Friday, April 22, 2011

Materialism: Stirner, Marx, and Arendt

Max Stirner, Karl Marx, and Hannah Arendt

Max Stirner was born Johann Kaspar Schmidt in Germany in 1806. He was a student of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, the German philosopher who developed systems of thought which came to be known as Hegelian Idealism and the Hegelian dialectic.
      In his thirties, Stirner had contact with the philosophers Bruno Bauer, Friedrich Engels, and possibly also Karl Marx. Stirner, Bauer, Engels, Marx, David Strauss, and Ludwig Feuerbach were among many philosophers whom were influenced by Hegel. Marx once wrote a work which criticized Stirner’s writing.
      Marx and Engels articulate materialist conceptions of history, which Engels refers to as “historical materialism”. Historical materialism is a methodological approach to the study of what causes the development of human society. It views political and societal structures as outgrowths of economic structures and activity.
      According to Josef Stalin, “historical materialism is the extension of the principles of dialectical materialism to the study of social life, an application of the principles… to the phenomena of the life of society; to the study of society and of its history.”
      While Marx and Stirner have each been described as both admirers as well as detractors of Hegel, Stirner is typically characterized as more un-Hegelian or anti-Hegelian than Marx.

      Each Marx and Stirner has his own conception of radical materialist philosophy. While Marx gravitates towards a collectivist model which focuses on labor and its product, Stirner articulates an individualist model which focuses on man, his mind, and his humanity.
      In order to properly differentiate the two philosophers’ ideas, it shall be necessary to first explain the concepts of commodification, fetishism, and abstraction.
      In Marx’s view, the actions which men perform in order to sustain their lives and their livelihoods have been turned into mere commodities, just like any other life-sustaining product such as food. So too has the relationship between laborer and employer been turned into a mere commodity, as well as having been objectified and mystified.
      Thus, the social relationship between laborer and employer – and labor itself as well as its product – have ceased to be things which are material and concrete, and have instead become things which are immaterial and abstract.
      The result of this abstraction and this fetishism of the commodity is that labor, its product, and the relationship have become things which are held over and against the laborer, causing him to become a slave, doomed to pursue the rarely-achievable goals of ever-increasing wages, benefits, standards of living, property values, and the payment of accumulating debt.

      Curiously, socialist philosopher Hannah Arendt criticizes Marx for doing the very same thing which he alleges he is trying to combat. According to Arendt, Marx has elevated the labor of man such that it has become the primary end of human existence. Arendt asserts that this has resulted in the subordination of the political realm to the needs of mere animal necessity, which she calls “the rise of the social”.
      Thus, Arendt effectively argues that it is neither the commodification of labor nor the fetishism thereof which enslaves men, but rather, men are enslaved by necessity, by their own need to survive; men are unfree because they have obligations to themselves which are extraordinarily difficult to provide for permanently.
      Stirner would likely be inclined to agree with Arendt in her criticism of Marx. While Marx is focused on labor as a commodity, Stirner appears to be focused on men themselves – as well as on their minds and their humanity – as the things which have been commodified, objectified, and mystified.

      Stirner defends solipsism, which holds that one’s mind is the only thing which one can be certain exists. Stirner writes, “I am not abstraction alone… I am not a mere thought, but at the same time I am full of thoughts, a thought-world.” Thus, Stirner defends men and the minds of men as the only things which are certainly concrete and material.
      Often, publicly-traded companies are referred to as “corporations”, governmental entities are referred to as “parliamentary bodies”, and groups of people belonging to churches or governmental entities are referred to as the “body politic” or as the “corpus mysticum” – meaning “mystical body” of the group. All of these terms connote the idea that groups of people may perceive themselves to possess a singular physicality. This is perhaps best illustrated by the manner in which Catholics partake in the sacrament.
      But Stirner contests the claimed corporeity of “God, Emperor, Pope, Fatherland, etc.”, and asserts that the only way to reclaim what is one’s own and what is one’s property is to destroy the corporeity of these “ghosts”, to resume perceiving of oneself as his own creator – dislocating the traditional role assigned to the gods – and to proclaim, “I alone am corporeal”.
      Thus, Stirner asserts that only the singular man may possess a body – which is concrete, material, physical, and tangible – as opposed to an abstract, immaterial, intangible concept which multiple men have agreed to construct in their own minds through voluntary cooperation which is – more often than not – merely temporary.
      Being that Stirner asserts that men themselves are corporeal, it would be reasonable to assume that he disagrees with Marx that the labor relationship, labor, or its product were ever either concrete or material to begin with, and so, they cannot be abstracted, because they were already abstract concepts which only existed in the minds of those who perceived them.

