I or an even more helpless third party somewhere would benefit from my donation.

A girl with a clipboard standing at the nearby intersection who witnessed my twenty-cent donation caught my eyes and asked, “Do you want to save a child with me today?” From what I gathered before the crossing light changed, the plan was for her to get paid to solicit donations for some sponsor-a-child charity scheme and for me to give her my money. I couldn’t even think of a sensible response to that offer of teamwork and just awkwardly shook my head before crossing the street. Later down the mall I met some more clipboard beggars, and I did much better. One girl got my attention with a friendly greeting and then explained that with Trump in office it is very important that I give to the ACLU. I told her I didn’t have any money. She was understanding and told me that I could donate online whenever I do have money.

A man begging on behalf of Save The Children, an organization currently helping victims of the Syrian civil war, asked if he could talk to me about their work. I told him I don’t have any money, and he politely asked if he could give me his spiel anyway. So I listened. When he got back to asking for a donation I wished him luck and walked on. It turns out that while he’s trying to extract money from unemployed anarchists on the mall, the President and CEO of Save the Children, Carolyn Miles (whose background is in marketing, specifically in selling American Express cards to college students), is paid $455,000 per year.

Further down the mall I looked down and walked fast to avoid interacting with a pair of clipboard-holders wearing Greenpeace shirts.

But I’ve gotten ahead of myself. When I crossed to the other side of 16th Street, on the first block of the mall, there was a man playing the flute along to some kind of electronic jazz music playing from a loudspeaker while also talking to passers-by trying to get them to dance. It was a tough crowd, but he was a skilled performer and there were several dollars in the wooden box on the ground in front of him.

Unlike most beggars, buskers are generally not only tolerated but desired by downtown business improvement districts because they provide some cultural authenticity which makes shopping a less sterile experience. People often give to buskers because they genuinely enjoyed the performance rather than out of pity, in which cases street performing is a commercial art rather than begging proper. While I’ve not witnessed them in Denver, other cases in which unsolicited services are pre-rendered with the expectation of payment, such as squeegee beggars who clean windshields at stoplights for donations, probably rarely make that transition (and so precede busking in the spectrum).

The claim that donations are actually payment for a service is a rhetorical game Diogenes played when he said people should pay him “not for alms, but for repayment of his due” (presumably for being such a great philosopher). And like some guilt-tripping clipboard beggars, he also tried leaning on potential donors' sense of fairness and morality to reason them into giving to him: “If you have already given to anyone else, give to me also; if not, begin with me.”

Jesus, the founder of the other ancient tradition of begging which has been gnawing the foundations of Western civilization for over 2,000 years, also gave some rather cynical advice on how to handle beggars. Included in his Sermon on the Mount are three of his most characteristic pronouncements. The first, “Do not resist an evildoer,” is followed by three examples of enduring more abuse than one’s day-to-day abusers expect (if someone slaps your face, turn turn the other cheek; if someone sues you for the literal shirt off your back, give them your cloak too; if you are conscripted to walk a mile, walk two miles). The third is “Love your enemies,” after which Jesus points out that even tax collectors — the very agents of exploitation — are nice to their friends, so that should be, like, the absolute minimum standard of behavior.

Perhaps less famous (though not less vexing) than those two paradoxical sayings is found right between them: “Give to everyone who begs from you.”

Jesus’s first followers were propertyless peasants who had left even their homes, were used to putting up with abuse at the hands of their social betters, to going without sufficient clothing, to walking more than even soldiers, were more often beggars than givers, and who nevertheless treated everybody well. Whatever the deeper and more general applications of these sayings, then, on their surface they not only presented the lifestyle of the early Christians (that which potential followers would be expected to adopt), they also seem to be lightheartedly self-serving in the same style of the Cynics who taught that it was virtuous to give to homeless philosophers.

The co-optation of Christianity by the rich and powerful not long after Jesus was executed imbued these sayings with even greater difficulty for their future audiences, especially “give to everyone who begs from you” which cannot be so easily philosophized away as a paradox. As an example, consider the case of a 19th-century Russian aristocrat named Leo Tolstoy who after a legendary career as a novelist attempted to take the sayings of Jesus seriously. His struggles with “do not resist an evildoer” produced several works which had profound influences on social justice movements around the world and are still read by pacifists and anarchists today. But it wasn’t until he was quite old that he finally got the courage (if sneaking away from one’s wife in the middle of the night counts as courageous) to leave all of his possessions by setting out on train with nothing but the clothes of a standard Russian peasant. He developed pneumonia and died within days of leaving home.

The pretensions of the cynical beggar are ironic in that the audience is aware of the rhetorical game, but like in the case of the street performer, it is the decision of those who give as to whether they are giving out of pity or gratitude. Beyond that, the type of beggar represented by the Cynic and the Christian are honest both in the sense that they present neither sob stories nor pretended friendliness, but even more so in that they invite their listeners to throw off their own pretensions about the society they are living in and reproducing. That is, to the Cynic and the Christian, giving to beggars is not in tension with more systematic solutions to poverty, it is the systematic solution to poverty. The clipboard-holding fundraiser, in contrast, who has perfected the sob story, the salesman-like friendliness, and who claims salvation is found in non-profit organizations, is perhaps the paragon of the dishonest beggar.

I didn’t have occasion to mention it, because I have thankfully never been a witness or victim to a robbery (not that such crimes are unknown on the 16th Street Mall), but robbers also make no claim to be helping their victims and should logically precede the unpretentious beggar in our spectrum. While of course theft and robbery, being characterized by their involuntary demands, are not begging properly, even muggers sometimes couch their activity in the language of a market exchange (‘your money for your life’).

Julian, the fourth-century Roman emperor (a nephew of Constantine) who tried to peacefully revert the empire from Christianity back to Paganism, was annoyed with the openly atheist and crude Cynics of his day. He wanted all Cynics to be as pious and educated as he imagined Diogenes and Crates were, and argued that most Cynics were even worse than bandits and pirates who were at least decent enough to be ashamed of their lifestyle and live in their faraway hideouts instead of preaching at people in the streets. He also referred to Cynics as “monks,” intending the association with Christians to be an insult (Christians were only one or three gods away from being atheists themselves).

At many of the intersections along the mall I saw newspaper salesmen — often older men with all of their possessions in bags on the ground at their feet — selling the Denver VOICE for a suggested $2 per copy. Originally founded 20 years ago as “a grassroots newspaper created by homeless people for homeless people,” the VOICE is now written for a general audience and sold by homeless vendors (who buy the papers for $0.50 each) as a way for them to earn some income. (The Denver VOICE is independent, but its operating model is influenced by similar street newspaper vending networks which operate in cities around the world.)

These charity vendors, whose sales depend at least as much on pity as on satisfying the wants of their customers, are located in the middle of the murky space where begging becomes selling (somewhere to the retail side of the children in third-world cities who sell trinkets to Western tourists).

Of course the entire mall is lined by actual retail shops and beggardly advertisements. Salespersons and advertisers (and the business owners they work for) likely imagine they are much further along the spectrum of begging than they actually are.

Downtown business associations and city councils will often commission artwork to help beautify shopping areas and, as in the case of buskers, will happily tolerate some guerrilla murals which provide a degree of authenticity to the shopping environment. But for the most part any art or graphic design which might distract from the commercial purposes of the property is forbidden. In the words of the street artist Banksy, “The people who truly deface our neighborhoods are the companies that scrawl their giant slogans across buildings and buses trying to make us feel inadequate unless we buy their stuff. They expect to be able to shout their message in your face from every available surface but you’re never allowed to answer back.”

