This piece is a companion to the Dean-O-Files podcast #32, published 3/10. It can be found on Alternative Internet Radio.
On this blog I call myself a socio-political Rogue, and I do so with pride. There are many of us out there who are disaffected and disinterested in politics-as-usual, and I represent only one narrow slice of us. This post constitutes an in-depth explanation of why, exactly, I am the kind of socio-political Rogue I am, and why I believe being a voluntaryist and anarchist is an ethical (perhaps even the ethical) choice.
Prerequisites: An agreement with, or understanding of, the existentialist outlook. I will begin by explaining some of the overarching points of the philosophy, so everyone can be on the same page. Bear in mind, like a Tennessee whiskey, this is all distilled through my own reading of existentialist works, and charcoal filtered through Wikipedia and other sources.
Existence Precedes Essence: Existentialism, especially in Jean Paul Sartre’s tradition, starts with the realization that existence precedes essence. This means that a person is necessarily a conscious individual before they can be described by whatever labels or roles they may fall in to or society may ascribe to them. For example: a voluntaryist is an individual person before they decide they are a voluntaryist. Further, they are not only a voluntaryist. “Voluntaryist” is simply a description (or “essence”) of one part of a person’s philosophy. Job descriptors (engineer, waiter), philosophical descriptors (existentialist, anarchist), religious — or lack thereof — descriptors (christian, atheist), and role descriptors (wife, father) are all essences that necessitate an individual to fill them. The individual’s existence must necessarily precede the filling of those essences, and the essences are ascribed to, or accepted by, the individual according to his or her actions. In Sartre’s words: "... man first of all exists, encounters himself, surges up in the world—and defines himself afterwards" (Existentialism is a Humanism). This is the bedrock of freedom in existentialism.
The Absurd: This is the notion that the universe, and all of that which it emcompasses, is inherently meaningless, and meaning is ascribed to things by individuals. Evidence of this exists in the question “why do bad things happen to good people?” The answer, in existentialist thought, is because the universe in which we live recognizes neither “bad” nor “good,” that these are uniquely human concepts, and what is... simply is. Everything meaningful to an individual can be dashed in an instantaneous brush with catastrophe. Stopping here, where a sense of universal meaning is negated, and practicing that negation, is what makes a nihilist. Nihilists, however, deny the capacity of the individual to ascribe meaning. Existentialism, by contrast, simply states that “there is no meaning in the universe, but we ascribe meaning to it” as an explanation to the uniquely human sense that things do, in fact, mean things. They do! But not inherently. Things mean things because the individual says they do.
Facticity: Simply put, the facticity of an individual encompasses all that he or she is, was, and will be. As an example, the individual is a human and, by right of being a human, their facticity dictates that they will not run faster than the speed of sound. This exists as a limit to, and condition of, freedom. You were not free to choose to be human, or to be born where you were, or to have the genes you have. You are, hower, free to change those parts of your facticity that are mutable. One can become an atheist after decades of christianity, and vice versa, meaning that the individual is, alone, responsible for their facticity, especially those parts which are mutable.
Authenticity: This is easier to define by that which it is not. Authenticity is not inauthenticity. Inauthenticity is living in a state of denial of one’s freedom. This can take many forms. “Determinism” is a denial of one’s freedom by ascribing circumstances and choices to some unseen “plan” which governs all causes and effects in the universe. Choosing to “act as one should” is also a denial of one’s freedom, as it artificially limits the real choices an individual has to those which fall within the bounds of image, self-image, present facticity, or other factors. Authenticity is important to existentialism, as living authentically necessarily constitutes accepting one’s true freedom.
There are many other aspects to existentialism, but I will not cover them here, as they have little bearing on the ethical discussion to follow, and this piece would not be even the slightest bit brief.
Existentialism and Anarchism are, in my opinion, symbiotic philosophies. That is to say, the ethics and ethical implications of existentialism fit with the ethics and ethical implications of anarchism like the two are corresponding puzzle pieces. In my view, if one were to create a half-opaque transparency of these philosophies using only cyan and magenta, and create another consisting of yellow and black (key), one could be titled “Existentialism without Anarchism” and the other “Anarchism without Existentialism.” That is just how intertwined I, personally, see these ideas.
