I want to introduce the conceptual framework of existentialist anarchism lightly, without providing more argumentation than is necessary to paint the picture. Depending on the audience, that can be a more-or-less realisitic expectation. Both existentialism and anarchism are widely misunderstood and even then, there is much debate about who is and who isn’t either of the two. For this reason, I am not going to even attempt solving the problem of inclusion here. Instead, I am going to do my best to be as general as possible without leaving out any of the crucial details.
The best way to define existentialism is ontologically, as a beginning; and, the best way to define anarchism is to define it as an end, a regulating ethical ideal guiding everyday praxis …a utopia. What happens between this beginning and this end is the task of this essay to describe. That is to say, what follows is the outline of an entire system of thought that begins from existentialism and ends with anarchist praxis.
Existential phenomenology is what distinguishes this form of philosophy (and, this form of anarchism) from others. Rather than beginning from a description of what is true, or what is logical, or what is ethical, existential phenomenology begins from what exists no matter how true, logical, or ethical. Another way to say this, is that the first goal of existential phenomenology is to describe the phenomena of existence as it is experienced; and only then, to pursue the more general structures that would make it possible to experience said phenomena as such.
This process of describing the phenomena of existence as it is experienced and then developing a comprehension of the fundamental structures that make such phenomena possible may sound a lot like psychology, and in some ways it is, or at least leads to a psychology; but, in some very important ways it is not. Existential phenomenology is meant to underlie all forms of knowledge, including psychology. It develops an ontology, a conceptual framework that points to the concrete way that existence is.
Instead of trying to compare various branches of knowledge and arrive at a framework of truth based on where the facts from those branches of knowledge support one another, this ontology of existence becomes the ground upon which all subsequent forms of knowledge are built. This includes both objective and subjective forms of knowledge: natural science, psychology, aesthetics, cultural studies, even sport psychology. All such domains of knowledge ultimately apprehend various types of phenomena and all such types of phenomena, from the beginning, share a common ontological foundation that describes what it is for phenomena to exist for us. This is true even if later, such-and-such a domain of phenomena is used to understand something beyond what is experienced empirically.
This approach to philosophy and all that follows from it has far-reaching implications. To begin from an existential phenomenological method, we are already suggesting that there isn’t any sort of reliable, absolute Truth that only some people have special access to. We are suggesting that what is ultimately important is to begin from one’s own personal experiences, from the first-person perspective. To attempt to leave all ideological assumptions behind and allow experience to happen. Then… to describe that experience as accurately as possible so that we can think about those experiences critically later.
This would be a tremendous amount of work to do from scratch – which can be done – but fortunately, others have been doing this sort of thing for quite some time. Phenomenologists (including the existential variety) have begun with this approach and carried through into the study of all sorts of phenomena. As one example, Husserl (who is the originator of the phenomenological approach) used it to study, among other things, geometrical phenomena. His work provided others with a way to develop new approaches to sciences of all sort, including physics; and, his many other students applied his approach to just about everything else: medicine, psychology, and dreams (Ludwig Binswanger and Medard Boss), fundamental ontology (Martin Heidegger), religion (Emmanuel Levinas, and Martin Buber), race (Lewis Gordon), perception (Maurice Merleu-Ponty), aesthetics…
While this is all well and good, the breadth and depth that can and have been explored in this way has made social and political questions more difficult to focus on. Ethics has been an especially frustrating field from an existential phenomenological approach. However, it has been done. Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Emmanuel Levinas, Martin Buber, and Frantz Fanon are just some recognizable names who have made the effort. From their works, social and political questions of all sorts have been given existentialist answers. Whether concerning the topics of sex and gender, sexuality, class, colonization, race, or violence, social and political philosophy is teeming with existentialist thought.
But existential phenomenology, which from here-on I will simply call “existentialism,” isn’t just all philosophy, or coming up with theories. It is also about practices. And in its Sartrean variety, existentialism has been considered a practice-oriented philosophy par excellence. To be engaged with what is happening in the world is of utmost importance for existentialists. And it is for this reason, but not for this reason alone, that existentialists have so frequently been involved with social and political struggles.
For anarchists, the questions at this point usually regard just how existentialists involved themselves with social and political struggles. Unfortunately, most of those questions can’t be answered by casually referencing the biographies of existentialists. Sartre was a fellow-traveller of the French Communist Party (who also attacked him systematically) until the Stalinist tanks rolled-in to crush the Hungarian Revolution. He then later worked closely with French Maoists, who in that context were considered not Communists, but rather anti-authoritarian Marxists. And even later still, described himself and his work as anarchist. Albert Camus and Simone Weil both worked closely with anarchists, Weil even fighting in an anarchist brigade during the Spanish Civil War. Maurice Merleu-Ponty was a Marxist, but not a revolutionary. And Martin Heidegger was a Nazi… yes, a real one.