      It may be concluded that Stirner believes that men have had their own minds and their own humanity abstracted from them and held over and against them, and that men’s humanity and the need for mankind to pursue a more perfect humanity in addition to the goal of civilization have turned men themselves into slaves.
      Now, due to the commodification of the minds and of the humanity of men themselves – and the fetishism thereof – rather than chasing unachievable economic goals through endless labor, men instead chase the deity-like perfection which is held over and against them by the abstract, immaterial, intangible, and truly incorporeal body politics of the church and of governmental entities, in addition to chasing examples of pinnacles of civilization which often draw back hundreds of generations into the past.
      Thus, humanity and civilization have become mere abstract concepts which are no longer grounded in reality. Furthermore, considering the principles of solipsism subscribed to by Stirner, one can no longer even be certain that humanity and civilization exist in the first place.
      As a result, rather than adopting a societal model which places focus on the importance of the individual, his uniqueness, and his specialty, we have allowed the perfect – which is, for all intents and purposes, unachievable – to take precedence as the primary end of human existence.
      This may be what is truly signified when the abstract is “held over and against us”. Not only is perfection above us, but it has – in a way – become an enemy; an enemy which taunts us from behind the safety of the whip and the chains which it uses to hold and keep us in thrall, terrifying us into resigning not to even consider whether we are free to reach out and achieve it.

      Ancient Greek philosopher Protagoras said, “Man is the measure of all things”. It is a well-known and widely-accepted premise in capitalist and Smithian economics that efficiency, prosperity, and liberty increase with the division of labor and the specialization of profession and task.
      But this specialization has been forfeited, along with the specialty of men – i.e., that which makes men special – and men have consented that their minds, their freedom – especially the freedom to choose their own profession – and their humanity – their essence – become mere chattel, unachievable perfection always just beyond arms’ reach.
      Stirner writes, “…liberalism is a religion because it separates my essence from me and sets it above me, because it exalts [capital-‘M’] ‘Man’ to the same extent as any other religion does its God or idol, because it makes what is mine into something otherworldly, because in general it makes out of what is mine, out of my qualities and my property, something alien – namely, an ‘essence’; in short, because it sets me beneath [capital-‘M’] Man, and thereby creates for me a ‘vocation’.”
      While “vocation” typically denotes one’s occupation, profession, or task, Stirner is using the word in a way which suggests that what he means is that an individual feels that liberalism has summoned him into living a religious life; that he has begun to feel that he has a calling which causes him to feel obligated to act within a framework of moral principles that resembles the structure of religion.

      Stirner appears to be defending men’s ability to choose their own callings, occupations, professions, and tasks, and to create themselves in the manner which they believe to be most conducive to their own uniqueness and specialty. But what does it truly mean to be special?
      A species is a class of individuals having some common characteristics or qualities. An individual is deemed “special” when it is recognized as having some unusual characteristic or quality which distinguishes it from the others. Thus, as one out of many – e pluribus unum – it becomes an example of the commonality to which it belongs.
      In a representative democracy, the common people choose one individual person from among them to become their representative. Once he is chosen – or elected – he joins the collective governmental body politic, and, in so doing, he runs the risk of becoming drowned out in a sea of voices, and compelled to negotiate his own principles away in the name of accomplishment, getting things done, and doing what the people pay him to do. Thus, he can lose his uniqueness, his specialty.
      However, as he has distinguished himself from among his people, and as he has been elected as an example of the people, he also becomes an example to the people and for the people. The representative’s achievements become a symbol of the achievements of his district’s constituency, and the representative’s moral character becomes an example to and for the moral standards of the people whom he represents.
      Hmmm… one individual coming from among the people, and rising up to be held over and against them as an example of, to, and for their achievement and their moral character, and then participating in their judgment… where have I heard that before?
      Stirner writes that Jesus was “not a ringleader of popular mutiny”, nor was he “carrying on any liberal or political fight against the established authorities”, nor was he a revolutionary who desired to overturn the state. Nor, writes Stirner, was Jesus someone who expected any “salvation from a change of conditions”.
      Instead, Stirner characterizes Jesus as an insurgent who “wanted to walk his own way, untroubled about – and undisturbed by – these authorities”, and so, he “straightened himself up” and “lifted himself above everything that seemed so sublime to the government and its opponents, and absolved himself from everything that they remained bound to...” Stirner continues, “…precisely because [Jesus] put from him the upsetting of the established, he was its deadly enemy and real annihilator…”.

