a-g-anarqxista-goldman-nothing-to-stick-to-1.jpg

“A BOOK FOR FREE SPIRITS”

“MAN BECOMES THE TRANSFIGURER OF EXISTENCE WHEN HE LEARNS TO TRANSFIGURE HIMSELF.” – Friedrich Nietzsche

Preface: A State of Play

This is now the fifth book that I am writing in what I conceive of as a connected series of books about anarchy and anarchism. The previous books, in their order of publication, are: Being Human: A Personal and Political Philosophy of Anarchism; Building Communities and Defeating Capitalism: An Anarchism of Mutual Aid; A Handbook for Anarchist Insurrection; and Egoism Explained: Autonomy, Agency, Association. All these books, more or less, are about ANARCHISM. They are, of course, also about lots of other things and this, of course, also bears on my understanding of that word “anarchism” – something which is surely not simply understood in the merely [what I would call] reductionist way that many with political bees in their bonnets do. Anarchism and anarchy have for me, right from the beginning with Being Human, and even before it in the anthological work The Spiritual Anarchist’s Philosophical Handbook, always been about more than a merely political ideology; and they have always had to be.

A few words about these previous books and where they leave this project now seem in order. The first thing to say is that I am here not conceiving of any kind of philosophical or political “system” by which to understand or orientate anything. Books 1 and 3, above, the larger books, are more or less randomly constructed [regardless of any appearance of order] and my method has been idiosyncratic and instinctive more than structural. I have at no point had any conception of any system I wanted to construct or any structure I wanted to give to anything. I have, instead, written as a questioner and a seeker and these texts are the results of my probing. They are, then, questions even more than they are answers to anything. It will also be noticed, I hope, that in especially these books I at all points seem to say “This is as far as I can think and it may not even be relevant to you. What you will think is your responsibility.” Mine has not been an anarchism of instruction or dogma but one of thinking for yourself [perhaps my highest virtue]. In this respect I have offered books 2 and 4 above, one dealing with the social phenomenon of mutual aid and a social conception of living an anarchism in practice, and the other dealing with the necessity of self-actualisation and autonomy if one is to be what I consider properly anarchist. It will be seen here, especially in the example of the last two books, that I have been keen to synthesize what I have seen as the best of the ideas into my own whole rather than falling into facile partisanships. The result is, naturally, something of my own creation and understanding – but it is always at the reader’s discretion, them interacting with the whole, to decide whether it is of use — or so much flotsam and jetsam instead.

Right from the title of my first book in this series, Being Human, I have been on a quest and that quest might well be stated as “What is ‘being human’ and in what does it consist?” So it is true to say that all four previous books [and the “philosophical handbook” as well] have been part of an attempt to answer this question, a question not immediately concerned with explicating what “anarchy” or “anarchism” is. And yet, in some way, for me these subjects have somehow coincided and become of intimate importance to each other. All of these books came to be because, at that moment in my life, they needed to be created. Yet, in that, they are different from this further book of the series because, with this book, I attempt to write a book which, in a way I can’t really explain, I have always felt HAD to be written – almost as the book I have been destined to write. Perhaps these previous books, then, were me girding my loins for this supreme literary effort of my life. No pressure.

All these books are then also me questioning myself about what human being is and what being human is. That is, I WANT TO KNOW WHAT I AM AND WHAT WE ARE. All this is going to come very much to the forefront in this book in which I attempt to answer what I conceive of as “the ultimate questions” I could ask of life, existence and being itself. This might sound like dry, philosophical stuff yet, as I have tried to present it in my four immediate warm up attempts for this volume, its not at all: it is the stuff of life itself. I am not one who thinks of philosophy or thinking as something for professors or academics; its for me and you and it has to be for we are the ones charged with responsibility for our lives: we can’t fob it off to someone else. So whilst in one sense this book, as the follow on from the four before, will seem like one addressing topics of general significance, its also my own personal exploration too. This is a book I HAVE to write for my own sanity as well as one which will act as an overarching context for the four that came before.

But, and I want to make this very clear, this is also a book fundamentally about anarchism and anarchy. It must be this because right back in Being Human I equated anarchy with reality or existence in what I called my “type 1” understanding of these things [see the beginning of chapter 7]. This understanding was further enhanced when, in the same book, I introduced the thinking of John Cage and Alan Moore into the equation. Both of these men have integrated what could just be one political philosophy among many into much larger and more ultimately consequential worlds of thought; in fact, its probably not going too far to say that they make them in some way something to do with the nature or way of the universe. This, for some, will be to come scarily close to making of anarchy a SPIRITUAL subject; well, very well, it is. I’ve said it [and in The Spiritual Anarchist’s Philosophical Handbook I didn’t actually hide it]. The original sub-title to this book did actually include the word “everything” — and I imagine that anarchy must be everything, and anarchism account for everything, if it is to make any sense. I cannot apologise for this since, always having wanted to give nothing more or less than an honest account, I can think of it in no other way. As one who has previously written books about “spiritual and political anarchy” and a “spiritual anarchist’s philosophical handbook” I would have to say the clues were there. My ambition is to do nothing less than account for everything within a holistic description, material and immaterial, physical and spiritual, that can be described as “anarchy” and “anarchism”.

This, I suggest, should not scare you off but draw you in for I am, at least, attempting to think things [and anarchy!] through as far as they can possibly go. Who knows, this may fall apart and then the more skeptical of my readers can feel vindicated. This is not an inquiry that is rigged from the start. I can honestly say that every single time I’ve written a book I’ve NEVER NOT ONCE known the end from the beginning. In many respects, I write in order to find out what I think! So I can’t honestly say that I know right now as I’m writing this preface! You should have confidence, then, that this is at least an honest exploration, a genuine seeking. It has always been that right from the first words of Being Human. My task has always been to honestly follow where the ideas and values I am held by take me and it will be this way too in this case as well.

I started overtly writing about “anarchism” a few years ago now in four anthological books I created under the title There is Nothing to Stick to, a phrase historically ascribed to the Buddha. In calling this book Nothing To Stick To I am both recalling this once more to mind and asserting a profoundly anarchistic statement about life, existence and being itself. It has always been a concern of mine in discussing anarchy from the first to express both its great diversity and so its [consequent and necessary] interpretational nature. Often I have thought this to myself using the phrase “everything is a fiction” and, in many ways, I expect this book to be a working out of this idea. Here are the idea seeds from which this book will grow as written by one who has always been concerned to point out that anarchism must be an anarchism of thinking as well as an anarchism of action, existence or organisation. This virtually mandates diversity [which I emphasised in the final chapter of Being Human] and threatens to split all the fictions we tell ourselves about the world, and ourselves within it, apart. So a further question that will need to be answered here is one very pertinent to the historical tradition known as anarchism: how can we be free individuals and a social community at the same time?

Here it is important that I think of anarchism itself as “no rulers” in as thoroughgoing a way as it is possible to do. I have spoken about this before, especially in the Handbook for Anarchist Insurrection where I added “autonomy” to my list of virtues beside a pre-existing conception of freedom as a human relation, something that could only be true about all of us together rather than separately or apart. I found this important, as I tried to show further in Egoism Explained, because, as Emma Goldman tried to show in her ideas throughout her life, human beings are both ineluctably separate beings yet also ones which value [if not require] socialisation for their normal functioning. In many respects, then, the riddle here is to respect both the individual and the social at the same time. This is a historical conundrum anarchists of the past have tried to solve in every way possible, often sublimating one to the other as a result. Goldman, for my money, was the pre-eminent one who refused to do so – emphasising the need for both and her reasons why in the process — which is why both social anarchists and egoist ones to this day both see either an example of their thinking or an example of what happens when you go to the other side in her thought. For me “no rulers” means that we must start from the reality of human individuals and see where we go from there, not ignoring sociality but seeking to integrate it with the fact of individual human consciousness [which is itself socially constructed in any case!]. For me its never either/or but always both/and.

In his introduction to his translation of Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra, a book I attempted to exegete in my own Egoism Explained, the scholar R.J. Hollingdale recalls that, for Nietzsche, an idea or thought was an affective thing. He dredges up from Nietzsche’s profuse correspondence Nietzsche saying that ideas could bring him to either tears of joy or to sickness of the guts. It is very much the same for me. Why else do people, who have no other reason to but their own will, recourse to writing multi-volume projects into the thousands of pages about such seemingly abstract topics as “anarchy” or “anarchism”? Why do they go on to make such topics the meaning or explanation of life itself? Without pre-empting the rest of the text, it must be because these subjects, and the way they are then couched, are of some import for the writer concerned; must, perhaps, be the meaning of their life – or, at least, be very closely adjacent to it.

I, of course, cannot tell you what the meaning of your life shall be – but I take it very seriously that I might be telling you mine. I said earlier that with this book I feel like I am writing the book I have always felt I HAD to write. In that I find myself very close to the position Nietzsche is said to have found himself in prior to writing Zarathustra. Having reduced everything to “everything is a fiction”, having made everything the responsibility of responsible humans to make of what they will or what they can [which I call “anarchism”], I have to follow this through to the end, plunge even deeper, answer every hard question that comes up on the way, AND END UP AFFIRMING PRECISELY THIS LIFE. This then must not simply be something so pointless as a set of “answers” which are immediately deemed irrelevant but a book of AFFIRMATION OF LIFE AS I CONCEIVE IT. Thus, it should not go past the attentive reader that I must then be able to affirm that THERE IS NOTHING TO STICK TO – as my title boldly claims. I have set myself quite a task… yet honesty, an anarchist’s honesty, demands it.

Overture 1: Do Not Fall Into The Trap of Words

PLEASE DO NOT FALL INTO THE TRAP OF WORDS

Please do not fall into the trap of words.

Without judgment, evaluation or significance what is there to be desired?

Stop trying to change.

Before the word “nihilism,” what is nihilism?

Everything that is?

Without the concept of location, where are you?

Right here?

Why did someone sit staring at a wall for nine years?

Because she did.

What was she expecting to get?

Nothing.

And what was she doing?

Staring at a wall.

Anything that happens is the name of a perception.

Right and wrong,

Wrong and right.

Without the illusion of a fiction

How would we know who we were or that we were?

Before words are there teachings?

Before words is there instruction?

Is there a book before the word “book”?

A philosophy or a reality?

What is a philosophy?

What is a reality?

Is a philosophy a reality?

Is a reality a philosophy?

Life is a label.

Death is a label.

But what is a label?

A fiction.

So is there life and death?

Seeing something as a thing

The fiction of “is” persists.

Without perception, the world dissolves.

Who were you before you were born?

Whatever you say something is, it isn’t.

Everything is at least a fiction.

No knower,

No known,

No separation,

No action.

Formless form.

No knowing.

No not knowing.

Perceptions,

Fictions,

Illusions,

Imaginary states.

You are not a person.

There is no “self”.

If there is no “you”

Then nothing you say about this “you” can be true.

Perceptions,

Fictions,

Illusions,

Imaginary states.

Appearance through opposites,

Difference an illusion,

Separation a perception,

Oneness a confusion.

Might you be enlightened but not know it?

In your bubble, what happens when the bubble bursts?

Movement, rest.

Rest, movement.

You are called a “you”

But it is not a “you”.

What you call a “you”

Is the name of a perception.

You are a state.

But there is no state.

Perceptions,

Fictions,

Illusions,

Imaginary states.

If there is no state then where are you?

Right here.

But where is “here”?

The present moment.

Perceptions,

Fictions,

Illusions,

Imaginary states.

Can you locate the source of a thought?

Can you find the creator?

Where is the start?

What is there before perception?

Imaginary states?

Reflections?

A reflection of an illusion of a metaphor of a fiction.

A reflection of an illusion of a metaphor of a fiction.

A reflection of an illusion of a metaphor of a fiction.

Mind?

No Mind.

Knowing?

Not Knowing.

We call it “the world”

But there is no “world”.

We see the manifestations

But there is no manifestation.

We become drawn in

And become caught up in attachment.

What does believing have to do with anything?

Perceptions,

Fictions,

Illusions,

Imaginary states.

Beware of believing.

Beware of attachment.

Beware of what makes sense.

So what is the situation?

What situation?

A speck of dust is necessary for the universe to be.

Words representing that which does not exist.

Fear holds things together

With “I don’t know” and “right and wrong”.

The All takes a shape

But it is still the All.

It hurts

But it is still the All.

Loveless

Still the All.

No difference or sameness

With All no “I”

With death comes the death of

“I am”.

Perceptions,

Fictions,

Illusions,

Imaginary states.

A speck of dust is All.

What is?

What isn’t?

Neither.

Water has no colour.

What colour is light?

Light is a perception.

What does light depend on?

You add

You take away

Equally zero.

No gain

No loss

All or fact?

Not zero.

No fixed positions

No being

No non-being

In between.

No enlightenment

No unenlightenment

In between.

Examine in between.

Who can know it?

There is no knower.

Teachings teach nothing,

They distract.

Describing what isn’t,

They can overpoint

Until the medicine makes sicker

Instead of healthier.

Dogma becomes fundamentalism

And the flexible becomes rigid.

Blind faith and empty hope

Are a bitter combination.

Teachings do not teach,

They point.

Without rules,

Right or Wrong,

Discrimination.

Dispose of the thorn before its wound

Infects you.

No creation

No destruction

No one to know

With no one to know

What are “same” and “different” anymore?

Who knows what?

What are we talking about?

Perceptions,

Fictions,

Illusions,

Imaginary states.

The illusionary world

Consciousness

Neither

No One

Absolute

Without.

Subjectivity is mind.

Objectivity is mind.

It is like looking

In a mirror.

Without form or emptiness

The mirror is smashed.

There is no mind.

There is no mirror.

There is no form.

Beware attachment.

Are you free?

Are you trapped?

Is there mind?

Is there consciousness?

Has your bubble burst?

Unaware

Not aware.

Perceptions,

Fictions,

Illusions,

Imaginary states.

There is not a thing

That does not depend

On other things,

Mutually supporting.

Everything is everything else.

Interdependent,

Relative,

Reciprocal,

Participatory.

Love,

Hate,

Fear,

Courage,

Holding everything together

Just as they are

So that the universe

Is just as it is.

The blade of grass

Is as important as “I”.

Sometimes the same,

Sometimes different,

Consciousness and

Perceived appearances

Exist as

Constant change.

What is their

Meaning and Significance?

Why discuss it?

The “I” sees endless activity,

A succession of things.

Yet without “I” to depend upon

There is only the Uninterrupted.

Endless flow,

In which “I” partakes,

Is the way of things.

What does it matter if you feel it?

What does it matter if you don’t?

What does it matter if you think it?

What does it matter if you don’t?

What does it matter if you believe it?

What does it matter if you don’t?

Self will not appear from somewhere

Unless you try to stand still.

And then you will get gain and loss,

Like a photograph of reality

That is not real itself,

That is not Endless Flow.

If you want to define things through perception,

Your senses will agree with your decision.

Consciousness, awareness, produce

The “is”, the “was” and the “will be”.

Concepts solidify,

Existence is conjured.

But what is “I-dentity”?

What is “definition”?

What is “perception”?

What is “mind”?

Perceptions,

Fictions,

Illusions,

Imaginary states.

The highest Serenity means extinction.

Anatta, Sunyata.

No self, emptiness.

All.

Endless Flow.

Action equals action,

Significances delude.

Organisational structures,

A fiction.

Here, there.

There, here.

What is “location”?

Hate, love.

Love, hate.

Do they exist?

Holy, profane.

Profane, holy.

What?

Lying, truth.

Truth, lying.

Fiction.

Significance,

An idealism.

“Special”,

An illegitimate distinction.

Names given to things,

Names for perceptions.

The All does not need perception,

A perceiver is equally to the side.

Without seeing or hearing it abides,

Without “is” or “is not” it resides.

The All is not awareness.

Past...

Present...

Future...

Now?

There is no “now”

For there is no “you”

Only “That” which isn’t.

“That” which can’t be grasped.

Perceptions,

Fictions,

Illusions,

Imaginary states...

The perceptual apparatus breaks.

What were you

Before you were you?

What were you

Before words came?

Imagine the boundaries,

Impose human form.

Perceptions,

Fictions,

Illusions,

Imaginary states.

No body,

No form.

No “I”.

In the revelation of the All

Things disappear.

The All

Extinguishes

And things

Are forgotten.

Thoughts,

No thoughts.

Reality,

No reality.

Knowing,

No knowing.

I,

No I.

Self,

No self.

The negation is just as important

As the affirmation.

Each is part of the Whole.

When there is only affirmation

You forget you are Nowhere.

Perceptions,

Fictions,

Illusions,

Imaginary states.

A portal to Now[here],

An eternal location.

What is the meaning of the Way?

A tree grows in the yard.

One if you see it,

“One” if you don’t.

Duality, a mistake,

Non-duality, a delusion.

Do not be deceived by language,

Smoke and mirrors.

Does a dead body know what it is?

Without knowing,

Without deceptive consciousness,

Without misleading awareness,

Without the falsehood of right and wrong?

Does a dead body know what it is?

Names given to perceptions

Do not make them so

And by adding an abstraction

It gains or loses no substance.

Here

Now

Is

Was

Will be

Illusory perceptions.

“Wisdom contains no knowledge.”

Without words,

The senses.

Without knowingness,

Can you know yourself?

Without words,

What is there?

The All,

Without words.

An equality of the All.

Form,

Emptiness.

No better,

No worse.

No higher,

No lower.

No senior,

No junior.

No beginning,

No end.

No earlier,

No later.

An equality of the All.

What is.

What isn’t.

Man never went to the moon.

No man.

No moon.

No went.

Form, emptiness.

Emptiness, form.

No “is”.

Asleep, awake.

Awake, asleep.

Which is the dream?

What difference does it make?

Enlightenment means extinction.

Go back the way you came.

I dreamed a world,

And dreamed it wasn’t a dream.

What appeared to be,

Was.

Analysed,

Theorised,

Building out the dream

That wasn’t a dream.

Grounded,

Spiritualised,

The dream that wasn’t a dream.

How to get out

Of the dream that wasn’t a dream?

Place

No Place

Wrong place

No wrong place

No place.

No world,

No place.

How can the world appear without place?

Something,

Not something.

Nothing,

Not nothing.

What is?

What is “is”?

The past becomes a zero

In the light of the present,

Dissolving into zero

Without zero.

Illusory cause becomes

Illusory result.

False conclusion,

False solution.

Blow out the light,

Enlightenment means extinction.

Perceptions,

Fictions,

Illusions,

Imaginary states.

The dream becomes real,

When you begin to believe it

But it doesn’t thereby

Stop being a dream.

No way out,

Seeking followed by more seeking,

But what cannot be got out of

Cannot be got into either.

No way out,

No way in.

Only dreaming.

Only believing.

Way,

No Way.

What is the cause of causes

When here is as good as anywhere,

When there is no start or finish,

When there is neither activity nor rest?

In the All I do not ever know that I am.

Can you be aware of your own extinction?

No enlightenment,

No delusion.

Who can add wetness

To the sea?

Why is this true?

Beware the deception of words!

Life is like noise

Without meaning.

Sound is like

Meaning without noise.

Do you understand?

What does it matter?

Perceptions,

Fictions,

Illusions,

Imaginary states.

Many bodies,

Or one body?

Without noticing,

Or noticer,

The All.

Affirmation,

Negation.

Enlightenment,

Not Enlightenment.

Point of view,

Not point of view.

Do you understand?

What does it matter?

Consciousness is Nothing,

Nothing is consciousness,

And neither are.

What is realisation?

No beings,

No duality,

No non-duality,

No selves,

No things.

The bubble bursts.

Teachers teach the light

But do not know

That what they teach as light

Is not light.

No location,

No space,

No time,

No form.

What is light if what you teach is the bubble?

Not light.

Sentient beings with

A point of view.

Beings who have

A space-time location.

This makes manifest.

The All cannot be manifest.

No point of view.

No life.

No death.

No existence

Or non-existence.

Life being unborn

As if it never was.

No change,

No growth,

No decay.

No hope,

No organisation.

A hazy mist of imaginings.

The mist dissolves.

Making sense is the way

To appearance and the

Imagining “As if”.

But what without

Making sense?

Once more,

A cool mist.

No body,

No point of view.

A cool mist.

The wave and the current

Are in the sea

Before you can

See them.

The granite contains

The statue

Before

It appears.

Extinction is

Waking up

And the rock

Remains untouched.

What is the wetness of water?

What is a sense of place?

What is the appearance of stasis?

A mirage you can’t replace.

Perception is a thorn.

Remove it before its

Wound infects you.

The mirage vanishes.

No mind,

No enlightenment.

What is before

The birth of

Mother and

Father?

A solid circle,

Never filled.

Without zero,

Never filled.

No infinity,

No zero.

No such thing as filled.

In the bubble

All is equal

Although it appears otherwise.

So what?

Who can say equal or unequal?

Of what importance is saying?

Journey

On the path,

Walking in the Way,

Could you take a trip

Without fear of missing the return trip?

No return trip.

Its done.

The illusion of present

Disappears

Becoming past…

Past, though,

Is not present

And neither is it past

For past is always experienced

In the present.

No connection

Which creates the self

In networks

Of time.

What stories will be made up now?

Perceptions,

Fictions,

Illusions,

Imaginary states.

No time,

No self.

“The monkey grabs

At the reflection in the moon.”

The sound appears,

Meaning without noise.

The light,

Reveals the bubble

And you say,

“I see!”

The mind perceives…

Its own reflection.

The bubble bursts,

No light,

No sound.

Same,

Without same.

Beware

The delusional light of awareness!

Within the bubble

There is relationship

Yet what has

Anything to do with

Anything else?

Experiences are

Relations

Which lead

From experience to experience

Eternally.

This is a bubble seduction.

Expect nothing from experiences.

Perceptions,

Fictions,

Illusions,

Imaginary states.

No relations.

No relationships.

No reference point.

The seduction of

The bubble.

A finger.

A hand.

A face.

Without location,

Without space.

There’s no point of view

From no point of view.

Perceiving,

Deceiving,

Illusion,

Delusion.

A stick burns,

Stick, body,

Fire, consciousness.

When the stick burns

Where does the smoke go?

The answer is everywhere

And nowhere.

Without a point of view,

Without a point to view.

Who knows anything of this?

Without a point of view,

Without a point to view from?

Perceptions,

Fictions,

Illusions,

Imaginary states.

With nowhere to see from

What is there to see?

With nowhere to know from

What is there to know?

Without a position,

Or fixed point of view?

Who sees,

Sees what?

Not knowing.

No inside,

No outside.

No ground?

Unseen but hard not to

Imagine the illusioned

Existence,

Hard to stop

The dream.

Without space

And time

What is being perceived?

What can be taught?

What can be said?

Everything a no,

Not,

Nothing,

Without.

Not applicable.

The dream illusion,

No dream illusion.

The root is without.

Before emptiness and form,

No thing [nothing],

Before nature,

No thing [nothing].

Before experience and knowing?

No thing [nothing].

That which comes and goes

Is an illusion.

That which perceives and is perceived,

The same.

That which explains and understands,

Illusion.

Treasure hunts are fictions

Even if they are entertaining

And fools gold has no value

Even if one of the words is gold.

Awareness resides in

Unawareness,

An actionless action.

Not applicable, no, without.

That which cannot be negated.

Not this.

No such thing as.

The point of view which

Confuses

And hides that which

Never was.

Perceptions,

Fictions,

Illusions,

Imaginary states.

A you which

Recognises you are

Not you

Hiding that which

Never was.

Actions in pursuit of reward,

A vicious cycle.

Realisation cannot

Be earned.

It cannot be

Had,

Possessed,

Or experienced.

Enlightenment means Extinction.

Exact all your effort

To learn:

Effort gets you

Nowhere!

You come from

Consciousness.

Consciousness does not come

From you!

Before you leave,

Turn off the light!

Enlightenment means extinction!

Without a soul to know it,

What is?

What isn’t?

A perceiver,

And a body appears.

A perceiver,

And an atom appears.

A perceiver,

And science appears.

Can you “see” without considering?

Can you mean without words?

Do problems appear by themselves?

Made

Is

Being

Now

Was

Am

Will be.

The assumptions never end.

Teach me a word that has never existed.

Exist without existing.

No such thing as zero.

Please do not fall into the trap of words.

Overture 2: A Brief History of My Story of Anarchism

Since this book is, in my own mind, one in a series of five I have written about “anarchism”, it behooves me to write a little bit here about what has come before. The previous books in this series began with Being Human: A Philosophy of Personal and Political Anarchism. What was going on here? In my mind it was trying to write something about an attitude to life that was not selfishly individual and disregarding of the world but neither something which regarded the singular human being as unimportant either. The four anarchist examples I chose to write chapters about in this book – Jesus of Nazareth, John Cage, Alan Moore and Emma Goldman – were idiosyncratic choices to be sure. But they all, to me at least, had that same concern for individual expression within a wider and unavoidable social context. Being Human, as readers will already know, however, is not exactly a stereotypical book of the kind that might introduce the reader to a subject like anarchism. There’s no potted history and no introduction to the “great figures of the past” the tradition might boast, for example. It begins, in fact, with a series of meditative blogs on the films of the Blade Runner universe. Well, it is called “Being Human” and what is more human than a non-human replicant?

I wanted this book not to be a program but the record of the thoughts of a person. That’s why it was subtitled as “personal” and “political”. This idea, of course, is a verity of the feminist kind, that personal experience is of political consequence. I agree with this entirely and think that anarchism is itself the best demonstration of it. Yet this book, for all its diversity of subject matter and eccentric collection of contents, was also a “philosophy” which, I suppose, means it was meant to be a coherent – or at least related – collection of ideas. There was, of course, actually philosophy in the book, most especially in chapters 2 and 5. Yet it was to me a book about ideas – good and bad with its inclusion of chapters about human biology and the history of Euro-American racism – and its eclecticism was meant to be a stimulus to reader thought. This is exactly why it was not yet another “this is the history of anarchism” narrative or yet another “anarchists do this, anarchists don’t do that” kind of a text. By making it personal, I was saying that anarchism is about releasing every human being to be what they want to be; by making it political I was saying that this can never just be about you.

After quite a large beginning to my project [over 400 pages long], the book[let] Building Communities and Defeating Capitalism came along. It was inspired by interacting with people, especially one woman from Portland, Oregon who I gave a co-writing credit to, Lara Nasir, who are working on the front lines with homeless people. One of the things that annoys me the most about those who deem to care about this and other problems of capitalism is that their thinking on the subject never really seems straight. Consequently, they are powerless and they regard themselves as powerless. They do nothing when, if they care as much as they feign to care, they really should be doing something. This, of course, is the fault of capitalism and its liberal politics which teaches you to trust in institutions which have long since betrayed you and which disarm you from fighting for yourself and for your neighbours. Why Lara inspired me to conceive of and write the book[let] was that she, although she had herself recently been homeless, was actually doing something to help others herself, from her own initiative. She was, to me, anarchism in action where such anarchism wasn’t about having read Bakunin or being able to bandy theory about in stupid Twitter conversations that took place between people who mostly never do a single thing you could call anarchist at all – but was about helping real people in the real world survive and stay alive with some kind of dignity. This book[let] was never meant to be very long or technical nor some great addition to the world of anarchist theory but it was there to say “People need help. Anarchists are people who help. Get helping.” So it was actually a document there to say “Anarchists act”. And if you don’t act then are you really an anarchist?

The singular point of the book[let] was then that mutual aid is destructive of capitalism. Why? Because it avoids exploitation and coercion of others, ignores economic growth as a motivation and says that all people need to do is have a concern for each others’ needs and everyone will survive. My point was that the values of mutual aid and capitalism are directly opposed. One must drive out the other. And so, of course, I chose that mutual aid must drive out capitalism. This was really then a book[let] about human economy which also makes it a book[let] about human relations, a very important subject to me in all its consequences for interaction of one person with another. So its a book[let] which says that how we choose to relate to each other – en masse – will determine how it goes for us as a whole. The theory of mutual aid, famously championed by Peter Kropotkin, is one way to address this issue that sets out to be of mutual benefit. Capitalism, I said, has clearly failed both the mass of people and, increasingly, the planet itself. We need to change. Or die. We need to relate to each other and look beyond ourselves and our own needs and perhaps even see in the supplying of others’ needs the supplying of our own. This book[let] could be seen as the compact and concise highpoint of my expression of a social form of anarchism in which I say that mutual aid should be deployed as a tactic of the oppressed who have been made war upon but are fighting back.

This then led into the centrepiece of what is now a five part project, A Handbook for Anarchist Insurrection. This book probably wasn’t supposed to be as large as it ended up being but I needed to say what needed to be said and I didn’t want to feel like I had skimped or glossed over anything. The book is an analysis of anarchism, the world and the human being with the understanding that all exist together and imply and entail each other. It was about mentality as much as, if not more than, materiality as an expression of the understanding that THE ANARCHIST INSURRECTION BEGINS WITHIN YOUR MIND; it is, in fact, entirely predicated upon your thinking. This was why that which came first, and so that which was most likely to be read by dubious readers who would perhaps give up as they got into the text, was the example of Diogenes, the postanarchist concentration [inspired by Saul Newman’s reading of Max Stirner] not to allow ourselves to be ordered by others, the need for us to put the onus of thinking [as a rethinking] on ourselves – and a focus on the whole of SELF-ACTUALISATION. Only then, I was saying by the order that I gave the book, can we concern ourselves with anarchist ethics, organisation, economics, ecology, education. The determination to take SELF-RESPONSIBILITY as the fundamental anarchist attitude was the pre-eminent point to get across here. This was, and is, where the anarchist insurrection starts. It is a revolution in thought and so in being.

This is highlighted again throughout the second part of the text which surveys various areas of anarchist interest suggesting insurrectional approaches and ideas. But this book is not dogma. It is not saying “Do as this text tells you.” These are only stimulating ideas; what you are going to do is up to you. There is a lot of material here though and only serious people will commit themselves to going through it all step by step. Good. Books should test their readers’ commitment to their subjects. I come out in favour of an ecologically interested, post-civilisational, ethical anarchism of relationships, mutual aid and commonism, an anarchism of educational insurrection in the minds of all we meet and have to do with. It forces no one into any organisation — nor even mandates any — and does not imagine the world will be the same in an anarchist tomorrow as it is in a capitalist and non-anarchist today. In fact, it regards the very idea of those two being the same as nonsensically stupid. That said, in part three of the book this is presented again conversationally in the situation of a commune of people who live as anarchists and then presents an anarchist apocalypse [apocalypse meaning “revelation”] as if to hammer home again that we must become changed people from the capitalist, liberal clones we were created to be. We have to take our places in the war for autonomy and freedom.

If Building Communities and Defeating Capitalism was a minor and concentrated echo of the major thesis that was Being Human, then the fourth book in my series, Egoism Explained, functioned in the same way in relation to the Handbook. It is, of course, a book about egoist anarchism which takes its theoretical origins to be the ideas of both Max Stirner and Friedrich Nietzsche; but this is not to then say, gotcha style, that I must be an egoist anarchist myself. One, for example, could certainly not argue that on the basis of Building Communities and Defeating Capitalism and probably not from Being Human either. My project, in fact, as I hope the first book suggested, has always sought to be more inclusive than divisive. It is not about facile branding or schools or differentiations. That first book, in fact, even made the point that classification is itself a divisive tool of power. So I have my doubts about LABELS at all and not simply in this case. My point would be to ask if the job they are doing is articulating anything useful and needful. With anarchism this is often not the case and I regard the ideas – which I’ve not been shy about taking lots of words over – are what matter more. If you want to use hackneyed terminology I can make good cases for both social and egoist anarchist influences from what I’ve actually written previously and, clearly, my third book had a strongly insurrectionist tone and intent. But to think this can be contained by, or summed up in, a label is, I think, impossible and pointless. We are – and should be – unique.

So, in writing about egoism, it was egoism’s ideas, attitudes and stances, and their consequences for anarchism, that were important to me. Right from the beginning I had written about a personal anarchism with political consequences and, it seems to me, that’s exactly what egoism is about too. In Egoism Explained I made this case as concisely as I could in theoretical and historical senses, finishing off with my own rhetorical arguments for its importance to any anarchism. In doing so, this was not to “big up” egoism or fight a facile war against more social anarchists [there’s nothing more social than mutual aid so I have my receipts there] but to say that anarchism, as I understand it, must come first and foremost from the conviction and action of the individual. It is a personal life and motivation which drives it forward and makes it real in the world.

And, in a way, this leads us back to the beginning again for all this I see as an explanation of “being human”, as the consequences of being human. That title for my first book in the series might seem strange but I hope that, in some kind of way, its actually profound. For it suggests that being human is something to do, necessarily, with anarchism in itself. This is what is, I hope, going to be emphasised again and again by this book now in that its going to take a much broader and more thoughtful, philosophical look at the world that humans see and inhabit, reflect upon it and share what I hope might deserve to be called relevant insights about it, ones that enlighten the subject of “being human” but also implicate “anarchy” beyond the idea of that as a merely political project. Anarchy, as my readers will know, has always been about more than that for me. In this book, as a book contextualising the previous four, I hope to amp up that contextualisation to the max. But before I can set about that huge task I need to relate a rather personal story.

Overture 3: How I Became An Anarchist

I am often told of numerous teenagers who, as they went through their teenage years, began to become politicised as they saw the world around them for the first time as an adult and didn’t like what they were seeing. This radicalised and politicised them and they began to take up stances on everything from the environment to socialism. Perhaps there was some personal awakening they had. Perhaps they were brought up in an environment that believed in political education. I, however, was not one of these teenagers. There was nothing political about my upbringing and I was practically blind to the word “politics” or anything it signified. In fact, I was quite a narcissistic teen. I was interested in how I looked and getting compliments from others about it. I wanted to be cool and liked and told I was good looking. I wanted to be sexy.

Ironically, this was how I became an anarchist — although I suppose there is no one path which leads to such a destination. When I turned 18 I wanted to be a model and, no surprise, I know, there were lots of photographers who said they could help me. I would have done it myself but, at that time, I didn’t know a lens from a shutter and certainly nothing about light, composition, etc., all the stuff proper photographers have mastered which gives something a professional look. And I wanted to look professional. But, as circumstances dictated, that meant getting involved with other people. And not all such people are nice people — as is the case in any walk of life. And, so, inevitably, I met a photographer who wanted to exploit me. Not content with the underwear photos I had asked for, he wanted me to take the underwear off and said I should get into porn and that he could help me. As if to emphasise the point, he wanted me to pose with his cock. I was, at that time, too vain and distractedly naive to say no because he kept telling me how hot I looked posing with it.

But then things got out of hand and I began to wake up. He took hundreds of photos of me in underwear, out of it, with his cock and not. But afterwards I had a change of mind when I was back at home, thinking about it; I had some intuition which told me this wasn’t quite right. So I went back to him and asked him to delete all the contents of the shoot. He refused. He told me the photos [and, as it turned out, video] were his legal property. He told me he was planning to set up a website to monetize the content which, he correctly pointed out, I had consented to by signing a form he had given me to sign before the shoot. I had never read this form because, unthinkingly, I had assumed it was just admin but, in reality, it had signed over to him all the contents of the time I had spent with him, including photos of him touching me and basically pornographic material I had posed for with his cock inside me. The form [which was, of course, a contract] also said I had agreed not to be paid for any of this content but that I could only have copies of anything I wanted in return. He, meanwhile, was planning to use the images to make money out of me, much as in the case of Mia Khalifa, at one time the most popular porn search on the Internet, who actually only acted in porn for three months before deciding it was not for her. But, unfortunately for her, she had given the rights to her videos away and now even the porn site in her name on the Internet is owned by a porn company who exploits her three months of material for cash while she gets nothing. Its all about ownership, you see. It brings power.

For a week or two I was very upset and depressed at this news. I had been foolish and that made me hate myself for my naivety, but what came to the forefront even more was the system that had allowed this to happen. How could it be that some ink on a piece of paper, backed up by an entire system of law and government, meant that this man could literally own me and present me online however he wanted? He could edit and present the material any way he liked, perhaps to present me as a slut or as his [step] daughter or as a “naughty schoolgirl” or even as the initiator of the contact which led to the content — “jail bait” as they call it. All of this would be untrue but, within the confines of a website that presented his own, legal content, something he was perfectly well allowed to do. Rather than being upset and depressed at this, the more I thought about it now, the more I became angry. [And, of course, I’m not the only teen to have been, or still be in, in this position.]

And so rather than feeling helpless about it, which I had for those two weeks, I decided to do something about it. But don’t imagine I wasn’t scared by this idea because inside I was shaking. Yet I knew that no one else was going to help me because, aside from anything else, I didn’t want anyone else to know what I had done. At that stage in my development, I wasn’t ready for my family or my friends to know I had had a stranger’s cock in me on camera and that I had willingly agreed to it [and more] without, as they would’ve seen it, even asking for money. I had really backed myself into a corner. I was alone. So I did the only thing I could do: I pretended to be interested in wanting to make more as a means to deceiving the photographer and perhaps being able to destroy the content which I knew he kept on a laptop at his home studio. The photographer was pleased to hear back from me and even more pleased to hear I was interested in more. He told me about his plans to exploit me even further and even suggested that I be willing to fuck random men on camera so he could sell the videos to subscribers. He was offering me a tiny cut of the revenue he said this would generate and keeping the vast majority for himself. I agreed — but only because I wanted to lull him into a false sense of security.

All the material he had on me was in one file on his laptop which he had crassly labelled “Tastygothteen” and I knew that I had to destroy it as it was the only way to end my particular situation. But destroying someone’s property I, like most people, had always assumed was a bad thing. Things belong to certain people and not others, I thought, and any other way of proceeding is chaos. But that didn’t concern me in that moment for I had a laser focus on putting this behind me. So I turned up at his place and he was very happy to see me. Too happy, in fact, and he was overly familiar with me, kissing me without asking and slipping his hand under my skirt to feel my ass as if he thought my change of mind meant I was now his plaything, his teen sex toy. He was only dressed in thin boxers and made no secret of the fact he had an erection. In fact, he even put my hand on it and told me that taking it inside me would make me famous. I was repulsed and even more determined to solve my problems. My chance came when he needed to use the bathroom and, while he did, I poured concentrated bleach I had brought in a bag with me all over his laptop keyboard. I literally emptied the whole bottle and watched as the thick, viscous liquid disappeared between the keys before closing the lid and quietly leaving his place before he came back. I never saw him again but on my way home he tried to call me nine times. I have never seen any of the photos or videos he coerced me to do with him online and so I can only assume my plan worked.

But things didn’t stop there for me because the situation I had put myself in I came to see as one I had been manipulated into with the help of a human society which believes in law and property rights, both things which work in the favour of the rich and powerful and are backed up by the systems of violent oppression that are government and the state. They had put me in the position of having to destroy that photographer’s computer in order to reassert my own rights over images of my own body. I started to think about how such social fictions as “property” and “law”, things which are only as true as our willingness to acknowledge them, had come to be so prevalent in society. This led me to thinking about society itself, particularly the way that power shaped it, and how the rich automatically had an advantage there because wealth essentially equals power in this world, a world in which your ability to coerce people is the key to having power over them. These realisations radicalised me as I slowly awoke from my ignorant slumber and began to see the innumerable ways in which power, by means of any number of injustices, shapes the world we live in. I came to see that life is not a meritocracy. People don’t all have an equal opportunity. All things are not equal and so not just anybody has a chance in life. The truth is, the world is rigged and the rules are written by the powerful to keep them in power.

An example is the very pornography the photographer I had met wanted to drag me into when I was literally only just eighteen. I have no issue with sex work itself, especially where it is at the initiative of the performer. [It should, of course, always be with their consent.] I know quite a few young women who are happily surviving by making their own, often very artistic and worthwhile, sexual content. Others, as their own choice, engage in more interactive activities and that is their choice too so long as everything is consensual and non-coercive and I have zero moral problems with it. But, in my case, my issue was that this photographer’s attitude from the very start was one of exploitation. He saw me, my body, as a thing to be bought and sold. Its ability to be this, and my willingness to use it in ways that increased this ability, was his sole interest [aside from the fact that, as my honesty must now dictate, he just wanted to fuck me as well]. His problem was not that I turned him on and gave him an erection, although his losing self-control around that was also a problem I had to deal with, but that he wanted to possess content of me and to exploit me. This is the capitalist mindset, part of the capitalist ideology which controls much of human thinking, where it lives, rent free, like a cancer of the mind. “Find a commodity and then ruthlessly exploit it for profit” is where this thinking takes you. Push it into people’s faces, sell as much of it as you can. More, more, more. All for bits of currency so you can keep the hamster wheel going by spending what you make on something else. And, don’t forget, the hamster can’t stop running. It can never stop for, as we saw during the earlier part of the Covid Pandemic when lockdowns were in vogue, it only takes a few weeks of this stopping for millions to be unemployed and for businesses to collapse. Capitalism is the hell system which sucks you dry but which starts to die itself if it can’t stop sucking you dry for even a few, short weeks.

So I came to see this photographer as a man driven by a system that had control of him, the desire to exploit others for his own, private benefit. It wasn’t lost on me, of course, that I almost certainly wasn’t his only victim. After all, if he could do it to me then he could do it to others who had just turned eighteen as well. That both saddened and angered me; sadness that people could be this way and anger that the world seemingly allows it to continue. But of course it does. The world, the artificial human world we call civilisation, is in the grasp of, and animated by, exactly the same exploitative, acquisitive ideology which is fed, insidiously, to each of us with our mother’s milk. We are all taught that having expensive things, being “above” others and not being one of those who are “left behind”, the mass of poor, unremarkable people, are the things to be. We are all taught to conform to this scheme of things and know our place. We are all coerced to play our part in keeping the ideology going — even if only by not challenging or contradicting it or by pointing out the millions of casualties it creates. Capitalism, so I came to see through my own experiences, doesn’t care about people. It cares about profit, about power, about exploitation, about control. This doesn’t mean it won’t pay you, or people like you, any attention, however. But if it does it is only so it can buy and/or sell you. In our century some of the richest capitalists are those who routinely collect the very data of our lives — who you are, where you go, what you like, what you look at, etc. People are for sale and often they don’t even know it.

My own experiences made me think about this and, as I did, I came more and more to reject it. I saw civilisation as false and artificial — things don’t have to be this way and could be organised differently if only we agreed they should be. I started reading books and stories which imagined life lived another way which I came to know as “anarchism”, not a matter of men in masks setting things on fire but something based on human solidarity, pure democracy you cannot delegate to someone who can be corrupted and the utmost fairness and equality where people do not need government and cops to make them do things because they have either decided to live in peace with each other or to just mind their own business as much as they can. In addition to this, I soon after started university and my studies led me in a direction which made me question the very basis of “normality” or “normal life” that we all just unthinkingly accept. [I was a philosophy student before doing postgraduate work on the historical aims of Jesus of Nazareth — who I see as a Jewish anarchist.] So that one photographer was not some outlier in a world of “basically decent people” but he was an example of someone caught in the net of capitalism which teaches you that to exploit and possess is what life is all about. But it isn’t and it can be different. However, in order for it to be different, we must change how people think [education!] and resist and undo the capitalist chains which bind us. Convinced capitalists will certainly not give up their hard won advantages lightly and so this may take a lot of commitment on the part of those who want to make the whole better and fairer for the vast majority of people.

But there is reason to hope. Even the most convinced capitalist can cooperate with others [and, since no one can survive alone, has to]. Even the most selfish person can stand in line and wait their turn for something. Many of the things each of us do every day are the building blocks of anarchism which is really only the philosophy that people can sort things out for themselves without the need to coerce and control each other. Anarchism does not say this naively — for anarchists surely know that people will always be tempted to act in their own interests and against others — but with the belief that what people already do they can be persuaded is better for all of us and the planet we live on which capitalism has destroyed at an alarming rate. But they do not pretend it is easy. It will take the efforts of every anarchist and socially-minded person on the planet convincing their neighbours and friends that change must come. For, if it doesn’t, the alternative is that we are all condemned to be that photographer looking for naive models like me. And to exploit them as much as we can. Is that what we really want?

1. Nihilism

Nihilism.

Why is there anything rather than nothing? More to the point, why is there something and it seems to amount to nothing? Why, given all that exists and all the possibilities of life, do so many people find everything so meaningless?

I woke up one day in the recent past and wrote the following series of thoughts:

“The public world of politics, economics, news cycles and social events means nothing. They are a system of directed occurrences which lead only to extinction, loss and annihilation. We are seen as resources to be used up. We have no inherent value. We are meat in a meat grinder.

The most important existential question of today is “Shall I play this public game of giving myself up to be used as resources by others, shall I just become more empty, meaningless fodder, OR shall I shoulder the burden of saying I mean something unique, something only I create?”

Living is daring to be unique in a world that wants you to play the role you’ve been assigned.

The living is in the willing. You can only find peace by willing your path, by pronouncing your “yes” over how you shall live in a world that wants to take responsibility from you and make you a liar to yourself.

I go my own way, I decide what matters; all things are nothing to me. I set my path on nothing.”

The series of thoughts then finished with a photo of me and the words “free spirit” as the caption.

A few hours earlier, the night before, I had watched, without any warning whatsoever, Alejandro Jodorowsky’s 1973 film, The Holy Mountain, and someone looking for “libertine” novels had found my own series of transgressive fiction novels: Diogenes: A Dissimulation, 2038, Dionysia Goth and A Change of Consciousness. This elicited the following stream of consciousness ideas:

“Watching The Holy Mountain, thinking about the novels I wrote and thinking about the nudity I love makes me come back once again to the subject of BODIES. The human body — skin, hair, holes, fluids, hot, cold, gurgling, farting — is endlessly fascinating [yet horrifying] to me.

Human beings are not disembodied spirits — though we are often thought of as spirit, mind or intellect as if this was what mattered most — but physical, material entities. Organisms. Our physicality can change our mood in a second.

Why do things like sex, drugs, altered states of consciousness or even just emotions affect us so much? Because we are uniquely our bodies. We experience physically. In fact, we can’t stop doing it. We are fated to it.

We are told, by people who are presumed to know, that touch is very important to us.

Why?

Because we are physical. Touching has a profound influence upon us — as also does its lack.

And this, of course, is also why physical pain or confinement — control of our bodies — matters so much too. I don’t just mean here in terms of sexual games. I mean in terms of political or authoritarian control too. Freedom is to be physically experienced!

Physical senses of sight, sound, smell, taste and touch are our ONLY means of experiencing anything outside ourselves. They are our only way to imagine anything else in a vast universe of mostly space. Without bodies we would know nothing and be nothing.

This is one of the things that informs the novels I wrote: our VISCERALITY. Skin, bone, hair, gristle. That’s what we are.

How does that come to MEAN something?

This is a long-winded way to say that how we think about our bodies — what we are — matters a lot.

It matters not just to us in regard to our own bodies but socially, politically and sexually where people use bodies to divide and label each other.”

Now I am an “extreme constructivist” — as the famous Cambridge scholar, Priyamvada Gopal, once called me on Twitter in response to an answer I gave to a question she asked her followers [of which I was not one]. This is to say that I believe human thought is the construction of useful fictions. Everything is interpretation. So the biggest sin for me is being indicative, saying something *is* the case. Its all made up as far as I’m concerned. And it all deconstructs. This induces numerous people to imagine that I think “nothing exists” or that “nothing is real” – which is something that could be a logically consistent position but is not something that I actually ascribe to myself – in contradiction of my critics. Of course, in order to make such claims you have to be in a position where you think you can give substantial context to what something “existing” or being “real” means and you then have to think everything being “interpretation” or “made up” or “deconstructable” both can and does contradict this.

Its not immediately obvious why this would be the case. After all, I hold the latter beliefs but I don’t think this means nothing, including myself, exists or that there isn’t a “reality” in which I play my insignificant part. It is just that I think what is there can be described in potentially endless ways that correspond to uses people might have for doing so, none of them any more intrinsic to the things than a description, any description, of a number would be to the number. If you’ve read Being Human chapter 5 you will know that I can thank American pragmatist philosopher, Richard Rorty, for that insight – although its clearly a consequence of Nietzsche’s thinking too, with which I have gained an always growing and deepening familiarity.

This chapter is about nihilism and, even just lying in bed, thinking, after one wakes up for a few minutes, one can see that it is all around us. The economic creed of capitalism, like a jail cell without bars or walls, is all about endless growth which results in acquisitive behaviour that treats people and things as resources to be used up until there is nothing left. This leads to wars, virtual and actual, to control material possessions and to make things into material possessions. It is not clear what would happen if one power got control of all the resources except, of course, that it would eventually use them all up and die alone – a pyrrhic victory if ever there was one. Our politics works in service of this controlling acquisitional agenda and craves what possession desires most: centralised power. This is not just control of territory, although this is important, but also control of people, those pesky creatures who might go getting ideas of their own if you let them. Consequently, politics has itself become a nihilistic partisanship, a meaningless [and endless] battle between camps which essentially want the same things but who act [at least in public for the cameras] as if they were as different as chalk and cheese. Such a spectacle apparently still fools some people. Well, you only need 30% of the UK adult population to vote for you to have an 80 seat majority and total power these days so its not like you have to fool everybody. Besides, those who don’t vote for the winners will still essentially support the political apparatus by which they are caged anyway, willing police officers without a badge that they mostly are. You can’t get more nihilistic than that.

Its little different if we come to culture – or “entertainment” as its often called these days in a world of “Netflix and chill”. [I have an uncontrollable urge to punch people who say this unironically.] The major films of our day in 2022 are superhero films by Marvel [or their worse copies by DC]. Capitalist film companies are making hundreds of millions, and occasionally thousands of millions, of dollars essentially making the same film with different characters over and over again. The most notable thing about any of these films is that they are made to a formula. The intention is not to make something good, original or even brave but to make something popular because popularity equals money. So this is nothing to do with creativity and everything to do with publicity. The cultural ideal these days, in a world of social media, is to create viral experience after viral experience [which is strange when you consider the world created an actual viral experience it then tried to hide!] — which are essentially ever bigger bubbles of popularity. No thought is given to what this is doing to us and none of it is about creating anything meaningful. Its just a cash grab. On TV, streaming services are falling over themselves to provide meaningless, dumbed-down “spectacle” or “event TV” for much the same reasons. All they actually want is to hook you up to their income streams like a vampire collecting human beings for the blood bank. Its all meaningless because its all only about a few getting unimaginably rich at the expense of everyone else — who are just cattle to be led to the slaughter.

I’m watching a You Tube video which is an extended [over 2 hour!] interview with the writer and magician, Alan Moore. I find Alan a fascinating character and I find his conversion to a magician in the mid 1990s, already being famous as the writer of V for Vendetta and Watchmen, intriguing. The first of those books was famously about anarchism and Alan claims to be an anarchist. I think his later involvement with magic tells us what kind of anarchist he is. He’s one who wants to bring anarchy to bear in the world of ideas. He wants to protest that things are not meaningless and demonstrate that in a world made meaningless the most revolutionary thing you could do is to give it meaning. Alan Moore has essentially spent his entire creative life giving things meaning. I don’t think, in doing that, that he has been trying to persuade other people to accept his meanings as THE meaning [his anarchist ideal was called “The Land of Do As You Please”, after all]; he has just been going along and giving things meaning through story. What else is magic, in fact, but the use of language and symbol to give things meanings, to “create realities”? That, in turn, lets the cat out of the bag that this is all language does itself: it creates meaning and imbues seemingly amorphous and continuous streams of events with reality – which is just a name for that we are supposed to regard as consequential and, consequently, meaningful. At one point in the interview [which is actually more a discussion with a magically interested conversation partner] Moore says: “You can give meaning to things” and this strikes me as shocking. I can give meaning to things? But, of course, we HAVE to give meaning to things because, if we don’t, we will become trapped in the meanings – or rather lack of meanings, as Moore himself complains – which others, which societies, which cultures, impose on things. Making meaning, giving meaning to things, is actually a survival strategy. Its not just in the material world that we must build the things we want to see but in the immaterial world too. Alan Moore himself has done this with his concept of “Ideaspace” and its fascinating to learn about.

But it is to nihilism as a philosophy or set of related beliefs that we must eventually turn. The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy [IEP] links this fundamentally, in recent context, to the philosophies of Friedrich Nietzsche in terms of the nihilistic consequences of his various insights and assertions [“facts are what there is not, only interpretations”] for civilisation as a whole. Nietzsche himself, of course – as I showed in my exegesis of Thus Spoke Zarathustra in Egoism Explained – attempted to overcome the consequences of his own nihilistic conclusions and predictions [which many would say came entirely true] through the Overhuman and the thought experiment of the eternal recurrence [to which Alan Moore also refers in the interview I mentioned above]. Nietzsche, as the IEP reports, thought that “there is no objective order or structure in the world except what we give it. Penetrating the façades buttressing convictions, the nihilist discovers that all values are baseless and that reason is impotent.” This, so the IEP continues in its understanding of Nietzsche, “requires a radical repudiation of all imposed values and meaning.” This, as Nietzsche’s order of work itself seems to show, necessitates an active destruction of meaning and value [which we see in the books from Human, All Too Human through to The Gay Science] in order for new creation [primarily in Zarathustra but also in the books following] to begin.

Nihilism in the Twentieth Century manifests in the existential and ontologically entangled philosophies of someone like Martin Heidegger or in the literature of people like Jean-Paul Sartre or Albert Camus, literature with existentially philosophical consequences. It can also be found in the anti-foundational scholarship of those like the literary and legal scholar, Stanley Fish, or the anti-epistemological and anti-metaphysical pragmatism of Richard Rorty. Such scholarship, when taken together, questions the meaning of life itself along with the groundlessness of evaluating systems. This could be seen, in fact, as the result of honest, intellectual openness and a refusal to rest on manufactured foundations which are then rhetorically buttressed by arguments intended to imagine that what was made was, in fact, not made. Such honest openness, of course, eventually threatens entire civilisations for all such civilisations create a myth of their own permanence and necessity which build in [and out] their needfulness through the dissemination of culture and value[s] aimed to concretize their existence. Postmodernism can be seen as one consequence of all this nihilistic thinking as it boasts “incredulity toward metanarratives” [in the oft quoted words of Jean-Francois Lyotard] and so leads to a world of fragmentation and inability to orient all things together as a connected whole. As such, this leads to skepticism towards the idea of any kind of unity [seeing all such things as fictional] and undermines all kinds of intellectual and moral hierarchies — including those epistemological in purpose or intent such as universal truth claims or claims to knowledge. Knowledge itself, in fact, is seen as constructed in this way.

There is, though, more than one way to understand nihilism – and depending on what you apply nihilistic thought to. As a whole, of course, nihilism insists that various kinds of human values or meaning are ultimately baseless. This would finally include human values and meaning themselves. This can lead to some stark conclusions but we should not shy away from that for HONESTY – especially in the intellectual realm – should be our prime virtue, regardless of its consequences. So we should concede that there is no such thing as “objective truth”. We should admit that, strictly speaking, “knowledge” – which is a valuation – is beyond our verifiable abilities as human beings. [So there is no genuine knowledge or, if there is, we have no ability to recognise or denominate it – making knowledge impossible.] “Morality” is, at best, human practices or traditions with no ground in anything authoritative beyond such things. [And so, strictly speaking, there is no morality and the universe is either amoral or immoral.] Valuing and meaning-making itself is an urge and impulse of the human being — ultimately as a phenomenon of evolutionary biology. It happens because it can and perhaps in order to enable a certain form of life – our form of life. But, of course, there is nothing essential or necessary about that either. It is entirely contingent. Such life is then without any overarching purpose or meaning. We just exist – as individuals and as a species – because we could. In coming to such conclusions, we begin to sweep away all epistemological, moral, social and political normativity. We find that the human books we have written and put on the shelves of our values fall to the ground, the shelves collapsed, to find that the books are, in fact, only full of blank sheets of paper – for there is nothing to say that is not fiction and that can stand without us first making it up and insisting it is authoritative.

We should be careful to distinguish different understandings of nothing and nihilism, however. The Buddhist, for example, venerates the idea of “nirvana”, a state of “being extinguished” [the literal meaning of “nirvana”] and soteriological release thought of, at least by some Buddhists, as “a place of nothingness, non-possession and non-attachment” which is even the end of death and decay. [One might want to think on what nothingness has to do with my first overture in this book in this respect as its impetus is partly Buddhist.] Such “nothingness” is not, however, “nihilism” as the Western mind has imagined it; it is rather a no-thingness, a state where you experience the reality of non-grasping and non-attachment, a philosophy in which acquisition or what you have or do not have is of no consequence. Eastern mentalities often, in fact, even negate the Self, regarding this as yet another fiction, a story we tell ourselves, even as Nietzsche regarded it as a mere grammatically-inspired imperative in, for example, Beyond Good and Evil. It may be observed here that to negate the Self may be seen as a therapeutic strategy for if there is no Self then there is nothing to suffer for except the story you tell yourself. Recall earlier when I referred to human bodies as but collections of skin, hair, bone and gristle. This is what we are, biology working itself out because it can. But that, too, is just another story. Recalling Jodorowsky’s The Holy Mountain once again, there is a scene where the words “nothingness is reality” are heard and “possession is the worst pain” follows soon after. Jodorowsky himself had been taught Buddhism at around the time he was making this film and the film’s ending, which is the camera pulling back to reveal the scene as entirely artificial, a collection of actors being filmed on a mountain, makes the point that what might appear as reality ultimately is not. It was all an illusion. Illusions are that which the Buddhist seeks to divest themselves of to reach the “non-attachment” of “no-thingness”.

Nietzsche, of course, as the gateway implicated in many contemporary articles written about nihilism, is not alone in his nihilistic premonitions — nor even in writing about them and taking action against them. So in this chapter I want to continue by interacting with two literary artifacts [rather than with philosophers] which engage nihilism and nihilistic consequences. These are Albert Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus and The Rebel. By doing this, however, I am making no claim that these are the best places to interrogate nihilism. I am saying they are only the places I have chosen and that I regard them as implicating nihilism in the fact of human existence, Albert Camus being another writer who has determined to tackle nihilism head on. As you will already see from the 70 odd pages this book has so far amounted to, my own intellectual honesty implicates nihilistic conclusions and so the least my readers should expect is that I can interact with these works to some nihilistic relevance – both for myself and for them too. As this is the first chapter in a book about “Anarchy”, one might reasonably expect that this will be implicated in what follows too [not least since Camus addresses Max Stirner and Friedrich Nietzsche explicitly in The Rebel and I saw them as the theoretical impetus to egoistic anarchism in my previous book, Egoism Explained]. Consequently, I will begin with some thoughts interacting with The Myth of Sisyphus before moving to interact with The Rebel thereafter.

Camus spends his essay “The Myth of Sisyphus” talking about “the absurd man”. This is the human being under nihilism. It is the human being who recognises nihilism is implicated in [or perhaps even constitutive of] their existence. This, in turn, raises the spectre of existentialism – in which it is indeed implicated – but existentialism is my next chapter and not this one, another aspect of the same issue. Nihilism, half way through this essay where Camus explicitly addresses “the absurd man”, erases the need for justification, makes such a human being innocent, deletes morality. But, says Camus, nihilism is not any kind of licence or licensing authority. “The absurd does not liberate; it binds. It does not authorize all actions. Everything is permitted does not mean that nothing is forbidden. The absurd merely confers an equivalence on the consequences of those actions. It does not recommend crime, for this would be childish, but it restores to remorse its futility.” Camus thinks of nihilism as an “absurd” proposition – absurd, that is, as outside and beyond rationality not absurd as in ridiculous. Absurdity is nihilism appreciated as something which reveals both rationality’s impotence but also that there is nothing beyond it. It was our human tool for “making sense” of things – but it doesn’t and there is nothing else we can use instead. In the absurd, nihilism is the consequence of human reason not being up to the job that reason had allocated for itself.

Of course, “The Myth of Sisyphus” begins famously – and it does so in the following way:

“There is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy. All the rest — whether or not the world has three dimensions, whether the mind has nine or twelve categories — comes afterwards. These are games; one must first answer. And if it is true, as Nietzsche claims, that a philosopher, to deserve our respect, must preach by example, you can appreciate the importance of that reply, for it will precede the definitive act. These are facts the heart can feel; yet they call for careful study before they become clear to the intellect.”

This question finds its stakes and its cutting edge in that the realisation of nihilism in and by the human mind precipitates a necessary response. Knowledge is empty. Meaning is manufactured and so ultimately meaningless. Value is no different to fact – which makes fact no different to value. All things, as the film The Zero Theorem plays with, come to nothing. But how can anyone live like that? Precisely Camus’ point. At this point I’m moved to wonder how THE ANARCHIST can live like that? Are anarchists just more people puffed up with ideas our common reality cannot pay for? Camus perhaps anticipated my thought from 82 years in the past for he says: “I see many people die because they judge that life is not worth living. I see others paradoxically getting killed for the ideas or illusions that give them a reason for living (what is called a reason for living is also an excellent reason for dying). I therefore conclude that the meaning of life is the most urgent of questions.” Anarchists are those who live, and often die, because they want to live free of oppression and exploitation by powerful others. But this is not to suggest such a goal is automatically either worthwhile or meaningful in itself. It is still eminently likely it is equally meaningless when viewed in cold isolation. Indeed, if, as Camus says, “Beginning to think is beginning to be undermined” then we must confess that anarchism — a product of human rationality – is only prey to every weakness that rationality also has. Nihilism is the recognition that rationality is finally impotent – and that nothing can replace it. Anarchism must also feel the weight of this judgment too.

Camus posits the ultimate consequence of nihilism, of course: that life is therefore not worth living and should be terminated. We should keep this in mind — and I should especially for I have stood with the rope ready and have held the knife in my hand that might be sunk, consequentially, into my soft, white forearms, the violent prelude to salvatory exsanguination. That life be judged ”worthwhile” [a valuation] is not something for me that has ever automatically made sense. It has always to be struggled for. So I think on these things not as mere intellectual problems or rhetorical titbits; I feel the consequence of standing on the precipice with the realisation I could jump off; I know what it is like to have to win meaning from existence itself in a game where cheating is impossible and only being genuine succeeds. Those who, in the political arena, “fight for freedom” need to realise that freedom can itself be a consequential place. What anarchist can save a human being from the consequences of its own existence in a world that makes no sense and has no value? This nihilistic world is “confessing that life is too much for you or that you do not understand it” and confessing that that ‘is not worth the trouble’.” It is “the feeling of absurdity” of existence and “in a universe suddenly divested of illusions and lights, man feels an alien, a stranger.”

Of course, as anyone who has ever been at the point of decision in regard to their life will know [I mean now people who have taken steps to end their lives and now stand on the threshold of an action from which they might not come back], the closer you come to fatal consequence the more the body rebels. Suicide is never an EASY task. It takes courage. It takes determination. It takes strength. So, as Camus says, “the body’s judgment is as good as the mind’s and the body shrinks from annihilation.” It does. But it can be overcome – if you want to [for an abstract reason is never enough by itself]. The body runs ahead of the mind, being instinctive rather than intellectual; it senses consequences which the mind must catch up to in order to appreciate. The intellectual question of if life is worth living is not the same as the body’s intuitive desire to live more life. Is existence then the body’s vitality or the intellect’s reasoning? Nihilism pronounces only that both are ultimately valueless all the same. Camus puts it like this: “At any street corner the feeling of absurdity can strike anyone in the face.” Then this person has the sense that “all true knowledge is impossible” and that, whether sincere or make-believe, their thoughts are all a swing and a miss. How can anyone live like that?

Nihilism is a mood and that mood is “anxiety”. Kierkegaard knew it. Heidegger knew it. Sartre knew it. And Camus knows it too. He tells us that “everything begins with consciousness and nothing is worth anything except through it.” This is the fault of what, not who, we are. Consciousness, awareness of self, awareness of consequence, awareness of context, enables us to reflect upon ourselves and our environment; reason enables us to think and extrapolate… and ultimately to realise we are lost, without ground beneath our feet. Nietzsche’s watery prophecy from section 124 of The Gay Science assails us once more… “and there is no longer any land.” Such anxiety is thereafter the basis of our very existence in the great nothing as “the primitive hostility of the world rises up to face us across millennia.” As Camus then asks, “How far is one to go to elude this nothing?” Should we “curse God and die” as the biblical book of Job might have it? Most people, of course, do not take this route [although apparently around 1 million Westerners do kill themselves every year — so some dubious count tells us]. What most people do instead is try to fake meaning and value by some means or other. These people, and perhaps “humanity” as a whole, if under the guise of its guiding institutions, engage in that vaguely fascist activity of regarding “understanding” as an activity of unification and “an insistence upon familiarity”. Understanding is reducing phenomena to the human, as Camus puts it, things are reduced “to terms of thought”. We must protect ourselves from our abilities to love and to suffer for the realisation of their meaninglessness is too much to bear without some manufactured foundations to support us. As Camus says, if the universe could love and suffer too that would be different; we would reconcile ourselves with it: but it can’t even while we can.

Yet the “unity” our understanding faculty creates is something manufactured. In asserting the unity of things we only prove their difference and diversity. There is no order except the order of leaving things alone. [Anarchists should take note of this in their determination to order things as much as anybody else. They should recognise its falsity and fundamental inauthenticity and its potentiality to disguise a new authority. They should, in short, become more DAOIST in their thinking.] Camus warns us to ever keep before us the difference between what we think we know and what we really know — which is only a warning to realise the abject impotence of what we have denominated “knowledge”. Nihilism exists in the light of this faculty of imagining to know but its very own realisation that we have imagined it rebounds on itself and lays out the canvas of the endless sea of nothingness all over again. Camus tells us that: “With the exception of professional rationalists, today people despair of true knowledge” and he concludes that a “history of human thought” would be a history of impotence and regret. It is worth repeating Camus here in order to re-emphasize the point:

“Of whom and of what indeed can I say: ‘I know that!’ This heart within me I can feel, and I judge that it exists. This world I can touch, and I likewise judge that it exists. There ends all my knowledge, and the rest is construction. For if I try to seize this self of which I feel sure, if I try to define and to summarize it, it is nothing but water slipping through my fingers. I can sketch one by one all the aspects it is able to assume, all those likewise that have been attributed to it, this upbringing, this origin, this ardour or these silences, this nobility or this vileness. But aspects cannot be added up. This very heart which is mine will forever remain indefinable to me. Between the certainty I have of my existence and the content I try to give to that assurance, the gap will never be filled. Forever I shall be a stranger to myself. In psychology as in logic, there are truths but no truth. Socrates’ ‘Know thyself’ has as much value as the ‘be virtuous’ of our confessionals. They reveal a nostalgia at the same time as an ignorance. They are sterile exercises on great subjects. They are legitimate only precisely in so far as they are approximate.”

It is like the difference between being at the back of the stands in the baseball field and being the next batter up. One can affect the outcome, the other not. The other can only sit and watch a game beyond their control; that is their fate and that with which they must come to terms. That is us. And so:

“all the knowledge on earth will give me nothing to assure me that this world is mine. You describe it to me and you teach me to classify it. You enumerate its laws and in my thirst for knowledge I admit that they are true. You take apart its mechanism and my hope increases. At the final stage you teach me that this wondrous and multi-coloured universe can be reduced to the atom and that the atom itself can be reduced to the electron. All this is good and I wait for you to continue. But you tell me of an invisible planetary system in which electrons gravitate around a nucleus. You explain

this world to me with an image. I realize then that you have been reduced to poetry: I shall never know.”

It was Nietzsche, of course, who described this as the problem of language and, specifically, of truth as mediated by and through language. Such truth, memorably, was pronounced in “On Truth and Lying in A Non-Moral Sense” as:

“A mobile army of metaphors, metonymies, anthropomorphisms, in short a sum of human relations which have been subjected to poetic and rhetorical intensification, translation, and decoration, and which, after they have been in use for a long time, strike a people as firmly established, canonical, and binding; truths are illusions of which we

have forgotten that they are illusions, metaphors which have become worn by frequent use and have lost all sensuous vigour, coins which, having lost their stamp, are now regarded as metal and no longer as coins.”

Ahh, illusions, metaphors. “Perceptions, Fictions, Illusions, Imaginary states”? This is what our language gave us – not truth, knowledge, “reality”. The Western nihilist sees this as clearly now as the Buddhist who asks only that fellow adherents purge themselves of all illusion in order to reach the extinguishing of false reality that is denominated “nirvana”. [So illusory is this word “reality” that we must give it a chapter of its own later on.] The more we then grasp, the less we find still in our grip. Camus says: “I realize that if through science I can seize phenomena and enumerate them, I cannot for all that apprehend the world. Were I to trace its entire relief with my finger, I should not know any more. And you give me the choice between a description that is sure but that teaches me nothing and hypotheses that claim to teach me but that are not sure.” I grasp… but I have nothing. Thus, the very intelligence that was to be the faculty which grounded us and gave us meaning and value through understanding “tells me in its own way that this world is absurd.” There is a reason that faiths are not matters of faithless epistemology for the faith has seen, where the epistemology could not, that epistemology is faith that disdains having faith. Epistemology makes reason its God but calls it reason and goes to war with gods. Yet the elephant is in the room and that elephant is “I cannot know”. And so Camus says: “In this unintelligible and limited universe, man’s fate henceforth assumes its meaning. A horde of irrationals has sprung up and surrounds him until his ultimate end… This world in itself is not reasonable, that is all that can be said. But what is absurd is the confrontation of the irrational and the wild longing for clarity whose call echoes in the human heart.” And so, as Camus says, commenting on the existential philosophy of Jaspers, “the end of the mind is failure” and “the world itself… is but a vast irrational.” This nihilism of ours is a human problem, a mind problem, the shape of human existence, both “a confrontation and an unceasing struggle.”

Elsewhere in “The Myth of Sisyphus” Camus tells us that humanity is always prey to its truths: “once it has admitted them, it cannot free itself from them. One has to pay something.” This is most profound and an existential truth in that the human being, it seems to me, wants to feel as if it has had to struggle, do work, expend effort. There is never any joy for the sportsperson in the easy win, for example; much better to have a great opponent to overcome for then the win is felt and experienced. This is the situation of Sisyphus in the actual Greek myth from which Camus takes the title of his essay. Condemned by the gods for reasons which, as in most Greek myths, have several differing sources and reasons in their constant retelling, Sisyphus is condemned to the task of unceasing empty toil – apparently the worst punishment the gods could think of even as our own capitalist world condemns many to the same. Camus conceives of it, at least in the case of Sisyphus, as “the price that must be paid for the passions of this earth.” The Sisyphean torture is conscious and, for Camus, this is what gives it its tragedy and its meaning for, as he goes on to say, “there is no fate that cannot be surmounted by scorn.” He adds that “crushing truths perish from being acknowledged” but I wonder.

Humanity, there is no doubt, can be seen as a fate – and it is not, in the minds of many, a very pretty fate for most of us. In “The Myth of Sisyphus” Camus wants to tell us that “the struggle itself towards the heights is enough to fill a person’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.” But does this mean that Sisyphus was happy? Of course not. Camus has set out to write an essay arguing that suicide is not the forced, necessary response to the meaninglessness and valuelessness of life. He finds his answer here in setting one’s shoulder to the struggle and welcoming it with scorn rather than seeking to avoid it, deny it or escape it. In doing so, he definitively shows that this problem is a problem of being a human being: nihilism is both context and fate here. Not knowing and not being able to fix meaning is both context and fate here. And so:

“I don’t know whether this world has a meaning that transcends it. But I know that I do not know that meaning and that it is impossible for me just now to know it. What can a meaning outside my condition mean to me? I can understand only in human terms. What I touch, what resists me – that is what I understand. And these two certainties — my appetite for the absolute and for unity and the impossibility of reducing this world to a rational and reasonable principle — I also know that I cannot reconcile them. What other

truth can I admit without lying, without bringing in a hope I lack, which means nothing within the limits of my condition?”

We turn now to The Rebel which moves us a few years forward in Camus’ own timeline as well. We move to the fifties from the forties, in fact. As we do, we should hold the image of “Sisyphus happy” in our minds along with Camus’ injunction to “scornfully struggle”, if we may put it like that. This should not be too difficult for Camus takes up in The Rebel where he left off several years previously. Now, however, the question is not one of suicide but of murder in Camus’ ongoing attempts to “face the reality of the present” and “understand the times in which we live”. If we can avoid the consequence of suicide in an absurd, nihilistic world can we similarly avoid the activity of murder as well? [Camus was writing shortly after a half century in which the most deadly world wars known to our planet had taken place so its a reasonable question.] Here the issue is well set out by Camus near the beginning of The Rebel:

“If we believe in nothing, if nothing has any meaning and if we can affirm no values whatsoever, then everything is possible and nothing has any importance. There is no pro or con: the murderer is neither right nor wrong. We are free to stoke the crematory fires or to devote ourselves to the care of lepers. Evil and virtue are mere chance or caprice.

We shall then decide not to act at all, which amounts to at least accepting the murder of others, with perhaps certain mild reservations about the imperfection of the human race. Again we may decide to substitute tragic dilettantism for action, and in this case human lives become counters in a game. Finally, we may propose to embark on some course of action which is not entirely gratuitous. In the latter case, in that we have no higher values to guide our behaviour, our aim will be immediate efficacy. Since nothing is either true or false, good or bad, our guiding principle will be to demonstrate that we are the most efficient — in other words, the strongest. Then the world will no longer be divided into the just and the unjust, but into masters and slaves. Thus, whichever way we turn, in our abyss of negation and nihilism, murder has its privileged position.

Hence, if we claim to adopt the absurdist attitude, we must prepare ourselves to commit murder, thus admitting that logic is more important than scruples that we consider illusory. Of course, we must have some predisposition to murder. But, on the whole, less than might be supposed, to judge from experience. Moreover, it is always possible, as we can so often observe, to delegate murder. Everything would then be made to conform to logic—if logic could really be satisfied in this way.”

We must remember, of course, that according to the absurd logic of Camus’ nihilist dilemma we cannot here seek flight or to be delivered from the jaws of nothingness. At the very least we must face up, acknowledge the rock, and set our shoulder to it. Suicide is escape in “The Myth of Sisyphus” and is therefore not the least of the reasons why it is not allowed. In Camus’ approach to nihilism human life is a “necessary good” and, in fact, constitutes that which enables the absurdist reality. Further, Camus regards nihilism’s “indifference to life” as something the absurd encounter must itself counter; murder and suicide “must be accepted or rejected together”. The question is then whether, in a nihilistic world, we accept the logic of nihilism – “the dark victory in which heaven and earth are annihilated” – or the absurdist reasoning first demonstrated in “The Myth of Sisyphus”. Here the point, and it is surely not an insignificant point, is that WE ARE ALIVE and so the negation of nothingness is not absolute – even if only for the flicker of time that we breathe and move and stare blankly out upon the earth. Camus says that if we are alive then negation is not absolute and this mandates “the right of others to live”. Thus, that situation which makes life a matter of indifference also mandates its existence; “we can kill and not kill.” Yes, it is true, “the absurd is, in itself, contradiction.” Such nihilistic absurdity is also ambiguous in the extreme; it seems to uphold the possibility of life yet it renders all value judgments worthless – including that of life. Camus, however, argues that “to live is, in itself, a value judgment. To breathe is to judge” and I do not deny this. As one who has prepared the ligature for my neck and handled the knife in my hand I KNOW that life is a constant decision, a choice to value breathing over the eternal sleep of death.

