Individualist Anarchism

You might be struggling to reconcile the idea that an anarchist can also be an individualist. Aren't anarchists all about living in a community, sharing possessions and placing the needs of the community first? Well, not necessarily. Some forms of anarchist thought are more concerned with individual liberty, and the vision for a stateless society that emerges from this starting point is quite distinct from other anarchist ideas you might be familiar with. Let's have a look at individualist anarchism!

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Contents
Table of contents

    Individualist Anarchism definition

    Individualist Anarchism Illustration showing relationship between forms of anarchism StudySmarterFig. 1 Illustration of forms of Anarchism, StudySmarter Originals

    Individualist anarchists emphasise individual liberty and autonomy over the collective, which they see as suppressing individuality and, therefore, coercive. Individualist anarchists often view human nature in quite optimistic terms, understanding humans to be fundamentally moral and capable of making the right decisions for themselves. Individualists would argue that an unregulated, free market is the best economic system, with competition encouraging lower prices and technological innovation which benefits all of human society.

    Two forms of Individualist Anarchism

    There are two well-known forms of individualist anarchist thought: Egoism and Anarcho-Capitalism.

    Egoism

    Egoism was first theorised by anarchist thinker Max Stirner, in his 1844 book The Ego and Its Own. Stirner argued that humans are fundamentally ego-centric, lacking in morality and sought individual autonomy above all else. For Stirner, all forms of social organisation, including organised religion, social and moral norms and -of course - the state is all unacceptable and unjustifiable restrictions on the individual.

    Individualist Anarchism Cartoon of Max Stirner by Fredrich Engels StudySmarterFig. 2 Cartoon of Max Stirner drawn by Friedrich Engels

    Egoism differs from other forms of individualist anarchism in how it views property. Stirner argued that there should be no constraints - moral or otherwise - on how humans use any kind of property, including their own bodies or those of other individuals. Therefore, in egoist thought, there are no 'property rights' as such, since even this would represent a constraint on human autonomy, and therefore there can be no legitimate enforcement of these rights.

    Egoism seeks to avoid participation in 'society' as such but allows for the totally free and voluntary creation of 'unions' between egoists, who would cooperate only as much as necessary in order to achieve their own self-interested goals. In egoist thought, individualists participated in a totally unregulated and unrestrained market on their own terms and in a way which is entirely voluntary.

    Anarcho-Capitalism

    Anarcho-capitalism emerged from the thought of American economic Murray Rothbard in the mid 20th century, who first popularised the term. Interest in anarcho-capitalism grew significantly in the US and Europe during the 1970s and 1980s, which was a period of disillusionment with state power and mass public spending in the West. Murray's ideas were influenced by liberal economic thought, including the so-called "Austrian school" of economic theory.

    The Austrian school refers to the school of thought of a group of economists, the first of whom were based in Austria in the late 19th century. Austrian school economics is based on the fundamental premise that all social and economic phenomena are determined by the actions and choices of individuals. There is great variety within the Austrian school of economic thought, but most Austrian school economic ideas present human individuals as fundamentally rational and autonomous in their decision-making.

    Like egoists, anarcho-capitalists view human nature as fundamentally self-interested and see this as an evolutionary response in human beings to avoid scarcity and guarantee survival. However, the anarcho-capitalist view of human nature is somewhat more optimistic than in egoism, with the human being seen as essentially autonomous, self-governing and endowed with an innate sense of morality.

    Another key concept in anarcho-capitalism is the self-ownership principle. This means that individuals have the right to 'own' their own bodies, their own lives and its contents, including the right to private property. This right to property can be enforced by privately-hired insurers, who would fulfil the role of the police and court system in a stateless society.

    Anarcho-capitalism also proposes a completely unregulated free market as the optimal way to achieve the efficient distribution of goods and commodities in society. The competitive nature of the free market would inevitably lead to lower prices for consumers, as well as the pursuit of technological innovation by capitalist enterprises. For anarcho-capitalists, no market can ever be truly free while it is subject to state control and individuals can participate in the market on the basis of contracts drawn up between the parties involved. Breach of contract can also be countered through the use of private enforcement bodies.

    Both anarcho-capitalism and egoism are sometimes viewed as outgrowths of liberal or libertarian thought, especially by other anarchists, many of whom object to the individualist anarchist acceptance of capitalist free market economics.

    Individualist Anarchism flag

    Like many schools of anarchist thought, individualist anarchists often identify themselves with a flag and other symbols. The flag of individualist anarchism is, diagonally divided with the black lower-right half symbolising anarchism and the cyan, or light blue, upper-left half representing liberalism and individualism.

    Individualist Anarchism image of the individualist anarchism flag StudySmarterFig. 3 Individualist Anarchism flag

    Individualist anarchists may also use some variation of the anarchist 'A' symbol which incorporates a letter 'I' for individualism, a letter 'I' by itself or some combination of these symbols and colours.

    Difference between Individualist Anarchism and Collectivist Anarchism

    Apart from the fundamental rejection of the state, individualist and collectivist forms of anarchism share little common ground. Collectivist anarchism views human nature as fundamentally cooperative and altruistic, and argues that human beings would be most fulfilled by organising themselves into collective communities in a stateless society. Collectivist anarchism also opposes capitalism, viewing the accumulation of private property as a re-creation of the coercive hierarchies of the state.

    Individualist anarchism, on the other hand, views human beings as fundamentally self-interested and argues against all constraints on individual liberty. Individualist anarchism argues that individuals would be most fulfilled by participating in an unregulated free market on a voluntary basis rather than being coerced into cooperative or collective groups, which suppress individuality. Individualist anarchism embraces free-market capitalism as the most efficient way to meet demand, keep prices low and encourage innovation through economic competition. Individualist anarchists view any kind of collectivisation or permanent social structure as replicating the coercive hierarchies of the state.