“The Ethics of Ambiguity” is an essay written by Simone de Beauvoir, a contemporary of Sartre, that hoped to build an ethical system on top of the accepted existentialist philosophy. She was never really satisfied with the piece, but I believe her conclusions are important and perfectly matched for anarchist philosophy, as it deals very specifically with freedom and oppression. I will not delve too deeply into the piece, but I will say that it is an incredible exercise in the exploration of ethics in an existentialist context.
De Beauvoir begins by defining one of the most unfortunate circumstances of the human condition: That freedom is an internal drive to do a thing, and it exists in constant opposition to externalities which would see that freedom, that drive, abandoned. Freedom is a necessary condition to transcending one’s facticity (becoming something new, different, or desired by the free individual). She continues to assert that human life is an ambiguous soup of internal drives to transcend facticity and external pressure to derail or stop that transcendence. She posits that living ethically necessitates accepting that ambiguity. This means accepting the realities and consequences of our inherent freedom.
She is also well aware that individuals necessarily intersect in society. No man is an island, and our projects, our lives, inevitably affect the course of others’ projects and lives. This places an external limit on our freedom, so long as those with whom we interact are not living authentically and shouldering their own freedom. This follows because the fruition of one’s freedom is dependent on the choices and facticity of others, and if those others are not making their own free choices, then the fruition of one’s freedom is necessarily impossible. Freedom begets freedom, and oppression begets oppression.
This means that what is ethical, in this context, is dependent on maximizing the potential for freedom and free choices, thus maximizing every individual’s ability to transcend their facticity.
Transcending facticity necessarily means making choices, and de Beauvoir sees situations and contexts that restrict such action as oppressive. Oppression takes those who exist in a circumstance defined by the potential to transcend their facticity, and traps them within external power structures that are imposed upon them. Power structures which they did not freely choose to be a part of.
Freedom means the capacity to transcend one’s facticity uninhibited by externalities, and moral authenticity demands that everyone else have this same freedom.
That is what I take from existentialism and apply to anarchism, and that is why the two are so profoundly interconnected.
“But,” I hear you saying, “de Beauvoir was a Marxist!” She was. And that is dumb.
Why that is dumb:
Ownership, as a concept, is necessary for the transcendence of facticity. One must take ownership, very literal ownership, of oneself in order to meet the requirements for authenticity and morality in the ethical systems described above. In fact, I would go so far as to say that self-ownership is not only a necessary condition of authenticity, but also a sufficient one.
If one owns oneself, then one owns one’s body, mind, and that which one’s body produces. Meaning that life and body are sacrosanct. Here, you have the basics for non-violence and voluntaryism. All one must do to complete the voluntaryist, anarchist puzzle is see the necessary link between self-ownership and the ownership of property.
Property, that which is one’s own and no one else’s, is a good way to define one’s life and body, but it also applies to one’s labor as a product of that life and body. If I choose, freely and without coercion, to sell my labor to someone for whatever price they are willing to pay, they will then give me currency in return. I can then give currency (a transferable representation of the labor which my body has produced) to a merchant for his or her wares. Does that transaction not then extend my ownership of myself to the items I purchase? Does that transaction not necessitate that I own those items as my property? I have yet to see a convincing argument to the contrary.
Thus: an ethical and authentic action must not infringe on the property of another. Such property necessarily includes the life, body, and things which a person owns. Further, a necessary condition of ownership is that the property which has been acquired must have been acquired by means which constitute an ethical and authentic action. Otherwise, by acquiring property through means which do not constitute an ethical and authentic action, the property acquired is, in fact, stolen, and the one who acquired it is a thief.
Government is not only a thief, but also an oppressor in this ethical framework. If these connections and philosophies make sense to you and you are still a statist, then, by these definitions and in this context, you are living inauthentically, denying your own freedom, and denying the freedom of others.
That is why I have come to the conclusion that voluntaryism and anarchism are, to me, necessary for an ethical and authentic existence.
But, who knows? Maybe one day I’ll encounter some unassailable logic to the contrary and transcend my facticity yet again.