Such a decision, however, is an internal decision. Nothing outside is relevant or matters. One must find one’s reasons – if one has reasons – and one’s will and logic within oneself. I have most deliberately pursued just such a point of view throughout my previous four books on anarchism. Fuck everybody else; this does not matter if I cannot face up to, and be honest with, myself and find myself able to set a course. What good would be the peaceful order of the entire world if inside me was an intolerable war of my daily annihilation? I must take a stand and that stand must be for life – first and most importantly my life – if I am to carry on and set my shoulder, scornfully, to the rock. As Camus puts this now in the introduction to The Rebel: “I proclaim that I believe in nothing and that everything is absurd, but I cannot doubt the validity of my proclamation and I must at least believe in my protest.” So what was formerly “scorn” is now become “rebellion”. My life is to rebel – a human logic amidst nihilism, an absurd logic but a logic nevertheless. But this is an internal logic. Rebellion must “find its reasons within itself” for, of course, Camus’ absurdist position does not deny that nihilism is the case, is a real enemy and a genuine foe. It is this, in fact, which posits the questions of suicide or murder at all. Camus now says that we can rebel: but that rebellion can only come from within us and, interrogating ourselves, we must learn how to act.

And so we turn to “the rebel”. Camus’ description of the rebel is not very good. Perhaps this is because he works within his own conception of the absurd and “the human”. He is, of course, allowed to do this but I can see better ways of going about it. Yet this is not to say that Camus’ explanation is not suggestive. [I am, of course, here seeking my own explanations for things and Camus’ writing is only my means to such an end.] Camus says, for example, that “Rebellion cannot exist without the feeling that, somewhere and somehow, one is right.” But what insolence and arrogance is this? It is the rebel imagining that they create “right” in and from themselves and the whole wide world be damned. Historically, and certainly “democratically”, this is an abomination to “the civilised”. But it is the way of the rebel. It is the refusal to be told what is right for you and the insistence that such a thing is a matter for you and a matter for you alone. It is a rebellious obstinacy. It is a refusal to have one’s integrity infringed and a loyalty to oneself. It is creation “ex nihilo” pure and simple. Camus notes, in fact, that “every act of rebellion tacitly invokes a value”. We are talking here about the INSURRECTION which I took so much time over previously in my Handbook for Anarchist Insurrection; this is an internal rebellion, a new awareness and rethinking, which must become action in the world. Camus says of the rebel, in a way pertinent to this, that “Awareness, no matter how confused it may be, develops from every act of rebellion: the sudden, dazzling perception that there is something in a person with which they can identify themselves, even if only for a moment.” Camus sees that the very act of rebellion contains many claims and consequences within it. It is to reject one’s conditions and to create new ones instead. “What was at first the person’s obstinate resistance now becomes the whole person, who is identified with and summed up in this resistance… With rebellion awareness is born.” We discover consciousness, a consciousness that must act.

Yet Camus perceives that such rebellion transcends the individual and must encompass something more communal. Already, in the act of rebellion, Camus perceives something that involves others by the very fact of action, something perhaps suggestive of a human bond or “a natural community” of others. Action for oneself, in this way, might always be seen as implying possible others imagined in the same position. But it is also more than this. Camus also implicates “a feeling of identification with another individual”, perhaps someone else who we see is oppressed or exploited. This does not merely have to be someone like us for we can also even have sympathy for enemies whom we see treated badly. Camus here speaks about “identification of one’s destiny with that of others and a choice of sides” and this suggests that the values we create in our rebellion are those that, at least in theory, could apply to others and are, in fact, strengthened by being community values, values finding their authentication in a kind of human solidarity of context and response. Camus calls this “solidarity born in chains”.

But what of the character of this rebel and their rebellion? Camus says that the rebel:

“does not merely claim some good that he does not possess or of which he was deprived. His aim is to claim recognition for something which he has and which has already been recognized by him, in almost every case, as more important than anything of which he could be envious… The rebel… from his very first step, refuses to allow anyone to touch what he is. He is fighting for the integrity of one part of his being. He does not try, primarily, to conquer, but simply to impose.”

This is a matter of “integrity” and so the rebel refuses “to be humiliated”. We are not here talking about a “lack of feeling and in pursuit of a sterile demand”. It is about “the act of living” where living is an act carried out deliberately and that could be otherwise [i.e. not living]. It is a passionate act, an “all or nothing”, as Camus has himself earlier intimated, and so “it would therefore be impossible to overemphasize the passionate affirmation that underlies the act of rebellion.” And yet Camus follows this up by stating that “rebellion creates nothing” even if, and whilst revealing, “the part of man which must always be defended.” What is more, this sense of rebellion may actually be a product of the Western mind and in a context where “a theoretical equality conceals great factual inequalities” such as those which capitalism and liberalism together create. Here, in an intellectual context of “rights” we all equally have in a hypocritical episteme that is smeared over the material realities in order to blind the eyes of the many, people live the inauthentic lie of “equality” in a world of abject material inequality. One could not have created a better breeding ground for “rebellion” if one had set out purposely to do so.

In such an intellectual context “Actual freedom has not increased in proportion to human awareness of it” and so Camus concludes that “rebellion is the act of an educated person who is aware of their own rights.” These “rights” are, of course, more than individual and so Camus’ sense of human solidarity is implicated yet again. Camus lays out the rebel as a person who is human and who wants humanly reasonable terms in which to understand their existence. But this, of course, means also always being able to make sense of the intellectual situation from which they themselves have come and which is irreducibly social. One can only rebel in terms of what one understands the situation to be. Camus thinks of this further in terms of discarding the sacred [which I discussed in Egoism Explained through exegesis of Max Stirner] and of rebellion or insurrection as “one of the essential dimensions of man”. This is a matter of finding our values in the reality of our existence [for the only other option is to “ignore reality” which is usually something we would describe as a definition of having gone insane]. Rebellion then raises the question of what our “rule of conduct” shall be with values limited in a context of nihilism.

Camus concludes his sketch of the rebel with the definition that “Man’s solidarity is founded upon rebellion” and he then immediately reverses this to argue that this solidarity becomes rebellion’s only ultimate justification. I suppose this is to say that no one is free unless everyone is free in Camus’ own rhetorical context. We could also add that rebellion is therefore for everyone and Camus finds it more authentic when it is. To refuse this is once more to fall back into authenticating murder for rebellion is that which unites all humanity in the same struggle whereas murder, like suicide, is the attempt to avoid the tip of the spear ‘nihilism’ which is constantly being thrust towards us. Therefore, “In order to exist, man must rebel, but rebellion must respect the limit it discovers in itself—a limit where minds meet and, in meeting, begin to exist.” Rebellion can be neither “tyranny or servitude” but must be that which builds solidarity. Rebellion then moves us on from the absurd proposition of suicide in the face of nihilism for with the question of murder we become social rather than individual in context. The threat of suicide is an individual threat but rebellion socialises things and motivates human solidarity and can become a matter of a shared human reality and we can begin to ask what about shared experience is alienating, meaningless, empty. In such a conception of nihilism “The malady experienced by a single man becomes a mass plague.” We are then “lured from our solitude” and so Camus can say: “I rebel – therefore we exist.”

Camus moves to the subject of “metaphysical rebellion” which is the context in which many primarily understand the subject of nihilism. He puts it this way:

“Metaphysical rebellion is the movement by which man protests against his condition and against the whole of creation. It is metaphysical because it contests the ends of man and of creation. The slave protests against the condition in which he finds himself within his state of slavery; the metaphysical rebel protests against the condition in which he finds himself as a man. The rebel slave affirms that there is something in him that will not tolerate the manner in which his master treats him; the metaphysical rebel declares that he is frustrated by the universe. For both of them, it is not only a question of pure and simple negation. In both cases, in fact, we find a value judgment in the name of which the rebel refuses to approve the condition in which he finds himself.”

Put simply, this is the question of the REALITY in which human beings find themselves in which such reality – which is fundamentally a human understanding — is always an intellectual, rational construction. We know this already from Nietzsche’s comments about truth through linguistic means [perceptions, fictions, illusions, imaginary states]. Yet it is also a question of value and, if we have taken on board what Camus has already said in The Rebel, of what might function as a common value. Camus calls this “an aspiration to order” in its common aspect and a desire for some means of unity [which is solidarity restated once again]. Such a rebel blasphemes against the concept of life as it is presented and refuses their subordination to it [as Max Stirner once again]. What such a rebel then does, however, is resolve to act – for it is the rebel’s acting which constitutes their existence as themselves. The rebel is one who subjects “God” [or the idea of God] to their own moral judgment and, in doing so, kills God within themselves. The rebel thus dares to create their own justice – but yet this is a justice that exists apart from the idea of God in a sea of nothingness. Hence Camus talks about that which is “absurd” for isn’t that which is moral effectively God and isn’t this activity reconstructing morality on absurd principles? Two people who tackled this matter head on were Max Stirner and Friedrich Nietzsche.

We should not be surprised to find these iconoclastic, rebellious figures here. In the realm of ideas, they stand out as destroyers and creators from nothing, creators who dare to create from themselves. Stirner, to turn to him first as Camus himself does, wants to destroy God, Man, Spirit and the State but also to destroy the very ideas of such things. He rebels against them and refuses their domination. Not only do we not need gods but we need no idols either. To the question “What am I?” Stirner answers only that we are the unnameable, that which should not be named, the Unique. Camus sees in Stirner’s thinking a notion of the history of human thought as the history of idealizing reality into fixed thoughts which then becomes the history of trying to realise said ideals. But for Stirner this is blasphemy against the Unique, an attempt to imprison in idealisms what could live gloriously free and unbound by them. The Unique refuses the yoke of various abstractions and must indeed do so in order to exist. Stirner makes embarrassing the idea that anyone would believe in something as fixed and heavenly, that anything would even be able to become divine. There is nothing without or within to SERVE, and nothing sacred. Stirner abolishes the idea that the Unique can be a sinner whilst making every Unique an automatic transgressor. Camus calls this decreeing that “murder is legitimate” [Stirner does indeed say in Der Einzige und Sein Eigentum that he can kill] and notes that Stirner “does not recoil at the idea of any form of destruction” [having earlier pronounced him the ultimate source of anarchist terrorism in his thinking]. Here Camus sees only the possibility of “death or resurrection” as “all the nihilist rebels rush to the utmost limits, drunk with destruction.” They have instituted the “desert” and must now learn how to live there. Camus sees the ideas for this in the work of Nietzsche – to which he now turns.

Camus is more sympathetic to Nietzsche whom he views as “nihilism’s conscience”. This is because, perhaps of all thinkers, before or since, Nietzsche was the one most conscious of nihilism. Here Nietzsche, often thought of as an individualist, was, in fact, not simply this for he conceived of “the task of governing the world” as a communal and not a singular task. It was “our lot”. Yet Camus writes at far too close a proximity to the horrors of Nazism to disassociate Nietzsche from his use by the Nazis and so he is constantly pulled into entangling the two. How could Nietzsche not then motivate murder when his ideological abusers murdered by the million? How could his philosophy not be fodder for tyrants and those bent on genocide and so implicated by association? The nihilism Nietzsche most of all diagnosed surely finds its apotheosis in concentration camps and final solutions – and in mass graves?

Not so. Nietzsche does not so much provide solutions [final or otherwise] as diagnose problems and leave readers to draw the almost inevitable conclusions. Camus, in fact, draws attention to Nietzsche “the diagnostician” and calls his thought “methodical” and “strategic”. Nietzsche, however, did think “in terms of an apocalypse to come” and various of his ideas hint at this such as the idea of “daybreak”, going “beyond” good and evil or an imagined “twilight” of the idols. Yet, at the heart of this, is nihilism and Nietzsche directly addresses the question “can one live believing in nothing?” This shows the character of Nietzsche in that, rather than beating about the bush as so many are inclined to do, he can look such questions in the face. But he can, in fact, do even more than this and the Nietzschean response to the fact of nihilism is, at least at first, to DESTROY. Nietzsche, in fact, wanted to destroy all values and push nihilism even further. As Camus puts this, “he who wants to be a creator of good and evil must first of all destroy all values.” The consequences of this are that, as Camus writes, “Deprived of the divine will, the world is equally deprived of unity and finality. That is why it is impossible to pass judgment on the world. Any attempt to apply a standard of values to the world leads finally to a slander on life.” Can the world be judged “in the name of nothing”? No, it can’t.

Thus the problem Nietzsche diagnoses, and which nihilism exposes, is that the most serious symptom of nihilism is not atheism – disbelief in God – but the inability to believe in what is actually there, to acknowledge what is happening in front of you or to live life as it is offered to you. Nietzsche, as Camus rightly acknowledges, is scathing in regard to those who impugn the world and despise life exactly because it exhibits the character of denial and evasion in this respect. If the world gives you nothing, then honesty demands acknowledging the nothing and drawing appropriate consequences. That is Nietzsche’s virtue. This is why we get “God is dead”. This is why we have the systematic excoriation of Christianity which is a lie to hide the nihilistic truth. Christianity is for Nietzsche, as Camus says, primarily a lying morality whilst also being a lie itself. It fights against nihilism, thinking it gives the world direction, whilst itself being nihilism in being ultimately empty and destructive of life. Christianity actually kills God itself in Nietzsche’s reading and it generalises the sacred. Christianity is, thus, duplicity. The same applies, as Camus relates, in regard to the political socialisms [including anarchism] of the day — which are secularised Christianity in Nietzsche’s view. This is nihilistic in the sense that it is denial of what exists, the destruction of actuality by empty fabrication. Nietzsche always is especially thorough in going after any ideology which imagines to be moral. As Camus describes this:

“Nihilism, whether manifested in religion or in socialist preachings, is the logical conclusion of our so-called superior values. The free mind will destroy these values and denounce the illusions on which they are built, the bargaining that they imply, and the crime they commit in preventing the lucid intelligence from accomplishing its mission: to transform passive nihilism into active nihilism.”

Nietzsche was, then, an active nihilist. He believed in recognising the nothing for what it was and sought to deal with it as it presented itself. In this, his virtue and his honesty once more reveals itself for, as Camus notes, Nietzsche, of all thinkers, was that one who did not deny this would be difficult, a struggle and even involve suffering. But Nietzsche’s honesty is again present in this case to tell us that SUFFERING IS BOTH GOOD AND NECESSARY for things that are alive and require to grow. Nietzsche is not one to offer false comfort, sentimentally thinking that being nice and cosy will help. Liberation, even from nothing, requires the strength and the desire for it and success is not certain. But “What warrior wants to be spared?” as he says in Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Such a war is troublesome and such warriors may become casualties but of what moment is that? In Zarathustra, in fact, we find Nietzsche prescribing the destruction of “the old law tables” and the necessity for this nihilistic warrior to create their own, new ones. This is hard work. It is not for the faint of heart or those who need a comforting word every five minutes. Nietzsche urges to overcoming through your own strength not soft pillows and warm blankets and a soothing word in the ear. You overcome through struggle not by being patronised. As Camus relates this:

“From the moment that man believes neither in God nor in immortal life, he becomes ‘responsible for everything alive, for everything that, born of suffering, is condemned to suffer from life.’ It is he, and he alone, who must discover law and order. Then the time of exile begins, the endless search for justification, the aimless nostalgia, ‘the most painful, the most heartbreaking question, that of the heart which asks itself: where can I

feel at home?’”

It is here that Camus makes the interesting, and Nietzschean, point that having a mind that is free “is not a comfort”. It is “an achievement to which one aspires and at long last obtains after an exhausting struggle.” Thus Spoke Zarathustra alone should demonstrate this if not Nietzsche’s other works of the 1880s. Mountain climbing is not easy and metaphors of war and warriors are not used at random but because they are representative and appropriate. Here Camus wants to make this point most strongly:

“the mind [finds] its real emancipation in the acceptance of new obligations. The essence of [Nietzsche’s] discovery consists in saying that if the eternal law is not freedom, the absence of law is still less so. If nothing is true, if the world is without order, then nothing is forbidden; to prohibit an action, there must, in fact, be a standard of values and an aim. But, at the same time, nothing is authorized; there must also be values and aims in order to choose another course of action. Absolute domination by the law does not represent liberty, but no more does absolute anarchy. The sum total of every possibility does not amount to liberty, but to attempt the impossible amounts to slavery. Chaos is also a form of servitude. Freedom exists only in a world where what is possible is defined at the same time as what is not possible. Without law there is no freedom. If fate is not guided by superior values, if chance is king, then there is nothing but the step in the dark and the appalling freedom of the blind.”

Thus, “if nothing is true, nothing is permitted.” Nihilism authorises nothing even whilst it denies the validity, the substance, of everything. This is the horns of the human dilemma and Nietzsche sees only two choices: denial or acceptance, creation or death. The world in general tries to deny nihilism and it decays and dies, however slowly, as a result. Its denial is actually a denial of life itself and this Nietzsche cannot forgive for life – in all its nihilistic reality – is what is actually the truth, the thing of value. It is the last thing that should be denied. Camus says: “Nietzsche cries out to man that the only truth is the world, to which he must be faithful and in which he must live and find his salvation. But at the same time he teaches him that to live in a lawless world is impossible because to live explicitly implies a law. How can one live freely and without law? To this enigma man must find an answer, on pain of death.” How does Camus interpret that Nietzsche proposes to deal with this diagnosis? In the following way:

“From the moment that it is admitted that the world pursues no end, Nietzsche proposes to concede its innocence, to affirm that it accepts no judgment since it cannot be judged on any intention, and consequently to replace all judgments based on values by absolute assent, and by a complete and exalted allegiance to this world. Thus from absolute despair will spring infinite joy, from blind servitude, unbounded freedom. To be free is, precisely, to abolish ends. The innocence of the ceaseless change of things, as soon as one consents to it, represents the maximum liberty. The free mind willingly accepts what is necessary. Nietzsche’s most profound concept is that the necessity of phenomena, if it is absolute, without rifts, does not imply any kind of restraint. Total acceptance of total necessity is his paradoxical definition of freedom. The question ‘free of what?’ is thus replaced by ‘free for what?’ Liberty coincides with heroism. It is the asceticism of the great man, ‘the bow bent to the breaking-point.’

This magnificent consent, born of abundance and fullness of spirit, is the unreserved affirmation of human imperfection and suffering, of evil and murder, of all that is problematic and strange in our existence. It is born of an arrested wish to be what one is in a world that is what it is. ‘To consider oneself a fatality, not to wish to be other than one is …’”

We see this in Thus Spoke Zarathustra’s idea of “eternal recurrence” which I discussed in my previous book in this series, Egoism Explained. This was meaning creation through willing the life that you live, as you are, with its circumstances, over and over again. That one must will what one receives and become what one is in an idea that clearly has Greek heritage and also comes from one educated in Greek history and literature where “fate” is an important topic. This “love of fate” motivates honesty about one’s situation and Nietzsche’s virtue bids him follow through on it. Yet, at the same time, it demands self annihilation and refusal of the fabrications of others and this is Nietzsche’s rebellion, a rebellion founded on SELF-CREATION. One must be willing to pay the price for this and to accept a world of necessary suffering, a world indifferent to suffering [for that is the world of life — which is full of suffering]. Camus thinks this “severe” and seemingly over-individualistic but does not deny the Nietzschean vision of the Dionysiac seeking intoxication in a nihilistic reality as who you are. Camus describes this as “to be engulfed in the cosmos” in an acceptance of good as evil and evil as good. Nietzsche, as Camus correctly says, “believed in courage combined with intelligence – and that was what he called strength.” But this strength was also an “integrity” [which Camus sees] and an honesty [which he seems not to]. Yet none of this has a single solitary thing to do with “National Socialism” as Camus, writing less than ten years after world war, feels the need to suggest. His commentary is thus dated by its proximity to events and suffers for it as a result. If Nietzsche wants to murder anybody, it is the self – only to resurrect it and have it reborn in its own image by an act of warrior’s will. In this, such a person should overcome humanity itself – or die again trying. In such a death, such a person would find life which is not as paradoxical as it sounds when you realise that Nietzsche described life as “a kind of death — and a most peculiar kind.”

I pull my head out of Camus’ text prematurely, skipping over his ruminations on historical rebellions as I do – for a question presents itself to me: what does nihilism mean to me? The question itself, of course, is contradictory and absurd. What can it mean to ask about the meaning of everything coming to zero? Yet it does signify something to me. It speaks to me of the absence of truth, the impossibility of knowledge, the fabrication and so imposition of all morality. It speaks of the reflexivity of all philosophy. Yet it also speaks of the impotence of all politics, the inability of human beings to find a political algorithm which is that perfect organisation which keeps everybody peacefully happy. This inability includes the ultimate failure of organisational forms of anarchism which must, in the end, be seen as yet more empty theories without foundation. What nihilism means to me is what it meant to Nietzsche: nihilism is true and therefore must be accepted. We must find a way to live in empty wilderness or on endless, infinite sea. This speaks against the possibility of overarching structures and elegant metanarratives. The answer must be local and temporary, contingent on its momentary possibility. We must exist in fragments of passing stability whose only truth is that they will not last. Our resources will largely be our own — save for the temporary alliances we can forge in relationships of cooperation. Our motivation must always come from within.

But we must also make the most of this, see nihilism as an opportunity. That something monolithic does not in fact stand or last forever is one less thing to worry about. We become masters of flexibility, if we can adapt, rather than fixed monoliths ourselves. Our honesty should allow us not to take things so seriously and imbue things with god-like, eternal permanence. Things cease to be a matter of an eternal right and an eternal wrong. There are no stakes beyond functional stakes and serving the purposes of doing something in doing things this way or that way. In a nihilistic world DOGMA is absolutely and totally out of place – which means that the dogmatic are too. When Nietzsche argued that there was no longer any land and went on to argue that God was dead he did not think that that was the end of the story and we would inevitably die too. In fact it was only after this book in which he spoke of these things that he then wrote the next book about the Overhuman and eternal recurrence. So nihilism was not a Nietzschean diagnosis which predicted our end so much as our potential transformation or transcendence over and beyond our former selves. This is what the Overhuman is, that person who is beyond good and evil and who has waved their idols off into their twilight. The diagnosis of nihilism, then, is a diagnosis of something to do and a struggle to steel oneself for rather than our dissolution. Nietzsche’s gospel is that we can change ourselves and, in doing so, change our world if we have the courage and intelligence for it. That is what nihilism means to me. But in order to do that we will have to look to our existence and so its right that this is to be what the next chapter of this book is about.

2. Existentialism

I lay here,

Lying in my bed,

An imaginary woman by my side.

Violence, misery and corruption

Scrolls along with

Impotence as I engage in

The daily ritual of self-abuse.

Click.

I stop abusing myself for now

With images of pain and torture

From around the world.

How much knowledge is bad for you?

How much do you need to know?

What difference does it make?

The duvet resting on my face

Smells of her,

The woman who isn’t there;

I never changed the bedding

And so the memory lingers,

More torture

Of a different kind.

Imaginary black lipstick

Marks the pillow case beside me

As hands want to wander

Across someone who isn’t there.

I close my eyes

And can almost feel the texture

Of milky white skin.

There is a woman

I saw online

Who I would like to fuck

With wild abandon;

I would willingly

Push my tongue

Somewhere to make her blush.

I recoil

In sudden realisation

As I am brought back to myself.

I daydream so much these days

That fantasy and reality

Have begun to swap places

And reality doesn’t feel real anymore.

I have created

A fiction for myself;

Who I am,

What I like,

What I want

Are all more real in fantasy

Than reality.

Is this how people survive

These days?

Is reality so depressing

That people now escape

Into worlds they have created

Themselves?

It wouldn’t surprise me.

Reality

Has come to be an annoyance

To me.

I am become

A creator of worlds.

Don’t interrupt my flow

With the real world.

I am suddenly

Overcome

With a need to roll over

And push my face

Between the huge, imaginary

Goth titties

That aren’t really there.

Sometimes I wonder

What must’ve happened to me

That fantasy and fiction became

More meaningful to me

Than reality.

Stupid question,

No point in answering.

The map

Has now becoming the territory;

The territory is now the map.

There is no more land

For what you say

Is what you see:

Simulacra and simulation.

Is this how the rich keep winning —

By depressing the fuck out of everybody else

Until they’d rather dream their own world

Rather than fight to change the real one?

I see an awful lot

Of people tweeting

Who should be an insurrection instead.

Blinded eyes and

Damaged faces,

Wounded bodies

Shot by cops

In open rebellion

Against the idea

That they are accountable.

Scrolling today

I only saw violence;

It was all violence.

Bombs dropped here,

Night sticks against defenceless protestors,

A photographer drugging and raping his models:

Violence changes the world.

I can’t believe

The stupid things

Some people will believe.

It makes me doubt the point

Or value of my own

Believing.

What does it matter in the end?

But “in the end”

Is not the point

For we are not “in the end”’;

We are now

We are here

We are implicated:

“In the end” is nothing.

I slip my hand

Into imaginary

Black panties

That cover a smooth, bald

Cunt

And wish

That it was real.

Pornography

Is a distraction,

A blind to the eyes,

A way of taking your eye

Off the ball;

While you are jerking and jilling

Motherfuckers be making a killing.

Have you ever noticed how

Most heterosexual porn

Is full of abusive tropes?

Mom fucks son,

Sleeping girl violated,

Landlord extracts “rent”,

I coerce you with money to bare your cooch?

You should not be surprised.

Porn apes the dominant

Trope of society:

Power.

Domination

Is the name

Of the game.

The premier drug is exploitation

And control;

To twist dumb bitches

Around your little finger,

To have people

Dancing

To your tune.

Life is like a porn video

And you are the powerless

Woman being

Fucked in the ass

By unscrupulous men

Who care only

That they are in control.

My illusion is

Now shattered and

I realise I’m alone

In bed in a cold,

Lonely world that’s

Very real.

Fantasies can’t last forever.

So I climb up on the rickety chair and put my head through the noose. Here we are again. This is a sacred place, a liminal space, a zone in which life meets death. You won’t know unless you’ve been there, but when your death is something that might happen in the next few minutes and is all that fills your mind, you suddenly realise most fully exactly what life is. And how important it is. And isn’t. Life is an existence and it can only truly matter to the person concerned for it isn’t an intellectual thing; its a biological thing, an organic thing, an organism thing. Life is an existence experienced, a lifecycle, a form of life.

Now I am a human being and, as such, I am cursed. Everything seems to make no sense and to come to nothing. The ultimate nothing, of course, is death, the ultimate context for all life’s actions and for life itself. Life itself comes from death and so it is appropriate that it goes back to it – but what a context for life, surrounded before and beyond by nothingness. The finality of an end cannot be avoided and its dark shadow is cast across everything. I once wrote somewhere on some past blog I was doing, “Nothing remains, everything must be let go” and that is both honesty and absurdity – at least by a logic of acquisition or possession. If the point of life is to have things [and not least life itself] then we’ve all already lost because we know already that we shall not even end up with life. But why do anything if its going to come to nothing? Why have anything if you are fated to lose it? Everything is on loan and was never really yours anyway. All this is meaningless.

All this also concerns the character Qohen Leth in the film The Zero Theorem. The Zero Theorem is a film directed by Terry Gilliam [of Brazil and 12 Monkeys fame] that, depending where you live, was released late in 2013 or in 2014. It is set in an exaggerated version of now and in it we follow the journey of Qohen Leth [played by Christoph Waltz], a reclusive computer genius who “crunches entities” for a generic super corporation, Mancom. The story is a fable, an allegory, and in watching it we are meant to take the issues it raises as existential ones.

Qohen Leth has a problem. Some years ago he took a phone call and that call was going to tell him what the meaning of existence was. But he got so excited at the prospect that he dropped the phone. When he picked it up his caller was gone. Ever since he has been waiting for a call back. But the call back never comes. So day by day he faces an existential struggle because he desperately does want to know what the meaning of life is. His life, you see, is dominated by a vision of a giant black hole into which all things inevitably go. His work life is shown to be much like everyone else’s in this parody of our world. People are “tools” and work is a meaningless task serving only to enrich those far above the ordinary worker’s pay grade. Workers are replaceable cogs who must be pushed as hard as possible to achieve maximum productivity. Their only value is in their productivity.

This world is run by corporations and the one that stands in for them all in the film is Mancom. Mancom [personified in a character played by Matt Damon referred to simply as “Management”] have a special task for Qohen. They want him to work on an equation proving that “Everything adds up to nothing.” That is, they want him to prove that existence is meaningless. Why do they want him to do this? Because, as the Matt Damon character says in the film, in a meaningless universe of chaos there would be money to be made selling order. The point seems to be that commercial enterprises can make money from meaninglessness by providing any number of distractions or things to fill the [w]hole at the centre of Being.

The film paints a picture of a totally commercialised world full of personalized advertising that is thrust at you from all angles. Everywhere there are screens that are either pushing something into your face or serving as conduits to an online escape world where you can create a new you and avoid the existential questions of existence that the real world thrusts upon you. There is a scene in which people are at a party but, instead of interacting with each other, they all dance around looking into tablets whilst wearing headphones. Further to this, there are cameras all around. If it’s not the ones we are using to broadcast ourselves into a cyber world, it’s the ones our bosses are using to watch us at work or the ones in the street that can recognise us and beam personalized advertisements straight at us as we walk. This is the surveillance state for company profit that records, archives and monetizes our existence.

And what of the people in this place? Most of them seem to be infantilized, lacking of any genuine ambition and placated by the “bread and circuses”. They long since ceased to be authentic examples of will and have become puppets to be played by other interests. Their lives are a mixture of apathy and misdirection. They seek meaning in screens with virtual friends or in virtual worlds and, presumably, a lot of them take advantage of the constant advertisements they are bombarded with. When Qohen has something of a crisis early on in the film “Management” send along Bainsley to his house [Qohen doesn’t like going out or being touched and so he negotiates to work from home]. Bainsley, unbeknownst to Qohen, is a sex worker in the employ of Mancom. She is sent along as stress relief [so that this malfunctioning “tool” can be got back to productive work] and inveigles him into a virtual reality sex site which, in this case, has been tailored to Qohen’s specific needs. [This is to say it is enticing but not overtly sexual to give the game away. In essence, Bainsley becomes his sexy friend.] Other characters drop hints that Bainsley is just another tool but Qohen doesn’t want to accept it. She is becoming something that might actually have meaning for him. But then, one day, Qohen goes back to the site and, in error, the truth of who Bainsley is is revealed and all his trust in this potential meaning evaporates. [One wonders how many people are online at pornography websites on a daily basis, filling the meaning-shaped hole with repeated thrusts by trying to find or foster such fake attachments?]

So what are we to make of this in our Google-ified, Meta, Tik-Toking, video game playing, online pornography soaked, world of Tweeters and Instagrammers? I find it notable that Terry Gilliam says his film is about OUR world and not a future dystopia. And I agree with him. The trouble is I can sense a lot of people are probably shrugging and/or sighing now. This kind of point is often made and often apathetically agreed with with a casual nod of the head. But not many people ever really seem to care. Why should we really care if hundreds of millions of us have willingly handed over the keys to our lives to a few super corporations who provide certain services to us — but only on the basis we give them our identities and start to fill up their servers with not just the details of our lives but the content of them as well until they become as necessary to us as air and water [or so it comes to seem]? The technologization of our lives and the provision of a connectedness that interferes with face to face connectedness seems to be something no one really cares about. Life through a screen, or a succession of screens, is now a reality for an increasing number of people. In the UK there is a TV show called “Gogglebox” [which I’ve never watched] but no one ever seems to realise that they might be the ones who are spending their lives goggling as puppets on the end of a string.

So let’s try and take off the rose-tinted specs and see things as they are once all the screens go black and all that’s reflected at us are our real world faces and our real world lives. I wonder, what does life offer you? Thinking realistically, what ambitions do you have? [I don’t mean some dumb bucket list here.] When you look at life without any products or games or TV shows or movies or online role playing games or social media to fill it with, when you throw away your iPhone and your iWatch, your Alexa and your Siri, and all your online identities, where is the meaning in your life to be found? When you look at life as it extends from your school days, through your working life to inevitable old age [if you are “lucky”, of course], what meaning does that hold for you? Would you agree that this timeline is essentially banal, an existence which, by itself, is quite mechanical? Have you ever asked yourself what the point of this all is? Have you ever tried to fit the point of your life into a larger narrative? Do you look at life and see a lot of people who don’t know what they are doing, or what for, allowing themselves to be taken through life on a conveyor belt, entertained as they pass through by Marvel and Netflix? Do you sometimes think that life is just a succession of disparate experiences with little or no lasting significance?

The Zero Theorem is essentially a film about the meaning of life. Gilliam, of course, made another film that was actually called The Meaning of Life with the rest of his Monty Python colleagues. Yet now you might be wondering why the question is even raised. Perhaps, for you, life has no meaning and that’s not very controversial. You shrug off all my questions as not really very important. But I would reply to that person by asking them if meaning has no meaning. For, put simply, there isn’t a person alive that doesn’t want something to mean something. Human beings just do need meaning in their lives. They, after all, are the ones creating it. So Qohen Leth, for me, functions as an “Everyman” in this story. For we all want to know what things mean. And, without giving away the ending of the film, I think that, in the end, we all have to face up to the twin questions of meaning itself and of things meaning nothing. We all have to address the question that values devalue themselves, that meanings are just things that we give and that nothing, as Qohen hoped for, was given from above, set in stone, a god before which we could bow and feel safe that order was secured.

For order is not secured and order will never be secured. Some people might try to sell it to you. [In truth, many companies are trying to right now.] Others might try to convince you that they’ve got the meaning and order you need in your life and that you can have it too. But they haven’t and you can’t. That black hole that Qohen Leth keeps seeing is out there and everything goes into it. Our lives are lived in the void. The question then becomes can you find meaning and purpose in the here and now, in the experience of living your life, or will you just pass through empty, confused and alienated, or perhaps hoping that someone else can come along and provide you with meaning without you having to do any work? Who takes responsibility for finding that meaning? Is it someone else, as Qohen Leth with his phone call hoped, or is it you?

The question of meaning is, in the end, one that never goes away for any of us. Not whilst you’re alive anyway. We’re back to death again.

I myself have always felt strange. I have always felt like a stranger to myself. This body I have I understand to be “me”. But why is it me more than anything else? How does it come to be me? What makes it me, this collection of random bio-chemical elements? Why must I identify uniquely, especially, with it? There is no explanation for this other than that it is the case but that is not good enough and is not satisfying or comforting. I do not feel like I belong here and I have never really felt it. The brief times I have been part of groups in this respect act as exceptions which prove the rule, the rule being that I am a stranger, alienated, and do not belong. This self-consciousness exists only to impugn the things I’m told I am and the truths that are impressed upon me as true. I am alone, here, as me. No one can help me for how can they know what it feels like to be me? Qohen Leth’s black hole is where I live surrounded by space and other people are coincidental to my life. My life is a great anxiety, a fear and trembling, a sickness unto death. All attempts at its explanation – philosophical, religious, scientific – fail. This is why I understand suicide and why I understand the importance of the question it raises for life. Suicide says life is the choice of an anxiety that will never make sense because it can’t make sense – or death. Camus may want to imagine Sisyphus happy but I imagine him suffering, responsible and alone. All that can matter to him is his authenticity. Passionately engaging that can be the only purpose of his will.

“As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect. He was lying on his hard, as it were armour-plated, back and when he lifted his head a little he could see his dome-like brown belly divided into stiff arched segments on top of which the bed quilt could hardly keep in

position and was about to slide off completely. His numerous legs, which were pitifully thin compared to the rest of his bulk, waved helplessly before his eyes.” — Franz Kafka, The Metamorphosis

I’m going to let you in on a secret: I am not who you think I am. Long ago now my revulsion at the arbitrary identity given me and impressed upon me by others shaded into hiding away and pretending to be somebody else. All day, every day, now — at least while I am in front of other people, whether online or in person – I pretend to be somebody else. So confused has it become that I now feel more like that person than the person other people would actually think I am. Neither of these people actually exist though. They are just hollow shells, a game of appearances in a world of imaginary identities – because all identities are actually imaginary and especially the ones you insist are real. You would never know if you met me because who I appear to be to people isn’t who I actually am. You would shake hands with or say hello to a person who wasn’t actually there and who disappeared as soon as you did. But, of course, speaking about “who I actually am” is another empty phrase as well. “I” am actually nobody and nothing. In my first novel I wrote about people who were called “Nobody” in various different languages in order to signify that all identities are empty and fake. We all, each of us, create people who aren’t really there. None of us exist. But can you imagine what it feels like to not exist? I expect you can and, even if you can’t, I certainly can.

But that’s enough about me. The philosophy of “existentialism” doesn’t actually really exist. Neither of the two figures imagined to be well springs of its thought – the very Christian Søren Kierkegaard and the very anti-Christian Friedrich Nietzsche [yes, him again] – would have described themselves as “existentialists” and neither would a number of the later, particularly French and German, others who came after them.

“Existentialism”, in fact, comes to be a collection of attitudes and ideas culled from philosophers and writers [existentialism is very well suited to literature and even film where the issues of the self can be portrayed at length] which emphasize themes such as the apparent absurdity of life [yes, Camus from the last chapter was regarded as an existentialist although he didn’t appreciate it much]; a rejection of narratives which are imagined to “explain” life and the experience of life and the universe; the alienation, anxiety and helplessness people feel at things not making sense; the responsibility that people must take for their lives; the authenticity that creates a personal truth that people feel the need to create; the need for individuality in a world that wants to homogenise and demonise difference which can often be shown in an individualised passionate engagement with things the world also wants to disable, preferring anodyne acquiescence instead and, finally; the preoccupation with death as any living thing’s ultimate context. Existentialists, whether they call themselves that or not, are concerned with meaning and value, with life and its purpose, with “making sense”, with being and becoming, and with what truth is [and particularly with what truth has to do with ME]. It is thinking about existence but especially YOUR existence, existence subjectively understood. For what can matter more to me than how I understand my own existence since I can only understand anything as me? [Readers of Max Stirner will find his thinking implicated in this too although he is not always brought up in existentialist discussions.] You would also say that I have displayed existentialist traits in my own writing, particularly in my novels which were often written from a first person perspective.

I would argue, however, that an excellent example of a person existential of thought existed two centuries before Søren Kierkegaard. He was a French Catholic and a child genius by the name of Blaise Pascal who is most famous today for his book [which is actually but a set of notes he left behind him after his early death, aged only 39, for a proposed systematic defence of his religious beliefs] titled [although not by Pascal himself] Pensées [“Thoughts”. I shall refer to the Penguin edition below]. Pensées gives an in many respects remarkable, if necessarily fragmentary, picture of the human condition which is itself conditioned by Pascal’s own adult ill health and his religious speculations on life and its situation. These religious speculations, in overview, emphasised the doctrine of “original sin” and humanity’s consequent depravity and so need of divine salvation through God’s grace alone. Such ideas are now of poor taste in a more secularised world but this should not put us off from exploring Pascal’s thoughts on the matter in more detail for they exhibit a singularly existential consciousness which examples existentialism, albeit in religious context [as very much is also the case with Kierkegaard], in the wild.

Consider, for example, the following thought which is as good a place as any to begin:

“Imagine a number of men in chains, all under sentence of death, some of whom are each day butchered in the sight of the others; those remaining see their own condition in that of their fellows, and looking at each other with grief and despair await their turn. This is an image of the human condition.” [434]

What a happy fellow we can imagine Pascal to have been reading this! Immediately we find ourselves as human beings over a precipice with only the fall to contemplate. It is an absurd position that induces a lifetime’s worth of anxiety and Pascal produces many thoughts full of both as his mind examines what he imagines to be the human situation. Consider this one, for example:

“This is what I see and what troubles me. I look around in every direction and all I see is darkness. Nature has nothing to offer me that does not give rise to doubt and anxiety. If I saw no sign there of a Divinity I should decide on a negative solution: if I saw signs of a Creator everywhere I should peacefully settle down in the faith. But, seeing too much to deny and not enough to affirm, I am in a pitiful state, where I have wished a hundred times over that, if there is a God supporting nature, she should unequivocally proclaim him, and that, if the signs in nature are deceptive, they should be completely erased; that nature should say all or nothing so that I could see what course I ought to follow. Instead of that, in the state in which I am, not knowing what I am nor what I ought to do, I know neither my condition nor my duty. My whole heart strains to know what the true good is in order to pursue it: no price would be too high to pay for eternity.” [429]

This is a perfect example of what the existentialist would describe as an absurd life that induces anxiety, requires a responsibility that cannot be shrugged off or passed on to something or someone else, and that is in need of individual response. Pascal feels himself, as a human being, in a spotlight, life being an eternally consequent moment in which he must make an absurd wager [this latter word will become more important in a moment] although he often admits he has been left in a position from which he is utterly unable to do so. “Life is but an instant of time… the state of death is eternal” as he puts this in thought 428. “Nothing is so important to man as his state: nothing more fearful than eternity” [427]. He fills out this position further, in fact, in the more expansive thought 427:

“I do not know who put me into the world, nor what the world is, nor what I am myself. I am terribly ignorant about everything. I do not know what my body is, or my senses, or my soul, or even that part of me which thinks what I am saying, which reflects about everything and about itself, and does not know itself any better than it knows anything else.

I see the terrifying spaces of the universe hemming me in, and I find myself attached to one corner of this vast expanse without knowing why I have been put in this place rather than that, or why the brief span of life allotted to me should be assigned to one moment rather than another of all the eternity which went before me and all that which will come after me. I see only infinity on every side, hemming me in like an atom or like the shadow of a fleeting instant. All I know is that I must soon die, but what I know least about is this very death which I cannot evade.”

Pascal, as we can see, is a man who feels himself trapped and helpless in the sentience of life – not that eternal death would be any more welcoming for that has the unappetizing character of eternity about it. I must admit that I find it personally upsetting to read Pascal for he paints a picture of existence so depraved and hopeless that one begins to imagine it for oneself. Perhaps this is the point, from his point of view. Who knows? “The immortality of the soul” – at least as a very active possibility – is that issue which animates Pascal and he consumes his material life by concerning himself with another possible immaterial one. He is, thus, a perfect example of that which Nietzsche will excoriate Christianity for over two centuries later, accusing it of being a denier and calumniator of life itself. Pascal, however, is consumed by “Christianity’s claims”, finding them of the utmost import for life. This is problematic, however, when Pascal himself will argue that, “men are in darkness and remote from God” [427] and that “reason knows nothing” [423] of the God Pascal presumes to imagine; it does leave him in an absurd position. “Either God is or he is not,” as Pascal puts it is thought 418, “But to which view shall we be inclined? Reason cannot decide this question.”

Humanity, then, is “wretched” and “you must wager. There is no choice, you are already committed” [418]. Pascal puts the responsibility of an eternal choice onto our collective shoulders with his famous wager that God exists and so to believe in him is a gamble we must take. [For, believing in him and being wrong, is a fault of no {eternal} consequence whilst, not believing and being wrong, has the consequence of eternal divine exclusion and damnation – at least, for the Christian.] This, of course, relies on believing we have eternal souls which cannot cease to exist and so will always be subject to some sort of condition or context — which is itself a particularly consequential belief for the human being to have. Pascal is obsessed here with images of nothingness and infinity for he is consumed by both his own finitude but the divine’s infinitude in comparison. But what happens when the infinite meets the finite? “The finite is annihilated in the presence of the infinite and becomes pure nothingness” [418]. No wonder, then, that Pascal can “only approve of those who seek with groans” [405]. But this IS something to do with the human condition according to Pascal and not merely a matter of his own religious discretion: “We desire truth and find in ourselves nothing but uncertainty. We seek happiness and find only wretchedness and death. We are incapable of not desiring truth and happiness and incapable of either certainty or happiness” [401]. Pascal then speculates that, “We have been left with this desire as much as a punishment as to make us feel how far we have fallen.” Whether we are convinced by the religiously motivated reasoning or not, Pascal puts us all in a hole.

One particular problem here for Pascal is that he puts everything onto God. Our finite reason is impotent before the infinite and unconditioned divine. We cannot reason ourselves to God or understand that which we seek or imagine. This is to say that if God is imagined to be our salvation then we can do nothing to achieve said salvation or even make our presence known to God. Our reason is impotent and we have no faculty or ability beyond it requisite to the imagined task. Our salvation is then entirely thought to be in God’s hands, a matter of his grace. Again, whether you except the Christian proposition or not doesn’t really matter in my context for it is the absurdity of the position, and the anxiety it must induce, which chimes here. As Pascal himself notes, then, such “wretchedness induces despair” [352] and his thoughts on human reason’s inabilities [here he has something in common with Nietzsche] are far reaching.

This is worth dwelling on briefly inasmuch as Pascal’s thoughts are consequential in an existential sense regardless of the question of God and a soul’s eternity or lack of it. Pascal sets strict, if not severe, bounds on human reason. For example, thought 230 is “everything that is incomprehensible does not cease to exist” and this makes sense for why should something not exist just because human beings are unable to – or perhaps even completely incapable of – understanding it? This is obviously silly.

But this thought then implicates further ones. Why, for example, is the world, life, the universe, to be imagined as human beings conceive of it? Our form of life is completely arbitrary. Nothing about it [as Pascal makes clear ad infinitum] is necessarily perspicuous to anything and much less are human beings seeing or understanding anything “as it is” devoid of the context our form of life and intelligence imposes upon it as a form of conditioning. Put simply, we see as human beings can see [and even, in an individual aspect, as the human being that I am or you are sees]: but what about that makes it in any way particularly perspicuous and of consequence beyond ourselves? Were we an ant, we would experience the world as an ant. Were we a fish that lives miles down in the ocean in darkness, we would experience the world as a fish in darkness. Had we wings and could fly, we would experience the world as a bird or a bat or an insect. Each form of life experiences and understands the world as what it is and for its own purposes; there is nothing to say that any of these ways is especially perspicuous or insightful but only that each is conditioned by, and moulded to, that which it is.

The consequence of all this is that reason is not absolute: on the contrary, it is nothing other than conditioned by and to what we are. There could be a billion upon a billion things we cannot experience or understand and that we could never even perceive to exist or be the case with the puny and pathetic senses we possess. We are limited and in the dark and in ways we will never even realise. Having presumed to know, we find that we do not know and could not know. As Nietzsche then points out, our knowledge is but the accumulation of our errors. Perhaps Pascal then has reasons to find us “wretched” after all? He seems to think so:

“Man is only a reed, the weakest in nature, but he is a thinking reed. There is no need for the whole universe to take up arms to crush him: a vapour, a drop of water, is enough to kill him. But even if the universe were to crush him, man would still be nobler than his slayer, because he knows that he is dying and the advantage the universe has over him. The universe knows none of this. Thus all our dignity consists in thought. It is on thought that we must depend for our recovery, not on space and time, which we could never fill. Let us then strive to think well; that is the basic principle of morality.” [200]

Here Pascal grants the human being the nobility and dignity of self-awareness and urges us to “think well” which issues in the virtue of morality [this is his version of Camus’ revolt]. But the very next thought [201] is “The eternal silence of these infinite spaces fills me with dread” and we are once more thrown back into absurd, anxious, impotent responsibility. Thought 202 is then enigmatic: “Be comforted; it is not from yourself that you must expect it, but on the contrary you must expect it by expecting nothing from yourself.” This seems to riff, once more, on human inability and so the necessity for help from a beyond human. But it is clear that Pascal oscillates between moments of lucidity and moments of terror as the beginning of thought 198 demonstrates:

“When I see the blind and wretched state of man, when I survey the whole universe in its dumbness and man left to himself with no light, as though lost in this corner of the universe, without knowing who put him there, what he has come to do, what will become of him when he dies, incapable of knowing anything, I am moved to terror, like a man transported in his sleep to some terrifying desert island, who wakes up quite lost and with no means of escape.”

This is a confining and imprisoning thought [not unlike those that no doubt assailed Kafka’s fictional Gregor Samsa], that life is not about freedom but about being imprisoned in a consciousness you cannot fathom and can only escape from by dying – which is either ceasing to exist or, worse, not ceasing to exist, at all, forever. Such thoughts, it seems to me, could only lead to a kind of madness — and “terror” would certainly be appropriate. [Pascal puts humanity in prison – and only God, who has picked and chosen before time in an act of predestination, can get anyone out.] But let us come to thought 199 [titled “Disproportion of man” by Pascal] which is a more extensive collection of ideas than most of the thoughts of Pascal that are collected in his book, many of which are more brief and aphoristic. Pascal here begins by noting that humanity has reasons to be humble since its knowledge either doesn’t get it very far [assuming its true] or it gets it nowhere [assuming it isn’t true]. The problem is human beings have to believe something, they are fated to be believers in something but where does this get them? A further problem is that nature seems infinite [infinite things always worry Pascal] and “What is a man in the infinite?” He continues:

“For, after all, what is man in nature? A nothing compared to the infinite, a whole compared to the nothing, a middle point between all and nothing, infinitely remote from an understanding of the extremes; the end of things and their principles are unattainably hidden from him in impenetrable secrecy. Equally incapable of seeing the nothingness from which he emerges and the infinity in which he is engulfed. What else can he do, then, but perceive some semblance of the middle of things, eternally hopeless of knowing either their principles or their end? All things have come out of nothingness and are carried onwards to infinity. Who can follow these astonishing processes? The author of these wonders understands them: no one else can.”

Here the only thing about humanity that is “infinite” is its presumption. Therefore:

“Let us then realize our limitations. We are something and we are not everything. Such being as we have conceals from us the knowledge of first principles, which arise from nothingness, and the smallness of our being hides infinity from our sight…

Such is our true state. That is what makes us incapable of certain knowledge or absolute ignorance. We are floating in a medium of vast extent, always drifting uncertainly, blown to and fro; whenever we think we have a fixed point to which we can cling and make fast, it shifts and leaves us behind; if we follow it, it eludes our grasp, slips away, and flees eternally before us. Nothing stands still for us. This is our natural state and yet the state most contrary to our inclinations. We burn with desire to find a firm footing, an ultimate, lasting base on which to build a tower rising up to infinity, but our whole foundation cracks and the earth opens up into the depth of the abyss.”

There is that precipice again, the absurd state of humanity. The human being, in fact and in its absurdity, cannot even comprehend itself:

“Who would not think, to see us compounding everything of mind and matter, that such a mixture is perfectly intelligible to us? Yet this is the thing we understand least; man is to himself the greatest prodigy in nature, for he cannot conceive what body is, and still less what mind is, and least of all how a body can be joined to a mind. This is his supreme difficulty, and yet it is his very being. ‘The way in which minds are attached to bodies is beyond man’s understanding, and yet this is what man is.’” [The final quotation Pascal uses is from Augustine’s City of God]

Thus:

“What sort of freak then is man! How novel, how monstrous, how chaotic, how paradoxical, how prodigious! Judge of all things, feeble earthworm, repository of truth, sink of doubt and error, glory and refuse of the universe! Who will unravel such a tangle? This is certainly beyond dogmatism and scepticism, beyond all human philosophy. Man transcends man. Let us then concede to the sceptics what they have so often proclaimed, that truth lies beyond our scope and is an unattainable quarry, that it is no earthly denizen, but at home in heaven, lying in the lap of God, to be known only in so far as it pleases him to reveal it. Let us learn our true nature from the uncreated and incarnate truth.” [131]

Our reasoning faculty here, which Pascal acknowledges in several thoughts, is a problem generally in the human situation his fragmentary ideas present. This is not just a matter of its perspicacity or, rather, lack of it. For the issue in relation to God [or “the infinite” for those who prefer more philosophical points of reference] is that if reason could comprehend it then it would only be by reducing everything to the level of human reason. Yet, reasoning beings that we are [who therefore REQUIRE reasons for things], if we do not subject things to reason everything appears as “absurd and ridiculous” — as thought 173 puts it. Thought 183 concludes that either making reason the sole arbiter or not making reason an arbiter at all is equally excessive. We are stuck in the middle. What’s more, as thought 182 makes clear, “nothing is so consistent with reason as… denial of reason.” Reason can, and often does, declare itself impotent to judge even though it is the faculty by which we do exactly such a thing. What other creature finds itself with the human condition of knowing that it doesn’t, and often cannot, know? This is a perhaps unique absurdity.

Yet we can also fill out the picture of the human in the mind of Pascal beyond this as well. One aspect of this is our singularity and the necessity of this fact as thought 151 explores:

“It is absurd of us to rely on the company of our fellows, as wretched and helpless as we are; they will not help us; we shall die alone. We must act then as if we were alone. If that were so, would we build superb houses, etc.? We should unhesitatingly look for the truth. And, if we refuse, it shows that we have a higher regard for men’s esteem than for pursuing the truth.”

Pascal apparently regards the needfulness for every individual of receiving aid in their predicament as a problem the individual should [and not only must] face alone. He really does take the idea of dangling over that precipice quite seriously and individually. In a series of thoughts on the subject of “diversion” [i.e. how human beings divert their attention from troubles or problems to more comforting and perhaps illusory ideas] he bemoans the fact that the human being “does not know how to stay quietly in his room” [136] but, instead, seeks diversion in various pursuits which take their mind from a human being’s nature, their inheritance and their eventual end. This is further evidence of a basic human impotence but also signals a state in which the human being must live: an existential state or form of life. This is further elucidated in a couple of thoughts [125+126] in which the human being is compared to nature and, interestingly, to habit:

“What are our natural principles but habitual principles? In children it is the principles received from the habits of their fathers, like hunting in the case of animals. A change of habit will produce different natural principles, as can be seen from experience, and if there are some principles which habit cannot eradicate, there are others both habitual and unnatural which neither nature nor a new habit can eradicate. It all depends on one’s disposition. [125]

Fathers are afraid that their children’s natural love may be eradicated. What then is this nature which is liable to be eradicated? Habit is a second nature that destroys the first. But what is nature? Why is habit not natural? I am very much afraid that nature itself is only a first habit, just as habit is a second nature.” [126]

This last idea is, for me, the most consequential of those mentioned here for I had already for several years [ever since I read the chapter on “Habit” in William James’ two volume The Principles of Psychology, in fact] been fascinated with the idea of life forms as “bundles of habits” as James sets out in the opening sentence of the chapter just referred to: “When we look at living creatures from an outward point of view, one of the first things that strike us is that they are bundles of habits.” That Pascal links nature with habit is, thus, interesting and perhaps consequential for “habit” is not “nature” [as in “the nature of nature”, something fixed, immutable and essential] but simply a form of life or activity and relationships into which things have fallen and with which they have become familiar and perhaps feel comfortable. This, in turn, may suggest that forms of life are not taken up deliberately as forms which MUST be the case [say because of some law or other undeniable necessity] but simply because they can be, because it has worked out that way BUT could be other in different circumstances or with a change of habit presaged by some other circumstance.

Nature, in fact, is often taken by many as an authority [perhaps even sometimes in the past by me] because it seems like what Lee Braver has called, in relation to the philosophies of Heidegger and Wittgenstein, a “groundless ground”. But what if, as Pascal fears, nature is nothing more than habits, a collection of behaviours become comforting familiarities that happens because life seeks familiarity [which is beneficial to its growth and continued existence] and so falls into habits? Notably, William James, as psychologist, could assign habits of instinct and habits of reason and, in wanting to define habit, finds that “one is led to the fundamental properties of matter”. He also finds that habits are individual and so such habits can be conditions of individual existence. If we add all these together have we not, as Pascal fears, got something we can call “nature”? Habit, thinks William James, is a matter of “physics” and of “physical principle”. We start to become persuaded that habits are not necessary in themselves in terms of particular examples of them [they can be other and, with a reason for change, might easily become so] and that, as the greatest imaginable collection of habits, nature is not either. Notable then is Pascal’s observation that “A change of habit will produce different natural principles” and what we start to get into is the nature of forms of life and how life itself, in its behaviours, goes to make up what we refer to as nature.

For a human being that Pascal has often described as rationally impotent, a being stuck in the middle, over a precipice, the possible revelation that it is a bundle of habits that is part of a larger aggregation of habits called nature does not come as something which gives the individual any greater confidence in itself. But this is further destabilised, in my opinion, by Pascal’s decision, in this case, to talk about knowing things “by instinct and feeling” as he does in thought 110. Rational inability, he says here, “humble[s] reason” but, he continues, it does not “confute our certainty” [he is arguing against imaginary sceptics]. Pascal insists that we should refuse to let rationality be the judge of everything – as it would like to be – but allow some leeway to the aforementioned instinct and feeling. The issue for Pascal is that “nature” has refused to allow that we become beings who trust “instinct and feeling” alone [as he would wish] but has created us as beings who but trust in the products of rationality, an obviously insufficient faculty impugned even by its own working in ourselves. The further issue, from his religious point of view, is that all of these three – rationality, instinct and feeling – are not enough to guarantee the certainty of faith – which is why he presumably imagines that God gives people religious faith [his action, not theirs] by “moving their hearts”. One again, in all this, the human being is found impotent and reliant upon divine gifts or blessings from outside and beyond them. Human beings cannot save themselves and this can then only be absurd, a cause of anxiety.

Indeed, thought 83 sets human beings between two ignorances in the following way:

“The world is a good judge of things, because it is in the state of natural ignorance where man really belongs. Knowledge has two extremes which meet; one is the pure natural ignorance of every man at birth, the other is the extreme reached by great minds who run through the whole range of human knowledge, only to find that they know nothing and come back to the same ignorance from which they set out, but it is a wise ignorance which knows itself. Those who stand half-way have put their natural ignorance behind them without yet attaining the other; they have some smattering of adequate knowledge and pretend to understand everything. They upset the world and get everything wrong.”

This is just one of a series of “before and afters” that Pascal imagines the human life to be a bridge between [primarily this is the nothingness from which they come and the infinity to which they are fated] and one gets the impression that “ignorance” is the sole item accumulated from this short journey. If thought 69 is simply “wretchedness” [with a biblical reference to “Job and Solomon” attached] then the prior thought, thought 68, seems to sum up the human life for Pascal in a compact way:

“When I consider the brief span of my life absorbed into the eternity which comes before and after – as the remembrance of a guest that tarrieth but a day – the small space I occupy and which I see swallowed up in the infinite immensity of spaces of which I know nothing and which know nothing of me, I take fright and am amazed to see myself here rather than there: there is no reason for me to be here rather than there, now rather than then. Who put me here? By whose command and act were this time and place allotted to me?”

And this is where we will leave Pascal, wondering, over his precipice, and really without the resources to do much about it except wait for the inevitable drop into infinity.

Fast forward 300 years to post Second World War France. A couple of atheistic people, one male – Jean-Paul Sartre – and one female – Simone de Beauvoir, are now the centre of a philosophical movement known as existentialism and these are two of the people who seem not to actually mind being called existentialists [although even here they had initially resisted]. Existentialism is a strange bird, as likely to be found in novels or fiction these two might write as in philosophical treatises or essays they might write or otherwise present. I want to focus in the next few pages on Beauvoir to ask after the character of her existentialism since this group of philosophical ideas can be subject to quite wide variation in its presentation.

In a short piece written for a newspaper in 1947 – when “existentialism” was something hip and trendy and largely un-understood as a cool thing from Paris – Simone de Beauvoir was getting used to being asked what existentialism was. And so in this short piece she gives quite a fulsome description. Here she makes no mention of Kierkegaard or Nietzsche or even the mysterious and serious German emerging from under a Nazi cloud who, in the Twenties, had written the vast and incomprehensible [and unfinished] Being and Time, Martin Heidegger. Instead, she says that existentialism:

“postulates the value of the individual as the source and reason for being [raison d’être] of all significations and all colors, yet it admits that the individual has reality only through his engagement in the world. It affirms that the will of free being is sufficient for the accomplishment of freedom, yet it also states that this will can posit itself only by struggling against the obstacles and the oppressions that limit the concrete possibilities of man. It resembles individualism in the sense that it seems important to it that each individual gains his own salvation, and that each individual appears as being the only one able to obtain it for himself. Yet it also resembles Marxist realism because only in working actively for the concrete triumph of universal freedom, by proposing ends for himself that surpass him, can the individual hope to save himself. Thereby existentialism also seeks a reconciliation of those two reigns whose divorce is so nefarious to men in our time: the ethical reign and the political reign. Ethics appears to existentialism not as the formal respect of eternal and supraterrestrial laws, but as the search for a valid foundation of human history, such as it unfolds on our earth. Politics is not, for existentialism, the simple adjustment of the efficient means toward an unconditioned end, but the perpetual and incessant creation and construction of the end by the means used to produce it. In other words, the task of man is one: to fashion the world by giving it a meaning. This meaning is not given ahead of time, just as the existence of each man is not justified ahead of time either.

Along with the idea of a God guaranteeing Good and Evil, existentialism rejects the notion of ready-made values whose affirmation precedes human judgment. By freely taking his own freedom as an end within himself and in his acts, man constitutes a kingdom of ends.”

So this is about an ethical and political “reign” which unites the individual and the social, seeing the freedom of each as involving them both. I think I have heard of something like this before [see Being Human: A Philosophy of Personal and Political Anarchism and the books following!]. Beauvoir follows up this definition with a further comment which makes the responsibility for our lives our own when she adds:

“Cut off from human will, the reality of the world is but an ‘absurd given.’ This is a conception that appears to many people as hopeless and makes them accuse existentialism of being pessimistic. But actually there is no hopelessness, since we think that it is possible for man to snatch the world from the darkness of absurdity, clothe it in

significations, and project valid goals into it. We very simply rediscover the wisdom of old Montaigne, who said, ‘Life is in itself neither good nor evil; it is the place of good or evil as you make them!’”

In another short article [“An Existentialist Looks At Americans”] in the New York Times Magazine in 1947, when Beauvoir had visited the USA and when she began the research that would culminate in her most famous literary artefact, The Second Sex, a bible of Twentieth Century feminism, she had described existentialism as “disclosing the true measure of man and of his values.” She added that, “the history of men is the work of men themselves, and concerns no one but them; they must make it meaningful; no one else can.” Human lives can be a “a junk yard of events” or “an enduring value” but whether they are or not is only the work of human beings and nothing else. IT IS THEIR RESPONSIBILITY. In looking at Americans, Beauvoir asks “Does [American civilization] provide men with valid reasons for living? Does it justify their existence?”

In this piece Beauvoir refers to herself as a “humanist” even as Jean-Paul Sartre’s most famous lecture/essay from around the same time [in which Sartre states that existentialism is “strictly intended for specialists and philosophers” whilst also defining the distinctive existentialist belief as “existence precedes essence; or, if you prefer, ... subjectivity must be our point of departure”] is titled “Existentialism is a Humanism”. Not all those of existentialist concern would be so quick to embrace the ideology of “humanism” [which to Beauvoir and Sartre would have atheist connotations] and one such as Max Stirner, discussed in my last book, Egoism Explained, would definitively reject “humanism” too – seeing it as only a means of getting rid of God by shifting the “God function” over to human beings. But Beauvoir takes pride in human achievement and, in some respects, sees life as a matter of human achievement and human achievement as something to have pride about. Thus, “for an Existentialist, it is in the nature of human existence to assert itself against the inertia of the given by dominating things, by invading them, by incorporating their structures into the world of man.” For Beauvoir such a conception of humanity is not a passive one either. Passivity or quietude, hiding away from the world, is to be dead already and, in fact, to sit waiting for death. Therefore:

“Man is not a stone or a plant and cannot calmly rest his case on the fact that he is present in the midst of the world; man is man only by his refusal to be passive, by the urge which thrusts him from the present toward things with the aim of dominating and shaping them; for him, to exist is to remake existence, to live is to will to live.

We hold that man is free: but his freedom is real and concrete only to the degree that it is committed to something, only if it pursues some end and strives to effect some changes in the world.”

Beauvoir makes a lot of human willing in this piece which links her to Stirner and Nietzsche [and so to anarchist direct action] even if she is not inclined to bring it up to her American audience — which she is flattering by referring to American “dynamism” and the American valuation of a human being according to what they achieve. [In this, Beauvoir reminds me of a previous piece Voltairine de Cleyre wrote in which she linked anarchism back to the American spirit of revolution and which I referred to in Egoism Explained.] In this respect, Beauvoir judges “the reality of man… by his will to realization, by his project in the world, that a man fulfills himself.” Nevertheless:

“if we concede that the presence of an individual is expressed only by his acts, equally essential to our way of thinking is the notion that actions are meaningful only in so far as they express a human presence. Man is free only if he sets himself concrete ends and strives to realize these: but an end can only be called such if it is chosen freely. It is in the world that man comes upon the values that justify his existence; but he must have wanted to find these values there.”

Beauvoir thus takes the subjectivity of the individual as an important thing but this is expressed through acts taken in the world; it is not to be thought of as a private quietism. Such a person has no values to begin with but finds them as they act in the world as an articulation of a freedom which authenticates their actions and is consequent on a “human presence”. In fact, we might take such free action as being that which constitutes “humanity” in this respect. Here “nothing is good that has not been desired” but, in a way we may see as Hegelian [thesis-antithesis-synthesis], Beauvoir wants to picture existentialism as “The truth of the world and of man resid[ing] in the bond between subject and object.” What is important here is that “man can only find himself by committing himself to the world” and so “the loss of the one is ever accompanied by the loss of the other.” For Simone de Beauvoir, then, existentialism is a philosophy of humanity and world and not of one or the other, not of the individual by themselves or a homogenised mass, but the interaction, with integrity, of both. And this cannot be in innocence for “In an adult, innocence cannot but mean some voluntary blindness.” We must, thus, take on a knowing responsibility for this is what constitutes our freedom and so our true humanity.

Some differences in how “freedom” is imagined in various, inter-related, ideologies are thus apparent. Freedom for an existentialist such as Beauvoir [or Sartre, for that matter] is a freedom into which we are thrown by birth and which is constituted as a responsibleness for your own life. You are free [which could also be described as being thrown or even abandoned] to be responsible for yourself in what, for Beauvoir, at least [as I will soon show], is a fundamentally ethical context. For the anarchist, however, freedom is more usually imagined as a political object, project or characteristic which people [usually in a social situation] may win [by their direct action] for themselves and then is carried on, again in political context, as a matter of how they organise themselves. Freedom for the Stirnerite egoist, however, as I discussed in Egoism Explained, is something the individual demands for themselves in a refutation of the liberal ideological construction of freedom as a matter of human rights. The egoist argues that such a liberal construction of human rights steals freedom from the egoist only to give it back to them on its own terms. With this it cannot live for it demands a freedom of its own and insists that freedom should never be given it on someone else’s terms. In this, we will see that the egoist and existentialist conceptions of freedom are most similar, both being individually expressed, but that what the egoist claims for themselves as an act of will the existentialist argues is already there by fact of birth — which casts the freedom of responsibility upon everyone. It is worthwhile holding all three of these conceptions of freedom [which are all, in some sense, a commitment] in mind as we move forward.

Beauvoir goes further into the existential conception of freedom in her extended essay The Ethics of Ambiguity from 1947 [so before The Second Sex but after Sartre’s Being and Nothingness – which she had read and wanted to base an ethics on and which was part commentary and explanation of Heidegger’s Being and Time – although Heidegger himself disavowed Sartre’s interpretation of it]. This extended essay is sometimes described as the most accessible introduction to existentialist ethics but that doesn’t necessarily mean it is easy to understand. The existentialist flair for writing a lengthy sentence that you read and it seems to have said nothing meaningful is still apparent and the language seems sometimes alien and strange – and unfortunately resistant of comprehension. This is not necessarily any fault of Beauvoir [or others] but is a difficulty of explaining something new in the language of the old. The basic conception of this essay, however, is relatively easy to understand. This is that the existential construction of human existence is of it as an “ambiguity” comprised of both freedom [as just discussed] AND of that constraint which is the social world. Speaking of the human being in this situation, Beauvoir puts it like this:

“He is still a part of this world of which he is a consciousness. He asserts himself as a pure internality against which no external power can take hold, and he also experiences himself as a thing crushed by the dark weight of other things. At every moment he can grasp the non-temporal truth of his existence. But, between the past which no longer is and the future which is not yet, this moment when he exists is nothing. This privilege, which he alone possesses, of being a sovereign and unique subject amidst a universe of objects, is what he shares with all his fellow-men. In turn an object for others, he is nothing more than an individual in the collectivity on which he depends.”

Such language emphasises that it is not enough for Beauvoir that we are individuals for there is also a collectivity – and it cannot be ignored. Yet this same collectivity never takes the freedom of our individual lives away from us either. Thus, the “ambiguity”. Thus, “Each one has the incomparable taste in his mouth of his own life, and yet each feels himself more insignificant than an insect within the immense collectivity whose limits are one with the earth’s.” Beauvoir can also describe this as “the truth of life and death, of my solitude and my bond with the world, of my freedom and my servitude, of the insignificance and the sovereign importance of each man and all men.” Yet Beauvoir has the courage not to shrink back from the task of making sense of existence as such an ambiguity – something she regards as fundamental. She notes that “It is in the knowledge of the genuine conditions of our life that we must draw our strength to live and our reason for acting.” Beauvoir locates the existential understanding of life – and such a life’s consequences – entirely within this ambiguity and so it may be noted as the defining characteristic of it. So, in this conception, existentialism is not so much about “the absurd” and “despair” pure and simple as it is about these things, this “failure” as Beauvoir describes it, becoming the gateway to an ethics which speaks of meaning and purpose. It is what human beings do in and with their existence that matters rather than simply some condition or situation they can be said to be in.

Here it is clear that Beauvoir is using Sartre’s Being and Nothingness as a jumping off point for she mentions it explicitly. Sartre goes into this “failure” of human beings at length and the ethics of the situation not so much. This, in fact, is what opens up an opportunity for Beauvoir to build upon this. Sartre conceives of a human being that must choose their passion and before whom no value exists without a passion each human being has chosen for themselves. This might make it seem useless [because valueless] but, in a way a pragmatist like Richard Rorty would have heartily agreed with, “useful… can be defined only in the human world established by man’s projects and the ends he sets up.” There is no universal value, no given meaning; there is only these things as they correlate with human beings and their projects and their ends. Here we can see that “thrown freedom” of the existentialist coming through as context and situation. The human being, for Sartre and Beauvoir, is nothing prior to their passion. Their being “is a lack of being” but this constitutes their existence. For such a person “to attain his truth” such a person “must not attempt to dispel the ambiguity of his being but, on the contrary, accept the task of realising it.” You could say, being born, human beings find that they have accepted the mission of their lives – to which they must then commit. They must, in fact, now undertake either to fulfil that mission or to refuse it and commit suicide — or live lives of utterly miserable inauthenticity instead. The choice, in a way unavoidable, is yours.

There are consequences, of course. One is that “the genuine man will not agree to recognise any foreign absolute.” The existentialist is as the egoist here – if for different reasons. The existentialist, like the egoist, is someone who lives to be right in their own eyes and not in the eyes, for example, of a God [actually or metaphorically]. The existentialist’s existence is not guaranteed by outside forces or values but from their own lack of being which then becomes the basis for the creating of their own being themselves. A lack thus becomes a starting point and motivation and constitutes the basis of human freedom and the genesis of a human being’s value and meaning. As Beauvoir puts this:

“It is desire which creates the desirable, and the project which sets up the end. It is human existence which makes values spring up in the world on the basis of which it will be able to judge the enterprise in which it will be engaged. But first it locates itself beyond any pessimism, as beyond any optimism, for the fact of its original springing forth is a pure contingency. Before existence there is no more reason to exist than not to exist. The lack of existence cannot be evaluated since it is the fact on the basis of which all evaluation is defined. It cannot be compared to anything for there is nothing outside of it to serve as a term of comparison.”

Existentialism, thus, rejects “extrinsic justification” since things are only justifiable from within. “Outside of existence” – which is concrete – “there is nobody”. The responsibility of and for existence thus becomes personal: “Man exists. For him it is not a question of wondering whether his presence in the world is useful, whether life is worth the trouble of being lived. These questions make no sense. It is a matter of knowing whether he wants to live and under what conditions.”

This, of course, then opens up the question of licence [or lack of it] and, eventually, of ethics — for if a human being is responsible for their own life, and if values are their concern rather than a universal concern, is this not to say that people can do whatever they like without law or sanction? We may pose the question, as Dostoevsky did, that “If God does not exist, everything is permitted.” Beauvoir will not have this though and actually turns the question around. From her existentialist position the fact that there is no God, the fact that human beings are themselves thrown into a freedom of being responsible for themselves, the fact that human beings are abandoned to live their lives [or not] on their own recognisance, is exactly what mandates that they cannot just do as they please. Therefore:

“far from God’s absence authorizing all license, the contrary is the case, because man is abandoned on the earth, because his acts are definitive, absolute engagements. He bears the responsibility for a world which is not the work of a strange power, but of himself, where his defeats are inscribed, and his victories as well. A God can pardon, efface, and compensate. But if God does not exist, man’s faults are inexpiable.”

This is only to double down on the insight that Beauvoir has already made in describing freedom as a thrown freedom into responsibility for oneself [which we can now see potentially extends to others – of whom we cannot fail to be aware – as well]. Everything comes down to us, our passions, our choices and our projects. We give everything [or nothing] value and meaning: WE ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR EVERYTHING and there is no outside this responsibility. We may take this as the sense of the “humanism” that both Sartre and Beauvoir talk about and so can say, in other words, that “the source of all values resides in the freedom of man”. Beauvoir sees this as exactly the point Georg Hegel had made when he equated “the essence of right and duty and the essence of the thinking and willing subject.” Therefore:

“The idea that defines all humanism is that the world is not a given world, foreign to man, one to which he has to force himself to yield without. It is the world willed by man, insofar as his will expresses his genuine reality.”

This amounts to saying, as Beauvoir goes on to say, that “for existentialism it is not impersonal universal man who is the source of values, but the plurality of concrete particular men projecting themselves toward their ends on the basis of situations whose particularity is as radical and as irreducible as subjectivity itself.” But in this Beauvoir also acknowledges that there is no ethical a priori: “there is an ethics only if there is a problem to solve.” But what can make these problems in an existential conception of things? Only we can. There is a materialist aspect to this so that it does not become a matter of “inhuman objectivity”. Engaging Marx, Beauvoir can thus say that:

“only the will of men decides; and it is on the basis of a certain individual act of rooting itself in the historical and economic world that this will thrusts itself toward the future and then chooses a perspective where such words as goal, progress, efficacy, success, failure, action, adversaries, instruments, and obstacles, have a meaning. Then certain acts can be regarded as good and others as bad.

In order for the universe of revolutionary values to arise, a subjective movement must

create them in revolt and hope.”

In such a way, Beauvoir even argues that the Marxist, not always one who believes in a freedom of the more political sort as history has demonstrated time and time again, “assumes himself to be free.” She says:

“The very notion of action would lose all meaning if history were a mechanical unrolling in which man appears only as a passive conductor of outside forces. By acting, as also by preaching action, the Marxist revolutionary asserts himself as a veritable agent; he assumes himself to be free.”