Making matters even more difficult, existentialism became most popular during the least popular moment for anarchism, after WWII and before the 1970’s. And, where existentialism and anarchism did cross paths in anarchist literature (Herbert Read, Daniel Guérin, Georges Fontenis…), it wasn’t as a whole-hearted embrace. Rather, it seems like anarchists merely reviewed existentialist works, rarely dedicating more than a few pages – except in Herbert Read’s case – to the relationships between the two.
Oddly enough, existentialism seems to have impacted anarchist thought most significantly indirectly… not from existentialists themselves, but rather from Situationist International author Guy Debord, and post-structuralist theorists who drew heavily on the works of existentialism, often inexplicitly. What is important here is to recognize that with the existentialists, an emphasis had already been placed on anti-essentialism, a decentered subject, lived experience, embodiment, the situation, praxis, etc. well before those later thinkers. In other words, much of the perspective that has been brought into anarchist thought from post-structuralist theory is also common to existentialism.
That said, there is a fundamental problem that arises when post-structuralism and anarchism are brought together into a contemporary political philosophy. That fundamental problem is an ontological one that had been left behind as French philosophy took its so-called Linguistic Turn. It is the problem of freedom’s existence…
What is missing today in contemporary anarchism is indeed an answer to the question of freedom’s existence. And post-structuralism, for all of its ability to be weaponized to undermine anarchism’s enemies, also undermines anarchism itself by attacking Enlightenment notions of the rational subject, whose existence was the bedrock of all Modern political philosophy. Since the notion of freedom went hand-in-hand with the rationality of the Modern Subject, the entire raison d’etre for anarchism disappears. There is no point in a political philosophy that seeks the liberation of individual if that freedom’s very possibility for realization is undermined. And this is why today’s post-anarchists and nihilists are stuck with a mere negation of power, without a capacity to ground a positive anarchist project in the ontological freedom of the individual. A negation… for what reason, we do not know.
This has put anarchism in a precarious situation: either embrace post-structuralist theory, which offers tools especially useful in comprehending life today, but destroys the grounds upon which anarchism can be developed positively; or, reject post-structuralist theory and accept some sort of antiquated, essentialist conception of subjectivity and freedom. Neither of these choices will do! Today, we need an anarchism that both rejects the rational subject and reductions to deterministic essences. Today, anarchism needs to examine freedom ontologically in order to develop the theoretical basis upon which anarchists can act positively, projecturally, creatively towards total liberation.
So what is freedom?
Returning to the beginning of this essay, existentialism understands freedom as one of the fundamental structures of our existence, along with a few other structural components that will become more important later. When we say this, what we mean is that it would be impossible to even begin to understand existence without the notion of freedom as a characteristic of our being. Different existentialists used different notions of freedom. For Heidegger, this freedom is described as Dasein’s intentionality, its projection. For Sartre, this freedom is described as the freedom of consciousness understood as being for-itself… as our manner of projecting into a future of possibilities that shape the meaning of our present and past. For others, there is still more variation; but, common to all forms of existentialism is that freedom and existence itself cannot be separated. In Sartre’s words, we are “condemned to be free.”
Before moving forward though, there is one other fundamental structure of existence that this discussion of freedom would be impossible without. That is the structure of our facticity. Facticity is a category for all of the determinations in life, all of the aspects of existence that our own existence is contingent upon. This includes the natural environment, the family one was born into, genetic traits, the historical moment, and all the rest. Freedom in existentialism is always thought alongside facticity. Our freedom is a freedom that is in-the-world and there is no escape from either that freedom, nor the world. Attempts to escape either freedom or facticity are understood by existentialists as basically erroneous and bad. In existential psychology, these attempts to escape are even recognized as forming modes of being-in-the-world that are typically classified by psychoanalysts as neurotic or psychotic. Without elaborating too much, that is to say that freedom and facticity are such important notions in existentialism that they carry through into all areas of application in existentialist practice.
Since these existential conditions of freedom and facticity can be universalized, existentialist ethics begins from considering the implications of this in our everyday life and in our relations with others. This is also the point at which existentialism becomes complicated and confusing for those who are not seasoned in the literature. So it is required for us to make note of something here as we move on: existentialists reject the notion of a transcendental ego. This fact is both the most overlooked and the most defining characteristic of existentialism as a form of phenomenology. Therefor, it must be treated accordingly!