      What is the desire of humanity? Is the desire of humanity whatever the collective wants and needs? Or is the desire of humanity the desire for humanity, whether felt by the collective or by the individual; the feeling of want and need to obtain that abstract, intangible, immaterial, incorporeal, unachievable commodity known as humanity itself, which is always held – just beyond reach – over and against us in the forms of civilization and moral perfection?
      Is there something that makes the desire of humanity which is felt by the collective inherently superior to the desire of humanity which is felt by the individual, or are the desire for humanity and the desire of the individual one and the same?
      Stirner would likely argue that it is the fetishism of the commodification of humanity which has caused this “two-heads-are-better-than-one”, “strength-in-numbers”, “what-is-popular-is-always-right-and-what-is-right-is-always-popular” mindset.
      Lower-case-“m” men and lower-case-“h” humans have allowed capital-“M” Man and capital-“H” Humanity to get away from them and become abstracted from them. Thus, our humanity has disappeared; it has gone from the only thing which we were certain materially and concretely existed to an intangible, immaterial concept.
      Humanity has become held over and against us; used not only as a standard and as an example, but also as something which ironically and humorlessly can be legitimately used as an excuse to punish and torture us for failing to achieve it.
      Humanity has become institutionalized into the falsely corporeal realms of the state, the church, and the corporate business. These entities have stolen our unique claim to the concrete, the material, the corporeal, the physical, the tangible, the achievable. They have stolen our ownership; literally, that which has the quality of being our own. Stirner contends that these things are property which have been stolen from us, and that they are property which we can and must reclaim.

      Some say we should glorify that which we hold in common. It may be argued that we, in fact, do this quite often, through voting and through the election of our representatives. But what is it about using voting results to make decisions that necessarily causes the outcome to be wiser, fairer, and more appropriate?
      If individual freedom to pursue one’s own selfish desires does not bring about the public good, then why are individuals given the freedom to vote democratically in accordance with the pursuit of their own selfish desires?
      Furthermore, if all legitimate government power is derived from the authority of the governed, then precisely why and how is the government able to do things which those governed individuals are not themselves permitted to do, such as wield a monopoly over the legitimate use and exercise of coercive, violent force?
      How can one delegate a right which one does not have?
      Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Benjamin Franklin agree that private property rights are to be upheld through social contract. Stirner appears to agree as well, although the manner in which he articulates that agreement reveals a unique approach to the concept of the social contract.
    Stirner writes, “According to the Communists’ opinion, the commune should be proprietor. On the contrary, I am proprietor, and I only come to an understanding with others about my property. If the commune does not do what suits me, I rise against it and defend my property… society gives me what I require – then… I take what I require.”
      He also writes, “Whoever knows how to take, to defend, the thing, to him belongs property…” and “What I have in my power, that is my own. So long as I assert myself as holder, I am the proprietor of the thing.”
      Stirner is correct when he contends that the commune should not be proprietor. The truth is that the commune cannot be proprietor. To be proprietor is to possess property; to have ownership. Inherent in the concepts of property, propriety, ownership, and ownness is individuality.
      Only one man can have what is his own; only one man can have what is proper to himself. The only types of so-called “propriety” which the commune may wield are possession, utility, and access.

      Those who assert that that which is common to all individuals should be held up, exalted, and glorified as the ultimate goal of the existence of men and as an example to and for them are often the same people who seem content to allow just the opposite to occur; that the collective ought to choose one unique, special, distinguished individual from among them to be held up, exalted, and glorified as one who represents the masses, in exemplification of them.
      Perhaps they allow this to happen because they know that their representative’s uniqueness and specialty nearly inevitably become overshadowed by the other representatives with whom he becomes obligated to compromise his ideals in the name of getting things done.
      That which all people have in common does not need to be held up, glorified, nor exalted; it merely needs to be recognized.
      Lower-case-“m” men have no need to become capital-“M” Man; what they need is to take satisfaction in – and feel fulfillment from – the mere fact that they are men, whom are uniquely material, corporeal, physical, tangible, and concrete, unlike the abstract, falsely corporeal body politics which beat them for failing to achieve perfect capital-“M” Manhood.
      Likewise, lower-case-“h” humans have no need to attain capital-“H” Humanity; what they need is to take solace in the fact that they are able to conceive of such an idea in the first place – which gives them certainty about the materiality of their own minds, their own freedom of thought, and their ability to achieve a sort of theoretical perfection – and in the fact that they are free and liberated enough within their own minds to arrive at their own conclusions about how best to make decisions that may be conducive to guiding them towards their own personal, subjective conceptualization of what humanity really is.