For the existentialist, then, an acting is an acting in that freedom to which one has been thrown. This is not a political achievement but an existential reality. It is “to assert oneself as a freedom” out of this freedom [which alone is nothing] itself. On the subject of this freedom, Beauvoir has the following to say:

“Freedom is the source from which all significations and all values spring. It is the original condition of all justification of existence. The man who seeks to justify his life must want freedom itself absolutely and above everything else. At the same time that it requires the realization of concrete ends, of particular projects, it requires itself universally. It is not a ready-made value which offers itself from the outside to my abstract adherence, but it appears (not on the plane of facility, but on the moral plane) as a cause of itself. It is necessarily summoned up by the values which it sets up and through which it sets itself up. It cannot establish a denial of itself, for in denying itself, it would deny the possibility of any foundation. To will oneself moral and to will oneself free are one and the same decision.”

This is to say that the freedom into which we are thrown by birth, and which is constituted as a responsibility, is ethical in and of itself. It is this not because there is a God but BECAUSE THERE ISN’T ONE, because the responsibility is ours. We might call this destiny [which makes this interesting in Nietzschean context where Zarathustra will preach willing your destiny to be yourself]. Beauvoir admits this as “this ambiguous reality which is called existence” but this embracing of the life of a free responsibility is seen as “effecting the transition from nature to morality by establishing a genuine freedom” which we each choose in what is to become a social context. So here “Every man is originally free in the sense that he spontaneously casts himself into the world.” The minute you are in the world, of course, you mandate relationships and relationships require procedures or protocols for the behaviour of those relationships. However:

“one can choose not to will himself free. In laziness, heedlessness, capriciousness, cowardice, impatience, one contests the meaning of the project at the very moment that one defines it. The spontaneity of the subject is then merely a vain living palpitation, its movement toward the object is a flight, and itself is an absence. To convert the absence into presence, to convert my flight into will, I must assume my project positively. It is not a matter of retiring into the completely inner and, moreover, abstract movement of a given spontaneity, but of adhering to the concrete and particular movement by which this spontaneity defines itself by thrusting itself toward an end. It is through this end that it sets up that my spontaneity confirms itself by reflecting upon itself. Then, by a single movement, my will, establishing the content of the act, is legitimized by it. I realize my escape toward the other as a freedom when, assuming the presence of the object, I thereby assume myself before it as a presence.”

Here we see that this self-reflexive project of the self requires an other [an “object”] to project itself towards [Beauvoir actually says that “human spontaneity always projects itself toward something”] and so is never mere solipsism, a theatre of the narcissistic self. It is a matter of being “organised into behaviour” which gives the existential self the opportunity to “decide and choose”. This constitutes “the movement of my transcendence” and is somewhat analogous to Nietzsche’s “Overhuman” in that one must go beyond oneself. One is never satisfied with falling back or resting on one’s laurels, as it were. As Beauvoir herself says, “An existence would be unable to found itself if moment by moment it crumbled into nothingness.” Therefore, “to will is to engage myself to persevere in my will.” Thus, the existing self creates itself from the original nothing of their existence as a responsibility of freedom:

“The goal toward which I surpass myself must appear to me as a point of departure toward a new act of surpassing. Thus, a creative freedom develops happily without ever congealing into unjustified facticity. The creator leans upon anterior creations in order to create the possibility of new creations. His present project embraces the past and places confidence in the freedom to come, a confidence which is never disappointed. It discloses being at the end of a further disclosure. At each moment freedom is confirmed through all creation.”

Beauvoir parses this creative activity as the disclosure of individual being which turns it into an existence. This is to be distinguished from the trapping of being and I understand this to be a making concrete and my own [perhaps even in an egoist sense] what is ambiguous and abstract. This is what my creative will does with my being in order to turn it into my deliberate willed existence, that which constitutes the transcendence Beauvoir spoke about previously, my overcoming and building up myself in a process on the way towards a goal I have freely chosen in my responsibility for myself. This is to be contrasted with that worst of imaginable punishments for the existential human being – “performing acts which make no sense” to them. Imagined here is some kind of Sisyphean task. Beauvoir specifically mentions emptying and filling the same ditch indefinitely, soldiers punished by being made to march up and down or a schoolboy punished by being made to write lines. Beauvoir seems to imagine that, set to useless tasks, the human being must either break or revolt and so, for example, life imprisonment would be the worst punishment because it preserves the fact of life but forbids the freedom to legitimate one’s existence. She further notes that “A freedom cannot will itself without willing itself as an indefinite movement. It must absolutely reject the constraints which arrest its drive toward itself.” Life, we may say, then requires freedom to breathe where what freedom it needs must be a matter for itself. This entirely explains to me why I have always instinctively rejected the capitalist deal of money for my time. My time [which is my freedom as it is my responsibility and my entire existence] is my own and nothing could be more valuable to me. Thus, I agree with Beauvoir when she writes that “Human transcendence… seeks, with the destruction of the given situation, the whole future which will flow from its victory.” We destroy what is before us [now thinking of revolt rather than of being broken by circumstances] in order to give ourselves a content through our action, that which creates our existence.

This becomes important for Beauvoir morally. She writes: “If man wishes to save his existence, as only he himself can do, his original spontaneity must be raised to the height of moral freedom by taking itself as an end through the disclosure of a particular content.” This suggests that lives must be specific, they must be our own even as our responsibility for them is our own, and this is a wiling oneself to be free but also for that freedom to be a moral freedom as well. It is, as Beauvoir has said, this freedom which constitutes itself as a moral realm and responsibility. But also important here is the recognition that there are “real dangers” in the world which is not something any human individual makes for or by themselves. The context is also social, always a “more than me”. Real failures are possible and real earthly damnations can and do take place. This itself has an existential connotation as when Beauvoir notes that “Nothing is decided in advance, and it is because man has something to lose and because he can lose that he can also win.” There must, in other words, be real stakes to life and to an existence to give anything [including both morality and freedom] meaning but that meaning itself then means you can lose as well as win. You cannot have one without the other and our existential lives are “live” in very and constantly consequential senses.

In the second section of The Ethics of Ambiguity Beauvoir talks more openly about human relations with others – but only through talking about multiple ways by which human beings become aware of, and respond to, their subjectivity and its consequences. A crucial aspect of this, which Beauvoir points up from the beginning of section 2, is that we were each first children before we grew into an awareness of our subjectivity. Childhood has the aspect of considering “values as ready-made things” since, for the child, everything is given and so children never stop to question or imagine beyond the given. It is then an aspect of growing human maturity to gain a subjective appreciation of things and so become open to a world beyond that of childhood givens. Not everyone matures in this way, of course. Some prefer an infantile world and attempt to remain in it. But this is only the first of several inauthentic and inadequate responses from Beauvoir’s point of view. Children are not adults and their form of life is appropriate to childhood not adulthood. Once adulthood begins to approach through puberty, adult consciousness dawns on the child who, as an act of embracing adulthood, must learn how to engage with it. Such adulthood involves choosing and deciding for oneself and the act of subjective judgment leading to decision and action. This cannot be avoided if one will willingly accept adulthood: “the individual must at last accept his subjectivity.” Wherever there is a possibility to exploit one’s freedom in concrete action the adult human being must choose to do so as an expression of it and of their subjectivity in ways a child could not.

An interesting aside here is that human beings are often nostalgic for childhood, a time imagined as free from burden and constant responsibility. This is, however, a “misfortune” as Beauvoir sees it for this was a time when the child’s “freedom was concealed” from them. Thus, the adult hankering for lost childhood is hankering for a time before they had attained a consciousness of their freedom and “did not know its exigencies”. But there are also further consequences:

“Moral choice is free, and therefore unforeseeable. The child does not contain the man he will become. Yet, it is always on the basis of what he has been that a man decides upon what he wants to be. He draws the motivations of his moral attitude from within the character which he has given himself and from within the universe which is its correlative. Now, the child set up this character and this universe little by little, without foreseeing its development….

The drama of original choice is that it goes on moment by moment for an entire lifetime, that it occurs without reason, before any reason, that freedom is there as if it were present only in the form of contingency. This contingency recalls, in a way, the arbitrariness of the grace distributed by God in Calvinistic doctrine. Here too there is a sort of predestination issuing not from an external tyranny but from the operation of the subject itself.”

What I take this to mean is that we always decide who we will be on the basis of who we have been as “the child does not contain the man he will become”. So the human being simply becomes something else constantly – consequent on the fact that one can learn by looking back but not by looking forward – for the future is always unknown. The child does not know the person they will become even as the adult does not know the adult they will become in later life. Yet we can always contrast who we think we are now with what we conceive of who we once were. A child, of course, could not take responsibility for who they were going to be and adulthood is taking on, or refusing, this responsibility – responses which Beauvoir regards as consequential. Contingency comes in here in that who we conceive ourselves to be from moment to moment is never given and could always change with circumstance. This, in fact, is exactly why we can never say who we will become and it remains an unknown. Who we think we are, of course, is always a matter for us and, furthermore, a matter of our justification. Emptying ourselves in order to fill ourselves up with our own signification is the task to which Beauvoir fates us inasmuch as she constantly repeats variations on “To exist is to make oneself a lack of being; it is to cast oneself into the world.” This is a matter of a human being’s “passion” [“which is his human condition”] and their “drive toward being”. The reasons for existence, Beauvoir demands, must be our reasons – and they can only be created by our willing to exist as ourselves. The less reasons we have to exist, the less we will actually exist.

Here it is important for Beauvoir that a human being is not simply a “brute fact” like a stone or a tree. Human beings are not simply data. Although she does not use such language here, Beauvoir seems to think of human beings as self-willed processes which constitute their being and their existence. There are, of course, those who wish to refuse this. Beauvoir refers to such as the “sub-man”. They exist by rejecting existence and live a life of defeat. Speaking of such a person, Beauvoir says:

“He would like to forget himself, to be ignorant of himself, but the nothingness which is at the heart of man is also the consciousness that he has of himself. His negativity is revealed positively as anguish, desire, appeal, laceration, but as for the genuine return to the positive, the sub-man eludes it. He is afraid of engaging himself in a project as he is afraid of being disengaged and thereby of being in a state of danger before the future, in the midst of its possibilities. He is thereby led to take refuge in the ready-made values of the serious world [i.e. as the child would]. He will proclaim certain opinions; he will take shelter behind a label; and to hide his indifference he will readily abandon himself to verbal outbursts or even physical violence. One day, a monarchist, the next day, an anarchist, he is more readily anti-Semitic, anti-clerical, or anti-republican. Thus, though we have defined him as a denial and a flight, the sub-man is not a harmless creature. He realizes himself in the world as a blind uncontrolled force which anybody can get control of. In lynchings, in pogroms, in all the great bloody movements organized by the fanaticism of seriousness and passion, movements where there is no risk, those who do the actual dirty work are recruited from among the sub-men.”

The “sub-man” is a person reduced to a bare fact and not a person consciously creating their freedom or taking up their responsibility for it. They are an unthinking mass blown from one thing to another without roots or purpose of their own. As living spirits with their own personality and will, they do not exist. Such people would be perfect fodder for demagogues to use up in bringing their own will to bear on the world. Thus, “The sub-man makes his way across a world deprived of meaning toward a death which merely confirms his long negation of himself.” The sub-man is a bored man who lives in a desert, “the absurd facticity of an existence.” It should then go without saying that such a person has not grasped the concept of ethics as Beauvoir intends it either for, in Beauvoir’s description, “Ethics is the triumph of freedom over facticity and the sub-man feels only the facticity of his existence.” As such, the sub-man cannot be ethical for they refuse to take up their responsibility for the freedom of their own lives. What such a person fears most is that shock of self-consciousness when they realise that responsibility to be who they are – and that they have that responsibility.

But this is a losing battle for it is nigh on impossible to make such moments in front of the mirror of one’s soul non-existent. What such a person wants to do is find some object to lose themselves in in order to “annihilate” their subjectivity. This can really be anything but is often a “cause, science, philosophy, revolution” – anything in which the person can sublimate themselves to something else. People thus become atheists, anarchists, Catholics, philosophical realists, anything which becomes an identity which erases them as an individual and becomes something they can fill themselves with and commit themselves to. Yet, as Beauvoir notes herself, “the Cause cannot save the individual insofar as he is a concrete and separate existence.” People are not cyphers for causes; they are individual people. Thus, what Beauvoir dubs “the serious man” is a person who attempts to offload the responsibility for their freedom by “subordinat[ing] it to values which would be unconditioned.” This is, in some respects, to want to be the child again who exists in a world of givens and does not need to think for itself [as someone cast into an adult world of “anxiety and doubt”]. Here “The thing that matters to the serious man is not so much the nature of the object which he prefers to himself, but rather the fact of being able to lose himself in it.” The serious man wants childhood certainty and, being an adult, this is dangerous.

“The serious man puts nothing into question,” claims Beauvoir, and their productions become “inhuman idols to which one will not hesitate to sacrifice man himself.” Such a person, Beauvoir continues:

“also ignores the value of the subjectivity and the freedom of others, to such an extent that, sacrificing them to the thing, he persuades himself that what he sacrifices is nothing… It is the fanaticism of the Inquisition which does not hesitate to impose a credo, that is, an internal movement, by means of external constraints. It is the fanaticism of the vigilantes of America who defend morality by means of lynchings. It is the political fanaticism which empties politics of all human content and imposes the State, not for individuals, but against them.”

This is a person for whom a recognition of their freedom as a responsibility would be an “agony”. In a revealing comment, Beauvoir states that such a person “having abdicated his freedom, he has nothing else left but his techniques.” This is life as an [unthinking] form of life, a life without original, self-generated content because the content and values of “the cause” fills them up instead and works them from the inside. Beauvoir imagines this “seriousness” as something which can also be “turned back upon itself” when it becomes “nihilism” which is a person conceiving “his annihilation in a substantial way.” This is “lack at the heart of existence”, however, rather than “the positive existence of a lack” and the nihilist correctly thinks that they possess no justification and are themselves nothing but then “forgets that it is up to [them] to justify the world and to make himself exist validly.” This is to say that such a person, from Beauvoir’s existential perspective, correctly adduces their nothingness but then completely forgets their responsibility for their own freedom [which this nothing itself motivates as far as Beauvoir is concerned]. Yet another personality type possible here is “the adventurer”, “one who remains indifferent to the content, that is, to the human meaning of his action, who thinks he can assert his own existence without taking into account that of others.” Here we start to tread on the toes of Beauvoir’s ethical context to freedom, one which destines “an open future” and “the freedom of others”.

The danger of “the adventurer”, in fact, is missing the ethical context of freedom which implies the freedom of others. As Beauvoir puts this later, “subjectivity necessarily transcends itself toward others” and so the adventurer’s fault would be in “believing that one can do something for oneself without others.” This points way to a later ethical restatement of freedom in Beauvoir’s conception of it. Before that, however, she also talks about “the passionate man”, “One [who] admires the pride of a subjectivity which chooses its end without bending itself to any foreign law and the precious brilliance of the object revealed by the force of this assertion.” But such a man also has a “solitude in which this subjectivity encloses itself as injurious. Having withdrawn into an unusual region of the world, seeking not to communicate with other men, this freedom is realized only as a separation. Any conversation, any relationship, with the passionate man is impossible.” This is then a person who separates themselves from the world and so from others. Beauvoir remarks on this that “A man who seeks being far from other men, seeks it against them at the same time that he loses himself.” Once again, Beauvoir is hinting at the social implications for an existential conception of freedom even where this freedom is acknowledged as an individual responsibility and realisation.

We come to the conclusion of the second section of The Ethics of Ambiguity and it is a social, ethical conclusion. This begins when Beauvoir speaks of genuine love as to love another in their otherness and goes on to say that passion — which is necessary – is an action of “genuine freedom” only if one makes their existence something to do with other existences. Our existences must transcend beyond themselves rather than entrapping others in us. Thus, “no existence can be validly fulfilled if it is limited to itself. It appeals to the existence of others.” Beauvoir can, in fact, make this even more plain:

“There is no way for a man to escape from this world. It is in this world that — avoiding the

pitfalls we have just pointed out — he must realize himself morally. Freedom must project

itself toward its own reality through a content whose value it establishes. An end is valid

only by a return to the freedom which established it and which willed itself through this

end. But this will implies that freedom is not to be engulfed in any goal; neither is it to

dissipate itself vainly without aiming at a goal. It is not necessary for the subject to seek

to be, but it must desire that there be being. To will oneself free and to will that there be

being are one and the same choice, the choice that man makes of himself as a presence in the world. We can neither say that the free man wants freedom in order to desire being, nor that he wants the disclosure of being by freedom. These are two aspects of a single reality. And, whichever be the one under consideration, they both imply the bond of each man with all others.”

This social, ethical conclusion [which Beauvoir is deliberately highlighting for she knows very well that opponents of existentialism characterise it as “solipsistic”] is followed up on:

“To will that there be being is also to will that there be men by and for whom the world is endowed with human significations. One can reveal the world only on a basis revealed by other men. No project can be defined except by its interference with other projects. To make being ‘be’ is to communicate with others by means of being... freedom cannot will itself without aiming at an open future. The ends which it gives itself must be unable to be transcended by any reflection, but only the freedom of other men can extend them beyond our life… Only the freedom of others keeps each one of us from hardening in the absurdity of facticity.”

Beauvoir makes existentialism social as a matter of its constitution. One cannot carry out one’s existential requirements without the existence of others or your transcending yourself in freedom towards them. How, Beauvoir asks here, can one possibly claim existentialism is anything less than socially implicated and involved if this is the case? Human meaning is a social phenomenon, human values must necessarily be social to be human since humanity is never just me, whoever me is, but potentially the whole of the species – and human communities and/or cultures at the very least. Existential freedom does not then limit itself to the individual; it is open and implicates others as a socially conditioned activity; other human beings can extend our freedom even as we can extend theirs. Other people, in fact, are what make us more than stones and trees, inanimate things which are little more than bare facts. Therefore:

“if it is true that every project emanates from subjectivity, it is also true that this subjective movement establishes by itself a surpassing of subjectivity. Man can find a justification of his own existence only in the existence of other men.”

However:

“It may perhaps be said that it is for himself that he is moral, and that such an attitude is

egotistical. But there is no ethics against which this charge, which immediately destroys itself, cannot be levelled; for how can I worry about what does not concern me? I concern others and they concern me. There we have an irreducible truth. The me-others relationship is as indissoluble as the subject-object relationship.”

The conclusion here is that “to will oneself free is also to will others free” which, as may be known – and as I detailed in Being Human – is a valid conception of human freedom for numerous social anarchists.

“Thus, every man has to do with other men. The world in which he engages himself is a human world in which each object is penetrated with human meanings. It is a speaking world from which solicitations and appeals rise up. This means that, through this world, each individual can give his freedom a concrete content. He must disclose the world with the purpose of further disclosure and by the same movement try to free men, by means of whom the world takes on meaning.”

This means that for the existentialist of the kind that Beauvoir describes “freedom realises itself only by engaging itself in the world to such an extent that man’s project toward freedom is embodied for him in definite acts of behaviour.” No anarchist or egoist could disagree with that. But it suggests a way of understanding human beings and I want to come to that to close this chapter.

About 5 or 6 years ago I found myself in a very strange place. I was, by this time, a young adult responsible for my own life – something I genuinely wanted to be. I had always been a curious, thinking child and through my teenage years this faculty only intensified and accelerated. At the same time, I was not the world’s most social person. As a child I had always valued time alone in which I could read, think and play alone. I found my own company [as I still do today] to be a safe haven in which I was left undisturbed to pursue my own projects without interference. I imagine I can charge this human development with contributing to the independently-minded, existentialist, egoist anarchist that one narrative might say I am today.

That aside, however, I was always a person who wanted to think for themselves and come to their own conclusions about things. One way I did this in that period five or six years ago was by conceiving of human beings as “being-in-the-midst”, an existential conception of human relationships which came out of my trying [and mostly failing] to read the philosophical writing of Martin Heidegger. An example of this writing, in fact, stands at the head of an essay I wrote back then, “Being-in-the-midst as Being-in-time-and-fiction” [now online on my archive.org page as Being-in-the-midst: Hermeneutics, Interpretation, Tradition [On The Way To Anarchy, 2]]. Taken from Heidegger’s The Concept of Time, now regarded as an early first draft of his seminal Being and Time, it goes as follows:

“As being-in-the-world, Dasein is always my own, whether explicitly or not, authentically or inauthentically. It is as impossible to omit Dasein’s being-in as it is to omit its while-ness (as a specific characteristic of its being-in). As care, this entity, which in each case is one self, remains forever on its way to something . Dasein’s being is intent on that which it has not yet become but is able to become. But how can this entity then serve as an adequate basis for analysis in the sense of an identifiable informing whole if it has not yet reached a state of completion? Only when it is what it can become will we be able to grasp it whole. Only in its having-come-to-an-end is it there in its entirety. But of course in being-finished it has in fact ceased to be. Hence the difficulty in the ontological interpretation is due not to ‘the irrationality of lived experiences’, let alone the limitations and uncertainty of knowledge, but to the being at issue of the entity itself.”

Readers will, I’m sure, immediately be struck by the difficulty of reading Heidegger. “Dasein” is a German word which means “being-there” [a compound idea] which indicates the “being-there-ness” of our existence and the language Heidegger [and some later existentialists] had to use to try and get across their understanding of being, human life and existence seems strange, clunky and difficult to grasp. This is why I felt I had to grapple with it in the past and create my own understanding of it. What stood out for me about that quote, and so why I set it at the head of my essay, was “the motion and fluidity it indicated and it all really came down to one central idea: we exist in time and place like people floating down a river.” In my essay, in fact, Heidegger’s quote was something to grapple with as a jumping off point and it was all to do with this idea of “being-in-the-midst” which, I’m sure, is simply Heidegger filtered through my own developing understanding. Being-in-the-midst is, in fact, better represented pictorially and in the original book my essay was in, I illustrated the idea on the front cover something like this:

a-g-anarqxista-goldman-nothing-to-stick-to-2.jpg

The image is to signify nodes and a network, nothing more. Yet, it occurs to me now, that this is not exactly grasping being-in-the-midst in the sense I originally understood Heidegger’s quote for, to be accurate, these nodes and this network should be imagined to be moving through time and space. What, then, is “being-in-the-midst” in the context of my chapter about existentialism?

It is nothing less than a conception of the human being and human relationships. Fundamentally, it is a conception of the human being as an individual and a set of human relationships at the same time. One should not push the metaphor too hard, however, as it is meant only in its simplicity. This is to say that the conception is that a human being is like a node on a network, something with its own integrity, yet something which can and must relate to other nodes as well. In the context of the network there is the possibility for achievement and fulfilment of function in ways the node, for itself, might not be able to imagine and certainly not achieve by itself. As part of a network nodes, too, might be addressed by others in that network. Yet each node is still an entity in its own right – if not in a way entirely independent of others [social realities – like language, thought, culture, material infrastructure — are constitutive of their individual existence from which they are never apart]. “Being-in-the-midst” is the linguistically compound way I described this idea in the past where I also added that “being-in-the-midst means... that we are each points in any number of spatio-temporal, linguistic, socio-cultural and philosophical networks which makes our situation one of endless relations with any of the other points.” Such networks are then not just networks of actuality but also of possibility and there is no conception that they are fixed since it is imagined they can be reconfigurable in innumerable ways as is found necessary in real time. [One should not forget that we must imagine such nodes on such networks moving, and reconfiguring, through time.] Here, however, it is the following conclusion of this conception which is my point: “This… makes our situation always one of diversity in a unity and unity in diversity.”

To be existential about it, this all starts with our “being-there”, Heidegger’s Dasein. I shall let my former self explain this from my past essay:

“Dasein’ is a roundabout way of talking about human beings ontologically, in terms of the situation of their being in life. It is our “being-there-ness” which I gloss as being-in-the-midst. This, Heidegger says in my headline quote, is “my own”, we experience a subjectivity, but it is also a matter of our “being-in”. Being-there means being-in something or, in my terms, being-in-the-midst requires a midst to be in. But what is this midst? For the moment that does not matter but one thing Heidegger is clear about is that one component of this midst is “while-ness”. While-ness is temporal as are the further Heideggerian notions that our being-there is “on the way to something” and that it is “intent on” something. These are all ideas which set our being-there in time and Heidegger makes it clear that time and our experience of time, our setting of our being-there and its activity in time, in realms of past, present and future, are contexts from which our being does not escape. So the question of how time affects or shapes our being, our being-there, then becomes apparent.”

“Being-there”, or “being-in-the-midst” as I dub it, then has a specific character. We are all people in particular situations or contexts — which can change, no one doubts that, but which are specific nevertheless. They are this thing and not that thing from any given perspective. That then must be imagined as the same for everybody else too and thus you come to the diversity and unity at the same time. In my former essay I say about this that “our being is lent a character of specificity or particularity or relativity which becomes a matter of relatability as we interact with other aspects of the world.” What this actually means is that RELATIONSHIP is fundamental for human beings – and this is also something my illustration is meant to signify. All of our existence as “nodes” on a network is our specific, concrete existence. But, in each case, that existence is, and will always be, different. It will encompass being in a different place with different connections to other nodes on the network and different possibilities to make new connections as well. As a network, however, it relies on nodes communicating and working together [culture, community, society, union of egoists]. Unity AND diversity are baked in. The trick in “getting” this image is then an appreciation of the consequences of it as a constantly moving, reconfigurable network that is always moving through time which is constituted of nodes that have their own integrity. One consequence of this, which I pointed up in my previous essay under the rubric of “being-in-fiction”, is that “everyone can describe the world truly from where they are and... the fact these [descriptions] might all be different is entirely to be expected.“ However, I don’t want to be too prescriptive about what readers should draw from my image and metaphor at this time. This is intellectual work people have to do for themselves in order to grasp it for themselves – much as I did in my own past, in fact. However, my past self would add, to seed your own imagination, that this image is:

“always a matter of a being-there, a being in a there where both the being and the there have equal importance and relevance, a being and a there that are both ours and yet not only ours. Knowledge or truth claims, in this sense, are never merely personal or subjective for without others they would never exist in the way that they do or with the meaning and sense that we give them. Sociability abounds. There is no personal expression without an intersubjective entanglement and there is no me without a you.”

Here, unity is diversity and diversity is unity. Beauvoir’s ideas had similar implications even as Camus’ ideas in relation to nihilism did too and my point in discussing them is to point out a fact that has, looking back retrospectively [and certainly not as a matter of planning], been important: the personal and the public, the subjective and the intersubjective, the fact that there is me and there is you. In existential terms I am not just constituted by the fact that I exist but by the fact that everyone else does too. Yet the fact we all do that as individualities, as nodes in a context of network, is not insignificant either. Here is the conundrum, the enigma. We are born, live, suffer and die alone yet we are together alone – an absurd proposition. Two ways are found of dealing with that, self-creatively and with a free responsibility, by Beauvoir, Camus and Nietzsche respectively: ethics and revolt. You are to make these things YOURSELF but you are never to imagine yourself in a box or a vacuum, a soul alone. We are together alone. We are nodes on a network. We are beings-in-the-midst. Our lives are also the lives of others; the lives of others are also our lives. Taking up our freedom, our responsibility, our ethics, our revolt against the absurd circumstances of life is both a personal and a political task. Every subject requires an object; every “us” a “not-us”. You cannot be you unless others can be themselves too. How can this take place within an understanding of anarchy? We need to talk about “revolt”.

3. Revolt

“Argument, the clash of opposing views, is unavoidable because the state of agreement that would render argument unnecessary—a universal agreement brought about by facts so clear that no rational being could deny them—is not something we mortals will ever achieve.” [Stanley Fish, Winning Arguments]

I am taking it that my previous two chapters on nihilism and existentialism put human beings in a common situation and motivate a response. I could, in fact, simply say that being born motivates a response but it shows that I have done more thinking about it than this to say that there are consequences of rational existence to which each human life – and human groupings and collectivities – must have an answer. None of this should be particularly surprising or profound. It only relies on you taking the requisite time to THINK. When you start thinking, of course, as I think someone has already said, you begin to be undermined. The unaccosted premises of childhood give way to the subjective decisions and choices of adulthood. There are, in general, a number of pathways we can take here. We can hide in a corner and refuse to take part and try and get through life questioning nothing and hoping desperately not to be noticed. We can become dishonestly selfish and live a life of selectively ignoring consequences and hoping to get through it ourselves relatively unscathed. Or, in some few rare cases, we can look life head on and with our eyes wide open to see what is going on around us as people determined to acknowledge it even if we know we will never realistically be able to take it all on. But at least, in this latter case, we don’t look the other way or pretend that what is happening is, in fact, not happening. Put even more simply: we can face life either consciously or unconsciously, honestly or dishonestly, authentically or inauthentically: and the ethical, responsible, freedom-embracing way is honestly, consciously and authentically so.

I have, in fact, spoken about this before because I wrote a whole book about it called A Handbook for Anarchist Insurrection. “Anarchist Insurrection” is what this chapter is, after the existentialist thinkers above, going to refer to as “revolt”. The problem with talking about things such as “anarchism”, however, is that often they are imagined, or taken, to be narrowly political things. People have trouble imagining a bigger picture or a more integrated picture when this world, intellectually speaking, is constantly carved up into ever narrower [and so increasingly irrelevant] classifications. “Anarchism? Ah, that’s politics” is what many people – even anarchists themselves – would unquestioningly think. But not even all anarchists in the 19th century thought that and I have absolutely been making the case that “anarchism” and particularly “anarchy” are about much more than a narrow set of political beliefs and the associated actions they motivate. This very book, for example, has already spoken of the philosophical topic of nihilism and the existential focus of existentialist thinkers. These are, in my mind, anarchy-related subjects which implicate anarchism-related responses without simply being about politics or political systems.

Revolt, of course, is the honest, authentic thing to do in a world in which oppression and inequality are both glaring and obvious. But the human being who wants to take up the responsibility of their freedom in revolt has not chosen the easy path and, to be frank, they will find the majority of people against them. Here a good example is the Star Trek character Worf, a person who values his honour seemingly above everything else. In his various appearances throughout two of the Star Trek shows he is willing to risk his life for others and even to refuse to obey the Chancellor, the supreme leader of his people, in order to keep his honour intact – and even if it is the only thing he has left as a result. Worf considers the judgment of his own being, ethics and personality – and being able to look himself in the face as a person who lives up to these things as values and virtues – as the supreme importance of his life. In doing so, he highlights the position of all of us – albeit in a world in which many are far from as honourable as he. Worf takes things such as values and virtues seriously in a fictional world where most others do not and it is the same for us too in this world. It is a world of little honour and a world in need of the revolt of honour.

But to speak of revolt automatically raises questions. What, for example, are we revolting against? I give two broad suggestions:

1. Intellectual structures.

2. Political structures.

This should not be too surprising. They are probably not so different from an anarchism I described in Being Human as “personal and political” — nor are they so different from Beauvoir’s Hegelian existentialism of subject and object. If we would revolt, then, we must take on conceptions of thought and ideology which coax and induce to certain proclivities and habits but also the political machinery which materially organises us to certain further effects as well. Revolt is a matter of mind AND body and neither can be left out for to do so is to do half a job where only the full job will do. Attack the world of thought alone and you may succeed in changing your mind, and perhaps the minds of some others, about a great deal – but you will have left the world as it is in its material reality. But attack political structures alone and you risk simply coming across as a random terrorist for no one understands what you are doing or why [including you yourself] and minds are not changed when they need to be.

Revolt must then engage the worlds of thought and of politics if we are going to create from ourselves in the cause of ideas and human organisation which aim to lift people out of ideas that do not serve their own purposes and political arrangements which but serve only to imprison and oppress them. In both cases what is to be sought, in general terms, is a work of increasing independence and interdependence within a framework of decentralisation. Recalling the image of the nodes in a network from my last chapter should help here. The revolt I speak to is one which destroys the ever increasing push to centralisation by the powerful in this world, activity that also takes place on political and ideological fronts. In fact, in many respects, when asking the question “what are we revolting against?” the answer is simply “the centralised power of powerful men and powerful interests”. But there is also the question of what we are revolting for. I have some suggestions here too:

1. To live concrete lives.

2. To live our lives, the lives we choose.

3. To will life itself [which is not to be found in artificially imposed structures and institutions and, in many respects, demands to go where it will].

This, of course, requires [self-] education and in my writing I have always emphasised this. But this itself only serves to highlight the problem I am getting at further. We live in a world today far more centralised and controlled than even people like Kropotkin and Goldman could have imagined. Technology increases at an exponential pace and much of it is created to control people more — in terms of both numbers and actuality. Such control is, of course, not always overtly authoritarian. Social media apps, for example, lure you in with promises of services and advantages but, before you know it, you are integrated into their systems and trapped by their rules and procedures if you want to take part further. What’s more, you then find yourself prey to lies and information overload on every side. Not knowing who to believe anymore, you are effectively overcome by it all [as George Orwell predicted] and regard everything as equally suspect as truth is neutralised as a decisive factor. People talk a lot in casual terms about “psyops” but social media, as but one example, might actually unwittingly be one – for it has changed the face and behaviour of Western society in its controlling capitalist nature.

This chapter could now go on to be a complex and complicated ride through society and culture highlighting lots of things against which we need to revolt in the dual causes of revolting against intellectual structures and political ones. But what I want to do instead is focus on a single subject – sex and gender – and then allow readers, seeing what I have to say about this subject, to extrapolate for themselves from there. Much I say about this subject – one deliberately chosen for its consequences intellectually and politically as something controlled by both intellectual and political structures – will be of more general application anyway. I hope, at the very least, to show here that one cannot revolt either just intellectually or just politically for, if you do, you just find that your incomplete response allows those against whom you revolt to recover their ground. As Stanley Fish has spent large portions of his multi-disciplinary career informing us, and as he does in the quotation that heads this chapter, things are never either going to be so clear or so persuasive that everybody simply and peacefully agrees. You need to get this Cloud Cuckoo Land right out of your head at the start. So it will always then be a matter of “fighting for your right to party”. But this anarchist has been telling you this all along anyway. We live in a world of direct action and only an unceasing, constant, educated direct action that never gives up is appropriate to the situation of our lives. This is the demand of our honour, our self-respect, our responsibility for our freedom and our will to the self-creation of our virtues and values. This is what honestly, consciously facing up to life in an authentic way looks like; this is the reality of revolt.

As a responsible author, I have, of course, devised a route for us to follow in this chapter on revolt. I will begin by discussing George Orwell’s final novel, Nineteen-Eighty-Four, in which we meet the rebel, Winston Smith, who exists in an imaginary totalitarian situation. It will, I think, be useful to compare aspects of this story with the circumstances we live in today in both intellectual and political senses. Thereafter, I will turn to the work of Michel Foucault – particularly his History of Sexuality and other writing from this latter period of his life – which I hope will inform us in regard to power and authority and how this affects human beings in terms of construction of truth and knowledge. After that, in a third layer of interaction, I will turn to Judith Butler for discussion of gender more specifically. Here her 1990 book Gender Trouble will receive special attention for its appraisal of gender as a performativity. After this, what we have learned will be taken forward in a biological, historical and anthropological discussion of gender revolt – intellectual and political – more generally leading to the conclusion that gender revolt actually means gender nihilism [the recognition of gender’s fictivity], the end of a society organised and policed according to fixed gender expression [or even sexual roles]. In this way [which will likely offend both gender critics and some transgender people themselves] I hope to show that “revolt” – that which in anarchist terms in the past I have referred to as “insurrection” – does not leave things the same as they were before nor arbitrated in the same way. “Revolt” is your action and initiative to change, to be that which judges [and so CREATES VALUES] rather than that which is judged. And so we begin our journey.


To those who use the 24 hour clock, the first line of George Orwell’s Nineteen-Eighty-Four will not seem strange in its report of a “bright cold day in April” where “clocks were striking thirteen”. But to the merry olde England of the late 1940s into which Orwell’s novel came, with its use of the 12 hour clock, it would have. It would be the first indication, in fact, that something was wrong, something was wrong with knowledge and truth, with the very epistemological fabric of society – and so, of course, with society itself for what you know, or, rather, what you think you know is what you are. In one respect, Orwell’s novel, consistently regarded ever since its publication as one of the most important ever produced, a commentary on various modern forms of human society, is about not much more than this. But even if it was only about this it would have found its niche and been worthwhile for in Nineteen-Eighty-Four George Orwell makes his most lasting political contribution to literature and human thought in a warning about a state of totalitarian control at once both political and intellectual. It is a world of Thought Police, a world where neighbours or even family members can denounce you to the authorities to your eventual destruction, a world where departments of people forever correct the public record of the past so that it accords with the desired view of the present. It is a world of publicly defined enemies in which public denunciation of enemies is both demanded and expected. To even be shallow in performance of such hate might see you carted off into confinement and torture.

In this world we find our protagonist, Winston Smith, turning down his telescreen, a surveillance device that cannot be turned off but which also broadcasts near constant propaganda. The London of Smith’s experience is covered with telescreens, not least in every home, and where there aren’t telescreens there are listening devices. This is a world where, as Sartre put it in his play No Exit, “hell is other people” – and particularly the people of Ingsoc [this is Newspeak for “English Socialism”], the ruling Party of Oceania, the place where Winston Smith lives, with its leader, Big Brother. This place, in fact, is based on quite a strong class hierarchy running down from Big Brother through the Inner Party to the Outer Party [of which Smith is a member] to the bottom of the ladder and “the proles” – who constitute the mass of the population. The proles are regarded as the powerless [because controlled] unthinking masses in Nineteen-Eighty-Four. Ingsoc is not concerned with them and concentrates its efforts on Party members only since, if they perform their tasks adequately, the proles themselves will be fed a narrative so complete they will be narcotised so thoroughly that they will pose no threat to the reigning power thereafter. Instead, they will become willing cheerleaders for a political ideology they can neither understand nor criticise. But then why would you want to criticise when BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU is displayed everywhere at regular intervals?

So here we are in a world where a Party member like Winston Smith “had to live – did live, from habit that became instinct – in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard, and, except in darkness, every movement scrutinized.” This is an example of the material, political control exercised over people in this fictional world. But the control is intellectual as well [and needs to be in order to be effective], springing, as it does, from the construction of an entirely new language – Newspeak – which gets its own appendix in the book to explain how it works by narrowing thought down into only those thoughts the party finds acceptable to express and in slogans meant to shape thought into acceptable forms such as the “three slogans of the Party”:

“WAR IS PEACE. FREEDOM IS SLAVERY. IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH.”

The frightening aspect of these slogans is not merely what they say but that properly educated Party members would not simply believe them but also be unable to believe anything else. The idea, then, is that intellectual state in which truth is absolute, unquestionable and what authority tells you it is.

Only in such a place would a “Ministry of Truth” exist. Winston Smith works there as one of thousands tasked with correcting the “news, entertainment, education and the fine arts” of the past so that it accords with current orthodoxy. Of course, it is not a ministry concerned with an external truth it feels a just duty to comply with. It is, instead, a ministry constructed to invent, create and impose the truth in order that no sane person could ever find resources to doubt it and would, in fact, rather doubt their own sanity than doubt what the Ministry of Truth said the truth was. By such devices, Orwell deliberately sets out to show a situation in which intellectual and political oppression go together in order to say that, for the totalitarian, to control how and what you can think is the same agenda as controlling people’s material actions and lives. In fact, if you can control the one you will find it much easier to control the other for people will then, of necessity, come to control themselves even against their own best interests. And they won’t be able to help it for you will be controlling their very own ways of thinking. Thus, its not unremarkable that Orwell tells us that in Oceania “there were no longer any laws”. Why does this matter? Because in this place without laws [yet with a “Ministry of Love” where people are taken to be tortured and killed] the tactic has been to turn every single Party member into a police officer themselves, a person so scared of Thoughtcrime [their own or others] that they would turn in anyone in whom they detected it. So it is no surprise this place has Thought Police for here the thoroughgoing attempt is made to police all thought – and for that you don’t need laws just police.

Thus we learn that Winston Smith can no longer be sure what even the correct date is. We also begin to understand why, every day, there is “the Two Minutes Hate” in which the eternal enemies of the Party must be loudly and publicly denounced. We further find a way to understand why the “Junior AntiSex League” might exist and why even little kids have their own Ingsoc organisation, appropriately enough called “the Spies”. This society, from top to bottom, is constructed on the dual basis of intellectual control of minds and political control of bodies, a world where authority designates the truth and tells you who “the Enemy of the People” is [in this story its Emmanuel Goldstein but that doesn’t matter because it could be anybody].

The aim here, as Orwell shows in the scene early in the story where the Two Minutes Hate is first depicted, is to mould people until they produce a natural and violent reaction against their designated enemies which is entirely an uncoerced act of their own free will, something at once genuine and naturally occurring, something, as Orwell puts it, so that “the sight or even the thought of Goldstein produced fear and anger automatically.” Thus the later authorial note that “The horrible thing about the Two Minutes Hate was not that one was obliged to act a part, but, on the contrary, that it was impossible to avoid joining in.” The endgame here, however, is not to twist someone until they hate a particular target but to so intellectually shape people that they could hate ANY target, even a shifting and changing one, spontaneously, just on a whim. Thus, “the rage that one felt was an abstract, undirected emotion which could be switched from one object to another like the flame of a blowlamp.” What matters intellectually is not merely that you can hate but that you could hate whoever you were next told to hate – and to find it entirely genuine and authentic to do so from your own self and its logic. We see this very phenomenon in our own world today where partisan crowds of folks are directed by news and current affairs cheerleaders into hate of their daily designated enemies. No thought is here required but only to follow your programming. But, then again, if you did think that same programming would automatically confirm that everything you had been told was right and everything you were doing was correct. And you would find yourself with no resources to think otherwise. Such intellectual programming is then “an act of self-hypnosis, a deliberate drowning of consciousness” and is why Thoughtcrime is the pre-eminent crime in Oceania.

Such a society depends on turning all Party members, and as many of the rest of the people as possible, into covert police. A German friend of mine once told me, and I have no reason to disbelieve them, that “60 to 80% of Gestapo arrests were made due to denunciation by friends, neighbours, colleagues or family members.” I also understand a similar situation was maintained in the East Germany of the Stasi during the Cold War. In short, in such a societal situation, someone with whom someone had to do in daily life would grass you up if you were perceived to have transgressed. This is the society of the snitch, the society directly opposed to the society of human solidarity. This is the annihilation of the very idea of “society” just as Margaret Thatcher said in the 1980s that “there is no such thing as society”. And in a world in which having the wrong thought produced the visceral and quite natural response to report the person having the thought how could a society of human solidarity ever really exist? Here we can see then that if you can change how people think, make it something physically experienced and natural to engage in, then you enable a political control over people at large, a control that those same people may not even be able to see they are themselves engaged in. They, quite reasonably in their logic, might just think they are “doing the right thing” or “playing their part” or “keeping people safe”. All independent means of thought by which they might otherwise evaluate their thought and action are completely unavailable to them. In early 2022, from where I am currently writing this text, we have recently seen in Texas how the government there is inducing the population at large to report women seeking abortions or the parents of trans youth. Once more, Orwell fictionally uses a tactic actually present in our modern world, a tactic which in his story sees a father sent to the Ministry of Love for Thoughtcrime by his own 7 year old daughter. This is not the shocking thing though. The shocking thing is he accepts it.

It is important, then, to take note here of the absolute and necessary synthesis of intellectual and political tactics in the ideology of Ingsoc in Nineteen-Eighty-Four. The Newspeak, Doublethink and mutability of the past the story depict are not peripheral to the story but the point of it. Shaping thought, shaping how people can think, making people their own police officer, is of a piece with the politics of war, militarised police forces and torture chambers. Frankly, when I see someone on social media with a self-description of “Adult Human Female” the intellectual atmosphere of Ingsoc starts to fill my mind shaped, as such thought is, by dogma, authority and a desire for its imposition. Wherever truth is a matter of something someone wants to impose upon you – and which you are not left free to discover for yourself with the consequence that, being free, you might find the truth is something else — then the atmosphere of Ingsoc has come into the room. Of course, Ingsoc have more political power to impose their truth on others than modern gender critics but that is not to say the latter wouldn’t willingly take up such power were it available to them. In places where such people can politically oppress they already do so, denying transgender people health facilities and legal and social recognition. At the same time they wish to impose [by law if they can] definitions and classifications of human beings which deny that trans people even exist [or could ever exist]. “How could you make appeal to the future when not a trace of you, not even an anonymous word scribbled on a piece of paper, could physically survive?” The intellectually healthy atmosphere, Orwell insists, is one in which thought is free and truth becomes what free thinking human beings can then agree on.

Orwell is then concerned with TRUTH but more especially with how it is established. Is it freely arrived at in an atmosphere of free intellectual diversity or is it the preserve of a select few and thereafter imposed? Orwell believes that truth must never be imposed which is why his bad guys here are exactly those who wish to impose it by means of physical intimidation and intellectual obfuscation. It is why they obsessively alter the past to accord with every fluctuation of the present to make any narrative but that accorded truth value in the present impossible to imagine. “Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.” Orwell refers to this as “reality control” and gives its Newspeak word as “Doublethink”. It is Doublethink because it does not matter what you think you know or what you imagine to remember; the victory of what you are told is true is going to win the war in your head for that status of truth regardless of this:

“To know and not to know, to be conscious of complete truthfulness while telling carefully constructed lies, to hold simultaneously two opinions which cancelled out,

knowing them to be contradictory and believing in both of them; to use logic against logic, to repudiate morality while laying claim to it, to believe that democracy was impossible and that the Party was the guardian of democracy; to forget whatever it was necessary to forget, then to draw it back into memory again at the moment when it was needed, and then promptly to forget it again: and above all, to apply the same process to the process itself. That was the ultimate subtlety: consciously to induce unconsciousness, and then, once again, to become unconscious of the act of hypnosis you had just performed. Even to understand the world ‘doublethink’ involved the use of doublethink.”

And then one of those scary moments Nineteen-Eighty-Four sometimes induces and to which the thought of people like Nietzsche also leads: “how could you establish even the most obvious fact when there existed no record outside your own memory?” What is truth anyway? How is it arrived at? Why do we need it? Orwell raises these questions in the reader’s mind. The Ministry of Truth where Winston Smith works famously has “memory holes” where inconvenient truths are put and sent off to be burnt. Did something happen if you can’t remember it and there is no longer any record of it? Here:

“Day by day and almost minute by minute the past was brought up to date. In this way every prediction made by the Party could be shown by documentary evidence to have been correct; nor was any item of news, or any expression of opinion, which conflicted with the needs of the moment, ever allowed to remain on record. All history was a palimpsest, scraped clean and reinscribed exactly as often as was necessary. In no case would it have been possible, once the deed was done, to prove that any falsification had taken place.”

Is truth then what you are told by the given authority? Can truth be a matter of authority? How can you establish truth [for yourself] if it becomes something handed down from on high? Yet again, this is not simply a matter for literary fictions either. In today’s world we have the technology to fake sophisticated photographs and, increasingly, even video. It will very soon be possible to create entirely fictional moving images of real people in order to show them doing things they might never have actually done at all. What will truth be then? What you see with your own eyes? No, for on that day seeing will no longer be believing – assuming it ever was to begin with. Even now millions of people will believe something simply written in text because it is posted on social media. I have myself been fooled by this more than once. It comes to be a very important matter indeed to ask what truth is and how it is arrived at. The dividing lines between truth, entertainment, fiction, imagination, pure fantasy and lies can become porous to the point of meaninglessness very quickly indeed. Before you know it LIES ARE TRUTH could very quickly become another slogan appropriate to modern human experience. Once lies become accepted as truth, in fact, it is then often impossible to contradict them, factually or intellectually, ever again. Is it any wonder that those such as the CIA or other agencies of government – as well as government itself — have the desire to control what whole populations believe and to change it at will? Here the intellectual task of shaping truth is allied with the occasional political task of erasing those who are “off message”. When your facts contradict official facts you put yourself in a dangerous position. It is taken as a given by Ingsoc that the truth must be controlled and that those who will not accept it must be “vaporized” and so become an unperson.

A word here is appropriate about Newspeak before we move on from Orwell to Foucault. It is notable that one aspect of the Ingsoc agenda of Big Brother was to have everyone within the Party speak one language of their own invention. The aim was to delineate precisely what could and could not be said and so what could and could not be thought. What better way to stamp out Thoughtcrime than by literally making “criminal” thought impossible at the level of its very mechanics? Here again important is Newspeak’s imposition on people and its uniformity in acceptance. It consists not primarily in making new thought up but in closing old thought down. So, as Syme tells Winston Smith, “Newspeak is the only language in the world whose vocabulary gets smaller every year” as words are put out of use and so taken out of existence, eradicating the ability to have particular thoughts in so doing. This is another aspect of the “reality-control” Orwell discusses in the ideology of Ingsoc and the practice of the Party members. This is all, of course, in the service of a system of thought which is about orthodoxy and heterodoxy and Newspeak exists to make the latter increasingly impossible: “Orthodoxy means not thinking – not needing to think. Orthodoxy is unconsciousness.” Such a program would be fully completed when Oldspeak became to Newspeak users like nothing but the quacking of a duck or how a foreign language sounds to people who cannot use it. Thought in such a sequence of what is now mere noises has become impossible. Here we see further that the ideal of Ingsoc, promoted through the use of Newspeak, is not just zeal in orthodoxy but actual unconsciousness.


If one had to describe the intellectual focus of Michel Foucault’s career it would probably be best to describe it as “the history of systems of thought”. During his career he produced notable studies of the human sciences, medicalisation practices and punishment systems which all involved the notion of knowledge as something created and used for its power effects [so much so we have the term power/knowledge because of him]. Foucault wanted to investigate the relationship between power and knowledge but also between subjectivity and truth in a historical yet also philosophical way. This fundamentally involves the process in which something comes to be designated as knowledge or truth and is then wielded to social and political effect. Foucault’s interests then intersect quite nicely with those of Orwell in Nineteen-Eighty-Four – if as an attempt to understand real world processes in his case rather than as an overt fiction. Something further Foucault is also known for is his multi-volume The History of Sexuality [which takes up the previous themes I mentioned and is also relevant to Foucauldian interests in the human body and human relationships that pervade his work] which took up most of his final decade before his death in [appropriately enough] 1984. I will focus on this period of his work in what must be a necessarily brief interaction with his thought as relevant to my interests here.

Let us begin with an interview Foucault gave in 1982 but which is reprinted in the first volume of his essential works titled Ethics, Subjectivity and Truth. The interview itself is titled “Sex, Power, And The Politics of Identity” for those interested and mostly addresses gay sex [Foucault was notoriously gay and was writing his history of sexuality at this time so the subject is relevant to him]. The first question here asks about Foucault’s view on “sexual liberation” and particularly the difference between “uncovering secret truths about one’s self” and “constructing desire”. Straight out of the gate Foucault says something in reply as part of his answer which we should take time to think over:

“Sexuality is a part of our behaviour. It’s a part of our world freedom. Sexuality is something that we ourselves create-it is our own creation, and much more than the discovery of a secret side of our desire. We have to understand that with our desires, through our desires, go new forms of relationships, new forms of love, new forms of creation. Sex is not a fatality: it’s a possibility for creative life.”

Unmissable here is Foucault’s insistence [repeated in a further answer as “we have to create a gay life. To become.”] that sexuality is created, it is something we become. [Compare Simone de Beauvoir in The Second Sex who states: “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.”] This seems to me to be fundamentally rejecting any notion of essences or immaterial realities imposed upon our minds and self images. It says to me that even if we have a preliminary realisation that “we are” something that is not thereby fixed or given shape or form except by our own deliberate creation [which may be authentic or inauthentic, knowing or unknowing]. Sex here is also about “relationships” – and new forms of them. The image given is very much one of possible fluidity, creativity and exploration and very much not one of “well, I suppose I am this now” where “this” is given neither definition nor expression by our activities and practices. Key here is that sexuality is “behaviour” rather than a fixed, static, abstract idea or description which classifies us externally and abstractly. Fundamentally, of course, this answer suggests that our sexuality is UP TO US and we are primary in deciding how, or if, it develops. Whatever our sexuality [and, in my mind, gender] is, Foucault suggests that it is up to us to proactively take the lead in BECOMING it. It is not a once for all time abstract designation [something we cannot help being] with a dogmatic set of criteria or behaviours for us to adhere to but a lifetime’s journey of curious conscious creation. Sexuality, says Foucault in yet another answer, “has become one of the most creative sources of our society and our being.” He regards it as “a process of our having to create a new cultural life underneath the ground of our sexual choices.” So here is one idea: sex as conscious choice, as means to creating culture.

Of course, in Foucault’s lifetime the gay community received the kind of treatment [that is, discriminatory treatment] that is usually reserved for the trans community today [and in many respects – such as in the false accusation that “they want to pervert your kids” – using the same techniques]. Foucault is asked about this in the interview as, at this time, “sexual liberation” often meant protesting in the cause of sexual toleration of diverse and minority same sex love. The interviewers here are trying to ask how one can pursue the sort of program Foucault has laid out above if people must always be asking for rights to even exist as gay to begin with. In response, Foucault is clear that rights [given a political context of a liberal rights-based society] are not then unimportant things to have and to want. As he says: “It is important, first, to have the possibility – and the right – to choose your own sexuality.” But he doesn’t stop here. He adds:

“I think we have to go a step further. I think that one of the factors of this stabilization will be the creation of new forms of life, relationships, friendships in society, art, culture, and so on through our sexual, ethical, and political choices. Not only do we have to defend ourselves, not only affirm ourselves, as an identity but as a creative force.”

It seems to me that with this answer Foucault does not concede that it is enough to be “a regular member of society” [if a gay one] alone. What one must do is push on so that relationships, cultures and creative forces are nurtured. This is not, then, a settling for the bare minimum and it suggests that only by defining ourselves in community as those who become can the necessary growth and acceptance come. “We have to realize cultural creations” is what Foucault says in language which inspires in me Nietzschean imagery of biological growth and the health of the organism. A healthy organism is, after all, one that is growing – and growth is a matter of a struggle which overcomes obstacles [“That which does not kill me makes me stronger”]. Later in the interview, Foucault pushes this into the exploration and study of drugs as well in what is basically an exploration of the bodily possibilities of pleasure. Here again Foucault thinks that “We have to create new pleasure” and this is in distinction to the idea that all our desires are already within us, hidden, sublimated, lest they be discovered. Foucault’s attitude seems contrary to this; it is not about what we might find if we look in the hidden recesses of ourselves but that we can create, explore and play that matters most. Creating pleasure, “maybe desire will follow.”

The discussion turns to S+M practices, something the interviewers describe as a sexual identity that has formed in the recent past. They want to know if such practices become “limiting in regards to the possibilities of individuals”. Foucault’s answer is, once again, noteworthy:

“if identity is only a game, if it is only a procedure to have relations, social and sexual-pleasure relationships that create new friendships, it is useful. But if identity becomes the problem of sexual existence, and if people think that they have to ‘uncover’ their ‘own identity,’ and that their own identity has to become the law, the principle, the code of their existence; if the perennial question they ask is ‘Does this thing conform to my identity?’ then, I think, they will turn back to a kind of ethics very close to the old heterosexual virility. If we are asked to relate to the question of identity, it must be an identity to our unique selves. But the relationships we have to have with ourselves are not ones of identity, rather, they must be relationships of differentiation, of creation, of innovation. To be the same is really boring. We must not exclude identity if people find their pleasure through this identity, but we must not think of this identity as an ethical universal rule.”

“Unique,” “differentiation,” “creation,” “innovation”: the language here is very particular. The interviewers follow up by saying that sexual identity has been politically useful but Foucault responds that whilst it can have its uses [and what can’t?] it is ultimately limiting. Instead, he says, “I think we have – and can have — a right to be free.” Foucault’s notion of “identity” here seems to be one of conscious creation and play. It is not something we should take with dour seriousness as if the foundations of the universe were at stake. It is useful, says Foucault, if it is “only a game”. Now games are not completely unserious things. When one is playing them they can become very serious and playing them seriously [i.e. in good faith] increases their enjoyment. But they are not everything. The game stops. Foucault seems to be suggesting here that if we become all or nothing about the games of identity then this will become detrimental to us. It is not about principles or codes of our existence. It is experimental behaviour and relationships for useful purposes. Foucault seems to want to swing free of the trap of classification as things and to revel, instead, in the freedom of fictively playing at things. This is not to belittle the identity but it is to understand it in certain ways and not others.

Yet here the all too brief conversation once more swings back to how one can become various minority sexual identities in a world in which relations to other people exist, people not necessarily like you who may take up an aggressive stance towards that which they identify you to be. We live in a world where, as many of minority ethnic, sexual or gender communities know only too well, difference is not necessarily left to mind its own business. It is here, however, that Foucault has an opportunity to discuss “power relations”. Questioning Foucault about his assertion that power [and resistance to such power] is always present in a social situation to the effect that it appears as if we are all trapped in a relationship with power, Foucault responds that “we are in a strategic situation toward each other” which I take to mean that relationships of struggle with antagonistic others are constant and not necessarily equal. My diagram from the earlier chapter suggests itself again if some of the nodes are bigger than others and with more connections to more other nodes than some others. Foucault here insists that “there is no point where you are free from power relations” but this is not a trap for you are always free to act. In fact, this “strategic situation” as necessary relations is the shape of your political freedom. Resistance [or, pertinently to this chapter, revolt] then comes from within a set of power dynamics. Resistance, in fact, is co-constitutive of the power dynamics. As Foucault further explains:

“if there was no resistance, there would be no power relations. Because it would simply be a matter of obedience. You have to use power relations to refer to the situation where you’re not doing what you want. So resistance comes first, and resistance remains superior to the forces of the process; power relations are obliged to change with the resistance. So I think that resistance is the main word, the key word, in this dynamic.”

The interviewers follow this up with further questions about resistance and power and in particular with how dominated minorities can create their own discourses under oppression. They ask a specific question about learning about power through S+M practices to which Foucault gives this interesting reply:

“What characterizes power is the fact that it is a strategic relation which has been stabilized through institutions. So the mobility in power relations is limited, and there are strongholds that are very, very difficult to suppress because they have been institutionalized and are now very pervasive in courts, codes, and so on. All this means that the strategic relations of people are made rigid.”

This is to say that Foucault distinguishes between sexual power games like S+M and the actual activity and influence of real world power which, in a key piece of description, Foucault describes as “institutionalized”. In fact, he goes on to say, “I wouldn’t say that it is a reproduction, inside the erotic relationship, of the structures of power. It is an acting-out of power structures by a strategic game that is able to give sexual pleasure or bodily pleasure.” Here, then, there is a crucial difference between the playing of a game which creates sexual pleasure and the actual operation and apparatus of real world power. One is a game and one is not. One can stop but the point of the other is that it never stops. The rules in these two scenarios are different for one has a safe word and, in the other, words are not safe. One actually relies on an agreement to play the game whilst, in the other, you are forced to play it by power whether you like it or not. In one you engage creatively in an identity, in the other identity [and its consequences] may well be forced upon you.

In both cases, however, it is about “strategic relations” and you are never an isolated solipsist lost in their own world. This social aspect to human existence is pointed up most strongly by Foucault through these answers and particularly the question of what “social implication” things have for we will all have noticed that there are things which pass without remark from anyone in various social situations but other things which could almost never pass without either remark, response or even reaction. This is the question of social relationships and how they work [as things dependent on systems of thought] coming through in Foucault’s answers as the pre-eminent interest of his academic life. It leads us to ask, curiously, what is going on in various kinds of human relationship and the activities they are based on and this is obviously relevant to questions both of sexual practices and gender performance. I would note, however, in Foucault’s analysis here the dark role played by “institutions”. Later, in fact, Foucault says:

“Since the nineteenth century, great political institutions and great political parties have confiscated the process of political creation; that is, they have tried to give to political creation the form of a political program in order to take over power.”

He adds right at the end of the interview that it is not such institutions that have ever led the creative revolt that he counsels and one might speculate [given my past anarchist receipts in four previous books] that we should never expect them to for an anarchist interpretation of the institutions of power informs us that they are only interested in their own power rather than the preservation of a political and social diversity or the creation of either new genders and sexualities or new pleasures for their own sake. The creativity, we may then observe via the Foucauldian gaze, will always come from those resisting and never from those resisted. Power is a conservative business, the growth and preservation of diversity and subjective creativity is not.

I turn now to Foucault’s History of Sexuality itself, and primarily the first, introductory volume thereof. This begins addressing the pre-reflective thesis that sex in Western society is a matter of repression. But it does so with an acknowledgement that sex, like any activity, has a social context and so a context in which things can act upon it to shape and mould it intellectually. What sex “is”, how people might go about it, what its for, how people are to relate to each other in relation to it, how people perceive it and think about it, are not singular matters but community matters, social matters, relational matters. In the context of Foucauldian analysis and technique specifically, sex becomes discourse and that itself has its own consequences and effects. One might, for example, argue that sex became repressed with the onset of the industrial age “because it is incompatible with a general and intensive work imperative”, something Western Europe especially developed after about 1700. But although this seems to make some sense at a pre-reflective, surface level, Foucault is not happy to leave it at that for he wants to ask after if, in coming up with such explanations, we are not actually seeking to gratify ourselves with and by them. In that description, sex comes under the influence of power and is repressed because there is a new imperative to work rather than engage in fleshly pleasures. Pleasure, in some respects, is then transferred in such an answer from sex to “hard work”. Sex can then be labelled as wasting time where “hard work” is seen as being appropriately industrious. In other words, there are consequences to the analyses of problems and things to gain and lose [and even pleasures to be had] in making them. As Foucault notes, if sex is then repressed for some reason then even talking about it in some sense puts oneself beyond power. Sex becomes taboo, the distraction, something trivial and base and not the business of real life.

But Foucault doubts that sex is simply repressed in the Western cultural and historical milieu. He also doubts that, in this same milieu, it is the function of power to repress sexuality. So, thirdly, he wants to ask after the function of the narrative of repression which anyone in this milieu is surely familiar with, if only by acquaintance. The point of all this comes to be something distinctively Foucauldian: “to define the regime of power-knowledge-pleasure that sustains the discourse on human sexuality in our part of the world.” This is a matter of “account[ing] for the fact that it is spoken about, to discover who does the speaking, the positions and viewpoints from which they speak, the institutions which prompt people to speak about it and which store and distribute the things that are said. What is at issue, briefly, is the over-all ‘discursive fact,’ the way in which sex is ‘put into discourse.’” In brief, then, a “history of sexuality” might be seen as a history of how sex has been thought of and talked about – and by who — something which does not then suggest, even in the formation of the interests to be investigated, that sex is something fixed and static about which successive peoples and ages have to come to inevitably agree because the answer was something about reality that was essentially unavoidable. If a “history of sexuality” is essentially seen as a “history of talking about sex” the issue to then be discussed is what people mean by what they say and what this reveals about their thinking as the important thing. It is not to suggest that sex is a singular thing we are to set out to discover.

This search for the meaning and purpose of sexual discourse begins with a preliminary inquiry into the repressive thesis in the 17th — 20th centuries which Foucault labels [as a historical postulate] “the incitement to discourse”. He states of the beginning of this period that:

“around and apropos of sex, one sees a veritable discursive explosion. We must be clear on this point, however. It is quite possible that there was an expurgation — and a very rigorous one — of the authorized vocabulary. It may indeed be true that a whole rhetoric of allusion and metaphor was codified. Without question, new rules of propriety screened out some words: there was a policing of statements. A control over enunciations as well: where and when it was not possible to talk about such things became much more strictly defined; in which circumstances, among which speakers, and within which social relationships. Areas were thus established, if not of utter silence, at least of tact and discretion: between parents and children, for instance, or teachers and pupils, or masters and domestic servants. This almost certainly constituted a whole restrictive economy, one that was incorporated into that politics of language and speech — spontaneous on the one hand, concerted on the other — which accompanied the social redistributions of the classical period.”

A few pages further on into this thesis, Foucault adds the following regarding the emerging developments at this time:

“A twofold evolution tended to make the flesh into the root of all evil, shifting the most important moment of transgression from the act itself to the stirrings — so difficult to perceive and formulate — of desire. For this was an evil that afflicted the whole man, and in the most secret of forms: ‘Examine diligently, therefore, all the faculties of your soul: memory, understanding, and will. Examine with precision all your senses as well.... Examine, moreover, all your thoughts, every word you speak, and all your actions. Examine even unto your dreams, to know if, once awakened, you did not give them your consent. And finally, do not think that in so sensitive and perilous a matter as this, there is anything trivial or insignificant.’ Discourse, therefore, had to trace the meeting line of the body and the soul, following all its meanderings: beneath the surface of the sins,

it would lay bare the unbroken nervure of the flesh. Under the authority of a language that had been carefully expurgated so that it was no longer directly named, sex was taken charge of, tracked down as it were, by a discourse that aimed to allow it no obscurity, no respite.”

If this sounds like a talking about sex without naming sex then this is what it sounds like to me as well and Foucault imagines to describe a “scheme for transforming sex into discourse”. Foucault himself describes this as a new historical imperative to “transform your desire, your every desire, into discourse” and this is interesting to observe in a modern context in regard to gender where “turning gender into discourse” is a current booming industry. Foucault finds such a new imperative historically momentous, in fact:

“This is the essential thing: that Western man has been drawn for three centuries to the task of telling everything concerning his sex; that since the classical age there has been a constant optimization and an increasing valorization of the discourse on sex; and that

this carefully analytical discourse was meant to yield multiple effects of displacement, intensification, reorientation, and modification of desire itself. Not only were the boundaries of what one could say about sex enlarged, and men compelled to hear it said; but more important, discourse was connected to sex by a complex organization with varying effects, by a deployment that cannot be adequately explained merely by referring it to a law of prohibition. A censorship of sex? There was installed rather an apparatus for producing an ever greater quantity of discourse about sex, capable of functioning and taking effect in its very economy.”

Foucault then rejects the repressive hypothesis, arguing that, rather than repressing sex, the Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment European age has found ways to turn sex into any number of discourses, various economies of sexual conversation, which, as is appropriate to their time, derive not merely from moral sources but from rational ones as well. Sex, henceforth, is not merely a matter of impugning morality but impugning rationality. It is something to be understood and formed as a knowledge as well as a morality. It had, as Foucault says, “to be taken charge of by analytical discourses” and is no longer “simply judged; it [i]s a thing to be administered.” Sex, in these European centuries, becomes the subject of the administrator and the manager. It is to be medicalised [subjected to a manufactured medical knowledge] and punished [as the invention of sexual “crime” proliferates under the weight of managers who need something to coerce]. Sex [as now with gender] becomes something that needs “policing” — “A policing of sex: that is, not the rigour of a taboo, but the necessity of regulating sex through useful and public discourses.” This, let us not forget, is now the age of John Locke and the new liberal state. In such a context, “Governments perceived that they were not dealing simply with subjects, or even with a ‘people,’ but with a ‘population,’ with its specific phenomena and its peculiar variables: birth and death rates, life expectancy, fertility, state of health, frequency of illnesses, patterns of diet and habitation.” Everything becomes a domain of administrators and managers as those formerly left almost entirely to their own devices become increasingly centralised and micro-managed, objects subject to variations of power/knowledge.

Of course, sooner or later “It was essential that the state know what was happening with its citizens’ sex” and so sex became a public issue. New imperatives became apparent such as children’s sex and what, if anything, it might be appropriate to say to a child about sex or to encourage them to do. [At this time, for example in England which is broadly representative, the legal age of consent was 12 until 1875 when it was raised to 13. Someone having sex with those of this age today in England could receive a maximum 14 year prison sentence as statutory ages have been raised upwards with time, in most cases to 16 years of age.] At the same time, of course, children were consistently sexualised and – TO THIS DAY – the idea of the “sexy schoolgirl” is a trope whilst the goings on at boys’ boarding schools are the stuff of whispers and rumour. It is not that children don’t have sex it is that discourses are formed to hide and shape its actuality and so what and how we think about it.

The same could be said about the medicalisation of sex throughout the 18th and 19th centuries in which too much or too little sex can become pathologized, masturbation is created as a problem and, bringing in criminal justice in an era when police are formally and officially invented, what Foucault describes as “petty offences, minor indecencies, [and] insignificant perversions” are invented for the police to administrate. As a nudist myself, I pay attention at the thought that what once might, at worst, have been an indiscretion or a playful outdoor frolic without any bad intention, might, under the auspices of a legal discourse, become a crime punishable by the state [whereas under a psychiatric gaze it might become regarded as some mental problem I have]. By means of such discourses it should not be too hard to see how sex [or even just the naked body as sexual] can be made to appear as a problem and a danger in need of social and public control. Henceforth, nothing about sex can be innocent anymore for it has all become the subject of various arbitrating discourses formed as entities of power/knowledge. In short, sex becomes something subject to “a whole machinery for speechifying, analyzing, and investigating” sex and there are no more “simple pleasures”. From the Foucauldian point of view the issue here is that “these discourses on sex did not multiply apart from or against power, but in the very space and as the means of its exercise.” Sex becomes institutionalised as a phenomenon of the “immense verbosity” that “our civilization has required and organised”.

But its actually worse than this as sex has suffered a mass rationalization and objectification in and because of these discourses. If you want to know why, today, various people will insist that a woman or a man is a body they can draw a diagram of that has certain fleshly component parts then this is certainly one reason why. There is no room for the “creativity” that Foucault spoke about in his interview earlier here. Rationalizing objectifications don’t, and aren’t intended, to leave room for manoeuvre. As operations of power/knowledge, they see themselves as arbitrating dogmas rather than creative fictions: in fact, creating is what they set out to make more difficult – and hopefully impossible. [Thus, in regard to creating cultures, they are stagnant and necessarily ossifying.] Foucault’s historical thesis here is then that, rather than a repression, the intellectual activity of the 17th — 20th centuries was action to listen to, record, transcribe and redistribute sexual discourse, an activity for the function of “understanding” and objectivising it, an activity which forms discourses which become active examples of power/knowledge. These discourses are, of course, coercive – it is why they exist – and sex is not pushed into the shadows but is made to be something about which we must always talk all the better to control it.

What might some consequences of this be? Foucault says the following:

“was this transformation of sex into discourse not governed by the endeavor to expel from reality the forms of sexuality that were not amenable to the strict economy of reproduction: to say no to unproductive activities, to banish casual pleasures, to reduce or exclude practices whose object was not procreation? Through the various discourses, legal sanctions against minor perversions were multiplied; sexual irregularity was annexed to mental illness; from childhood to old age, a norm of sexual development was defined and all the possible deviations were carefully described; pedagogical controls and medical treatments were organized; around the least fantasies, moralists, but especially doctors, brandished the whole emphatic vocabulary of abomination.”

As I say, and now repeat, sex, under the weight of so much discourse, is now no longer innocent. An innocent fumble between young teens becomes a case for discipline, a middle-aged man relieving himself in public becomes a certifiable pervert, a nudist walking in the woods or lying naked on the wrong beach is a potential criminal who might be diagnosed with a psychological condition. Pleasure, bodily pleasure, has been locked up, analysed and critiqued, in acceptable and unacceptable forms, down to the last detail. Bodies and sexuality must be POLICED, that is, DESIGNATED and CONTROLLED. Foucault asks: “All this garrulous attention which has us in a stew over sexuality, is it not motivated by one basic concern: to ensure population, to reproduce labour capacity, to perpetuate the form of social relations: in short, to constitute a sexuality that is economically useful and politically conservative?” He further notes, in a comment more relatable than some in his book to the current gender wars, that “For a long time hermaphrodites were criminals, or crime’s offspring, since their anatomical disposition, their very being, confounded the law that distinguished the sexes and prescribed their union.” We may note that governments and laws can never validate forms of being – they can only invalidate the ones they don’t want to see or otherwise proscribe their behaviour under a regime of “administrative confinement” and discursive classification in a centralising management age.


I move now from Foucault to Judith Butler who brings a similar concern with systems of thought, discourse and power/knowledge to the subject of gender discussion. Butler has been engaged in diagnosing [and often creating] Gender Trouble for over 30 years since this book was first published in 1990 and is not shy of pointing out the links modern gender critics have with far right groups in America, through British right wing talking heads to Russian-sponsored anti-trans activism. She has, in fact, been one who has pointed out [for example, in an interview in the British newspaper The Guardian from September 2021] that those who campaign against gender expression [and even discussion] are, more often than not, not only anti-trans but also anti-gay and anti-abortion in an all-encompassing, authoritarian and politically-motivated way. Even in the time since this interview, we have seen growing numbers of US states attempt to formulate laws that hinder one or more of these communities in the performance of their every day lives in ways very reminiscent of the eugenics-based and racist laws propagated in early 20th century America and which I discussed in chapter 6 of Being Human. The source of such laws, now as then, is always the [white, patriarchal] conservative who wishes to control “the other” that it does not approve of in what is basically a fascist [“everything must be the same and based on ‘traditional’ values”] conception of society.

I am going to work my way through the first chapter of Gender Trouble which is sub-divided into five parts under the general chapter heading of “Subjects of Sex/Gender/Desire.” Butler, perhaps influenced by her French theoretical reference points, writes in a heavy “academese” that takes some getting used to and so I regard what I am doing here as, in some sense, translating the academic language into something more regular people can understand. Butler begins the book interrogating the subject, or the identity of the subject, in which “feminism” is imagined to have an interest. [I should say here that I am personally very dubious of the word “feminism” which can indicate anything from Oxford-educated, middle class, white elite liberals like the Guardian journalist Hadley Freeman to lesbian anti-trans activists like Julie Bindel to those like the trans woman and trans activist Katy Montgomerie. Therefore, I wonder if “feminist” has not by now become so fragmented as a useful signifier that it should be retired in favour of other things.] Here, in fact, we very soon find we are into the territory of language and speech acts where, commenting on the work of Foucault, Butler points out that “juridical systems of power produce the subjects they subsequently come to represent.” Such systems:

“appear to regulate political life in purely negative terms—that is, through the limitation, prohibition, regulation, control, and even ‘protection’ of individuals related to that political structure through the contingent and retractable operation of choice. But the subjects regulated by such structures are, by virtue of being subjected to them, formed, defined, and reproduced in accordance with the requirements of those structures.”

“The subject” then comes to be a political and intellectual “construction” that is emanating from political power bases in the following way:

“the political construction of the subject proceeds with certain legitimating and exclusionary aims, and these political operations are effectively concealed and naturalized by a political analysis that takes juridical structures as their foundation. Juridical power inevitably ‘produces’ what it claims merely to represent; hence, politics must be concerned with this dual function of power: the juridical and the productive. In effect, the law produces and then conceals the notion of ‘a subject before the law’ in order to invoke that discursive formation as a naturalized foundational premise that

subsequently legitimates that law’s own regulatory hegemony.”