Banksy’s observation echoes one by GK Chesterton a hundred years earlier that “It is really not so repulsive to see the poor asking for money as to see the rich asking for more money. And advertisement is the rich asking for more money”:

A man would be annoyed if he found himself in a mob of millionaires, all holding out their silk hats for a penny; or all shouting with one voice, “Give me money.” Yet advertisement does really assault the eye very much as such a shout would assault the ear. “Budge’s Boots are the Best” simply means “Give me money”; “Use Seraphic Soap” simply means “Give me money.” It is a complete mistake to suppose that common people make our towns commonplace, with unsightly things like advertisements. Most of those whose wares are thus placarded everywhere are very wealthy gentlemen with coronets and country seats, men who are probably very particular about the artistic adornment of their own homes. They disfigure their towns in order to decorate their houses.

Shop and restaurant owners on the 16th Street Mall have been known to be hostile to the more needy beggars operating on their turf and have enlisted the police to carry out revanchist actions against the most vulnerable. In 2012, legislation criminalizing the act of sleeping outside with shelter (defined as “any tent, tarpaulin, lean-to, sleeping bag, bedroll, blankets, or any form of cover or protection from the elements other than clothing”) was passed on behalf of downtown business owners. Under the authority of that code, police have conducted winter raids on homeless camps to confiscate blankets. Recently three individuals accused of camping with shelter were tried by jury, convicted, and sentenced to several days of forced labour.

The City of Denver in collaboration with downtown business owners has installed mechanical panhandlers — modified parking meters — which are meant to compete with live beggars. The city has promised the money collected by the machines will go toward “job training, meals and permanent housing options that help get people back on their feet,” but it has been caught spending it instead to help fund the police sweeps of homeless camps.

The mall ends where 16th Street dead-ends into Broadway. To the north is the financial heart of Denver’s business center. On 16th Street itself are the two Denver World Trade Center buildings and Republic Plaza (the tallest building in Denver); scattered beyond those are more high-rise office buildings and skyscrapers. These buildings exhibit almost none of the colorful and chaotic elements of the shopping mall and are instead dark, sleek, and inauspicious.

The craft of capital allocation and investment, which is practiced in many of these buildings, does not depend on demanding, begging, or offering so much as on staking ownership and simply taking interest. Like the robber on one end of our spectrum, we have financial capitalism on the other: the bandit subsumed. The full spectrum of begging plays out between these dialectical bookends of the modern capitalist economy, as it does everyday between Union Station and Broadway.

Walking a block south on Broadway brought me to the state capitol building. I could see maybe 100 demonstrators nestled up on the steps waving red and black flags. A large banner facing the street read “No War But Class War,” and another further back read “Workers & Oppressed People of the World Unite!” There were no police or pro-Trump counter-protestors in sight.

The prospect of joining them seemed both socially overwhelming and boring. Like some sort of party. So I continued walking down Broadway and spent my afternoon in the Denver Public Library. It was a good May Day.

Other people’s May Day 2017

Of course, some people actually followed through on their plans to attend a May Day demonstration. The local Fox News affiliate was kind enough to both get the word out about various May Day protests in Denver as well as to follow up with a short video and a couple of pictures from the event at the capitol: “May Day events taking place in Denver” (Fox31, 1 May 2017). More photos can be found on the Facebook event page.

A few cities around the world saw major protests, with the riot in Paris getting the most headlines because protesters responded to police tear gas with spectacular petrol bombs. Hundreds of protesters and six cops were injured during the clashes.

In the United States the most unusual thing about May Day this year was the presence of Trump-inspired right-wing counter-protesters who turned up in several cities. Seattle was unusually quiet though there was a minor confrontation with participants of a “Stand Against Communism” rally.

The most rowdy demonstrations were in Portland and Olympia. In Portland a minor riot broke out after a few protesters threw full cans of Pepsi at riot police who responded by charging into the mostly peaceful crowd of marchers. The bloc’d up [mostly-anarchist, no doubt] protesters who instigated the police response have been criticized for endangering the rest of the march.

There was also a small riot in Olympia where protesters threw rocks at police (and some counter-protesters threw rocks at marching demonstrators). In one unfortunate and embarrassing instance, a protester tried to pepper spray some taunting counter-protesters and accidentally sprayed passers-by including a dog. Most cops are not even that irresponsible with chemical weapons.

The Red Guards Austin, a Maoist group which has gained some notoriety in recent months due to their open-carry demonstrations, tried to march in Austin, but they were surround by an alarming number of reactionary counter protesters. Apparently racists and anti-communists of the InfoWars variety are numerous in the Austin area (I didn’t realize until now that Alex Jones lives in Austin and hosts his show there). Some Red Guards members were carrying rifles, and so were a few of the right-wingers. In their public self-criticism which they posted to their weblog, the Red Guards described this scary moment:

Early on in the march a fascist named William Fears physically assaulted one of the comrades who was guiding chants and for this Fears came very close to forcing our units to use lethal force. Those in attendance could see fear in his eyes as the Partisan unit moved into the ready position prepared to chamber a round.

My impression is that the Austin PD did a good job keeping the groups apart and possibly from literally killing each other. The independent journalist Kit O’Connell was present and wrote a good postmortem of the event: “Unpacking The Fascist Rampage On May Day In Austin: What Happened, What Went Wrong.” I could not find a single report from a main stream news outfit.

Sources of quotations

The sayings of Diogenes quoted above can be found in Diogenes Laertius’s Lives of Eminent Philosophers, Book VI. Those of Jesus are recorded in Matthew 5:38-48. Julian’s thoughts on Cynics are preserved in his seventh Oration: “To the Cynic Heracleios.” The Banksy quote is from his introduction to Wall and Piece. GK Chesterton’s opinion on advertisements can be found in his 1920 book The New Jerusalem.

This Andrew Jackson Jihad: Thoughts from the first forty days

Donald Trump is President of the United States of America

I was a sexy little viper rune
In the corner of a King Tut tomb
When the hate train started
Going "Choo-choo"

Radical social change is difficult; much easier is Cynicism: just awkwardly excuse yourself from society and then bark unconvincingly at passers-by as they try to go about their business. And of course if you can’t change a thing, you can always change its name. If you were in St. Petersburg on March 8, 1917, for example, you would say you were in Petrograd on February 23. But regardless of calendar or map, to the war protesters staging a march in that city on that day it was International Women’s Day, and, to everyone’s surprise, that little Women’s Day demonstration prompted a spontaneous strike of workers and soldiers. The rebellion lasted for days in the streets and shook the establishment to its top, resulting in the abdication of the Tsar and the replacement of his autocracy by a contentious dual government of liberals and socialists — and eventually to the Bolshevik revolution and civil war.

Now, after so much intervening Russian history — the rise and fall of Stalinism and European Fascism including another world war, a nuclear cold war, the dissolution of the Soviet Union, other things, Putin — it is in the headlamps of the approaching centennial of those days in 1917 that I’ve set about trying to understand the crisis Donald Trump has brought both to America’s ruling classes and to my own personal political views.

Because of his anti-political and buffoonish style, his denouncements of the press, his early push of executive power targeted at immigrants, and the encouragement his success has provided to white nationalist movements, there has been some debate as to where Trumpism fits in the Fascist family tree. If Trump is the farcical reappearance of one of those tragic 20th-century personages, then he is something like an inarticulate ghost of Mussolini. But as far as comparisons to other political leaders go, Trump is probably best understood as an American Berlusconi with a platform heavily flavored by his old Reform Party rival Pat Buchanan (but without Pat’s dedication to non-interventionism) who is assembling a band of robbers to exceed the cronyism of Warren Harding's cabinet.