    Ethics in Individualist Anarchism

    We often think of anarchist thought as setting out a manifesto for political, social, and economic change, but anarchist thought takes as its starting point human beings and how they interact with each other. In other words, anarchism is fundamentally concerned with ethical issues, or 'right' and 'wrong' ways of being and doing.

    The human person

    Individualist anarchists hold various views of what this true human nature is. Anarcho-capitalists believe human nature is autonomous but fundamentally moral. In other words, humans don't naturally go out of their way to harm each other, and although they're motivated by self-interest, humans are capable of cooperation. Egoists hold a more pessimistic view of human nature and argue that this self-serving, selfish aspect of the human character should be given free rein as much as those aspects we generally find more acceptable.

    Liberty

    If humankind's autonomous character is to be fully developed, human beings must be free. All anarchists, including individualist anarchists, regard the state as a constraint on this exercise of human freedom. They also tend to see other forms of non-state authority - such as religious or social norms - as coercive and suppressing individuality. Much of individualist anarchist thought is concerned with identifying these coercive structures and arguing for their abolition. Individual anarchists argue that no choice or decision is fully legitimate unless it is made in total and perfect freedom.

    Individualist Anarchism Illustration of Lady Liberty StudySmarterFig. 4 Illustration of Lady Liberty

    Where does freedom begin and end?

    As can be expected, perhaps, from an ideology that is concerned with individual liberty, one of the first stumbling blocks arises when these individuals encounter each other and their claims for freedom come into conflict. Anarcho-capitalists, drawing on the self-ownership principle, believe that individual freedom begins and ends with oneself - with one's own property and ones own body, which is itself seen as a form of property.

    Anarcho-capitalists believe an individual is justified in seeking the restoration of stolen property by applying coercive means (a private security company, perhaps) from person A. Egoism is somewhat less clear on what should happen in this case, since it rejects the concept of 'property rights' as such a constraint on individual liberty.

    It is because of such ambiguity that Egoism in particular, and individualist anarchism in general, is often criticised by Anarchists and Liberals alike for being a reductio ad absurdum of liberal and libertarian ideas. Arguably, individualist anarchism would, in practice, lead to precisely the sort of chaotic, violent and coercive phenomena that it sought to reject in the first place.

    reductio ad absurdum is a Latin phrase which refers to pushing a line of argument to its logical, but bizarre, extremes.

    Individualist Anarchism books

    Here are a few key texts which have been instrumental in the development of Individualist Anarchist Thought:

    Max Stirner The Ego and Its Own (1844)

    In this 1844 work, Stirner presents a range of ideas that would later become the basis of an individualist school of thought called Egoism. Stirner believes that the individual should not be subjected to any external constraints and therefore views all forms of government, morality, and even family as despotic. Stirner also likens an individual’s physical and intellectual capabilities to property rights. This means that an individual should be able to do whatever they want with both their mind and body, since they are both essentially private property.

    Murray Rothbard For a New Liberty: a Libertarian Manifesto (1973)

    Anarcho-capitalism, the stateless libertarian philosophy of Murray Rothbard is outlined in this text. Libertarianism according to Rothbard is defined by the non-aggression principle which Rothbard argues has not been applied to the state as the state chooses to position itself above this universally applied principle. This failure by the state to abide by the definitive principle of libertarianism led Rothbard in this text to call for a stateless imagining of society.

    Josiah Warren Manifesto (1841)

    In his manifesto, utopian philosopher Josiah Warren describes the establishment of societies as being the gravest mistake enacted by reformers. This is because Warren believes society encroaches on the sovereignty of individuals. According to Warren's manifesto, individuals have been reduced to mere cogs in machines where they do not have total autonomy over their own affairs. Warren condemns this image and calls for a more individualistic composition of society.

    Individualist Anarchism - Key takeaways

    • Individualist anarchism combines a rejection of all coercive hierarchies - including the state - with a preference for an unregulated free market economy as the best way to distribute goods without compromising individual liberty.
    • In a society run on individualist anarchist principles, all functions of the state - including law enforcement and the court system - would be handled by private companies.
    • Individualist anarchists differ in how they view human nature, but they share the belief that human beings are capable of managing themselves and should be given full freedom to do so.
    • The two best-known varieties of individualist anarchism are anarcho-capitalism and egoism.
    • Anarcho-capitalism developed from the writings of Murray Rothbard, an American economist and libertarian.
    • Individualist anarchist ideas are criticised by anarchists and liberals alike for opening the way for some practices that modern society finds unacceptable, such as slavery and human trafficking.

    References

    1. Rothbard, Murray N. For a New Liberty: The Libertarian Manifesto 1978 p. 293.
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    Frequently Asked Questions about Individualist Anarchism

     What is individualist anarchism?

    Individualist anarchism can be described as a branch of anarchism that places the liberty and importance of the individual over that of the collective whilst maintaining an adoption of the core anarchist concepts. 

    What are the individualist anarchism examples?

    Anarcho-capitalism and egoism are two types of individualist anarchism

    Does individualist anarchism oppose capitalism?

    Individualist anarchists tend to embrace capitalism - especially the idea of a free and unrestrained market - as the best system for distributing commodities and services efficiently and without encroaching on individual liberty and autonomy. 

    What is the ideology of anarchism?

    Anarchism is a political ideology that rejects all forms of hierarchy and coercive relationships. The rejection of the state is central to anarchism. 

    What is the theory of individualist anarchism?

    Indvidualist anarchism combines rejection of all coercive hierarchies - including the state - with a preference for an unregulated free market economy as the best way to distribute goods without compromising individual liberty. 

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