Existentialists do not believe in a self, an ego, an Ich or I, that transcends (gets outside of) the world and unifies it. For existentialists, there is indeed an ego, but it is an object for consciousness …it is an essence, and an essence that is constructed temporally through our relationships with our facticity, our possibilities in the situation, and with others. This concept of a transcendental ego is rejected because according to existentialists, our existence is always already being-in-the-world. It is not necessary to posit an self that goes beyond the world to unify it since consciousness, as a being in-itself’s self-negation, already does this. At the most fundamental level of existence, this means there is no clear separation between consciousness and world; the fundamental level is what makes both ego and world possible. The distinction between being and world only happens once consciousness begins to reflect upon what it is already conscious of: its facticity, its own past, its future projections of possibility, and others. It is this reflection that gives rise to both the Ego and the World.
What this means for this essay is that it isn’t the ego that is free, it is consciousness that is free. At face value, this may sound like nit-picking, but it really is not. This phenomenological fact is what drives existentialist critiques of all the forms of inauthenticity, bad faith, and essentialist reduction that human beings are always in danger of. It is the fact of our existence as freedom, a situation that we can not escape from by becoming a being in-itself-for-itself, that all the rest of existentialism follows from.
So it follows from our existence as freedom that we are also responsible for the choices that we make. This is what Sartre’s discussion of Anguish is concerned with. Freedom for existentialists is a fact, but not necessarily a happy one. For most of us, the weight of the responsibility that comes with this freedom leads to a deep sense of aguish over the choices we can make. And as Erich Fromm discusses in Escape from Freedom, this existential anguish has time and again lead to various forms of authoritarianism.
Now to make things more complicated: it is because we usually are not satisfied existing as freedom that we endevour to become the cause of our own existence. Sartre refers to this in his early philosophy as the fundamental project of consciousness. And although Sartre later described a transformation of this project in what he called conversion, for the sake of not dwelling too long here, let’s leave that as a footnote.
This fundamental project of consciousness (the desire to become the cause of one’s own being) begets additional, secondary projects that all aim to realize the fundamental projects. In Part Four of Being and Nothingness: Having, Doing, and Being and in Erich Fromm’s work To Have or To Be?, a thorough description of the basic categories that these secondary projects fall into has been given. As will be discussed later, these types of activities (Having, Doing, and Being) will be used to discuss the Property Question. For now simply make note of the fact that the creation of material objects belongs to these secondary projects.
The downside to the fundamental project of consciousness and the secondary projects that attempt to complete that project is that it is impossible for us to actually become the cause of our own being as freedom. This means that for the forseeable future, there is an ontological form of alienation that we can not surpass. To be free is also to not be just another object in the world. To be caused by the world, to be thrown into this world and dependent upon it for our existence, this is the situation that we are not free to change.
But we can change our situation in other ways and we can create situations that are more or less free for us to pursue our projects…
Despite how elaborate existentialist ethical and moral philosophy can become, it always begins from an extensive analysis of various modes of being-in-the-world and relationships between two human beings. While there is so much that has been said about all of this, and continues to be said, most of that will have to be encountered elsewhere. Here we will only concern ourselves with the emphasis that existentialists place on the way that others shape our own subjectivity, our responsibility not just for ourselves but also for others, and on the respect for the freedom of others as a foundation for ethics.
One of the key features of existentialism that distinguishes it from various egoistic and humanistic forms of philosophy is that existentialism is thoroughly intersubjective. Some of this is a continuation of the dialectical relationship between master and slave in Hegel’s phenomenology. But existentialists haven’t strictly reproduced Hegelian dialectic, especially considering the challenges directed towards Hegel in his own time by Søren Kierkegaard. Instead, existentialists have taken a dialectical approach to the development of subjectivity and built their own versions of it.
Sticking to the basics, the way that existentialists discuss relationships between human beings is by describing the interplay of existential modes: existing in the mode of a subject and existing in the mode of an object. When we exist as subjects – which is the way that we exist when we are alone – the rest of existence takes the form of objects for consciousness. This includes not just what we think of as “material objects” …the objects experienced through perception; it also includes objects experienced through conception and imagination. Anything that consciousness can direct itself at.