His own administration seems to favor comparisons to Andrew Jackson (seventh President from 1829 to 1837). In an interview with a journalist for the Hollywood Reporter in November, Stephen Bannon said of the Trump campaign that “Like Jackson’s populism, we’re going to build an entirely new political movement.” Pat Buchanan described Trump’s ‘America First’ inauguration speech as “Jacksonian” in that “he was speaking to and for the forgotten Americans whose hopes he embodies.” And during his first days in the White House, Trump had a portrait of Jackson installed in the Oval Office so that a painted Jackson could watch him sign his flurry of executive orders beside a real-life Bannon.

Most of the parallels that could be drawn are shallow, but Jackson was a populist candidate who was elected as a champion of angry white men who felt disenfranchised by the East Coast elites and bankers. While its opponents accuse Trumpism of implicitly empowering white supremacists (as do some of its proponents), Jacksonian democracy explicitly emphasized the whiteness of citizenship. As was the fashion of southern job creators of that period, Jackson enslaved almost two hundred black men, women, and children as workers at his Tennessee cotton plantation. Jackson also developed a reputation for sometimes flexing his executive powers, like when he ignored the spirit a Supreme Court ruling by continuing to help Georgia in its negotiations with the Cherokee government. The result of those negotiations was the forced relocation of tens of thousands of indians (and their slaves) during extreme weather which killed thousands.

Neoliberalism with nationalist characteristics

To a formalist, the way to fix the US is to […​] figure out who owns this monstrosity, and let them decide what in the heck they are going to do with it. I don’t think it’s too crazy to say that all options - including restructuring and liquidation - should be on the table.
— Mencius Moldbug

As if in a nod to that brutal 19th-century primitive accumulation, on his fourth day in office Trump directed the Army Corps of Engineers to expedite their review and approval of the easement required to complete the Dakota Access Pipeline. The next week North Dakota police raided a camp established by the Standing Rock Sioux to protest the pipeline and arrested 76 people. The easement was granted, and on February 22 the main Oceti Sakowin camp was cleared and razed.

Andrew Jackson was true to his commitment to the common white man, including standing up to a central bank he felt unduly privileged the wealthy. But during Trump’s transition to the White House, there have been strong indications that not only does he intend to continue the plutocracy as usual, he intends to further it toward a naked fact. Like his role as a billionaire non-politician in the highest executive office, his executive actions and appointments tend to erase the imaginary line between business and government.

With now-former Goldman Sachs COO as Director of the National Economic Council and hedge fund manager (and former Goldman Sachs partner) Steven Mnuchin as Secretary of the Treasury, the Trump Administration is posed to reduce corporate taxes and rollback regulations put in place by the so-called Dodd-Frank legislation in response to the 2007 financial crisis. Trump’s appointee to Chairman of the FCC is an opponent of net neutrality and an advocate for private telecommunication monopolies which charge prisoners and their families exorbitant rates on phone calls. Jeff Sessions, Trump’s controversial Attorney General, has already rescinded an Obama-era memo that directed the Justice Department to reduce the use of private prisons. In a rent-seeking parallel to support for private prisons, his appointee to Secretary of Education, the billionaire Betsy DeVos, is a proponent of public funding for privately owned schools. The fact that Trump’s Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt, has sued the EPA several times on behalf of industrial profiteers indicates probable deregulations in that agency’s future. Etc.

In some ways the orientation Trump’s administration seems to be taking with its planned regulation cuts, infrastructure spending, withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and increased immigration restrictions are consistent (one of the precious few consistent points through Trump’s campaign) with what Bannon (who is a former Goldman Sachs deal maker himself) calls a policy of “economic nationalism.” But Bannon has also spoken out against bailouts and crony capitalism, qualms which Trump obviously does not share.

In any case, deregulation and de-facto privatization are the major economic motifs of the emerging Trump administration. Bannon has described the goal behind those trends as a “deconstruction of the administrative state.” It looks a lot like typical neoliberal fare taken around an introspective turn. Using David Harvey’s terminology, the Trump folks are reverting from a spatial to a temporal fix to the recurring overaccumulation of capital. Will it be enough to revive the profitability of American manufacturing and mining? Or has the Eye of Sauron turned its gaze inward to Mordor too late?

In much the same way as Sauron could only respond to the movements of the ring bearer, I think Trumpism is a response to global economic conditions more than a determining cause. Take, for example, this sentence from Trump’s executive order on border security and immigration enforcement:

The recent surge of illegal immigration at the southern border with Mexico has placed a significant strain on Federal resources and overwhelmed agencies charged with border security and immigration enforcement, as well as the local communities into which many of the aliens are placed.

It is a strange and circular justification for the executive order, because other than the possible increase in illegal immigration triggered by Trump’s own rhetoric about building a wall, there has been no surge of illegal immigration. In fact, as reported by the Pew Research Center, the net immigration from Mexico between 2005 and 2014 was negative and the Mexican immigrant population has been in decline since 2007.

For decades nationalists and wage-jealous racists have been screaming about the porous southern border, but the ruling class paid them little heed and instead maintained whatever level of control at the border was deemed necessary to steer wages and keep illegal immigrants abundant but vulnerable and easily exploitable by employers. Now, when migration levels are such that controlling the border provides little in the way of economic leverage, the xenophobes and protectionists have won the day. How convenient.


The king and Haman sat down to drink; but the city of Susa was thrown into confusion.
— Esther 3:15

Steve Bannon must be some kind of a genius. In a span of about two years he boosted the significance of Breitbart News (a pro-Israel right-wing news site) by aligning it with the antisemitism-riddled alt-right, then leveraged his position at Breitbart to become CEO of a presidential campaign where he got Donald J. Trump elected as President of the United States of America (?!), and he has now managed to get himself appointed to the National Security Council. Yet everything I’ve heard him say sounds typical, a mundane obsession with defending the “Judeo-Christian West” against its conspiring enemies (represented most fiercely by “jihadist Islamic fascism”).

He reminds me a bit of Robert California, the opaque, psychopathic, manipulative character featured in some of the more tedious episodes of the American version of The Office who was hired as a manager but then immediately convinced the owner of the company to give him her position as CEO. Not so much his personality, but in his enigmatic genius and his knack for landing in positions of power (including a stint as the CEO of the company running the Biosphere 2 project in Arizona).

The 2016 Brexit referendum in the UK and the election of Trump in the US signal a widespread discontentment with neoliberal globalism finally reaching the Anglosphere (almost ten years after the 2007 financial crisis and 17 years after the Seattle '99 WTO protests). Maybe Bannon’s current success stems simply from his inclination to keep in touch with the underlying sentiments which have now surfaced in a cultural confluence.

I don’t understand much of what motivates the alt-right and its reactionary fellow travelers in Europe. I do suspect that in many ways they can be seen as ‘Western’ counterparts to the patriarchal revolts against globalism in the developing world. As racial and gender hierarchies are being reformed to better serve capitalism, and as oppressed groups continue to further the progress of their own liberation, old local and familial forms of privilege, wealth, and exploitation are being lost at both ends — whisked out to financial centers or destroyed by feminists and other progressive reformers.