Butler will repeat these points about construction, discursive formation and a hiddenness based on this “naturalized foundational premise” several times throughout her first chapter. This is a matter of “foundationalist fictions” within a rhetorical context where presenting an unanswerable argument to rhetorical opponents [in a context at once both intellectual and political] is the point. This, for example, is often the context of gender critics who, in a way they think unanswerable, argue [actually more probably simply present as a fait accompli] that woman is a biological category of sex concerned with the material configuration of bodies and nothing else. Various governmental bodies, especially in the USA, have then taken this idea in order to put it into law in order to prejudice the lives of others who do not agree with such foundational fictions. Butler’s interest in “performativity” in Gender Trouble, however, will conflict with the idea that “women denotes a common identity” as will her taking up of Nietzsche’s notion – found in both Beyond Good and Evil and On The Genealogy of Morality — that there is no doer behind the deed. More than this, however, there are more obvious points to consider such as that:

“gender is not always constituted coherently or consistently in different historical contexts, and because gender intersects with racial, class, ethnic, sexual, and regional

modalities of discursively constituted identities. As a result, it becomes impossible to separate out ‘gender’ from the political and cultural intersections in which it is invariably produced and maintained.”

The point here is that “gender” is always entangled in other things and so resists an easy definition — even if we were to imagine that a definition was something a gender could ever be [which is a political and intellectual move in itself]. Why would someone want to DEFINE gender in the first place anyway, if not to articulate it in some form of political and intellectual control?

Butler, however, wants to begin by asking if there is:

“some commonality among ‘women’ that pre-exists their oppression, or do ‘women’ have a bond by virtue of their oppression alone? Is there a specificity to women’s cultures that is independent of their subordination by hegemonic, masculinist cultures? Are the specificity and integrity of women’s cultural or linguistic practices always specified against and, hence, within the terms of some more dominant cultural formation? If there is a region of the ‘specifically feminine,’ one that is both differentiated from the masculine as such and recognizable in its difference by an unmarked and, hence, presumed universality of ‘women’?”

This is, of course, to ask if “all women” are somehow bonded in some unique way in which they are not bonded with everybody else which, of course, mostly consists of men. The problem, naturally enough, is that however you do this linguistically someone somewhere is bound to rebel or revolt against the formulation. Construction itself is found to have what Butler calls “coercive and regulatory consequences” and so “feminism” in some senses claims to represent that which it has itself created in its own image. [Gender critical “feminism” is a cast iron case of this but I also take note of pro-trans feminists who regard “women” as the intellectual constructions they have themselves created as well.] The issue here for Butler is how “women” are formed, politically and intellectually, and to whom such constructions can then be said to apply – or even if the ideas of “subject” and “identity” are philosophically coherent ones to have in the first place, particularly if these are imagined as fixed and not variable where either option can be imagined as a political goal in its own right. Butler ends the first section of her first chapter arguing that “The identity of the feminist subject ought not to be the foundation of feminist politics, if the formation of the subject takes place within a field of power regularly buried through the assertion of that foundation.”

Butler now reviews the distinction between sex and gender and reminds readers that it was “originally intended to dispute the biology-is-destiny formulation”, something which was once apparently a feminist verity [for example, in relation to the idea that women should be babymakers] but which, today, seems as liable as anything else to be thrown under the bus if it suits an immediate political advantage to do so. Butler reports that:

“the distinction between sex and gender serves the argument that whatever biological intractability sex appears to have, gender is culturally constructed: hence, gender is neither the causal result of sex nor as seemingly fixed as sex. The unity of the subject is thus already potentially contested by the distinction that permits of gender as a multiple interpretation of sex.”

Thus: “If gender is the cultural meanings that the sexed body assumes, then a gender cannot be said to follow from a sex in any one way.” Gender and sexed bodies become discontinuous, one not intractably tied to the other. It also follows from this that “there is no reason to assume that genders ought to remain as two” [as biologists have observed in birds and fish, for example, and as I spoke about in Being Human chapter 3 after the biologically-informed researches of Joan Roughgarden]. Gender may, but does not have to, mimic sex and neither is it an unassailable barrier to different gender performance. But what if “sex” is itself interpreted by means of gender? What is their relationship and how does one influence the other? Are either of these actually “given” and what would “given” even mean here? Historical and anthropological [let alone biological] research here indicates these ideas are not fixed across time, space and cultural situation. Butler notes that “It would make no sense, then, to define gender as the cultural interpretation of sex, if sex itself is a gendered category” and “gender must also designate the very apparatus of production whereby the sexes themselves are established.” One issue here, which gender critics themselves exemplify, is that sex is presented by some as “radically unconstructed”, another example of “the natural” or “the real” set outside discursive boundaries [on purpose, of course, so it cannot be argued about or otherwise discussed]. This, as Butler identifies, is nothing other than a discursive technique, an attempt to have something stand outside of, and so beyond, argument. It is a move we should never accept for if humans think something then you can be sure some humans somewhere created that thing as a discursive item. It is, thus, a legitimate item of discussion since it was human beings who constructed it as a subject of human thought to begin with. Here there is no “outside-human-discussion” or “outside-human-thought”. [Compare Derrida: “Il n’y a pas de hors-texte”.]

Butler’s next topic is if humans can be said to “have” a gender or to “be” a gender – or perhaps its something else? This raises various questions such as if a gender is something you are – and so can’t help being – or if its something you can perform or act out either because you want to or feel more comfortable doing so. Here the nature of gender as constructed plays a part for Butler and she wonders if “certain laws” might be generative of genders “along universal axes of sexual difference”. More specifically, a question that can be asked here is how gender is constructed if we concede [as we should] that it is. If, for example, culture constructs gender according to predictable “laws” then, as Butler says, culture can become destiny in a way, still for some today, that biology does too. This might then have its own political consequences.

But not everyone agrees with this. Simone de Beauvoir, for example, famously stated that “one is not born a woman but, rather, becomes one” and Butler exegetes this, after Beauvoir, in the direction of “cultural compulsion” to become one. Yet if woman is something one becomes then this seems to suggest that sex is gender rather than, in Butler’s academic phrase, “prediscursive anatomical facticity”. This leads us to ask, after Butler, “To what extent does the body come into being in and through the mark[s] of gender?” Here we get into linguistic waters and must remind ourselves [as I intend to do much more all-encompassingly in a later chapter devoted to language] that our language is the house of all being; it is our language which defines and delimits the borders of our possibility to think and so imagine any kind of putative reality or possibility. Our experience of reality, and so of even ourselves, is discursively conditioned by our linguistic possibilities and so “constraint is thus built into what that language constitutes as the imaginable domain of gender.” This even extends to how language works, for example, with its preference for being indicative [the “is” which wants to fix and make static, the noun which wants to suggest a thing is one thing, a unitary concept]. When you then say that someone “is” a “woman” are you not, because of your language, saying a woman is something fixed, static, determinate, unchanging, identifiable? Yet could we not, on other grounds, have reasons to challenge all these connotations of that “is”? We need to wrestle with the fact that even in the structure of our language there are things which lead our thinking by the nose and make claims that, on other grounds, we may wish to dispute if not refute.

Historical and anthropological researches, of course, support such an outlook with their references to “gender as a relation among socially constituted subjects in specifiable contexts” as Butler puts it. In this respect, gender is then no longer a matter of “substantive being” [something about what you are beyond human thought about it] but is, instead, “a shifting and contextual phenomenon” or “a relative point of convergence among culturally and historically specific sets of relations”. This, in my mind, is to articulate the distinction between bodies as sites of, and instruments in the use of, freedom as opposed to being seen as defining or limiting essences. Bodies should not be prisons but opportunities for the possibility of freedom. They should be sites which express our material existence rather than philosophical and ideological givens to which we are chained. Here the justifiable target of those who want to free the body from rhetorical structures which emphasize its imaginary prediscursive givenness is essentialism, the idea that there is something about material [such as bodies] which makes it what it is in a way outside of interpretation or relation to anything else. This can be an intellectual fault in both sides of an imaginary trans debate where the contention that there is anything “that makes someone a woman [or man]” irrespective of class, race or culture verges on the essentialistic. We are thrown back, in Butler’s terms in Gender Trouble, on the question of if “woman” is, or can be, a universalistic category at all. Does woman have to be one thing for all people at all times and in all places or is this an oppressive, illegitimate claim in itself? [Yes, it is.] The claims of multiplicity, plurality and diversity here mitigate against such an idea.

But where does this leave us, intellectually and politically? Butler claims an affinity [as she still does today] to “coalitional” forms of politics which rely on “solidarity” but what are the intellectual consequences for such strategies and how important in such contexts is an intellectual “unity” of ideas? Butler notes here, for example, that even the idea of “dialogue” is “culturally specific and historically bound”. We should also note, of course, that differing sides in an argument need not be politically equal nor come from positions of equal political power. Such dialogue might then not be constructed on foundations which give each side equal opportunities to make their points or even be heard in the same way. In addition, we might ask how political coalitions could be formed where ideas [for example, about what constitutes a woman] may differ. A woman, as Butler makes plain, is not just a given intellectual category which needs to be filled up with “race, class, age, ethnicity, and sexuality” components to be made complete. What if “woman” is an idea that is always already incomplete, open and uncloseable, something about which agreement must always be deferred? This then leads Butler to ask if “unity” is even necessary for political action and to pursue an “antifoundational approach to coalitional politics” which does not assume that “’identity’ is a premise” nor that the “shape or meaning” of political coalitions can be known [much less planned or required] in advance. Butler ends here by saying that:

“Gender is a complexity whose totality is permanently deferred, never fully what it is at any given juncture in time. An open coalition, then, will affirm identities that are alternately instituted and relinquished according to the purposes at hand; it will be an open assemblage that permits of multiple convergences and divergences without obedience to a normative telos of definitional closure.”

In clearer words this seems to mean that Butler finds gender is too complex to ever be totally closed off and impossible to perform since it can never be statically defined. The consequences for politics are that they should not be too prescriptive and remain open to convergence and divergence of interests and agendas rather than require definitive rallying points which become dogmas or tests of ideological purity. Identities should consequently be thought of as things suited to purposes rather than as static essences.

This brings us to a tricky subject: identity. Allied with the idea of identity is “the metaphysics of substance” which privileges the idea that things are either pre- or extra-discursive since “they are what they materially are” where this is imagined to be something beyond [and so not “dependent on”] human thought. [This is a bit of a strange construction anyway since no one disputes that “things are what they are” and come to be what they materially are independent of human thought about it. But the point is THIS IS NOT THE POINT.] So Butler asks: “What can be meant by ‘identity,’... and what grounds the presumption that identities are self-identical, persisting through time as the same, unified and internally coherent?” Here she notes that “’persons’ only become intelligible through becoming gendered in conformity with recognizable standards of gender intelligibility” and she wants to focus on “regulatory practices” much more than on an “internal feature of the person” in this respect, asking “To what extent is ‘identity’ a normative ideal rather than a descriptive feature of experience?” She concludes that “the ‘coherence’ and ‘continuity’ of ‘the person’ are not logical or analytic features of personhood, but, rather, socially instituted and maintained norms of intelligibility.” We may note here, of course, that the very ideas of “identity” or “the person” are human, linguistic ideas and not ideas imposed from without by some material metaphysics which privileges substance over thought or ideas. Thus, what makes “a person” or constitutes “an identity” and makes these things intelligible to us are matters of our own conceptions and understandings; they are matters of us understanding ourselves and our thinking. These inevitably involve interacting with our own norms and discursive formations in ways which make sense in terms of our experiences of the world. It is our talk which regulates this and which Butler is here concerned with and she is specifically concerned with it as “regulatory” because:

“The cultural matrix through which gender identity has become intelligible requires that certain kinds of ‘identities’ cannot ‘exist’—that is, those in which gender does not follow from sex and those in which the practices of desire do not ‘follow’ from either sex or gender.”

This, of course, is a phenomenon both political and intellectual and with consequences in each respect and one such, argued on both sides of the transgender divide, is that “the category of sex would itself disappear and, indeed, dissipate through the disruption and displacement of heterosexual hegemony”, a thing which relies on the definitive classification of sex and gender roles. How sex and gender are understood, then, [as if anyone by now had not realised this] is hardly inconsequential since we are, in the end, talking about the constitution of human society [or at least this civilization] itself.

This is where “substance” comes into it since sex is imagined to be a substance and so identical [and unchanging] with itself. But one suspects, as Butler suspects, that this is a trick of language which wants to make concrete and so set concepts in stone. Instead, might we not rather say that being [i.e. doing] a sex or gender is actually impossible [in this case] since even if sex and/or gender is set in stone none of us certainly are? Here Butler argues that, for Foucault, “the substantive grammar of sex imposes an artificial binary relation between the sexes, as well as an artificial internal coherence within each term of that binary. The binary regulation of sexuality suppresses the subversive multiplicity of a sexuality that disrupts heterosexual, reproductive, and medico-juridical hegemonies.” In other words, hegemonies work to fix sex, sexuality and gender as heteronormative and reproductive but a “subversive multiplicity” finds itself instinctively rebelling against it even as that regulatory system itself reinforces what some have described as a system of compulsory and binary heterosexuality. All the talk about a patriarchal politics and male-dominated social context for human lives is here relevant if and when it is argued that the metaphysics of substance itself is a patriarchal conception of things which wants to fix what is not fixed and so disavow and disallow changing or non-prescribed sexualities and genders. It is a dominating move to fix things and who would that be most in the interests of but those who are in the position of wanting to dominate things to begin with? Here, as one example and as Butler notes, the overt sexualisation of women [in distinction to men] is “a refusal to grant freedom and autonomy to women” but a means to define, classify and so control them within images not of their own choosing.

Of course, when “metaphysics” or “substance” or “being” are invoked there is always the opportunity to become Nietzschean about such things – with which Nietzsche himself became majorly entangled. The phrase “metaphysics of substance” is actually a phrase attached to Nietzsche as a criticism of philosophical discourse within that discourse as Butler notes. She brings up those places in which Nietzsche refers to belief in a subject, “the doer who does the deed”, as a grammatical prejudice [e.g. section 34 of Beyond Good and Evil where Nietzsche protests that the idea that a fiction needs an author is not necessarily so since that fictions need authors might actually be a part of the fiction itself] based on an imagined “prior ontological reality of substance and attribute”. The counter to such imaginings is left to Michel Haar to extrapolate and is quoted by Butler thus:

“All psychological categories (the ego, the individual, the person) derive from the illusion of substantial identity. But this illusion goes back basically to a superstition that deceives not only common sense but also philosophers—namely, the belief in language and, more precisely, in the truth of grammatical categories. It was grammar (the structure of subject and predicate) that inspired Descartes’ certainty that ‘I’ is the subject of ‘think,’ whereas it is rather the thoughts that come to ‘me’: at bottom, faith in grammar simply conveys the will to be the ‘cause’ of one’s thoughts. The subject, the

self, the individual, are just so many false concepts, since they transform into substances fictitious unities having at the start only a linguistic reality.”

Put even more simply, how we have talked about something, in this case an identity called “the self”, HAS CREATED THAT REALITY. In the case given, “I” does not think, rather, thoughts happen to someone as part of a concatenation of processes that constitute the entity or organism imagined as “someone”. A material entity exists [although not as “given”], the sum of biological and perhaps other processes, but this is far from the unitary substance denoted by the term “I” thought of as both [gendered and sexualised] subject and agent. The concatenation of processes which make up the materiality of the person is here apparent but that “I” is a substance is not. Thus, that someone can claim to BE either a gender or a sexuality is problematised and it seems to rely on arguing for the metaphysicality of sexed, gendered substances. It seeks unity of substance where only diversity of process or relation seems apparent. We might here ask again how one can then BE a sexuality or gender where no such substance can be shown to exist and, furthermore, seems to rely on ontological presuppositions set in linguistic and grammatical stone. Language and grammar always seem to want to encourage fixity and substance in things but we should not mistake this for actual fixity nor imagine that processes are substances. This happens every time anyone says “A man is…” or “A woman is…” or “I am...”. We must consider the possibility that people are not identities analogous to fixed, unchanging substances but that they are, instead, the impossibility of these things and prey to a regulatory fiction of language which wants to make static and substantial that which, in actuality, is not. Thus, as Butler notes:

“If the notion of an abiding substance is a fictive construction produced through the compulsory ordering of attributes into coherent gender sequences, then it seems that gender as substance, the viability of man and woman as nouns, is called into question by the dissonant play of attributes that fail to conform to sequential or causal models of intelligibility.”

This leads to a consequential conclusion from Butler: “the substantive effect of gender is performatively produced and compelled by the regulatory practices of gender coherence.” Thus:

“gender is always a doing, though not a doing by a subject who might be said to pre-exist the deed. The challenge for rethinking gender categories outside of the metaphysics of substance will have to consider the relevance of Nietzsche’s claim in On the Genealogy of Morals that ‘there is no ‘being’ behind doing, effecting, becoming; ‘the doer’ is merely

a fiction added to the deed—the deed is everything.’… we might state as a corollary: There is no gender identity behind the expressions of gender; that identity is performatively constituted by the very ‘expressions’ that are said to be its results.”

What has been said above then not only states that sex, gender and sexuality are interconnected and constructed things but that IDENTITY or THE SUBJECT themselves are also constructed as well and it begs the question of if anyone can actually ever live up to – or live out – such constructions, such regulatory fictions. This, of course, has not only intellectual implications but possibly very dark political ones if, as it turns out, people start using their intellectual fabrications in an attempt to shape the political and social landscape. Thus, we see that even imagining to get things intellectually right [which can only ever be “intellectually useful according to our purposes”] is barely half the task for this can be done by people without the politics of the situation being changed at all. As Butler then asks:

“If sexuality is culturally constructed within existing power relations, then the postulation of a normative sexuality that is ‘before,’ ‘outside,’ or ‘beyond’ power is a cultural impossibility and a politically impracticable dream, one that postpones the concrete and contemporary task of rethinking subversive possibilities for sexuality and identity within the terms of power itself. This critical task presumes, of course, that to operate within the matrix of power is not the same as to replicate uncritically relations of domination.”

This is to say that we all have a relation to power – as Foucault earlier maintained – and that it is not enough to change our own minds or come to some more acceptable intellectual position; if we would live in a world where people with other beliefs might want to harm or kill us we have to change more than our own minds, we have to credibly affect the minds of other people too. This, in fact, is what politics is. Butler’s proposition in the first chapter of Gender Trouble is that this take place on the basis of people who reveal what they are through their own becoming rather than through a set of ontological prescriptions set out prior to debate. Substance is here to be deconstructed and revealed as nothing more than the congealed appearance of substance and as “contingent acts that create the appearance of a naturalistic necessity”. Instead, sex is shown as “a performatively enacted signification” – not something that is but something that is done. Sex, sexualities and gender, are then imagined as things properly without beginning or end, open-ended, uncloseable things which owe nothing to any origin nor anything to any pre-conceived destination. It is not about being but doing.


Interestingly, the biologist Joan Roughgarden, whose book Evolution’s Rainbow was my major source for the chapter “Biology as a Discourse about the Diversity of Life” in Being Human, is concerned to argue in that book, as a person whose day job is describing, in a scientific frame of mind, “what biologically is the case”, that diversity of sex and gender manifestation is neither simply a matter of gay or trans genes [which have not yet been found, should they even exist, in any case] nor of environmentally coaxed behaviour. Her account is very much a cooperative one [as is also detailed in her later book The Genial Gene which is a differing account of cooperative genetics written against Richard Dawkins’ idea of “selfish genes”] and she emphasises how genetic and biological make up, the building blocks and material basis of each human being, work in tandem with environment and the learned behaviours of life to produce a natural diversity of outcome. To use a very broad analogy here, not all people capable of playing football turn out to be footballers and not all footballers turn out to be goalkeepers. Some people who even started out as midfielders can end up being goalkeepers too [such as German goalkeeper, Manuel Neuer, for example]. The beginning does not define the end even as the end says nothing fixed about the beginning. Diversity of possibility remains an enigmatic factor in the whole situation of what we are and can become. Roughgarden, in fact, likes to emphasise the evolutionary advantage of diversity which can literally save a species from extinction. If we were all the same we’d be much easier to wipe out. Diversity of the species is an evolutionary advantage.

Perhaps this is one reason why the LGBTQIA+ acronym seems to keep changing over time as new diversities of sexuality and gender expression are named and claimed. Clearly the political intention in such an acronym is to give people visibility and acknowledge their existence within a common frame of reference whilst also showing a solidarity of diverse sex and gender expressions. Yet even some people covered by this growing number of letters begin to fall behind in regard to what all these things mean or signify. In Evolution’s Rainbow, for example, Roughgarden focuses largely on homosexuals and trans people [the latter of which she is herself]. As far as I’m aware, having read almost every word of her book, aromantics and polyamorists, let alone femboys or catgirls, do not get a mention. Even the spellchecker of the word processing program I am using did not recognise LGBTQIA+; it wanted me to substitute LGBT for it instead. A news report I read online about the Oscars today used the acronym LGBTQ in its report. Clearly, if you begin to list every sexual kink or felt gender difference in such a grouping you would emerge with an acronym that was linguistically impossible to use or a list of diversities so large it would be impossible to write it down coherently. And this would not be a matter of wanting to hide or deny certain kinds of people; it would just be a matter of usable language.

In fact, what is going on here is probably a problem of understanding in which people take behaviour or proclivity and turn it into an identity that definitely exists [although in what way it exists and in what it consists is often not discussed any further]. People have come to the conclusion that this or that sex or gender expression “is a thing” and so posit its existence and regard it as discrimination or hate to deny it. Monty Python were here one of the early groups of people to make something of a joke out of this with the character “Loretta” in The Life of Brian. Loretta was to the eye a male Jewish dissident played by Eric Idle but the script has her declare in a Roman arena, watching people fight gladiators, that she now wishes to be known as Loretta and regarded as a woman. Some of Monty Python, notably John Cleese, have not gone on to have the most enlightened views about trans people and this probably explains why Loretta appears in the film as something of a joke. Yet whilst I would never be of the mind to argue that people should be regarded as jokes for their sexuality or gender expression neither do I think this means that “identity” is something that is beyond criticism. All identities are fabricated and, if Roughgarden is to be believed, no identity is SIMPLY a matter of genetics or biology. These things lay out a genetic and biological basis for the life that will follow but they delineate mostly possibilities and not merely fixities. And this is before you factor in that increasing medical knowledge and abilities make changing biology increasingly feasible. In contradiction to all the partisan “Adult Human Females”, we must argue that things are often not fixed [not least for “Adult Human Females” who engage in cosmetic surgeries no one would ever think to question!] and a measure of choice and possibility for change and diversity already exists in every human being. Yet this is also to make the point to those of diverse identities that “what you are” is not simply innate but is also something about the unique journey that is your life. An identity may be what you think you “are” but it is saying something more particularly about your journey and its possibilities rather than simply your material consistency.

I want to explore Roughgarden’s Evolution’s Rainbow a bit more in this respect before coming to my own conclusions at the end of this chapter. Previously, I referred only to her first of three sections in the main which covered diversity in animals. But her second and third sections of the book cover human diversity and cultural diversity. It should go without saying, of course, that Roughgarden is a biologist and an evolutionist. She is thus very keen on pointing out the relationship between both and diversity. Fixed is then what things are not [all humans are actually biologically different] and what they could never be for fixity in biology is death. Only the adaptable and diverse survive in the game of evolutionary life. This should be regarded as a constant background in all Roughgarden says biologically and which I say in this book culturally, politically and intellectually too. Here Roughgarden’s agenda of biological diversity and mine of cultural and intellectual diversity coincide.

Roughgarden’s biological narrative in relation to “human rainbows” begins, however, in reference to those pesky humans who want to epistemologically fix things by defining “norms” from which they can then judge “deviance”. Examples of this kind of thing are a staple of Foucault’s scholarship [an example I would draw attention to is his Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason] which draws connections between knowledge creation and formation under the influence of power, eventually becoming melded with power itself. The claim to know something is a claim that can be used to shape society, defining an “us” and a “them” – and the more people who can be convinced that they think they know the same thing [even the “them” to our “us”] the better. Here, of course, the form the knowledge takes [norms and deviance] is crucial in its further use and articulation. Imagine if we did not proceed by means of norms from and by which deviance was measured. Imagine if we just thought all phenomena were equally possible and natural. We would wipe out “deviance” overnight. But it is only our knowledge and its form which creates “the deviant” to begin with. One person’s deviant is another person’s natural and possible diversity.

But I digress, at least partially. Roughgarden reports that scientific endeavour in the field of biology “has… been to sound the alarm at any hint of diversity, then to label diversity as disease and cure it.” One thinks here of 19th century women labelled as “hysterics” and masturbated as a “cure”. [Yes, this really did happen and sometimes even with the doctor’s fingers!] This seems completely abusive now but it does show us that those in positions of power who are apparently the most knowledgeable amongst us are not immune to staggering flights of fancy that put the claim to “knowledge” – something to be later discussed by me in varying ways – in great doubt. But who would dare argue with a doctor or bandy words with high falutin professors with decades of expertise behind them and academic decorations on their walls? Our society is set up as a hierarchy and knowing your place is one of the traditions by which such hierarchies of power/knowledge are kept in place. Interestingly, Roughgarden intimates that hierarchical narratives mirroring our external social and political ones have made their way into the narrative of biology where “genes recline on chromosomal thrones in a nuclear palace, from whence they direct subcellular minions to accomplish their selfish ends.” But Roughgarden does not want to tell stories of how the boss gene gets all the other biological elements of life to do its bidding. She wants to tell “a story of human development that emphasizes relationships among organic components that make up our bodies.” And I can only applaud her for that.

Thus, “we all differ from one another materially” if you really want to get down to the nitty gritty. “Adult Human Female” doesn’t cut it if you want to be totally biologically accurate for each one of those is materially different. So why emphasise a similarity here but go no further? The reasons can only be rhetorical. Roughgarden in fact believes that “agency extends throughout my entire being, and I see no grounds for splitting off my biochemical functioning from my deliberative actions.” The biological picture is not one of fixity and rules that must be obeyed but of agency and possibility among numerous possible alternatives at every twist and turn of life and its processes. [Hardly surprising as we all start off as “a single cell with two nuclei”, one from our mother and one from our father. Diversity combining in a new combination is how anybody begins.] But it is then unfortunate that, in wanting to communicate how a human life is formed in good faith, Roughgarden falls into a somewhat babyish narrative which describes things which the bodies of either Roughgarden or Roughgarden’s mother or father “did” [as a matter of their deliberative agency] which should, in fact, be more properly described as biological processes which occurred to these people rather than things they determined to do. If “I“ produce some cells the cells are produced by the process that produces them. I cannot be said, with any agency, to have determined to produce them even if the cell processes somehow determined it amongst themselves. Cell agency is not my agency. This is a somewhat pedantic point but it serves a purpose in being made.

Roughgarden’s narrative of how life begins is not useless, however, not least in the observation that “our individuality begins at conception, if not before.” You might not find this that interesting but it does posit that, in a material way gender critics love to emphasise so much, if you want to be strictly material about things then we are all individual and diverse, points on a biological spectrum of possibility and interactivity. And there’s no escaping that no matter how many times you chant “Adult Human Female” with your fingers in your ears. But the point bears making to the sexually and gender diverse too. Is this biological fact grounds for creating fixed identities either? I gently suggest it isn’t. We are all human beings of one sort or another and after that it fades away until you reach individuality – which we all also have materially. In between are possibilities of manifestation and expression that flow imperceptibly from one to another, not so much identities as self-descriptions. This is not to say such things are bad or wrong but it is to make a distinction. What constantly strikes me reading Roughgarden is how similar we are whilst retaining that necessary biological diversity. That people of any kind seem to feel free to delineate hard and fast borders between human types to me seems an act of political vandalism and intellectual partisanship. The question to be asked here is why people engage in differentiating people into rhetorical groupings and what purpose it serves – and why they do this in some ways but not others? However much people may try to articulate biology they often only end up articulating politics as biology instead. Even things such as “male and female” are political distinctions for biology alone never intended, or intends, to create either.

I do not propose here to go through the chromosomal and gene discussions of Roughgarden [which for a non-scientist like me are quite dizzying and extensive] for she is the biologist and not I – save to say, that is, that, chromosomally speaking, human beings are not limited to XX [“female”] and XY [“male”] chromosomal types: HUMAN BEINGS CANNOT BE COMPLETELY AND FULLY DELINEATED IN THEIR EVENTUALITIES ACCORDING TO CHROMOSOMES as a matter of biological fact. [What would an XXY person be, for example, and how would you know in a public bathroom?] Biological sex is itself thus a function of the possibility of diversity within cooperative processes with there being no right or wrong in these matters [for neither nature nor evolution knows of such things] where what can happen that does happen is the guiding factor.

By such processes bodies are determined in multiple ways and not merely two. It is certain human minds, under the influence of heterosexual and dimorphic power/knowledge, that have decided that bodies come in two types and only two types — for the biological processes themselves produce new variants every single time they occur [and this is before environment and behaviour get to work producing even more possible variation]. This includes types that are sexually ambiguous to the naked eye [their genitals are indistinct] and Roughgarden tells harrowing tales of infants forcibly operated upon to create more obvious bodily distinctions to please medics and parents alike but in which the infants themselves obviously had no say. This, in my view, comes across as authoritarian butchery in which babies are regarded as prey for an epistemology which judges human beings must look like this or like that but like nothing else. It is thus worth remembering that, as a matter of biological fact, “Everyone has the genes to make both ovaries and testes, but which we make depends on some network of intergene negotiation.” One might almost call this more random than destiny, a diversity of common origin. Roughgarden is here most keen to argue, contra human outrage machine and former biologist Richard Dawkins, that biological elements are not hierarchically selfish in going about their business but fundamentally and necessarily cooperative. She writes of genes, for example, that: “The selfish gene is a sound byte, not science. Genes occupy a common body, their lifeboat. A selfish gene had better know how to swim. Survival for a gene means being genial—the genial gene.” This cooperation can go in numerous ways, some of them bodily indistinct as I have already raised. But don’t you find it perverse that someone with indistinct genitals might arbitrarily be operated on by concerned doctors with parental consent but if that same person, now as an adult, later declares themselves trans and presents themselves for surgery their sanity or mental fitness to be operated upon might be questioned?

The biological situation is, thus, something like this:

“Development begins and ends with egg and sperm, one big gamete and one little gamete. Although this overall beginning and end point may be the same in many species, we see no standard templates for how female and male development are accomplished. How an animal’s sex is decided, whether it will make eggs or sperm, varies among species. The decision is genetic in some species, physiological in others; even when it is

genetic, various genetic criteria apply, depending on the species. And the individual’s development is no more ordered or predictable than the outcome of a day’s parliamentary debate. A diversity of people emerges from a cacophony of developmental histories. No one or two developmental narratives can be privileged as a standard against which to judge the rest.”

And yet, of course, they are, a case of politics over intellectual honesty. Reading Roughgarden’s science book has, in fact, helped me get a glimpse of the wealth of even simply biological possibilities in the creation of human life and of the multitudinous factors which go into making each one of us unique physical specimens. That each of these unique people is the result of thousands of cooperative acts of interaction at the genetic level that go back in time in an almost eternal chain is truly remarkable to read about and discover, what one can call one of the wonders of science [and I say this as a person who often has no time for science, or the scientific outlook, at all]. But such thoughts do lead one to consider honestly how people calculate “identity” in our world today in seeming ignorance of a lot of this. And its worth reminding ourselves that a lot of this has been done without sex and gender divergence even being much on the radar of medical and biological science up to this point. Often Roughgarden will answer some question by giving variations on “No one knows because no one has, as yet, ever looked.” So we might pertinently ask of what use it is to a patriarchal, heteronormative scientific community to find out that homosexuality or transgenderism [or other potential diversities] are a naturally occurring phenomenon that can lead to healthy human lives? We must always remember that more than science is going on in society and that what people do and don’t want to find or look for, what they will be funded to find or look for, is also a motivation that is in play. Science is not simply or naively a neutral exploration for facts; it is a partisan attempt to find knowledge that is likely to become organised and utilised in ways aligned with and by power. Who actually does [or pays for] science, in fact, except those already embedded in partisan and interested hierarchies?

So in my own thinking I concentrate on the fact that “’normal’ people are as genetically diverse as snowflakes” as much as I do on the fact that people, for varying reasons, some dubious, some actually useful, wish to section themselves off into categories. People have a sense of identity and belonging but we should not then confuse this with actually empirical categories determined by nature’s blueprint: “nature’s blueprint” does not exist. Nature is process and possibility, a what can happen that does happen, a random interaction which takes things this way or that. Nature is possibility not determination — unless it is determination to survive regardless of form, that is. The so called “sex hormones”, for example – testosterone and estrogen – are both present in every human body. Roughgarden refers to them as “instruments in the body’s chemical orchestra” in an image which, once again, suggests possibility not determination. Orchestras can play many, many tunes and its how they combine that decides what that tune will be. You don’t tell orchestras they can only play some tunes but not others. Orchestras play whatever tunes it is possible for them to play and a variety of tunes is, for most people, a highly desirable feature of orchestras. Always, in this debate, we find fixity where the reality is one of diversity that some people want to artificially stifle or discourage. In this regard, Roughgarden recounts the story of an article in the New York Times Magazine in which an homage to testosterone was made and used as justification for gender inequality [manly men with more testosterone than women will always be superior, etc., etc.]. In fact, it was apparently suggested in the article that women should be administered medical testosterone in order to make them more manly! Yes, you read this right. The writer was essentially arguing that women should be eradicated and turned into men by means of testosterone. Aside from being biologically ignorant [testosterone “needs appropriate receptors in the body to have any effect”] such comments were also politically tone deaf, yet more “battle of the sexes” crap.

Where hormones do enter the discussion, however, is in relation to trans people who, according to Roughgarden, a person, who besides being a qualified biologist of many years standing, is also a trans woman, reports that:

“Transgendered people speak of hormones as the most important step in gender change, tipping the balance of subtle signs connoting gender identity as a man or woman. Transgendered people tell too of losing their partner or spouse soon after starting hormones because intimate relations were fundamentally altered. A major reason for individuality, for the emergence of diversity in body and temperament, is the effect of hormones and their receptors. Hormones early in life cause irreversible effects on temperament later in life, and hormones later in life can reversibly affect mood and activity.”

Here we see that biology can change people, in ways perceived as both good and bad. Trans people regard hormone therapy as a matter of trans health but the medical establishment, subject to political influence and agendas, doesn’t always agree or takes up stances detrimental to trans health – and this in a world where random writers in newspapers of record can suggest doling out testosterone willy nilly to women to make them more competitive with men! The seemingly bigoted judgments continue as well when trans people are questioned as to their sanity in regard to health treatments, including hormone therapy and surgery, which they want but which cis-gendered people, in terms of cosmetic surgeries and other treatments such as Botox injections or HRT, can seemingly get on demand without questions about their sanity so long as they can pay the bill. This medical apartheid seems distinctly lacking in equality of care and professionalism, perhaps based on heteronormative, patriarchal and dimorphic biological assumptions which assume variation from a norm is suboptimal or to be suppressed, an attitude which is diversity-repressing. This is as “if the theory of light had ignored some of the rainbows colors” arbitrarily: an apt analogy.

It is fortunate that there are, as yet, no “gay genes” or “transgender genes” [other diversities may here fill in a gene for their own self-description too]. Why? Because if there were you can be sure scientists would have been deployed to either get rid of them or otherwise exploit them. It is, as Roughgarden argues, a corruption of scientific thinking [a metaphysics of substance, in fact, to recall my earlier discussion of Judith Butler’s views] to imagine that one gene denotes sexuality or sexual proclivities. Neither is there any “binary brain”, a subject Roughgarden also discusses and dismisses. Such ideas, where they exist, are much more likely to be stubborn after effects of a patriarchal, heteronormative dimorphism that will itself not die and go away than of anything else. It only takes a shift in thinking from a belief in two fixed biological forms of human being to a diversity of individual possibilities within the biological processes of a species to open up this possibility but apparently that is still a step too far for many to take as they stubbornly stick to, by now, worn out truths evidence openly disproves if only it will be considered. The transgender biologist, Joan Roughgarden, views gender identity in the following way, for example:

“I envision gender identity as a cognitive lens. When a baby opens his or her eyes after birth and looks around, whom will the baby emulate and whom will he or she merely notice? Perhaps a male baby will emulate his father or other men, perhaps not, and a female baby her mother or other women, perhaps not. I imagine that a lens in the brain controls who to focus on as a ‘tutor.’ Transgender identity is then the acceptance

of a tutor from the opposite sex. Degrees of transgender identity, and of gender variance generally, reflect different degrees of single-mindedness in the selection of the tutor’s gender. The development of gender identity thus depends on both brain state and early postnatal experience, because brain state indicates what the lens is, and environmental experience supplies the image to be photographed through that lens and ultimately developed immutably into brain circuitry. Once gender identity is set, like other basic aspects of temperament, life proceeds from there.”

When it comes to sexuality, and especially same-sex sexuality, Roughgarden has this to say: “Substantial evidence points to both genetic and environmental components in the development of same-sex sexuality. No one who pushes one factor to the exclusion of the other can be correct.” We need to be wary, in both cases, however, about how “stable” we imagine these things to be and cannot assume the “degree of stability” will be the same in everybody. Whilst it may be true [for a variety of reasons] that most people exhibit a relatively stable sexuality and gender expression throughout their whole lives that is not so for everyone. [Those detransitioning trans people who undergo this procedure are further evidence of this as well.] I myself, in fact, experienced an emergent and then finally sudden realisation of a variation in my sexuality which caused me to wonder for quite a while about the stability of sexual orientation [and, indeed, to realise from my own experience that such things need not be stable at all]. This should put us on guard about labels and self-descriptions once again and warn us, all over again, about that metaphysics of substance as if we were imagined just to “be” a thing rather than to display certain proclivities or behaviours. Frankly, I prefer the description of people who engage in various practices to ideas based on the metaphysics of substance and essentialism. I just don’t think people “are” things so much as they behave in certain ways due to a combination of biological, environmental and responsive factors which, in certain circumstances, could change [and so in some do as evidence of this fact]. But perhaps I just don’t like believing bodies are prisons either [I don’t]. I like flexibility and possibility wherever I can take it so please don’t blame me for that.

But this does raise the question of the self-understanding of gender and sexuality and what counts as “making someone something”. So what does “make someone something” – and is it reducible to biological reasoning? Roughgarden does not think so and I follow her in this thinking – not least because I wonder if there are “things” to be to begin within, pre-existing categories beyond human language and purposes of description. Of course, there are not, and we fall back into self-descriptive language used for purposes we decide. Yet, even in those subtly or not so subtly oppressed by patriarchal, heteronormative dimorphism, I detect the evidence of essentialist and “metaphysics of the subject” kinds of thinking. This is so, in my view, when anyone ever imagines they simply “are” a thing. If “I am aromantic” or “I am polyamorous” is said to mean something about that person’s material substance or biological consistency then such people are doing exactly the same as gender critics who mouthbreathe “Adult Human Female”. A similar thing occurs where some transgender people – including quite vocal and well known social media users – insist that their transgenderism “is not a choice”. There are good reasons, good social and political reasons, for wanting to think that being trans is not a choice — but if its not a choice then what is it? A feeling? A perception? A practice? A decision? A random outcome? A realisation? What is the meaningful difference between these things?

This question is interesting and necessary because, at one point in her book, Roughgarden questions some research from the 1990s which claimed to find evidence for a gay gene. It seems, however, that the methodology used in the research was, at least, questionable and it revolves around “what counts as a man who is gay?” Someone who engages in “gay behaviour”? Someone who thinks of themselves as gay regardless of behaviour? [Can a non-active gay be gay?] If a gay man, every now and again, engages in sexual activity with a woman are they still gay? If a man has gay sex but considers himself not gay then what is he? You see the problem. What then is “being gay”? A self-identity? A checklist of items we read off from a list? Gay behaviour regardless of self-designation? Something else?

Roughgarden here makes a useful and historically relevant distinction: this is that “Homosexual practice has existed throughout the evolutionary history of our species, whereas the assertion of homosexuality as an identity is located in our particular culture.” We might add here, of course, that different sexualities and gender expressions have existed in various culturally-specific forms throughout human history [I will mention some shortly]. They have done this, as Roughgarden suggests, without necessarily becoming a formal identity, much less a formal identity people might recognise cross-culturally today. So, actually, to say “I am gay” [not “I do gay” or “I think gay” or “I do or think gay sometimes but not others when I do and think not-gay instead”] is a quite culturally specific thing to want to say [or to be able to conceptualise in that way] to begin with. This seems relevant to me in that a lot of the diverse sexual and gender identities I see bandied about on social media seem to come overwhelmingly from one place: the USA. This cannot be a coincidence. Even as I write this, in fact, a 21 year old American describing themselves as “genderfucked, disabled grey-ace puppy” with “they/it/she” pronouns has just followed my Twitter account. Such self-description seems very culturally specific to me [not least since I find it hard to interpret, not being American or moving in such culture myself].

Genes alone, according to Roughgarden, do not guarantee gayness and, as far as we know, they don’t guarantee any other sexuality or gender expression alone either. Its an essentialist assumption to even imagine that they do. What we do know, however, is that science, part of a hierarchy of knowledge infected with dodgy intellectual and political traits and motivations, often seems to despise or deny diversity. It treats it as something wrong or deviant that stands in need of a cure. Medicine in particular, charges Roughgarden, “pathologizes diversity”. [Roughgarden, from personal experience during her own gendered journey, seems to have developed a heathy dislike of the medical profession, reserving special ire for “therapists”.] But then the strange thing about medicine is that it doesn’t really have an actual definition for what “life” is or for what “disease” is either. So it goes along by arbitrarily defining a “normal” it then uses to judge “deviance” where it considers the normal healthy and the deviance not. Roughgarden charges that all too often “social values” are “masquerad[ing] as science” and suggests that “Normalcy alone, without consideration of pain, should not be used as the criterion for determining if someone is diseased, as though one should be feeling pain even when one does not.”

And it is not as if scientists and others have not had plenty of hints, even from human cultures past and present, that people of diverse but entirely normal and healthy sexuality and gender expression have both always existed and still do exist today. Joan Roughgarden begins that section of her book dealing with “cultural rainbows”, for example, with a discussion of “Two-Spirits, Mahu, and Hijras” whilst simultaneously bemoaning the fact that academics across many fields have a disturbingly common and annoying habit of ignoring or dismissing a legitimate diversity in their findings when they want to. In this section of her book Roughgarden talks about “places where gender is a reflection more of occupation and social space than of body type” and “how in such cultures some male-bodied people are effectively women.” This, of course, is to say that a combination of social organisation and performance can have gendered consequences in a way in which biology, strictly regarded, is largely overlooked as not relevant.

Such approaches are, thus, strongly oppositional to Western approaches in which, for some of those shouting the loudest, “biology” is everything and social organisation or performance of gender irrelevant. Particularly interesting here are cultures that do not expect bodies to change [surgically, at least] even if gender performances do. A phenomenon of Western transgenderism, for example, is the need to “pass” as what you have come to the conclusion you are and a great many transgender people seem to feel this requirement is vitally important in their existence as transgender [including some I have discussed this with anecdotally]. Often this may be because there is a social penalty to be paid in many places in the West for not passing – anything from verbal cruelty to violence – so this desire to pass is, in this sense, understandable. Yet there are cultures, however, where gender is seemingly regarded as almost entirely a matter of performance in an expected social space – revealing that “passing” is itself locked in a cultural matrix of thought rather than an absolute requirement of an imagined transgender existence. If one “is” transgender it cannot be as a matter of how one looks [isn’t this the gender critical argument about bodies anyway?] as if, if one did not look a certain way, one would no longer be transgender at all. It is surely more about expressing yourself as free to be “yourself”, albeit within a socially constraining environment. This is to say that the emphasis on “passing” in the West is a result of the conditions of this cultural matrix and not a necessity of being transgender itself.

One does not have to travel out of the West to far away lands to experience this, however. Roughgarden herself mentions San Francisco, a place she herself settled, as somewhere she has since encountered “many expressions of gender and sexuality I didn’t know existed.” But such were not the first “differently gendered” persons on that continent. The native peoples of what is now called “America” included “two-spirited” people amongst their number and some tribes regarded such people very highly since they could either play roles in their belief systems or in the ritual lives of the tribe. Notably, two-spirited people were sometimes reflective of religious beliefs which included two-spirited deities – meaning that being “two-spirited” transgressed no metaphysical or ontological systems of thought simply by existing as such. It is a great help to your existence if what have come to be regarded as the established facts of your culture do not declare you illegitimate in principle.

Two-spirited people do not pass physically as sexed members of the gender they identify with [and neither was it ever expected that they should]. Roughgarden, for example, gives the example of the Crow woman [who was physically male] known as Osh-Tisch. She had always considered herself female, despite a male body she never sought to change [and would have found it medically difficult to change anyway at the time she lived], but wore women’s clothes and did what was considered women’s work in her tribal existence. She regarded a female path as her road and her sexuality was oriented towards men. The cultural expression of all this, however, is specific to her cultural existence as a native of the Crow tribe which accepted her as a woman, despite obvious physical differences, including those we would now call the cis women of the tribe. Two-spirited natives of what is now called America need not perform a different gender though or, at least, not for the same reasons. Homosexuals could also be considered two-spirited in some tribes – such as Hastíín Klah, a famous two-spirited Navajo who was gay but not gender-variant and whom Roughgarden also mentions. Klah was male and dressed as a man but did women’s work and helped his mother and sister in the performance of such as an equal. Lest you imagine that such examples only go one way, however, from male to female, there are also examples of “warrior women” who engaged in manly pursuits like fighting and even sitting in the council of elders. Not all tribes had the same approaches to two-spirited people, however, and the point to make here is that their integration into their situation was always explicitly cultural. Some tribes even had ceremonies by means of which people would be welcomed to the tribe in acknowledgement of their two-spirited self-appreciation – a valuable public acknowledgement and acceptance of the same. By Western standards today, “two-spirited” could cover transgendered, lesbian or gay without distinction.

Of course, it may come as a shock to some Westerners who listen to radio phone-ins and talk shows which discuss if a woman can have a penis [a real example current as I am writing this] that there have been, and continue to be, other cultures which exist, every bit as legitimately and naturally as theirs, but in other ways. Take, for example, the mahus of Polynesia which over 250 years ago greeted colonial sailors from Europe. To the sailors mahus appeared to be young women. The Polynesians themselves, however, knew better and could tell a mahu from someone born in a female body since mahus are typically born with male bodies but take up a female gender expression which can involve dressing like girls and women, doing women’s work, being employed in women’s jobs, and walking like, and holding the posture of, women. They also live and exist in women’s social space. Roughgarden describes them as presenting an “effeminate” presentation of themselves to others.

An interesting thing here is that mahus “are identified by their gender inclination as children” and so “before the awakening of sexual desires of any type.” Mahus are likely to develop sexual inclinations towards men but this is not enough, in itself, to make one a mahu. One fact, however, is that mahus do not consort with other mahus. Being a mahu is also something one can give up so that one, for instance, reverts to being a male who may have a wife and father children. Being a mahu leads to you being perceived as sexually available to men, however, and they are often known publicly for gaudy flirting and seeking the attention of men – with the unfortunate consequence that they can sometimes be the target of drunken male harassment or violence. Mahus, unlike some two-spirits, have no access to power through their social status and have a relatively low status in society overall — and neither are they associated with any cultic religious activities or religious roles. Mahu itself means “half-man, half-woman” and delineates “someone who’s both”. Recent anthropological research has also shown that the category includes masculine women as well as effeminate boys and men with what makes someone a mahu to the native Polynesians being coded by style of dress, kinds of work undertaken by the relative genders, etc. Local Polynesians regard being mahu as a natural way to be, a further quite normal gendered existence. It is this gendered existence in fact – as opposed to sexual orientation – which is the distinguishing factor of the mahu. Its no surprise this outraged colonial paragons of moral virtue once the European colonists returned home with tales of sexually available men acting as women.

Roughgarden explains the Polynesian understanding of gendered existence in the following way:

“Gender identity is more important to mahu status than is sexual orientation. In fact, the sexuality of mahu varies. One study reported that male-bodied mahu usually had sex with men, especially young men, yet several had also had long-term relationships with

women and were fathers, and still others were celibate. Female-bodied mahu usually had women as lovers, but many had had male lovers at some time, and others were celibate… Polynesians conceptualize people as being ‘mixtures’ of male and female ingredients. People differ from one another by having different ratios of male to female. The mixture of a male-bodied mahu consists of more femaleness than maleness in a male body, and vice versa for a female-bodied mahu. A male-bodied mahu who is attracted to males represents the attraction of the mahu’s female ingredients to a male. Thus an elemental sexual binary is affirmed, but bodies are allowed to express different combinations.”

An interesting development on top of this understanding of a “yin-yang” type understanding of a sex binary, in this case in Tahiti, part of southern Polynesia, is the emergence of a more modern phenomenon, a more Western-style transgender person referred to there as a “raerae” or a “travesti”. Interestingly, Roughgarden reports there has been cultural pushback against these, at first male-bodied, people who will often take hormones and go in for sex reassignment surgery but who also dress in a more Western way in what is described as an “idealized white femininity”. Roughgarden’s suggestion is that they are seen as inauthentic interlopers choosing an expression of identity foreign to their location – unlike the mahus who “have always been that way”. It would seem that in this place, with a pre-existing culture and tradition of genders besides male and female, new expressions of the same labelled “transgender” are seen as culturally other too — even as mahus are entirely accepted as their own cultural phenomenon.

A further similar phenomenon is that of the hijra in India. Due to India’s huge population, the overall number of hijras is much greater as a single figure even though, as a percentage, it is similar to other comparable phenomena elsewhere. The hijra, however, is someone who is both a member of a religious sect [community] whilst also being part of the caste system in India. More especially in former times, before the infiltration of the West into Indian society, hijras had religious roles – such as performing celebrations at the birth of a male child or at weddings and sharing the blessings of Mata, the Indian goddess to which the religious aspect of their lives is oriented. Hijras are male to female transgendered people who, in order to become a full hijra, are required to undergo ceremonial surgery within the hijra community to remove the penis and testicles [called “nirvan”], a service that has been performed for them by skilled people for many years. Hijras, in fact, are quite organised with “seven named houses” for all hijras across India. One must apply to become a hijra and each candidacy is weighed individually with formal permission to become a hijra being required. Hijra candidates, called “chela”, are sponsored and apprenticed to a guru with whom they may live in commune.

Joan Roughgarden describes the hijra’s appearance in the following way:

“Hijra appearance ranges from passing as a non-hijra woman to mixed- gender appearance with gaudy clothes and a deep, booming voice. Hijras generally wear women’s clothes, including a bra and jewellery, and have long hair in a woman’s style. They pluck their facial hair to attain a smooth face. Hijras walk, sit, and stand as women do, and carry pots on their hips, which men don’t. Hijras take women’s names, and use feminine language, including feminine expressions and intonations. They request women’s seating in public accommodations and sometimes demand to be counted as women in the national census. Hijras may also exaggerate feminine dress and mannerisms to the point of caricature, use unfeminine coarse and abusive speech and gestures, and smoke cigarettes, which is normally a male ‘privilege’.”

Unlike both two-spirits and mahus, hijra [who are essentially a self-selecting community set apart from wider society] are not accepted as women by non-hijra women and are generally marginalised in Indian society as they are generally from the lower or untouchable Indian castes. They are, thus, functionally forced to exist as a third gender outside of the male-female binary. They have a somewhat tenuous, liminal life on the margins as a result, at once welcome for the performance of traditional religious duties but also scorned and looked down upon in other social situations. At once the means of a blessing, they can also be a curse as if when a hijra may expose themselves revealing their surgically altered genitals that are now intermediate between that of a male and a female. There are many stories of hijra who meet a bad end due to their exposed social situation and in more recent times their increasing reliance on sex work has exposed them to more danger accordingly. Those who become hijras tend to stick together and look out for each other as a result. In addition, those who want to become hijras are not always accepted by their families because of this fact and this can result in harrowing tales of being thrown out or disowned. It is not then that hijras want to be a third gender but they end up being so by default as a result of the inability of Indian society to accept them as women – even though this is probably what most hijra women would actually want. Hijra itself, in fact, is often translated into English as “not man, not woman” although another popular translation is “eunuch” instead. Hijras are not the only “trans” people known in India, however. In southern India “jogappas” are a similar phenomenon to hijras whereas in northern India hijras co-exist with “jankhas, kothi, or zenanas” who can exist on a spectrum from male-bodied men who dress as women on a regular basis [perhaps as a precursor to wanting to become hijras] to others who might have a wife and children but also male lovers. The thing to note here is that they are all culturally Indian where the phenomenon of “transgender” or even “being gay” is regarded as a Western and thus imported idea.

We move now from India to Indonesia where the word “tomboi” is used to refer to “a female acting in the manner of men”. A Western anthropologist, Evelyn Blackwood, who had a relationship with a tomboi in Sumatra, informed by her own Western blinkers, at first imagined that a tomboi was, in fact, a “butch lesbian” but eventually she had to come to the conclusion that tombois were not Indonesian butch lesbians, they were men. Joan Roughgarden consequently reports that:

“Tombois pride themselves on doing things like a man: they play koa (a poker-like card game), smoke, go out alone at night, drive motorcycles with their partner in back, and move in and out of their partners’ houses. Their partners are women no different from others, and these women sometimes leave them to take up with a non-tomboi man.”

Another anthropologist, Saskia Wieringa, studied women’s communities on Java in Indonesia and found a well-developed “butch/femme” culture which, to her taste as a Westernised Dutch woman, seemed a bit old fashioned. But the Javanese women had very certain ideas about how they expected the other in such relationships to behave and, for example, she reports that:

“The Jakarta butches voiced their astonishment at my preference for reciprocity. ‘Isn’t that confusing?’ Butches were expected to have a decent job, not only to survive but to provide for their girlfriends, and were subject to a dress code—pants, shirts, and underwear bought in men’s clothing stores, bandages to flatten the breasts, and a performance style—a little swagger, head up defiantly, and cigarette in hand, plus gendered language. Femmes passed as ordinary women, though they often dressed exaggeratedly, with ribbons, frills, heavy makeup, and high heels. Femmes worked as secretaries, and some were in sex work as well.”

Wieringa reports that she had gone there full of Western feminist notions about gender roles being “derived from heteropatriarchy” but, in contrast:

“When the Java butches were asked why they were not proud of their women’s bodies, they answered that their bodies did not matter much to them. They wanted to love women and noticed that persons with male bodies had much less trouble finding women partners. But however much the butches conformed to male gender behavior, they didn’t define themselves as male; at times they defined themselves as a third sex.”

Overall, Roughgarden reports of the two lesbian communities she mentions that “gender expression in these two lesbian communities in Indonesia doesn’t seem to coalesce around a single androgynous center, but divides into trans man and femme poles in Sumatra, and into butch and femme poles in Java.” Her comment on this is that female-bodied people in other parts of the world who engage in practices which throw off their femininity in order to take up male roles risk putting the noses of Western feminist women who regard such ideas as copycatting men in order to succeed in life [not to mention from straight people in general] out of joint. Roughgarden notes that such people could choose some kind of third way in order not to be seen as taking on a stereotyped masculinity but they don’t. They thus exhibit their own form of gendered integrity — complete with its own cultural expression – and thus strike a blow for “masculine women”.

From Indonesia we move to Mexico and its capital, Mexico City, where we find the vestida. Vestidas begin as feminized, gay young boys, often feminized gay young boys who have been run out of their homes for this reason alone because their nature has begun to show itself in how they dress and behave making it difficult to hide anymore. This includes wearing makeup and women’s clothes, growing long hair, which is then perhaps also dyed, as well as long nails too. In this respect, Joan Roughgarden shares the story of one transgender woman called Marta and I want to share it here too for its candidness and its honesty when set against imagined mainstream Western values:

“Marta, another transgender woman, recalls, ‘I liked dolls, I adored them. For the Holy Kings’ night, they gave me a present, a car or a truck. And then I would play with my cars for a while. But I was more interested in my little sister’s dolls. I played with them, I asked her to let me borrow them. And I went off to play with the neighbor girls.’ She continues, ‘I was fascinated by grown-up men in the bathroom.... And I don’t regret it, I like it.... I was six. A neighbor ... talked to me, he seduced me with ice-cream ... and I was delighted.. .. He went to his bed and started to undress.... I was tempted, so I got close out of curiosity to touch.... And then it continued, he kept on giving me ice cream... and I continued to be his lover until I was nine.... For sex I was wide awake from an early age.’ How did this come to be? ‘I think I was born like that.... I said that to the doctor who treated me, who injected male hormones into me.... Since I was six or five years old, I was attracted to men. And that’s not something you do if you don’t like it.’ The doctor’s treatment made Marta’s legs become hairy. Marta was teased at school for having long eyelashes and was expelled at age twelve in spite of good marks. Then she was beaten by her parents and driven from her home.”

Marta then met other vestidas and her story continues:

“’I thought they were women, but somebody told me no, they are men dressed like women. I didn’t believe it, but I said if they are men I can join them, I want to be like that. I want to look like a woman. So I got to know them, and they supported me. Mema [a person who runs a sanctuary for vestida sex workers] helped me, thank God he helped me. And he bought me shoes, and clothes. I started to make myself up like a woman, in his hairdressing parlour. I made up my eyelashes, I painted my nails. I let them grow.’ At fourteen, Marta was introduced to making money from sex, which until then had been freely given. ‘There comes a moment when you have to decide for yourself. And I felt locked in by men’s clothes; there came a moment when I said ‘away, away all men’s clothes. I don’t want it anymore.’ And I put on women’s clothes. I felt like Cinderella, I shed the old clothes and put on the new ones. What I wanted to be.’ Marta [also] wants to change sex surgically. ‘When I pee, I say ‘Ai, this penis isn’t mine’... and I would like ... to cut it off.’ Still, Marta says, ‘I have a lot of pride. I’m homosexual. I’m homosexual, but I have come close to a woman. I mean physically, with everything, with my face and my body. I am a woman, isn’t that so? That doesn’t mean that in order to be a woman, I stop being a homosexual .. . inside myself I’m proud that I as a homosexual have managed to look like a woman. And that people can see that a gay can get where he wants to. Because I have heard that many homosexuals have been important people through history, isn’t it true? Like writers, painters, a lot of things, and in the whole world. So one can feel pride.’”

Vestidas, as can be seen from this remarkable first person testimony, are homosexual sex workers who have a strong affinity to feminine presentation. Indeed, Roughgarden describes them as “nearly synonymous” in this Mexican milieu. As they are described by those who have made them subjects of study, they are young people almost uniformly bullied at school and often thrown out of their homes for their emerging sexuality merged with feminine appearance. Roughgarden in fact takes to task the Swedish academic, Annick Prieur, from whom she gets her research about Marta and other vestidas since she imposes some fairly fundamental and sweeping commentary on her work, for example, in the case of Marta’s, I’m sure to a middle class academic’s ears, shocking testimony of early sexuality and sexual interest in life. Roughgarden chides Prieur because, rather than listening to what Marta says for herself, she wants to impose Western academic categories of thought upon her as “explanation” of her behaviour and choices [whilst being totally deaf to Marta’s own explanation]. Roughgarden, transgender herself and who hints throughout her book that more than one therapist likely ignored her own explanations of herself for abstract theories, is not impressed with the way Prieur basically turns a person explaining their life into an object for academic explanation instead. Why, she wonders, must people like this ignore primary narratives and substitute their own views for them? Roughgarden gives the sense that the social scientist Prieur – who comments on Marta’s overtly sexualised appearance aimed to appeal to men — looks down on Marta and makes her a puppet of forces she doesn’t control, a person without agency or power of decision herself. And she doesn’t like it. In short, Roughgarden wonders what a “Scandinavian academic’s middle-class standard of femininity” is actually good for.

Prieur also criticises the way vestidas look, suggesting they dress for “fuckability” [but then what sex worker of any gender or orientation does not?]. Another vestida, however, points out that she felt more feminine when receiving affirmation for her looks – hardly a motivation solely attributable to vestidas. Who, of any of us, would not like attention on our own terms and to be loved? In another exchange a vestida points out that she has bigger boobs than the academic Prieur – at which point Prieur defends herself by saying that hers are “natural” and has to admit that vestidas work hard on their appearance which is, after all, their means of survival. An interesting comment and concession of Prieur’s here is that “The question is not whether the femininity is genuine or false, but whether it works. And indeed it does.” Meanwhile, in her own commentary on all this, Roughgarden brings up the issue of “choice” as important for it seems as if academics like Prieur make of phenomena like vestidas those who have “chosen” a lifestyle rather than there being any truth to “a biological account” of their origins. Prieur, in her report on her research, does in fact say that “Transexuals… may be the only persons in the world who actually have chosen their sex” but Roughgarden retorts that “Transgendered people don’t choose their sex, or gender, any more or less than non-transgendered people do.” [Note that this is not to say that cis people don’t choose either – it is to equate them as equally choosers or non-choosers.] Surely, for no one, does a random idea, plucked from the ether, come out of nowhere. We are each in receipt of biological and cultural circumstances to which responses made out of possibilities occur. So why has someone like Marta – with such young experience of sex and gender proclivities and dispositions — “chosen” what they are anymore than Prieur or Roughgarden – or me or you?

The last cultural example Roughgarden gives in her book is the guevedoche of the Dominican Republic. Guevedoche literally means “penis at twelve” and the term refers to intersex people who formed a cluster of people in three villages of the Dominican Republic [before Western medical interventions came and disrupted them]. They are intersex people usually raised as girls but who mature into those who can make sperm and become biologically male. Biologically, Roughgarden describes them as:

“born with unfused, labia-like scrotal tissues, an absent or clitoris-like penis, and undescended testes. Some guevedoche are identified as such as birth, others are classified as female, but in either case they are raised as girls, not boys. Until age twelve or so. Then the voice deepens, the muscles develop, testes descend, the phallus grows, erections occur, and semen with sperm is produced that is vented below the phallus.”

We can see, then, that the name “guevedoche” signals the change when a person raised [and perhaps assumed] to be a girl goes on to develop masculine biology. In terms of their study [which I know sounds scientific and cold but that’s what scientists do], Roughgarden reports that:

“Of the eighteen subjects on whom the anthropologist Gilbert Herdt gathered data, two had died, one lived as an asexual hermit, one continued to live as a woman and was married to a man, one had an ambiguous gender identity—dressing as a woman but considering himself to be male—and thirteen had transitioned to male. Most of these thirteen married women and took male occupations as farmers and woods- men, while their wives were homemakers or gardeners. Thus a large fraction, thirteen out of eighteen, did transition from female to male. The transitions occurred between the ages of fourteen and twenty-four, with an average age of sixteen (not twelve, as the name guevedoche implies), some time after puberty’s testosterone splurge.”

No research was ever done with the guevedoche themselves and so there is no testimonial data available as in the case of Marta the vestida. So we have no idea of how the guevedoche thought about themselves even though we do know that they were fully integrated as normal and natural children of the villages in which they lived. Roughgarden notes that the name “guevedoche” serves as a placeholder gender for certain children waiting to mature at a later date and that the villagers themselves still “only see two sexes” plus this third category for those prior to achieving an age of further maturity. Unfortunately, the whole situation came to an end when some doctors turned up and told the villagers that these children were really boys “and shouldn’t be raised as girls at all”. They gave them technology which enabled them to distinguish a guevedoche from a girl at birth and after that the social category of guevedoche became extinct since they were then all just raised as boys from the start. As an aside, Roughgarden notes there are other places where clusters of intersex people exist, for example, in New Guinea — although their existence is always threatened by a medical insistence on a sex binary.

What Joan Roughgarden shows us in her book, then, is that what is imagined by some as a straightforward, incontrovertible binary is, in fact, far from that, both in terms of individual human biology and in terms of culture’s predisposition to its own forms of sex and gender expression. Note that all of the cultural examples above are separate and not examples of “the same thing” but in different places. The point I would make most strongly there is that they all developed culturally in place, on their own terms and according to their own understandings. In distinction to Roughgarden, I would not label any of them as straightforwardly “transgender” myself since transgender is itself a cultural term derived from the Western biological and intellectual tradition. If someone, like Roughgarden herself, describes herself as “transgender” it is a culturally relevant self-description that cannot just become the catch all term in a staggering example of cultural imperialism. Two-spirits are two-spirits, mahus are mahus, hijras are hijras. Likewise, transgender people are transgender people. And with that we move beyond Joan Roughgarden’s work and ask after what it, when allied with George Orwell’s Nineteen-Eighty-Four and the scholarship of Michel Foucault and Judith Butler, all amounts to in my context here of “revolt”.


It may not have totally passed you by that we live, at least here in the affluent and powerful West, now also called the Global North, in a time of sex and gender turmoil. There is argument, and sometimes political and legal action, taking place over how people refer to themselves and perform their lives in the context of sex and gender activity and expression. This is not a trivial matter for, in fact [besides the many lives it harms or otherwise affects], it cuts to the very heart of the organisation and understanding of civilization — if by the term “civilization” we mean the organisation of people who live in close proximity to one another in variously connected communities and societies. In recent centuries in this context diverse sexualities and gender expressions [homosexuality and transgenderism are obvious examples here] have been exposed to the light [but not to reality for, as shown, it is my firm belief that they, or culturally diverse similar phenomena, have always quite naturally existed as expressions of a nature that exists in whatever way it is possible to do so] in ways not always, or even usually, emancipatory. Diverse sexualities and gender expressions are, more often than not as we have seen above, either criminalised, pathologized as “deviant” or issues of mental ill health, or both. Both sex and gender, as intellectual historians such as Michel Foucault and Judith Butler have demonstrated, have been subject to, and, in some senses, formulated by, authoritarian epistemologies of control which seek to dictate terms in order to politically coerce what is and is not allowed to exist or take place. This has the obvious corollary of sex and gender-based oppressions stemming from patriarchal power operating according to a dynamic of domination and subordination.

An anarchist must respond to this. An anarchist must think differently. An anarchist, I would argue, must in fact enter the fray and seek to define what an anarchist and emancipatory ethic of sex and gender might be [by living it out]. This is what will be going on below in what I have decided to term an expression of “anarchasexuality”. The text below, however, will not then be a dogma and it will inevitably be subject both to change and to being surpassed as imagined new and better formulations emerge in interaction with others. What my following thoughts then hope to be is an always preliminary attempt to bring understanding, clarity and proposed anarchist virtues and values to a contested area of life whilst utilising an avowedly anarchist hermeneutic to do so. All that said, therefore: What is ANARCHASEXUALITY in a context of revolt against the mainstream thinking of the West dominated, as it is, by patriarchal, heteronormative dimorphism [PHND]?

It is not less than:

1. The belief that sexuality and gender:

a. need not be fixed or stable;

b. manifests with more or less fixity and stability in differing people;

c. can, in some cases, be perceived as a choice;

d. is performatively reinforced and so is neither merely “genetic” or “biological” nor entirely “voluntary” or “environmental” and so is a coalition of biology and environmentally-conditioned behaviour, proclivity and disposition, choice and not choice;

e. is something that people can accept or reject as a matter of agency and affirmation;

f. is in all cases subject to social, cultural and epistemological coercion and constraint.

2. The anarchasexual is one who “sees through” the fictions of imposed sexualities and genders and regards such things as impositions of power/knowledge – especially in the case of its most obvious example, a heterosexual understanding of sex based on a sex binary imposed as a controlling and patriarchally-policed normativity. This is to say that sex, gender and sexuality types are all regarded by the anarchasexual as FICTIVELY REAL and so as voluntary human categories of thought rather than as nature’s own blueprints. For the anarchasexual, nature has no blueprints; it is a what can happen that will happen, a diversity engine, and therefore does not invite either moral or normative judgments as such, politics and culture notwithstanding.

3. Anarchasexuality recognises the reality of physical bodies of diverse kinds, each with their own physical possibilities and impossibilities [including especially intersex bodies]. Anarchasexuality, however, seeks not to unduly pathologise bodies nor to force them into a dimorphic frame of reference or to praise some to the shame of others. If a bodily form [for example, at birth] is neither a medical danger nor causing the person with that body any pain then it should not be unduly interfered with by authoritarian third parties working from arbitrary normativities — aside from that person’s own personal choice to change [not correct] it [perhaps in later life].

4. Anarchasexuality regards the purpose of sexuality as for pleasure as much as, if not more than, for reproductive purposes. Certainly, it in no way ever restricts sex to reproduction [as nature does not either] and sees the production of bodily pleasure as an entirely worthwhile human pursuit, one of pleasure creativity and care of the self.

5. Anarchasexuality, in a current mode of political and social existence, looks forward to a time when gender expression of any kind by any person is politically and socially more uncontroversial, a matter of personal formation, self care and health [i.e. wholeness], and stands for such an opinion in the present. However, it also does this without ignoring that sexuality and gender are sometimes things which thrive on pushing boundaries and so require resistance to push back against, as a yang to normativity’s yin. Ethical transgression of norms is therefore not to be regarded as a sin whilst control of sexuality and gender by retrograde political forces is always to be resisted.

6. Anarchasexuality recognises a wide spectrum of sexual tastes and proclivities and multiple ways for human beings to create forms of physical pleasure between themselves consensually or whilst otherwise at play. Aside from the stipulation that they are desired by all participants involved in them as a matter of educated consent, it refuses to pass any judgment on such sexual expression or define any sort of “normal” in order to exclude some form of expression or other from a wholly imaginary idea of “acceptability” or “normality”. Vital to this effort is early and consistent sexual education, since consent is the more real and meaningful the more educated it becomes.

7. The anarchasexual is not ashamed of either sex or the body and sees no issue, for example, with something like public nudity. Sexual and body shaming, and harassment of people on such a basis, should become things of a restrictive and hypocritical past.

8. Anarchasexuality is not based on the idea that gender, where it is acknowledged as a separate category of thought to biological sex [as it should be], is something which either simply does or must follow biological body type. Anarchasexuality fully recognises the reality of “feminine males” or “masculine females”, for example, as evident in the biological world and sees no reason to restrict such designations to animals as if human beings were not themselves part of the great chain of life. It should, in this case, then go without saying that anarchasexuality has no issue with transsexuality or transgender [and non-binary and genderfluid] people [whatever their other cultural designation] and sees them as a natural and valuable part of the human community in all cases, part of a manifestly evident natural human diversity of existence and expression.

9. Anarchasexuality believes in evolution in multiple facets and so in the usefulness and necessity of biological, social and cultural DIVERSITY. Everyone need not be the same and, in fact, it will be better for us all in the long run if we are not. Diversity helps everyone and should be cherished and protected as valuable in itself.

10. The anarchasexual is one who believes that social problems of appropriate spaces for different kinds of people are things that people should be able to peacefully work out for themselves without needing to demonise or attack those of differing sex or gender expression since people, however they describe themselves or appear, are, in any way you can name, more fundamentally the same than they are different. Human beings, in fact, are a sexual and gender diversity of the same thing and this is too often forgotten or ignored. So, we should all be able to take a shit without getting in each others’ faces since basic privacy has been a thing people have so far managed to grant to each other for thousands of years.

11. Anarchasexuality is the belief that human beings are sexualised beings but not that human beings must be compulsorily, arbitrarily or authoritatively sexualised nor that each person articulates sexuality in either the same way or to the same degree. [Asexualities are, thus, also both evident and legitimate.] Fundamentally, anarchasexuals believe in an egoistic freedom for people to define their own sexual and gendered path and regard Self ID as necessary to achieve this in a social context.

12. Anarchasexuality recognises that the ability to openly embrace yourself as a sexual [or asexual] and gendered [or agendered] human being entails immeasurable health benefits in terms of authenticity towards oneself and so personal psychology. As such, it always aims to support and encourage people [including in terms of medical and health care] to find the sex and gender expressions which promote their own self-actualisation and full bodily and psychological health within a community situation which is usually both necessary and desirable.

13. Anarchasexuality is, in the final analysis, sexual revolt against the imposition of sex and gender oppression from within an anarchafeminist understanding of the world that seeks to neutralise and decentralise patriarchal power and its effects, whatever their source. It is accepting of sexuality and gender expressions people may want to use to describe themselves but insists that all such terms and terminologies are human inventions that describe rather than necessarily explain human existences in sexed and gendered ways. This is to say that the anarchasexual regards human language and thought as fictive and descriptive rather than as a tool of domination or inscription of reality and seeks to use such things to emancipate and innervate human lives rather than to oppress or coerce them. Therefore, the anarchasexual conclusion must that be that so long as sex or gender is classified as normatively binary in human thought [in PHND terms] then women [of all kinds], those who may be described as “not-men”, and those of diverse sexualities will always be subservient to heterosexual, cis-gendered men as those imagined at the apex of an imaginary sexed and gendered hierarchy. A revolt against the imagined normative categories of gender and sexual expression is therefore seen as vital to the destruction of such patriarchal power and the increase of individually sexed and gendered freedom.

Terminology, it must be conceded, matters here though – as does what, for example, a Western person understands by saying that they “are” gay or transgender. Words exist in very specific cultural contexts in order to say not universal things but contextually specific things [just ask Ingsoc!]. As we saw in Roughgarden’s example of the Polynesian mahus, a transgender person [known locally as a travesti] is not conceived of there as the same thing as a mahu at all. Westerners should not then assume the terms “gay” or “trans” are universal terms nor should they attempt to impose them as such. A further faux pas would be to imagine that other cultures think of either sex or gender as something they “are” in the same way that a Westerner might. Every cultural expression of sex and gender comes in its own cultural package with its own expectations and lack of expectations. [Not all those mentioned above required surgeries or relied on “passing”, for example.] This is always exactly how it should be, as it develops, uncoerced. There is not a right way to understand any of this unless this is also a fictive and enculturated way.

But what does all this “anarchasexuality” then mean? It means that the revolt encouraged here as an example is the revolt of GENDER NIHILISM. What is GENDER NIHILISM? It is the will to no longer be classified and categorised by a hierarchical system. It is the will to build networked human relationships on your own self-determined terms. It is honest free connection rather than imposed and coerced division. It is my body on my terms and sex with who I like, when I like, for what reasons I like. It is an end to body shaming, to gender shaming and to sexuality shaming. It is authenticity to self as the only honest and realistic basis for human community. It is what Michel Foucault was getting at in 1980 when he wrote an introduction to Herculine Barbin: Being The Recently Discovered Memoirs of A Nineteenth-Century French Hermaphrodite and opened by saying:

“Do we truly need a true sex? With a persistence that borders on stubbornness, modern Western societies have answered in the affirmative. They have obstinately brought into play this question of a ‘true sex’ in an order of things where one might have imagined that all that counted was the reality of the body and the intensity of its pleasures.”

In writing this in the middle of that period which took up his writing about the history of sexuality Foucault both demonstrated that the idea of a “true sex” is a fiction people choose to believe in, and so impose on others in general, but also that it is entirely possible to live as a sexed and gendered being without ever at all believing in such a thing. Its a bit like God, in fact; for a long time people might have believed in God and thought it was impossible to live otherwise. But guess what? You CAN stop believing in God and life still goes on, if in a slightly different way. What was thought impossible to live without is not impossible to live without at all. All sexes, genders and sexualities – every single one, whatever you call it and wherever it has manifested — are like gods, like Stirnerite spooks, made sacred and venerated. In order to feel their “reality” as much as we possibly can we identify with them so completely that we become them and they become us. We [as Westerners] invent a spook called “identity”, a fictional substance of “who we are”. Sexes and genders and sexualities are now part of this identity essence, this metaphysics of substance, that doesn’t really exist for we are just bodies, physical individualities that each developed from one cell with two nuclei, one from our mother and one from our father. An individual biological journey brought us to birth with a particular body but that “brute fact” tells us nothing about what our sexuality should be, how we should act, what we should look like or how human relationships should be organised. To say otherwise is simply to impose choices you haven’t got the courage to say you want to force people to take up. Human beings, having been born, are in a world of possibility gender critical bigots and other authoritarians don’t want you to know about. There is no given except the fact that you exist. As what and how is up to you.

