Existentialist Anarchism: A Rough Sketch in Progress
The State of This Sketch
I began writing this some years ago and have yet to finish it. I am regularly disappointed by that fact, but the last portion of this demands more from me than I have time for. There are several books that I want to read (or, re-read) before I complete the last sections because the anarchism that ought to result from this existentialist approach brings together a handful of influential revolutionary theories. What I intend to bring together are the following: Stirner’s Union of Egoists, Situationist International focus on Revolution of Everyday Life (which requires a study of at least Lefebvre), pre-Socratic Greek philosophy regarding arche, Proudhon’s phenomenology of Property, Sartre’s Critique of Dialectical Reason, and supporting/enriching insights from Binswanger. In sum, these works are a vast commentary on interpersonal and group dynamics from more-or-less existentialist thinkers whose works date from ancient times all the way into the 1980s.
So in the mean time, what is written here is already an extensive guide to an existentialist anarchist philosophy. I hope that its incompleteness doesn’t dissuade you from reading it!
Existentialism and anarchism are both widely misunderstood. Introductory texts related to both philosophies almost always emphasize this difficulty. There is much debate about who is and who isn’t a good fit for either of the two. However, it isn’t my goal here to solve those problems and I do not think that it is necessary to so long as what I write here contains the definitions that I will be using.
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 this phenomenological method) 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 and colonization (Lewis Gordon and Frantz Fanon), perception (Maurice Merleu-Ponty), aesthetics…
While this is all well and good, the breadth and depth 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. 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, questions at this point usually regard just how existentialists involve 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 French anarchism, after WWII and before the 1970’s. 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 relationship between the two.
Oddly enough, existentialism seems to have had its greatest impacted on anarchist thought indirectly. Not from existentialists themselves, but rather from Situationist International authors Guy Debord and Raoul Vaneigem, 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 and retained from post-structuralist engagement with 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 along with its Liberal, Anti-Totalitarian Turn after the events of May 1968. It is the problem of freedom’s structure …of the existence of freedom at all.
What is missing today in contemporary anarchism is an answer to the question of freedom’s existence. 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 without it. There is no point in a political philosophy that seeks the liberation of the 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… to what end 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?
Existentialism understands freedom as one of the fundamental structures of our existence. What this means 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 slightly different notions of freedom, but the role of freedom in the structure of existence they all agreed was central. For Heidegger, 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 relationship with our own future possibilities that gives the foundation for everything meaningful in our lives. 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.”
Discussion of freedom would be impossible without also discussing 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. Freedom and facticity are such important notions in existentialism that they carry through into all areas of application in existentialist practice.
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 by us through our chosen actions. This concept of a transcendental ego is rejected because according to existentialists, our existence is one of being-in-the-world. It is not necessary to posit an ego 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. At the fundamental level of our existence ego and world occur simultaneously as structural features that circumscribe all experience.
Unlike Enlightenment notions of a free ego, when existentialists talk about what it is that is free it isn’t the ego that is free, it is consciousness. 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.
If our existence is freedom, then that also means that we are responsible for what is meaningful in our lives and the for how we pursue the realization of meaningful lives. 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 this responsibility 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.
It is because we usually are not satisfied with freedom that we endeavor to become the cause of our own existence and fill up the emptiness of freedom with essence. Sartre refers to this in his early philosophy as the fundamental project of consciousness. This fundamental project of consciousness begets additional, secondary projects that all aim to realize the fundamental project. 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 are given. These types of activities (Having, Doing, and Being) always reduce to the fundamental project of our lives to escape our thrownness and become the cause of our own existence.
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 existence. Inevitably, there is always facticity. 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 a 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.
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 is that 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 developed out of his engagement with Freud, Heidegger, and Buber.
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 existentialist ethics and mirrors many anarchist’s ethics.
Like Marx and many other philosophers, existentialists recognize the differences between free, conscious existence and the existence of things. 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, 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 a 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 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 material conditions or the structures of society. This ontological alienation is at the foundations of the human condition. Since the very structure of our existence as freedom means that we can not become a thing in-itself, our existence will always to some extent be an alien one: being-in-the-world …but not of-the-world.
When it comes to thingness, things compose a large part of our facticity: our bodies at times, cultural artifacts, works of art, tools. 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. 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. 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
As far as I know, Sartre’s ontology of group formation and group dynamics is the only source that would be useful for this essay. The chapter from Gavin Rae’s book above provides a very good overview of the features of Sartre’s thoughts on said topics. I will eventually put this into my own words here; but they will be more of a summary than an expansion of what Rae has already written.
From Lived Experience to Everyday Life and Style of Life
Henri Lefebvre – Critique of Everyday Life
Henri Lefebvre – Critique of Everyday Life
Style of Life Wikipedia Entry
Essay Comparing Adler and Binswanger
Alfred Schutz’ works
The Situationist International
Hakim Bey’s TAZ
A focus on everyday life experiences is a central theme in existentialist philosophy that was inspired first by Wilhelm Dilthey’s works and the impact it had on Edmund Husserl’s phenomenology. The particular ways in which Dilthey and Husserl elaborated on such concepts as lived experience and lifeworld would eventually provide the groundwork for existentialism as philosophy and on the social sciences. In one example, the Austrian School thinker Alfred Schutz, influenced by Dilthey, Husserl, and Max Weber, developed a phenomenology of the social world. In another example we have the thought of Henri Lefebvre. But Lefebvre’s Critique of Everyday Life did not exhaust this focus on the everyday. The entire period of French history between the Algerian War of Independence and the French Liberal Renaissance with its New Philosophers, especially the May `68 insurrection, was steeped in these insights that existentialism championed. All around and through this period’s revolution of everyday life runs this existentialist thought. France’s leading existentialist thinkers were also some of France’s leading insurrectionary agents of the period and afterwards.
What differentiates a politics that emerges from an examination of the everyday and one that emerges from the View From Nowehere we find in such fields as objective sociology and objective journalism is exactly the difference between existentialism and the German Idealism that it so often responded to. That difference is what we could call a major historical shift in the locus of authority. In other words, existentialism strikes at the root of authority in general and moves it away from institutional expertise, into the experiences of one’s everyday life. This shift is the shift that grounds the anarchism that is being outlined here.
A key point to keep in mind here, when examining the lifeworld, is that while we can find wide agreement that human action is social and meaning-laden …thus, value rich… not all thinkers of the everyday give equal weight to the role of History. It is for this reason that Jean-Paul Sartre’s Critique of Dialectical Reason contributes such important understandings to phenomenological sociology, since it is through the emphasis on History that we grasp class as a central phenomenon in social life.
If we understand freedom to be an aspect of the structure of our experience, then anarchy is the experience of one’s situation approximating said freedom. Anarchy is the experience of the lifeworld, including the social aspects of one’s lifeworld, corresponding with the practice of freedom. This is different from other situations in which one is alienated from their own capacity as a cause.
For as much as this concept of anarchy can do for us ethically, socially, politically, it has its limits. We can’t make anarchy do all of our ethical work for us By its very nature, anarchy does not fulfill, it only creates capacity . What one does with anarchy is an afterthought, though in that it requires no less thinking Anarchy is situation and anarchism projects a world where that situation is realized as much as it can be. What you value guides your own projects from there; for example, anarchy has very little to offer you in your choice of a healthy lifestyle …though it may benefit your perspective on supposed health experts
Arche: Internal Value and External Authority
“The State is the external constitution of the social power…This external constitution of the collective power, to which the Greeks gave the name the archē, sovereignty, authority, government, rests then on this hypothesis: that a people, that the collective which we all call society, cannot govern itself…it must be represented by one or more individuals, who, by any title whatever, are regarded as custodians of the will of the people, and its agents…According to this hypothesis…is the explanation of the constitution of the State in all its varieties and form.” – Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, “Resistance to the Revolution,” in Property is Theft: A Pierre-Joseph Proudhon Anthology (Edinburgh: AK Press, 2011), 482.
Chapter 4 of nietzsche-and-the-philosophers-2016
This entire book by Heidegger: (Studies in Continental Thought) Martin Heidegger, Richard Rojcewicz – The Beginning of Western Philosophy_ Interpretation of Anaximander and Parmenides-Indiana University Press (2015)
Breaking from the previous train of thought…
It is useful to disclose the form of the Arche as it is elaborated internally and externally. Internally, as subjective value and externally, as institutional authority. By positing anarchy as the basis for both Value and Authority, the anarchist project is clarified as a project of exposing and overcoming subjugation to Value and Authority: exposing the anarchic ground upon which both are founded and overcoming both through personal and collective projects grounded in anarchist values and institutional forms.
The first question then regards the claim that anarchy is in fact the foundation for internal and external arches. This requires one to pursue ontological, epistemological, and historical questions. Throughout such investigations, authoritarianism is challenged each step of the way as its foundations are shown to be contradictory and false. For it is authoritarians who posit the opposite of our claim here: they posit original and true arches both internally and externally. Throughout history, such authoritarian foundations have privileged different domains: natural history, biology, theology, psychology, etc. Regardless, the authoritarian conclusion is that the status quo’s values and institutions rest on solid ground and to deviate from such values and institutions is to do something unnatural, evil, unhealthy, or otherwise transgressive towards the true order of things. And at the very least, such transgressions are foolish.
Time, Temporality, and History
Until this point, I have left one of the most important aspects of our Being unexamined. However, after the elaboration on anarchy, moving forward requires diachronic thought. From the existentialist perspective, there are numerous time-related categories… the major ones are time, temporality, and History. The existentialist philosophers subdivide these categories in various ways, but a theme that comes through them and that is important to our sketch is the path from first-person perspective to historical perspective. The goal is to understand how one is a part of history and how history is part of oneself.
Sartre is especially useful for all of this. His articulation of time has an objective sense. On temporality, not only is there the commonsense past, present, and future, there is also a difference between the past as passed and the past of one’s present. And when it comes to history, the categories become even more complicated …mediated at the very least by one’s family and class, wrapped-up in the general human condition as a war with scarcity. Much of this complexity will have to be discussed elsewhere and by other authors.
Now that we are dealing with time, and especially with history, we must also return to the question of freedom. Since the existentialist notion of freedom provided before doesn’t interrogate the nature of desire, desire is what we will look at now as an aspect of facticity moulded, in part, by History’s unfolding through family dynamics.