Trump and company hitched a ride to power on the conservative cultural impulse desperately opposing those changes. They have an ideology to execute. Even if they are adrift in economic currents they have little power over, they seem determined to do more thrashing than floating. So opposite the most extreme, violent patriarchal groups like ISIS we now have Donald Trump as Commander-in-Chief of the world’s most powerful armed forces. Trump has no business being president, and the powerful machines of war at his disposal have no business existing. Yet he is and they do.

In the words of Bannon, “We are — I believe — at the beginning stages of a global war against Islamic fascism.” (Or more concise is Trump’s own analysis: “I think Islam hates us.”)

It should go without saying here — but American leftists sometimes fail to make clear — that denouncing Trumpism and its Islamophobic tendencies is certainly not to side with Islamist regimes. Frankly, Bannon’s “jihadist Islamic fascism” is an apt description of the war Salafism espoused by groups like ISIS in the wake of America’s overt and covert imperialist actions in Iraq and Syria (respectively) and elsewhere. While the movements may draw on much different traditions, the label ‘fascist’ applies more cleanly to ISIS — which maintains totalitarian rule through terror while adhering to a philosophy of endless war and is using its newfound state powers to institutionalize slavery, genocide (including antisemitism), and rape — than it does to America under Trump. I will always oppose American militarism, but you won’t hear me complaining very loudly about NATO airstrikes which protect Yazidi villages and Kurdish forces in Syria.

The Obama State Department spent eight years waging slow-burning proxy wars against Russia. Trump has already tried to bring about a realignment of foreign policy by consistently making nice with Putin (likely for the sake of some shady Crimea deal or other scandalous intrigue). An improved relationship with Russia could have a drastic effect on the priorities of America’s intelligence/military adventures — a shift from maintaining American oil interests to a more ideologically-driven crusade against Islamist militias (though, like Obama, I expect the Trump administration to fight Islamist groups in places that just happen to be oil-rich and where America is already heavily invested: places like Iraq but not Nigeria).

But it is far from clear how Trump’s foreign policy will evolve. His Secretary of State, former CEO of ExxonMobil Rex Tillerson, has extensive business experience in Russia and personally with Vladimir Putin. Tillerson has expressed his opinion that Obama’s sanctions against Russia for invading Ukraine were too weak and the US should have instead responded with military support to Ukraine. Tillerson also holds more conventional views on free trade (he supported the Trans-Pacific Partnership) and may be a counterweight to the Bannon wing of the administration.

Trump has already demonstrated he lacks the light touch required by Obama’s drone war approach. The first raid he authorized in office, a continuation of the Obama-Saudi offensive against Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, resulted in a reported 24 civilian deaths (including 9 children) and the Yemeni government’s revocation of its permission for US ground missions (it still allows drone strikes). Who knows, maybe with Tillerson keeping the State Department on the same hawkish anti-Russian line as Clinton and Kerry, combined with the anti-immigrant and anti-Islam schemes of Trump and Bannon, we could be in store for one of the worst of all possible foreign policy positions in American history.

For a president who has never had a popular mandate — but who does have enemies in the intelligence community, the tech sector, the media, and probably the judiciary — Trump’s noisy entrance to the White House resembles a page from the ISIS playbook: usurp a few pieces of artillery, declare war on everyone, enjoy a life of heroic conflict while it lasts.

Trump remains unpopular and his executive excesses in check by the courts, but I can’t shake an uneasy feeling that he has managed to wriggle onto the throne in such a way that the sword of Damocles is hanging at least as much over American civil liberties as it is over his own head waiting for (almost taunting) any self-motivated terrorist to cut the thread. A patriotic fervor uniting behind Trump could easily be more devastating than it was with George W. Bush in office — and the wars it would make possible could be more bloody than anything even the deranged minds in ISIS could hope for.

And so it is with Trump and Bannon in the White House that those who are obsessively frightened of violent Islamists destroying our way of life have made it possible that violent Islamists can trigger the destruction of our way of life to an unprecedented degree.


How’s the world so small when the world is so large?
And what made the world, may I please speak to who’s in charge?
Everything is real, but it’s also just as fake
From your daughter’s birthday party to your grandmother’s wake
And your bipolar illness, it comes and it goes
Your parasympathetic nervous system reacts
And you’re in fight or flight mode

From my vantage point here at American Cynic (where I never vote but I do occasionally bark unconvincingly at a passer-by), there is a silver lining to Trump’s electoral victory. Well, there is a grey lining and an opportunity.

If you are like me, there is also a fleeting moment of joy: it is a delight to see democracy backfire, smug liberals despair, and the federal government so embarrassed. By “like me” I mean a healthy, white, straight, uneducated, contrarian, broken-hearted American man who was long in the process of giving up on fitting in to any meaningful extent within capitalist society before Donald Trump became president. I realize that for people not like me in those regards, Trump may be more terrifying than fun.

There is one quick distinction I’d like to make, because I do see some of myself (and Diogenes) in the trolls celebrating the folly of Trump. That is that there is a difference between Cynic parrhesia and what is sometimes defended as free speech these days: one is a homeless man telling Alexander the Great to step out of his sunlight; the other is an internet shock troll stepping into the shadow of the White House.

The grey lining is that Trump’s victory in the face of a nervous establishment demonstrates that the American electoral system is more democratic than I thought. Not only did Trump — a controversial, unpredictable, perhaps uncontrollable populist candidate — survive the Republican primaries and that party’s safeguards against popular misfits (unfortunately the Democratic Party was much more successful in defeating Bernie Sanders), but he survived a general election despite (or unintentionally because of) hostile media coverage, and he got the requisite votes from the Electoral College, the last defense against democracy, despite a record number of faithless votes (okay, only seven) and a plot to use the electoral college to replace him with a mainstream Republican post-election (Colin Powell ended up in third place with three electoral votes, good enough to have been considered if nobody got a majority).

And, as always, I was impressed by voter turnout. About 55% of American adults voluntarily cast a ballot in the presidential contest (59% if you count only eligible voters).

I’m aware, of course, that given those points many people would not find evidence for the resilience of American democracy — America maintains an unusually low voter turnout for a rich republic, Trump lost the popular vote, and his administration may be the biggest threat to the American system in recent memory (in my lifetime, anyway). But those people, I submit, hold an overly optimistic and realist, almost magical, view of formal political process.

With the election of Trump, concrete reality is seeping into the liberal delusions that constitutional republicanism can produce equality and liberty. Faced with a rising cognitive dissonance, many progressive liberals have retreated from democracy to the safety of the institutions. This retreat can be seen in the current hysteria over Russian influence. They are willing to believe that by exfiltrating a bunch of boring emails from the DNC, which almost nobody read and even fewer people considered when voting, the Russians have successfully subverted the electoral process. (I’m not even that cynical about elections.) And, despite being shocked (shocked!) that rival imperial powers would dare interfere with each other, those same liberals, who have become little neo-McCarthyites suddenly discovering all-powerful Russian spies lurking in every corner of the White House, while whining about a lack of democracy, and with a straight face, are putting their hopes in the intelligence agencies, the judiciary, and the media — powerful institutions with little democratic allegiance or oversight — to save us from Trump.

But there is nothing like a state of emergency to reveal the nature of sovereign power — or at least a state of epistemological crisis to shatter one’s illusions. The opportunity provided by the Trump victory is in its revelatory (apocalyptic?) potential. As the embodiment of the dishonest lie, Trump reveals the truth of political power: its reality is something more like blind obedience and brute force than the formalisms of monarchy, democracy, et cetera that it is so often clothed in. Thanks to Trump, even true-believing liberals have found themselves faced with the insight, as David Frum put it in his story about what America might look like under a Trump dictatorship, that “checks and balances is a metaphor, not a mechanism.” Maybe some will also realize the same applies to politics-as-usual.