Reading further into Foucault’s genealogical introduction to Herculine Barbin drops more truth bombs. For example, consider the following:

“Biological theories of sexuality, juridical conceptions of the individual, forms of administrative control in modern nations, led little by little to rejecting the idea of a mixture of the two sexes in a single body, and consequently to limiting the free choice of indeterminate individuals. Henceforth, everybody was to have one and only one sex. Everybody was to have his or her primary, profound, determined and determining sexual identity; as for the elements of the other sex that might appear, they could only be accidental, superficial, or even quite simply illusory. From the medical point of view, this meant that when confronted with a hermaphrodite, the doctor was no longer concerned with recognizing the presence of the two sexes, juxtaposed or intermingled, or with knowing which of the two prevailed over the other, but rather with deciphering the true sex that was hidden beneath ambiguous appearances. He had, as it were, to strip the body of its anatomical deceptions and discover the one true sex behind organs that might have put on the forms of the opposite sex. For someone who knew how to observe and to conduct an examination, these mixtures of sex were no more than disguises of nature: hermaphrodites were always ‘pseudo-hermaphrodites.’ Such, at least, was the thesis that tended to gain credence in the eighteenth century, through a certain number of important and passionately argued cases.

From the legal point of view, this obviously implied the disappearance of free choice. It was no longer up to the individual to decide which sex he wished to belong to, juridically or socially. Rather, it was up to the expert to say which sex nature had chosen for him and to which society must consequently ask him to adhere. The law, if it was necessary to appeal to it (as when, for example, someone was suspected of not living under his true sex or of having improperly married), had to establish or re-establish the legitimacy of a sexual constitution that had not been sufficiently well recognized. But if nature, through its fantasies or accidents, might ‘deceive’ the observer and hide the true sex for a time, individuals might also very well be suspected of dissembling their inmost knowledge of their true sex and of profiting from certain anatomical oddities in order to make use of their bodies as if they belonged to the other sex. In short, the phantasmagorias of nature might be of service to licentious behavior, hence the moral interest that inhered in the medical diagnosis of the true sex.”

Here is a tale of authorities medical, legal and governmental who demand the right TO TELL YOU WHAT YOU ARE, to propagate a system for knowing who you are, to impose it on you, just like Ingsoc imposed things on Oceania, and to leave you with no room to say that something else, something individual, something personal, something I am because it is how I choose to live out my life, is true. So this is exactly an example of the kind of thing that we must revolt against, something requiring intellectual and political revolt in the cause of our own authentic lives of good faith towards ourselves and others, that I was talking about way back at the beginning of this chapter. We must revolt against fictions imposed and insist on the right – which can only be won by our fighting for it – to OUR OWN FICTIONS OF SELF. We must revolt against the idea of a “fixed identity” based on a metaphysics of substance that is believing in spooks and idealistic illusions as if they were the core of our very being. We must revolt against the idea that any “genuine sexual identity” exists – perhaps even the one we willingly create and affirm in the living of lives and our relationships to and with other people uncoerced by authoritarian others. We must live in what Foucault refers to as “the happy limbo of non-identity”, unconcerned by labels and unpossessed by non-existent spiritual substances. Sex and gender have no reality except what we give them. They are just words, languages, behaviour and relationships – and fictions of and about these things. Revolt!

There are those who desperately want that sexuality and gender not be a choice. They see dangers and traps in it. But part of me says MAKE EVERYTHING A CHOICE – AND LET PEOPLE CHOOSE EVERYTHING, EVEN THEIR BODIES! We let people, in the main, choose, or choose to affirm or change, their names, the very marker of personal identity. In fact, where names are assigned or insisted upon we spot the bully and the authoritarian coercing a human being who should be free to name themselves. So why not their sexuality? Why not their gender performance? Why not their body or how they find pleasure with their body? What is so special and different about these things that they cannot be taken up and used as human beings see fit? Nothing is. And that’s all she wrote save to say that, having uncovered the heist that is sexuality and gender, we must now turn to look into myths more generally. Our revolt against imposed fictions specifically must become a revolt against [or is that of?] fiction generally. We turn to look at the human intellectual world, a world based on values embodied in MYTHOLOGY.

4. Mythologies

This is a chapter about philosophy and, more especially, I expect it to be a chapter about epistemology, the study of knowing and how we can be said to know, and lots of things that follow on from that like “objectivity”, “reality”, “being” and “truth”. The main philosopher I am planning to follow along in this chapter, a few possible Nietzschean twists and turns aside, is the American pragmatist philosopher of largely the 20th century [he died in 2007], Richard Rorty. Now Rorty was a philosopher brought up in the analytic philosophical tradition, customarily described as more prevalent in the English-speaking world, and which likes to talk about what we know, a reality it imagines we can talk meaningfully about, and a truth about it that it thinks philosophy can cause us to deserve. It is often contrasted with a European “continental philosophy” which is more about interpretation, hermeneutics and the involvement of the human subject. The thing about Rorty, although this is not why I have chosen him to be my main guide in this chapter, is that he used his analytic philosophical training in order to come to often continental philosophical conclusions. Certainly, in his career he could be found exegeting and extrapolating from the thoughts of continental philosophers as much as from analytic ones – and perhaps more than some analytic colleagues would have liked. Although Rorty was definitely a philosopher, for the last 25 years of his life he moved over into departments of comparative literature and out of philosophy departments in order to give himself more room to breathe. Academic philosophers, especially analytic ones, have certain ideas about what philosophers should be doing and that was never a game Rorty’s attitude towards philosophy was ever going to allow him to play. And so he found his own space where he could say his own things in his own unique way.

I have, in fact, chosen Rorty to guide us in this chapter not because I think he is philosophically right [“How could we ever know that anyway?” and “What does that matter?” will, I hope, come to seem like sensible questions by the time we reach the end of this chapter] – although I often find his approaches and ways of dealing with philosophical questions appealing – but because, and here you may think me a bit strange, he tells such good stories. It is almost as if – I say “almost” as if – what “the truth” was didn’t really matter because you just want Rorty’s stories to be true. If you read many Rorty essays about what often can be fairly technical and abstract subjects you become beguiled by the fact that he likes to fabricate these charming explanatory stories for the development of philosophical ideas and intellectual history. Where many philosophers would be boringly technical and concerned with being right without any charm whatsoever, Rorty was almost entirely the opposite. Often his method was to tell a story which would tell you that the problem philosopher X regarded as being a problem of doing a certain kind of philosophy was a problem you didn’t even really need to worry about. This is why he is in this chapter because, thanks to him and a few other philosophical figures, in this chapter we are going to do away with realist understandings of knowledge, truth, being and reality and to fluff up the credentials of interpretation and fiction at the expense of knowing. But don’t worry. The world will not be any less secure at the end of the chapter. You will still be able to hit tables and gravity will still mean that if you jump out of a window you will hit the ground. Its going to be a fun, and, incidentally, a necessary journey — and I‘m very much up for it.

Rorty himself actually tells us what the point of his philosophy has been for getting on for 50 years in his fourth and final collection of “philosophical papers” called Philosophy as Cultural Politics. In the preface to this collection of essays, Rorty describes the contents as “attempts to weave together Hegel’s thesis that philosophy is its time held in thought with a non-representationalist account of language.” Now I realise in writing this chapter that I cannot especially assume any philosophical knowledge of any particular canon of philosophy. I also know that I can’t get too technical because this book is meant to appeal to intelligent and interested people but without requiring them to be scholars in every subject that comes up. All this means I’m going to try and use plain language to put the necessary ideas across in simple [but not simplistic] terms without [hopefully] getting too complicated. And so the upshot of Rorty’s compact description of his own philosophical interests is that he writes from the position that philosophy is a kind of writing in which people called philosophers, who have philosophical interests, put the thoughts of their time and culture into words, the thoughts that people in their intellectual situation can’t help having. Allied to this view, Rorty himself wants to present the view, which we shall certainly cover in what follows since it is crucial to understand, that language is not something which takes the materiality and material workings of the world as they really and unalterably are and then re-presents or re-constructs them – EXACTLY as they are – with words and their grammar. In other words, words which Rorty used as the title of his first major book, philosophy [and the language it is couched in] is not a “mirror of nature”. What Rorty thinks language and philosophy is doing instead, and some of its consequences, we shall come to shortly. But he doesn’t think language re-presents reality or philosophy gives a clear, positivist picture of nature’s workings. Before we get to that, however, let’s take a look at “mythology” and some cognate terms more closely.


When he published his book Mythologies in 1957 [this book in fact suggested the title of this chapter to me although its contents and purposes are not the same as mine here], the French semiologist, Roland Barthes, wrote the following as his preface:

“The following essays were written one each month for about two years, from 1954 to 1956, on topics suggested by current events. I was at the time trying to reflect regularly on some myths of French daily life. The media which prompted these reflections may well appear heterogeneous (a newspaper article, a photograph in a weekly, a film, a show, an exhibition), and their subject-matter very arbitrary: I was of course guided by my own current interests.

The starting point of these reflections was usually a feeling of impatience at the sight of the ‘naturalness’ with which newspapers, art and common sense constantly dress up a reality which, even though it is the one we live in, is undoubtedly determined by history. In short, in the account given of our contemporary circumstances, I resented seeing Nature and History confused at every turn, and I wanted to track down, in the decorative display of what-goes-without-saying, the ideological abuse which, in my view, is hidden there.

Right from the start, the notion of myth seemed to me to explain these examples of the falsely obvious. At that time, I still used the word ‘myth’ in its traditional sense. But I was already certain of a fact from which I later tried to draw all the consequences: myth is a language. So that while concerning myself with phenomena apparently most unlike literature (a wrestling-match, an elaborate dish, a plastics exhibition), I did not feel I was leaving the field of this general semiology of our bourgeois world, the literary aspect of which I had begun to study in earlier essays. It was only, however, after having explored a number of current social phenomena that I attempted to define contemporary myth in methodical fashion; I have naturally placed this particular essay at the end of the book, since all it does is systematize topics discussed previously.

Having been written month by month, these essays do not pretend to show any organic development: the link between them is rather one of insistence and repetition. For while I don’t know whether, as the saying goes, ‘things which are repeated are pleasing’, my belief is that they are significant. And what I sought throughout this book were significant features. Is this a significance which I read into them? In other words, is there a mythology of the mythologist? No doubt, and the reader will easily see where I stand. But to tell the truth, I don’t think that this is quite the right way of stating the problem. ‘Demystification’ — to use a word which is beginning to show signs of wear — is not an Olympian operation. What I mean is that I cannot countenance the traditional belief

which postulates a natural dichotomy between the objectivity of the scientist and the subjectivity of the writer, as if the former were endowed with a ‘freedom’ and the latter with a ‘vocation’ equally suitable for spiriting away or sublimating the actual limitations of their situation. What I claim is to live to the full the contradiction of my time, which may well make sarcasm the condition of truth.”

In a new edition 13 years later he opened his preface there with this opening paragraph:

“This book has a double theoretical framework: on the one hand, an ideological critique bearing on the language of so-called mass-culture; on the other, a first attempt to analyse semiologically the mechanics of this language. I had just read Saussure and as a result acquired the conviction that by treating ‘collective representations’ as sign-systems, one might hope to go further than the pious show of unmasking them and account in detail for the mystification which transforms petit-bourgeois culture into a universal nature.”

So what Barthes attempts to do in Mythologies is to analyse what has been smuggled into regular, every day reports of often quite mundane [and bourgeois] things such that things like values, beliefs, ideas, contexts, form a kind of hidden [in plain sight!] language within the regular language that is being used to report on the exhibition or the sporting match or whatever it is; at one level just a simple and unremarkable report, at another the author is, so Barthes claims, laying the structure, content and values of their culture bare, a service that “myth”, whether contemporary or ancient, performs. Barthes goes further than this, in fact. He says: “Semiology has taught us that myth has the task of giving an historical intention a natural justification, and making contingency appear eternal.” You will remember that in the preface Barthes had been animated by the fact that “historical” and “natural” were being mixed up and he argues in the text that myth is used to dehistoricise things, “things lose the memory that they were once made” in myth, so he says. Myth, as he continues, is a kind of engine for turning a world in language into “a harmonious display of essences.” He sees myth as a kind of “conjuring trick” and, as Alan Moore reminds us, given so much of magic is just dexterous skill with language, perhaps it might be. Myth, so Barthes imagines, has the task of emptying reality of history and turning it into something made nature. This will be useful to hold onto as we move forward through this chapter, keeping in mind, of course, that this process is then necessarily a CONSTRUCTIVE one.

Amongst the opening paragraphs of his book, Simulacra and Simulation, an apparent favourite of the Wachowskis and featuring in their culturally iconic film, The Matrix, Jean Baudrillard, at first discussing some cartographers and their map which “ends up covering the territory exactly” in a story by Jorge Luis Borges, says the following:

“Today abstraction is no longer that of the map, the double, the mirror, or the concept.

Simulation is no longer that of a territory, a referential being, or a substance. It is the

generation by models of a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal. The territory no

longer precedes the map, nor does it survive it. It is nevertheless the map that precedes

the territory — precession of simulacra — that engenders the territory, and if one must

return to the fable, today it is the territory whose shreds slowly rot across the extent of

the map. It is the real, and not the map, whose vestiges persist here and there in the

deserts that are no longer those of the Empire, but ours. The desert of the real itself.

In fact, even inverted, Borges’s fable is unusable. Only the allegory of the Empire,

perhaps, remains. Because it is with this same imperialism that present-day simulators

attempt to make the real, all of the real, coincide with their models of simulation. But it is no longer a question of either maps or territories. Something has disappeared: the

sovereign difference, between one and the other, that constituted the charm of

abstraction. Because it is difference that constitutes the poetry of the map and the charm of the territory, the magic of the concept and the charm of the real. This imaginary of representation, which simultaneously culminates in and is engulfed by the cartographers mad project of the ideal coextensivity of map and territory, disappears in the simulation whose operation is nuclear and genetic, no longer at all specular or discursive. It is all of metaphysics that is lost. No more mirror of being and appearances, of the real and its concept. No more imaginary coextensivity: it is genetic miniaturization that is the dimension of simulation. The real is produced from miniaturized cells, matrices, and memory banks, models of control — and it can be reproduced an indefinite number of times from these. It no longer needs to be rational, because it no longer measures itself against either an ideal or negative instance. It is no longer anything but operational. In fact, it is no longer really the real, because no imaginary envelops it anymore. It is a hyperreal, produced from a radiating synthesis of combinatory models in a hyperspace without atmosphere.

By crossing into a space whose curvature is no longer that of the real, nor that of truth,

the era of simulation is inaugurated by a liquidation of all referentials — worse: with their

artificial resurrection in the systems of signs, a material more malleable than meaning, in

that it lends itself to all systems of equivalences, to all binary oppositions, to all

combinatory algebra. It is no longer a question of imitation, nor duplication, nor even

parody. It is a question of substituting the signs of the real for the real, that is to say of

an operation of deterring every real process via its operational double, a programmatic,

metastable, perfectly descriptive machine that offers all the signs of the real and short-

circuits all its vicissitudes. Never again will the real have the chance to produce itself —

such is the vital function of the model in a system of death, or rather of anticipated

resurrection, that no longer even gives the event of death a chance. A hyperreal

henceforth sheltered from the imaginary, and from any distinction between the real and

the imaginary, leaving room only for the orbital recurrence of models and for the

simulated generation of differences.”

It is beyond the scope of this chapter, or my purposes in this part of this chapter, to go too far into what Baudrillard is talking about here in talk of “the desert of the real” and the “hyperreal” and realities consequent on simulations and simulation as an activity in itself. I ask only, in fact, that readers find their own way of usefully stitching this together with my reference to Barthes a moment ago. Perhaps, in doing this, you might want to ask yourself questions like: “Where does our ‘reality’ come from?” or “Can stories we tell ourselves about reality be true and, if so, in what sense?” or “What is the relationship between language and that about which it speaks – and does the form that takes make a difference?” or “What will an ‘artificial resurrection in the systems of signs’ mean for that which is to be spoken about?” or “What is the difference between ‘reality’ and talking or writing about reality?” Or, perhaps, you might just ponder if Morpheus can be telling the truth in The Matrix when he tells Neo “All I’m offering you is the truth, nothing more.” And, just as important, what is that “truth” made of?

If we turn to “myth” [coming from the Greek ‘mythos’ which simply means ‘story’] as a literary category as studied by literary critics and theorists we can find a fairly standard and basic definition of the term quite easily. This is not as simple, however, as one use of ‘myth’ today which is simply to mean “story that is not true”, a meaning it may also share with the cognate term ‘fiction’ – which can, on some occasions, also mean “a story that is not true”. Yet, as the book Storytelling: An Encyclopedia of Mythology and Folklore informs us, “mythic thinking is not devoid of realistic thoughts. Humankind’s comprehension of the workings of the world is woven into sacred stories. Although the methods of science and myth are not often similar, both can work toward the same goal. Both attempt to explain the world in order to comfort humankind and satisfy its yearning for knowledge.” The article this is taken from also points out that sometimes myths are used to show that people have “primitive” ideas, for example, pointing at the person who believes in the two creation accounts evidenced in chapters 1–3 of the book of Genesis in the Bible – something which is a good example of myths in the literary sense – and laughing. But is the point of Genesis 1–3 to give a literal description of the creation of the universe, and human beings in particular? Is that what a myth is for? The article on “Mythology” in Storytelling states that “Mythology is the body of sacred stories

that serve to explain the belief system of a culture. These traditional stories, called myths, occur in all societies around the world.” A phenomenon that those who study it regard as a universal activity of human beings, regardless of culture, would seem to be quite an important, even a necessary, activity to me. One might, at this juncture, in fact ask the reader straightforwardly: what are YOUR myths?

But I do not intend the word “myth” to be used in any technical or academic sense in this chapter. For my purposes it is enough that a myth is a story in general terms, although adding that it is a story that conveys meaning, has value and so serves a purpose [i.e. has a function in its being told and having value] and that this should be taken as read, in that case, and also kept in mind. As with the more literary myths that mythologists study, it is to be recognised that stories [myths] “exemplify the ideals of a society.” This is why Barthes is using the category “myth” in his book, for example. My point here is that people have seemingly always TOLD STORIES to communicate truths – whether, at the surface level, the story, or its characters, were true or not. Jesus, for example, famously told parables. Does anyone think when he uttered the parable of the sower that he had one particular occasion in mind and was recalling it with as much veracity as he could? Its unlikely. More likely is that in the arable economy of Galilee he saw sowers all the time and created a story, familiar in context to all his hearers, about sowing seed to make the point that his message, which was metaphorical seed in the story, could have several different fates. Stories, then, are communicative media which can convey truth whilst not being literally true as a matter of actuality or recitation of historical events. They are told because they are meaningful and because human beings seem to have a need to make, communicate and receive, meaning and put value into things.

‘Fiction’ is another word for a story and if you search for books on fiction as a matter of research you will find lots of books that assume ‘fiction’ is a further literary genre most co-extensive with the novel, a “story about things that never happened”. This is only one kind of fiction, however, as was the “story that is not true” from above. Once more, though, we have to operate on multiple levels at once with fiction even as we did with myth. Over the past few years I have come to talk, and think, about fiction a lot, especially “social fictions”, things like money and the entirely imaginary value it has because people simply choose to agree that it does. Money is, in fact, an entirely invented means for facilitating exchange and relationships between human beings to their imagined mutual benefit, it is a ‘fiction’ that is performed and becomes something of value in human culture and relationships, a pillar of their existence, if you will. But ask, for a moment, the question, “Is money real?” The answer I hope you come back with is a sort of “yes and no” for it certainly exists and we use it but its not simply something that’s there, set apart from us, as part of some imaginary “fabric of the universe”. Money is a fiction and that means it is a result of human creativity, human construction, a product of human thought, culture, relationship and agreement. So it is not as simple as saying fictions are either “not true” or “not real” because we can see the material consequences of fictions all around us. It is not as if myths or fictions – stories – are inconsequential at all. Quite the opposite is true, in fact. Stories have consequences.

I want to make quite a bold claim in this chapter and, were this another book, I could probably spend the rest of my text trying to argue it out. It is that, as far as human beings are concerned – due to what kind of beings they are – everything is a fiction. This, in my mind, is to say that everything is constructed – by which I mean understood, made sense of – by an interpreting human mind set in a historical context and with cultural values, etc. It is to make of the entirety of human existence a “mythology”, if you will, to suggest that human understanding is interpretive [and so constructive] in every respect. It is to posit the medium of story, of fiction, of myth, as humanly basic to our intellectual existence. I will have more to say about this later in linguistic and literary contexts that will probe existence, language and reality further. But, for now, I will assume it has been understood what I am saying and leave it with you. The rest of this chapter will flesh this out philosophically in the vocabularies of a couple of philosophers, to hopefully further and greater effect.


So back to Richard Rorty again. Rorty really first came to prominence on the cusp of the 1980s [after several years in the American philosophical trenches] when he published his monograph Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, a treatise written against the notion of “foundational epistemology”, that is, “a desire to find ‘foundations’ to which one might cling, frameworks beyond which one must not stray, objects which impose themselves, representations which cannot be gainsaid.” What follows will really be a compact description of this Rorty and some of his utterances throughout the 1980s found in the books that are collections of his philosophical papers from this time period, including his second monograph, Contingency, Irony and Solidarity, which most clearly shows that Rorty was, himself, a man for whom philosophy always has political consequences. This is not least because the philosophical forebear he came to most value was the American, John Dewey, a man in whom philosophy and politics also came together in a holistic way for the imagined benefit of society as whole. Rorty, additionally, was a pragmatist philosopher, one for whom consequences were more important than first principles [as fellow pragmatist William James put it]. In fact, in many respects, Rorty’s philosophy, inasmuch as it was pragmatist, was an attempt to get rid of “first principles”, foundations, assumptions which stand outside of debate or in some imaginary “context outside all contexts”. Politically, this meant Rorty put too much faith in the possibilities of “liberal Western democracy” and that he regarded with distaste Nietzsche’s idea of a noble culture of those who were warriors and masters of themselves [something that Emma Goldman, in distinction, looked on with approval]. That aside, however, he does tell some good stories. And that is what we are here for, to evaluate fiction.

Richard Rorty’s monograph Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature is an argument for why epistemology is bad for us and why hermeneutics is better. This might also be contrasted as the difference between saying we “know” things in some overarching way [the “ “ there are meant to indicate that whether we actually do know things or not – or are even in a position to actually make such a claim with any authority – is something that we should consider put in question] and saying that we interpret phenomena from cultural locations instead [as Barthes suggests]. This choice is the result of a story Rorty tells about the history of European or Western philosophy which came to imagine that it could, with full justification, say that it did know things, even that its knowledge was a mirror for nature exactly as it is. Such knowledge, it should easily be seen, if one takes this view, then has the potential to make human beings the masters of all they survey – something constituted exactly in and by that claim to know. The epistemologist, thus, makes himself an authority; he is the one with the keys to knowledge in his hands.

But such a view gives us a few problems. Having laid out the story of how Western philosophy built up its part in order to make itself the master of all it surveyed, Rorty turns away from this fancied authority to hermeneutics, a fancy word for interpretation. Here Rorty explains that desire to be epistemologists as a desire for constraint upon inquiry and for “foundations” beyond discourse upon which edifices of knowledge – and specifically of knowledge as something sure and certain – could be built. So Rorty begins by making sure readers understand that by proposing hermeneutics instead of epistemology he is not saying hermeneutics does a better job of what epistemology was doing and so should replace it because of that. Rorty is, in fact, saying that epistemology, what it is imagined to do and to achieve, should be dropped in favour of doing something else, something that hermeneutics does. It is, then, exchanging one value system for another and not finding a better way to do epistemology. It is leaving epistemology behind and forgetting it ever existed. It is eschewing “knowing”. Philosophically, Rorty puts that this way:

“hermeneutics is an expression of hope that the cultural space left by the demise of epistemology will not be filled — that our culture should become one in which the demand for constraint and confrontation is no longer felt. The notion that there is a permanent neutral framework whose ‘structure’ philosophy can display is the notion that the objects to be confronted by the mind, or the rules which constrain inquiry, are common to all discourse, or at least to every discourse on a given topic. Thus epistemology proceeds on the assumption that all contributions to a given discourse are commensurable. Hermeneutics is largely a struggle against this assumption. By ‘commensurable’ I mean able to be brought under a set of rules which will tell us how rational agreement can be reached on what would settle the issue on every point where statements seem to conflict.”

Rorty, as will soon become clear, does not think such rules which pertain to all times and places are a good idea — even as they imagine to create a “rationality” by which all arguments about anything anywhere ever are to be sorted out. As Rorty explains:

“The dominating notion of epistemology is that to be rational, to be fully human, to do what we ought, we need to be able to find agreement with other human beings. To construct an epistemology is to find the maximum amount of common ground with others. The assumption that an epistemology can be constructed is the assumption that such common ground exists. Sometimes this common ground has been imagined to lie outside us — for example, in the realm of Being as opposed to that of Becoming, in the Forms which both guide inquiry and are its goal. Sometimes it has been imagined to lie within us, as in the seventeenth century’s notion that by understanding our own minds we should be able to understand the right method for finding truth.”

Hermeneutics, in a nutshell, is the claim that such “common ground”, extra-cultural and inter-national, does not exist, or, at least, if it does, that it is not accessible to us. It is thus itself seeming to make the claim to the epistemologist that his newly found solid ground is an illusion and that rationality, which has been built on this, is in danger. Rorty explains this philosophically in the following way:

“The holistic, antifoundationalist, pragmatist treatments of knowledge and meaning which we find in Dewey, Wittgenstein, Quine, Sellars, and Davidson are almost equally

offensive to many philosophers, precisely because they abandon the quest for commensuration and thus are “relativist.” If we deny that there are foundations to serve as common ground for adjudicating knowledge-claims, the notion of the philosopher as guardian of rationality seems endangered. More generally, if we say that there is no such thing as epistemology and that no surrogate can be found for it in, for example, empirical psychology or the philosophy of language, we may be seen as saying that there is no such thing as rational agreement and disagreement. Holistic theories seem to license everyone to construct his own little whole, his own little paradigm, his own little practice, his own little language-game-and then crawl into it.”

Where hermeneutics differs from epistemology then is in that it doesn’t claim to be an overarching contextless context [that is, foundation] for all discussion everywhere, an authority before which enculturated disputants must acquiesce. As Rorty goes on to say:

“Hermeneutics sees the relations between various discourses as those of strands in a possible conversation, a conversation which presupposes no disciplinary matrix which unites the speakers, but where the hope of agreement is never lost so long as the conversation lasts. This hope is not a hope for the discovery of antecedently existing common ground, but simply hope for agreement, or, at least, exciting and fruitful disagreement. Epistemology sees the hope of agreement as a token of the existence of common ground which, perhaps unbeknown to the speakers, unites them in a common rationality. For hermeneutics, to be rational is to be willing to refrain from epistemology — from thinking that there is a special set of terms in which all contributions to the conversation should be put — and to be willing to pick up the jargon of the interlocutor rather than translating it into one’s own. For epistemology, to be rational is to find the proper set of terms into which all the contributions should be translated if agreement is to become possible.”

We might want to see the difference Rorty highlights here as then the difference between that agreement to which epistemology forces us by pronouncing its universal authoritative existence [to which we must always bow] and the conversational agreement of hermeneutics which can never be forced whilst retaining its interpretive, conversational nature. Hermeneutics makes societies of the willing united by their conversation whereas epistemology ultimately obligates people to a reality beyond debate. Here it is not inconsequential that epistemology operates on the basis of “knowledge as accurate representation”, something the interpreter who partakes in hermeneutics [e.g. Michel Foucault from a previous chapter] sees as a rhetorical move to secure a power base [for, so the epistemologist insists, how can you argue with “the way things are”, the imagined common foundation from which all else flows?]. For the epistemologist “certain expressions, certain processes, are ‘basic,’ ‘privileged’ and ‘foundational’” whereas, for the hermeneuticist, “The notion of culture as a conversation rather than as a structure erected upon foundations fits well with th[e] hermeneutical notion of knowledge, since getting into a conversation with strangers is, like acquiring a new virtue or skill by imitating models, a matter of phronesis [wisdom] rather than episteme [knowledge].” Epistemology, as a matter of knowledge imagined according to a universal rationality, has always been about a pattern or template – what the Greeks called a Logos [and the Johannine community of Christians called Jesus a Logos too] – which is imagined as the discovery of the method of commensuration it claims itself to be. Such things are not imagined to be “subjective” but are likely to be described with words like “cognitive” instead. To want to be epistemological is to want to ground or codify what we know and make it compulsory for all.

In the modern era science has often been targeted as that area which especially recommends epistemology to us. It has been thought that here “correspondence to an antecedent reality” mattered most. This has, in fact, become a dogma or a shibboleth in some parts. Science, it is said, shows us just what an epistemological rationality is really all about and what it can do for us. In this respect, that such a thing is thought [by the epistemologically-minded] to be “objective” is not of the least importance. Indeed, in browsing social media in regard to gender wars recently, I found one opponent of gender equality boldly claiming that the fact of two, and only two, biological sexes in mammals was “objectively true” – which, if nothing else, shows that epistemology is at least a rhetoric deployed in everyday conversation.

But things like “rationality”, “knowledge” and “objectivity” – which in turn lead to things like “being” and “truth” [the “objective” sort rather than the sort which is “my truth”] – start to beg questions like “In just what sense is Goodness out there waiting to be represented accurately as a result of rational argument on moral questions?” or “In just what sense were there physical features of reality capable of being represented accurately only by differential equations, or tensors, before people thought of so representing them?” Before you know it, you are needing metaphysics “as the attempt to find out what one can be objective about” and talking about “contact with reality” and “accuracy of representation”. Rorty makes the helpful suggestion that words like “objective” are, being charitable, nothing more than the hope for agreement based on a common starting point. More pointedly, however, they are merely rhetorical honorifics, ways in which the epistemologically-minded signify something good rather than something bad. Rorty, however, can appropriate the word “objective” for hermeneutics too. If by “objective” we mean not the epistemologist’s mirroring or re-presenting activity but rather “agreement”, that about which people subjectively and intersubjectively agree, then there should be no further problem with the use of the word from a hermeneutic point of view either.

From reflections on Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature I turn to the introductory essay to a collection of Rorty’s philosophical essays and lectures from the 1980s titled Objectivity, Relativism and Truth in which consequences of his preference for hermeneutics over epistemology are further fleshed out. The introductory essay is titled “Antirepresentationalism, ethnocentrism and liberalism” and Rorty is fairly entangled in all three, as it transpires. Here, for example, we learn that one of Rorty’s primary objections to epistemology is that it puts forward a picture of knowledge as that which re-presents [as in “presents again in language”] some imagined objectively true reality. Thus, he immediately here defines his antirepresentationalism as an “account of the relation between natural science and the rest of culture” which “does not view knowledge as a matter of getting reality right, but rather as a matter of acquiring habits of action for coping with reality.” This is to say that Rorty describes himself as interested in sociological but not epistemological differences in different types of inquiry and this he entangles in his own rhetoric with John Dewey’s concerns to abandon the “spectator theory of knowledge” and with “the needs of a democratic society”. Both of these, Rorty imagines after Dewey, are matters of a “free and open encounter” such as that envisaged by the free conversation of hermeneutics but not possible under the auspices of epistemology, a matter of being “open to encounters with other actual and possible cultures”, something which makes “openness central to its self-image”.

Rorty tells a little historical story about philosophy by way of explanation:

“Philosophers in the English-speaking world seem fated to end the century discussing the same topic — realism — which they were discussing in 1900. In that year, the opposite of realism was still idealism. But by now language has replaced mind as that which, supposedly, stands over and against ‘reality.’ So discussion has shifted from whether material reality is ‘mind-dependent’ to questions about which sorts of true statements, if any, stand in representational relations to nonlinguistic items... Nowadays the opposite of realism is called, simply, ‘antirealism.’

This term, however, is ambiguous. It is standardly used to mean the claim, about some particular true statements, that there is no ‘matter of fact’ which they represent. But, more recently, it has been used to mean the claim that no linguistic items represent any nonlinguistic items. In the former sense it refers to an issue within the community of representationalists — those philosophers who find it fruitful to think of mind or language as containing representations of reality. In the latter sense, it refers to antirepresentationalism — to the attempt to eschew discussion of realism by denying that the notion of ‘representation,’ or that of ‘fact of the matter,’ has any useful role in philosophy.”

At the heart of all this is the question, “How does saying or thinking something meaningful come about?” Epistemologists have traditionally thought this was because our language, the medium of both our speech and our thought, was speaking objective truth about reality [at least, if we got it right]. It was re-presenting in language what was true about the world. But, as Rorty presents the historical conversation, this tends to become a discussion about “determinacy”, about whether reality determines thought or thought determines reality. Rorty insists that both claims are actually empty. Instead:

“The antirepresentationalist is quite willing to grant that our language, like our

bodies, has been shaped by the environment we live in. Indeed, he or she insists

on this point — the point that our minds or our language could not (as the

representationalist skeptic fears) be ‘out of touch with the reality’ any more than

our bodies could. What he or she denies is that it is explanatorily useful to pick

and choose among the contents of our minds or our language and say that this or

that item ‘corresponds to’ or ‘represents’ the environment in a way that some

other item does not.”

As Rorty goes on to explain, then, “Antirepresentationalists... see no way of formulating an independent test of accuracy of representation — of reference or correspondence to an ‘antecedently determinate’ reality” and so no possibility for an “independent test of the accuracy of correspondence.” This, as Rorty further suggests, would, if demonstrated, be the claim to have “broken out of our language and our beliefs and tested them against something known without their aid.” The antirepresentationalist suggests, instead, only that we are stuck in “time and chance” [a phrase Rorty likes] with the minds and language that we have and that we must orientate our concerns from there in conversations with others [who may be from our culture and so share more with us than not or be from other cultures and so share less with us than those of our own culture] that are matters of “intersubjective agreement or… reciprocal tolerance” and that utilise “beliefs as adaptations to the environment rather than as quasi-pictures” or think of beliefs as “habits of acting rather than as parts of a ‘model’ of the world constructed by the organism to help it deal with the world.” Such a point of view regards “the notion of ‘theory-independent and language-independent matter-of-factual relationships” as question-begging things beyond demonstration, further examples of the epistemologist’s evidenceless wish for transnational and transethnic common ground. They also equally regard the idea that anyone’s mind or language, whatever it is, could be systematically out of touch with reality as hard to fathom [for minds and language are tools for making use of reality and so would fail by default if they were not in touch with it in a fundamental and mostly consistent way].

Consequently, as to some degree already mentioned, Rorty wishes to recast the epistemologist’s desire for objectivity as the “intersubjectivity” or “solidarity” of thinking communities. Thus:

“If one reinterprets objectivity as intersubjectivity, or as solidarity... then one will drop the question of how to get in touch with ‘mind-independent and language-independent reality.’ One will replace it with questions like ‘What are the limits of our community? Are our encounters sufficiently free and open? Has what we have recently gained in solidarity cost us our ability to listen to outsiders who are suffering? To outsiders who have new ideas?’ These are political questions rather than metaphysical or epistemological questions. Dewey seems to me to have given us the right lead when he viewed pragmatism not as grounding, but as clearing the ground for, democratic politics.”

The interesting thing about this from the perspective of my own anarchistic project here is that it suggests that questions about perhaps effete philosophical matters are actually intimately tied up with political questions of seemingly more immediate import. How I think about knowledge, reality, being and truth has something to do with how I think about democracy or human organisation as well. It leads to such Rortian questions as “with what communities should you identify, of which should you think of yourself as a member?” and “what should I do with my aloneness?”. As Rorty then extrapolates, “The first is a question about your obligations to other human beings. The second is about your obligation to, in Nietzsche’s words, become who you are.” Those following along with my project right from Being Human with its “philosophy of personal and political anarchism” should immediately see this double concern also imagined here too. What Rorty brings to this party with his antirepresentational philosophical pragmatism is the notion that a conversational and interpretational philosophy involves both truth and reality as well as human organisation and democracy, private matters and public matters as well. This is to say that philosophical authorities epistemologically dictating truth or reality are no better or worse [in fact, are no different to] political authorities dictating a state of physical existence. The thinking is the same and so all must be dealt with together. A “God’s eye view” of knowledge that makes you an epistemologist allows wiggle room for a “God’s eye view” of politics creating a dictator or other authoritative figure or body. “No gods, no masters” has to then become “no gods, no masters, no epistemologies” as we leave epistemologically-formed entities like “knowledge”, “truth”, “being” and “reality” dictated from above behind and take up “conversation” instead. And so:

“one consequence of antirepresentationalism is the recognition that no description of how things are from a God’s-eye point of view, no skyhook provided by some contemporary or yet-to-be-developed science, is going to free us from the contingency of having been acculturated as we were. Our acculturation is what makes certain options

live, or momentous, or forced, while leaving others dead, or trivial, or optional. We can only hope to transcend our acculturation if our culture contains (or, thanks to disruptions from outside or internal revolt, comes to contain) splits which supply toeholds for new initiatives. Without such splits — without tensions which make people listen to unfamiliar ideas in the hope of finding means of overcoming those tensions — there is no such hope… our best chance for transcending our acculturation is to be brought up in a culture which prides itself on not being monolithic — on its tolerance for a plurality of subcultures and its willingness to listen to neighboring cultures.”

This is a philosophical attitude which prides itself on recognising different interpreting cultures as both existent and valid without the requirement that all of them must bow down before some overarching authority called “reality” or “truth” or “being” or “knowledge” [which often just also happens to be “ours” – whoever “us” happens to be in that case]. Within the hermeneutic camp there is no such authority but only the constant opportunity, so long as you keeping communicating, to reach positions on which people can mutually agree to what they regard as their common benefit. Rorty further extrapolates upon this in the lead essay in Objectivity, Relativism and Truth – titled “Solidarity or Objectivity?” – and I shall turn to that essay now.

As is often Rorty’s way, he begins this essay by telling a story:

“There are two principal ways in which reflective human beings try, by placing their lives in a larger context, to give sense to those lives. The first is by telling the story of their contribution to a community. This community may be the actual historical one in which they live, or another actual one, distant in time or place, or a quite imaginary one, consisting perhaps of a dozen heroes and heroines selected from history or fiction or both. The second way is to describe themselves as standing in immediate relation to a nonhuman reality. This relation is immediate in the sense that it does not derive from a relation between such a reality and their tribe, or their nation, or their imagined band of comrades. I shall say that stories of the former kind exemplify the desire for solidarity, and that stories of the latter kind exemplify the desire for objectivity. Insofar as a person is seeking solidarity, she does not ask about the relation between the practices of the chosen community and something outside that community. Insofar as she seeks objectivity, she distances herself from the actual persons around her not by thinking of

herself as a member of some other real or imaginary group, but rather by attaching herself to something which can be described without reference to any particular human beings.

The tradition in Western culture which centers around the notion of the search for Truth, a tradition which runs from the Greek philosophers through the Enlightenment, is the clearest example of the attempt to find a sense in one’s existence by turning away from solidarity to objectivity. The idea of Truth as something to be pursued for its own sake, not because it will be good for oneself, or for one’s real or imaginary community, is the central theme of this tradition.”

This story is, of course, the “epistemology vs hermeneutics” story being told again but, this time, redescribed as a story about solidarity vs objectivity. Here, Rorty goes on to describe this epistemological, objectivist tradition as:

“dream[ing] of an ultimate community which will have transcended the distinction between the natural and the social, which will exhibit a solidarity which is not parochial because it is the expression of an ahistorical human nature. Much of the rhetoric of contemporary intellectual life takes for granted that the goal of scientific inquiry into man is to understand ‘underlying structures,’ or ‘culturally invariant factors,’ or ‘biologically determined patterns.’”

Rorty describes such objectivists in the following way:

“Those who wish to ground solidarity in objectivity — call them ‘realists’ — have to construe truth as correspondence to reality. So they must construct a metaphysics which has room for a special relation between beliefs and objects which will differentiate true from false beliefs. They also must argue that there are procedures of justification of belief which are natural and not merely local. So they must construct an epistemology which has room for a kind of justification which is not merely social but natural, springing from human nature itself, and made possible by a link between that part of nature and the rest of nature. On their view, the various procedures which are thought of as providing rational justification by one or another culture may or may not really be rational. For to be truly rational, procedures of justification must lead to the truth, to correspondence to reality, to the intrinsic nature of things.”

It is important to get clear in your head just what such “realists” are saying. They are saying that there is a reality, outside culture and beyond human language and so thought, which is objectively true. Learning truthfully about that reality is called knowing or having knowledge and is achieved by using language in such a way as it corresponds to and so re-presents that reality in language and thought, as it is, but linguistically so. This reality has its own being which has its own nature that is objective, static, and does not change – unless it is in ways which are also real [in this specific sense] and could also be objectively known. But what about those who prefer solidarity to such imagined objective reality? Of these, Rorty says:

“By contrast, those who wish to reduce objectivity to solidarity — call them ‘pragmatists’ — do not require either a metaphysics or an epistemology. They view truth as, in William James’ phrase, what is good for us to believe. So they do not need an account of a relation between beliefs and objects called ‘correspondence,’ nor an account of human cognitive abilities which ensures that our species is capable of entering into that relation. They see the gap between truth and justification not as something to be bridged by isolating a natural and transcultural sort of rationality which can be used to criticize certain cultures and praise others, but simply as the gap between the actual good and the possible better. From a pragmatist point of view, to say that what is rational for us now to believe may not be true, is simply to say that somebody may come up with a better idea. It is to say that there is always room for improved belief, since new evidence, or new hypotheses, or a whole new vocabulary, may come along. For pragmatists, the desire for objectivity is not the desire to escape the limitations of one’s

community, but simply the desire for as much intersubjective agreement as possible, the desire to extend the reference of ‘us’ as far as we can. Insofar as pragmatists make a distinction between knowledge and opinion, it is simply the distinction between topics on which such agreement is relatively easy to get and topics on which agreement is relatively hard to get.”

So here the “pragmatist” is one who concentrates on things human beings, wherever they come from, can get agreement on – rather than insisting on an objective [and extra-subjective] realm and then further insisting that all parties must also acknowledge its existence and its authority to adjudicate any and all disputed matters. The pragmatist, as opposed to the realist, is concerned with the answers to questions and what they do for her community [and perhaps also potential and actual other communities] whereas the realist is more concerned to get everyone to agree to his objective reality, thinking that this first principle, as a common ground, will solve all the problems all by itself. Here the pragmatist imagines that her view is better than the realist’s “but she does not think that her views correspond to the nature of things” as the realist, to be a realist, must. What does the pragmatist think then? She thinks that the free and open inquiry of as many interested parties as their happen to be can resolve things to their satisfaction and equally result in well justified beliefs she can refer to as “true” but without having to give such beliefs what, to pragmatists like her, would be the empty honorific “correspondence to reality”.

To the pragmatist these words are just a linguistic way of giving some idea credence or recommending it strongly. The pragmatist does not take such words literally – and thinks nothing is lost by not doing so. A belief that is a reliable habit of action that is of benefit to human purposes has, for the pragmatist, all the recommendation it needs. Such a pragmatist does not think human beings need theories of truth or “objective reality” in order to do this. An “epistemology” is strictly not necessary if one has an “account of the value of cooperative human inquiry” with an ethical basis. This, incidentally, then also deals with the realist’s charge that “pragmatists” are relativistic about truth. Rorty laughs such an idea off because if pragmatists have no epistemology, and see no need for one, then how can they have a relativistic version of something they don’t have in the first place? The pragmatist’s solidarity is not a better version of the realist’s objectivity: it is a replacement for it, a suggestion that human inquiry does not need an objective reality to find good, useful answers to human questions which will equally serve further felt, human purposes. So:

“For the pragmatist... ‘knowledge’ is, like ‘truth,’ simply a compliment paid to the beliefs which we think so well justified that, for the moment, further justification is not needed. An inquiry into the nature of knowledge can, on this view, only be a sociohistorical account of how various people have tried to reach agreement on what to believe.”

The pragmatist, then, says that we have to solve all human problems, and achieve all those things we term knowledge and truth, from where we are in our own enculturated locations. There is no “objectively real” realm to escape to that can arbitrate all disputes for us. We cannot, as Rorty puts it, “stand on neutral ground illuminated only by the natural light of reason” that has been purged of our biased, cultural ways [compare Barthes in Mythologies]. This, as I will keep hinting, has political consequences as well for the end of this pragmatist approach of “solidarity” is that human beings come “to substitute phronesis [wisdom] for codification, and conversation with foreigners [i.e. those not like us] for conquest of them.” It is not possible or desirable for the pragmatist who believes in solidarity to hit his conversation partner over the head with the truth for the pragmatist believes that the truth will out from the dialogues she has with others. It is not an antecedent truth in her mind but exactly the result of conversational agreement from enculturated beginnings. The realist, however, believes the truth, which is antecedent and is, furthermore, objectively true and real, must trump all, must win in a battle with other [in his mind lesser] alternatives. If you imagined you possessed such a truth would you also imagine that such a thing was to be reduced to a matter of debate? Epistemology, then, the mentality of the realist, seems fated to conquest whereas the pragmatist hopes only for fruitful conversations from which the participants are free to come to agreement, each according to their purposes, or not.

This pragmatist view of knowledge and belief and how human beings progress such things is based on the idea of such things as a web which is continually being woven and rewoven to constitute all those things we hold to be true or reliable things to believe [and so ways to behave] at any one time. Here “beliefs suggested by another culture must be tested by trying to weave them together with beliefs we already have.” Thinking of beliefs as “habits of action” and collections of knowledge and belief as webs we reweave to usefully guide our lives according to our felt purposes the pragmatist thinks of as avoiding the unnecessary and distasteful aspects of the realist’s desired epistemology. Such a person thinks of “heading in the right direction” or “being on the right track” as being able to weave their beliefs in directions thought beneficial, ways that others can accord with according to an ethic of intellectual solidarity. This progress is recognised when the inquirers can similarly tell a story about the past in the light of the present as one of gain and not loss and of getting somewhere they wanted to be from somewhere they previously were – as opposed to a realist story which would be a story of getting to somewhere that was a pre-determined goal. The pragmatist’s story would be one of how they cooperatively made their future whereas the realist’s would be one of how they found arbitrating objective reality. These are really options in a game of “what self-image should our society have of itself?” and the options are “one that makes its own future in solidarity with others through constant dialogue” and “one that recognises the authority of objective reality and bows before it”. This is then also the choice between reason as an obedience to explicit, objective criteria or reason as a faculty for creating new possibilities and new futures.

One criticism of the pragmatist point of view, not least from the realist one, has been that the pragmatist must always privilege her own group and its own understandings of things. Of course, this is true and the pragmatist would be wise not to deny it. Strictly speaking, pragmatists are what Rorty labels “ethnocentric”. But the charge is not as bad as it sounds for it is only to say that the pragmatist thinks as all those like her, and who come from where she comes from, also think, that is, the ways such people cannot help thinking because that is simply the contingent, historically-funded wisdom of their time and place. As Rorty explains, “we have to start from where we are” and that is hardly our fault. What is important is that we do not become attached to this as “the truth” in the realist’s epistemological sense, that we make of the truth we began with the truth in a non-human, extra-contextual way. Being open to conversation, to the reweaving of our beliefs, to being able to tell stories about how our truth changed from a past version to a better, more suitable to our purposes, version, we can describe how we lived then in relation to how, and why, we live this way now. And all without reference to an epistemology or “objective reality”. From the realist’s position, of course, this looks like horrible provincialism, an ethnocentricity it is hard to fathom, a relativism ignoring reality. About this, however, Rorty has much to say:

“The realist is, once again, projecting his own habits of thought upon the pragmatist when he charges him with relativism. For the realist thinks that the whole point of philosophical thought is to detach oneself from any particular community and look down at it from a more universal standpoint. When he hears the pragmatist repudiating the desire for such a standpoint he cannot quite believe it. He thinks that everyone, deep down inside, must want such detachment. So he attributes to the pragmatist a perverse

form of his own attempted detachment, and sees him as an ironic, sneering aesthete who refuses to take the choice between communities seriously, a mere ‘relativist.’ But the pragmatist, dominated by the desire for solidarity, can only be criticized for taking his own community too seriously. He can only be criticized for ethnocentrism, not for relativism. To be ethnocentric is to divide the human race into the people to whom one must justify one’s beliefs and the others. The first group — one’s ethnos — comprises those who share enough of one’s beliefs to make fruitful conversation possible. In this sense, everybody is ethnocentric when engaged in actual debate, no matter how much realist rhetoric about objectivity he produces in his study.

What is disturbing about the pragmatist’s picture is not that it is relativistic but that it takes away two sorts of metaphysical comfort to which our intellectual tradition has become accustomed. One is the thought that membership in our biological species carries with it certain ‘rights,’ a notion which does not seem to make sense unless the biological similarities entail the possession of something nonbiological, something which links our species to a nonhuman reality and thus gives the species moral dignity. This picture of rights as biologically transmitted is so basic to the political discourse of the Western democracies that we are troubled by any suggestion that ‘human nature’ is not a useful moral concept. The second comfort is provided by the thought that our community cannot wholly die. The picture of a common human nature oriented towards correspondence to reality as it is in itself comforts us with the thought that even if our civilization is destroyed, even if all memory of our political or intellectual or artistic community is erased, the race is fated to recapture the virtues and the insights and the achievements which were the glory of that community. The notion of human nature as an inner structure which leads all members of the species to converge to the same point, to recognize the same theories, virtues, and works of art as worthy of honor, assures us that even if the Persians had won, the arts and sciences of the Greeks would sooner or later have appeared elsewhere. It assures us that even if the Orwellian bureaucrats of terror rule for a thousand years the achievements of the Western democracies will someday be duplicated by our remote descendants. It assures us that ‘man will prevail,’ that something reasonably like our world-view, our virtues, our art, will bob up again whenever human beings are left alone to cultivate their inner natures.”

Rorty there, of course, signals his own attachments to “Western democracies” as his “ethnos” and it should not surprise you to find that I find this distasteful — since one subject I whole-heartedly disagree with Rorty on is the value of just such “democracies”. But I hope this nevertheless communicates the point Rorty wants to make here and explains why the realist might imagine his realism achieves the “metaphysical comfort” he seeks, comfort about imagined “rights” and an eternity of meaning and significance which the realist imagines he is owed or, at least, can be found. The pragmatist, to the contrary, does not imagine she is owed any such comforts and has a self-image in which any comfort must be made not found. For such a person, a person who finds comfort in solidarity, the challenge is to live without the view that all paths must converge on the one true path, the path that always existed and required us to find it so that we could acknowledge it. The challenge for the pragmatist is to be a person who can do without objectivity and for whom solidarity is enough. This is to say that, “’there is only the dialogue,’ only us, and to throw out the last residues of the notion of ‘trans-cultural rationality.’” Rorty finally posits this difference in the following, Nietzschean way [I shall, of course, be coming to Nietzsche myself in a while]:

“The best argument we partisans of solidarity have against the realistic partisans of objectivity is Nietzsche’s argument that the traditional Western metaphysico- epistemological way of firming up our habits simply isn’t working anymore. It isn’t doing its job. It has become as transparent a device as the postulation of deities who turn out, by a happy coincidence, to have chosen us as their people. So the pragmatist suggestion that we substitute a ‘merely’ ethical foundation for our sense of community — or, better, that we think of our sense of community as having no foundation except shared hope and the trust created by such sharing — is put forward on practical grounds.”

We end up here at a place somewhat Nietzschean, as advertised, but also not foreign to Max Stirner either – for the upshot of solidarity, as opposed to objectivity, is that we need to stop DIVINIZING things [God is dead] and stop making them sacred [so Stirner]. We need no authorities, I would say in my anarchistic way, and we need them arbitrating knowledge, truth, reality and being no more than we need them arbitrating politics and the day to day activities of our lives. We need to think in terms of solidarity just as much as we need to act in terms of solidarity. Intellectuality and politics should then have the same non-foundation that is found in the image of nodes on a net I used earlier. It is about relationships and communication between those nodes in regards to how we progress and develop. We do not build up from imaginary foundations but out from where we are. There is nothing wrong with words like knowledge, truth, reality and being so long as we don’t elevate them above us as gods. Fortunately, says the pragmatist, we don’t have to; we can make them aspects of our human solidarity instead.

This leads us to the final text from Rorty that I will consider here, his book from 1989 titled Contingency, Irony and Solidarity. I am going to concentrate only on the contingency part of this book but in that part contingency will be applied to “language”, “selfhood” and “a liberal community” in a way that will expand on my text so far and bring it to bear on matters of reality and how we imagine it, ourselves and human communities in tandem. This is important because what is being said in this chapter is something holistic, something imagined to apply to the whole of all things imagined together as in interrelated system of existence. It would, to my mind, be no good to talk about the individual, for example, without talking about the society she lives in – and it would be pointless to talk about either or both without talking about how human beings think or understand [by means of language]. So I hope you will see that in this final section dealing with the pragmatist philosophy of Richard Rorty I am hoping to apply what has been said so far to our understanding of reality, to each of us as individuals and to the public realm of politics as well.

It should come as no surprise here that Rorty wants to connect human beings firmly with his beloved “time and chance”; this is where contingency of human lives begins. We are specific things in a specific time and place and with certain connections [and lack of connections — imagining my nodes on a net once more] as part of our existence. Our own “most central beliefs and desires” are a part of this matrix and, were we someone else somewhere else, they would be other – and we would hold them, or be held by them, with just as much fervour as the things we hold, or are held by, right now. This fact, thinks Rorty in this book, gives us no right to believe in orders “beyond time and chance which both determine the point of human existence and establish a hierarchy of human responsibilities.” Here, then, Rorty envisages “a postmetaphysical culture”, an explicit “utopia”, and it goes something like this from his introduction:

“A postmetaphysical culture seems to me no more impossible than a postreligious one, and equally desirable. In my utopia, human solidarity would be seen not as a fact to be recognized by clearing away ‘prejudice’ or burrowing down to previously hidden depths but, rather, as a goal to be achieved. It is to be achieved not by inquiry but by imagination, the imaginative ability to see strange people as fellow sufferers. Solidarity is not discovered by reflection but created. It is created by increasing our sensitivity to the particular details of the pain and humiliation of other, unfamiliar sorts of people. Such increased sensitivity makes it more difficult to marginalize people different from ourselves by thinking, ‘They do not feel it as we would,’ or ‘’There must always be suffering, so why not let them suffer?’ This process of coming to see other human beings as ‘one of us’ rather than as ‘them’ is a matter of detailed description of what unfamiliar people are like and of redescription of what we ourselves are like.”

It is important [not least to the title of this chapter] that Rorty envisages this as “a general turn against theory and toward narrative”. Theories tend to be single visions that are prone to single, dogmatically-imposed interpretations. Rorty instead, I think, wants to tell a story people can join in with so that they become both part of the story and co-tellers of that story or, and this is important, relate their own telling of that story. You can make a story your own and tell it your own way as scholars of ancient oral traditions [proper “mythologies”] tell us was the case anyway since it was the way any community story got passed on in a world more oral than textual. This, in fact, is what Rorty has already been saying the pragmatist does – and without need to adhere to “the grand theory” that the realist [whether conservative or Marxist] wants to wield as “the truth” and “reality”. The end here is to think of freedom and utopias as “an endless, proliferating realization of Freedom, rather than a convergence toward an already existing Truth.” “The Truth” in this Rortian vision is something we make together and something we must always make together, a philosophical and political story we together write by cooperatively joining in with the telling of it.

Rorty begins Contingency, Irony and Solidarity linking philosophical solidarity of the kind he has previously recommended to political utopianism such as at that found in The French Revolution of 1789 in which imagined eternal authorities were “replaced almost overnight”. He adds to this cultural pot “the Romantic poets” who, in his exegesis, showed “what happened when art is thought of no longer as imitation but, rather, as the artist’s self-creation.” Rorty tells a story in which such impulses have risen to cultural hegemony in the Euro-American cultural space [which, being his space, is the one he is most concerned with] at the expense of “religion, philosophy, or science”. Rorty does not here just mean these things as discrete subjects but he more especially means their practices and values, the way they go about their business. This can be summed up in Rortian vocabulary [which is quite specific and can become recognised if one gets well enough acquainted with it] as the difference between those who think truth is made and those who think truth is found. The “good guys” here are the makers not the finders. This difference can then be extrapolated into modern, Western philosophers, said difference then being between those seeking, and discussing, “hard scientific fact” and others, the good guy makers, who think that:

“great scientists invent descriptions of the world which are useful for purposes of predicting and controlling what happens, just as poets and political thinkers invent other descriptions of it for other purposes. But there is no sense in which any of these descriptions is an accurate representation of the way the world is in itself. These philosophers regard the very idea of such a representation as pointless.”

From the point of view of these makers, of which Rorty is proud to be one, the finder confuses two very different claims, claims Rorty imagines it is vital for us to distinguish. So he says that:

“We need to make a distinction between the claim that the world is out there and the claim that truth is out there. To say that the world is out there, that it is not our creation, is to say, with common sense, that most things in space and time are the effects of causes which do not include human mental states. To say that truth is not out there is simply to say that where there are no sentences there is no truth, that sentences are elements of human languages, and that human languages are human creations.

Truth cannot be out there — cannot exist independently of the human mind — because sentences cannot so exist, or be out there. The world is out there, but descriptions of the world are not. Only descriptions of the world can be true or false. The world on its own — unaided by the describing activities of human beings – cannot.”

So what we need to object to, on this account, is “the claim that the world splits itself up, on its own initiative, into sentence-shaped chunks called ‘facts’.” Of course, it does not and, as Rorty says, this is only something human beings do due to their use of language, the background against which the idea of “sentence-shaped chunks” makes sense. “Reality”, then, is not a collection of facts or things which are “objectively true” in any sense. It can just be imagined this way if we are language users who can split things up into sentences. The sentences can, in linguistic terms, be evaluated as true or false; the world, which is not made of sentences, cannot. But if you start equating reality with sentences too much so that one starts to bleed into the other, if you start becoming an epistemologist or a realist, if you start thinking the facts of sentences are the facts of reality, then, says Rorty, you can easily start capitalising “Truth” and treating it as some kind of God [like performative pseudo-atheist Richard Dawkins does], something made sacred or something divinized which requires acknowledgement, if not obeisance. Rorty in fact believes that the ultimate origin of such realism, such obeisance to an antecedent, super-cultural reality, lies in the fact that, as Nietzsche said, we have not yet been able to fully disentangle ourselves from the idea that we should bow down before something. Nietzsche told us that God was dead and we had killed him; but he also said his madman had come too soon. Rorty’s view is that while there are still realists and epistemologists about who equate sentence-shaped things called “facts” with the re-presentation of an antecedent reality then this claim is proved right.

The trick here is to realise that whatever we say or conclude about the world or reality it is US, or some subset of US, human beings, that are saying it – and we are saying it in something very specific called language. This is consequential. As Rorty says:

“The world does not speak. Only we do. The world can, once we have programmed ourselves with a language, cause us to hold beliefs. But it cannot propose a language for us to speak. Only other human beings can do that.”

Because the world does not speak and reality does not tell us, from itself, the “objective truth” about itself, we are reliant on the contingent languages that our existence has fated us with to orientate ourselves around in it and to manipulate it in ways which suit our purposes within it. Realism, or being an epistemologist, is one such way but it is the opinion of the makers that such finders have not created a very good way and, furthermore, it is a way which creates problems we could better do without. One such problem is creating overarching criteria imagined to reflect and so re-present reality in its intrinsic nature, the authoritative move we have seen Rorty mention several times before. Of this, Rorty says here:

“The temptation to look for criteria is a species of the more general temptation to think of the world, or the human self, as possessing an intrinsic nature, an essence. That is, it is the result of the temptation to privilege some one among the many languages in which we habitually describe the world or ourselves. As long as we think that there is some relation called ‘fitting the world’ or ‘expressing the real nature of the self’ which can be possessed or lacked by vocabularies-as-wholes, we shall continue the traditional philosophical search for a criterion to tell us which vocabularies have this desirable feature. But if we could ever become reconciled to the idea that most of reality is indifferent to our descriptions of it, and that the human self is created by the use of a

vocabulary rather than being adequately or inadequately expressed in a vocabulary, then we should at last have assimilated what was true in the Romantic idea that truth is made rather than found. What is true about this claim is just that languages are made rather than found, and that truth is a property of linguistic entities, of sentences.”

I hope you see the logic here. LANGUAGES ARE MADE UP, THEY ARE FICTIONS WHICH THEMSELVES CREATE FICTION. Only things in language can be true or false. Things without and apart from language cannot. In language ALL WE CAN DO IS CREATE MORE AND MORE FICTION. ABRACADABRA! HOCUS POCUS! As Alan Moore, a magician and a considerable user of language himself suggests, language is the power of the linguistic imagination to create worlds and realities. This fiction can be useful and helpful to us. Some of it we even praise with the word “true”. Some of it we even imagine as so close to reality that it can seem to become it. BUT we should never imagine that any of this linguistic fiction IS reality; it is, rather, our means for setting it to human purposes, for imagining it in ways that become useful to the linguistic beings that we are. It is, formally, nothing to do with getting anything right; it is not what the epistemologist likes to imagine as that congealed entity “knowledge”. For the maker, “knowledge” is just another honorific for relatively stable human descriptions of phenomena or experiences in words that seem to cohere with some stability with the thoughts of other people with whom they are in linguistic and cultural solidarity. Rorty describes those who have come to the view I have set out in this paragraph as “a new kind of human beings” for they are those who “no longer [speak] of themselves as responsible to non-human powers” – neither God nor God-like entities like “reality”, “truth”, “knowledge”, “being” or “objectivity”. They are a community of language users, a culture, makers of useful cooperative fictions which serve human purposes.

How does this then work? Rorty gives us some hints of his own:

“The method is to redescribe lots and lots of things in new ways, until you have created a pattern of linguistic behavior which will tempt the rising generation to adopt it, thereby causing them to look for appropriate new forms of nonlinguistic behavior, for example, the adoption of new scientific equipment or new social institutions… It does not pretend to have a better candidate for doing the same old things which we did when we spoke in the old way. Rather, it suggests that we might want to stop doing those things and do something else. But it does not argue for this suggestion on the basis of antecedent criteria common to the old and the new language games. For just insofar as the new language really is new, there will be no such criteria.”

Rorty is here saying that we improve our thinking [and so our doing and our culture and society] by FINDING NEW WAYS TO TALK ABOUT AND DESCRIBE THINGS. We do this in such ways as they become attractive to others who join in with our LINGUISTIC FICTIONS until a new culture has been created which then even threatens to overwhelm and so surpass a former one. Put simply, Rorty imagines that culture and society progress by TELLING NEW, BETTER FICTIONS than our forebears told, ones better suited to us, right here, now, as we are. Since, for Rorty and his fellow makers – such as myself – language does not re-present reality in words, since IT IS A FICTION, then FICTION IS ALL WE HAVE ANYWAY. The linguistic game, the game of language, is then to use language in such ways as our purposes and desires can become realistic possibilities and, perhaps, even cherished interpretations themselves. But this comes from us, we language users, who MUST IMAGINE AND LINGUISTICALLY CREATE THE WORLD WE WANT TO LIVE IN. That, on this account, is, in fact, all anyone has ever been doing [where, often, the fiction that words were the reality, something to do obeisance to, was the most successful fiction – with authoritarian consequences]. So what we have here, in human context, is competing fictions, competing vocabularies, competing views of the world, competing mythologies, competing rhetorics, linguistically expressed, each of which is a different way of thinking and valuing with different knowledge and beliefs. In such a context, you do not offer arguments against the fiction or vocabulary or mythology or rhetoric you want to replace [which would usually entail using its logic, a logic that is not your own]; instead, you make your fiction seem as attractive and useful as possible, that vocabulary which gets people where they want to go.

It is central to this way of seeing things according to the maker’s agenda that, as Rorty says following the philosopher Donald Davidson, we “not view language as a medium for either expression or representation.” We must, thus, “set aside the idea that both reality and the self have intrinsic natures, natures which are out there waiting to be known.” As Rorty makes the point in a much later essay included in his 1999 collection, Philosophy and Social Hope, makers are not essentialists [the belief that things have non-contextual cores which contain their innate identity and “speak for themselves”] but are, in all cases, relational about things and believe that there are no non-relational features of things. What is true about something is true as related to something else in contextual reality. There are no extra-contextual realms or extra-contextual things.

This being the case, such makers cannot make sense of the idea that “fitting the world” or “fitting reality” is a relation into which anything can be put since they do not concede such a non-contextual, non-relational place as “objective reality” to begin with. In other words, they do not concede that language could ever stand in such a relation to non-language [reality apart from language] and they do not think of language as a medium but simply as a tool for making human experience intellectually viable by imagining and talking about it in various ways which seem to work to their satisfaction. Language, under this understanding, is simply the use of various fictions in order to cope with the world or reality without being taken by surprise as much as is humanly possible. Rorty, again referring to Davidson, says of this that “To say that we come to speak the same language !s to say… that ‘we tend to converge on passing theories.’”

Rorty describes this approach further in the following way:

“Think of the term ‘mind’ or ‘language’ not as the name of a medium between self and reality but simply as a flag which signals the desirability of using a certain vocabulary when trying to cope with certain kinds of organisms. To say that a given organism — or, for that matter, a given machine — has a mind is just to say that, for some purposes, it will

pay to think of it as having beliefs and desires. To say that it is a language user is just to say that pairing off the marks and noises it makes with those we make will prove a useful tactic in predicting and controlling its future behavior.”

This, I think, shows the pragmatic, and pragmatist, nature of Rorty’s idea. But we must add to this the recognition that “our mind” or “our language” in this case is entirely contingent; it is something about where we just happened to be and the circumstances of our lives [the place of our node in that network of relations] and so in an overarching sense there is no reason to take any pride in it. It is simply the tools we have been fated to have to do the jobs we might find it necessary to do. Therefore:

“we must resist the temptation to think that the redescriptions of reality offered by contemporary physical or biological science are somehow closer to ‘the things themselves,’ less ‘mind-dependent,’ than the redescriptions of history offered by contemporary culture criticism. We need to see the constellations of causal forces which produced talk of DNA or of the Big Bang as of a piece with the causal forces which produced talk of ‘secularization’ or of ‘late capitalism.’ These various constellations are the random factors which have made some things subjects of conversation for us and others not, have made some projects and not others possible and important.”

So, of course, were we someone else somewhere else we would not be us, talk like us, have ideas like us or make the fictions we have made in order to address the problems we see before us with the solutions we imagine to solve them. As there is no overarching reality which bids us bow down before its objective, non-contextual and universal ways, we have only the ways we can invent as the people that we are to cope with the reality that we imagine before us. We have only “changing the way we talk, and therefore changing what we want to do and what we think we are.” “Reality” does not here offer its own mediation service and so we can only compare how we now talk – and so think – with how others do or how any of us potentially could. There is nothing beyond language called “fact” but there are only linguistic facts as part of human linguistic fictions to help us cope with the material reality which can cause us to hold or reject beliefs. We must, imagines Rorty in tandem with Max Stirner and Friedrich Nietzsche before him, finally and thoroughly de-divinize the world because:

“For as long as we think that ‘the world’ names something we ought to respect as well as cope with, something person-like in that it has a preferred description of itself, we shall insist that any philosophical account of truth save the ‘intuition’ that truth is ‘out there.’ This institution amounts to the vague sense that it would be hubris on our part to abandon the traditional language of ‘respect for fact’ and ‘objectivity’ — that it would be risky, and blasphemous, not to see the scientist (or the philosopher, or the poet, or somebody) as having a priestly function, as putting us in touch with a realm which transcends the human.”

Rorty, as a maker and not a finder, is convinced, however, that “we try to get to the point where we no longer worship anything, where we treat nothing as a quasi divinity, where we treat everything – our language, our conscience, our community – as a product of time and chance.”

Yet not only does this apply to the context of all human thought and so any “reality” we might ever imagine to inhabit – our language-embedded intellectual faculties – it applies both to how we think about ourselves and our interactions too. For, like our fictions about reality and its relations, we have fictions about these things too – and they can equally either help or hinder us accordingly. We need, especially, in Rorty’s view, to recognise that we ourselves and our relations with others are as contingent as our fictions of reality are. Rorty moves next to discuss “selfhood” and, using a metaphor of the “strong poet” he gets from Harold Bloom, he strays into Nietzschean territory [as he does fairly often in his work generally] for:

“It was Nietzsche who first explicitly suggested that we drop the whole idea of ‘knowing the truth.’ His definition of truth as a ‘mobile army of metaphors’ amounted to saying that the whole idea of “’representing reality’ by means of language, and thus the idea of finding a single context for all human lives, should be abandoned. His perspectivism

amounted to the claim that the universe had no lading-list to be known, no determinate length. He hoped that once we realized that Plato’s ‘true world’ was just a fable, we would seek consolation, at the moment of death, not in having transcended the animal condition but in being that peculiar sort of dying animal who, by describing himself in his own terms, had created himself. More exactly, he would have created the only part of himself that mattered by constructing his own mind. To create one’s mind is to create one’s own language, rather than to let the length of one’s mind be set by the language other human beings have left behind.”

I don’t know myself if Nietzsche was the first to “drop the whole idea of ‘knowing the truth’”; I must admit that my grasp of intellectual history is not big enough to make such a claim. But I can state that Nietzsche was the first person I ever read – apocalyptically so – to confront me with the idea that language was fiction and that everything was interpretation and that that meant that our thoughts, and everything that comes from them, were too. It made perfect sense to me, as I then feverishly acquired and read book after Nietzschean book, that we should “create ourselves” – for what else could we then do? Rorty’s own interpretation of Nietzsche, that “to fail as a human being — is to accept somebody else’s description of oneself, to execute a previously prepared program, to write, at most, elegant variations on previously written poems so [that then] the only way to trace home the causes of one’s being as one is would be to tell a story about one’s causes in a new language” then makes perfect sense too. This is what I then take a contingent, fictional, mythological, self-made selfhood to be. But, of course, there is always a context and Rorty gives one accordingly:

“the Western philosophical tradition thinks of a human life as a triumph just insofar as it breaks out of the world of time, appearance, and idiosyncratic opinion into another

world — into the world of enduring truth. Nietzsche, by contrast, thinks the important boundary to cross is not the one separating time from atemporal truth but rather the one which divides the old from the new. He thinks a human life triumphant just insofar as it escapes from inherited descriptions of the contingencies of its existence and finds new descriptions. This is the difference between the will to truth and the will to self-overcoming. It is the difference between thinking of redemption as making contact with something larger and more enduring than oneself and redemption as Nietzsche describes it: ‘recreating all ‘it was’ into a ‘thus I willed it.”’

The drama of an individual human life, or of the history of humanity as a whole, is not one in which a pre-existent goal is triumphantly reached or tragically not reached. Neither a constant external reality nor an unfailing interior source of inspiration forms a background for such dramas. Instead, to see one’s life, or the life of one’s community, as a dramatic narrative is to see it as a process of Nietzschean self-overcoming. The paradigm of such a narrative is the life of the genius who can say of the relevant portion of the past, ‘’Thus I willed it,’ because she has found a way to describe that past which the past never knew, and thereby found a self to be which her precursors never knew was possible.”

Rorty, however, picks and chooses where Nietzsche is concerned – as he is entirely entitled to do – and refrains from ever fully committing to his train of thought which, apart from other considerations, strikes him as far too private and personal [about “the warrior” rather than “the herd”] for the man of liberal, democratic politics that he aims himself to be. So Rorty switches horses and talks about Sigmund Freud instead as another who “helps us take seriously the possibility that there is no central faculty, no central self, called ‘reason’ — and thus [who] take[s] Nietzschean pragmatism and perspectivalism seriously.” Here Freud helps Rorty explicate the idea that, just as there is no “objective reality”, so there is no “truly human” either, yet another non-human authority against which things must be measured. Of this he says:

“To abjure the notion of the ‘truly human’ is to abjure the attempt to divinize the self as a replacement for a divinized world... It is to get rid of the last citadel of necessity, the last attempt to see us as all confronting the same imperatives, the same unconditional claims.”

This de-divinization is a constant theme of Rorty’s philosophy in this respect for the ever-present danger is always making something or someone sacred, reducing a desired “expanding repertoire of alternative descriptions” into The One Right Description. As Rorty then says:

“Such a shift in aim is possible only to the extent that both the world and the self have been de-divinized. To say that both are de-divinized is to say that one no longer thinks of either as speaking to us, as having a language of its own, as a rival poet. Neither are quasi persons, neither wants to be expressed or represented in a certain way.”

How they are “expressed or represented” is then OUR RESPONSIBILITY, a duty Nietzsche laid upon us every bit as much as Rorty does. But this neither means such responsibility will ever be completed [in truth, it is more a task that never ends and which we give up in death before it is finished] or that it will be an entirely novel procedure [a wholly new vocabulary would be gibberish to wider society]. Thus:

“no project of redescribing the world and the past, no project of self-creation through imposition of one’s own idiosyncratic metaphoric, can avoid being marginal and parasitic. Metaphors are unfamiliar uses of old words, but such uses are possible only against the

background of other old words being used in old familiar ways. A language which was ‘all metaphor’ would be a language which had no use, hence not a language but just babble. For even if we agree that languages are not media of representation or expression, they will remain media of communication, tools for social interaction, ways of tying oneself up with other human beings.”

So the task is:

“to substitute a tissue of contingent relations, a web which stretches backward and forward through past and future time, for a formed, unified, present, self-contained substance, something capable of being seen steadily and whole.”

This is subversive, insurrectional activity — as I tried to suggest throughout the body of A Handbook for Anarchist Insurrection in wholly other contexts. It is intellectual and linguistic insurrection, an insurrection of ideas and thought such as one which replaces patriarchal, heteronormative dimorphism with a rainbow spectrum of sexual and gender diversity. Don’t tell me this isn’t possible: our language, our thought and our stories can make it possible. In this Rortian vision of self:

“every human life is the working out of a sophisticated idiosyncratic fantasy, and as a reminder that no such working out gets completed before death interrupts. It cannot get completed because there is nothing to complete, there is only a web of relations to be rewoven, a web which time lengthens every day.”

