Fake-ass Bookstirnman photo credit.
To be an individualist is to be seen as cold, selfish, or even colonial, by the broader left, while, the right and individualists see the dangers of collectivism bearing down on individual liberty at every turn. However, both views miss the point. There can be no consent without autonomy, but even that framework fractures as the interdependence and instability of the perfect, individual, self rears its complexity. Yet also, there can be no love without conviviality, a social empathy born in the rejection of the atomized self. Anarchists have long duked this tension out in domains as broad as democracy vs. personal liberty, organizationalism vs. anti-organizationalism, the red left vs. the post-left, and most acutely; social anarchism vs. individualist anarchism. But to me they are mostly inseparably crucial linkages. The individual should never rule over the collective and neither should the collective rule over the individual. Anarchism is, afterall, a world without rulers. Positive freedom requires that we see it as being fulfilled through our connectedness but our complexity is nurtured in the delicate recognition and cherishing of the quiet brilliant self. As Grayson English put it, “The social should exist, ultimately, as the facilitator of individuality, and not as a force to be respected in itself. Our lives are intractably social, that much is true; but the social should exist to make room for the individual, and not vice versa.” To be an an individual anarchist organizer and not be a dick to social anarchists (unless they deserve it) is really just about being a good accomplice and friend while simultaneously having nuance about what individualism is and can be. Then almost more importantly, to what ends are we individualists?
Practical Autonomy and Rational Empathy
Any analysis of freedom must spawn from that oh so immediate experience of self-ness guiding our experience. The wisdom of Buddhist interdependent arising is lost on many through a rote rejection of self that ends up just serving as a vehicle and justification for interpersonal violence. For example, there can be no consent without the recognition of the individual’s autonomy and control over their body and mind and yet the individual has ever incomplete self-rule. The tyranny of the ego is, like any autocracy, forever unfinished. We have trauma, instincts, evolutionary quarks, affections, sub-consciousness, beliefs, irrationality, emotions, trusted friends, and a wide range of other information flows that impact our decision making at chemically urgent level. Sometimes the brain says run and the body says freeze. Sometimes we do things that don’t make any sense. Sometimes the heart says yes when the mind says no and other such luridly cheesy, but indicative metaphors.
In a deeply intimate space it can be inordinately difficult to determine how to form better consent. A proper approach to consent suggests that all involved parties are able to and do speak their needs in the form of clear, explicit requests and that the other parties understand these messages, find their own truth, and act accordingly without violating one-another’s terms. I have found that this is a useful and necessary goal. Anything less veers into patronizing disempowerment or coercive assumption. But anyone who is human knows that we aren’t that simple.
This is where empathy comes in and helps us find our ways through the dimly lit corridors of another sentient node’s, subjective lived experience. Empathy, both the rational and emotional blurring of self with another, helps us to see not just into another being but into the ways in which our hidden selves connect and work together. This instinct is the same as our will to protect or help a stranger in need or the desire to become nation-traitors and venture into the love beyond Westphalian patriotism. We sometimes are required to think empathetically to overcome the triggers of tribalism in visceral empathy, and yet sometimes still the rationality of our thoughts needs that quiet burst of “feeling-with” in order to function more accurately and ethically.
Collectives serve the purpose of building social intelligence, providing intentional community space, harnessing group skills and intelligence, and softening some of the coercive elements of traditional organizations. However, in this process they fall prey to many pitfalls which make them inhospitable environments for some people such as oppressive and invisibilized paradigmatic norms, putting the collective before the individual (steamrolling), and creating mine-fields of social capital and interpersonal power under the pretense of “equality”.
Admittedly, I see federations, like democracy, as possible steps along a path to positive freedom, but not the end goal. In many cases to me, they are even counter-productive to my immediate goals. They serve an important purpose of trying to make the large organization structure more equitable and I support their valiant continued efforts at direct democracy. However, I feel uncomfortable in most collectives because they fail to recognize the delicacies of the self in a collective space. Beyond a certain threshold, social capital and coordination problems obstruct what wonders the collective mind can produce and the sadness, pain, and waste of it all makes my skin crawl. Yet at the same time we need to organize larger groups of people to accomplish certain activities and render some complex goals possible. Such is the dilemma of organizations. We need to organize but organizations are haunted. So what can we do?
We can stand alone, together.
Trust-building and Working Relationships
My experience has been that it is possible to develop deeply trusting working relationships with organizing collectives without needing to enter those collectives fully. With this approach you lose voice in the direction of the collective but you also maintain the ability to stand outside of major conflicts and focus on the completion of various projects instead of endless (and also important) group processing. In general, I prefer to be a friend of collectives, rather than a member, unless a collective meets numerous criteria for my feeling safe and that it is a worthwhile investment of my time.
So what I do is I build deep friendships with people across sectarian lines (this is NOT a call for left unity, I’m mostly talking about anarchist groups with beef). I hang out with people. I offer and show up to support their efforts. I come to their events and donate time, effort, or money if I can. I play to my strengths and offer assistance with things I know I have specialized skills in. A lot of this can be personal too. Building trust can be as simple as baking a casserole or baby sitting when your friends get overwhelmed with life and organizing. Most important though is that I only make commitments I can keep and that I keep them. When I prove myself to be reliable and useful, trust follows.
Free Association, Trust, and Being Able to Leave
Much of what can be done in collectives can more peaceably and efficiently be done through an amorphous and deeply interconnected network of freely associating individuals who have the right to enter, exit, and invest in projects as they please (stigmergy). By not forcing anyone to do any project and rather letting persons step-up to the need, we create an environment of increased willingness where it is harder for individual abusers to build coercive informal power over other members with less social capital. This is because if someone feels unvalued or harmed, they know they can leave without redress. Additionally, this approach allows people to ‘play to their strengths’ and lays the framework for a more equitable approach to social capital that is rooted. not of on the dynamics of distorted markets, but on the bedrock of act-dependent, accountability and trust networks. In a network such as this, it is easier to condemn a rapist and boot them from the projects than in a vested collective where they have long-term standing. Because of this it makes it less frightening for victims to come forward. If my commitment, agreement, and the development of expectations are to truly mean something, then they must be built on trust not force or the threat of it.
Free association, or stigmergic organizing, creates self-organizing autopoiesis which allows for complex networks to form through working relationships and shared investment. In a recent piece, Gillis stated, “There’s a massive difference between consensus that’s arrived at through free association, and consensus that’s arrived because people are locked into some collective body to some degree. Often what passes for “consensus” within anarchist activist projects is merely consensus within the prison of a reified organization. Modern anarchists are still quite bad at embracing the fluidity of truly free association, and we cling to familiar edifices. ” What follows from this isn’t that the practice we’re putting in is doomed, but rather extremely necessary in building a new culture around how we organize.
Not Being a Dick/ Being a Friend
Much of the dickishness that can be attributed to individualist anarchists is itself just an aspect of fascists trying to creep into the anarchist movement through misinterpretations of individualist thinkers such as Nietzsche or more critically Stirner. The concept of even morals being spooks is an easy enough one to pervert if you’re an opportunistic nihilist with a white-victim complex. However, I think individualists historically and presently have been pretty damn good about weeding these people out, and at least historically, occasionally sending them letter bombs and such. I think much of the infighting should be less like the Italian-individualist who shot Errico Malatesta in a U.S. bar, and more like his anti-organizattori comrade who killed King Umberto. We should focus on the weeding out and staking territories against fascist creep at the horizontal and authoritarian levels. King Umberto I needed not to live, but Malatesta was a pretty chill dude and was in the midst of doing a bunch of cool anti-racist pre-Wobblie projects at the time as I recall. If we can keep that priority straight I think a lot of other things will fall into place.
Liberty and empathy go hand in hand and work out a lot of the complexities of self and locus of control identification through recognition of our interdependence in struggle. As a mentor once gently whispered to me in full recognition of the self and social; “Let’s get free together babe.”