Karl Marx observed that the liberal forms of governance and wage work simply mask old relations of brutal rule and slavery in an idyllic, ideological veneer. Carl Schmitt noted that no matter how seriously parliamentarianism takes itself, the rule of law can never completely do away with sovereign power or escape the fundamental political distinction between friend and enemy — as exemplified in [the possibility] of war. These two philosophers, Karl the Communist and Carl the Nazi, can provide a crude schematic of the bifurcated post-liberal possibilities which Trump’s moment has brought back into view. One path, socialism, seeks to take out coercive social hierarchies including those upon which capitalism relies; the other, which we can generically call fascism, seeks to preserve social hierarchies against the leveling and self-destructive tendencies of capitalism. Liberals pretend that equality and liberty exist where they don’t. Socialists seek to create equality and liberty where liberalism has failed. Reactionaries believe equality and liberty are undesirable (and probably impossible anyway).

Interestingly, some of Trump’s most sophisticated supporters cling to the possibility of a third way. They see the futility of existing liberalism and are revolted by equality, but they cannot stomach the reality of fascism. So they hope to ditch the democratic elements of liberalism and thereby arrive at a stable, peaceful version of capitalism (using the right-wing definition of ‘peaceful’ that means ‘undisturbed status quo’). Peter Thiel, a billionaire donor to Trump’s campaign and member of his transition team, wrote in 2009 that “I no longer believe that freedom and democracy are compatible.” By “freedom” he seems to mean capitalism (he goes on to call “capitalist democracy” an oxymoron), and he cites the enfranchisement of women as one of the major stumbling blocks to his vision of a “free” society. Thiel, who was a student of the late René Girard, hints that through meritocratic monopolies, the elimination of economic competition, humanity’s cycle of mimetic violence can be escaped (and then king-CEOs can finally sleep peacefully without worrying about becoming scapegoated victims of mob violence, or something).

Thiel’s ideas are a variation of Silicon Valley neoreactionary thought as propounded by Mencius Moldbug, the movement’s pioneering theorist. Moldbug views democracy as a source of inevitable violence (and latent totalitarianism). Many of his essays are dedicated to exploring capitalism-preserving alternatives to democratic systems. One possibility is what he calls neocameralism in which a state is a joint-stock business that owns a country. A more obvious name might be “neofeudalism” (and Moldbug has half-jokingly described his anti-democratic project as neo-fascist).

But despite its fascist-like qualities, the apolitical, non-democratic capitalist utopia proposed by Moldbugian neoreaction, in which wars for survival have been made impossible and economic categories blur with and replace the political, would seem to represent everything Schmitt was against. From a Schmittian view, we might conclude that such neoreactionary thought is not an alternative to bourgeois liberalism, but its most degenerate form.

Whether neoreactionary schemes are classified as fascism or extreme liberalism, Karl Kautsky’s famous dictum from 125 years ago has gained a renewed relevance in Trump’s shadow: “As things stand today capitalist civilization cannot continue; we must either move forward into socialism or fall back into barbarism.”

Of course no matter how interesting or illuminating I think Trump might be on questions of political theory, it is not the case that police and customs enforcement agents are about to look at him and then resign en masse. The fundamental conflict of politics is now the same as ever: between police and their victims. Resistance is also the same: finding means of disobedience — with a renewed emphasis in America on defending immigrants, Muslims, Jews, and people of color against police and white-supremacist violence.

Trump didn’t invent borders or deportations or prisons or torture or execution or the military-industrial complex or patriarchy or racism or theft or taxes or profit. They have been normal for my entire life, so I don’t really understand my own visceral response to his presidency. I traditionally struggle alternately with apathy and pacifism — the Trump victory has muted both impulses within me.

Still, I’ll grudgingly agree with liberal opponents of Trump that a contingent retreat to the institutions may be the only practical chance to minimize the damage he can do in the short term, but it would be nice if in doing so we manage to avoid the intellectual retreat to liberalism’s false promises.

"Ideas of Max Stirner" by James Huneker (1907)

Transcriber’s introduction

Max Stirner's book on conscious egoism was published in English (as The Ego and His Own) for the first time in 1907 — 65 years after its original publication in German and over 50 years after Stirner’s death. To mark the occasion, an essay by James Huneker, transcribed below (from the archived PDF provided on nytimes.com), about the philosopher’s life and ideas appeared in the New York Times on April 20, 1907.

Huneker’s essay provides both a summary of John Henry Mackay’s biography of Stirner (Max Stirner: His life and work) and a brief review of Stirner’s book, with plenty of the art critic’s name-dropping flourishes throughout. In order to help today’s reader appreciate the context from which Huneker wrote, I’ve hyperlinked most of the names that appear in the essay (pointing to their Wikipedia entries for the most part). This might be especially helpful in the case of those intellectual figures which were no doubt well-known to Huneker’s [very cultured] audience in 1907, but which are no longer much discussed today.

A slightly modified and expanded version of this essay also appeared as the last chapter of Huneker’s Egoists, a book of supermen (1909). In addition to the scanned book available on the Internet Archive at that link (and an okay OCR’d ebook), a nice transcription of this later version of the essay has been archived at The Anarchist Library as “Max Stirner by James G. Huneker.” (I did not discover this version until after I had transcribed the New York Times article below, otherwise I wouldn’t have bothered. Oh well.)

The main difference between the two versions of the essay is that the later version, which appeared in Huneker’s book, includes an additional section ("II"). There are also minor differences, a few of which I point out in the footnotes of the transcription below (the first footnote appeared in the original article, the rest are mine).

Finally, I’d like to give a few thoughts on one of Huneker’s terms. Huneker sees Stirner’s egoism as, if nothing else, “a handy weapon” against Socialism. He calls The Ego and His Own “the most drastic criticism of Socialism thus far presented.” Given that Stirner’s work has been taken up for the most part by self-described socialists — early on by Engels who saw Stirner’s egoism as a possible philosophic foundation of communism, later by Benjamin Tucker who published the very book Huneker is reviewing, and by many anarchists today — these comments may be confusing.

Huneker’s fear, like Spencer’s earlier, was of an oppressive, heavy, grey State Socialism sacrificing individuals and individuality to some notion of a mediocre “Society.” But it is a narrow and one-sided (if popular) retreat from socialism which too eagerly, in 1907 and today, sacrifices individuals to existing conditions. Thus we see Marx and Engels in their manifesto mock their detractors who fear in communism what already exists in capitalism. And we see artists like Oscar Wilde (under the influence of Godwin and Kropotkin) claim that “Individualism, then, is what through Socialism we are to attain to.” Indeed, Wilde not only considered socialism as necessary for a full individualism, he uses the terms almost as synonyms.

But the matter is not so simply cleared up by distinguishing between state and libertarian socialism (see Tucker’s “State Socialism and Anarchism”), because similar bipolar tensions have always existed within libertarian socialism itself. Beginning with Proudhon’s investigations of social antimonies and his rejection of “Communism,” which finds an ally in Stirner’s egoism, individualist anarchists have worried that socialist projects would end up simply mirroring the tyranny of capitalism and other exploitative societies: that instead of the few dominating the many, socialism would consist of the many dominating the few, or (to use Proudhon’s somewhat paradoxical phrase) the exploitation of the strong by the weak. These tensions have played their part in the various calcified, broken, and re-calcified divisions which criss-cross the anarchist landscape to this day.