This then bleeds into human community, human relationships and politics but is, consequently, where I am most likely to diverge from the views of Richard Rorty who was a white, elite, bourgeois, academic professor of philosophy and comparative literature in the USA who believed in both the righteousness and mission of Western liberal democratic institutions [imagined, of course, at their best] in a way that I never have, nor, I hope, ever could. One point we can agree on, though, is that the fictions of language and its relation to reality or of selfhood that have previously been given here do not GROUND the idea of democracy [which I understand as people in general deciding their direction or purpose for themselves] to which we both commit. What they do do, however, is “permit its practices and its goals to be redescribed” so that, for example, Rorty can describe “democracy” as that thing which leads to a Congress and a President, to courts and jails and police forces, whereas I can speak of it as leading to the autonomous relationships of self-determining communities of anarchists. Since the fictions which were laid out above only amount to the claim that its up to us with our language to create fictions which allow us to use reality according to purposes grounded in our human solidarity, then that is what, with the responsibility accruing to such a task, we must do. The de-divinized task that Rorty lays before us is to find the meaning of our lives in the “finite, mortal, contingently existing human beings” that we are AND IN NOTHING ELSE. Rorty, in fact, imagines freedom to be exactly the recognition of just such contingency applied to all human thought, human selves and human relationships.

But, of course, this then means the dies may be cast different ways for different people. As Rorty points out, “All beliefs which are central to a person’s self-image are so because

their presence or absence serves as a criterion for dividing good people from bad people, the sort of person one wants to be from the sort one does not want to be. A conviction which can be justified to anyone is of little interest.” Our beliefs, that is, act as things which make difference, which are not forced and so can differ by their very nature. Another way of saying this is to say that people want to tell different stories and quite naturally have, or like, different myths. There is nothing wrong with this. In fact, its how these things work. Such fictions, of course, come from developing new vocabularies and, as new ways of speaking, propose new and different futures. In a public sphere this results in politics as different stories and vocabularies vie with each other for attention and favour. Rorty configures how this will appear in the following way:

“The popularity of the new ways of speaking will be viewed as a matter of ‘fashion’ or ‘the need to rebel’ or ‘decadence.’ The question of why people speak this way will be treated as beneath the level of conversation — a matter to be turned over to psychologists or, if necessary, the police. Conversely, from the point of view of those who are trying to use the new language, to literalize the new metaphors, those who cling to the old language will be viewed as irrational — as victims of passion, prejudice, superstition, the dead hand of the past, and so on.”

Rorty does not shy away from his belief, however, that progress, political as well as personal, social as well as intellectual, is a matter of new vocabularies that create new fictions and so imagine things in new ways. In fact, he sees their fictionality, their createdness, their connection to personal interests, as that which is good about them. Speaking of foundations or rationality or absolutes in political terms he thinks just as malodorous here as anywhere else; they are nothing but appeals to an extra-contextual rationality as an authoritarian move to coerce agreement. Rorty thinks that our fictions should be that which make the politics — and explicitly as the fictions, the new ways of speaking and so thinking, that they are. These are to usurp the old fictions and ways of speaking as something which entirely replace what came before rather than as something which does the same thing as before but better. In this respect, they are exactly as I have previously spoken about anarchism replacing capitalism. Anarchism is not a better way of doing capitalism: it is a replacement for it whole and entire, a completely new way of human beings relating to and interacting with one another. In Rorty’s terms, it is a better vocabulary and a better fiction. It does not blaspheme capitalism because, as that which does not believe in capitalism to begin with, it sees nothing to blaspheme. These two, anarchism and capitalism, are not to be compared using some extra-contextual political rationality which arbitrates in cases of dispute because no such extra-contextual political rationality exists. So the context here is the free telling of fictions in vocabularies human communities themselves create. Rorty, of course, imagines this the story of liberalism and so he says:

A liberal society is one which is content to call ‘true’ whatever the upshot of such encounters turns out to be. That is why a liberal society is badly served by an attempt to supply it with ‘philosophical foundations.’ For the attempt to supply such foundations presupposes a natural order of topics and arguments which is prior to, and overrides the results of, encounters between old and new vocabularies.” [Italics original]

Rorty’s point, whether you call it liberal or not, is that what human communities should do is allow the free interaction of stories and vocabularies to see which one wins all by itself. Of course, it is not as easy as that and we may imagine that Rorty has some explaining to do in regard to his vaunted “liberal society” since it seems a place where not everyone gets to tell their story from the same platform and so consequently with the same effect [due to vast inequalities of power and wealth]. Added to this, said society seems to have put several immovable institutions in place to make sure that either the stories don’t get out of hand or that stories said institutions don’t like don’t get anywhere [which all seems very illiberal to me]. Yet, in principle, Rorty is right in that it is in conversation and dialogue where human beings should find their truth, in the human solidarity of intersubjective agreements about which fictions are good and useful and about which ones are bad and harmful — as opposed to in creating yet more divinized authorities with which we bash our fellows over the head. And we should see them as matters of little more than this and never as matters adjudicated by overarching principles. We should, to slightly modify Rorty’s suggestion to my own way of thinking, “see allegiance to social [relationships – {Rorty uses the word “institutions” here}] as no more matters for justification by reference to familiar or commonly accepted premises – but also as no more arbitrary – than choices of friends or heroes.” The point here is that there are no criteria, no arguments, reasons or rationality above those we create for ourselves as part of our fictions and vocabularies. Our criteria, arguments, reasons, rationality AND RESPONSIBILITY are our own. They always will be. Therefore, in conclusion:

“Nothing requires us to first get straight about language, then about belief and knowledge, then about personhood, and finally about society. There is no such thing as ‘first philosophy’ — neither metaphysics nor philosophy of language nor philosophy of science. But, once again and for the last time, that claim about philosophy itself is just one more terminological suggestion made on behalf of the same cause, the cause of providing contemporary liberal culture with a vocabulary which is all its own, cleansing it of the residues of a vocabulary which was suited to the needs of former days.”


Rorty’s point in the section above is that the product of our fictions and vocabularies is us, our culture, our form of life, that about which future people will speak of as where they came from in order to get where they wanted to go. The fabricated, manufactured, fictional aspect of this is not something that just Richard Rorty spoke about as a centrepiece of his philosophy, however. Another, as Rorty himself mentioned quite often as one of his own examples, was Friedrich Nietzsche. Readers of my writings in general will be no stranger to Nietzsche themselves by now. In this case, I want to turn to one of his last books before he fell into insensibility, completed only a few short months before his collapse in Turin in the first days of 1889. That book is his Twilight of the Idols. But before I come to that this little fiction of Nietzsche from an essay composed in 1873 bears repeating again once more:

“In some remote corner of the universe, flickering in the light of the countless solar systems into which it had been poured, there was once a planet on which clever animals invented cognition. It was the most arrogant and most mendacious minute in the ‘history of the world’; but a minute was all it was. After nature had drawn just a few more breaths the planet froze and the clever animals had to die. Someone could invent a fable like this and yet they would still not have given a satisfactory illustration of just how pitiful, how insubstantial and transitory, how purposeless and arbitrary the human intellect looks within nature; there were eternities during which it did not exist; and when it has disappeared again, nothing will have happened. For this intellect has no further mission that might extend beyond the bounds of human life. Rather, the intellect is human, and only its own possessor and progenitor regards it with such pathos, as if it housed the axis around which the entire world revolved. But if we could communicate with a midge we would hear that it too floats through the air with the very same pathos, feeling that it too contains within itself the flying centre of this world. There is nothing in nature so despicable and mean that would not immediately swell up like a balloon from just one little puff of that force of cognition; and just as every bearer of burdens wants to be admired, so the proudest man of all, the philosopher, wants to see, on all sides, the eyes of the universe trained, as through telescopes, on his thoughts and

deeds.”

In continuing on about Nietzsche’s thought in what follows, I am going to assume that this fable [which I once read to a lover in the original German in its entirety since the whole essay is only a few pages] would have met Rorty’s threshold for an appropriate level of contingency in human existence. It is a fable about how human cognition has so puffed up the human mind that it at once began making assumptions far beyond its station [whilst simultaneously not being smart enough to realise it was nothing in “the grand scheme of things” — which does not actually exist]. Nietzsche lists some of these assumptions in the remainder of the essay, many to do with language and truth [including that the latter is, as Rorty quoted, a “mobile army of metaphors”] but he is very much on a similar track 15 years later, too, when he writes Twilight of the Idols and its immediate follow on, The Anti-Christ. I have no systematic interpretation of Twilight of the Idols to give, but as with nearly all of the Nietzschean writings, themes and ideas are constantly suggested and it is these I want to share in my context here. The first of these is “the revaluation of all values” which, by summer 1888 when he began this book, was fully occupying his mind, The Anti-Christ, a full frontal assault on Christianity, being the first of the projected books by which Nietzsche would attempt this task. Yet, before one revalues, one perhaps has to wave idols off into their twilight and, as Nietzsche reports in his foreword, “there are more idols in the world than there are realities”. [A de-divinizing Rorty would presumably have agreed.]

The book begins with 44 “maxims and arrows” which, in the light of #26 of these, one should hesitate to systematise. [“I mistrust all systematisers and avoid them. The will to a system is a lack of integrity.”] These arrows, in truth, seem fairly sprayed around and, if not at random, then with diverse targets. Virtues and vices seem to the fore, however, in this most moral of immoralists. Having the courage for what one knows, having the honesty for one’s truths, having the wisdom to want NOT to know, putting up with suffering, that previously mentioned “integrity” which denies the schematism of “the system”, the need to be immoral to improve morality: these are the maxims of a virtuous man, of a man who must live according to virtue and who wills values. It is here we are told “What does not kill me makes me stronger” – but that is no guarantee that it won’t kill you! I am reminded again of the warrior from book 1 of Thus Spoke Zarathustra who does not want to be spared for this is the figure Nietzsche describes and this is his attitude to life: to die for your virtues and values is no disgrace. It is your honour and your fate, the fate you should embrace, the authentic path.

Nietzsche’s next section turns to Socrates, but Socrates as “problem”. The section begins by passing judgment on life as “worthless”, a judgment Nietzsche believes he shares with the wisest of every age, Socrates included. He quotes Socrates himself, in fact, to the end that life is imagined as a sickness which one recovers from at death. But why is Socrates a problem? I’m not entirely sure – but it seems suspect that Nietzsche thinks Socrates made reason a tyrant where, in Nietzsche’s mind, it was previously a saviour [not necessarily correctly] for the whole of Greek culture. He describes this culture as “throw[ing] itself at rationality” and so “betray[ing] a state of emergency” as if to be “absurdly rational” was a last attempt to rescue some foundation for itself. Nietzsche thinks of the tactic as a descent – that one could find happiness in reason [via virtue] being a mistake. “Rationality at any cost” would never be a Nietzschean maxim. Reason is all a bit too clean and deliberate, too sterile, too joyless. In being so it thwarts the instinct and it is instinct that Nietzsche values more. What Nietzsche wants is that which promotes virtue, health and happiness: “as long as life is ascending happiness and instinct are one.” Consequently, one should do nothing which interferes with instinct.

The next section addresses “’Reason’ in Philosophy” explicitly and here we start to find themes that might intertwine with those of Rorty discussed previously. We learn immediately, for example, that “philosophers” despise becoming. They are, in fact, prey to “Egyptianism” – by which Nietzsche means they are mummifiers, dehistoricisers of thought, and we recognise these as Rorty’s “finders” immediately. They are the realists and epistemologists we met before. They are portrayed here as those who kill and stuff in order to preserve and worship: they are divinizers not de-divinizers. Nietzsche pronounces such worshippers “a mortal danger to everything when they worship”. They are those against “change” [and so conservative] but also against the contingency of “procreation and growth” as well [a cardinal sin for Nietzsche]. Such people “all believe, even to the point of despair, in that which is.” They blame the senses for the fact that they cannot grasp the mummys they have made. The senses tell only of becoming but this is not enough for the Rortian finder or the Nietzschean mummifier. He calls their way “monotono-theism”, a way which despises the body for denying a clear path to objective reality! Yet he excepts one figure from the philosophical past: Heraclitus [whom I myself discussed in my previous book, The Spiritual Anarchist’s Philosophical Handbook]. But what of these lying senses? Nietzsche insists they do not lie at all [which would accord them both knowledge and purpose they do not have]. It is making of the senses evidence for something else that introduces errors and lies – and for that “reason” is to blame. Nietzsche praises Heraclitus for recognising that “being is an empty fiction” and pronounces a reality behind that apparent to the senses “lyingly added”.

So Nietzsche is against “metaphysics, theology, psychology, epistemology” as that which refuses the evidence of the senses. He accuses his targets of being “morbid cobweb-spinners” who want the end without it ever having had a past. All they value, he imagines, must have sprung from nowhere and just always have been the case. Moral: history humanises, de-divinizes, makes material and so subject to criticism and decay. It becomes CONVERSATIONAL. It is thus to be avoided by the mummifier who wants gods to revere at all costs. Such people want things to worship which cause themselves [which suggests, as Rorty did, that it is divinity which leads to epistemology and “objective reality”]. Nietzsche, not unusually for him, sees our LANGUAGE as playing a role in this. He states:

“In its origin, language belongs to the time of the most rudimentary type of psychology: we encounter a crude set of fetishes when we become conscious of the basic presuppositions of the metaphysics of language—or, to put it plainly, reason. Reason sees actors and actions everywhere: it believes in the will as an absolute cause; it believes in the “I,” in the I as being, in the I as a substance, and projects its belief in the I-substance onto all things—that’s how it first creates the concept “thing” ... Being is thought into things everywhere as a cause, is imputed to things; from the conception “I” there follows the derivative concept “being” ... At the beginning there stands the great and fatal error of thinking that the will is something effective—that will is an ability ... Today we know that it is just a word…”

This leads to thinking “we must have been divine, since we have reason.” Yet Nietzsche here pronounces “being” as something “naively persuasive” because pretty much every word we utter is an unseen proponent of the very idea. Our language betrays us. And so “I’m afraid we’re not rid of God because we still believe in grammar…”.

Nietzsche concludes on the matter of “reason in philosophy” with four propositions. The first of these is that the only grounds for any sort of reality are the “apparent” grounds [i.e. the evidence of the senses which mummifiers and finders wish to ignore]; the second proposition is that that which has been called “the real world” behind the apparent one is actually just “nothingness” – it is an invisible, insubstantial castle in the air, something constructed in contradiction to that which seems apparent, a “moral-optical illusion”; the third proposition is that talk of this “real world” of nothingness is a way to revenge ourselves on life by imagining a supposed “better” one; the fourth and final proposition is that to split the world into “real” and “apparent” versions is a sign of decline. Here that a strong artist might favour appearance over “reality” Nietzsche sees as no objection for here such an artist “signifies reality once more”, she is an affirmer of life and not a denier of it. She is, in Nietzsche’s special term, Dionysian. So we may at least conclude from all this that motivation in falsification matters.

Now we have another Nietzschean fiction: “How the ‘True World’ at Last Became a Myth”, subtitled as the “history of an error”. I shall quote it in full:

“1. The true world, attainable for the wise, the devout, the virtuous—they live in it, they are it. (Oldest form of the idea, relatively clever, simple, convincing. Paraphrase of the assertion, “I, Plato, am the truth.”)

2. The true world, unattainable for now, but promised to the wise, the devout, the virtuous (“to the sinner who does penance”). (Progress of the idea: it becomes more refined, more devious, more mystifying—it becomes woman, it becomes Christian ...)

3. The true world, unattainable, unprovable, unpromisable, but a consolation, an obligation, an imperative, merely by virtue of being thought. (The old sun basically, but glimpsed through fog and skepticism; the idea become sublime, pallid, Nordic, Königsbergian [i.e. Kantian])

4. The true world—unattainable? In any case, unattained. And if it is unattained, it is also unknown. And hence it is not consoling, redeeming, or obligating either; to what could something unknown obligate us? ... (Gray dawn. First yawnings of reason. Rooster’s crow of positivism.)

5. The “true world”—an idea with no use anymore, no longer even obligating—an idea become useless, superfluous, hence a refuted idea: let’s do away with it! (Bright day; breakfast; return of bon sens [good sense] and cheerfulness; Plato blushes; pandemonium of all free spirits.)

6. We have done away with the true world: what world is left over? The apparent one, maybe? ... But no! Along with the true world, we have also done away with the apparent! (Midday; moment of the shortest shadow; end of the longest error; high point of humanity; INCIPIT ZARATHUSTRA.)”

This is basically a regurgitation of “God is dead and we have killed him” but in other terms and with the addition of Zarathustra as what comes next, what one becomes after God is dead. The real world or the true world was an attempt to impose a reality, an obligating reality, but it hasn’t worked, has failed; but inasmuch as it was always one part of a dyad – real and apparent world – its dissipation does away with an apparent world too. Both only existed in their distinction and their contrast. If you are asking, “What now?” then you need to read my exegesis of Thus Spoke Zarathustra in Egoism Explained.

We move onto the next section, “Morality as Anti-nature”, morality being a persistent theme of Nietzsche’s writing career, sometimes having whole books given over to it. Often this is in regard to morality as a system of thought and as a way of thinking. But Nietzsche also always seems concerned about where it comes from, what causes it and what it can imagined to be for. Here Nietzsche begins arguing that morality squashes passions and desires almost as things which must be squashed simply because sometimes they might cause pain. [Pain, suffering and struggle – together thought of as obstacles which resist us – we know Nietzsche does not find against simply on such grounds. Obstacles can be that which it is necessary to overcome to show our strength. Remember: Nietzsche here philosophizes “with a hammer” and for this “hardness” is necessary!] Passion and desire, says Nietzsche, the Church has only the interest to castrate or extirpate. It never asks after beautifying or raising them up. Nietzsche finds offence in this for he equates such things with life in its manner of operation. An attack on passions and desires [for a man who elsewhere praises Dionysian intoxication] is then an attack on life. Thus, “the Church is hostile to life.” Nietzsche detects in hostility to sensuality a weakness and inability to control or moderate oneself [he is not saying let all passions and desires have their heads]. Yet Nietzsche can also see a use in the Church for its existing: that its enemies need it as an enemy! This leads Nietzsche to observe that, in politics too, parties need their enemy to survive in order to excite their own strength. Sometimes it is only having enemies which necessitates an existence.

This can extend to the enmity within oneself as well. One gets the sense that, for Nietzsche, one always requires to be a warrior at war. Or perhaps it is just that life, an unintellectual thing in general, wants to survive and consequently will struggle everywhere to do so? Is it this interpretation of nature Nietzsche values? He states:

“I put a principle into a formula. All naturalism in morality, that is, all healthy morality, is ruled by an instinct of life—some decree of life is fulfilled by a particular canon of “shall” and “shall not,” some restriction and hostility on life’s path is thereby shoved aside. Anti-natural morality, that is, almost every morality that has been taught, honored, and preached up to now, instead turns precisely against the instincts of life—it is a sometimes hidden, sometimes loud and bold condemnation of these instincts.”

Whenever Nietzsche talks about “instincts” it is borne in on me that “instinct” is NOT “intellect”. Man, “the rational animal”: but is life “rational”? Are “instincts” rational? What does this say about morality if it is imagined to be rationally created and rationally adjudicated? According to Nietzsche here, seemingly that it is “anti-nature”! Christian morality especially Nietzsche sees as the sacralising of a rebellion against life. But its also “the symptom of a certain kind of life”:

“A condemnation of life by one who is alive is, in the end, just a symptom of a particular kind of life: this does not at all raise the question of whether the condemnation is justified or unjustified. One would have to occupy a position outside life, and on the other hand to know it as well as one, as many, as all who have lived it, in order to be allowed even to touch upon the problem of the value of life: these are reasons enough to grasp that, for us, this problem is an inaccessible problem. When we speak of values, we speak under the inspiration, under the optics of life: life itself is forcing us to posit values, life itself is valuing by means of us, when we posit values…”

In this sense, all moralities are responses to life but not all responses are pro-life. Even “anti-natural morality… is just one of life’s value judgments.” It is the declining wishing life would itself decline or “the condemnation decreed by the condemned”. Nietzsche effectively sees those who would fix life, in this case morally, as bigots who want to set in stone what nature herself leaves as “a captivating treasury of types, the exuberance of an evanescent play and alteration of forms”. Diversity, we may say, is nature’s virtue; but it is not the moral bigot’s, that one who issues their “ought” to others. Nietzsche thinks such people would even deny reality for this ought. This is an “idiosyncrasy of the degenerate”, of one who has no value for life. The immoralist, to the contrary, learns to value and make use of what life itself brings forth rather than insist on a life-denying “thou shalt”. A personally channelled diversity promotes life in its difference; the uniformity of moral fascism and ignorance makes sickly and weak: it is contrary to life.

The next section of Twilight of the Idols is “The Four Great Errors”. These are:

1. The error of confusing cause and consequence.

2. The error of a false causality.

3. The error of imaginary causes.

4. The error of free will.

Simply reading this as a bare list shows an emphasis on causality [or, rather, perhaps lack of it, the role that the idea of causality plays in human thought and the value attached to it]. The last subject, free will, might perhaps be prematurely posited as the reason for this emphasis. We feel that within us there is something called will which we posit as a cause and, thereafter, we assume that [all] other things must have causes too. This might then, reversing back the way we came, become something to and for which things can be held accountable. But we are already getting ahead of ourselves.

Nietzsche credits the first of these with being the most dangerous error, the “genuine corruption” [or, as another translator puts it, “intrinsic form of corruption”] of reason. He credits it with being present throughout the entirety of religious and moral thinking and with being the unreason at the heart of reason. Nietzsche instead, as a “first example of my ‘revaluation of all values’”, states that it is from the health or sickness of people as they already are that they will find they have to act in certain ways and not in others. Such people “import the orderliness which is evident in their physiology into their relations to people and things. In a formula: their virtue is the effect of their happiness.” Thus, Nietzsche imagines that if people are perishing it must be because something is already wrong with them and their thinking. An impoverished life leads to the effects of impoverishment. Nietzsche’s language finally comes back to “instincts” again; “everything good is instinct” which results in it being easier to achieve.

When it comes to “false causality” things become a matter of “will”, “consciousness” and “mind”. Here we find Nietzsche indeed questioning the idea that “will” causes anything. He states that the “inner world is full of phantoms and false lights” – the will being one of them. If the will does not cause anything, of course, then neither can it be an explanation for anything either. “The ego” Nietzsche straight up thinks a fiction. Nietzsche, in fact, believes that “there are no spiritual causes at all.” None of this then has a right to be the foundation from which we posit causes in things, Nietzsche extrapolating that from an experience of imagined inner phenomena human beings have created an outer world of causes and being [the ego being the basis from which to extrapolate being]. This results only, as Nietzsche also complains about elsewhere, in finding in things the things you had yourself put there in the first place. These are ultimately all the fictions of epistemologists and metaphysicians, “the error of spirit as cause taken for reality! And made the measure of reality! And called God!”

With “imaginary causes” Nietzsche becomes more psychologist. He relays an account in which, asleep or awake, it doesn’t matter, we WANT to have a cause for things to account for the sensations, pressures and constraints that we feel. Not being happy merely to know that we feel as we actually do, we find that a “cause-creating drive” needs its satisfaction too. This utilises memory for the comparison of past occasions of feeling in a similar way and judgment of past interpretations of phenomena we experienced as well. Nietzsche posits that this reasoning, interpreting activity, this habituation to certain procedures, “prohibits an investigation of the cause” rather than facilitating it. But why? He gives what he terms a “psychological explanation”.

Firstly this is because any kind of knowledge – even imagined knowledge [which our investigations in this chapter might suggest is all knowledge actually is] – is better than nothing at all. Nietzsche here raises the possibility that knowledge serves a psychological function other than what we might call the bare fact of knowing. If we thought we knew the cause, for example, it might reduce our stress in the context of a feeling being which responds to its imagined environment and conditions. But, if this is true, then might not our whole apparatus of knowledge and reason be a stress relieving apparatus, an apparatus for making life calm and stable [and so not primarily anything to do with actually knowing in an epistemological sense at all]? Nietzsche thus posits that not just any kind of cause will do; it must be a soothing, reassuring cause, one which liberates us from existential dread. This is why something known will always be preferred to the unknown cause, because it excites a feeling of control over the situation in us. Nietzsche, unsurprisingly, once more finds religion and morality full of such causes. But they are “causes” only in the sense that they are “consequential states”, “translations of pleasurable and unpleasurable feelings into a false dialect.”

All this leads us, finally, to “the error of free will”. This, indeed, Nietzsche imagines one of the “arts of theologians” for making people accountable for something. [You cannot be at fault if you didn’t choose a course of action yourself, can you? Our moral and legal systems would seem to imagine “guilt” relies on the idea of accountability for a freedom of will, at least.] “Punishing and judging” activities seem especially reliant on such a notion of “free will”. Nietzsche frankly pronounces free will an invention for the purposes of punishment, in fact, but it does seem, on reflection, that making everything a human being does in all circumstances a matter of conscious, responsible choice [and so a candidate for guilt] is rather overstating one’s case. We thus slowly infect the world with will everywhere, consequently creating a world of guilt and blame, a world fit for judgment and punishment by human beings, the rational animals. Nietzsche thus pronounces Christianity, not the least guilt-inducing morality ever created, a “hangman’s metaphysics.” But Nietzsche doesn’t stop there. In an eye-catching piece of rhetoric I intend to quote in full, he denudes human beings, if not nature itself, of will and purpose. All is invention, creation, fiction, interpretation. There is no accounting except by human beings with these things. And because there is no accountability then there can be no being, no objective reality and no God. The “innocence of becoming” is restored. Nietzsche himself puts it like this:

“What can be our doctrine alone?—That nobody gives human beings their qualities, neither God, nor society, nor their parents and ancestors, nor they themselves (the nonsense of this last notion we are rejecting was taught by Kant as “intelligible freedom,” and maybe was already taught by Plato as well). Nobody is responsible for being here in the first place, for being constituted in such and such a way, for being in these circumstances, in this environment. The fatality of our essence cannot be separated from the fatality of all that was and will be. We are not the consequence of a special intention, a will, a goal; we are not being used in an attempt to reach an “ideal of humanity,” or an “ideal of happiness,” or an “ideal of morality”—it is absurd to want to divert our essence towards some goal. We have invented the concept “goal”: in reality, goals are absent ...One is necessary, one is a piece of destiny, one belongs to the whole,

one is in the whole.—There is nothing that could rule, measure, compare, judge our being, for that would mean ruling, measuring, comparing, and judging the whole ... But there is nothing outside the whole!—That nobody is made responsible anymore, that no way of being may be traced back to a causa prima [first cause], that the world is not a unity either as sensorium or as “spirit,” only this is the great liberation—in this way only, the innocence of becoming is restored ... The concept “God” was up to now the greatest objection against existence ... We deny God, and in denying God we deny responsibility: only thus do we redeem the world.”

We can see here that Nietzsche’s approach is much different to that of the later Rorty. Where the later philosopher wants to argue mostly logic and premises, dissecting theories of contemporaries and colleagues, the former is not afraid to argue psychologically, dissecting the human being in its manner of operation, deconstructing fantasies about its own workings that it has constructed in order to create a reality out of them – often for moral purposes, in order to create a morally metaphysical world. Nietzsche talks about something called “life”, which sets him apart from Rorty, and the health of which greatly animates him. Both, as we can see in this last quote, however, come to the conclusion of human contingency, the “innocence of becoming”, the absence of arbitrating castles in the air called “objective reality” or “being”. There is no goal and there is no God — for gods are the denial of existence rather than its guarantor. The relation of moral feelings to life is also a frequent strand of Nietzschean thought in this case because, relevantly for this chapter, it is thought entirely fictional. Something Nietzsche says here about “the improvers of mankind” is relevant:

“My demand on philosophers is well-known: that they place themselves beyond good and evil—that they put the illusion of moral judgment beneath them. This demand follows from an insight which was formulated for the first time by me: that there are no moral facts at all. Moral judgments have this in common with religious ones: they believe in realities that are unreal. Morality is just an interpretation of certain phenomena, or speaking more precisely, a misinterpretation. Moral judgments, like religious ones, belong to a level of ignorance at which the very concept of the real, the distinction between real and imaginary, is still absent, so that “truth” at this level refers to all sorts of things which today we call “fantasies.” Thus, moral judgments can never be taken literally: literally, they always contain nothing but nonsense. But they are semiotically invaluable all the same: they reveal, at least to those who are in the know, the most valuable realities of cultures and inner states that did not know enough to “understand” themselves. Morality is just a sign language, just a symptomatology: you already have to know what it’s all about in order to get any use out of it.”

Where morality and moral judgments are guides of reason, then, the result can only be fiction, their realities, created. Morality is nothing other than interpretation according to an invented scheme. Nietzsche finds its use, in fact, only in that it helps in understanding how people work. Morality, then, is of little use for life and not least in the ways its users and promoters imagine that it is. Nietzsche can then go on to suggest that those most associated with morality do not really want to “know” as they claim they do; it is more about control and power. To be moral [beneficial for life] one must be immoral and the immoral can be the most moral in this respect. What counts is the value for life, what makes strong and increases a feeling of strength. In this respect, that one would use morality to “tame” the instinctively strong Nietzsche regards as a bad joke. Nietzsche looks towards a “noble culture” of those who can “see”, “think”, “speak and write”. Here seeing requires the self-control and spiritual breeding not to be a reactionary, the peace of mind not to will, the ability to “resist a stimulus”. One should develop the sensibility of being slow to act if one wants to see. When it comes to thinking, this is a matter of form and dexterity, something Nietzsche compares to dancing. One should become habituated to movement, to elegance and to nuance. Writing is then dancing with the pen and with words [one imagines artifice here]. Such nobility, of course, is easily cast as elitism and Nietzsche must be found guilty of the charge. But this is not the tawdry elitism of class or wealth. It is an elitism that is struggled and worked for, that is earned because, in desiring it, one foretold one’s fitness for the task and dedicated oneself to one’s breeding. Emma Goldman interpreted Nietzsche’s elitism as a desiring for each human being to be the strongest, freest, most liberated and expressive person they could be, someone, to make this Nietzschean, intoxicated with their life. That, I think, is how we should take it as well – as a will to our nobility and to such a noble culture.

Twilight of the Idols becomes more disparate from here as Nietzsche makes comments that are not necessary that connected together. But some thoughts still stand out and I want to conclude this section of this chapter by focusing on a section headed, relevantly for a book being written by an anarchist in a book about anarchy, “My concept of freedom”. First of all, I shall quote Nietzsche’s entire section in this respect:

“My concept of freedom.—Sometimes the value of a thing lies not in what we get by means of it, but in what we pay for it—what it costs us. I offer an example. Liberal institutions stop being liberal as soon as they have been established: from that point forward, there is nothing that harms freedom more severely and fundamentally than liberal institutions. After all, we know what they bring about: they undermine the will to

power, they are the leveling of mountain and valley elevated into a morality, they make people small, cowardly, and pleasure-loving—with liberal institutions, the herd animal is victorious every time. Liberalism: in other words, herd-animalization…

The same institutions bring about completely different effects as long as they are still being fought for; then, in fact, they promote freedom in a powerful way. Considered more closely, it is war that brings about these effects, the war for liberal institutions, which, as war, lets the illiberal instincts persist. And war educates for freedom. For what is freedom? Having the will to responsibility for oneself. Maintaining the distance that separates us. Becoming indifferent to trouble, hardships, deprivation, even to life. Being ready to sacrifice people to one’s cause, not excluding oneself. Freedom means that the manly instincts, the instincts that celebrate war and winning, dominate other instincts, for example the instinct for “happiness.” The human being who has become free, not to mention the spirit that has become free, steps all over the contemptible sort of well-being dreamt of by grocers, Christians, cows, women, Englishmen, and other democrats. The free human being is a warrior.—

What is the measure of freedom, in individuals and in peoples? The measure is the resistance that must be overcome, the trouble it costs to stay on top. One would have to look for the highest type of free human beings wherever the highest resistance is constantly being overcome: five steps away from tyranny, right on the brink of the danger of servitude. This is true psychologically, if one conceives of the “tyrant” here as inexorable and terrible instincts that demand to be countered with the maximum of authority and self-discipline—the most beautiful type is Julius Caesar; it is also true politically, just take a walk through history. The peoples who were worth something, who became worthy, never became worthy under liberal institutions: great danger made them into something that deserves respect, danger, which first teaches us to get to know the means at our disposal, our virtues, our defense and weapons, our own spirit—danger, which forces us to be strong…

First principle: one must need to be strong; otherwise, one never becomes strong.—Those great greenhouses for the strong, the strongest sort of human being there has ever been, the aristocratic communities such as Rome and Venice, understood freedom precisely in the sense in which I understand the word freedom: as something that one has and does not have, that one wills to have, that one conquers…” [italics original, bold mine]

What can be said about this Nietzschean myth of the warrior as model of freedom [for surely you realise it is rhetoric, fiction, a story]? First, that, unlike Richard Rorty, Nietzsche is no liberal fawning over liberal institutions. In Nietzsche’s mind, but not in Rorty’s, they are fundamentally freedom-harming once they have been established. The fight for them, Nietzsche concedes, is useful – but that turns out to be only because they required a fight. Liberal society, in this vision, however, is not noble [as we have just described it], not life-affirming and not free. It is infected with a moral decrepitude which turns it into an exercise in levelling which cripples the individual instinct for life – for as soon as you distinguish yourself by grasping your own freedom you are pushed back in line again. Liberal society wants clones who know their place is to have a place. It does NOT want strong individuals seized of their own truth and their own values. It is herd through and through, a regimentation of ordered control dictated by petty bureaucrats and administrators.

In the second paragraph I have highlighted the following question and answer: “For what is freedom? Having the will to responsibility for oneself.” What does this mean? I think it means that FREEDOM IS ACTING FREE. Freedom is taking responsibility, putting one’s shoulder to the boulder, recognising one’s existential situation and realising there’s no one to do things for you – and that it would be deeply inauthentic if you imagined there was and left it to them. Your life is yours to own as in to embrace it fully and take responsibility for. This is what makes it war for now you are becoming you and not the liberal clone, the member of the herd, the agent of a society’s freedom-denying values. This is a warrior’s authenticity to fight in one’s cause; it is not the tame, and tamed, civilised “well being” of the member of liberal society; it is to live viscerally and vicariously on the edge of oblivion. It is a warrior’s freedom and if there is anything warriors know it is that life must be grasped and taken even at risk of death. It is commitment to a cause, even your own cause, and even at the cost of yourself. As Nietzsche begins here by saying, “Sometimes the value of a thing lies not in what we get by means of it, but in what we pay for it—what it costs us.”

So this is about knowing who YOU are; it is knowing [and cultivating] your virtues, your spirit [which, playing on the German word “Geist”, is also your mind, your intellect, your animus]. It is a taste for danger as that which activates and necessitates your will to be free. Nietzsche fundamentally says here that there is no freedom in safety, in inauthentic, civilised “well being” that just wants a normal to live out its inauthentic existence in relation to. Nietzsche speaks here of battle, war and struggle, of danger which creates that most needful for life, your own individual, personal life. It is the difference between living and existing. Nietzsche says here that it is needing strength which creates strength in a way in which needing, having and willing are fused together. It is only in moments in which our fitness is tested that we find out how fit we are; it is only in challenges that we are required to rise to the challenge. Life, thinks Nietzsche here, and so our freedom, is found in living the life of challenge, seeking it out, testing ourselves, daring to be at war in the cause of ourselves. This is the life that dares to conquer in the cause of oneself.

A Postscript. Should you simply accept this Nietzschean fiction and swallow it whole? I quote you words from the latter part of Nietzsche’s next book, The Anti-Christ, in this respect:

“Make no mistake about it: great spirits are sceptics. Zarathustra is a sceptic. The vigour, the freedom that comes from the strength and super-strength of spirit proves itself through scepticism. Where basic issues about value or lack of value are concerned, people with convictions do not come into consideration. Convictions are prisons. These people do not see far enough, they do not see beneath themselves: but if you are going to talk about value and lack of value, you need to see five hundred convictions beneath you, behind you ... A spirit who wills greatness and also wills the means to it is necessarily a sceptic. The freedom from every sort of conviction, being able to see freely, is part of strength…

— One more step into the psychology of conviction, of ‘faith’. A long time ago I posed the problem of whether convictions are not more dangerous enemies of truth than lies (this was in aphorism 483 of Human, All Too Human 10 years previously). Now I would like to ask the decisive question: Are lies and convictions even opposed? — The whole world believes that they are; but what doesn’t the whole world believe! — Every conviction has its history, its pre-formations, its ventures and its mistakes: it becomes a conviction after not being one for a long time, after barely being one for even longer. What? Could lies be among these embryonic forms of convictions too? — Sometimes all you need is a change of characters: what were lies for the father are convictions for the son. — I call lies not wanting to see what you see, not wanting to see it the way you do: it makes no difference whether the lies take place in front of witnesses. The most common lie is the one you tell yourself; lying to other people is a relatively exceptional case. — Now, this not wanting to see what you see, this not wanting to see the way you do, is almost the first condition for being partisan in any sense of the term: the partisan will necessarily turn into a liar. German historical scholarship, for instance, is convinced that Rome was a despotism, that the inhabitants of Germania brought the spirit of freedom into the world: what is the difference between this sort of conviction and a lie? Is it any wonder that all partisans, even German historians, instinctively go around with great moral words in their mouths, — that morality almost owes its continued existence to its indispensability among partisans of every type? — ‘This is our conviction: we profess it to the world, we will live and die for it, — respect anyone with convictions!’ — I have even heard this sort of thing coming from anti-Semites. On the contrary, my dear sir! An anti-Semite does not become one bit more respectable by lying as a matter of principle ... Priests have more subtlety in these matters, they have a good understanding of why

someone might object to the idea of a conviction, which is to say a lie that is principled because it serves an end; accordingly, these priests adopted the prudent Jewish measure of inserting the idea of ‘God’, ‘God’s will’, ‘God’s revelation’ at this point. Even Kant was on the same path with his categorical imperative: his reason became practical here. — There are some questions that people are not entitled to decide the truth of; all the ultimate questions, all the ultimate problems of value are beyond human reason… To grasp the boundaries of reason — now, that is real philosophy…”

“If you are going to talk about value and lack of value...”! But this is ALL we are talking about! Let THIS be my mythology, my fiction of fictions!


The central thesis of this chapter has been that people all over the world tell stories to share [and, indeed, to demonstrate and participate in] meaning, value and truth. They have a narrative frame of mind that easily and naturally falls into storytelling in order to communicate with others and create understanding by constructing fictions. This, so I suggest, says something about the activities of human beings and also of their major means of communication, language, something which, as Rorty and Nietzsche both suggest, does not “correspond to” or “re-present” reality but something which makes use of it as a tool for its manipulation. It is, we may say, something which speaks to the ubiquity of the narrativization of human thought and to our creating fictions and mythologies by which [and out of which] humans are enculturated and historicized.

I want to make it very clear in saying this, however, that – since I am saying this is a feature of language and human thought – it applies to EVERYTHING. I am saying human beings are FICTIVE BEINGS, beings that manipulate reality through language. I am saying that human beings are interpretive beings who use narrative to construct a world for themselves that can be of use to them. None of this is original to me. It is, for example, writ large throughout the work of both Nietzsche and Rorty which is why they have been used to help explain it in this chapter here. It would then be justifiable, in my terms set out above, to describe human beings as mythological beings, beings that are storied at their intellectual heart. In this same respect we may then, in a sense, say that everything human beings say, not least when they are being indicative or predicative, is rhetoric.

But why is this in a book titled “Nothing To Stick To”, an “anarchism for free spirits”, and in a book about “anarchy”? This is a fair question but I would hope the answer should be quite obvious. It is because this chapter has thoroughly denied the notions of knowledge, being, truth and reality objectively, epistemologically and essentially understood. These things have been replaced with story, interpretation, mythology, fiction and rhetoric. It has wiped away a world of arbitrating “facts” as gods above us before which we must inevitably bow, along with “objective pictures of reality”, and replaced it with a world of conversation, persuasion, culture and history. It has destroyed the finder’s foundations and said that all we have are the maker’s contingent relationships. It has removed a world to which we are forced and replaced it with one we make ourselves. None of this is to deny that the world can, and does, cause us to hold beliefs but it is to say that those beliefs are couched by human beings in cultural creations called languages, the statements of which alone can be true or false, useful or useless, according to our purposes as tools fashioned to serve such purposes. I shall hope to say more about this later in the book but, for now, that’s another story for another time.

5. The Body Politic

The vision of a Rortian liberal utopia seems not to be one Nietzsche shared. I lie in silence wondering why this is and the answer that comes to me is that a liberal utopia is not exactly reflective of the reality of nature. Instead of being a naturally achieved harmony of things going about their business according to an instinct for life, a Daoist actionless action, it is, instead, deliberate, pre-determined, artificial, intellectual, forced -the sorts of things Daoists in ancient texts tend to be against [at least in terms of how they are created]. The contrast here is problematic, however. Isn’t building a city, even an imagined ideal city, just the human version of a beaver building a dam and a lodge or birds building nests or badgers building a sett? A city may be liable to being called artificial but its only humans doing what they are capable of in the way that creatures of all kinds do the same. We each have our possibilities and limitations; we are each defined by them.

But it is Nietzsche’s thinking – at once psychological, biological, and intoxicated – which is the more suggestive for me. I have always been a strongly anti-institutional person and so Rorty’s commitments to liberalism, and its institutions, are always going to be like pissing in the pool for me regardless of his otherwise insightful philosophical pragmatism. Nietzsche, however, is a different matter for his idiosyncrasies cling to him personally rather than to his ideas. He is one who seems to say that people are allowed their personal commitments, foibles and eccentricities – so long as they take responsibility for them. He must fight for himself even as we must fight for ourselves. But this “we” reminds us, once again, of Rorty’s social commitments, commitments Nietzsche did not have in the same way. This chapter, consequently, develops out of being unable to throw off the concerns of one or the other. We must become who we are but that applies in two senses, individual and collective, node and network. The liberty anarchism seeks must be a personal liberty AND a political [collective, relational] one. At least, this is the case I made in Being Human: A Philosophy of Personal and Political Anarchism. In this chapter that dyad will find its echo, first of all, in talk about bodies and politics.

This is because as I was writing the previous chapter and thinking ahead to this one I became inhabited by a vision encapsulated in the phrase “the body politic”. This was partly because at the time I was very much animated by bodily concerns such as sexual liberation and the liberation of the body in the matter of nudity – of which I am in favour – which, of course, involves other human beings and so politics [or, at least, it does if someone finds me fucking on the beach or pissing in the woods – both of which have actually happened]. But, it now occurs to me, “body politic” is an image at once individual and collective for bodies are singular but they are also collective organisms, concatenations of organs and other tissues which function together: collective and singular in one whole, prone to health and/or sickness. All very Nietzschean — but all very Foucauldian too as I think back to chapter three and this brings Foucault’s scholarship once more to mind. Foucault was really very interested in bodies like Nietzsche was too. But he was interested in how they came to be bureaucratized and administered, how they were ordered, classified, coerced, punished and thought about. If politics is a body and a body requires the interactions, negotiations and administrations of politics in order to be and function as a body then what does how politics treats bodies say about them both? Moreover, what, if anything, of how we use, treat and see bodies can be of political interest and consequence? Bodies and politics, politics and bodies: It seems to me that, first of all in this chapter, we need a crash course in Foucault. Before we get to that, however, here are some preliminary thoughts about bodies that come to mind:

1. The first thing that comes to mind, carried over from a thought mentioned in the ecological chapter of A Handbook for Anarchist Insurrection, is that bodies are NOT objects: they are processes. What’s more, they are processes unalterably integrated into the ecosystems which give birth to them. Think first, for example, of the air which they constantly are breathing in and out. Fish live in water and are encased in it but we are the same with the air, part of a life support system which enables all life. Remove us from that and we are dead. The same applies here, of the traditional four elements of air, water, fire and earth, to earth and water as well. One grows our food, the other performs many bodily functions. Without both we are dead again. That just leaves fire and without our bright yellow sun we’d be dead again too. So, its now clear to see how much our life is a part of entirely contingent processes which enable our lives on an on-going basis. Bodies are all entirely processes and inter-relations that are before us and after us; we are organisms that are reliant on much larger processes for life itself, connected to them in permanent ways.

2. The second point is that bodies are cooperative not singular; they are organisms and organ-isations working together in cooperation which results in what we call a body. This is what pretty much everything above a single-celled organism is doing. If all those bits and pieces don’t work together then the health of the body, and even life itself, is affected or threatened.

3. The third point is that bodies are contingent and temporary. Nothing material is eternal and the physical universe is subject to change, perhaps many times, over vast time scales. Do you think your flesh and blood is going to outrun that when it is what created it to begin with? You are just part of vast and natural change.

4. A fourth point is that bodies are not guaranteed – they require regular maintenance such as food and drink and the appropriate grooming and care. Without them, the body suffers various and possibly increasing levels of harm.

5. Allied to this point is a fifth, that they consequently create waste which needs management. In fact, humans have created infrastructure just to deal with this fact.

6. A sixth point is that bodies are made for movement and mobility. This is useful not least so that bodies can supply their regular needs. Activity, then, is part of being a body and regular activity promotes both physical and mental health.

7. The seventh point is that bodies can be covered or uncovered and many cultures have developed rules and moral codes around when and how this should be the case. Nudity is something that is highly policed in many places – especially public nudity or nudity used to attract attention [for example, for commercial reasons]. On the other hand, some people see nudity as consequent on having a body and regard it as something that is theirs to display, or not, as they see fit, something natural that should never be stigmatised.

8. The eighth point is that bodies can reproduce via sexual intercourse but also can be both the means and sites of sexual pleasure via sexual play. Sex is one of the major ways bodies are thought of, certainly in Western cultures. Sex can be thought of as a matter of physical and mental well being, a way to cement relationships, a sharing of personal intimacy, as simple play with bodies, or as simply and boringly a matter of how human beings reproduce. But sex should never be reduced to reproduction because its about a lot more than that.

9. My ninth point is that bodies can become medicalised. This involves their objectification, their epistemological fictionalisation, and their control by imagined professionals with their imagined knowledge and techniques for its treatment and cure. But the medicalisation of bodies can also mean they become ripe for pathologization and so commercial exploitation as diseases and conditions are diagnosed from which bodies are said to chronically suffer, perhaps resulting in long term medications or expensive treatments as bodies are now reckoned as the history of their own personal pathology. All in all, bodies today become medicalised far in excess of any other time in the history of our species, most especially in exactly the richest countries and sometimes merely for cosmetic rather than medical reasons. We become objects that are never perfect and which stand in need of constant treatments. Whilst it is true that sickness goes together with health in biological beings, not least according to environment or circumstances, this is not the same thing as being medicalised.

10. This leads into my tenth point which is that today, more than at any time previously, the body becomes subject to both technology and technological thinking. We see technological thinking applied to the body, for example, when human beings are treated like machines or biological mechanical systems [when they are actually the quite different biological organisms] or even robots [“robot” comes from the Slavic “robota” which means “forced labour” or “slave”] – for example in factories engaged in the use of mass labour where being able to complete menial tasks repetitively hour after hour is the only requirement of the job. Bodies can also become technologized in other ways, however, as in their increasing reliance on labour-saving devices in the home, technological transportation systems, their near reliance in the West and elsewhere on computers [in front of which some people may sit for hours a day] or also in war where, today, multi-billion dollar companies with the ears of presidents and prime ministers invent newer and newer ways to destroy and terrorize people with weapons of mass destruction which can do everything from pulverising several square miles by creating overpressures to, in the case of depleted uranium weapons, leaving a trail of destruction that goes on for decades in the catalogue of babies born with unspeakable deformities, an outcome one can only imagine is deliberate and meant to psychologically damage everyone having to live with it. It is not known how many people suffer physical and mental injury due to technology but in this technological society it would not surprise me if people did not want to know either as personal comfort trumps more social concerns.

11. My eleventh point about the body is that it DIES, a necessary effect of being biological. The physicality and decay of bodies are things we do not always reckon with and often try to forget yet it remains true that all bio-matter is due for recycling along with all the rest of the elements of the earth. Life = death = life = death. Its that simple. No wonder that some thinkers, past and present, have seen little difference between them for they are actually one repeating process.

12. The body’s physicality leads to other consequences as well, however, and one of these is its control by [often authoritarian] others. Discipline, punishment and exploitation all come in here, not least due to the body’s propensity to feel pain and, in most people, the desire to avoid doing so. This can also lead to biopolitics in that governments have to then think about control, and providing for, huge masses of bodies thought of as populations. All those bodies to deal with at once creates issues of its own.

13. My thirteenth and final point here in this preliminary look at bodies is to think of the body as a sensing apparatus. Without the body’s senses, in fact, would any of us even be aware that we exist? The body, then, is an interface with what is not us in multiple, but physically limited, ways [we can only hear certain frequencies, see certain wavelengths of light, etc.]. The body is our means of sensing, feeling and interpreting where we are, that we are and what we are. We are not omniscient in any sense but quite feeble and limited.


Let’s pick up one of these points as we move to look at some ways in which Michel Foucault has considered bodies – and often the politics of their administration and bureaucratization. Take my twelfth point above about control of bodies on a mass scale and the issue of biopolitics. Foucault has this to say, in historical context, towards the end of the first volume of his History of Sexuality:

“In concrete terms, starting in the seventeenth century... power over life evolved in two basic forms; these forms were not antithetical, however; they constituted rather two poles of development linked together by a whole intermediary cluster of relations. One of these poles — the first to be formed, it seems — centered on the body as a machine: its disciplining, the optimization of its capabilities, the extortion of its forces, the parallel increase of its usefulness and its docility, its integration into systems of efficient and economic controls, all this was ensured by the procedures of power that characterized the disciplines: an anatomo-politics of the human body. The second, formed somewhat later, focused on the species’ body, the body imbued with the mechanics of life and serving as the basis of the biological processes: propagation, births and mortality, the level of health, life expectancy and longevity, with all the conditions that can cause

these to vary. Their supervision was effected through an entire series of interventions and regulatory controls: a bio-politics of the population. The disciplines of the body and the regulations of the population constituted the two poles around which the organization of power over life was deployed. The setting up, in the course of the classical age, of this great bipolar technology — anatomical and biological, individualizing and specifying, directed toward the performances of the body, with attention to the processes of life — characterized a power whose highest function was perhaps no longer to kill, but to invest life through and through.

The old power of death that symbolized sovereign power was now carefully supplanted by the administration of bodies and the calculated management of life. During the classical period, there was a rapid development of various disciplines — universities, secondary schools, barracks, workshops; there was also the emergence, in the field of political practices and economic observation, of the problems of birthrate, longevity, public health, housing, and migration. Hence there was an explosion of numerous and diverse techniques for achieving the subjugation of bodies and the control of

populations, marking the beginning of an era of “bio-power.” The two directions taken by its development still appeared to be clearly separate in the eighteenth century. With regard to discipline, this development was embodied in institutions such as the army and the schools, and in reflections on tactics, apprenticeship, education, and the nature of

societies, ranging from the strictly military analyses of Marshal de Saxe to the political reveries of Guibert or Servan. As for population controls, one notes the emergence of demography, the evaluation of the relationship between resources and inhabitants, the constructing of tables analyzing wealth and its circulation: the work of Quesnay, Moheau, and Süssmilch. The philosophy of the “Ideologists,” as a theory of ideas, signs, and the individual genesis of sensations, but also a theory of the social composition of interests – Ideology being a doctrine of apprenticeship, but also a doctrine of contracts and the regulated formation of the social body — no doubt constituted the abstract discourse in which one sought to coordinate these two techniques of power in order to construct a general theory of it. In point of fact, however, they were not to be joined at the level of a speculative discourse, but in the form of concrete arrangements... that would go to make up the great technology of power in the nineteenth century: the deployment of sexuality would be one of them, and one of the most important.

This bio-power was without question an indispensable element in the development of capitalism; the latter would not have been possible without the controlled insertion of bodies into the machinery of production and the adjustment of the phenomena of population to economic processes. But this was not all it required; it also needed the growth of both these factors, their reinforcement as well as their availability and docility; it had to have methods of power capable of optimizing forces, aptitudes, and life in general without at the same time making them more difficult to govern. If the development of the great instruments of the state, as institutions of power, ensured the maintenance of production relations, the rudiments of anatomo- and bio-politics, created in the eighteenth century as techniques of power present at every level of the social body and utilized by very diverse institutions (the family and the army, schools and the police, individual medicine and the administration of collective bodies), operated in the sphere of economic processes, their development, and the forces working to sustain them. They also acted as factors of segregation and social hierarchization, exerting their influence on the respective forces of both these movements, guaranteeing relations of domination and effects of hegemony. The adjustment of the accumulation of men to that of capital, the joining of the growth of human groups to the expansion of productive forces and the differential allocation of profit, were made possible in part by the exercise of bio-power in its many forms and modes of application. The investment of the body, its valorization, and the distributive management of its forces were at the time indispensable.”

Reducing this down to a perilous minimum, Foucault is saying that our modern world of liberal, capitalist and technological politics relied, in previous centuries, on the creation, manipulation and control of bodies thought of as “bio-power”. If you are now thinking of how the machines organised human bodies in The Matrix then congratulations for the thought has occurred to me as well [except here humans have organised other humans as machines]. This activity at once includes the accounting for and administrating of bodies, setting them to work but also their sometimes sensitive and sometimes not so sensitive control. Bio-power is of no use if each human being goes off and does what they want. They need to be collected together, homogenised, given meaning and purpose, set on a path from which it does not occur to them to deviate. Hence we have comprehensive schooling systems, regimes for disciplining and punishing “aberrant” humans [whether medical or criminal], a schooling system which seems somewhat related to a military barracks [attendance at which in many places is compulsory and punishable if it does not occur] and an extensive multimedia ecosystem that exists entirely to make sure that people never have a minute to think for themselves. [And why should you think for yourself when out of every public orifice there is someone ready to tell you what to think?] I am not aware that the following is anywhere a conclusion of Foucault’s but one might read large portions of his historical scholarship and come to the conclusion that a Western, post-Cartesian world initiated with the phrase “I think, therefore I am” has done everything it could ever since to make sure that populations thought of as bio-power could do anything but think. Control and administration of their physical selves has seen to that.

This is just one reason why the “amorous camaraderie” and “revolutionary nudism” of Émile Armand has stood out to me and forms a prominent part of my own public pronouncements about anarchism on social media. To me the issues of public nudity and sex [and, combining them, even public sex] are not separate from issues of anarchist politics – THEY ARE ANARCHIST POLITICS. If Foucault is right that human bodies have been taken in hand, objectified, turned into machines or other things that have tasks they must be set to perform, if they have been medicalised and disciplined, classified in versions that are acceptable and unacceptable, then revolt looks like a naked body being where it shouldn’t be. It looks like the public performance of sexual activities. It looks like people treating their bodies as their own and engaging in physically freeing acts of self-induced health. Diogenes was, once again, ahead of his time as was fellow Cynic Hipparchia who insisted on being as naked as her partner Crates was, nudity being more scandalous for a woman than a man. [Elsewhere Diogenes is seen to agree with Hipparchia when he insists that women should be able to train naked in the Gymnasium just like any man.] In “Our Demands As Individualist Anarchists” Armand had stated his goal in the following way, for example:

“Individualists of our kind recognize every society as a ‘Society without Coercion’ in which the State and any other aggressive power is eliminated, in which there is no longer any domination of man over man or over a sphere of society (and vice versa) and in which an exploitation of man by man or of man through social institutions (and vice versa) is impossible.”

This is a society in which bodies are not coerced and in which a self-responsibility for the body is taken up. This is presumably why, speaking in “Revolutionary Nudism”, Armand can write that “nudism is, individually and collectively, among the most potent means of emancipation” and so why he makes it a “revolutionary demand”. As one who themselves lives in a “nude house” where nudity will certainly be encountered inside its four walls, and is hoped for in kind from all who come inside as a matter of mutual respect, I understand what Armand is getting at here and why “the right to the complete disposition of one’s bodily individuality” is important to him. Armand is, in fact, exactly addressing points that Foucault makes over and over again in the policing of bodies and in any episteme in which it is imagined they should be policed. Armand himself considers his practice of nudity is in order:

“to protest any dogma, law, or custom that establishes a hierarchy of body parts, that considers, for example, that showing the face, hands, arms, or throat is more decent, more moral, more respectable, than exposing the buttocks, breasts, belly, or the pubic area. It is to protest against the classification of different body parts into noble and ignoble categories.”

In addition, he considers nudity a way of avoiding the regimented clothing human beings have increasingly been induced to wear, clothing which, as often as not, enforces social status, class or hierarchy. Naked, Armand insists, we are all equally bodies and the clothing which ranks us is eliminated from the social and political equation. Armand thus claims to trust those more who are prepared to strip off and uncover their naked bodies than those who are not.

A Foucauldian question we may ask in the light of all this, however, is “How do individuals and peoples go about perceiving themselves as physical beings?” A couple of examples will here suffice, the first is the opening paragraph to Discipline and Punish and the second some reflections on the care of the body in Roman medical and philosophical discourse from the The History of Sexuality, Volume 3: The Care of the Self:

1. “On 2 March 1757 Damiens the regicide was condemned ‘to make the amende honorable before the main door of the Church of Paris’, where he was to be ‘taken and conveyed in a cart, wearing nothing but a shirt, holding a torch of burning wax weighing two pounds’; then, ‘in the said cart, to the Place de Grève, where, on a scaffold that will be erected there, the flesh will be torn from his breasts, arms, thighs and calves with red-hot pincers, his right hand, holding the knife with which he committed the said parricide, burnt with sulphur, and, on those places where the flesh will be torn away, poured molten lead, boiling oil, burning resin, wax and sulphur melted together and then his body drawn and quartered by four horses and his limbs and body consumed by fire, reduced to ashes and his ashes thrown to the winds’.”

2. “… medicine was not conceived simply as a technique of intervention, relying, in cases of illness, on remedies and operations. It was also supposed to define, in the form of a corpus of knowledge and rules, a way of living, a reflective mode of relation to oneself, to one’s body, to food, to wakefulness and sleep, to the various activities, and to the environment. Medicine was expected to propose, in the form of regimen, a voluntary and rational structure of conduct. One of the points of discussion related to the degree and form of dependence that this medically informed life ought to manifest with regard to the authority of physicians. The way in which the latter sometimes took control of their clients’ existence in order to manage it in the least detail was an object of criticism, for the same reasons as was the spiritual direction practiced by philosophers. And Celsus, as convinced as he was of the high value of regimen medicine, was against subjecting oneself to a physician if one was in good health. The literature of regimen was meant to ensure this self-reliance. It was in order to avoid too-frequent consultations—because they were not always possible and they were often not desirable—that it was necessary to equip oneself with a medical knowledge that one could always use. Such is the advice that Athenaeus gives: acquire when young sufficient knowledge to be able, throughout one’s life and in ordinary circumstances, to be one’s own health counselor. “It is advisable, or rather, necessary, for everyone to learn, among the subjects that are taught, not only the other sciences but also medicine, and to hear the precepts of this art, so that we may often be our own accomplished counselors in matters useful to health; for there is almost no moment of the night or the day when we have no need of medicine. Thus, whether we are walking or sitting, whether we are oiling our body or taking a bath, whether we are eating, drinking—in a word, whatever we may do, during the whole course of life and in the midst of life’s diverse occupations, we have need of advice for an employment of this life that is worthwhile and free of inconvenience. Now, it is tiresome and impossible always to consult a physician concerning all these details.” One easily recognizes in this passage one of the basic principles of the practice of the self: be equipped with, have ready to hand, a “helpful discourse,” which one has learned very early, rehearses often, and reflects on regularly. The medical logos was one such discourse, dictating at every moment the correct regimen of life.

A reasonable discourse could not unfold without a “health practice”— hygieinē pragmateia or technē—which constituted the permanent framework of everyday life, as it were, making it possible to know at every moment what was to be done and how to do it. It implied a medical perception of the world, so to speak, or at least a medical perception of the space and circumstances in which one lived. The elements of the milieu were perceived as having positive or negative effects on health. Between the individual and his environs, one imagined a whole web of interferences such that a certain disposition, a certain event, a certain change in things would induce morbid effects in the body. Conversely, a certain weak constitution of the body would be favourably or unfavourably affected by such and such a circumstance. Hence there was a constant and detailed problematization of the environment, a differential valuation of this environment with regard to the body, and a positing of the body as a fragile entity in relation to its surroundings. One can cite as an example the analysis submitted by Antyllus of the different medical “variables” of a house, its architecture, its orientation, and its interior design. Each element is assigned a dietetic or therapeutic value; a house is a series of compartments that will be harmful or beneficial as regards possible illnesses. Rooms on the ground floor are good for acute illnesses, hemoptyses, and headaches; upper-floor rooms are favorable in cases of pituitary illnesses; rooms with a southerly exposure are good except for patients who need cooling; westerly facing rooms are bad, in the morning because they are gloomy, in the evening because they provoke headaches; whitewashed walls are too dazzling, painted walls cause nightmares in those who are delirious due to fever; stone walls are too cold, brick walls are better.

The different periods of time—days, seasons, ages—are also, in the same perspective, bearers of varying medical values. A careful regimen must be able to determine precisely the relations between the calendar and the care that needs to be given to oneself. This is the advice that Athenaeus offers for confronting the winter season: in the city as well as in the house, one should wear thick clothing, “one should breathe while keeping a part of one’s garment in front of the mouth.” As for food, one should choose food that “can heat the parts of the body and dissolve the liquids that have been congealed by the cold. Drinks should consist of hydromel, honeyed wine, and white wine, old and sweet-smelling; in general, they should be substances capable of drawing out all the excess moisture; but one should reduce the quantity of drink. The dry foods should be easy to prepare, thoroughly worked, well-cooked, pure, and should be mixed with fennel and ammi. For pot vegetables, one should eat cabbage, asparagus, leeks, boiled tender onions and boiled horseradish; as concerns fish, rockfish are good, for they are easily assimilated by the body. In the meat category, one should eat poultry and, among the other kinds, young goat and young pork. As concerns sauces, those that are prepared with pepper, mustard, winter cress, garum, and vinegar. One should take up moderately strenuous exercise, practice holding one’s breath, and undergo rather vigorous rubdowns, especially those that one applies to oneself by the fireside. It is also good to resort to hot baths, whether these be taken in the bathing pool or in a small bathtub, etc.” And the summer regimen is no less meticulous.”

Compare these two examples side by side like this and they seem to have nothing to do with each other but aren’t they actually both concerned with visceral physicality, with a body that is acutely sensitive to its surroundings and what is done to it, with a body kept under control, either by officers of the state charged with carrying out torture and death or physicians or, with the appropriate knowledge, oneself? Aren’t both also implicitly about a gaze which looks upon bodies and draws appropriate conclusions, either of violent, painful punishment or of self-care? Shouldn’t our bodies LOOK a certain way accordingly, either torn to shreds in the first case or in the bloom of good health in the second? In both cases here bodies are paid attention – but with completely different outcomes – whilst their very physicality is the thing at issue within a matrix of understanding concerning physical matter that thinks, feels and is seen. The idea of regimen here links multiple of Foucault’s historical discourses [which he sometimes called genealogies] as the commentator Gary Gutting notes in his Foucault: A Very Short Introduction when speaking about various new systems of social control that Foucault has documented:

“the objects of these diverse and specific causes are human bodies. The forces that drive our history do not so much operate on our thoughts, our social institutions, or even

our environment as on our individual bodies. So, for example, punishment in the 18th century is a matter of violent assaults on the body: branding, dismemberment, execution, whereas in the 19th century it takes the apparently gentler but equally physical form of incarceration, ordered assemblies, and forced labour. Prisoners are subjected to a highly structured regimen designed to produce ‘docile bodies’. A Foucauldian genealogy, then, is a historical causal explanation that is material, multiple, and corporeal.”

In general terms, then, we may say that Foucault documents, in multiple histories, the administration and bureaucratization of human bodies in multiple areas in which the violence is institutionalised but is no less present than in times in which flesh was physically torn from bodies and molten substances were poured into the gaping wounds. We may observe that, as with Bentham’s Panopticon which Foucault mentions in Discipline and Punish, the point was an increasing oversight of and control of bodies in and as a mass, something which can be easily seen in today’s very much more centralised world than the one Foucault relates in his histories. In this modern world even the mobile phones people use report on their users back to some centralised point to which the police or the government will have access, should they request it, giving them a list of where you have been and what you have looked at and not only who you may or may not have spoken to [making phone calls being the least thing people do on phones these days]. It is almost as if the far off days of apprehending criminals in order to publicly execute them has been replaced by making society itself the prison in which we are all inmates by default – but in which some have more privileges than others. Just think about what you can’t do these days without either someone official or commercial [or often both] being required by law to know about it in a societal Panopticon.

Of course, society now being the prison, the coercer of our human bodies, we do not get any genuine say over this. By now capitalism, which was built on the blood, sweat and death of many anonymous workers of the past that former regimes forced into back-breaking and dangerous jobs [not least once “non-human” slavery had been outlawed], has learned to offer its chains to us in sugar-coated ways, the shackle being offered as a gold bracelet rather than something which chains you to a way of life. Governments of the past may have imagined visceral torture would keep people obedient and quiescent but those in their positions today find it better if you don’t often even realise your physical coercion is actually happening and that you are being induced to do it to yourself. Of course, violence has not been completely abandoned for any government knows that, when it comes down to it, politics is a matter of bodies and the exercise of physicality — but the more regular business of society today is conducted by means of constantly observed and controlled populations who are physically unable to disentangle themselves from either the centralised chains of capitalism – an ideology to which they are physically obligated as much as possible – or the state. [Here Foucault helpfully reminds us in Discipline and Punish that “the Panopticon was also a laboratory; it could be used as a machine to carry out experiments, to alter behaviour, to train or correct individuals… The Panopticon functions as a kind of laboratory of power. Thanks to its mechanisms of observation, it gains in efficiency and in the ability to penetrate into men’s behaviour; knowledge follows the advances of power, discovering new objects of knowledge over all the surfaces on which power is exercised.”]

No wonder then that so many people feel alienated from such a society and its politics as the body politic itself becomes the source of alienation. Bodies, and alienation from them, is a common theme in the work of the Canadian film-maker, David Cronenberg, and a number of his films paint a visceral picture both of bodies themselves in all their possible, potential and actual grotesquerie and in their potential for often vile transformation which produces profound alienation even from your very own body. A good example here is Cronenberg’s 1986 remake of The Fly as a film about body horror where the inventor Seth Brundle becomes “Brundlefly”, his DNA fused with that of a fly in a teleportation experiment gone wrong. As he takes on more and more physical aspects of the fly creature he is becoming [including vomiting up enzymes to digest his food externally before then consuming it where the human body dissolves its food internally!] Cronenberg makes the point more and more that bodies are sites of profound meaning where changes to them can have profound effects. [One imagines the horror of torture is also meant to induce such effects too besides the obvious pain.] It is borne in on the viewer that it is not merely sci-fi premises in films which can transform the body to horrific effect, however. Quite naturally occurring diseases such as cancer or the Ebola virus or any number of flesh-eating diseases can very quickly turn a body seemingly under control into something out of a horror film. I’m moved to remark at this point how we humans have a tendency to want to see the body as well-groomed, clean, under control, stable, attractive when it is actually the constant biological possibility to be very dirty, messy, violent, painful, self-possessed, ugly and out of our control. The body does what it wants and the real horror is that it just might at any given moment.


The political analogues to all this should be obvious but let’s explore some. Particularly here I want to investigate the most notorious example of body/politics language in the 20th century, the rhetoric of Adolf Hitler and the Nazis, primarily in regard to Jewish people but also in regard to others. We should begin here by noting, however, that, at least in English – which is the language I write my books in – metaphors of the body that have political applications are not rare. Terms like “head of state” or “head of government” or the “long arm of the law” or talking about party “organs” or of countries as at the “heart” of some geopolitical alliance are not rare but quite normal. So normal are they, in fact, that in thinking about this I surprised myself to realise that, of course, these are bodily metaphors. Talking of nations as “bodies” is also not rare and is a standard metaphor used by politicians of differing kinds when they want to imagine all the people as part of some unity useful to their purposes. As Andreas Musolff states in his book, which we will be following for this part of the chapter, Metaphor, Nation and the Holocaust: The Concept of the Body Politic:

“To depict societies, states and/or nations as a body is a metaphoric framing that has a long and famous pedigree in the history of ideas. Historical overviews locate its origins in pre-Socratic thinking and highlight a first flourishing of such metaphors in the writings of Plato and Aristotle (with The Republic and Timaios, Politics and On the movement of animals being the respective key texts). They were followed by a series of Hellenistic and Roman philosophers, the Stoics, Neoplatonists and mixed with Biblical traditions (especially St. Paul’s Epistles to the Romans and Corinthians), which were taken up by the Church Fathers and many political and social theorists from the early Middle Ages onwards, continuing up to the twentieth century.”

Thinking of the Church as “the body of Christ” is also a common metaphor in Christian circles, one that has percolated through into general consciousness in the Christianised West and this is important for when more modern people articulate body-politics metaphors since they need some cultural background against which to do their work. Foucault’s histories, which document the growth and coerciveness of power/knowledge, not least over the body as we have seen, are here also instructive as they attempt to show how human understandings were articulated in controlling ways over populations and, of course, how people talk about things is not unimportant in this respect. Musolff himself makes the point that body-politics metaphors “could in fact hardly have existed without the input from an ‘authoritative’ tradition that had already established the metaphorical concept of the body, its organs and functions and its state of health as a model for thinking and talking about politics.”

An example here is Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan from 1651, one of the founding texts of modern liberalist politics and a major work of Western political philosophy. Leviathan has as its very introduction a drawn-out metaphor-cum-allegory of the state as a human body and this body-state metaphor is a thread through the remainder of the book to the extent, as Musolff agrees, that it would have no cohering philosophy without it. Musolff also states his opinion that Leviathan is a rhetorical work and so the body-state metaphor is fully a part of this rhetoric. Hobbes, in fact, in a way not original to him and copied by others since, can equate various parts of a human body with various state organs [!] or functions. In linguistic terms these are known as “source concepts” and “target functions” so, in this way, the body itself can be the “Common-Wealth” [Leviathan was published just after the English Civil War and the execution of Charles I and just prior to the protectorate of Oliver Cromwell], the Soul is “Soveraignty” and “Magistrates” are the “Joynts”. It will be seen from the following further examples below how Hobbes attempts to find bodily functions for various entities he finds important in his bio-political scheme:

Nerves – reward, punishment; Publique Ministers, protectors, viceroys and governors

Hands – Publique Ministers, executioners

Eyes – Public Ministers, government spies

Eare – Publique Ministers, Receivers of petitions

Blood – mony, gold and silver

Muscles – lawful systemes, and Assemblyes of People

Strength – wealth, riches

Safety — businesse

memory — counsellors

Reason and will – equity and laws

Health — concord

Death – civill war

Gid’s Fiat [Genesis] – pacts, covenants

Voice — judges

Nutritive faculty – power of levying mony

Motive faculty – power of conduct of command

Rationall faculty – power of making lawes

Procreation, children – colonies

It is possible, in outline, to sketch out the thesis of Leviathan from these metaphorical ascriptions alone in a scheme where “strength and safety” are a matter of “wealth, riches and business”, the power to make laws is the essence of rationality and any number of “public ministers” are the eyes, ears, hands and nerves of the state. It is not hard to see here how Leviathan is an argument for the necessity of state control and the population’s willing submission to it since it is imagined as part of a body that must be kept under control lest it tear itself apart. Notable here then is that its “health” is a matter of “concord” but we might also note, with an eyebrow duly raised, that, like his fellow 17th century architect of liberalism and justifier of states, John Locke, Hobbes was one who saw “colonies” in an entirely positive [in fact here its in a procreative] light. What Hobbes saw in using the body-politics metaphor was a way to imitate nature but in an entirely “artificial” way whereby his political theories could find a concrete imaginal state. Hobbes wanted to find a way to rescue humanity from a “state of nature” and so the “artificial man” seemed a good way to do this. His way of going about this is not consistent but this is to realise that his aims and purposes were his driving force rather than strict anatomical or functional consistency. Of course, where one introduces ideas of bodies the possibility of illness or disease also presents itself. It is the utility of the metaphor, in fact, which recommends it to political applications in many and various ways. In making “sovereignty” the “soul” of his state imagined as an artificial body, Hobbes makes his political point that any rival authority to this is a mortal danger to the health of the body politic. Hobbes can further use various infirmities throughout his text to indicate what are regarded as bodily dangers to the state. “Mixed government”, for example, is imagined as “conjoined twins” and “sedition” is thought of as “sicknesse”. You get the point.

The point here is that using the metaphor of the body in political applications is neither novel nor uncommon and can be used in more expansive ways according to political purposes. With the rhetoric of Adolf Hitler and the later Nazi Party, however, it is pressed to an extreme. This can first be shown in Mein Kampf, Hitler’s notorious “autobiography” from the mid 1920s [so several years before he had any power and largely written whilst he was in prison for his 1923 Beer Hall Putsch in Munich]. Mein Kampf can be seen as the foundational basis from which the next 20 years of Nazi rhetoric and propaganda will follow, articulating ideas using bodily metaphors that get to the heart of Hitler’s political ideology. It is important to understand this, not least in the context of this chapter and this part of my book with its previous emphasis on intellectual construction of ideas and “fiction”, because Hitler’s rhetoric is a prime example of creating an intellectual reality INTO WHICH MILLIONS OF PEOPLE BOUGHT. When you start to read, shortly, about the kinds of things that were said, and the language they were couched in, you will, at some historical distance, find it hard to believe how anyone could swallow such ridiculous ideas that would not survive even a cursory intellectual scrutiny. But we know that they did and we know tens of millions died as a result so how and why matters. Language matters; in fact, it changes the world.

Mein Kampf uses a range of biological, medical and physiological terminology from general biological categories to talk about organs, illnesses, things which cause illnesses and cures or therapies. Two key examples stand out here and will consistently be used rhetorically by Hitler and his underlings almost until the end of World War 2: they are “blood poisoning” and “parasites” and they are applied primarily to Jews [since Hitler was primarily and fundamentally anti-Semitic as an example of his thoroughly racist thinking] but also, secondarily, to other “deviant” groups from travelling cultures of people such as Roma and Sinti to homosexuals, criminals and others. That these metaphors of blood poisoning and parasites are terrifying images are, incidentally, demonstrated by David Cronenberg, as previously mentioned, one of the founders of “body horror” films. His films Shivers and Rabid are, respectively, films where people are infected with parasites which lead to fear of mass infection and death and, in the latter case, a story of an infected woman who goes on a rampage of death. These images Hitler uses, regardless of what suggested them to him, are calculated to animate fear of visceral diseases and infection which get under the skin and can become a part of you in ways which risk death and the infection of the “body” [yours and the political one] in general. It is thus very important that Hitler has a rhetoric of the German people as a body in a very fundamental way. As Musolff points out, Hitler:

“invokes a whole conceptual domain as a frame of reference, namely that of the human body which, as part of the natural world, is born, grows up, can fall ill and die, as well as the sub-frames of an attack by a parasite that feeds on the body until it has destroyed it, and that of a cure, namely the radical, complete removal of the parasite.”