      But can we truly attain perfection? Is capital-“H” Humanity within our grasp? No, it is certainly not within our grasp. However, it may be within the reach of individuals whom have truly freed themselves; individuals whom have become free through reclaiming their ownership and propriety.
      Once an individual has acceded to the commonly accepted system of rules, he has consented to be governed by the institutionalization of mediocrity. Once an individual has acceded to the commonly accepted set of constraints, he has consented to become chained to the wall of Plato’s Cave, only able to see – although not even necessarily comprehend – the shadows of the true Forms.
      It is only when a man decides he will play by neither the Rule of Law nor the rules of revolt… that he reaches out and grasps true freedom, perfection, capital-“M” Manhood, and capital-“H” Humanity.
      It is only when a man realizes his own capacity as creator, commits unequivocally to creating himself, reclaims his corporeity from his captors – the body politics of the church and the State – and absolves himself from everything to which the body politics remain bound.
      It is only when a man rises above the external material world within his own mind that he distinguishes himself as unique, as exceptional. As exception to the Rules.
      Out of many, one. E pluribus unum.

Post-Script (2014):

     The adoption of terms like "head of State" into our political lexicon - as well as "the invisible hand of the market", "the three arms of government", "body politic", "parliamentary body", "the publicly-traded corporate (bodily) business", its "corporate head-hunters" - and also the perception that the "oneness" of the supposedly collectivist "union", the "corpus mysticum" of the Church, the notion of "corporate personhood", and ideas like Strawman Theory and Capitis Diminutio, affirm the propriety of Stirner's desire to destroy and reclaim the corporeity of these "ghosts".
     That the national bank, corporations, and unconstitutional government bureaus and programs have the potential to be extended (i.e., to live) past the expiration of their charters (and indefinitely); that an American president has joked that government bureaus seem to possess eternal life; that the government still claims "legitimate violence" in asserting its right to indefinitely detain and murder us, and that the legal fiction of "corporate personhood" (which is possessed by governments, businesses, cooperatives, unions, churches, trusts, etc.) fails to obligate corporate entities to behave with the same responsibility and responsiveness which are expected of individuals, re-affirm Stirner's desire.
     Perhaps we should describe what we desire as "corporate humanity".

The following was written in July 2011,
as "Liberalism as a Religion".

     Decades before Ann Coulter was railing against liberalism as a secular religion, Max Stirner decried liberalism as a religion. Religion and liberalism alike become vocations (callings), compelling men to subject their actual bodies to the authority of falsely-corporeal body-politics (corpus mysticum / mystical body) of the church and the governmental association.
     Welfare liberalism is like asceticism in that it teaches the poor to endure their own suffering (in the case of Catholicism, with the hope that the poor will come to identify their suffering with the suffering of Christ). But liberalism largely ignores the other important role of religion, which is to encourage private charity.
     When laborer and employer contract with one another, each may become aware that the values of each person is subjective; the laborer values his employer’s money more than he values his own labor, while the employer values the laborer’s money more than he values his own money.
     Once one of the parties becomes aware that the other party believes himself to be in a position of benefit (or advantage), he may conclude that he himself must be in a position of detriment (being taken advantage of). But he may fail to take account of his own subjective desires, i.e., that he would take advantage of the other party were the opportunity presented to him (and indeed it is presented to him whenever an employment interview takes place).
     It is the duty of each party to exchange to simply choose for his own purposes whether mutual aid, mutual harm, unilateral benefit, or unilateral detriment is occurring. To assume the other person is trying to harm him is an act of apprehension, neglecting the possibility of mutual aid based on subjective values.
     But to ignore this apprehension and proceed with the contract is an act of good faith; it is an act of charity in which at least one party concerns himself with profiting off of the agreement, but resigns himself to rejoicing in the opportunity to help and serve another human being.
     Coerced charitable giving earned through the extraction of taxes – on the other hand - is a perversion of consequentialist morality; it relieves the taxpayers’ burden of having to bother to contemplate how to act morally of their own volition, and delegates the duty of determining morality to government and to the institutionalized mediocrity resulting from the decision-making of the majoritarian will.
     As in the Alex character in “A Clockwork Orange”, not being able to do evil does not make us good, so long as we still wish to do evil. I see economic systems which place emphasis on the private sphere as inherently more moral than those which do not. I say, give evil a fair shot at competing, and let the good win out by identifying evil as such.

Originally Written in April 2011
Post-Script Written and Added in July 2011

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