Still, Huneker’s view of Stirner as mostly useful as an antidote to state socialism not only makes Stirner out to be less interesting than he is, but it ignores all the interesting bits of socialism. If we use the word in a minimalist sense, insofar as it means opposition to (and transcension of) capitalism and traditionalism — to exploitation and domination — Stirner’s egoism is only useful to a socialist. For more along similar lines, see section G.6 of An Anarchist FAQ: “What are the ideas of Max Stirner?”


First English Translation of His Book, “The Ego and His Own” — His Attack on Socialism — The Most Revolutionary Book Ever Published.[1] Written for The New York Times Saturday Review of Books by James Huneker, author of “Iconoclasts.”


In 1888 John Henry Mackay, the Scottish-German poet, an intransigent, while at the British Museum reading Lange's “History of Materialism,” encountered the name of Max Stirner and a brief criticism of his forgotten book, “Der Einzige und sein Eigentum.” [“The Only One and His Property”; in French translated “L’Unique et sa Propriété,” and in the first English translation more aptly and euphoniously entitled “The Ego and His Own.”] His curiosity excited, Mackay, who is a man of assured talents, wealth, and an ardent scholar,[2] procured after some difficulty a copy of the work, and so greatly was he stirred that for ten years he gave himself up to the study of Stirner and his teachings, and after incredible painstaking published in 1898 the story of his life. [“Max Stirner: Sein Leben und sein Werk,” John Henry Mackay, Schuster & Loeffler, Berlin and Leipsic.] To Mackay’s labors we owe all we know of a man who was as absolutely swallowed up by the years as if he had never existed. But some advanced spirits had read Stirner’s book, the most revolutionary ever written, and had felt its influence. Let us name two: Henrik Ibsen and Frederick Nietzsche. Though the name of Stirner is not quoted by Nietzsche, he nevertheless recommended Stirner to a favorite pupil of his, Prof. Baumgartner at Basle University. This was in 1874.[3]

One hot August afternoon in the Year 1896 at Bayreuth I was standing in the marktplatz when a member of the Wagner Theatre — the performances were in progress that Summer — pointed out to me a house opposite, at the corner of the Maximilianstrasse, and said: “Do you see that house with the double gables? A man was born there whose name will be green when Jean Paul and Richard Wagner are forgotten.” It was too large a draught upon my credulity, so I asked the name. “Max Stirner,” he replied. “The crazy Hegelian,” I retorted. “You have read him, then?” “No; but you haven’t read Nordau.” It was true. All fire and flame at that time for Nietzsche, I did not realize that the poet and rhapsodist had forerunners. My friend sniffed at Nietzsche’s name; Nietzsche for him was an aristocrat, not an Individualist. In reality, a lyric expounder of Bismarck's gospel of blood and iron. Wagner’s adversary would, with Renan, place mankind under the yoke of a more exacting tyranny than Socialism, the tyranny of culture, of the Over-Man. Ibsen, who had studied both Kierkegaard and Stirner — witness Brand and Peer Gynt — Ibsen was much nearer to the champion of the Ego than Nietzsche. Yet it is the dithyrambic author of “Zarathustra” who is responsible, with Mackay, for the recrudescence of Stirner’s teachings.

Stirner, Nietzsche and the Doctrine of Individualism

Nietzsche is the poet of the doctrine, Stirner its prophet, or, if you will, its philosopher. Later I secured the book, which had been reprinted in the cheap edition of Reclam. [1882.] It seemed colorless, or rather gray, set against the glory and gorgeous rhetoric of Nietzsche. I could not see what I saw a decade later — that Nietzsche only used Stirner as a springboard, as a point of departure, and that the Individual had vastly different meanings to these widely disparate temperaments. Stirner, indifferent psychologist as he was, displayed nevertheless the courage or an explorer in search of the pole of the Ego.

The man, whose theories make a tabula rasa of civilization, was born at Bayreuth Oct. 25, 1806, and died at Berlin June 25, 1856. His right name was Johann Caspar Schmidt, Max Stirner being a nickname bestowed upon him by his lively comrades in Berlin because of his very high and massive forehead. His father was a maker of wind instruments, who died six months after his son’s birth. His mother remarried, and his stepfather proved a kind protector. Nothing of external importance occurred in the life of Max Stirner that might place him apart from his fellow-students. He was very industrious over his books at Bayreuth, and when he became a student at the Berlin University he attended the lectures regularly, preparing himself for a teacher’s profession. He mastered the classics, modern philosophy, and modern languages. But he did not win a doctor’s degree; just before examinations his mother became ill with a mental malady, (a fact his critics have noted,) and the son dutifully gave up everything so as to be near her. After her death he married a girl who died within a short time. Later, in 1843, his second wife was Marie Dähnhardt, a very “advanced” young woman, who came from Schwerin to Berlin to lead a “free” life. She met Stirner in the Hippel circle, at a Weinstube in the Friedrichstrasse, where radical young thinkers gathered: Bruno Bauer, Feuerbach, Karl Marx, Moses Hess, Jordan, Julius Faucher, and other stormy insurgents. She had, it is said, about 10,000 thalers. She was married with the ring wrenched from a witness’s purse — her bridegroom had forgotten to provide one. He was not a practical man; if he had been he would not have written “The Ego and His Own.”

It was finished between the years 1843 and 1845; the latter date it was published. It created a stir, though the censor did not seriously interfere with it; its attacks on the prevailing government were veiled. In Germany rebellion on the psychic plane expresses itself in metaphysics; in Poland and Russia music is the favorite medium. Feuerbach, Hess, and Szeliga answered Stirner’s terrible arraignment of society, but men’s thoughts were interested elsewhere, and with the revolt of 1848 Stirner was quite effaced. He had taught for five years in a fashionable school for young ladies; he had written for several periodicals, and translated extracts from the works of Say and Adam Smith.

Max Stirner and His Wife.

After his book appeared, his relations with his wife became uneasy. Late in 1846 or early in 1847 she left him and went to London, where she supported herself by writing; later she inherited a small sum from a sister, visited Australia, married a laborer there, and became a washerwoman. In 1897 Mackay wrote to her in London, asking her for some facts in the life of her husband. She replied tartly that she was not willing to revive her past; that her husband had been too much of an egotist to keep friends, and was a man, “Very sly.” This was all he could extort from the woman, who evidently had never understood her husband and execrated his memory, probably because her little fortune was swallowed up by their mutual improvidence. Another appeal only elicited the answer that “Mary Smith is preparing for death” — she had become a Roman Catholic. It is the irony of things in general that his book is dedicated to “My Sweetheart, Marie Dähnhardt.”

Stirner, after being deserted, led a precarious existence. The old jolly crowd at Hippel’s seldom saw him. He was in prison twice for debt — free Prussia! — and often lacked bread. He, the exponent of Egoism, of philosophic anarchy, starved because of his pride. He was in all matters save his theories a moderate man, eating and drinking temperately, living frugally. Unassuming in manners, he could hold his own in debate — and Hippel’s appears to have been a rude debating society — yet one who avoided life rather than mastered it. He was of medium height, ruddy, and his eyes deep blue. His hands were white, slender, “aristocratic,” writes Mackay. Certainly not the figure of stalwart shatterer of conventions, not the ideal iconoclast; above all, without a touch of the melodrama of communistic anarchy, with its black flags, its propaganda by force, its idolatry of assassinations, bomb throwing, killing of fat, harmless policemen, and its sentimental gabble about fraternity. Stirner hated the ward Equality: he knew it was a lie, knew that all men are born unequal, as no two grains of sand on earth ever are or ever will be alike. He was a solitary. And thus he died at the age of fifty. A few of his former companions heard of his neglected condition and buried him. Nearly a half century later Mackay, with the co-operation of Hans von Bülow, affixed a commemorative tablet on the house where he last lived, Phillipstrasse 19, Berlin, and alone Mackay placed a slab to mark his grave in the Sophienkirchhof.

