What is Individualist Anarchism?
The philosophical basis of individualist anarchism lies in the faith in the sovereign individual. In many ways, anarcho-individualist conclusions are reached by pushing liberal individualism to the absolute extreme. For example, William Godwin's anarchism is an extreme form of classical liberalism, through the primary importance of the individual and the central focus on individual freedom.
There is a major emphasis on negative freedom in both classical liberalism and in anarchism, which in an extreme form relies on complete individual sovereignty - the idea that absolute and unlimited authority lies within each human being. From this perspective, any external restraint on the individual is evil, but when imposed by the state amounts to absolute evil (through its sovereign, compulsory and coercive authority). Individualism and the state are thus incompatible principles.
As Wolff (1998) put it, 'The autonomous man, insofar as he is autonomous, is not subject to the will of another'. The individual cannot be sovereign in a society ruled by laws and government, therefore the state must be abolished.
Differences from Liberalism
There are two very significant differences between Anarchism and Liberalism:
- Firstly, while liberals accept the importance of individual liberty, they do not believe this is guaranteed in a stateless society. Even the most extreme classical liberals argue that a minimal state is required to prevent self-seeking individuals from abusing others liberty, such as through theft, violence or intimidation. Minimal laws must therefore exist to protect freedom rather than constrain it. Modern liberals take this argument further, defending state intervention on the grounds of positive freedom. In contrast to this, anarchists believe that individuals are capable of peace, harmony and prosperity without the need for 'policing' in society to protect themselves. This is justified in their belief that humans are rational and moral creatures, and can resolve conflict through debate rather than violence.
- Secondly, liberals believe that government can be 'tamed' through the development of constitutional and representative institutions. Government can be checked and balanced by impartial institutions, which protect the individual by limiting government power. Regular elections also force governments to be accountable to at least the majority of the electorate. Anarchists, however, dismiss the idea of limited government. They believe that constitutionalism and democracy are facades behind which oppression operates, and that all laws infringe liberty and are an offence against freedom.
The philosophy of egoism can be most significantly seen in Max Stirner's 'The Ego and his Own'. Like Marx, Stirner was greatly infuenced by thinkers such as Hegel, but the two arrived at hugely different conclusions.
Stirner's theories represent an extreme form of individualism. The term 'egoism' can either mean that individuals are essentially concerned with themselves or that the individual is at the centre of the moral universe.
- The first interpretation is supported by thinkers such as Hobbes and Locke. However, self-interestedness can generate conflict amongst individuals and therefore justify the existence of a state in order to restrain individuals from harming or abusing others.
- In Stirner's view, the individual should simply act as they choose, without any consideration for laws, conventions, religious or moral principles. Such a view amounts to a form of nihilism, and points in the direction of both atheism and an extreme form of individualist anarchism. However, as Stirner's anarchism turned its back on the principles of the Enlightenment and contained few proposals about how order could be sustained in such a society, it had relatively little impact on the emerging anarchist movement. His ideas nevertheless influenced Neitzsche and 20th Century existentialism.
This form of individualism more fully developed in the USA through thinkers such as Henry David Thoreau, Lysander Spooner, Josiah Warren and Benjamin Tucker. Thoreau approved of Jefferson's liberal motto that the 'goverment is best which governs least', and adopted it through forming his own motto that the 'government is best which governs not at all'.
For Thoreau, individualism means civil disobedience; the individual must be faithful to his or her conscience and only do what they believe to be right, regardless of the demands of society or the laws of government. Individual conscience therefore must come above political obligation. In Thoreau's case, this led to his disobedience of a US government which he deemed to be acting immorally, both in upholding slavery and waging war. Tucker also took libertarianism further by considering how autonomous individuals could live and work without conflict. Two possible solutions are available:
- Human rationality allows conflict to be resolved by discussion, and truth will always displace lies (adopted by Godwin)
- Develop a mechanism through which the independent individual's actions can be brought into harmony with others. Extremists such as Warren and Tucker believed that this could be achieved through a system of 'labour for labour' exchange, i.e. free market trading.
Murray Rothbard and David Friedman pushed free market liberalism to the extreme limit and formed anarcho-capitalism. They argued that government should be completely abolished and replaced with unregulated competition. Property should be owned by sovereign individuals who remain free whilst the market regulates all forms of social interaction, and who may enter into voluntary contracts in the pursuit of self-interest.
Whilst liberals believe that the market is effective and efficient in delivering most goods within limitations, anarcho-capitalists believe that the market can satisfy all human wants and needs (including those which liberals argue it cannot, such as 'public goods' provided by the state, e.g. policing, courts). Rothbard suggested that in an anarchist society, individuals will seek protection from one another, but this may be delivered competitively by 'protection associations' and 'private courts'.
According to anarcho-capitalists, profit-making agencies offer better services than current forces, such as the police, as consumers are provided with a choice, therefore generating competition and thus efficiency. Similarly, private courts must build a reputation for justice in order to generate business. Any contracts between individuals or agencies would be completely voluntary. Privatisation is the ultimate means to this end, (e.g. Thatcherism).