He continues:

“The source cluster of body-illness-cure concepts in Mein Kampf is not an arbitrary constellation of notional elements but a complex, narrative/scenic schema or scenario that tells a mini-story, complete with causal explanations and with conclusions about

its outcome (here, the story of “a body suffering illness because of poisoning and therefore needing a radical cure”). This scenario is mapped as a whole onto the target domain, leading the reader towards the expectation that a healer will appear who will cure the national illness. It includes, as a tacit assumption on the basis of ‘commonsense’ human self-interest, an evaluation, i.e. the conviction that securing and/or restoring the health of someone’s body is physically, emotionally, and ethically a good thing. The scenario serves as a justification for all the actions that are deemed to be necessary to achieve the overall therapeutic aim.”

Hitler, in other words, is telling a story about putative reality, a story of a German body at risk from “infection”, primarily by Jews but also by others, that risks the health of that body unless it can be cured [by a suitably qualified healer]. What Hitler tries to coerce by telling such a story is the intellectual consent of others to that story and its “truth”. In Mein Kampf Hitler engages in similar source/target domain mappings as we saw with Hobbes and Leviathan such that, for example, the body is obviously the German nation, disease is losing your instinct for your distinctive self-preservation as what you are imagined to be [German, Aryan], active poisoning agents can be identified [here “the Jewish press”], an active agent of illness is named [“The Jew”, specifically denominated as “bacillus”, “virus”, “sponger” and “parasite” in Mein Kampf] and where “the cure” is said to be the removal of all Jews from Germany. Here a medical metaphor of the body is followed through from start to finish, the consequences of lack of medical attention for this “body” regarded as stark in an intellectual argument put forward as a rhetoric intended to be accepted intellectually by receptive hearers in all its imagined physical consequences. This is to say the metaphor, as used by Hitler, relies on people equating experience of deadly illness and infection with their contemporary political realities and intellectually and emotionally committing to their equation. As Musolff states, “The nation thus becomes the patient that urgently needs the cure; the healer is present, the diagnosis is clear: the treatment is without alternative.” This was the conclusion Hitler wanted sympathetic readers to reach.

Hitler’s conception of things relies on myths that were present and actively being engaged in – as I previously discussed in chapter six of Being Human in which I discussed racism and eugenics, primarily in the USA in the 19th and early 20th centuries. This discussion of Hitler, in fact, could be seen as following on from that discussion there since Hitler was well aware of American eugenics movements and their values and read their books – such as Madison Grant’s The Passing of the Great Race. The Aryan Myth, propagated by Comte de Gobineau in Europe, was also a relevant context, hierarchicalising people into races [imagined to be biological in a way completely without foundation] as it did. Thus, in Mein Kampf, Hitler can write things like this which are straight out of the eugenicist’s play book:

“Historical experience ... shows with terrifying clarity that in every mingling of Aryan blood with that of lower peoples the result was the end of the cultured people.... Briefly, the result of all racial crossing is therefore always the following: (a) Lowering of the level of the higher race; (b) Physical and intellectual regression and hence the beginning of a slowly but surely progressing sickness. To bring about such a development is therefore nothing else but to sin against the will of the eternal creator.”

But what does this tell us? It tells us that if you mix with Jews then you dilute your own race and put it in mortal peril. My previous chapter in Being Human, of course, had made mention of the many American anti-miscegenation laws that were brought in to stop any kind of mixed marriages in the USA – so this is nothing new. It is, in fact, a mixing of biological categories – bloods [which are not racially distinguishable in any case] – with “races”, cultural entities which the racist ideologically categorises as matters of material difference. We should not be surprised to find this as a cultural background for Hitler since his rhetoric evinces clear links with contemporary eugenics ideas, as previously stated, as well as the phenomenon of “social Darwinism” which attempted to utilise a misunderstood version of Charles Darwin’s evolutionary theory in the matters of human culture and politics. Hitler, in fact, according to Musolff, “repeatedly claimed that his racially defined anti-Semitism was based on rational, scientific insights rather than on mere emotions” and, to some extent, it was as it was based on the prejudicial science of the eugenicists at home and abroad. We should note, however, how such “science” was itself a rhetoric that sought to create the “knowledge” it then intended to exert upon people at large. Hitler, in fact, would in essence create a whole epistemology around race [including his distinctions between founders, bearers and destroyers of culture – Aryans were “founders” in this hierarchical scheme], a fiction of knowledge entirely of his own creation which wouldn’t have been able to survive the slightest scrutiny, had it ever been subjected to any. It was, in fact, nothing more than “an assemblage of arbitrary and contradictory assertions on cultural differences”, as Musolff reports, raised to the rhetorical level of existential threat to the imaginary German “body”.

It was crucial to Hitler’s intellectual appeal, then, that he appealed to well known myths [which were not necessarily disbelieved by his eventual international enemies as Churchill would demonstrate], integrated what could at least be presented as “modern science” and used rhetoric of a body under parasitical attack. It is, of course, well known that Hitler, and his future communications chief, Joseph Goebbels, deployed rhetoric tactically to achieve their nefarious aims. The body/politics metaphors were crucial to this as they always played on a rhetoric of infection, illness and injury with the likely conclusion of death for you unless a “cure” was effected. If one’s very blood [which Hitler equated with life and so identity as others had done before] was poisoned then, so it was suggested, the matter must clearly be serious and one could not afford to put off the inevitable treatment, cure or therapy for too long. Hitler could mix his metaphors in Mein Kampf in this respect though. “The Jew” could be imagined as a snake biting the German body to poison it or as a leech or more generally a parasite stealing its life. The latter image is especially insidious since it could be politically attenuated to argue that “the Jew” lived at the expense of Germans or otherwise got a free ride. A third metaphorical image Hitler used was of that of “the Jew” as a germ in general and so as something infectious it would not pay to be around. This inevitably leads to talk of “vermin” or “rats” and the spectre of an epidemic could be wielded unless corrective action be taken. Since such language was part of an epistemological rhetoric, however, [i.e. it was presented as composing a scientific and established KNOWLEDGE] Hitler made the further rhetorical step of presenting this as a material and so unchangeable reality with iron consequences – fiction creating the reality it wanted to manipulate to and for its own ends.

Of course, since Hitler emphasized “blood poisoning” especially, his rhetoric could be seen to have multifarious consequences. Not least, of course, in his eugenicist mentality, “blood” was a matter of racial identity and heredity. “Blood poisoning” then, was not just a matter of the death of the immediate patient but of a weakening of racial identity – ultimately to the point of intermingled blood wiping out the racial distinctiveness Hitler both imagined and wanted to preserve. Racial crossing and mixed marriages were thus obvious targets for Hitler as things which mixed blood according to his false and essentialist ideology. The sickness was thus imagined as not just acute but also potentially chronic unless races could be separated and the German “body” protected from the “infection” of other races. We should note here, of course, that Hitler could play on folk understandings of blood in this respect as ideas like “blood is thicker than water” or “blood relations” being more important or special are far from uncommon. Poisoned blood, then, would inevitably lead to poisoned heredity and a potentially eternal problem. We should note most seriously in this respect that Hitler appears not to have treated this body/politics talk as metaphorical or rhetorical: HE ACTUALLY MEANT IT AND GENUINELY BELIEVED IT. He argued it AS REALITY, as LITERALLY TRUE.

Hitler did not depict “the Jew” as a merely passive danger, however, something to be managed or medicalised out of the German body politic. Rather, in evil and ugly ways, he depicted it as actively predatory, as this particularly unpleasant section of Mein Kampf shows:

“With satanic joy in his face, the black-haired Jewish youth lurks for hours in wait for the unsuspecting girl whom he defiles with his blood thus stealing her from her people. With

every means he tries to destroy the racial foundations of the people he has set out to subjugate. Just as he himself systematically ruins women and girls, he does not shrink back from pulling down the blood barriers for others, even on a large scale.”

The Jewish male, that is, is an active rapist of the German body – literally in the case of German women and girls he may have sex with. The imagery of heinous and criminal bodily attack is here rhetorically heightened. The German, says Hitler here, is innocent, but “the Jew” is anything but and the racial ideology is underlined in yet another bodily significant way. By equating bodies with politics Hitler could move back and forth between both in order to mutual reinforce his rhetoric and provide a seemingly justifiable fiction for his hearers to intellectually and emotionally accept. As Musolff remarks, “The boundaries between biological, ethical, socio-political and metaphysical concepts were effectively eliminated” by such a rhetoric. Thus Musolff can say that:

“’the Jew’ was seen as an essentially anti-human parasitic species, which, unlike an unconsciously acting bio-parasite, deliberately tried to invade as many host populations as possible. As the infection was lethal for all its hosts, its own victory would also be its own nemesis: it would perish together with the last host it had conquered. ‘The Jew’ thus became a kind of universal super-parasite that not only had the will to destroy other races but would do this, as it were, on principle, i.e. even risking its own destruction in the process. In this cosmic scenario framework, all conceptual boundaries between source and target domains were erased: for Hitler, any German-Jewish contact was blood mix, hence blood defilement and blood poisoning.”

If we move forward from Mein Kampf to the Nazi era proper we can see how this body/politics rhetoric develops as the political control and destruction of bodies. The difference, of course, is the acquiring of power. In the mid 1920s Adolf Hitler had no power. By the mid 1930s he had far too much power for other people’s comfort. What was once a patchwork of ill-judged and inconsistent ideas presented as a barely logical and intellectually unscrupulous collection of rants could now become public policies and a manifesto for war. Notably, the rhetoric of body politics would continue and intensify, becoming moulded to circumstances as events moved along. It is a matter of scholarly debate, for example, if Hitler signalled mass extermination of Jews in Mein Kampf and this is complicated by the fact that we know the end of the story. But such things would become more obvious as events took their course and even though Hitler and Goebbels, as the two primary rhetoricians of Nazism, never openly discussed or signalled Jews’ extermination or annihilation. Perhaps, they thought, saying it out loud in so many words would be like the slap in the face that wakes you up to what is going on. Speaking in bodily metaphors of health and sickness, wellness and infection, was fine, however, and it would continue. At the core of this was the Nazi vision of a homogeneous body, the German nation, and we may note at this point that imagining nations as bodies is exactly homogeneous because bodies can only be one race [unless they are mixed race, of course, but we know what Hitler and eugenicists in general thought about that already]. But this image of a unitary organism gives warrant, as metaphor, for getting rid of anything heterogeneous and for the Nazis this would include various kinds of physically and mentally disabled, travelling cultures, political adversaries such as communists and socialists, socially marginal groups such as those without work or homes, sex workers and homosexuals. All these would too become characterised as “parasites” upon the homogeneous German body for to have a homogeneous body is to define the singular things that it is – and so outlaw the things that it isn’t.

This was, much as Hobbes wanted only become overtly racist, the creation of an artificial order, an “exercise in social engineering on a grandiose scale” as Zygmunt Baumann has called it. We might think of it on the metaphor of the grand hygienic gardens people have tended to create which may look beautiful and ordered with all their straight lines and planned out flower beds and structured arboretums but which are, actually, a grand lie, the obfuscation of natural material reality [for, in nature, there are no straight lines and things grow autonomously]. Another, more Foucauldian, way to see it is as medicalising the German body and forcibly extracting anything thought foreign or malignant. This would have the advantage of being able to deploy a rhetoric of urgent medical attention lest the German body die or of the body’s own defences being deployed to stop apparent invaders in their tracks [which would have the further rhetorical advantage of seeming entirely normal and understandable]. This could be presented as hygiene as well which would also help to target the desired enemies within as dirty or unclean, potential contaminants. During The Night of the Long Knives in 1934, when many leaders of the Sturmabteilung as well as other potential opponents to Hitler were killed, he presented their executions as the burning out down to the raw flesh of ulcers that had been caused by “poisoning” – showing that he could apply his bodily metaphors to the politics of his own administration as much as to others. Here again it was the German body which was important and “parasites” who were the threat. Being labelled a “parasite” in this ideology in fact became a standing death warrant.

The metaphor of “hygiene” was not a new one to the German context [I recall referring to the German Institute for Racial Hygiene, set up in 1905, in my previous chapter in Being Human, in fact] but it was one the Nazis used. Yet “hygiene” and “bodies” are very material categories and so seeing them materially is the best way to demonstrate them [and it always helps if one can point to material realities as demonstrations of beliefs]. Thus, in 1934, the Nazis began to politically create laws – and their associated political conditions — “for disposing of all alien bodies” which were “’for the Protection of German Blood and Honour’ and [created] a newly defined citizenship, which excluded Jews from German citizenship and from marriage or sexual relations with Germans [whilst] associated decrees stigmatized ‘less valuable’ handicapped people as well as ‘Gypsies, Negroes, and their bastards’.” Thus, being able to prove that one was not of Jewish origin, and that one had no taint of association with any “less valuable” group, became increasingly necessary to maintain a normal existence in Nazi Germany. Jews themselves were increasingly vilified as “parasites” or “pests”, not least in police reports, Nazi Party speeches and the press [now Nazi-controlled, of course]. If one ever wonders why Germans would go along with such rhetoric then at least part of the answer must be that it became total and unquestioned. How might you, reading this, for example know what about the stories the TV news tells you is true or false? Even its mere bludgeoning repetitiveness would make such beliefs habitual in all but the extremely awake, independent or questioning individual.

As events moved along Hitler’s rhetoric modified. He would begin to talk of “bring[ing] the Jewish problem to its solution” and the “annihilation of the Jewish race in Europe” [for which, naturally enough in his ideology, he blamed Jews themselves since he saw them as predatory and active agents of disease and infection]. Hitler could portray the German body as subject to Jewish unsanitariness and so would blame them in advance for the political actions he planned to take to afflict their own very real and not at all metaphorical bodies. Hitler, in fact, seemed to prophesy the destruction of the Jews in the year war would break out and, later on, referred to it many times. The metaphors he had been using were very important to this because, of course, as we have not yet discussed in all the talk of disease and infection, a cure must eventually be effected and is implicitly implied in such talk. That “cure” would turn out to be the Holocaust, in Hitler’s Nazi ideology, a “therapy of Europe’s illness by way of genocide”. In order that the metaphorical German body be harmed no more, millions of material Jewish bodies must be physically exterminated because, as I have been saying, the threat of German infection was imagined to be REAL. German film propaganda backed up the rhetoric of the Jew as parasite and as blood poisoning in films mass marketed to Germans such as Jud Süss and Der ewige Jude. The latter, in particular, promised to reveal to the average German the truth about Jews and argued that Jews were “the origin of plague in humanity”, showed dirty Jewish living quarters to paint them as verminous and parasites and pictured them as sores on the nation’s body. In one part of the film, “In direct analogy and supported by inter-cutting and commentary assertions, Jewish migration patterns [were] identified with the migration patterns of parasitizing vermin, specifically rats that spread diseases such as ‘plague, leprosy, typhoid, cholera, dysentery’.” Being in receipt of such metaphors and analogies, I ask you, what conclusion would you draw about what must be done? How is such a fiction, along with its logic, supposed to end? It is worth pointing out here that this film was also shown to German police units and army soldiers who were directly responsible for the mass murders of Jewish civilians, an act with a clear intention of filling their heads with logic to motivate hate and murder.

Der ewige Jude [The Eternal Jew] spelt out the necessity of genocide in graphic detail yet still only in the form of an analogy. Following the analogical argument, everyone could know what the “real” application of the racial parasite therapy implied, i.e. genocide, but on the other hand, the film, just as a speech or text based on the analogy, still demanded a minimum of inferential operation on the part of the audience in order to be fully “understood”. The public were led to the intended conclusion but had to make the crucial inference [i.e. from the body-parasite scenario to the annihilation outcome] for themselves. This inference from analogy demanded more cognitive effort than the reception of a non-literal statement about the genocide [which was never officially made] would have demanded. The film thus left no doubt about what the Nazis were planning for the Jews but the responsibility for accepting this knowledge was left with the audience, thus making them accomplices of the genocide. By 1942, however, with any Jews now left in Germany forced to wear the infamous yellow stars and any showing of friendliness by non-Jews towards Jews as deemed worthy of arrest or even worse, Hitler’s body rhetoric took on a world perspective:

“Politically, this war is no longer about the interests of individual nations but a conflict between those nations that want to assure their members’ right to exist on this earth and those that have become the will-less instruments of an international world-parasite. The true character of this Jewish international war-mongering has now been revealed to the German soldiers and their allies in that country where Jewry exerts its exclusive dictatorship ... We know the theoretical principles and the cruel truth underlying the aims of this world pestilence. Its name is “dictatorship of the proletariat” but

its reality is the dictatorship of the Jew!”

This is a “them or us” rhetoric in which one or the other must be destroyed [Hitler’s rhetoric regularly combined communists or Marxists with Jews even as in white American eugenicist rhetoric “East European” had become a euphemism for “Jew”] and it would only intensify for the remainder of the war. Jews came to be rhetoricized by Hitler, Goebbels and others as “tearing apart” or “decomposing” humanity or, in a religious metaphor, the “devilish ferment of decomposition”. “Jewish infection” now needed immediate “surgical intervention” but it ultimately became little more than repeated insults as Germany rapidly suffered defeat after defeat and so inevitably lost the war. By this time, however, millions had been eradicated as a fictional pestilence afflicting, first, the German body, then Europe and, thereafter, the world, and the Nazi vocabulary, ideology and rhetoric had enlivened millions of people to participate in murderous genocide. Never try to tell me that stories don’t matter ever again for the core fiction of Jews as the parasites on the body of the German nation had stayed intact in Hitler’s rhetoric from Mein Kampf until the end of the war. Even today, people, anti-Semitic people, see Jews as a singularly potent infection and racism, as such, is stubbornly resistant to more tolerant points of view. Body/politics metaphors and narratives have continued to play their part in this and unsustainable biological narratives are still proffered by racists in their attempts to propagandise others. All across Western Europe and North America, in fact, you will find white supremacist or nationalist organisations, many not even that private or hidden anymore, with quite unitary conceptions of what they are — based on a body and how it looks.


It is bizarre to note, then, that “the body politic” metaphor, if you actually examine it, DOESN’T REALLY WORK AT ALL. Already, if we analyse Hitler’s rhetoric in detail as Musolff has done, we find that “when analysed stringently for logical consistency at either the source level of biology and medicine or at the target level of politics, the metaphor scenario of the German nation’s fight for its life against the Jewish parasite race is riddled with contradictions and non sequiturs.” All it in fact had in Musolff’s analysis was “a high degree of internal coherence”. But this makes it like a soap bubble that is highly likely, sooner or later, to dissolve on contact with air. Hitler’s entire narrative was then intended to exist in its own space without any chance of serious rhetorical or political attack, intended to become a worldview to be inhabited by from which actions and their motivations obviously flowed. Any serious or even perfunctory analysis of the story Hitler wanted to sell would have resulted in questions that, if seriously asked, it could not answer. It was an artificial programming more than it was a collection of ideas organically forming and, of course, it required severely authoritarian and military activities in order to prosecute. It was not freedom but its absolute absence, the requirement to live as directed rather than as one wills. Here actual bodies became conditioned with metaphors of a non-actual body of the German people in order to cause death and destruction to Jewish [and other] bodies in a highly efficient and arbitrary use of rhetoric and fiction.

But the body metaphor in Western thinking is actually quite foundational. We have seen it was used by Hobbes but it is also found in Rousseau and throughout the documentation of political philosophy which founds and justifies Liberalism based on states, governments and nationalities. “The will of the people” and talk of citizens as “parts of the whole” inevitably summon up a vision of a body and in The Social Contract, another seminal text of Liberalism, Rousseau can talk of “the body of society” or the “body of the nation” or the “body of the people” imagined as a body politic. From there various people can be given functions, again by analogy to parts of the body. And away we go again! Even though Hobbes’ body had a sovereign who was “head” and healer king and Rousseau saw the possibility for “revolutionary therapy”, the body metaphor is still doing its work behind the rhetorical scenes.

But I am minded to ask if this metaphor, and the rhetorics it motivates, actually even get off the ground. This is not to ask if it works or is effective; it is to ask if, when interrogated, it functions or falls apart. Clearly, it is common. [Marx referred to bourgeois bureaucracy as a “parasite body” and Lenin portrayed the bourgeois state as a “parasitic organism”, for example.] But this is not my point as one who is politically interested and, especially, as one who is politically interested in an ANARCHISTIC way which wants to eschew the entirety of the liberal political project, based, as it is, on states, governments and nationalities and the policing of people by such things. If the body-politics talk has been foundational and at the heart [!] of this project all along then perhaps it is time to interrogate it and even replace it as not fit for purpose?

I have already made headway at hinting at this, in fact, when noting earlier that bodies are singular, they present as the thing they are rather than as a diversity of things. To think of a nation as a body is to do so in a monotone way. Think of the body of your nation as white, for example, and it cannot be black – or any shade of colour which is too “not-white”. Perhaps this body is thought of as heterosexual or male or cis-gendered or socially conformative, or of fixed housing arrangements, etc. Already, in intersectional ways, you are defining in groups and out groups in your society simply because a body can only be what it is and cannot be what it is not — but which other bodies could be. To think of the nation AS A BODY then seems implicitly socially, politically and culturally divisive for it chooses and so excludes the traits not included in the imaginary body. Yet talk of “imaginary” things is also pertinent for the idea of a nation as a body is, it needs to be said, entirely imaginary. Nations, already entirely artificial in their construction, are, in key ways, not bodies, or like bodies, at all.

Within bodies, for example, can the individual organs go their own separate ways, stopping the connections and relations they find themselves in and taking up others at their mutual discretion? It is highly desirable that those who make up political bodies [citizens] be able to do this but in physical ones organs are stuck with what they are and how they are connected to other things within the body. Similarly, in physical bodies disease or illness effects the whole which, in a real sense, only really is a whole since parts cannot live out their own, independent life. The life of the body is the life of all of its parts in unison but this is a dubious and certainly questionable metaphor if applied to a political body and its members, the citizens of a state, who may exist across a political landscape in various semi-permanent or even ad hoc formations more or less attached to, or involved with, everybody else, each in their own relative states of health or sickness. “The body politic”, one comes to imagine, is actually a metaphor perhaps most suitable to those who want to rhetorically persuade people that they are inseparably tied to everyone else [as, for example, Hobbes, Rousseau and Hitler, for their own reasons, certainly did] and, so the inference seems to be, “or else”. It is, like all language, in fact only another linguistic tool taken up and used for rhetorical purposes. We should not imagine it as a way to verbalise material reality in its intrinsic relations.

I want to leave behind this “body politic” metaphor then because I have what I consider another, better metaphor in mind. We shall get to that shortly but as a lead into it I want to sketch out some political principles that guide me towards it and which strike me as appropriate to an anarchist politics of “nothing to stick to” in the context of the previous four chapters of this book. These principles, and the guiding metaphor they relate to, will then require a further word or two in terms of their philosophical justification and I aim to provide that after going through the principles and the metaphor in what follows.

The sorts of principles I have in mind are then the following:

1. An anarchist politics of nothing to stick to is not a politics of objects or subjectivities but of processes, inter-relations and relationships: it is a politics of reciprocity and sociality.

2. An anarchist politics of nothing to stick to has a politics of a diversity of individuals and cultures as its DNA. It is difference working together.

3. To the extent that current politics is deliberation and organisation in an overarching, hierarchical way, the task of an anarchist politics of nothing to stick to is to overcome this with something better and more horizontal.

4. An anarchist politics of nothing to stick to proceeds without institutions and regardless of institutions. It does not wait for permission.

5. An anarchist politics of nothing to stick to is a politics that does not regard life as the provision of convenience for a privileged few [for “convenience” is never for everyone and not least for those who must facilitate it] but as the individual and collective struggle to overcome obstacles.

6. An anarchist politics of nothing to stick to is an outsiders’ politics, a politics equally applicable to the marginal as to the central [to use a metaphor].

7. An anarchist politics of nothing to stick to is a decentralised politics with no points from which power, or power bases, can be orchestrated in the service of particular interests over against others. It has, then, an actively anti-coercive constitution.

8. An anarchist politics of nothing to stick to is an eco-politics, not a politics of human interests over against the biosphere and the rest of the world.

9. An anarchist politics of nothing to stick to is a politics of the network not a politics of “the body politic”.

10. An anarchist politics of nothing to stick to is a politics of “If the nature of everything under Heaven is not distorted, if the world’s Virtue is not despoiled, then what need is there to govern the world?” [Zhuangzi].

11. An anarchist politics of nothing to stick to is a politics of organising but not at all necessarily of organisations. This is to say that it is functional and task oriented but not in a way which necessarily requires inventing permanent structures to do so, much less permanent structures with authoritative functions.

12. An anarchist politics of nothing to stick to is a politics for here and now – regardless of when or where here and now is.

13. An anarchist politics of nothing to stick to is a politics constituted by the existence of myself and others as an ethical relating-to [imagined as freedom into which we are thrown by birth and which is constituted as a responsibility, ethical in and of itself]. This freedom, and consequent ethical responsibility, exists not because there is a God, or God-like authority, in existence, but because there is not and so the responsibility is ours and ours alone [compare Beauvoir in chapter 2]. This is to say that I exist and others exist and we can either kill each other or discuss how we negotiate our common existence.

14. An anarchist politics of nothing to stick to is a politics of uniqueness not exclusivity — built up from voluntarist relations. What this means is that it is not a politics which gives itself away to bodies or organisations or institutions in the formation of exclusive relationships for pre-determined purposes but is a politics in which the possibility of relationship with others, each on particular and unique footings for mutually-determined purposes, is always available. It is, thus, a community politics not a metropolitan politics. It is not a plan for the world but procedures for enabling flexible local human relationships.

15. An anarchist politics of nothing to stick to is, as in Foucault’s example of sexual relationships from chapter 3, not a matter of something static, permanent or exclusive. It is, rather, an extension of our desires explored through play in order to discover and create new, as yet not existing, forms of relationships [realising “cultural creations”].

16. An anarchist politics of nothing to stick to is a politics as life-creation, as becoming-community, as becoming-culture, as affirmation. It is a creatively cooperative endeavour.

17. An anarchist politics of nothing to stick to is a matter of SELF-DETERMINING RELATIONSHIPS as a reflection of something at the heart of pretty much every previous anarchist-imagined politics.

18. As such, and as my metaphor for all this, an anarchist politics of nothing to stick to is analogous to the MYCORRHIZAL NETWORK, the possibilities of interconnected relationships a social environment presents you with.

A mycorrhiza [from the Greek words μύκης, “fungus”, and ῥίζα, “root” and the plural of which is mycorrhizae, mycorrhiza or mycorrhizas] is a mutual symbiotic association between a fungus and a plant. The term mycorrhiza refers to the role of the fungus in the plant’s rhizosphere, its root system. Mycorrhiza play important roles in plant nutrition, soil biology, and soil chemistry and essentially form an interconnected biological network from which each “member” gets benefits. In some places, by analogy to the Internet, it has been colloquially termed the “Wood Wide Web”. A majority of existing plants communicate via these mycorrhizal networks with other plants of the same or even differing species. Mycorrhizal networks allow for the transfer of signals and cues between plants which influence the behaviour of the connected plants by inducing morphological or physiological changes. The chemical substances which act as these signals and cues are referred to as infochemicals. These can be allelochemicals, defensive chemicals or nutrients. Allelochemicals are used by plants to interfere with the growth or development of other plants or organisms, defensive chemicals can help plants in mycorrhizal networks defend themselves against attack by pathogens or herbivores, for instance, by signalling to summon the threat’s natural enemies, and transferred nutrients can affect growth and nutrition. Results of studies which demonstrate these modes of communication have led their authors to hypothesize mechanisms by which the transfer of these nutrients can affect the fitness of the connected plants in what we may see as a kind of “plant mutual aid”.

By means of a mycorrhizal network plant species of similar or even different kinds can therefore transfer both nutrients and information of benefit to them meaning that, on my previous metaphor of nodes on a network, we might imagine the fungus in this respect being an intermediary node which facilitates connections not otherwise possible to the other nodes themselves. Mycorrhizal networks are created by the fungal partners to green plants and can range in size from square centimetres to tens of square metres and so are not forest-wide phenomena but local networks. There is obviously much more to it than this but this describes the basic idea which I wish to apply as a metaphor. One thing I would point out here in this respect is that no one designed such networks. They simply began to happen, ad hoc, and continue to happen, because they could as differing living plant and fungal organisms negotiated mutually-beneficial, symbiotic relationships. These relationships were negotiated as the furtherance of their biological life and new possibilities emerged as a result of them which were possible before to none of those organisms which joined the subsequent networks. This enables those in such networks to repel threats, live in changing terrain and weather differing environmental conditions besides also providing and enabling living systems which provide for the regular needs of daily life. “Mutual aid” is, thus, a good way to think of it.

But although, as I have stated, this anarchist politics of nothing to stick to is a lot to do with political principles formulated in and by the white heat of actual lived experience [and so, having lived another life, would inevitably cherish and represent other values], and is further informed by the metaphor of the mycorrhizal network, it is also something to do with educated political instinct as well. Thus, statements such as the following from Italian anarchist and iconoclast, Renzo Novatore, find a home here too as statements of principle. Novatore, who said, “Anarchy, which is the natural liberty of the individual freed from the odious yoke of spiritual and material rulers, is not the construction of a new and suffocating society” essentially saw the anarchist task as to be against – actively and materially – any societal form that would constitute itself as a meta-context to human living at all. His politics seemed to stretch as far as his own personal interest did and no farther and what was political about it was only his egoist conception of the world and his belief that people, taking up their own interests, could negotiate their way through life on an ad hoc basis as their needs dictated. He had no grandiose ideas of “society” for he did not think it the place of individuals to imagine the world, or even singular territories, could or should be overseen by what inevitably came to be authoritative organisations and structures. He therefore abandoned the seriousness of politics which wishes to imagine such things for the play of relationships which does not. I think there is something in that.

I think there is something in that, in fact, which is anarchist for when I consider the subject “an anarchist politics” all I find – in contradiction to a liberal capitalist politics or even a communist politics – is that anarchism is the denial of politics or the naturalisation of politics into the business of every day life, an anti-politics. This is only one reason why the mycorrhizal network suggests itself as a suitable metaphor. An anarchist politics of nothing to stick to is not structures or organisations or entities of state or divisions of government. It is your will to be free and your means of directly going about it. An anarchist politics of nothing to stick to is when you have sex, with whom you have sex and how you go about having sex for an anarchist politics of nothing to stick to is, simply put, your anarchist-motivated and articulated life LIVED. An anarchist politics of nothing to stick to is not, then, a plan, an apparatus, a scheme, which succeeds politically where all other such schemes, plans and apparatuses have inevitably failed before. In fact, as I saw a black anarchist of my acquaintance tweet recently, “anarchism is not about establishing a new order”. I agree with this and have written about it before. But let us re-emphasize this and make it explicit, from my perspective: anarchism is not some guiding political philosophy which wants to run the world and, if there are somewhere anarchists who harbour such ambitions, then they should be disabused of this notion in double quick time. Anarchism deconstructs politics as it has been in a liberal context for 400 years. It does not want to create things which weigh people down and become the means of their organisation. Anarchism, at least as I understand it and have argued for it historically in multiple volumes, wants people TO ORGANISE THEMSELVES. I take from this historical impetus the notion of SELF-DETERMINING RELATIONSHIPS and I see little reason to suggest anarchist politics should be about much more than this.

Thus, appropriate words to describe anarchist politics [which, although I keep repeating the phrase, is really something that doesn’t exist] are “play” or “experiment” or “coping” for anarchist politics, being an ethics propagated by means of direct action to pursue felt interests, is not an algorithm for getting or making the world, finally, universally, politically “in order” or “under control”. The anarchist, I would hope, is one who recognises that such things do not, and cannot, [and should not] exist. Instead, the anarchist recognises that there is only “making it up as you go along” or “engaging in relationships that are mutually enjoyed”. You have to remember, in all that has come in the four chapters before, that there is no way to imagine that there is a political way of ways, a lost political treasure some anarchist Indiana Jones can find, which is “the right politics” or “the good politics” or “the one true politics”. There is only people and their needs and wants and their situation in a world where they live with lots of other people and they have to fangle and manufacture and create relationships which become conduits to satisfying their mutual and individual needs – hopefully with as little collateral damage involved in that process as possible. In order to do this the anarchist has particular ethics and values but their politics is really only such things LIVED OUT CREATIVELY AS THEIR LIVES AND RELATIONSHIPS ENABLE, the creating of anarchist cultures and micro-cultures which speak to particular ethics and virtues as means to living out human lives. There’s no special technique or plan of action or dogma the anarchist must follow. The anarchist is simply one who makes of their virtues a culture and the practice of this is “an anarchist politics of nothing to stick to”. This politics is, once more, the idea that all you need you already have for it is no more than you and some others and how you decide to live in a world where you are together even while you are apart. Freedom is living free, as I lately find myself often repeating these days, and this idea should be cherished in the anarchist’s heart as the reason to start creating the mycorrhizal-like relationships which enable ways to do it.

As I come to understand it as I think to myself in order to get something down “on paper” for this chapter, an anarchist politics is the responsibility to live your ethics and values in relationship with other people. My existential references in chapter 2 of this book would regard this as a consequence of having been thrown into life and so a political situation. This is referenced in point 13 above but if you go back and re-read my section of chapter 2 which discusses Simone de Beauvoir’s The Ethics of Ambiguity you will see it there too. So, in this respect, we can call an anarchist politics an ethics practised and, perhaps in its practice, communicated to others, the consequence of our decision to, as Camus insists, revolt. But what might this look like? Self-indulgently, I choose to offer you an example from my own life living in what came to be known as “The Nude House”.

The Nude House is where I currently live and the name is a clue as to what goes on there.

It is, furthermore, an anarchist space modelled after French anarchist Émile Armand’s idea of “amorous camaraderie” [which I have discussed in several previous books of mine at some length and do again below], an idea which encourages all forms of freedom, honesty and openness in human relationships within an expressly ethical [i.e. relational] context. As such, and as an example of this working in ad hoc practice, the following are The Nude House’s current terms of association:

1. The Nude House is a place constituted as an informal free association of people joined together by the strength and honesty of their relationships and their natural affinity. No one should be a member of its community except on the basis of their freely expressed and consistently maintained free will. If and when people want to leave the association then they are free to do so having indicated this to the others in open forum.

2. Those who enter into association in The Nude House are asked to commit to a bond of association with all other members of the house and to treat them as loved and cherished members of a self-contained community that is in the world.

3. The Nude House, as the name suggests, is an entirely “clothing optional” space with an ethic of open sexuality and free love. Freedom in your expression of bodily nudity and open display of sexuality is encouraged, either with other members of the house or with visitors or guests members may introduce to the house.

4. Any prospective new member of the association must be agreed to by all current members of the association in a blind vote. One “no” vote is enough to disallow association. There shall be no more than 8 house members at any one time.

5. Any current member of the community may bring a visitor to the house to visit or to stay on a temporary basis [less than one month] and is regarded to have vouched for them and informed them as to the ethos of the house. If said visitor then transgresses the ethos of the house they are required to remove the visitor and account for what has happened to the rest of the association. A community association such as The Nude House is nothing more or less than the solidarity and honesty of its relationships.

6. Rotas will be posted for domestic duties such as cleaning, cooking, gardening, washing clothes, shopping, etc. These should be regarded as commitments you agreed to in your willing to be a member of the association and should be carried out in accordance with the rotas or otherwise exchanged with another community member by mutual consent.

7. Association members do not get “possession” of a room in The Nude House. Instead, there are private spaces which are either occupied or unoccupied [the upstairs rooms, bathroom aside] and communal spaces, with the kitchen, living room and front and back gardens being these communal spaces. The downstairs and upstairs bathrooms are spaces assigned on the basis of them being in use in which case privacy may be required or asked for. Respect for others’ privacy is encouraged in private spaces [where requested] but in communal spaces you should be aware that each is allowed to do their own thing.

8. As an anarchist affinity association, members of the house may sometimes want to offer shelter or care to people who find themselves without anywhere to stay. All prospective members should be aware of this and regard the house as a welcoming safe haven for those with identified need.

9. The ethos of The Nude House is one of personal responsibility and communal solidarity as a means to modelling a form of anarchist community. Any problems or disputes will, therefore, be dealt with by all members of the house together as matters which affect the atmosphere of the whole house. For this purpose there will be an obligatory but informal meeting once a week at which open and honest discussion of any issues arising will be expected until such time as they are resolved.

10. A member can be asked to leave the house permanently if all the other members agree, stating their reasons why in open forum. And they should have definite reasons.

I mention The Nude House not to say “look at me” or to present myself, or my housemates, as some kind of icons of anarchist virtue but simply to show that human beings with anarchist values can fashion ways to create relationships which go together into creating anarchist cultures that, in other words, issue in a de facto politics. I am not saying anybody else should do this for what I am saying, and have always been saying, is that I and my housemates will find our way and you should find yours. Self-determining relationships should be self-determining! The Nude House is an attempt, in one place and at one time, to figure out this self-determining. It is certainly my fervent hope that lots of other people will create lots of other ways of self-determining as well, in all kinds of contexts, both like and not like this one. The point is to begin and to try.


Consequently, I want say a few words about this existential context I have referred to which puts us into an ethical relationship with others and the living of which may be regarded as the anarchist’s practice of their politics. This, it will be seen, is connected to things I have already said before and speaks to the connection between people and their impetus to relationship but it will not tell them what to do about it. This should not be surprising for anarchism is neither dogma nor doctrine: it is the lived reality of human relationships. What will perhaps be more surprising to readers, however, is that this idea will ultimately be traced back to a German philosopher who, in an unfortunate period of his life, was in league with the Nazis: Martin Heidegger. In regard to that branch of philosophy which is called “continental” and from which the philosophy of “hermeneutics” comes, Heidegger was perhaps the pre-eminent philosopher of the 20th century, his book Being and Time [which was published in 1927 and so before any Nazi involvement] is its monument. The second half of the 20th century was full of very definitely not Nazi philosophers and thinkers who, in their own work, compiled what amounts to extensive footnotes to, and extrapolations from, the work of Heidegger in areas labelled “existential” or “phenomenological” or “poststructural”. [Foucault was self-admittedly one of these people; Sartre and Beauvoir were others.] Heidegger, in Being and Time, did not want to refer to “people” or “persons” or “selves”, an objective way of talking about the subjective idea of people as objects or things. Instead, he used the German word “Dasein” [“being-there”] and gave it all sorts of contextual and social connotations as he tried to create a new language of being and existing in the world in order to, as he saw it, elucidate the contexts, consequences and entailments of human existence. This is what I want to discuss.

I want to do this in relation to the book Heidegger and the Ground of Ethics: A Study of Mitsein by Frederick A. Olafson – who is another interpreter of the work of Heidegger. “Mitsein” is another of Heidegger’s German words to which he gives specific meaning. “Mitsein” quite literally means “with-being” — considered as a verb or activity, the activity of “being with”. I should point out, however, that I am only interested in what Olafson says about Mitsein in his introduction – where he has some suggestive ideas that shed light on what I have been saying about an anarchist anti-politics of ethics acted out in relationships with other people. I am not interested in his argument in the rest of his text or, indeed, with the idea that ethics has, or needs, a “ground”. In fact, in this respect the story I have told here is far too “nihilist” for Olafson and Olafson’s story in his book is not nearly nihilist enough for me. But that doesn’t mean that some of the things he says don’t have their uses with the points I am trying to make.

The first of these is a quote Olafson gives from a seminar Heidegger gave late in his life. The English translation of this is as follows:

“To be subject to the claim that presence makes is the greatest claim that a human being

makes; it is what ‘ethics’ is.”

Olafson notes here that this statement links “presence” [which I am understanding as our existence] with the consequence of “ethics” but what Olafson sees — but Heidegger did not in his seminar — is that it does not link ethics with Mitsein. In other words, and this is the idea that stands out for me, that the fact of our being-with others in this existence of ours might mandate, or at least set up the question, of the ways we are going to go about negotiating our common existence. The point here seems to be, put in my simple language rather than a philosopher’s more complicated one [and Heidegger’s was often the most complicated of all], that wrapped up in the fact of existence, of being a self-aware being that exists as part of a living network of other people and things, certain things follow. Being creates certain questions towards which those who exist must take a stance. One of these is that you are not the only person that exists. You therefore need to decide how you might approach this consequence of your existence. That sounds very individualist but it isn’t for no one is a completely isolated blank slate who picks and chooses their attitudes to things, their beliefs, their answers to questions, from a shelf. We are all socially-formed beings. Above at point 13 of my principles I said we can kill each other or discuss ways to mutually exist and that’s the idea here. My point is that if I exist but other people do too, what Heidegger might have called “being with one another” or Mitsein, then that fact, all by itself, seems to mandate the human activity we call ethics: ethics is a consequence of our common existence, how we go about that “discussion” of how we might continue to co-exist. Unless we all just kill each other.

Both Heidegger and Sartre, who wrote Being and Nothingness as his own, personal interpretation of Heidegger’s Being and Time, wanted to emphasize “authenticity” and the human choice of being authentic to themselves and their existence, the “responsibility” and “freedom” I spoke about in chapter 2. Neither really grapple with the communal consequences of such an idea, however, in these monumental books. [Beauvoir’s The Ethics of Ambiguity was actually her attempt to extract an ethics from Sartre’s book that had been an interpretation of Heidegger’s.] “Authenticity”, however, as Olafson notes, seems like something interpreted by such as these two in individualist ways [leading to the charge that existentialism is an individualist way of existing, antithetical to collectivity]. Olafson suggests that if it is to have any meaning in the context of a life lived with others then what’s needed is a way we can be “authentic together” as well or even instead. Here Olafson pulls out an unheralded bit of Heidegger’s Being and Time where he introduces Mitsein in which Heidegger suggests that “Our being with other like entities is… a constitutive element in our own mode of being as it is in theirs.” In other words, this fact that we exist and other people do to is something which affects the being of all of us. Olafson, in fact, pushes further and argues that in his use of a further term Heidegger suggests that caring about other people is part of our being as well and, specifically, part of our being with others – or even “for the sake of others”. Heidegger, as Olafson reports, never got round to explaining what he meant by this though and so Olafson’s own book is his own pushing on in order to explain how he would understand it bearing the things Heidegger did say in mind.

What I am interested in, however, is how I might interpret it and important to me here is this intersubjectivity which such talk so far has seemed to mandate simply in the fact of a common existence of multiple entities. This is why things like ethics and politics exist for, if we were alone, we’d need neither [and neither would have meaning since both derive meaning from the fact of a multiplicity of beings: they are common achievements and practices]. We have to take seriously, then, the idea that “the sociality of human existence” is as central to it as the fact of our individual existence and that authenticity in one area might require a corresponding authenticity in the other area too. One can think of this as obligations but, if that bothers you, one can think of it as either the consequences of existing or questions of existence equally as well. Olafson, in his book, wants to argue that “Mitsein is not only the ground of ethics in a positive sense, but makes possible a distinctively human wrongdoing and a special kind of evil as well.” I do not go this far because what interests me about it is this idea that a simple existence of many presents the question of the relations between them as part of each individual’s own existence — and as something that is constituted in and by that existence. Olafson goes on to say that “a ground of ethics, as I conceive it, is a distinctive relation between human beings” and this is a formulation which attracts and intrigues me more – that ethics and, ultimately, anarchist anti-politics, finds its reason to be in HUMAN RELATIONS. As in the mycorrhizal networks I mentioned earlier, the fact that other entities exist, with which we can interact to meaningful and mutually-beneficial purpose, is hardly insignificant for the existence of those things. It is then a permanent question presented by the common existence of those things.

This seems to emphasize that no one exists alone and to consequently put an emphasis on human relations. I am onboard with this for my chosen model of the network incorporates such an idea too. In fact, in both economics in a previous book and in politics in this book I would argue that HUMAN RELATIONSHIPS IS ALL THEY ARE REALLY ABOUT. In Heideggerian language Olafson talks about the “mode” we are then in in the world as one which “discloses” the other – which, once more, disguises a further usage of words particular to Heidegger in his own personal creation of a language of being in Being and Time. This is something to do with the character of our being being uncovered in its being-with-others. That others exist says something about us even as our being says something about theirs, a very communal, social way to understand our common existence. Fundamentally here, of course, no one exists alone and so the character of that existence cannot merely be ours for it is set in a wider context than me, myself and I. In some sense, then, we can say that the existence of any one of us discloses not just us as individuals but others as well – we are “reciprocally present to one another” by the fact of our existence. It is this reciprocal presence which Olafson tells us Heidegger called “Mitsein” and it is a relation to one another “for the sake of one another”.

We must then take seriously the notion that our presence on the stage of life carries consequences – not just personal consequences but relational ones too. We must take seriously that we are not objects or subjectivities or things but RELATIONS just as, at the start of this chapter, I talked about the way our bodies were unalterably attached to earth, air, fire and water, defined by relationships. We must then take seriously that my existence says something about yours and yours says something about mine. We must take seriously that common existence, mutual presence, puts us all in the same boat rather than in our individual boats and that working together in relation in that boat is our life’s task. I believe that all that is being said here by Olafson’s interpretation of Heidegger is, in fact, a work of contextualisation. He is talking on the subject of what our presence on the stage means. He is drawing consequence from our being on the stage and the fact that others are on the stage too. This can easily come back to my previous discussion and the freedom and responsibility this mandates. But here we are introduced to social consequences. The freedom and responsibility are no longer just mine as if I existed in cold isolation. The fact is that I don’t. And neither do these others either. “Being for the sake of others” enters into the equation and presents itself as a question. This is constituted by our very presence. To the extent that ethics and their practice in the matter of human relations, politics, even exist, our presence presents the question of how we shall, together, go about them. The question is, thus, put to us that “the fundamental ontological condition of human beings [is] that of being in the world with one another.” This comes before any rules or procedures or dogmas; it is constituted simply by the fact that we exist [and acknowledge that existence]. It is, therefore, existential and our ethical and political responses must therefore flow from this situation as our responses to it. Olafson himself puts that like this:

“What is true is that we are unavoidably implicated in ethical relationships with one another and that in those relationships we are both bound and free. We are bound because we cannot claim a right to treat others in a way we could not accept for ourselves. We are free because it is only in our relation to others that we can acknowledge and realize our own human nature.”

A better way Olafson puts this follows on shortly after this when he talks about, “the sense in which we ourselves may be said to generate the constraints to which we are subject.” This is to say that our existential situation, how we are what we are, is what creates the conditions of our lives. Unarguably part of this is our social nature, the fact that I do not exist alone, the fact that I exist, always, unavoidably, in relation to and with others. Going back to my previous metaphor, we can say that whether the mycorrhizal network exists or not is a matter for the behaviour of the things that make it up but those other things are still out there and their existence does, and will always, affect mine. In a real sense, any existence is then always a CO-EXISTENCE, an existence that exists with, in relation to, and alongside, others. The conditions and borders of all our existences are then generated by such a fact. We are in the lifeboat together whether we interact or communicate or not and this question of relationship always confronts us and so hell, as Sartre intimates in his play No Exit which echoes his less than social interpretation of Heidegger in Being and Nothingness, might then be “other people” but it is a “hell” of which we will always be a part.


That is really all I have to say about “politics” in an anarchist context. But it strikes me that it hasn’t really been very “political” in a way readers might perhaps have been expecting. I would slightly chide my readers in this respect for I have been saying loud and long for quite a while now that anarchism sees things differently and has its own values. What I try to do is present and explain examples of such values in order to create the circumstances for anarchist culture and to demonstrate the anarchist difference. But it seems to me at this point that it would be a good idea to end this chapter which has been addressing political anarchy by providing a discussion about “politics” as it might be more expected in order to show up this difference by direct comparison. In order to do this I am going to finish here with a section interacting with Crispin Sartwell’s book Against the State: An Introduction to Anarchist Political Theory. This book does indeed present an account of liberal politics [politics, that is, as promoted successively by the likes of Thomas Hobbes, John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the kind of politics which sees states and social and political “bodies” as necessary things] that has existed for about 400 years and discuss the anarchist problems with this politics from an anarchist perspective. [Sartwell is an American whose own anarchism is a kind of Emersonian American individualism but we shall come to that in my discussion of it.] What follows, then, will be my attempt to use what I have already said before in this chapter in the context of a discussion of “politics” as was developed in the Euro-American space in recent centuries.

Sartwell describes his own understanding of anarchism – as one who has been an anarchist since age 12 and as one who is a political philosopher – as “the view that all forms of human association ought to be… voluntary”. To the extent that all government is not voluntary, Sartwell also adds that this view entails the further belief that “government should not exist”. I concur with Sartwell in both cases – as you might expect. This is actually the condition that human beings have lived in for most of their life on earth but, in the most recent portion of time, they have instead developed extremely coercive and centralised government based on states which has rendered us all dependent upon them and made us subjects who are expected to get into the habit of obeying authority… or else! Consequently, in the period of time that Sartwell wants to discuss as constructive of the modern nation state – basically from the 17th century onwards – we find that the intellects of the day were those who provided profuse arguments for the legitimacy of states and state government. This nation state could, for example, be said to find its justification, in one form, in Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan or, in another form, in John Locke’s Second Treatise on Government or, in yet another form, in Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s The Social Contract. It could even be said to find justification in Georg Hegel’s Philosophy of Right. In his book, Crispin Sartwell sets out to argue that not only do these books not justify the existence of the state on their own terms [being full of bad arguments as they are] but that, consequently, STATES ARE ILLEGITIMATE IN THEMSELVES.

Books such as these great tomes, which in many cases are still taught today as forms of political orthodoxy, state-justifying texts, have a problem with the anarchist assertion that state power rests on coercion [and that coercion is bad and wrong, making states illegitimate]. They wish to argue either that the state is a contract made with and by the people or that it is an entity consented to [or which should be consented to] by all right-thinking [i.e. rational] people – or both – or that it provides something we should respect. They, and similar books of their age, want to further argue that the state is a utilitarian entity which can prosper equality and perhaps even justice. At any rate, so such books insist, it must be better than “the war of all against all” that Hobbes contrasted the state with. But, as Sartwell playfully raises, if “anarchy” was so self-obviously nonsense, if living in a way without states was clearly screwy, then why would anyone ever need to write books like these to ARGUE for the state as a more rational way to organise human relations? As Sartwell says, “If anarchism is obviously implausible, then the political works of Locke, Hobbes and Rousseau are more or less unnecessary.” So there must be some point they wish to refute [that the state is simple physical coercion] in the books that they write. Sartwell takes anarchism, then, with its foundational accusation that the state is illegitimate, as a fundamental challenge to the state’s claim that it has a right to exist. He says that, “Only an anarchist can show you that, as it happens, you don’t want to be free and don’t trust yourself with freedom.” At least, if you believe in states.

In the modern day we can see the problem of the state in even more bold relief than people like the Digger, Gerrard Winstanley, who was defying the government of England in his day even as Hobbes wrote and published Leviathan, did. Today, using technology and with an ideology of increasing control and centralisation, we are “in a situation where state power more or less extends to every corner of the globe”. This makes anarchy “practically impossible” [if it is thought of as an ideology which holds sway over a territory and the people within it, at least]. State power, says Sartwell, obligates us to it. Living without our independence, it becomes ever harder to even imagine it. We become habituated to state dependence, something which makes anarchism understood in any sense ever more unlikely. How can any “anarchist” argue against atomic arsenals, drones, tanks, machine guns, nerve agents, satellite surveillance, militarised police forces and the like? It could only ever be a token effort, probably doomed to your own destruction as a result. The state uses force until the force seems overwhelming and the idea of ever getting rid of it seems ridiculous. And, indeed, virtually no one can today realistically imagine such force just fading away. By the side of this, the state perpetuates a narrative of its own necessity, the choice that is really no choice at all because the alternative is almost certain death in miserable poverty devoid of capitalist consumer comforts. Meanwhile, the state, of course, never tells you that this reality is actually being imposed upon you BY FORCE and really ALWAYS WAS. Sartwell, in fact, points out that states do not really need to argue for their legitimacy [not least since they are simply the current societal context of life] EXCEPT in the case of the anarchist challenge to their fundamental legitimacy. To this extent, Sartwell regards the state’s relatively recently found love for electoral democracy [with an ever-widening franchise] as an example of “state power legitimating itself in a situation where it has gained a bad conscience”. The state manufactures a fiction of consent and then proceeds on its mission “to produce docile citizens”.

Unlike anarchism as both Sartwell and I understand it [we are not the same in this, he being American and I being European, but are both autonomous enough in our anarchism not to allow such a thing to become either a plan or static organisation], the state is something which has an ideology and a “blueprint for the future”. As anarchists we should, in my view, always be wary of such things – even where social or organisational anarchists are the ones wielding the plans. Marxist states, for example, work to a dogma and in this they are very state-like in going about it regardless of if “the workers” or “the proletariat” are set to benefit from it or not. One reason anarchists are against, and should be against, ALL states, or state-like entities, is exactly because anarchists shouldn’t be those who impose plans on things. Anarchism, as I have been trying to get across, is the belief in SELF-ORGANISATION. It is a matter of SELF-DETERMINING RELATIONSHIPS. As Sartwell puts this, “we want to let people go and see what happens.” States can never do this for they are the forced organisation of people not the free or self-determining organisation of people. This should be taken as an anarchist political line in the sand. It is in this context that Sartwell describes his book as “wholly negative and destructive” in that he is out to destroy any reasonable basis for the existence of the state along lines pioneered by his American forebears Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, William Lloyd Garrison and Josiah Warren. This is to say that Sartwell himself believes that “individuals are sovereign over themselves and that individuals consist of their relations.” I have no argument with this — as should be seen from what has already come before.

Sartwell next moves to a chapter where he wants to define things for the meat of his discussion which will be deconstructing the ideas in favour of states in the key liberal texts I have mentioned where the attempt to justify the state is made on grounds of the state’s being consented to or its utilitarian nature or its ability to procure and provide justice. Here Sartwell repeats that “anarchism” is, for him, “the view that all forms of human association ought to be voluntary”. This then “entails that the political state is never legitimate” or, in what he sees as an equivalent formulation, “that state power is not morally justified”. “Freedom” or “liberty” thus becomes “a relation of men to other men, and the only infringement on it is coercion by men”. [Coercion is not, is never, freedom and “being subject to the will of another” is not either.] The problem here, of course, will be that the state is a series of institutions and practices with the singular intention to coerce, either physically or by what Sartwell refers to as “shaping the consciousness of people who fall into their ambit”. Here he has in mind “prisons, schools and military units” as examples but we might also include “processes in modernity by which people come to know or believe that they are always under surveillance” of which he also makes mention and which lead, once more, to his already mentioned “manufacturing docile personalities”. Sartwell would himself like us to imagine, in this respect, that we each have a “zone of autonomy” around ourselves which stops us from being the “tool or device” of some other person. This is because “subjection to the arbitrary will of another is never legitimate”.

This leads into a short but fascinating and necessary discussion regarding how we are actually to define “state”. I find Sartwell’s way of doing this very convincing. First, we should note that a government and a state are not the same thing. Sartwell defines “government” as “a group of people who claim and to an effective extent exercise a monopoly of coercion, resting on deadly force, over a definite geographical area, and the artifacts and procedures by which they do so.” Such people, of course, can change whereas, and this is a clue, the state never does. In regard to the state, Sartwell quotes the following from military historian Martin Creveld:

“The state, then, is an abstract entity which can neither be seen, nor heard, nor touched. This entity is not identical with either the rulers or the ruled; neither President Clinton, nor citizen Smith, nor even an assembly of all the citizens acting in common can claim that they are the state....This is as much to say that the state ... is a corporation, just as universities, trade unions, and churches inter alia are....Above all, it is a corporation in the sense that it possesses a legal persona of its own, which means that it has rights and duties and may engage in various activities as if it were a real, flesh-and-blood, living

individual. The points where the state differs from other corporations are, first, the fact that it authorizes them all but is itself authorized (recognized) solely by others of its kind; secondly, that certain functions (known collectively as the attributes of sovereignty) are reserved for it alone; and, thirdly, that it exercises those functions over a certain territory inside which its jurisdiction is both exclusive and all-embracing.”

This eventually results in the conclusion that the idea of “the state” is a fictive idea and it only exists because gods did and because kings and emperors did. It is the single will which must be obeyed and which has the power of life and death. Consequently, under such an understanding, wherever you sing an anthem or salute a flag you essentially worship a god [not least because “the state” is merely an idea or a Stirnerite “spook” – and so does not really exist]. As Sartwell puts this, “the state is the imaginary or abstract agent of the acts of a government” and so it is that imaginary entity in whose name government acts much as, in the USA, corporations are imagined to be legal persons that can be injured or who have interests that can be served. This will be worth bearing in mind when we come to ask, politically, how this “person” relates to “the people” – not least since Sartwell also says here that “the state is in its essence an arrangement of coercions” that “stands in need of justification”.

And so we move on to where Sartwell wants to assess the legitimacy, or, rather, establish the illegitimacy, of the state. Here we might ask how Sartwell judges such legitimacy. He says: “I regard the assertion that the state is legitimate as equivalent to the claim that we have at least a conditional duty to obey the laws and other requirements imposed by the state, and to obey the officials of the state operating in their official capacities.” Seems clear enough. However, Sartwell regards “the traditional philosophical arguments in favor of state power” as “remarkably flimsy” and statism “as an orthodoxy that is fundamentally accepted on faith before any argument arises: from the fact that we are born inside the state, which forms our epistemic horizon to a remarkable extent.” In other words, most people accept states because states constitute their normal, their baseline, their what stands fast for them. Almost no one therefore questions if normal is justified or even if it can be other. [This presumption of a “state normal” – and that it looks like the historically contingent states we actually have – is what Davids Graeber and Wengrow seem to set out to undermine in their book The Dawn of Everything.]

The first way states try to justify themselves that Sartwell wants to investigate is the idea of the consensual social contract. [If this contract was not at least presented as consensual then the state would seem to be forced on us from the off.] Of course, it is abject nonsense to say that any state anywhere has ever come into existence on the simple and singular basis of a human consensus to create one. Pretty much all of them came into existence because of the use of violence or mass physical coercion of the population. But that doesn’t stop people like Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau from arguing otherwise! This argument as a justification for the state is abject, pitiful and wrong. The state is not consensual and, mostly, never even tries to argue that it is regardless of bits of paper called constitutions which are cast in contract form as if citizens and “the state” [which doesn’t exist] were obliged to perform duties and accede to conditions. Such things are actually just ways to coerce obedience under the moral weight of some contract you are imagined [and it is wholly imagined] to have agreed to in some way. Yet, of course, even if a state had been consented to by people agreeing to a contract, no one who came after such agreement certainly had. Such contracts cannot bind future people to them just because they happen to be born in a state. Ideas like “the consent of the governed” or “the will of the people” or Rousseau’s “general will” are entirely fictional rhetorical devices and nothing more. They lead, as Sartwell notes, to things like “the dictatorship of the proletariat” or state repression in the name of the people on the basis that, as the state is the result of a consensual agreement to which “the people” have contracted themselves, they have essentially agreed to their own coercion and oppression. Neat trick! But only a trick. As Sartwell then says:

“The state does not in any sincere or serious way solicit the consent of its current citizens, and indeed it proceeds in the knowledge that if it wants, for example, to collect taxes, it had better stockpile weaponry and build prisons… states are conceptually

incompatible with the very possibility of consent.”

We might further note here, of course, in the context of a colonial Europe of expanding empires when the philosophical foundations for such liberal states were first being laid, that such a state was thought to be the epitome of political rationality. Ever since Descartes had decided that our thinking was what grounded us, intellectuals set about rationalising everything – including the state. But such ideas made the people of other lands that Europeans rocked up on subject to the coercive power of foreign states – for such people were in general regarded as sub-rational [since the white Europeans were the rational ones by their own, self-regarding standards]. This justified seizure of their bodies and their lands – assuming they even stayed alive at all. This is what we might call a “shock and awe” crash course in learning about the state. In fact, Sartwell highlights a section of Hobbes’ Leviathan [the creation of an artificial “body” imagined to be a contract of people and state] where he states that people need “a common Power to keep them all in awe” for, of course, Hobbes’ alternative to state power is “the war of all against all”. The state, for Hobbes, is then that which can subdue the people and coerce them to peaceful living. Hobbes has no conception that people can organise themselves peacefully; its all out war or coerced peace as far as he is concerned. People must be rescued from a war-like “state of nature” in Leviathan and this is where the artificial state comes in. Sartwell argues that, in colonial context, this is a barely disguised “defense of European culture against an imagined critique by the savages of America”. The state, in this guise, is then transcending “animal” nature in order to enter the world of “spirit” which, under the guise of the German word “Geist”, can also mean “intellect” or “mind”. The state, so the political philosophers say, is rational whereas, without a state, we are mere animals. This basic attitude is passed down through the echelons of liberal political philosophers pretty much intact to the present day.

The question then is “Why would people, in an attempt to ‘escape nature’, ‘place themselves under the arbitrary and unlimited power’ of a state”? Isn’t the cure here worse than the disease as if committing yourself to one arbitrary power was somehow better than potential random [and much weaker] ones? Hobbes immoral state of nature is upgraded to a moral state of nature in Locke, however, in what issues as a formulation of “natural rights” which, of course, are based on reason. Locke says, for example:

“The state of Nature has a law of Nature to govern it, which obliges every one, and reason, which is that law, teaches all mankind who will but consult it, that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty or possessions; for men being all the workmanship of one omnipotent and infinitely wise Maker; all the servants of one sovereign Master, sent into the world by His order and about His business; they are His property, whose workmanship they are made to last during His, not one another’s pleasure. And, being furnished with like faculties, sharing all in one

community of Nature, there cannot be supposed any such subordination among us that may authorise us to destroy one another, as if we were made for one another’s uses, as the inferior ranks of creatures are for ours. Every one as he is bound to preserve himself, and not to quit his station wilfully, so by the like reason, when his own preservation comes not in competition, ought he as much as he can to preserve the rest of mankind, and not unless it be to do justice on an offender, take away or impair the life, or what tends to the preservation of the life, the liberty, health, limb, or goods of another.”

Based on this sort of thinking Locke’s justification for the state rests “largely on the preservation of property rights”. But Locke thinks that the power of the individual can only be given over to the state in a voluntary act and so, thus, what is needed once again is some kind of consensual contract. Thus, Locke says this:

“Men being, as has been said, by nature, all free, equal, and independent, no one can be put out of this estate, and subjected to the political power of another, without his own consent. The only way whereby any one divests himself of his natural liberty, and puts on the bonds of civil society, is by agreeing with other men to join and unite into a community for their comfortable, safe, and peaceable living one amongst another, in a secure enjoyment of their properties, and a greater security against any, that are not of it. This any number of men may do, because it injures not the freedom of the rest; they are left as they were in the liberty of the state of nature. When any number of men have so consented to make one community or government, they are thereby presently incorporated, and make one body politic, wherein the majority have a right

to act and conclude the rest.”

I’m sure no one missed Locke’s reference to a “body politic” there even as Hobbes had used the same metaphor explicitly in Leviathan. But it seems a very forced metaphor for although Locke talks about the necessity of “consent” to the state as a contracted entity he never shows it to have been given. It is always a “tacit consent” as Sartwell calls it. But Sartwell adds the further point that wherever there is force then consent is always compromised. Fundamentally, Sartwell argues that:

“The claim, common to all states and criterial for them in the anarchist view, to a monopoly of coercion resting on deadly force is incompatible with the claim that participation is voluntary.”

This is to say that to the extent that any and all states claim the sole right to violence, then they cannot also claim uncoerced consent. And that makes the state illegitimate on Sartwell’s anarchist terms and we have no duty to obey it. To repeat:

“the mere existence of an overwhelming force by which the laws will be enforced compromises conceptually the possibility of voluntarily acceding to them. Or put it this way: the power of the government, constituted by hypothesis under contract, by which it preserves the liberties and properties of its citizens, is itself conceptually incompatible with the very possibility of their consent. Consent is not an intrinsic state of an individual person; it is a feature of a person in a setting.”

This to say that there is no such thing as a “consenting person” but there are only people who consent in the context of relationships. No one consents in the abstract to circumstances they are unaware of – or even to all possible circumstances – but only to actually experienced circumstances in the here and now. So consent to a contract with the state can never be “tacit” or assumed for, if it was even sought and it almost never is, it could only take place under current circumstances. This, in fact, is a lot of the force of anarchist opposition to states because anarchists tend to believe in free, uncoerced association whereas states, at best, assume your consent to a current political state of affairs [whereas, in fact, they more often than not simply use force to enforce relationships]. Anarchism and states [or even any state of organisation too strictly enforced] are incompatible on this thinking for the mere existence of state power, let alone the reality of state coercion, takes away consent.

We come to Rousseau and Sartwell has this to say:

“The idea that the political state is a single “body” which, as Aristotle famously put it, is “prior” to the individual, has been called the “organic” conception of the state. It is usually opposed to individualist conceptions captured in classical contract theory, in which the state is the result of the rational, self-interested decisions of discrete persons. Here is Rousseau’s statement, a commonplace by the time he writes: ‘Immediately, in place of the individual person of each contracting party, this act of association creates an artificial and collective body, composed of as many members as there are voters in the assembly and by this same act [which entails “the total alienation by each associate of

himself and all his rights”] that body acquires its unity, its common ego, its life

and will.’”

That’s right, Rousseau is yet another “body politic” man trying to impose false singularity upon the diversity of people reality has provided. Hegel will go even further in his Philosophy of Right, giving to his manufactured “whole” a “sovereignty”. Sartwell remarks here that “One could hardly be an anarchist if one didn’t have an instinctual revulsion for organic conceptions of the state” and, as I tried to explain earlier in this chapter, we must agree. This metaphor is being used by people who want to justify a state as a singular and homogenous entity — and so to make people responsible for their own coercion. The totalitarian possibilities [and, as we saw, actualities] are horrific. This, for example, is Rousseau quoted by Sartwell:

“Now, as the sovereign is formed entirely of the individuals who compose it, it has not, nor could it ever have any interest contrary to theirs; and so the sovereign power has no need to give guarantees to its subjects, because it is impossible for the body to wish to hurt all its members, and, as we shall see, it cannot hurt any particular member. The sovereign, by the mere fact that it is, is always all that it ought to be…

[I]n order then that the social pact shall not be an empty formula, it is tacitly

implied in that commitment—which alone can give force to all others—that

whoever refuses to obey the general will shall be constrained to do so by the

whole body, which means nothing less than that he shall be forced to be free;

for this is the condition which, by giving each citizen to the nation, secures

him against all personal dependence, it is the condition which shapes both the

design and the working of the political machine, and which alone bestows

justice on civil contracts—without it, such contracts would be absurd, tyrannical and liable to the grossest abuses.”

So the sovereign can’t be wrong, the general body shall force people to do things and the whole is more important than the parts. I hope you are following along here. It is in such ways that people like Rousseau regard themselves as educating to liberty. Hegel, on the other hand, simply makes the state “divine”, the heavenly Geist come down to earth. State worship reaches its apotheosis as opposed to nature here and “human beings are raised by and in the state to mind, civilization, history”. We can quote Rousseau on this, once again:

“’The passing from the state of nature to the civil society produces a remarkable change in man; it puts justice as a rule of conduct in place of instinct, and gives his actions the moral quality they previously lacked. It is only then, when the voice of duty has taken the place of physical impulse, and right that of desire, that man, who has hitherto thought only of himself, finds himself compelled to act on other principles, and to consult his reason rather than study his inclinations. And although in civil society man surrenders some of the advantages that belong to the state of nature, he gains in return far greater

ones; his faculties are so exercised and developed, his mind is so enlarged, his sentiments so ennobled, and his whole spirit so elevated that, if the abuse of his new condition did not in many cases lower him to something worse than what he had left, he should constantly bless the happy hour that lifted him for ever from the state of nature, and, from a narrow, stupid animal, made him a creature of intelligence and a man.’

The state is rationality, so Rousseau says here and, because it is rational, it is also moral. For Rousseau and Hegel, in fact, the state is a secular deity. [We know from earlier researches that Nietzsche would have frowned at such an idea too. God is dead, there’s only “infinite sea”.] As a result of all this, however, Sartwell’s analysis is clear and concise:

“The historical origin of the state is not consent, but submission. And the function of contract theory is simply this: to call submission consent or transcendence, fantastically to preserve one’s pride in the face of one’s degradation. The history we have just traversed is a masochist ecstasy.”

Next Sartwell moves to address “utilitarian justifications of state power” in a historical context where the state is now firmly the rational choice of all “proper” political thinkers. This is basically the idea that the state will make life better [for most people and on the whole, the rider we must put on all utilitarian judgments] in a world in which “People are self-interested, brutal, short-sighted, dishonest; they will attempt to get away with anything they can, and they must be restrained by rules and rulers.” This, however, is often the argument superior people put forward of those thought inferior. “We”, of course, are good, honest, upstanding people but “they” are nefarious and not to be trusted. Something must be done to constrain them. As Sartwell puts this, “Very few people believe of themselves that the only thing that keeps them from raping and pillaging is a police force. But they always believe it of someone; they are perhaps picturing poor folks or black folks, people without the sturdy good sense and good intentions of people like us.” The utilitarian argument is then an argument which says “we must restrain the viciousness of human nature” where the state will be a necessary and effective agent of the same. But is it a trustworthy argument to say that:

“to cure people of the selfishness and violence at our heart, we will heavily arm some of them and authorize them to restrain, imprison, or execute others of them”?

Its not, for:

“If it is people you are authorizing in this way, you are liable to be merely exacerbating the problem by your own premises.”

In other words, it is stupid to think that, believing there are at least some people who are a danger to others, you should arm some of them, give them powers of arrest and imprisonment [or worse] and create bodies with a right to violence backed up by a whole apparatus of enforcement. Why would none of the nefarious people who you yourself have posited not find their way into these organisations and institutions and then have even more possibility to wreak their havoc? It would in fact make more sense to go the opposite way and make such things as impossible to achieve as you can so that you could minimise any trouble such people could cause. But that is not what the utilitarian statist thinks. So, as Sartwell then points out:

“Ask yourself: who wants a gun and a club and a license to stun, restrain, and intimidate? No doubt, some public-spirited, duty-inspired young men of good character. And some power-obsessed rapists, robbers, and killers. A police force may really keep someone from committing a rape and may arrest a rapist, hence protecting everyone. On the other hand, wherever there is a rape camp, the people who run it are the police.”

In this way we can see that the “utilitarian” is probably really only thinking about himself. The utilitarian argument is basically the argument of someone who is at least comfortable and so asks himself what it will take to protect his comfort from those who would disturb it. His answer is to create a power that can protect his comfort for him. It never occurs to him that where power increases, accountability fades. He never asks why governments shroud themselves in secrecy all the better to wield their power with impunity. He is more interested in justifying this apparatus of power called the state by arguing that, since there is a contract between people and state, it is in our human interest that we keep our promises to the state and it keep its promises to us so that common happiness may be maintained. So it is, for example in philosophers like Hume or Bentham, all about our allegiance to this state and its duty to protect us for, so this thinking goes, the state is reasonable and that is what is needed to restrain possibly anarchic passions in the people. The only problem here, as Sartwell shows with laser accuracy by producing a table of the “major mass killings of the twentieth century”, is that the creation of the state has lead to an exponential increase in the ability of men to kill other men by ever more technological means. It is states which create nuclear arsenals and bombs which can atomise human beings. And they aren’t always so shy about using them. State power is undeniably deadly power – and we are not counting in single figures. States are responsible for huge death tolls and a considerable number of massacres. So maybe the state is good and maybe it is bad but, as Sartwell says, “there is… only one way to find out for sure and that is to put the lives of everyone at stake.”

So, as Sartwell himself goes on to say in regard to the state:

“This force is an always-full reservoir of utilitarian disaster. It may be that the power of some particular state is never turned to genocide or wars of aggression, though there is never power on this scale that is not significantly abused. But if the U.S. government turned on you all of a sudden, took your home and herded your family into a camp, resistance would be ridiculous. The force possessed by this body is absolutely overwhelming, annihilating, and hence it is always potentially your own annihilation. Let the state be as benevolent, as utilitarian, as legitimate as you please, the sheer fact of its overwhelming force is the distant whiff of burning flesh. No force in human history has caused more suffering and death, and one would think that would give practical-but-optimistic utilitarians pause. The power which a utilitarian places in the state to help old folks and poor folks and unlucky folks can always be turned against such folks, or against utilitarians for that matter, and only a fool could examine the history of the twentieth century and not see that once such a power is constituted, all bets are off.”

In creating a force to control the other “nefarious” people you actually create a force that could control, or kill, ALL the people. Any power that was strong enough to do what you wanted would also be strong enough not to do it – and to start gaining more power for itself. Since state power is ultimately the need for a monopoly of violence on its own part, the state is actually the pet monster you create to protect you but which ends up inevitably rampaging out of control. Therefore:

“If you really think that people are basically greedy and vicious, then the only rational conclusion is that all concentrations of power are dangerous, and only complete decentralization to the level of autonomous individuals provides any sort of decent prospects for the long-term survival or happiness of human beings. As long as you believe that people are occasionally greedy and vicious, large concentrations of state power can be predicted to have disastrous long-term results.”

We come now to “justicial justifications of state power”, that is, not justifications of the state which rest on empty theories of our consent to the state or its utilitarian character but on theories which argue, quite sincerely, that the state can promote social justice and specifically “the achievement of a just distribution of social goods and social tasks”. Here we are moving in the territory of Plato but also of lauded modern liberal theorists of the state such as John Rawls and Robert Nozick. For such people a state is justified if it can be argued to demonstrate desirable [according to who?] social qualities as a result of its existence.

I must admit, however, that I barely pay this argument any attention or give it any credence for it is prey to all the utilitarian criticisms only more so. Any power that could promote justice could equally promote, indeed, institutionalise, injustice. Sartwell himself says that “state power is characteristically wielded to enrich some and impoverish others.” And there is still the question, left unanswered, that I never consented to this coercion of the state – for “justice” or not doesn’t really matter for the consent point in general – anyway. No wonder, then, that Sartwell quotes Henry David Thoreau’s wish not to be part of any incorporated society which he did not volunteer to join. Moreover, “On this principle, I am as obligated under the government of a Mussolini as under the government of a Jefferson, and my obligation is undertaken as voluntarily.” It really must be questioned how statists can argue for states on the basis of “justice” when they don’t even allow you to express your own consent to the state but rather assume it – by force.

The argument here, which seems rather idealist to me in any case, is that people are duty bound to obey “just” institutions of state but, as Sartwell notes, even were we to accept this premise, this would mean we would not have to obey any state that has yet existed for injustice is easily demonstrable in all cases. States are habitual THREATS to justice rather than engines of its creation. The corruption of states and their use of force rather than fairness in the carrying out of their duties is the staple diet of the daily TV news. State power and its monopoly of deadly force are the basis on which its “justice” stands – but, that being so, we may doubt if this is any justice at all. Or, as Sartwell puts it: “constitute a power that is sufficient for the enforcement of the laws, and you constitute a power that is easily the biggest threat to this enforcement.” How can you trust any power which prohibits murder but kills on its own recognisance? This is just one more rationalisation of state power that refutes itself even on its own terms for, just as no one has consented to the state and the state is not utilitarian in its nature, neither is it just. If we are duty bound to obey just states then we are duty bound to obey no states for states are not just and are, in fact, riddled with corruption and contradiction.