The Most Thoroughgoing of nihilists.

A sketch of Max Stirner made by Friedrich Engels for John henry mackay.
Max Stirner. Portrait sketch made by Friedrich Engels. From John Henry Mackay’s “Max Stirner,” (Schuster, Loeffler & Co., Berlin.) The only portrait of the great “individualist” extant. The philosopher of anarchy looks like a harmless domino player.

It is to the poet of the “Letzte Erkentniss,” (“Sum of Knowledge,”) with its stirring line, “Doch bin ich mein,” (“But I am mine,”) that I owe the above scanty details of the most thoroughgoing Nihilist who ever penned his disbelief in religion, humanity, society, the family. He rejects them all. We have no genuine portrait of this insurrectionist — he preferred personal insurrection to general revolution; the latter, he asserted, brought in its train either Socialism or a tyrant — except a sketch hastily made by Friedrich Engels, the revolutionist, for Mackay. It is not reassuring. Stirner looks like an old-fashioned German and timid pedagogue, high coat-collar, spectacles, clean-shaven face and all. This valiant enemy of the State, of Socialism, was, perhaps, only brave on paper. But his icy, relentless, epigrammatic style is in the end more gripping than the spectacular, volcanic, whirling utterances of Nietzsche. Nietzsche lives in an ivory tower and is an aristocrat. Into Stirner’s land all are welcome. That is, if men have the will to rebel. Above all, if they despise the sentimentality of mob rule. “The Ego and His Own” is the most drastic criticism of Socialism thus far presented.


The book called “The Ego and His Own” is divided into two parts: first, The Man; second, I. Its motto should be, “I find no sweeter fat than sticks to my own bones.” But Walt Whitman’s pronouncement had not been made, and Stirner was forced to fall back on Goethe — Goethe, from whom all that is modern flows. “I place my all on Nothing.” [“Ich hab Mein Sach auf Nichts gestellt,” from the joyous poem “Vanitas! Vanitatum Vanitas!”] is Stirner’s keynote to his Egoistic symphony. I, Me, Ich, Ego, je, moi — the list might be lengthened of the personal pronoun in various languages. The hateful I, as Pascal said, caused Zola, a solid egoist himself, to assert that the English were the most egotistic of races because their I in their tongue was but a single letter, while the French employed two, je, and not capitalized unless beginning a sentence! Stirner must have admired the English, as his I was the sole counter in his philosophy. His ego and not the family is the unit of the social life. In antique times, when men were really the young, not the ancient, it was a world of reality. Men enjoyed the material. With Christianity came the rule of the Spirit; ideas were become sacred, with the concepts of God, Goodness, Sin, Salvation. After Rousseau and the French Revolution humanity was enthroned, and the State became our oppressor. Our first enemies are our parents, our educators — an idea first enunciated by Stendhal, though also original with Stirner. It follows, then, that the only criterion of life is my Ego. Without my Ego I could not apprehend existence. Altruism is as pretty disguise for egotism. No one is or can be disinterested. He gives up one thing for another because the other seems better, nobler to him. Egotism! The ascetic renounces the pleasures of life because in his eyes renunciation is nobler than enjoyment. Egotism again! “You are to benefit yourself, and you are not to seek your benefit,” cries Stirner. Explain the paradox! The one sure thing of life is the Ego. [Descartes] Therefore, “I am not you, but I’ll use you if you are agreeable to me.” Not to God, not to man, must be given the glory. “I’ll keep the glory myself.” What is Humanity but an abstraction? I am Humanity. Therefore the State is a monster that devours its children. It must not dictate to me. “The State and I are enemies.” The State is a spook. A spook, too, is freedom. What is freedom? Who is free? Free for what? The world belongs to all, but all are I. I alone am individual proprietor.

Stirner’s Idea of Property.

Property is conditioned by might. What I have is mine. “Whoever knows how to take, to defend, the thing, to him belongs property.” Stirner would have held that property was not only nine but ten points of the law. He repudiates all laws. Repudiates competition, for persons are not the subject of competition, but “things” are; therefore if you are without “things” how can you compete? Persons are free, not “things.” The world, therefore, is not “free.” Socialism is but a further screwing up of the State machine to limit the individual. Socialism is a new god, a new abstraction to tyrannize over the Ego. And remember that Stirner is not speaking of the metaphysical Ego of Hegel, Fichte, Schilling, but of your I, my I, the political, the social I, the economic I of every man and woman. In a sense Stirner is not a philosopher. He is, rather, an Ethiker. He spun no metaphysical cobwebs. He reared no lofty cloud palaces. He did not bring from Asia its pessimism, as did Schopenhauer; nor deny reality, as did Berkeley. He was a foe to general ideas. He was an implacable realist. Yet while he denies the existence of an Absolute, of a Deity, State, Categorical Imperative, he nevertheless had not shaken himself free from Hegelianism [he is Extreme Left as a Hegelian,] for he erected his I as an Absolute, though only dealing with it in its relations to society. Now, nature abhors an absolute. Everything is relative. So we shall see presently that with Stirner, too, his I is not so independent as he imagines.

He says “crimes spring from fixed ideas.” The Church, State, the Family, Morals, are fixed ideas. “Atheists are pious people.” They reject one fiction only to cling to many old ones. Liberty for the people is not my liberty. Socrates was a fool in that he conceded to the Athenians the right to condemn him. Proudhon said, “Property is theft.” Theft from whom? From society? But society is not the sole proprietor. Pauperism is the valuelessness of Me. The State and pauperism are the same. Communism, Socialism abolish private property and push us back into Collectivism. The individual is enslaved by the machinery of the State or by socialism. Your Ego is not free if you allow your vices or virtues to enslave it. The intellect has too long ruled, says Stirner; it is the will (not Schopenhauer’s Will to Live, or Hartmann's Will to Power,[4] but the sum of our activity expressed by an act of volition; old-fashioned will, in a word) to exercise itself to the utmost. Nothing compulsory, all voluntary. Do what you will. Fay ce que vouldras, as Rabelais has it in his Abbey of Theleme. Not “Know thyself,” but get the value out of yourself. Make your value felt. The poor are to blame for the rich. Our art to-day is the only art possible, and therefore real at the time. We are at every moment all we can be. There is no such thing as sin. It is an invention to keep imprisoned the will of our Ego. And as mankind is forced to believe theoretically in the evil of sin, yet commit it in its daily life, hypocrisy and crime are engendered. If the concept of sin had never been used as a club over the weak-minded, there would be no sinners — i.e., wicked people. [Here the Christian Scientists should read.] The individual is himself the world’s history. The world is my picture. There is no other Ego but mine. Louis XIV said, “L’Etat, c’est moi”; I say, “l’Univers, c’est moi.” John Stuart Mill wrote in his famous essay on liberty that “Society has now got the better of the individual.”

Ibsen and Rousseau.

