Individualist Anarchism vs. Social Anarchism

  • Posted on: 29 June 2017
  • By: thecollective

From C4SS by Wayne Price

This piece is the fifteenth essay in the June C4SS Mutual Exchange Symposium: “Anarchy and Democracy.” It is written in reply to this contribution by Grayson English.

This C4SS discussion about anarchism and democracy has been intriguing—even though I am one of only two writers who have regarded them as compatible concepts. The brief essay by Grayson, “Demolish the Demos,” is especially useful. It clarifies what is at the root of the disagreement among anarchists about democracy. The basic issue, I believe, is not what we mean by “democracy” but what we mean by “anarchism.” It is the commitment to an “individualist” interpretation of anarchism which lead to a rejection of radical democracy. I believe that this leads, contrary to anyone’s intentions, in an authoritarian direction.

Social Philosophy

Grayson writes:

“…All should be equal in having…absolute authority over themselves….We…wish for a world…in which all are kings….The demos is the original enemy for an anarchist….It presupposes the annihilation of the individual in the collective….This antagonism [is] between individual sovereignty and democracy….The social should make room for the individual and not vice versa….Individuals act…Collectives do not act….The society we want is one that continually dissolves itself into individuals and only exists as a springboard for unique individuals to interface with each other…”

Of course, Grayson does not deny the existence of society or societies, large or small. But he regards them as secondary to individuals: something to be tolerated and used as little as possible, until they can be (periodically?) dissolved. (I do not know whether Grayson is a disciple of Stirner or other individualist anarchists, but he clearly fits this category.)

As a description of reality, this is false. There are and can be no individuals without society. Grayson could not think without using language—a social product. A child’s sense of self is developed through his or her interaction with others, from infancy onwards. Grayson’s vision is like saying that a waterfall does not really exist because it is composed of water drops: the drops do the falling, but supposedly not the river’s water. He says that only individuals act, but not collectives. But take the famous example of a group of men moving a piano. Who is moving the piano? If each one acts completely autonomously, will the piano be moved? This is a model for any sort of productive activity from hunter-gathering on to today, no matter how decentralized or crafts-like an anarchist technology would be.

Compare Grayson’s views with those of Bakunin (passages quoted in Brian Morris, Bakunin: The Philosophy of Freedom, 1993):

“…Natural society [is] the real starting point of all human civilization and the only medium in which the personality and liberty of man can really be born and grow….Man…only realizes his individual liberty or personality by integration with all the individuals around him and virtue of the collective power of society….Man in isolation can have no awareness of his liberty. Being free for man means being acknowledged, considered and treated as such by another man and by all the men around him. Liberty is therefore a feature not of isolation but of interaction, not of exclusion but rather of connection…”
(pp. 88—89; note use of “man” to mean “humanity”)

I will not quote from Kropotkin on mutual aid/cooperation as the foundation of his vision of anarchism. You get the idea. This is the basis of social anarchism, of anarchist-socialism. It is quite distinct from individualist anarchism.

Actual Politics

Grayson agrees that the collective does exist, even under anarchism, in between its dissolving into isolated individuals, when serving as a “springboard” for human atoms. Therefore it is reasonable to ask him, how will the collective be organized during these periods? How will individuals control how these (unfortunately necessary if temporary) collectives function? Down through the millennia, hunter-gatherer groups, villages, clans, and other associations have often used communal discussions, consensus, voting, choosing specialists by lot or group decision, or similar methods—democracy. But Grayson rejects democracy. What then?

He does not tell us what he would do. He does say he rejects democracy and wants “kings” and that he regards the “demos” (the collective people) as “the enemy.” Of course he does not advocate dictatorship. But what then? If no one can tell me what to do, not even the most radically-democratic socialist people, then I must be the king. It is the logical conclusion of rejecting democracy, even if it contradicts the very goals which Grayson wants to achieve.

In brief, Grayson comes up against the same problem that all the other anarchists who reject democracy (leaving aside the many who advocate democratic procedures but do not use the term “democracy”) encounter. Given that people do live in society, that cooperation is a necessary part of living, that production and consumption of necessary goods requires group activities—then there has to be some way of organizing these procedures that provides the maximum of individual freedom and control from below. Those anarchists who reject democracy generally remain on a high and abstract level of philosophy. They do not say what they would actually do! What could this be but some sort of radical democracy?



I really do think that at least one of these big disputes is ultimately just over terminology when you break it all down.

We all think individuals should voluntarily associate with free equals to form larger groupings so as to accomplish everything from administration of the neighbourhood, management of the workplace, running of schools, taking care of sanitation, and so on.