So, if the state fails even in the terms of those who argue for it, what takes its place? Sartwell offers a “silhouette of an anarchism” to close out his book on anarchist political theory and he is good enough to present it to us in 9 points. He says:

I aspire to an anarchism that:

(1) rests on the idea that each person is the owner of herself, or is self-sovereign;

(2) takes the individual human body to be the primary location of consciousness, identity, decision, and responsibility;

(3) is fundamentally nominalist with regard to collective entities such as peoples, classes, nations, institutions, families, and so on and thus seeks to explain the action of such entities by appeal to the states and transformations of the individuals out of which they are composed;

(4) does not regard human beings as merely self-interested or incapable of altruism;

(5) does not regard human beings exclusively in their economic aspect and does not seek to reduce human action to a single dimension of causation, but rather to recognize a plurality of personalities and motives;

(6) emphasizes the connection of the individual to other persons as constitutive of individuality, but asserts that an affirmation of individuality is the first moment in re-establishing this connection;

(7) emphasizes the connection of the individual to the order of nature—to nonhuman creatures and inanimate objects—and its constitution out of such relations;

(8) is not an amoralism or an immoralism or a libertinism but is compatible with and encourages conscience and self-discipline;

(9) does not prescribe any particular set of social arrangements but leaves such arrangements to the voluntary decisions of individuals.

I repeat Sartwell’s points here not to explicitly recommend them – although I don’t particularly contest any of them – but simply to demonstrate another self-understanding of anarchism and its principles for this, in my thinking, is exactly what anarchism is about. Sartwell has demonstrated this in his thinking and in his self-education [and, as a teacher, education of others] in the work he has done to critique the state and provide a self-determined and self-understood alternative. Anarchism is thinking for yourself and this is what Sartwell has done. Important here is that Sartwell, unlike some “anarchists” I am aware of, argues that we have to take “the autonomy [or for that matter the pain] of each person seriously”. We have to treat people as individuals rather than as fodder to be organised by some plan, force or institution [for which inauthentic body metaphors are often found to come in useful]. So that Sartwell takes individuals seriously is a good guide to the fact that we are on anarchist ground, at least as I understand that ground. Sartwell rightly, in this respect, correlates responsibility with autonomy – as I have done throughout the first part of this book. To have responsibility you must have autonomy and without autonomy you have no responsibility. But what of the state? Sartwell says:

“we may say [this] is the moral essence of the state and perhaps really its ultimate purpose: to form people up, or ball them up into something, to homogenize them or blend them into a single body—the Leviathan, body politic, or general will—mashing people like potatoes for the purpose of relieving everyone of responsibility for the killing, the robbery, the extortion, the kidnapping. The state must be understood primarily as a fantastic collective agent that relieves the soldier, the judge, and the bureaucrat of responsibility for whatever can be understood to be an official function. The state is a mechanism for the fantastic reconstruction of human beings into things, that is, objects with no agency, no autonomy, and no responsibility.”

States, bodies and “general” collectives are, more often than not, ciphers for control, for de-individualising people and for taking away their agency, autonomy and responsibility. In fact, as Sartwell goes on to say, it can get quite embarrassing for anarchists if they are judged in regard to such generalising entities as anarchists have no detailed plan or ideal pattern of how the political future should unfold. They have values, sure, and they have ethics and, just as importantly, an ethical commitment to the future of human beings: BUT they don’t have a plan to impose or a blueprint to follow. We should, in my opinion, be very wary of any who do. There is not a “rational” or “scientific” solution that anarchists seek to impose on either anarchists in particular or the world in general and even the desire to want to do so is, in my opinion, dubious and unanarchistic to begin with. People are not just rational machines who have to be set down someone’s chosen path; they are individuals with their own thoughts, ideas, beliefs, desires and relationships and the anarchist gives them as much respect as they give their own. This is why, in my conception, anarchism can only ever be the forging of self-determining relationships or self-organisation: what else honours such respect for individual people? Much better to see this as the mycorrhizal network than the body politic.

Sartwell, it turns out, isn’t so far away from me on this and uses his own “root” metaphor or, rather, that of Ralph Waldo Emerson who said, “A man is a bundle of relations, a knot of roots, whose flowers and fruitage is the world.” Sartwell goes on from this to talk about perceptions that “penetrate the body” becoming incorporated into it and so, accumulating, constituting the person. It, of course, stands to reason that this would be an ongoing life process of constant change in which “the self is constituted in its relations” and this mirrors my own understanding of both persons and communities as political entities. This, of course, makes us all unique and nothing static, constantly evolving sets of relations. About this, however, Sartwell says something enlightening:

“The progress of human life in this sense is a continuous individualization: the longer we live, the less like one another we become. This is a simplistic statement of the sort of view I want to take, which would also take into account the nature of human faculties and would understand experience as a continuous flow of physical penetrations of material that is transformed in the body and re-emerges.”

The point here is that this continuous and ongoing process of individualization IS THE ENGINE OF ANARCHY. It is not the bane of some desired political organisational scheme [anarchistic or statist] collectively imagined [although it is that too] but the only chance for actual anarchy to occur. Unfreedom, or the collective attempt to coerce or homogenize experiences in order to reduce or better make use of them, is not anarchy and can never be anarchy at all. Power will always attempt to reduce individuality because all it wants to do is coerce it but in so doing it squashes anarchy until it is dead. Anarchy is unfettered freedom, the self-determined choice to organise relationships in this way rather than that. Political power, and the political empire building that goes with it, centralised as it always is and must be, then sets itself against the very process by which freedom is achieved and maintained. Freedom is the wild garden Emerson’s quote suggests not the serried rows of human-induced agriculture which insists on an entirely artificial “order”. As it is often said, there are no straight lines in nature and there should be none in anarchism either. Therefore, human relationships can never be circumscribed or manufactured, they can never be planned out in advance or pre-determined. There is no algorithm or formula of anarchism. We must become content with what Sartwell refers to as “the bristling particularities of the social relations of each person.” We could also add, as John Cage often did, that we should try to interfere with the world as little as possible for “you will only make matters worse”. This, then, is my anarchist politics, that only under conditions devoid of authoritarian control do we actually have any chance to build a politics of autonomy and responsibility and respect and cooperation based on, and understood as, self-determination and self-organisation.

However, as Sartwell closes his own book, I cannot tell you how that might go or what to do. And that, in fact, is precisely the point. As Sartwell writes:

“to describe an ideal set of social arrangements or distribution is to beg the question against anarchism, because one must envision constituting a power capable of realizing that arrangement. Within political philosophy, anarchism is the position that we should let go and see what happens.

This means that anarchism cannot be the rival of any theory of justice. Anarchism, rather, constitutes the realm that is as a whole the rival of the realm of theories of justice. It corresponds to a non-instrumental consciousness of our relations to one another and to the world. It is a sort of consciousness that does not set an ideal and then try to force the world into that configuration, but allows the world and ourselves to grow wild.”

We are back to the metaphor of mycorrhizal networks. GROW WILD! There could scarcely be any better anarchist political motto than that!

6. What is There in Anarchy for Emma Goldman?

I move now to a chapter on Emma Goldman whose life and thought, mostly in her own words, I intend to investigate and interrogate as one long interested and inspired by the things I have read about her. If, for example, you read the first ten chapters of her memoir, Living My Life, written in the late 1920s and first published in 1931, you immediately get a sense of a young woman of great passion and sensitivity who had a childhood in parts of the Russian Empire and in German-speaking Königsberg that was at times physically brutal at the hands of a violent father and vicious teachers, relatives and acquaintances. The young Goldman was whipped, punched, kicked downstairs and sexually abused by those in whose care she was under and also recounts the forced attentions of a young man upon her teenage body in a Russian hotel room as well as being struck by her mother for being found touching her youthful sex. Yet a third thing we find in these early chapters, besides a woman of great passion and sensitivity who had endured a physically testing upbringing, is an emphasis, in her retelling of how she began her life as an anarchist in New York, on “the Cause”.

This was particularly brought to her attention due to her being introduced to a young man with a large appetite in a cafe for radicals in New York on her first day there in August 1889. That man was to be her companion through adult life, Alexander Berkman. It was Berkman who was, at first, so animated by “the Cause” and who chided Fedya Stein, their common friend and confidant, for spending money [which they barely seem to have had very much of] on what Berkman thought of as “luxuries” but which Stein and Goldman thought of as “necessaries” that would bring some beauty and enjoyment into life. It was Goldman’s intuition, as it was Stein’s [who was an artist], that attachment to “the Cause” did not mean one had to live like a monk or a nun in a life of ascetic denial. [In this respect we get Goldman’s story about revolution and dancing.] Berkman had a different idea, however, and Goldman mentions “the Revolutionary Catechism” in this respect, the work of the Russian nihilist, Sergey Nechayev, that was first produced in 1869, the year of Goldman’s birth. This document sets out the demands upon the anarchist revolutionary [anarchist and nihilist have similar meanings in this context] and I quote it here below in full to give a flavour of what Berkman meant by “the Cause” and so the standard which Goldman found herself confronted with upon her falling in with Russian and German anarchists:

The Duties of the Revolutionary toward Himself

1. The revolutionary is a doomed man. He has no personal interests, no business affairs, no emotions, no attachments, no property, and no name. Everything in him is wholly absorbed in the single thought and the single passion for revolution.

2. The revolutionary knows that in the very depths of his being, not only in words but also in deeds, he has broken all the bonds which tie him to the social order and the civilized world with all its laws, moralities, and customs, and with all its generally accepted conventions. He is their implacable enemy, and if he continues to live with them it is only in order to destroy them more speedily.

3. The revolutionary despises all doctrines and refuses to accept the mundane sciences, leaving them for future generations. He knows only one science: the science of destruction. For this reason, but only for this reason, he will study mechanics, physics, chemistry, and perhaps medicine. But all day and all night he studies the vital science of human beings, their characteristics and circumstances, and all the phenomena of the present social order. The object is perpetually the same: the surest and quickest way of destroying the whole filthy order.

4. The revolutionary despises public opinion. He despises and hates the existing social morality in all its manifestations. For him, morality is everything which contributes to the triumph of the revolution. Immoral and criminal is everything that stands in its way.

5. The revolutionary is a dedicated man, merciless toward the State and toward the educated classes; and he can expect no mercy from them. Between him and them there exists, declared or concealed, a relentless and irreconcilable war to the death. He must accustom himself to torture.

6. Tyrannical toward himself, he must be tyrannical toward others. All the gentle and enervating sentiments of kinship, love, friendship, gratitude, and even honor, must be suppressed in him and give place to the cold and single-minded passion for revolution. For him, there exists only one pleasure, one consolation, one reward, one satisfaction — the success of the revolution. Night and day he must have but one thought, one aim — merciless destruction. Striving cold-bloodedly and indefatigably toward this end, he must be prepared to destroy himself and to destroy with his own hands everything that stands in the path of the revolution.

7. The nature of the true revolutionary excludes all sentimentality, romanticism, infatuation, and exaltation. All private hatred and revenge must also be excluded. Revolutionary passion, practiced at every moment of the day until it becomes a habit, is to be employed with cold calculation. At all times, and in all places, the revolutionary must obey not his personal impulses, but only those which serve the cause of the revolution.

The Relations of the Revolutionary toward his Comrades

8. The revolutionary can have no friendship or attachment, except for those who have proved by their actions that they, like him, are dedicated to revolution. The degree of friendship, devotion and obligation toward such a comrade is determined solely by the degree of his usefulness to the cause of total revolutionary destruction.

9. It is superfluous to speak of solidarity among revolutionaries. The whole strength of revolutionary work lies in this. Comrades who possess the same revolutionary passion and understanding should, as much as possible, deliberate all important matters together and come to unanimous conclusions. When the plan is finally decided upon, then the revolutionary must rely solely on himself. In carrying out acts of destruction, each one should act alone, never running to another for advice and assistance, except when these are necessary for the furtherance of the plan.

10. All revolutionaries should have under them second — or third — degree revolutionaries — i.e., comrades who are not completely initiated. These should be regarded as part of the common revolutionary capital placed at his disposal. This capital should, of course, be spent as economically as possible in order to derive from it the greatest possible profit. The real revolutionary should regard himself as capital consecrated to the triumph of the revolution; however, he may not personally and alone dispose of that capital without the unanimous consent of the fully initiated comrades.

11. When a comrade is in danger and the question arises whether he should be saved or not saved, the decision must not be arrived at on the basis of sentiment, but solely in the interests of the revolutionary cause. Therefore, it is necessary to weigh carefully the usefulness of the comrade against the expenditure of revolutionary forces necessary to save him, and the decision must be made accordingly.

The Relations of the Revolutionary toward Society

12. The new member, having given proof of his loyalty not by words but by deeds, can be received into the society only by the unanimous agreement of all the members.

13. The revolutionary enters the world of the State, of the privileged classes, of the so-called civilization, and he lives in this world only for the purpose of bringing about its speedy and total destruction. He is not a revolutionary if he has any sympathy for this world. He should not hesitate to destroy any position, any place, or any man in this world. He must hate everyone and everything in it with an equal hatred. All the worse for him if he has any relations with parents, friends, or lovers; he is no longer a revolutionary if he is swayed by these relationships.

14. Aiming at implacable revolution, the revolutionary may and frequently must live within society while pretending to be completely different from what he really is, for he must penetrate everywhere, into all the higher and middle-classes, into the houses of commerce, the churches, and the palaces of the aristocracy, and into the worlds of the bureaucracy and literature and the military, and also into the Third Division and the Winter Palace of the Czar.

15. This filthy social order can be split up into several categories. The first category comprises those who must be condemned to death without delay. Comrades should compile a list of those to be condemned according to the relative gravity of their crimes; and the executions should be carried out according to the prepared order.

16. When a list of those who are condemned is made, and the order of execution is prepared, no private sense of outrage should be considered, nor is it necessary to pay attention to the hatred provoked by these people among the comrades or the people. Hatred and the sense of outrage may even be useful insofar as they incite the masses to revolt. It is necessary to be guided only by the relative usefulness of these executions for the sake of revolution. Above all, those who are especially inimical to the revolutionary organization must be destroyed; their violent and sudden deaths will produce the utmost panic in the government, depriving it of its will to action by removing the cleverest and most energetic supporters.

17. The second group comprises those who will be spared for the time being in order that, by a series of monstrous acts, they may drive the people into inevitable revolt.

18. The third category consists of a great many brutes in high positions, distinguished neither by their cleverness nor their energy, while enjoying riches, influence, power, and high positions by virtue of their rank. These must be exploited in every possible way; they must be implicated and embroiled in our affairs, their dirty secrets must be ferreted out, and they must be transformed into slaves. Their power, influence, and connections, their wealth and their energy, will form an inexhaustible treasure and a precious help in all our undertakings.

19. The fourth category comprises ambitious office-holders and liberals of various shades of opinion. The revolutionary must pretend to collaborate with them, blindly following them, while at the same time, prying out their secrets until they are completely in his power. They must be so compromised that there is no way out for them, and then they can be used to create disorder in the State.

20. The fifth category consists of those doctrinaires, conspirators, and revolutionists who cut a great figure on paper or in their cliques. They must be constantly driven on to make compromising declarations: as a result, the majority of them will be destroyed, while a minority will become genuine revolutionaries.

21. The sixth category is especially important: women. They can be divided into three main groups. First, those frivolous, thoughtless, and vapid women, whom we shall use as we use the third and fourth category of men. Second, women who are ardent, capable, and devoted, but whom do not belong to us because they have not yet achieved a passionless and austere revolutionary understanding; these must be used like the men of the fifth category. Finally, there are the women who are completely on our side — i.e., those who are wholly dedicated and who have accepted our program in its entirety. We should regard these women as the most valuable of our treasures; without their help, we would never succeed.

The Attitude of the Society toward the People

22. The Society has no aim other than the complete liberation and happiness of the masses — i.e., of the people who live by manual labor. Convinced that their emancipation and the achievement of this happiness can only come about as a result of an all-destroying popular revolt, the Society will use all its resources and energy toward increasing and intensifying the evils and miseries of the people until at last their patience is exhausted and they are driven to a general uprising.

23. By a revolution, the Society does not mean an orderly revolt according to the classic western model — a revolt which always stops short of attacking the rights of property and the traditional social systems of so-called civilization and morality. Until now, such a revolution has always limited itself to the overthrow of one political form in order to replace it by another, thereby attempting to bring about a so-called revolutionary state. The only form of revolution beneficial to the people is one which destroys the entire State to the roots and exterminated all the state traditions, institutions, and classes in Russia.

24. With this end in view, the Society therefore refuses to impose any new organization from above. Any future organization will doubtless work its way through the movement and life of the people; but this is a matter for future generations to decide. Our task is terrible, total, universal, and merciless destruction.

25. Therefore, in drawing closer to the people, we must above all make common cause with those elements of the masses which, since the foundation of the state of Muscovy, have never ceased to protest, not only in words but in deeds, against everything directly or indirectly connected with the state: against the nobility, the bureaucracy, the clergy, the traders, and the parasitic kulaks. We must unite with the adventurous tribes of brigands, who are the only genuine revolutionaries in Russia.

26. To weld the people into one single unconquerable and all-destructive force — this is our aim, our conspiracy, and our task.

We know from how Emma Goldman writes about Berkman’s attitude to “the Cause” in the early chapters of her memoir that she was not entirely onside with such attitudes as this because Berkman came across to her in this respect as harsh and joyless, particularly in his constant complaining about any perceived luxury fellow anarchists spent their money on. Berkman seems to have been a young revolutionary who thought there was no room for the slight extravagance or enjoyment in life. Goldman was not of the same mind and instinctively wanted life to be about enjoyment, beauty and the occasional treat. We can see right from her first meeting with Berkman, in fact, that her “beautiful ideal” was what motivated her interest in anarchism, a perhaps utopian wish that all could find joy and beauty in life, each as they wished. In fact, as she expressed to the gentleman in the immortalised dancing incident, a “cause” that didn’t involve such joy and beauty was not anything she was interested in. One should not make the mistake, however, of concluding from this that Goldman was some naive wallflower or empty bohemian. She had an instinctive need, and an invective talent, for feeling hard done by – both on her own part and on the part of those for whom she felt affection — and she consequently didn’t hold her tongue about it! She seems to have had this from her mother’s womb for she recounts multiple childhood occasions where she was punished for knowing exactly what she wanted regardless of consequences and saying so to her inevitable detriment. It would be a talent she never lost.

In 1892 Alexander Berkman and Emma Goldman were the two main figures in a plot to assassinate Henry Clay Frick, a violently anti-union man who had decided to stop negotiation with factory workers on a collective basis, fire them all and only rehire them on individual terms. He fenced off the factories and hired private detectives to physically reinforce his policy decisions. His actions caused headlines and this brought him to the attention of Goldman and Berkman who, for a couple of years now, had been looking for a way to involve themselves in their “Cause”. They seem to have both instinctively realised this was it and came very easily to the conclusion that Frick must die [for propaganda reasons]. So it was that, in July 1892, Berkman tricked his way into Frick’s office, shot him three times before being clubbed to the floor with a hammer and further managed to stab Frick before being pummelled into unconsciousness. Berkman would receive a 22 year prison sentence as a result, serving 14 years.

The effect on Goldman was also noticeable, however. In her memoir she occasionally feels shame that she had not been there to suffer the same fate as Berkman and belittles her own hardships besides those of the man now imprisoned. She acts, sometimes violently, in defence of Berkman when some others, like her initial “teacher” in anarchism – Johann Most – decried his actions and their uselessness. [In this respect, Goldman purchased a horsewhip and struck Most with it repeatedly at a public meeting at which he was speaking.] But, more than this, it seems to me that Goldman, who now had to make her own choices without her companion Berkman to confer with, felt the need to put herself in harm’s way, realising that “the Cause” – like an “ideal” — was not a matter of holding private beliefs about which one did nothing. In fact, not least in the light of Nechayev’s Catechism, it could never mean any less than total commitment and action, albeit that Goldman would always be a person who fought within herself over the place of personal desires in regard to the requirements of the Cause.

Thus, it is that just one year after Berkman’s imprisonment we find Goldman giving the following speech in Union Square, New York, at a gathering of starving and unemployed workers:

“Men and women… do you not realize that the State is the worst enemy you have? It is a machine that crushes you in order to sustain the ruling class, your masters. Like naïve children you put your trust in your political leaders. You make it possible for them to creep into your confidence, only to have them betray you to the first bidder. But even where there is no direct betrayal, the labor politicians make common cause with your enemies to keep you in leash, to prevent your direct action. The State is the pillar of capitalism, and it is ridiculous to expect any redress from it. Do you not see the stupidity

of asking relief from Albany with immense wealth within a stone’s throw from here? Fifth Avenue is laid in gold, every mansion is a citadel of money and power. Yet there you stand, a giant, starved and fettered, shorn of his strength. Cardinal Manning long ago proclaimed that ‘necessity knows no law’ and that ‘the starving man has a right to a share of his neighbor’s bread.’ Cardinal Manning was an ecclesiastic steeped in the traditions of the Church, which has always been on the side of the rich against the poor. But he had some humanity, and he knew that hunger is a compelling force. You, too, will have to learn that you have a right to share your neighbor’s bread. Your neighbors — they have not only stolen your bread, but they are sapping your blood. They will go on robbing you, your children, and your children’s children, unless you wake up, unless you become daring enough to demand your rights. Well, then, demonstrate before the palaces of the rich; demand work. If they do not give you work, demand bread. If they deny you both, take bread. It is your sacred right!”

Notable in Goldman’s descriptions of this event is the feeling she had that she had to do something to support and encourage the workers of the East Side among whom she had been living and who, in some respects, were the natural members of the anarchist ranks. She also did this in the face of her new lover, Edward Brady, an Austrian come to New York who supported the Cause but who had very different ideas about commitment to it than Goldman did [and so who did not share her “ideal”]. In particular, he seemed to regard men as the head of women and women, much as Goldman’s father had, as simple babymakers who should settle down, having been allocated a husband, to become wives and mothers. Thus, before this speech, we find Brady telling Goldman that “he will not permit” her to get involved in any action [Goldman had, previous to this, been quite sick with tuberculosis] and Goldman being possessed of, not for the first or last time in her life, a strong and undeniable call to the Cause and the need to deal with the personal consequences of that call. There was never any doubt that Goldman was going to do what she felt in her bones she had to do and, consequently, she set herself on a path of personal frustrations with those who wanted to restrain her from giving her all as she felt she had to. Although Goldman would have many great loves in her life, and although these would always cause her great anguish as a result, these loves never ultimately were as important to her as her personal attachment to the Cause, something that greatly disappointed Goldman since all she really wanted, but really never got, was a passionate love with a man who shared her values. Her bond with Berkman, one born out of their jointly planned attack on Frick but which was not a sexual bond after his release from prison, was the closest she would ever come.

Goldman was arrested a few days after the speech in Union Square and was about to face her own imprisonment of ten months for incitement to riot. Of course, she chided herself for being concerned about it when her companion Berkman was still potentially facing two decades inside. If he had been prepared to sacrifice everything then she must be too. Her memoir contains several references to her doubting the strength of her own “revolutionary faith” [Goldman’s text, although she was a stout atheist, contains many religious references. She calls Berkman “consecrated” and a “martyr”, for example] and doubting the point or efficacy of actions undertaken, not least the attentat for which Berkman was now suffering. Goldman, in her retelling of her story, always, in such times, sets a “beautiful”, “high” or “great” ideal before her and the description does not seem completely shorn of religious zeal – albeit that Goldman would have disdained such an idea. Yet this is how it comes across and Nietzsche’s charge that the various socialisms and anarchisms of the day were all so much secularised Christianity does not now seem so far-fetched when one considers the actual language Goldman uses to describe what she is doing and why in her own words; “No sacrifice is lost for a great ideal.”

Indeed, we may say that Goldman seems to regard her path as both sacred and committed, something that no one, whether close friend or beloved lover, should expect her to deviate from. It was a course that, once chosen, no one could reasonably expect her to give up and is demonstrative of the fact that anarchism, for Goldman, was not just some private interest one took part in whilst living “normal life”. It was a call which demanded everything and was ultimately more important than even deeply desired relationships [the most obvious analogue of which is exactly the religious call]. Goldman openly acknowledges this conflict in her text, saying, “To the end of my days I should be torn between the yearning for a personal life and the need of giving all to my ideal.” But, unfortunately for Ed Brady as for others who, from time to time, wished to normalise Goldman to the life of wife and mother, Goldman’s view was that “anarchism… embraces every phase of life and effort and… undermines the old, outlived values.” The ideal must ultimately eclipse that which had come before and so disappoint everyone stuck in the past who could not step forward to face an anarchist future as Goldman could.

“Of what use are ideals that you cannot live up to?” is then a question constantly present in Goldman’s memoir. In other words, you must expect suffering, and be prepared to suffer, for the values of anarchism, for these values, and the commitment they demand, are not compatible with either “normal life” or with inaction on their behalf. [“Nothing worth anything in life is achieved without pain.”] Goldman was certainly not blind to the fact that this zeal for the Cause made her stand out in a world of inauthentic people who could read radical literature all day yet never have a single word of it genuinely penetrate their sleeping minds so that they woke up to a new reality [a complaint of hers]. So, as Goldman says of herself in relation to Ed Brady: “What I prized most was freedom, freedom to do my work, to give myself spontaneously and not out of duty or by command. I could not submit to such demands; rather would I choose the path of a homeless wanderer; yes, even go without love.” And ultimately in Brady’s case, as with that of every other lover, she did.

Emma Goldman was neither the first feminist nor the first anarchist. Along with her comrade-in-anarchy, Voltairine de Cleyre, she was, however, the pioneer of bringing these two together and insisting that they implicate and entail each other. Goldman, probably even more than de Cleyre, who ploughed her own valuable and individual furrow, was one who pushed the consequences of anarchism back into the constitution and practice of every single human relationship – including that between husband and wife and that between parent and child. In this respect, she had novel and, to many, even among anarchists, disturbing ideas about the place of women in society and how children should be raised and schooled. Who else but Emma Goldman can we imagine standing in Peter Kropotkin’s own house in England and carrying on a heated debate with the master of the house about the necessity of “the sex question” [as women’s rights were called in those days] to the anarchist Cause? As Goldman tells the story, Kropotkin backs down when Emma sarcastically points out that Kropotkin is an old man who is past sexual enjoyment and so can no longer be expected to regard it as a concern. Yet we should note that Goldman’s views on the emancipation of women and the collective raising of children [so not merely by their biological parents] are only taking further than perhaps Kropotkin could himself see his own notions of mutual aid and human cooperation as the effective means of a new political relationship between people. Goldman was thinking out the consequences of Kropotkin’s own ideas more fully than even he was and Goldman was not afraid to push the revered academic of the movement further than he wanted to go in order to see it.

This leads us to ask a question of Goldman that so many commentators on her anarchism seem bound to ask even though, in reality, it really doesn’t matter much: what kind of anarchist was she? Many commentators here, usually people who imagine they have skin in the game, want to polemically assign Goldman a label in order to classify her and ‘put her in her place’ in so many words. [Murray Bookchin’s constant and indecent haste to assign her to an “individualist” anarchism is here only the most obvious, and most obviously rushed, example.] But that doesn’t do Emma Goldman justice for I believe she was novel in her approach – unique even, as we might expect a student of Max Stirner to be – and so calling her an “anarchist communist” [as Kropotkin and Malatesta] or an “individualist” [by which she would have understood the likes of Benjamin Tucker who she certainly regarded as having different priorities to her] doesn’t really work.

Readers of my other books will say, of course, that I myself wanted to include her in the pantheon of “egoist” anarchists in my last book, Egoism Explained, and this is true since a person who mentions Stirner and Nietzsche in the course of her work and who talks about “my ideal” rather than “the ideal” would seem open to an egoist interpretation which I would find it almost impossible to deny as at least part of her make up. Yet, as we know, Goldman also claims allegiance to the teachings of Kropotkin in regard to communistic organisation [not that egoism, at least Stirnerite egoism, would be against this for that was against “sacred communism” not communism as a form of human organisation] and so she is not woodenly simplistic or ridiculously partisan about being a representative of an identifiable “wing” of anarchism. Emma Goldman, in my view, has a personal vision in regard to what is important in anarchism and, in that, I believe we see what is most anarchist about anarchism at all: that you do your own thinking for yourself and come to your own conclusions about it and then form your own friendships which leads to your own action. Goldman is clear in Living My Life that her anarchism is never dogma and that is how she lived it as well — so we should be loathe to label her in this respect.

But this is not to say, of course, that there were not things which make Goldman’s own profession of anarchism distinct and, contrary to much disparaging thought on her own intellectual prowess in this regard, substantial. It is true to say that Goldman was not a detached theorist of anarchism in the way, for example, that her friend and colleague Kropotkin was. Goldman was an agitator, an activist, a person who got out amongst it who had something to say, a woman who would take police punches to the face which knocked her to the ground and knocked out her teeth [which actually happened], in order to have her say. She was one who wanted to rouse people from their incarcerated slumbers rather than one who wanted to teach theories about utopian social arrangements. Her concern was emotional and responsive to human suffering rather than detachedly theoretical.

It was, thus, also practical in its purpose and intent, a way that she thought people could avoid the social, moral, political and economic binds they found themselves in if only they would begin thinking for themselves. Goldman’s was an “eyes open” kind of anarchism and the purpose of her activity was to open eyes so that new kinds of human relationship could then be seen for the first time as matters of human possibility. Her enemies in this respect were then things most people never seemed to doubt – the legitimate existence of political states and governments, property rights, church dogmas, hierarchical and patriarchal morals, the economics of capitalism – and her actions were in order to make people doubt both the inevitability and the justification of all of them. Goldman, I would maintain, was as theoretically radical as any anarchist you could name and for this reason: she took seriously the anarchist idea that you should think and act for yourself in order to come up with your own construction of what it is about in lived practice. Perhaps most characteristic of Goldman in this respect is that SHE REFUSED TO CHOOSE BETWEEN A PURELY INDIVIDUALIST ANARCHISM AND A PURELY COMMUNIST ONE. SHE INSISTED ON BOTH AS NECESSARY FOR ANARCHISM. Another way of saying this is to point out that Goldman refused to narrow anarchism down to either politics or economics or social organisation. Her anarchism was an anarchism of everything from personal desires to world politics – and everything in between.

We can see this from her first decade as an anarchist, the 1890s. In this decade she took part in an assassination plot with Berkman in the matter of an industrial dispute that was, from the outside, not really anything to do with her, was herself imprisoned a year later for inciting the crowd at a New York rally for starving workers during an economic crisis, travelled to Europe twice, in 1895 and 1899, during which time she lectured abroad, met with other anarchists [such as Kropotkin, Malatesta and Louise Michel] and educated her own mind with the books of Nietzsche, the lectures of Freud and the plays of Ibsen, and engaged in nursing practices which, amongst other things, regularly brought her into contact with prostitution and the poor. Throughout this time, at least in her own memoir, Goldman maintains an active sex life with multiple interested parties and it seems, at least in her telling of her own story, as if this is as important to that story as some workers’ strike she was mobilising money and support for or the matter of Berkman’s imprisonment and actions to have his sentence commuted or otherwise reduced. Anarchism for Goldman in these years begins from the position that anarchism is not the matter of some external organisation of people which eschews state and government but is a matter of the personal values one holds which, at least in Goldman’s case, seem to mandate her to certain actions and to responsibility and response. In this respect it is interesting that Goldman talks in Living My Life about “the Cause” or her “ideal” [whether great, high or beautiful] for this is basically another way of talking about an ethic. Goldman’s anarchism was not a set of rules to be followed or a set of dogmas one could transgress but it was an ever-present ethic which made one responsible — both for their own life and the lives of others.

And Goldman took that cause, ideal or ethic seriously. She felt she had no choice and she seems to have always been measuring herself against others in this respect, whether the Haymarket anarchists who had given their lives for the Cause or Berkman who had paid the 14 year price for their assassination plot, something she stated she would never be able to forget and which bound her to him for life as a result. Where others gave so much and suffered so much for their beliefs Goldman seems to have imagined she could not be expected to give any less. Anarchism did not kill her in the way, for example, it killed Albert Parsons or August Spies or the other Haymarket anarchists who first inspired her to be of anarchist beliefs herself [although it certainly took a physical toll] but it did require, or so she felt, that she constantly put herself in harm’s way whatever the outcome [as she did before both American and Russian governments]. There are, in fact, numerous occasions Goldman willingly put herself in harm’s way where her end could have been violent and final, occasions where lesser men, let alone women, would have feared to tread. For years Goldman braved police, and sometimes mobs, who, to put it mildly, did not have her best interests at heart and if, on those occasions, she had died, no one in authority would have cared. She often received notes from people wishing her dead or describing, in violent detail, the sexual violence and suffering twisted men wanted to inflict upon her. [In this latter case she even remarks upon the ingenuity of the “perversions” to which such men were giving witness in so doing, things which she thought would interest scientists of sex.] Emma Goldman, with her “ideal” and “the Cause”, held herself to a standard, one that required taking responsibility and engaging in response, both to personal desires but also to social and political problems. The ethical demand was to her both obvious and necessarily engaging. She could not, as she often said, turn away as a result. We see this most clearly in her first major interview by Nellie Bly that brought her to public attention on the occasion of her imprisonment for incitement to riot in September 1893. Asked why she was an anarchist, what her object was and what she hoped to gain, she is quoted as replying:

“We are all egoists… There are some that, if asked why they are Anarchists, will say, ‘for the good of the people.’ It is not true, and I do not say it. I am an Anarchist because I am an egoist. It pains me to see others suffer. I cannot bear it. I never hurt a man in my life, and I don’t think I could. So, because what others suffer makes me suffer, I am an Anarchist and give my life to the cause, for only through it can be ended all suffering and want and unhappiness.”

I take this, from my own regular research on Goldman’s life, to be a thoroughly authentic answer that was as true about her as anything she ever said [something also verified in her around 10–12 year association with nursing in order to support herself]. Goldman’s actual one true love was not Berkman or Ed Brady or the later Ben Reitman with whom she would engage in a ten year affair that was the pinnacle of her sexual life, but “the Cause” or her “ideal” [described in a letter published in 1894 by the New York World after her release from imprisonment as “to open the eyes of the oppressed and show them a way to a better condition”]. Goldman was a professed believer in “free love” but, in this respect, we may say that her free love extended to personal affairs which spoke to deep desires in her heart and her body, sexually conceived, but which always, in some way, interfered with her one true love that was “the Cause” – and which were always doomed to lose out to it. Goldman’s was, in this respect, an egoistic anarchism of enlightened self-interest, but an enlightened self-interest she also wanted passionately to ignite in others. Hers was not an abstract political desire to set the world on a course to better organisation of its resources but a response to feeling, to suffering, to desire. Since such things are universal and ineradicable, Goldman came to the logical conclusion: she must dedicate her life to improving human relationships and so the consequences of human relationships. Yet not in a static or theoretical or political way, but in a personal and voluntary and direct way. Goldman’s method was to lead the horse to water but then let it decide if it wanted to drink or not. She was always of a mind that the final and important step was one you had to take yourself and that, in so doing, you liberated yourself to new possibilities in the only way you really possibly could.

In general terms, Goldman impugned systems not individuals – but these were not merely political or economic systems but moral and ethical systems as well. In this respect, Goldman took anarchism right back to the most basic and immediate things one has upon being born, one’s immediate relations, one’s childhood. Get this wrong, Goldman thought, and it would be an uphill battle against values imbibed with mother’s milk thereafter. It is therefore not at all surprising that two strands of Goldman’s anarchistic thought were the emancipatory education and raising of children and the emancipation of women [not least over control and expression of their own sexuality, thought then, as now, to be at the heart of “womanhood”] in total. She thought such things not desirable add-ons after some imagined political breakthrough but necessary to the breakthrough itself. Goldman seems to have seen, where notably many male anarchists did not [and still do not] see, that social and moral anarchism are completely and utterly necessary to any achievement of political change. You cannot change the outside whilst the inside is imprisoned in certain morals and ideas – something we still know to our cost today as more and more “rights” are taken away. In this respect, she found an echo in the Mujeres Libres of Spanish anarchism with whom she would meet and work for some time later on in the final decade of her life. They, too, faced a struggle in which “political” anarchism was seemingly oblivious to the need for anarchism of social and moral consequence that affected human relationships at a basic level. Goldman, in fact, was a pioneer of seeing anarchism as more than a quarrel about political organisation and we should all be entirely grateful that she took such a broad view on its implications lest the philosophy had remained stuck as a matter of politics, economics and little else. This was seemingly never Goldman’s view, however, and in her published essays, to which I now turn, she demonstrates this admirably.


Anarchism and Other Essays is the name of the book Goldman published in early 1911 that presented what she thought of as polished versions of talks she had been giving in various social contexts for several years as an expression of her anarchism. These are not just essays about what anarchism is or what about politics and/or economics is wrong with the world, however. Twenty years of anarchist expression on her own behalf after she threw off the shackles of reading Johann Most’s scripts as a fledgling anarchist reveal a woman as keen to talk about the dangers of majorities, the worthlessness of prisons, patriotism and puritanism, and the emptiness of what is currently in her context being called “woman’s emancipation” as anything else. In this presentation of the thought of Goldman she wants to include more pieces about women as prisoners of their sexuality – either inside or outside of marriage – than she does about “anarchism” as a thing in itself. Of course, it is the same values animating her thoughts about Francisco Ferrer and his “modern” education of children as it is her reflections on “the modern drama” but, to someone not familiar with Goldman, it might seem an eclectic selection of pieces and, I must add, it is certainly one specific to her time and place. Her reflections on marriage, for example, carry less force 111 years later because marriage has, over that century and a bit, become less popular and more people are now prepared to forego it in their relationships with others. Her words about marriage being a prison for women therefore carry less overall weight than they would have in her context. But this is not to say that such pieces are now valueless. As I go through her 12 essays in this book I will seek to draw out those things that I think of value to us.

I actually want to begin with Goldman’s preface where she explains that the essays have come from her career to date and form a kind of summary of it in terms of interests and ideas. Here she, perhaps surprisingly, expresses disappointment in her platform career of speaking to gatherings all across America because oral presentation doesn’t actually do much more than assault people with an idea, perhaps wake them up to it. More than once, in fact, Goldman expressed disappointment that in oral engagements it was more a matter of spectacle or entertainment [many came to hear her just to see what would happen] when what she actually wanted was to educate people who were seriously interested in her ideas and so took them seriously. She wanted to interact with people keen to learn and so prepared this book just for such people as would take time to read it and digest its ideas. [I know the feeling Emma for I wholeheartedly share it.] Yet, more than this, Goldman was of the mind – in line with her views about education – that people will only really learn in regard to that which excites their mind and has caught hold of them. This becomes a matter of what sort of people they are and how conscientiously they have prepared and fertilised the soil of their minds in order to receive seeds which might grow into something more. Goldman actually even states in this preface that she would really rather reach those actually animated by her ideas rather than performing for a crowd of those who simply want to be amused. Goldman, as we should see, was SERIOUS in her concerns. It wasn’t an act in search of fame for its own sake. Goldman was, in this respect, not at all cynical.

Something else Goldman’s preface is notable for is its mention of Max Stirner and Friedrich Nietzsche. The immediate context is anarchism as the freedom of the open vista which the anarchist propagandist, such as Goldman, does not fill in for the DETAILS of the anarchist future ARE FOR PEOPLE TO FILL IN THEMSELVES. This is the whole point of a “no leaders” political philosophy, is it not? Goldman, heading off an imagined response to what she will consequently NOT say about anarchism in what follows, says:

“’Why do you not say how things will be operated under Anarchism?’ is a question I have had to meet thousands of times. Because I believe that Anarchism cannot consistently impose an iron-clad program or method on the future. The things every new generation has to fight, and which it can least overcome, are the burdens of the past, which holds us all as in a net. Anarchism, at least as I understand it, leaves posterity free to develop its own particular systems, in harmony with its needs. Our most vivid imagination cannot foresee the potentialities of a race set free from external restraints. How, then, can any one assume to map out a line of conduct for those to come? We, who pay dearly for every breath of pure, fresh air, must guard against the tendency to fetter the future. If we succeed in clearing the soil from the rubbish of the past and present, we will leave to posterity the greatest and safest heritage of all ages.”

Her second point in this respect of wanting to correct assumptions before they are made on the basis of her later text is in regard to her preference for minorities over majorities and consequent lack of trust in the public mass. It is here she brings in Stirner and Nietzsche as examples of those who have, as far as she is concerned, been misconstrued on the basis of random excerpted sentences from their larger works. Fearing the same in regard to herself, she praises Nietzsche as one who “called for a state of society which will not give birth to a race of weaklings and slaves” and Stirner as one whose “individualism contains the greatest social possibilities [but] is utterly ignored. Yet, it is nevertheless true that if society is ever to become free, it will be so through liberated individuals, whose free efforts make society.” Goldman adds here that if she is later to be read as an enemy of the people for “repudiat[ing] the mass”, she would rather accept this than be accused of encouraging them like a demagogue. Her “faith”, she states, lies in the direction of “the potentialities of the individual” for “Only when the latter becomes free to choose his associates for a common purpose, can we hope for order and harmony out of this world of chaos and inequality.” This brief catechism shared with the reader by the by in the form of a preface is actually one of her most anarchist statements in the book.

The lead essay of the book is “Anarchism: What it really stands for” and we can take it from the title that it was a subject Goldman was used to speaking on in a world of sensationalist newspapers who advertised anarchists as bombers and assassins [as they had done repeatedly even of Goldman herself]. Goldman begins here seeing anarchism as a “progressive idea” and, as such, as something no doubt to be prey to the “ignorance and venom of the world it aims to reconstruct”. Indeed, Goldman will refer to “the ignorant mass” or some similar compound idea multiple times in these essays and we may imagine that after 20 years of public speaking Goldman had come to know what kind of response she was to expect to her ideas from “the public”. Casting these as those who reason like “a child” and “make no pretense of knowledge or tolerance”, Goldman moves quickly along to what she likely experienced as the two most common objections to anarchism, these being that “Anarchism is impractical, though a beautiful ideal” and, second, that “Anarchism stands for violence and destruction, hence it must be repudiated as vile and dangerous.” In neither case does Goldman regard her audience as having any education on the subject — although she does credit them with “hearsay or false interpretation” – but she is prepared to consider it and offer a reply.

In fact, that reply, in its major thrust, actually impugns the very ignorance she imagines those who offer such evaluations are speaking from as that which is really destructive. She states:

“How is the ordinary man to know that the most violent element in society is ignorance; that its power of destruction is the very thing Anarchism is combating? Nor is he aware that Anarchism, whose roots, as it were, are part of nature’s forces, destroys, not healthful tissue, but parasitic growths that feed on the life’s essence of society. It is merely clearing the soil from weeds and sagebrush, that it may eventually bear healthy fruit. Someone has said that it requires less mental effort to condemn than to think. The widespread mental indolence, so prevalent in society, proves this to be only too true. Rather than to go to the bottom of any given idea, to examine into its origin and meaning, most people will either condemn it altogether, or rely on some superficial or prejudicial definition of non-essentials. Anarchism urges man to think, to investigate, to analyze every proposition.”

Goldman, who had before this very briefly offered a defence of anarchism’s practicality as that which could revivify stagnant waters or build as well as sustain new life, here then presents anarchism, first, as INTELLECTUAL CURIOSITY and thoughtful seriousness. One wonders what she would consequently make of today’s “anarchists” who seem to spend all day sharing “memes” or “shitposts” on social media platforms. Goldman here stands for putting the mind to work for the cause in an intellectually taxing way and, inasmuch as people in general do not, they fall under her judgment, a victim of society’s worst violence: willed, lazy ignorance.

Goldman now offers the following definition of anarchism:

“ANARCHISM: The philosophy of a new social order based on liberty unrestricted by man-made law; the theory that all forms of government rest on violence, and are therefore wrong and harmful, as well as unnecessary.”

Saying that government rests on “violence” here means, of course, physical force but we should not forget the aforementioned “ignorance” as violence too for government certainly no less rests on lack of intellectual engagement than it does on police and their weaponry. Governments rely on the stupidity and lack of curiosity of the mass of the people exactly because it so eviscerates their ability to even want to assert their rights or demand their freedoms [which it might never even have occurred to them they had] and this, in fact, will be a major point for Goldman who has a holistic and totalising view of anarchism and its consequences which are a matter of “every phase of life” and not just some bits in distinction to others. Anarchism for Goldman is a matter of “individual, as well as collective; the internal, as well as the external phases.” Important here, too, is that these not be opposed as that which must cast the other out as if we must choose the internal OR the external, the individual OR the collective. Goldman will not have this and demands their harmonious integration. “Self-realization” is not for Goldman the nemesis of “mutual helpfulness and social well-being” [or vice versa] but its entirely necessary companion.

I do not think it would be wrong in my interpretation of Emma Goldman’s anarchism, however, to say that she sees in the concrete human being, the individual, that entity which lives and loves and actually experiences life, the thing which “social well-being” is actually for. It is individual people who can be enslaved or suffer violence; collectivities only do so in the abstract whereas individuals do so in their material persons. When Goldman thinks of the goods anarchism can do it is goods for individuals to experience in their consciousness of themselves [although, of course, not at all necessarily by themselves and Goldman, as is well known, was not averse to sharing and experiencing “good” with others] rather than as abstract collectivities. But her conception of anarchism doesn’t then separate people out into individuals; rather, it harmonises individual and social instincts as organs necessary to the same body [yep, here we go again!] as the following excerpt shows:

“Anarchism is the only philosophy which brings to man the consciousness of himself; which maintains that God, the State, and society are non-existent, that their promises are null and void, since they can be fulfilled only through man’s subordination. Anarchism is therefore the teacher of the unity of life; not merely in nature, but in man. There is no conflict between the individual and the social instincts, any more than there is between the heart and the lungs: the one the receptacle of a precious life essence, the other the repository of the element that keeps the essence pure and strong. The individual is the heart of society, conserving the essence of social life; society is the lungs which are distributing the element to keep the life essence — that is, the individual — pure and strong.”

Goldman has a nice line in keeping individual and social integrated into a wider whole here in a way almost Daoist in its conception [yin and yang? Individual and social?] in which neither can ever be jettisoned for then that whole would be shattered and have a necessary ingredient missing. This, then, is the answer to how someone who praises Stirner and Nietzsche, but also Kropotkin, Malatesta and Louise Michel, someone who was in the social anarchist group of Johann Most but then also the Autonomie group of Josef Peukert, can incorporate “social” but also “egoist” ideas into her conception of anarchism. [I do not believe, by the by, that Goldman was ever really knowingly interested in supporting a partisan form of anarchism. It seems to me she simply and quite willingly blended whatever ideas seemed good to her, wherever they came from, in her own unique blend. In 1894 Voltairine de Cleyre, who emerged from the individualist brand of American anarchism propagated by Benjamin Tucker, referred to Goldman as a “communist” whereas, in 1994, Murray Bookchin, in his own past a Marxist, communist and social anarchist – and soon to be a Communalist – insisted Goldman was an “individualist”. I think this says more about Goldman’s commentators than about Goldman herself who is clear to always keep individual and social together as equally necessary aspects of anarchism.] Goldman, echoing words of Ralph Waldo Emerson whom she thought of as a home grown American anarchist, can praise the “individual instinct” as “the thing of value in the world” but can also talk about “the re-born social soul” as a “still greater truth”. One never negates the other. Anarchism, in fact, “is the great liberator of man from the phantoms that have held him captive; it is the arbiter and pacifier of the two forces for individual and social harmony.”

But what then keeps the individual and social from their imagined harmonious cooperation? What are the enemies of anarchism? Goldman names three:

“Religion, the dominion of the human mind; Property, the dominion of human needs; and Government, the dominion of human conduct, represent the stronghold of man’s enslavement and all the horrors it entails.”

We might put these in other ways, for a moment forgetting the historically contingent wrappers Goldman has put them in, and say that Goldman’s anarchism is primarily concerned with people’s freedom to think uncoerced, their material circumstances and their freedom to act and to associate. Goldman herself wants to say a little more about each of them in what follows as well though. Thus, in reference to religion, she urges “Break your mental fetters, says Anarchism to man, for not until you think and judge for yourself will you get rid of the dominion of darkness, the greatest obstacle to all progress.” Property Goldman regards as “the denial of the right to satisfy… needs” and she launches into a diatribe about the squalid economic conditions of her day [which she had experienced in factories and brothels for herself] which she regards as “machine subserviency”. Still talking about property and the economic conditions it creates for the individual she says:

“A perfect personality, then, is only possible in a state of society where man is free to choose the mode of work, the conditions of work, and the freedom to work. One to whom the making of a table, the building of a house, or the tilling of the soil, is what the painting is to the artist and the discovery to the scientist, — the result of inspiration, of intense longing, and deep interest in work as a creative force. That being the ideal of Anarchism, its economic arrangements must consist of voluntary productive and distributive associations, gradually developing into free communism, as the best means of producing with the least waste of human energy. Anarchism, however, also recognizes the right of the individual, or numbers of individuals, to arrange at all times for other forms of work, in harmony with their tastes and desires.”

Goldman notes here that such an idea is only possible “under complete individual and social freedom” and so where there is no accumulation of private property, consequent inequality of wealth and so inability of many to satisfy basic needs, putting them at the mercy of others. As Goldman says herself: “wealth means power; the power to subdue, to crush, to exploit, the power to enslave, to outrage, to degrade.” It is, thus, wrong in itself.

On the matter of government, Goldman is happy to follow in the footsteps of Americans Emerson and Thoreau, the first of whom thought all government is tyranny whilst the second thought government “but a tradition, though a recent one, endeavoring to transmit itself unimpaired to posterity, but each instance losing its integrity.” At each step, thought Thoreau, governments, through their laws, make people daily more unjust. Government, thinks Goldman, wants to reduce people to clockwork, to cogs in a mechanism whose actions can be controlled and so predicted with complete accuracy. She sees government as that which commits “the greatest of all offenses”, that being “the annihilation of individual liberty”. The State, that in whose fictional name government serves, Goldman thinks of as “the altar of political freedom and, like the religious altar, it is maintained for the purpose of human sacrifice.” Government, Goldman concludes, is just the policeman of property, the muscle which guarantees wealth stays with those greedy and exclusively self-interested enough to have accumulated it. Its only use is the defence of monopoly. It serves no vital life function in the relationships of the mass of people but acts instead as their jailer in what is essentially a vast open prison. Government knows only force “the club, the gun, the handcuff, or the prison” and so is not “a natural law”. Such natural laws, in fact, “the demand for nutrition, for sex gratification, for light, air, and exercise” need only “spontaneity and free opportunity”. They do not need the violent coercion which is the singular talent government has shown an aptitude for. All government offers is “order derived through submission and maintained by terror” but, states Goldman, “True social harmony grows naturally out of solidarity of interests.” It cannot be coerced.

Government then creates a kind of hothouse atmosphere in which everyone is on edge and force and coercion are everywhere. This atmosphere Goldman regards as inimical to individual and social harmony, a “[misdirection of] human energy into the wrong channels” which forces people to do “things they hate to do, living a life they loathe to live” whilst presenting it as nature-born necessity. Goldman is discussing this in the context of crime [which she thinks government-imposed circumstances necessitate even whilst the biggest criminal is “the State”] around which the state erects vast institutions of coercion and force when it is liberty and not control which is alone able to create harmony in and between human beings [and so which would be most beneficial in stopping “crime” should you even concede its existence to begin with]. Goldman, who was one who read psychology and sociology books, is here charging that government doesn’t even have the sense to create a social environment which could produce that which it says it wants [a crime-free society]; instead, it blindly and bluntly proposes violence as the answer to all social ills in a way not at all smart but simply dogmatic.

That said, however, the way to ACTUALLY produce such a society is obvious:

“To achieve such an arrangement of life, government, with its unjust, arbitrary, repressive measures, must be done away with. At best it has but imposed one single mode of life upon all, without regard to individual and social variations and needs. In destroying government and statutory laws, Anarchism proposes to rescue the self-respect and independence of the individual from all restraint and invasion by authority. Only in freedom can man grow to his full stature. Only in freedom will he learn to think and move, and give the very best in him. Only in freedom will he realize the true force of the social bonds which knit men together, and which are the true foundation of a normal social life.”

The formula here is very simple but no less profound for all that and is the very irreducible kernel of Goldman’s anarchism: only in freedom can individuals and societies be the best they can be, be who they can really become; they can never be so by force, force which is all that government ever has, and ever will, offer. Consequently:

“Anarchism, then, really stands for the liberation of the human mind from the dominion of religion; the liberation of the human body from the dominion of property; liberation from the shackles and restraint of government. Anarchism stands for a social order based on the free grouping of individuals for the purpose of producing real social wealth; an order that will guarantee to every human being free access to the earth and full enjoyment of the necessities of life, according to individual desires, tastes, and inclinations.”

“Social order” but never forgetting “individual desires, tastes and inclinations” – that is the Goldman way. And this “social order” can only ever be based on “the free grouping of individuals” for that is the only real “liberation” when contrasted with coercion and force. But how to achieve this?

“As to methods, Anarchism is not, as some may suppose, a theory of the future to be realized through divine inspiration. It is a living force in the affairs of our life, constantly creating new conditions. The methods of Anarchism therefore do not comprise an iron-clad program to be carried out under all circumstances. Methods must grow out of the economic needs of each place and clime, and of the intellectual and temperamental requirements of the individual... Anarchism does not stand for military drill and uniformity; it does, however, stand for the spirit of revolt, in whatever form, against everything that hinders human growth. All Anarchists agree in that, as they also agree in their opposition to the political machinery as a means of bringing about the great social change.”

It is not then brought about by politics. It is neither a dogma to be followed in all times and all places. It is contextual, circumstantial, suited to those who carry it out and for whom it is intended. Indeed, it must be this for anarchism is intended to make the lives of specific people in specific places better and so it MUST come from them and be fitted to their specific circumstances. From this we can imagine as many specific manifestations of anarchist living as there are those to carry them out. Hence Goldman refers to Tolstoy, Bakunin and Kropotkin as those who may each legitimately prefer their own methods and to different locations as having different needs. She doesn’t see anything wrong with this; in fact, she seems to think it quite obvious.

In particular, however, Goldman warns against “the political superstition… still holding sway over the hearts and minds of the masses”. Goldman opposes this with Stirner’s egoism, saying that “true lovers of liberty” will “believe with Stirner that man has as much liberty as he is willing to take”. Anarchism, then, is not about politics or getting trapped in the political systems of electoral democracies but is about DIRECT ACTION [here we have warrant to understand this in Stirner’s sense too]. This is:

“open defiance of, and resistance to, all laws and restrictions, economic, social, and moral. But defiance and resistance are illegal. Therein lies the salvation of man. Everything illegal necessitates integrity, self-reliance, and courage. In short, it calls for free, independent spirits, for men who are men, and who have a bone in their backs which you cannot pass your hand through.”

“Open defiance” is not a prescription which leaves much room for manoeuvre. It is not, for example, hiding in a corner or keeping out of the way or playing politics. It is the prescription of deliberate, purposeful, civil disobedience in economic, social and moral spheres. It requires courage and Goldman is glad about this for it will show us who is for real and who is a fake. It will also show people what is necessary and what can only be failure. You cannot achieve the freedoms Goldman seeks by being shy and timid, by hoping to fit in with your imposed surroundings, by hoping someone else will achieve individual and social liberty for you. It is an act you must achieve, deliberately, purposefully, for yourself in acts of defiance and resistance: in acts of ILLEGALITY. I believe that what Goldman is actually doing here is saying that if you want anarchy then you MUST BECOME ANARCHY. You must be that which you want to see. There is no other way. You must take the responsibility yourself in a scenario in which what is sought for is exactly that people take responsibility for themselves.

I think, in fact, that this is actually the lesson of Emma Goldman herself. Goldman is not a theorist of anarchism and what she says about it is simple and rudimentary at best. But that is to miss the point for Goldman’s point is not that anarchism is theoretical but that it is LIVED. It is how you live your life in courage, honesty and integrity. It is facing down police and mobs as she did hundreds if not thousands of times. It is being known for living your values as Goldman was over decades [for example, in being sneered at by moral hypocrites as a believer in “free love”]. It is being prepared to break the law and being honest enough to accept the consequences. It is looking the world in the eye and, in the example of your own life, publicly impugning it. So anarchism is here “open defiance” of politics, of social arrangements, of customs and traditions, of “the way things are”. It is “resistance” against economic and political oppression – even at the cost of arrest, imprisonment or deportation or execution. It is about your self-cultivated “integrity, self-reliance and courage”. It is about being a “free independent spirit” who owes nothing to government or state and who will not bow down to them nor even concede their legitimacy to begin with. That is what Emma Goldman is about. It is not that her theory is spellbinding: IT IS THAT SHE IS LIVING THEORY, SHE DOES WHAT SHE SAYS AND SHE BEARS ITS CONSEQUENCES IN HER LIFE AND HER BODY.

This is why Goldman teaches direct action, for:

“Direct action, having proven effective along economic lines, is equally potent in the environment of the individual. There a hundred forces encroach upon his being, and only persistent resistance to them will finally set him free. Direct action against the authority in the shop, direct action against the authority of the law, direct action against the invasive, meddlesome authority of our moral code, is the logical, consistent method of Anarchism.”

As a good reader of Stirner, Goldman happily takes up the refrain that only in your direct action will you find any salvation from state, economic and individual oppression – and that whether you succeed or fail. You have no choice but to act directly in your own interest for anything else is submission to coercion, to living a life you yourself did not will from your own creation. Such action, thus, stokes the fires of revolution within and is the only means to revolution without [“revolution is but thought carried into action”]. Goldman is saying that you must will individual and social freedom and manifest it in the consistent actions of your own life. There is no other way. And that is what she tried to do herself.

But, turning to her second essay, “Minorities Versus Majorities”, this is not to say that this is what most other people did — not that Goldman in this essay is enamoured of what “most people” do anyway for she believes here that “the majority cannot reason; it has no judgment”. A public love for majorities and for “quantity” [one imagines over “quality”] Goldman in fact sees as a great danger in that the success and power of the wealthy few who control the economics and so politics of life is seen to rely on “the inertia, the cravenness, the utter submission of the mass” who “wants but to be dominated, to be led, to be coerced.” [This analysis, of course, provides useful background for her recently stated views on “direct action” and why it is now seen to be so necessary.] Here Goldman regards “the most unpardonable sin” as “independence of thought” in a now becoming regular refrain of Goldman’s that intellectual curiosity and that you think for yourself are integral parts of her anarchism as a lived practice of life. In social context Goldman sees personal intellectual integrity as a necessary strut in the structure of freedom, something which necessarily resists the dream-like state of groupthink which politicians, media proprietors and others are more than happy to facilitate.

But Goldman has no feeling for stroking the ego of the mass. Public opinion is not that which she intends to stoke. The majority, she states, “represents a mass of cowards, willing to accept him who mirrors its own soul and mind poverty.” Goldman rather tends to think that truth is not guarded by a mass but by a minority who alone can be guided by its light. She gives the example of the “agitator of Nazareth” [a title this former PhD student of the historical Jesus approves of!] whose “principle of brotherhood” remained intact whilst it remained with a few but which was turned into a hierarchy and inquisition once it became a thing of the mass. Goldman seems to be saying that the moment anything becomes a thing to be imposed upon all it betrays whatever was good in it to begin with but that, more than this, a numbers game simply honours raw numbers as if the fact something is popular means it is either good or beneficial. Yet, as should be obvious, it is always out of unpopularity, from perhaps even tiny minorities, that progress comes – and so there is no warrant to see in the mass and in popularity the weather vane of good society. The majority is, in fact, always the stumbling block, the coerced ignorance, the inherent, selfish conservatism of a society rather than its liberty.

Thus, Goldman can say:

“how long would authority and private property exist, if not for the willingness of the mass to become soldiers, policemen, jailers, and hangmen. The Socialist demagogues know that as well as I, but they maintain the myth of the virtues of the majority, because their very scheme of life means the perpetuation of power. And how could the latter be

acquired without numbers? Yes, authority, coercion, and dependence rest on the mass, but never freedom or the free unfoldment of the individual, never the birth of a free society. Not because I do not feel with the oppressed, the disinherited of the earth; not because I do not know the shame, the horror, the indignity of the lives the people lead, do I repudiate the majority as a creative force for good. Oh, no, no! But because I know so well that as a compact mass it has never stood for justice or equality. It has suppressed the human voice, subdued the human spirit, chained the human body. As a mass its aim has always been to make life uniform, gray, and monotonous as the desert. As a mass it will always be the annihilator of individuality, of free initiative, of originality. I therefore believe with Emerson that ‘the masses are crude, lame, pernicious in their demands and influence, and need not to be flattered, but to be schooled. I wish not to concede anything to them, but to drill, divide, and break them up, and draw individuals out of them. Masses! The calamity are the masses. I do not wish any mass at all, but honest men only, lovely, sweet, accomplished women only.’”

And that is all Goldman really has to say on the matter save to add, as a parting shot, that, “In other words, the living, vital truth of social and economic well-being will become a reality only through the zeal, courage, the non-compromising determination of intelligent minorities, and not through the mass.” ‘Anarchism is not a mass movement but a movement of enlightened minorities’ seems then to be her point. “Zeal, courage and the non-compromising determination” of the intelligent is not for everyone. Nor should we expect it to be.

An example of this is furnished in Goldman’s third essay, “The Psychology of Political Violence” which is about those anarchists who committed violent acts in pursuance of their cause. This is a subject Goldman had necessarily had to deal with before, of course, not only because she herself planned an assassination with Alexander Berkman — which he then attempted to carry out — but also because she had vociferously defended Leon Czolgosz when he murdered President McKinley in 1901 [an act which the police for a month vigorously tried all they could, including physical intimidation, to implicate her in as well]. Goldman in fact begins this essay by pointing out that even trying to understand such acts of violence in order to explain them risks being regarded by the aforementioned public mass as “in sympathy” with the doers of such deeds or even as possible accomplices. Goldman, however, remarks that “intelligence and sympathy” are necessary qualities if one wants to understand what is going on in such acts in order to mitigate them. Goldman further suggests we must understand “the indignity of our social wrongs” and “the just indignation that accumulates in a human soul” and “the burning, surging passion that makes the storm inevitable” in such acts; or, at least, we do if we are not just going to assume people engage in such acts without any reason or motivation whatsoever.

But, of course, we might do this and, often, “The ignorant mass looks upon the man who makes a violent protest against our social and economic iniquities as upon a wild beast, a cruel, heartless monster, whose joy it is to destroy life and bathe in blood; or at best, as upon an irresponsible lunatic.” The facts of the matter often do not bear this out, however. Goldman rather sees them as those who take it upon themselves “to pay the toll of our social crimes”, an act, we might imagine, of the “courage and self-reliance”, not to mention “integrity” and “resistance”, she has already spoken about before. “Beyond every violent act,” Goldman insists, “there is a vital cause”. Recalling the case of Auguste Vaillant, who bombed French judiciary as revenge for the death of Ravachol [who had bombed judiciary himself in defence of attacked demonstrating workers] and inspired Émile Henry and Sante Caserio to similarly violent acts after him [the latter killed the French President, the former bombed a regular cafe believing no one is innocent of society’s arrangements but, if not actively against them, effectively acts to buttress them], Goldman asserts that:

“The guilt of these homicides lies upon every man and woman who, intentionally or by cold indifference, helps to keep up social conditions that drive human beings to despair. The man who flings his whole life into the attempt, at the cost of his own life, to protest against the wrongs of his fellow men, is a saint compared to the active and passive upholders of cruelty and injustice, even if his protest destroy other lives besides his own. Let him who is without sin in society cast the first stone at such an one.”

In other words, if by active involvement [perhaps as a cop, jailer or just a snitch] or passive acceptance [unthinking and uncaring of social and political reality] you allow the conditions of oppressive society to continue then you put yourself under threat of material consequence as a result. You may, at any time, be held responsible for your actions which keep you and your fellow human beings coerced. Under such a logic these violent people are then those of social conscience who act as consequences of a reality that cannot be hidden forever. Pressure, being deliberately created, will, sooner or later, rise to the surface. What are those who suffer to do – suffer in silence forever so that those responsible may live undisturbed lives of ignorance? Not according to such as these. The oppressed will, must, one day strike back and who knows where they will strike in their pain and indignation? If you had actually cared that human beings lived decent lives there would have never been a cause to strike in the first place. “Necessity knows no law”, as you should know very well, and in caring less about others you put everyone, even yourselves, in danger as a result.

Goldman then calls up the violent attentat as the inevitable result of more consistent violence already undertaken, passively and actively, by society in general. She refers, for example, to the deed of Czolgosz and the attempt on the life of the Chicago Chief of Police by someone named Averbuch in the following way:

“The question to the intelligent social student is not whether the acts of Czolgosz or Averbuch were practical, any more than whether the thunderstorm is practical. The thing that will inevitably impress itself on the thinking and feeling man and woman is that the sight of brutal clubbing of innocent victims in a so-called free Republic, and the degrading, soul-destroying economic struggle, furnish the spark that kindles the dynamic force in the overwrought, outraged souls of men like Czolgosz or Averbuch. No amount of persecution, of hounding, of repression, can stay this social phenomenon.”

What do you expect, says Goldman, if you are going to physically force people into lives of miserable coercion? Do you expect people to live in states that are effectively social prisons but not have anyone even protest? Do you really expect total, abject docility? Those who commit violent acts, insists Goldman whilst also taking the opportunity to once more defend Berkman’s act of 1892, act out of a need to respond to consistent violent acts wrought upon their neighbours and surroundings by the forces of the state and of capital. To this effect, she repeats the words of Auguste Vaillant at the trial which condemned him to death: “woe to those who, believing themselves of superior essence, assume to exploit those beneath them!” In other words, those of social conscience and possessed of integrity and courage WILL BITE BACK. And when a dog bites it may not always bite the most guiltiest of parties but it will always bite someone who, by being there, made themselves a part of the situation. [Émile Henry, of course, as I discussed in A Handbook for Anarchist Insurrection, justified his bombing of a regular Paris cafe by arguing that no one is innocent in society for all can see well enough what is going on. If they do nothing to stop it, if they do not impede the forces that oppress and coerce us, if they do not TAKE RESPONSIBILITY, then they are little more than allowing it to continue – and they bring such guilt on themselves as a result.] What’s more, of course, freedom itself, even in the hollow and pathetic versions of these things states claim to offer, has only itself been secured somewhere in earlier times by violence. Did the French get their Revolution by peaceful chatter or by violent uprising? Did America free itself from the crown of England by parley or by gunfire? Were Royalist rights in England met with Parliamentarian talk or Roundhead armies? So, no, you can’t impugn violence as a means to freedom or in response to your own violent acts for it was ever thus. All those who do complain about such acts actually do, in fact, is argue that some people may use violence but not others [a role characteristic of states which insist on a monopoly of violence]. Such people simply insist their opponents must fight unarmed or with their hands tied behind their back. But the forces of political and economic power never intend to renege on their own use of violence for so much as a second.

Bourgeois justice, in fact, does not trouble itself about the innocents it tramples into anonymous history simply in the course of its daily routines at all. Yet out there in the world there are people who simply want to eat, have a modicum of private living space and satisfy natural human needs unmolested. But, says Goldman, as long as “tyranny” continues then so will “terrorists”. Anarchists are not naturally violent people who kill for fun but they do commit acts of social conscience which cry out for relief. Therefore:

“Anarchism, more than any other social theory, values human life above all things. All Anarchists agree with Tolstoy in this fundamental truth: if the production of any commodity necessitates the sacrifice of human life, society should do without that commodity, but it can not do without that life. That, however, in no wise indicates that Anarchism teaches submission. How can it, when it knows that all suffering, all misery, all ills, result from the evil of submission?”

Anarchism, as we have already learned in a previous essay, stands for direct action and a deliberate taking up of human responsibility. It does not sit back and do nothing but proceeds with active intent:

“So long as tyranny exists, in whatever form, man’s deepest aspiration must resist it as inevitably as man must breathe. Compared with the wholesale violence of capital and government, political acts of violence are but a drop in the ocean.”

Goldman’s next essay, in fact, is about this “violence” to which those of political conscience respond for it is about prisons [“Prisons: A Social Crime and Failure”]. In this essay, as in occasional others, Goldman relies on enlightened scholarship, such as that of Havelock Ellis, to whom she often turns, to argue for socially progressive societal solutions. The aim here appears to be twofold; first, to show that governed society does not proceed on the basis of the latest thought but, second, also to show what that thought is and disseminate it [as her magazine Mother Earth habitually did]. In the case of prisons, for example, we may ask why they even exist to begin with. In contemporary context, Goldman thinks its because men would rather risk crime than settle for the grinding poverty in which they are kept. [Remember, we can’t all be rich in capitalist terms otherwise “being rich” would cease to have any meaning. Capitalism is a hierarchical system for differentiating a few rich from a mass of poor.] Moreover, in the words of a convict quoted in one of the reference works to which Goldman refers:

“The laws of society are framed for the purpose of securing the wealth of the world to power and calculation, thereby depriving the larger portion of mankind of its rights and chances. Why should they punish me for taking by somewhat similar means from those who have taken more than they had a right to?”

Goldman sees prison [in which she had at least four extended stays in her 30 year American anarchist career, in 1893–94 for incitement to riot, in 1901 whilst under arrest during the Czolgosz affair, in 1916 for teaching birth control after she refused on principle to pay her initial fine, and from 1917–1919 for inciting Americans to avoid the draft — with dozens and dozens more temporary stays in between at the pleasure of various zealous police forces] as the state’s deliberate use of violence – and not merely on the offender but as a standing psychological threat to the population at large. “But legally and socially the statute exercises punishment, not merely as an infliction of pain upon the offender, but also for its terrifying effect upon others.”

This, she thinks, is based on an outdated philosophical notion that people have “free will” [see chapter 4 where Nietzsche disputes this entirely] and so that any “punishment” meted out as a consequence is deserved and that people must pay the price of their freedom. But if people have “free will” don’t they also have “hunger” and what is a person with hunger to do if they don’t have food [or money to buy any]? “Be held responsible if they steal” is what government and the law and the state reply – presumably because they had the free will to starve instead and therefore not impugn the law or authority which, so they imagine, has the highest call upon anyone. [Of course, these are not the only two choices but you get the point.] Goldman’s point here is that the only reason the threat and actuality of violent punishment exists is that terrorising the general population is imagined to have a preventative effect. But do prisons regularly stand empty as testament to their preventative effect? Or do states keep building more and more of them? Prisons, thinks Goldman, are places where human beings are “tortured to be made good” as if being well behaved or law abiding could be violenced into people. Prisons have little to no interest in rehabilitating anyone, according to Goldman, and do not seek to make better citizens but simply to mete out violence to them as if this would have any effect but human degradation [one imagines of both prisoners and their imprisoners].

Assuming, of course, that prisoners are ever to be let out again [not always a wise assumption as repeating tales of people somehow left in prison for 15 years for not paying a parking ticket sometimes reveal] one would imagine that some thought might be given by authorities to what happens to people after they have been released. But not a bit of it as Goldman judges. “These men and women must live, for even an ex-convict has needs. Prison life has made them anti-social beings, and the rigidly closed doors that meet them on their release are not likely to decrease their bitterness.” Once again, Goldman’s point is that government appears always and only to be bad, poorly informed and motivated government, government which tries to drag people in general along with its retrograde ideas which, in Goldman’s mind, also includes “organized labor” which objects to prisoners being allowed to work for a decent wage and so learn useful skills. Goldman thinks working organisations should treat prisoners as brothers “and with his aid turn against the system which grinds them both.” Goldman is, in fact, convinced that “the hope of liberty and of opportunity is the only incentive to life”. If you want people to live honesty and responsibly then you must allow them something to be honest and responsible for and the freedom to engage in it. What we need is societies in which we no longer breed either prisoners or jailers, in fact.

Current society, however, is full of any number of bad habits and ingrained debilitating mentalities. Goldman has essays on two of these in her book in “Patriotism: A Menace to Liberty” and “The Hypocrisy of Puritanism”. To begin here with “patriotism”, the obvious question to ask at first is what it is. Goldman defines it as:

“a superstition artificially created and maintained through a network of lies and falsehoods; a superstition that robs man of his self-respect and dignity, and increases his arrogance and conceit. Indeed, conceit, arrogance, and egotism are the essentials of patriotism. Let me illustrate. Patriotism assumes that our globe is divided into little spots, each one surrounded by an iron gate. Those who have had the fortune of being born on some particular spot, consider themselves better, nobler, grander, more intelligent than the living beings inhabiting any other spot. It is, therefore, the duty of everyone living on that chosen spot to fight, kill, and die in the attempt to impose his superiority upon all the others.”

Sounds pretty fuckin stupid to me as if people automatically had different interests because of lines on a map or accidents of birth. Such people would essentially be fighting for a made up idea or a made up way of life they owe no more allegiance to than does anyone else hold allegiance to theirs. Patriotism then strikes me as ignorant arbitrariness made into a principle on the basis that you in some way “are” these things, these markers of identity, you did not choose. Goldman, in her essay, shows how this ignorant arbitrariness has, in her time, been expressed in ever increasing military budgets [the $2.6 billion US military budget she at one point quotes is now nearer $840 billion {up several billions even writing this book!} so it would seem “patriotism” is not a declining industry] and so comes with a price tag attached [or, expressed in food banks and lack of regular health care, a social and economic cost on the general population, an economic burden]. Patriotism, more often than not, is blind, not reasoned; it requires allegiance and obedience, not thought. Oh, and death – because nothing says “patriot” more than the dead body of someone who doesn’t look like you. What does “patriotism” ACTUALLY protect though, asks Goldman. Why, its the interests of our capitalists, of course. Patriotism, besides being ignorant arbitrariness, is also another capitalist con job — although I’m prepared to grant it can be a Communist con job too.

Once again, however, Goldman wants to go subterranean on ideas and ask if they stand up to scrutiny [of course, they usually don’t, once questioned, for most common beliefs are actually bullshit]. Is it reasonable, as it wasn’t with prisons and criminals, to assume that big guns, large armies and a vast array of weaponry is the best possibility for peace? Goldman thinks this about as realistic as thinking that the most peaceful man is the most armed man. [America has a lot of armed men and most days at least one of them decides to shoot a few random people just to see if his gun is still working.] Goldman argues that well armed people are “invariably anxious” to try their strength [true!] and that the same is true of governments as well [they don’t really buy all those tanks for police forces to have them sitting idle do they? The USA hasn’t militarily occupied the globe to watch, has it?] and consequently we live in a world where you may be machine gunned for littering the sidewalk, running a red light or not answering a police officer fast enough or in the right tone. [In the UK recently a law was passed which imprisons people simply for standing in the road – whether it was already blocked or not. If that doesn’t deter such behaviour I’m sure machine gunning people standing in the road won’t be far away. Of course, in the USA State Governors simply empower people to knock you down with their cars without fear of prosecution which is the same end by different means. