The Anarchist and the Egoist in Love
from Center for a Stateless Society by Kelly Vee
Dedicated to my husband, Cory Massimino.
How can the anarchist’s commitment to the wellbeing of all be reconciled with the egoist’s commitment to the wellbeing of oneself? I suggest reconciliation comes not from politics, nor from religion, nor from markets. The anarchist and the egoist find reconciliation in Love.
Love is a big term. It is no wonder the ancient Greeks had so many words to describe all of the ideas encompassed in just one English word: Eros, or romantic Love, Storge, or familial Love, Philia, or friendly Love, and Agape, or Love for humanity, to name just a few. While each Greek word highlights what is different between each type of Love, what they have in common is far more important.
Real Love requires that Lovers treat each other as ends in themselves, never as mere means. Love does not and cannot require the subservience of the Lover or the Beloved. Love involves neither subordination nor domination. Egoism and anarchism properly understood are the fullest application of this principle. An anarchist, egoist Love has no gods or masters. It is a Love built on dignity, autonomy, and respect for oneself and others. In the words of Simone de Beauvoir, “Authentic [Love] must be founded on reciprocal recognition of two freedoms; each [Lover] would then experience himself as himself and as the other: neither would abdicate his transcendence, they would not mutilate themselves; together they would both reveal values and ends in the world.” By Loving, we affirm and assert our authentic selves and our most cherished values, while recognizing and upholding the dignity and autonomy of those we Love.
Love is the fullest expression of our humanity, but it has been tainted and warped by systems of domination that sell subservience and self-negation in the name of “selflessness.” These systems promote a false version of love, which is damaging to all who engage in it. Love is not about coercion and hierarchy but freedom and equality. Love is not about self-negation, but self-actualization. In understanding, resisting, and overcoming the systems which denigrate love, we can discover, create, and uphold True Love.
One system that mangles Love is the patriarchal, often religious, system of control that teaches that marriage is the highest goal of a woman’s life (but not a man’s) and that submission and obedience are admirable “womanly” virtues. Traditional Christian wedding vows often include the bride’s promise not just to “love and cherish” but to “obey” her husband. In Christian theology, woman is taken from the rib of man; she is not her own person, an end in herself. It is no wonder that in her essay, Marriage and Love (1914), anarchist and feminist Emma Goldman contrasted marriage and Love as two polar opposites. To Goldman, Love is freedom, while marriage is dominance. Marriage, an institution controlled by religion and the state, is incompatible with Love. She writes:
Love, the strongest and deepest element in all life, the harbinger of hope, of joy, of ecstasy; [Love], the defier of all laws, of all conventions; [Love], the freest, the most powerful molder of human destiny; how can such an all-compelling force be synonymous with that poor little State and Church-begotten weed, marriage?
Goldman criticized “the idea that a healthy, grown woman, full of life and passion” must subdue her own desires until a man comes along and takes her as his wife. After marriage, the woman is relegated to being a dependent parasite, relying on her husband to meet her needs, incapable of meeting her own. The relationship between husband and wife was more akin to the relationship between master and slave than to a partnership between equals in Love. A dynamic in which one partner’s needs are subservient to the needs of the other is unhealthy for both partners.
Wedding vows that include the promise of the wife’s obedience to the husband may be far less common today than in 1914. However, now as then, “the average girl is told that marriage is her ultimate goal; therefore her training and education must be directed towards that end.” Marriage, in other words, is supposedly what makes women complete people (to the extent they can be under patriarchy). The patriarchal idea of love as a sacrifice of autonomy and individuality persists in popular culture, whether in music or romantic comedies, and even as culture becomes more “woke,” the idea of love as self-sacrifice stubbornly lives on.
The patriarchal perversion of eros (romantic love) extends to storge (familial love) in common conceptions of motherhood. It starts by glorifying (or denying) the physical sacrifice required by pregnancy and childbirth. Google “childbirth quotes” and you will be greeted by a veritable database of faux-empowerment quotes like, “The wisdom and compassion a woman can intuitively experience in childbirth can make her a source of healing and understanding for other women,” by one Stephen Gaskin, an obvious childbirth expert. While I imagine some inspiration might be helpful when bracing for the epidural, I can’t help but wonder if childbirth would still be so painful if our society didn’t exalt self-sacrificial love. Why are C-Sections looked down upon unless deemed a “medical necessity”? Why do many self-labelled pro-choice activists still seem to think concerns about the physical toll of pregnancy and childbirth aren’t a good enough reason to consider terminating a pregnancy? “A mother’s love endures through all,” we’re told, so how dare we be so selfish? After all, pregnancy and childbirth are the first way mothers get the “opportunity” to demonstrate the great depths of their parental love. Fathers should only be so lucky.
The world’s most famous mother, the Virgin Mary, is an inimitable ideal of motherhood, praised for her obedience and subservience. Mary only matters because of her relationship to those she loves. Without Mary’s loving sacrifice, her son’s even bigger and better loving sacrifice would not be possible. Mary would not dare put her own needs above those of her son, nor even on equal ground. This is the ideal all mothers are supposed to aspire to. A mother or wife who prioritizes her own needs is being selfish and failing in the moral duties required by love. Storge (familial love), we are told, demands physical and psychological self-sacrifice to achieve its highest form.
While self-sacrificial eros and storge are so easily identifiable in patriarchal motherhood and wifedom, feminists are hardly immune to what I call the “love trap.” Care Ethics was developed by feminists such as Carol Gilligan and Nell Noddings to attempt to address some of the patriarchal shortcomings of traditional moral philosophy. In contrast to traditionally masculine models of morality that emphasize justice and abstract duties or obligations, feminist care ethics places utmost importance on caring and relationships. While care ethics properly elevates the traditionally underappreciated “feminine” virtues of compassion and empathy, it falls short by over-emphasizing the relational nature of our moral obligations. In doing so, care ethics inadvertently subjugates individual morality to the needs of others, imposed by external relationships.
As critics like Puka,1 Card,2 and Davion3 have argued, care ethics can tend to uncritically valorize acts of caring without considering the reciprocal nature of caring and Love or the historical context of caring, such as women caring for men and children to their own detriment and alienation. Care ethics in this sense places care-giver and care-receiver in an unequal relationship where the giver is not an end in herself, but is instead bound by what she can offer the receiver. Rather than incorporating Love into the development of the Self, care ethics relegates the Self to an afterthought. A moral system that places morality outside of the Self, rather than within, is neither truly liberatory nor truly Loving. Care ethics places “feminine” love and care in contrast with “masculine” logic and justice, but when we pause to properly recognize Love as a constitutive element of self-actualization, Love and Logic become united as One.
The social degradation of Love is inextricable from the patriarchy. Love has often been relegated to the “womanly virtues” and therefore, its perversion has historically affected women in the most obvious ways. While this debauched version of love has long been a tool of the patriarchy, it’s likely that Love is trapped in a mutual feedback loop: if women are supposed to be subservient and love is associated with women, of course we will view love as subservience. Our corrupted ideals of love as subservience extend far beyond eros and storge to contaminate the way in which we conceptualize agape, our love for humankind. The greatest self-sacrificer in history was not a woman.
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16 ESV). As loving as Mary was, her obedient motherly love will never reach the heights of Jesus Christ’s self-sacrificial agape. Christ’s sacrifice is the end-all-be-all of the classic western conception of love, the sacrifice of all sacrifices. There can be no other love so great, so godly. Long before I can remember, I was taught in Sunday School that Christ’s sacrifice was the ultimate expression of love, one that a regular human could only dream of emulating. His sacrifice was a love so powerful that it saved all of humanity. While I could never hope to save all of humanity, I could walk in Christ’s footsteps by becoming a martyr, if not for religion then for love. “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13 ESV).
The Christ concept of universal love was destined to be corrupted. It should come as no surprise that Christianity’s history is bloody. Beyond the promise of an afterlife cheapening life on earth, if God can show his love for humanity by sacrificing his Son, it’s no great leap to think Christians can show their love for God by sacrificing others to his glory. This sentiment was made explicit in Catholic doctrines of just war and holy war. In the 12th century, Bernard of Clairvaux wrote, “When [the knight of Christ] inflicts death, it is to Christ’s profit, and when he suffers death, it is his own gain.” Eight centuries later, George Bernard Shaw articulated just what was so corrupting about this ethos: “Self-sacrifice enables us to sacrifice others without blushing.” Love for oneself is the beginning, not the end, of love for humanity.
While not always in the same way, most of the world’s religions promote some form of this ideal: the individual is worth less than society, and self-sacrifice for the “greater good” will be rewarded in the long-run, often after death. This attitude runs so deeply through our global culture that even as society becomes less religious, our presumptions about love and heroic sacrifice remain insufficiently challenged. After all, Christ is the template for heroism mimicked time and time again in fiction, such as in Harry Potter, The Matrix, Lord of the Rings, Superman, and many more stories. When it comes to real life, the war is no longer a holy crusade but a soldier’s death is still valorized as the ultimate act of heroism, whether or not their death actually benefited anyone. We should’ve long ago heeded Oscar Wilde’s wise words that, “A thing is not necessarily true because a man dies for it.”
Self-sacrificial love is pervasively, even inescapably, glamorized as Love’s truest, deepest form. This sickening falsehood is as anti-egoist as can possibly be, but it’s also anti-Love when Love is properly understood. The only way for self-sacrificial love to be mutual is to be mutually destructive. Real Love does not require self-sacrifice. Self-sacrificial love is a zero-sum game at best, but real Love is not zero-sum at all. Real Love is the pinnacle, not the sacrifice, of the Self.
Egoists recognize that as humans, we are utterly incapable of experiencing Being Someone Else. Morality based exclusively on the needs of others is bankrupt, because there is no way for us to exist outside of ourselves. Social, cultural, and financial pressures often make it difficult to truly be one’s self. We often perform authenticity and selfhood for the benefit of others based on their expectations of us. Others do the same, making us all the more alienated from both each other and from our true selves. Over time, this performance becomes difficult to disentangle from reality. We doubt ourselves on a deep epistemological level. The dilemma for the egoist then is to try to parse-out and understand what it means to live authentically as one’s self. How can one affirm and assert the self if the self is lost?
The ineffable beauty of Love starts from intuition and deepens through discovery. In Loving, we become our most authentic selves. In Loving, we discover hidden truths within the ones we Love. In Loving, we find the self we thought was lost. On the selfishness of Love (and sex, which she viewed as a dear expression of Love), egoist Ayn Rand wrote:
Love is blind, they say; sex is impervious to reason and mocks the power of all philosophers. But, in fact, a person’s sexual choice is the result and sum of their fundamental convictions. Tell me what a person finds sexually attractive and I will tell you their entire philosophy of life. Show me the person they sleep with and I will tell you their valuation of themselves. No matter what corruption they’re taught about the virtue of selflessness, sex is the most profoundly selfish of all acts, an act which they cannot perform for any motive but their own enjoyment – just try to think of performing it in a spirit of selfless charity! – an act which is not possible in self-abasement, only in self-exultation, only on the confidence of being desired and being worthy of desire. It is an act that forces them to stand naked in spirit, as well as in body, and accept their real ego as their standard of value. They will always be attracted to the person who reflects their deepest vision of themselves, the person whose surrender permits them to experience – or to fake – a sense of self-esteem … Love is our response to our highest values – and can be nothing else.
In esteeming those we Love, we esteem ourselves.
Rand’s celebration of selfishness in sex and Love seems to run contrary to the generous, giving nature we commonly attribute to Love. Goldman wrote that Love “gives itself unreservedly, abundantly, completely.” How can one value one’s self and still give unreservedly, abundantly, and completely? Aren’t selfishness and this giving kind of Love inherently incompatible?
Our language is bankrupt. Often, when we talk about “sacrifice” in our relationships, we really mean compromise. As individuals, we are each independent human beings with our own goals, needs, and preferences, so disagreements naturally arise in the context of close relationships. However, Love allows us to expand, deepen, and reconceptualize our values to be in harmony with our Loved ones. We incorporate their well-being into our own and vice versa. The types of compromises required in relationships are not sacrifices at all. Love allows us to appropriately weigh our shared values, including Love, and to consider which of our goals, needs, and preferences are the most important. Love introduces new needs and goals, satisfies others, and renders others irrelevant or unimportant. This rendering is not due to sacrifice or a loss of self, but an extension of self.
Love, compassion, and care for others are inextricable from egoism but they are almost always pitted against each other. In a speech given in 2009, the Dalai Lama stumbled upon this idea, even if he didn’t take it to its full egoist conclusion: “[Love and compassion] are the ultimate source of human happiness, and need for them lies at the very core of our being. . . the practice of compassion is not just a symptom of unrealistic idealism but the most effective way to pursue the best interest of others as well as our own. The more we – as a nation, a group or as individuals – depend upon others, the more it is in our own best interests to ensure their well-being.” While he was right that Love is the ultimate source of human happiness and the need for Love lies at the very core of our being, this need does not come from our dependence on others, which would render it instrumental. Love is a deep psychological craving within each of us and is a constitutive element of the good life. Love is inherently fulfilling and intrinsically valuable. To live authentically for one’s self requires Love.
Love does “give itself unreservedly, abundantly, and completely,” but what we give is not what we give up. It is in Loving that we not only rediscover our true selves but also reveal our true selves to the world. In Loving, we find parts of ourselves we never knew existed and uncover other parts of ourselves that we have kept buried away for fear of being vulnerable and exposed. It is impossible to experience real authentic Love and not to discover and uncover the self. Through Loving, we re-affirm and re-assert our most authentic selves.
Experiencing this kind of real authentic Love is only possible when Lovers respect the autonomy and dignity of one another, recognizing each other as ends in themselves. In intimate relationships, controlling, manipulative or otherwise mutually-destructive behaviors rear their head when these values aren’t sufficiently prioritized. In the public sphere, these same behaviors and attitudes rear their ugly head through paternalistic policies like drug prohibition or “democracy-spreading” through so-called “just” wars. These behaviors and attitudes are barriers to the authenticity required for self-discovery and self-affirmation. As Shaw also said, “If you begin by sacrificing yourself to those you love, you will end by hating those to whom you have sacrificed yourself.”
Fortunately, Love may be the only thing that can really break these barriers down. Performing Love doesn’t work, especially in the context of close relationships. When we truly Love someone, we are forced to take a hard look at ourselves and our values and parse through the inconsistencies. Love forces us to recognize when we aren’t living up to our values or when our values aren’t what we thought they were. Intimate Love offers a window into the life and mind of another in a way that nothing else does. Intimate Love expands our capacity for understanding others; it broadens and percolates into all aspects of our lives. When we find the true meaning of Eros and Storge, we find Agape as well. When we truly Love humanity, we recognize each and every human being as an end, never a mere means. Authentic Love and Authentic Life are two sides of the same coin.
In Love, the overlap between egoism and anarchism not only becomes obvious, it becomes inevitable. Anarchist freedom, dignity, and autonomy are inseparable from egoist actualization, self-discovery, and authenticity. Real Love makes apparent that these values are not in conflict; they require one another to truly flourish. Love that is not both anarchist and egoist is hardly Love at all.
My experience of Loving and being Loved has been one of shared growth, self-discovery, and self-affirmation. We Love each other because we want to. We enrich each other’s lives and support each other’s projects selfishly, not selflessly. When one of us wins, we both win. The compromises and choices we make together are not a sacrifice at all; they are an affirmation of our shared values that we have found together and in each other and they make us stronger. Our Love is a shared authenticity, a shared opening, and a shared actualization. In experiencing this kind of Love, I have come to understand myself better than I thought possible. I have come to understand others better than I thought possible. In Loving and being Loved, I’ve been able to give more of myself than I ever have before, and I haven’t given up a thing. I believe that’s mutual. Our Love is an Egoism of Two.
- Puka, Bill. “The Liberation of Caring: A Different Voice for Gilligan’s ‘Different Voice’.” Hypatia 55.1 (1990): 58-82.
- Card, Claudia. “Caring and Evil.” Hypatia 5.1 (1990) 101-8.
- Davion, Victoria. “Autonomy, Integrity, and Care” Social Theory and Practice 19.2 (1993) 161-82.