Rousseau, a madman of genius, is to blame for the “social contract” and the “equality” nonsense that has poisoned more than one nation’s political ideas. The minority is always in the right, declared Ibsen, as opposed to Comte's “Submission is the base of perfection.” To have the will to be responsible for one’s self, advises Nietzsche. “I am what I am,” (Brand.) “To thyself be sufficient,” (Peer Gynt.) Both men failed, for their freedom kills. To thine own self be true. God is within you. Best of all is Lord Acton's dictum that “Liberty is not a means to a higher political end. It is of itself the highest political end.” To will is to have to will (Ibsen.) My truth is the truth (Stirner.) Mortal has made the immortal, says the Rig Veda. Nothing is greater than I (Bhagavat Gita.) I am that I am, (the Avesta, also Exodus.) Taine wrote, “Nature is in reality a tapestry of which we see the reverse side. This is why we try to turn it.” Hierarchy, oligarchy, both forms submerge the Ego. J. S. Mill demanded: “How can great minds be produced in a country where the test of a great mind is agreeing in the opinions of small minds?” Bakounine in his fragmentary essay on God and the State feared the domination of science quite as much as an autocracy. “Politics is the madness of the many for the gain of the few,” Pope asserted. Read Spinoza, “The Citizen and the State,” (Tractatus Theologico-Politicus.) Or Oscar Wilde's epigram: “Charity creates a multitude of sins.”

Science tells us in this century that our I is really a “we”; a colony of cells, an orchestra of inherited instincts. We have not even free will, or at least only in a limited sense. We are an instrument played upon by our heredity and our environment. The cell, then, is the unit, not the Ego. Very well, Stirner would exclaim (if he had lived after Darwin and 1859,) the cell is my cell, not yours! Away with other cells! But such an autonomous gospel is surely a phantasm. Stirner, too, saw a ghost. Stirner, too, in his proud Individualism was an aristocrat. No man may separate himself from the tradition of his race unless to incur the penalty of a sterile isolation. The solitary is usually the abnormal man. Man is gregarious. Man is a political animal. Even Stirner recognizes that man is not man without society.

“Letting Go and Holding On.”

In practice he would have agreed with Havelock Ellis that “all the art of living lies in the fine mingling of letting go and holding on.”[5] The body includes the soul and the soul permeates the body. That gentle mystic Joachim of Flora said: “The true ascetic counts nothing his own, save only his harp.” But Stirner, sentimental, henpecked, myopic Berlin professor, was too actively engaged in wholesale criticism — that is, destruction of society, with all its props and standards, its hidden selfishness and heartlessness — to bother with theories of reconstruction. His disciples have remedied the omission.[6] He speaks, though vaguely, of a Union of Egoists, a Verein, where all would rule all, where man, through self-mastery, would be his own master. “In those days there was no king in Israel; every man did that which was right in his own eyes.” Indeed, Stirner’s notions as to Property and Money — “it will always be money” — sound suspiciously like those of our captains of industry. Might conquers Right. He has brought to bear the most blazing light rays upon the shifts and evasions of those who decry Egoism, who are what he calls “involuntary,” not voluntary, egotists. Their motives are shown to the bone. Your Sir Willoughby Patternes are not real Egoists, but only half-hearted, selfish weaklings. The true egotist is the altruist, says Stirner; yet Leibnitz was right; so was Dr. Pangloss. This is the best of possible worlds. Any other is not conceivable for man, who is at the top of his zoological series. (Though Quinton has made the astounding statement that the birds follow the mammals.) We are all “spectres of the dust,” and to live on an overcrowded planet we must follow the advice of the Boyg: “Go roundabout!” Compromise is the only sane attitude. The world is not, will never be, to the strong of arm or spirit, as Nietzsche believes. The race is to the mediocre. The survival of the fittest is to the weak. Society shields and upholds the feeble. Mediocrity rules, let Carlyle or Darwin enunciate laws as they may. It was the perception of these facts that drove Stirner to formulate his theories in “The Ego and His Own.” He was poor, a failure, and despised by his wife. He lived under a dull, brutal regime. The Individual was naught, the State all. His book was his great revenge. It was the efflorescence of his Ego. It was his romance, his dream of an ideal world, his Platonic republic. Philosophy is more a matter of man’s temperament than some suppose. And philosophic systems often go by opposites. Schopenhauer preached asceticism, but hardly led an ascetic life; Nietzsche commanded us: “Be hard!” when he really meant it for his own tender, bruised soul. His injunctions to be free, to become Immoralists and Overmen, were but the buttressing up of a will diseased, by the needs of a man who suffered his life long from morbid sensibility. James Walker's suggestion that “We will not allow the world to wait for the Overman. We are the Overmen,” is a mordant criticism of Nietzscheism. I am Unique. Never again will this aggregation of atoms stand on earth. Therefore I must be free. I will myself free. (It is spiritual liberty that only counts.) But my I must not be of the kind described by the madhouse doctor in “Peer Gynt”: “Each one shuts himself up in the barrel of self. In the self-fermentation he dives to the bottom; with the self-bung he seals it hermetically.” The increased self-responsibility of life in an Egoist Union would prevent the world from ever entering into such ideal anarchy (an-arch, without government.) There is too much of renunciation in the absolute freedom of the will — that is its final, if paradoxical, implication — for mankind. Our Utopias are secretly based on Chance. Deny Chance in our existence and life will be without salt. Man is not a perfectible animal. He fears the new and therefore clings to his old beliefs. To each his chimera. He has not grown mentally or physically since the Sumerians — or a million years before the Sumerians. Man is not a logical animal. He is governed by his emotions, his affective life. He hugs his illusions. His brains are an accident, possibly from overnutrition, as De Gourmont says. To fancy him capable of existing in a community where all will be selfgoverned is a rare poet’s vision. That way the millennium lies. And would the world be happier if it ever did attain this truth?

Qualities of the English Translation.

The English translation of “The Ego and His Own” is admirable; it is that of a philologist and a versatile scholar. Stirner’s form is open to criticism. It is vermicular. His thought is never confused,[7] but he sees so many sides of his theme, embroiders it with so many variations, that he repeats himself. He has neither the crystalline brilliance nor the poetic glamour of Nietzsche. But he left behind him a veritable Breviary of Destruction, a striking and dangerous book. It is dangerous in every sense of the word — to socialism, to politicians, to hypocrisy. It asserts the dignity of the Individual, not his debasement. It fascinates even though it does not convince, and it is a handy weapon in these days when Socialism is tightening its sluggish coils preparatory to swallowing the State. Herbert Spencer, too, foresaw the dangers of Socialism.

“Is it not the chief disgrace in the world not to be a unit; to be reckoned one character; not to yield that peculiar fruit which each man was created to bear, but to be reckoned in the gross, in the hundred of thousands, of the party, of the section to which we belong, and our opinion predicted geographically as the North or the South?”

But Spencer did not write these words, nor did Max Stirner. Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote them.   J. H.

New York, April, 1907.

2. The later version of this essay described Mackay simply as “an anarchist”
4. The later version of this essay reads “Nietzsche’s Will to Power”
5. This was corrected in the later version of the essay to read “he would not have agreed with Havelock”
6. This was expanded in the later version of the essay by the insertion of two sentences: “In the United States, for example, Benjamin R. Tucker, a follower of Josiah Warren, teaches a practical and philosophical form of Individualism. He is an Anarch who believes in passive resistance.”
7. In the later essay this reads instead, “His thought is sometimes confused”


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