We all think each association should have its own principles for how it makes decisions between the individuals composing it – majority voting, supermajority voting, consensus, or some combination of the above – and that an individual should be able to disassociate from the association if they can't abide by a decision made by everyone else.

The disagreement is largely on (1) whether these noncoercive and horizontal decision-making processes count as a form of direct democracy, and (2) whether it's useful to describe them as such when interacting with non-anarchists and potential anarchists.

Maybe we just have some sort of non-aggression pact when it comes to anarchist use of the word democracy, and both sides can agree to stop strawmanning each other.

Max Stirner, Emile Arman and Renzo Novatore were social. What we are talking about is ORGANIZATIONAL Anarchism. THAT'S the contradiction in terms as organization in the formal sense is a state affair.

The things you list in your second paragraph have problematic historical functions that have an inherent deindividualizing effect as well as a degrading of human relations. Administration, management, running educational institutions, sanitation ect these are state functions and affairs that require and controlling power apparatus. Work is also in the details.

You can't chocolify turds.

Without organisations of SOME kind – in the bare bones sense of people, in a group, intentionally doing stuff – how is the trash going to get collected?

It's all well and good to posture as a fully self-reliant hyper-individualist while living under capitalism; where that kind of thing gets done by those who don't have the option of being so individualistic.

Cities have always been places that stunk like shit. That is, until we started piping it right directly into the water to hide the smell. Worst. Idea. Ever.

Shame on you, disguising your Bookchinist libertarian municipalism with your name," oh, solarpunk anarchist, must be atypical sustainable autonomous individualist but is really a councilor in some disgusting little petty power hierarchy. Just get back from Rojava did we, been reading Paul's tropes which confuse social with society??

p sure they're ancaps

I can't decide who I despise more between the yung "anarchist" who is clearly a lefty market ancap or ye old crybaby anarcho-leninist platformist.

Is it okay to hate them equally?

if only we were all the same!! I give your pathos a 3.3/10

Feel free to hate the entire human race except yourself!!!

Why is so much C4SS garbage showing up on our beloved anews? Don't those ancaps have the entire World of Warcraft to blab their non-anarchist nonsense?

Somehow, normal (hunter-gatherer-permaculturist) humans manage to have a lot of BOTH. Perhaps we should study them. Western anthropologists are struck by the "precocious" social development of their young (actually ours is RETARDED, and rapidly getting worse). This vs. thing may not be the zero-sum issue that the damaged/degenerate humans we have now are making it. What normal humans do NOT have is representative democracy. Decisions that need to be made collectively are made by the entire collective. Part of what is at issue here is that our evolution did NOT design us to live in mass "societies". And in a mass "society", what democracy means is that if 50% of Americans plus one person want capitalism*, EVERYONE ELSE has to have it too. Libertarians say let everyone have what they want, so long as it is NOT forced on others, economically or thru State coercion. (* In a 2012 Pew survey, 40% of Americans responded NEGATIVELY to the term "capitalism" and 50% responded positively. 40% is a LOT of people for the very core of global capitalism, and it is probably more than 40% by now.)

The white males want the Athenian slave system. Yawn...

In the words of fela kuti: crazy demo.

Do plants put 'mangement' scenarios to a vote?

wayne continues to have dialogue in good faith, here are some responses from him on c4ss (not to these comments, but comments from og site):

The Solarpunk Anarchists believe that the dispute over "democracy" is essentially one over semantics. To an extent I agree with them. Many anarchists do not use "democracy" but use "self-management" or "self-governing" or similar terms which mean the same thing. Many just want to distinguish what they are for from bourgeois representative democracy. Some want to make very clear that they are rejecting any form of the state (I regard anarchism as democracy without the state). These are indeed disputes over semantics, not principles.

But others do mean something very different from radical democracy and collective self-management. This is why I quoted from Grayson English. Sir Einzige demonstrates his own antidemocratic views, which, he says, are consistent with the individualist Stirner. Such a rejection of democracy among many anarchists has led to elitist practices, I believe. (I am writing an essay on the issue of anti-fascism, free speech for conservatives, and the legacy of Herbert Marcuse, which will take up some of these issues.)

BTW, the anarchists of C4SS are not "anarchist-capitalists." They mostly regard themselves as anti-capitalists who believe in the use of decentralized markets (which is consistent with the views of Benjamin Tucker). As a revolutionary anarchist-socialist, I do not agree with them. I expect that their program, despite their desires, would probably lead to a revival of capitalism. But their ideas are part of the anarchist discussion. Especially see Kevin Carson's analysis of decentralized technology. They write no more "nonsense" or "garbage" (as one poster writes above) than do many of the posters on anarchistnews.

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