Something changes dramatically when we encounter others. Suddenly, we are no longer subjectivity experiencing the rest of existence as objects. Another center of gravity appears in the world, something else interferes with the relationship of our consciousness and its objects. We discover ourselves in a new way; as objects for another consciousness. And while we are experiencing this, we are also experiencing the sense of losing our freedom to the other’s freedom, we experience what Heather W. Wallace has dubbed “existential vulnerability,” since our being becomes co-constituted by the other’s consciousness of ourselves. It is in this moment that the classic existentialist dialectic between self and other begins, from which the ego as a being for-others develops as an object within our own consciousness.
As the moment of encounter with the other progresses, both consciousnesses engage in a back-and-forth. In one moment, one consciousness exists itself as a subject while the other exists itself as an object. And then in the next moment the roles reverse. And so on. And so forth… Throughout the process, we make a variety of choices that form a basis for how we relate to others. As Sartre explains in numerous works, these choices are often based on bad faith attempts to escape our existential situation. And as this or that strategy fails, we move onto others.
One of the biggest debates within existentialism must be discussed at this point. Not all existentialists agree on the ontological structure of being together with others as a “we” or an “us”. Heidegger’s notion of Mitsein makes existence with others a structure of fundamental ontology. However, Sartre rejected this and considered conflict to be the fundamental, ontological mode of being with others. Martin Buber was even more critical of Heidegger’s Mitsein, arguing that it did not describe the intersubjective I-Thou relationship, but merely the coincidence of existing beings. And Ludwig Binswanger described an elaborate mode of existence as loving-togetherness, which was even different in its spatial and temporal structure!
Regardless of the ontological foundation for relationships with others, all of the existentialists place a premium on the freedom of the other. It is this ethical commitment to not only one’s own freedom, but the freedom of others that lays the foundation for an anarchist social and political ethics.
There is one last existentialist notion that must be addressed before existentialist anarchism can be described in its full social implications: the notion of thingness. Like Marx and many other philosophers, existentialists recognize the differences between free, conscious existence and the existence of things to be a pivotal part of comprehending life. For existentialists, one of the key features of the relationships of consciousness with things has to do with the fact that things exist as being in-itself. And although we make many choices about how we relate with things, including the creation of them, part of what defines our ontological relationship with things no matter what is that objective reality is composed only of things and we (as being for-itself) can never completely become an continuous part of objective reality. Therefor, our relationships with things are often characterized by a sense of lack. In our experiences of need, of desire, in the fundamental project of consciousness and the secondary projects, this lack is one large part of what motivates our choices.
Unlike Marx, this notion of lack at the foundations of our being is considered by existentialists to be a form of alienation that can not be overcome despite any transformations in the structure of society. We will discuss this later when we address ecology and history. For now it is worth mentioning that this existentialist emphasis on ontological alienation is at the foundations of the human condition. Since the very structure of our existence as freedom by definition means that we can not become a thing in-itself (as outlined by Sartre in Being and Nothingness), our existence will always to some extent be an alien one: being-in-the-world …but not of-the-world.
With that out of the way, we can now address some of the important features of things…
Things compose a large part of our facticity: our bodies when existed as objects (an important point I won’t discuss in this text), cultural artifacts, works of art, tools, etc. But what makes a thing a thing has less to do with physics and more to do with the way in which a phenomena appears to consciousness, which brings us back to phenomenology. Something becomes a thing for consciousness upon reflection; the same sort of reflection that initially groups phenomena into subjective and objective experiences. Things… objects… are phenomena that have been delineated and given instrumental meaning for consciousness. Basically, what makes a thing a thing is that it has meaning for us in our world as something we can use, a means to an end, a stepping stone on our projected path of trying to fill that lack of being that defines our existence.
From the Other to the Others
From Lived Experience to Everyday Life
Henri Lefebvre – Critique of Everyday Life
Henri Lefebvre – Critique of Everyday Life
Raoul Vaneigem – The Revolution of Everyday Life
To understand individuals and their groups, one must understand the world of those individuals and groups. After all, our being is being-in-the-world. Besides the fundamental inter-subjectivity that existentialists describe as the connection between oneself, others, and groups, being-in-the-world is also temporal. And although at the individual scale this may appear to be less the case, such temporality exists concretely as history.
Capitalism, the State, and other Abstractions: Anarchism of this existential variety will need to take pause before the grand terminology of the social sciences (government, capitalism, socialism, etc.) and refuse to exist among such terms as a peer. Instead, existentialist anarchism must set out to describe the concrete social situation and the real opportunities for those actually existing in such situations to realize practical modes of individual and collective freedom.