Laurance Labadie – Anarcho-Pessimism
The Anarchist Library
Subtitle: the collected writings of Laurance Labadie
Notes: All unattributed essays are by Laurence Labadie
artwork by Raven
po box 3920
Berkeley CA 94703
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Anarcho-Pessimism in book form can be found online via Little Black Cart here.
Source: Retrieved via PDF provided by Ardent Press shared with a librarian
For better or worse, pessimism without compromise lacks public appeal. Thomas Ligotti
Collectivism is a “crowd mind” doctrine. To those who have ever been the losers in the unequal, privileged, and despotic struggle for existence, who have notfelt the glory and the satisfaction of conquering obstacles and the achievement of aims, the thought of peace and security is soothing and endearing. Nevertheless, life is essentially a struggle, and peace, in a sense, stagnation and death. We say of the dead that they are at peace.
To those who came to anarchism through the overhyped WTO protests of 2000 or by way of the embarrassingly liberal Occupy spectacle (or even via the punk subculture), the unique anti-capitalist analysis of the American individualist anarchists (a drastic departure from how most anarchists are discussing capitalism today) is likely to seem anachronistic and slightly alien, as the tradition itself has been rendered almost invisible through scholarly neglect and the pervasive a-historicism that seems to abort every attempt at a serious anarchist revival in the United States. Almost all the prominent individualists of this school were representative of a type of anarchist that is now almost nonexistent—so much that, if mentioned at all, they appear as faraway specters and it seems unbelievable that they were ever a force to be reckoned with. The American individualist school propagated their devastatingly logical version of anarchism largely in the pages of Benjamin Tucker’s invigorating journal Liberty, between the years 1881 and 1908, and carried the general anarchist mistrust of external authority several steps further than the communist and syndicalist camps, denying that the individual owes allegiance to anything except his or her self, and re-conceptualizing interpersonal relations (particularly economic ones) on a voluntary contract basis—contracts that can be terminated at will and without recourse to societal or legal approval. This language of “contracts” reveals the influence of Proudhon’s economic theories on Tucker and the other American individualists, who became its most articulate expositors in the United States (taking Proudhon’s mutualist anarchism into a characteristically American direction by synthesizing its social aspects with frontier-style individual sovereignty) and developed its implications in various related fields like currency, resource and land monopoly. It was this embracing of mutualist economic principles that most strikingly separated Tucker and his camp from European individualist anarchists and it’s also why the American individualists still fall outside the simple approximations and traditional distinctions of “left” and “right”. Liberty was a fiery journal devoted to the free play and clash of ideas and not to the exchange of polite nothings; remarkable for the consistently high quality of its content and for the rancor of its heated discussions, Liberty grew into a philosophical battleground gyrating around the tension between the sovereignty of the individual (sometimes expressed in terms of self-ownership) and the hypothetical economic reforms proposed by Proudhon. The ideas debated in Liberty covered a wider range than just Proudhonian mutualism of course. In addition to a critical disposition towards all authority, Benjamin Tucker, as editor of Liberty, had an omnivorous passion for numerous intellectual fields and the arts and added cultural sophistication to the political interests of anarchism, publishing of a great deal of European, and especially French, avant-garde literature (including works by John Henry Mackay, Oscar Wilde, Emile Zola, and Felix Pyat). In the early years of Liberty, Tucker believed—as had Josiah Warren, Proudhon, and Lysander Spooner before him—that anarchism was based on "a principle of nature," and that a moral argument was sufficient to establish the validity of anarchism. By the late 1880s, though, Tucker was writing that morality and natural rights were unprovable abstractions and myths; this shift in orientation came about after his exposure to Max Stirner’s philosophical masterwork The Ego and His Own (Der Einzige und sein Eigentum). Stirnerite egoism, as interpreted by the individualist anarchists, claimed that enlightened self-interest was the realistic basis of human conduct and that the acting individual and no one else should be the beneficiary of his or her own actions. With this insistence came the rejection of altruism and of any obligations except those assumed by voluntary contract—and with these printed assertions began the most controversial period in Liberty’s long publishing history!
Tucker and the other American individualists presented a much more nuanced and practical alternative to the classical communist reading of malicious capitalism (and to that fabulous edifice of abstractions we call Marxism). As mutualists, their unfailing principle was that freedom of exchange is the foundation of all freedoms. To enlarge exchange is to liberate the individual; to circumscribe it is to enslave them. The American individualists felt that a genuinely free market and the unhindered practice of competition would organically develop into a stateless, non-monopolistic society that would return the full product of labor to workers—which is one of many reasons they opposed the forced collectivized control of the economy (by one vast monopoly in the hands of the State) that communists and socialists advocated. Instead, the American individualists felt that the most successful means of opposition come through more critical methods, such as the slow, skeptical dissolution of power and reigning ideas through a rugged interrogation of the foundations’ of one’s own belief systems. Tucker and his accomplices envisioned a revolution that was more gradual, more subtle, and more far-reaching in its consequences than the one-dimensional class-struggle formula promoted by their communist colleagues—an evolutionary revolution that occurred on the intellectual and economic plane and that was only superficially political. The conscious egoists in Tucker’s faction also didn’t busy themselves constructing theories of individual or social rights. They supported Stirner’s observation that "right" is an illusion that follows might and based their hopes of individual liberation, and of the dissolution of the State, on a gradual awakening of the individual to his/her own ability to do without the State. This new-found dignity of the individual will then inevitably renounce external support and assert the inherent power of self and repudiate the State’s pretenses of being a patron and guide. This unforgivingly self-reliant version of anarchism requires more intelligence than most people possess or independence than they can muster and makes it unlikely that American individualism will ever become a resurgent strain within the prevailing desert of contemporary anarchism (where we see a homogenization of anarchism into a bland, anti-statist / anti-capitalist doctrine which is far too accommodating of simplistic thinking and ideological conformity). That being said, there’s plenty that’s still alive and kicking in the stinging old issues of Liberty and they’re substantially more interesting than most of the moldering rubbish out there today.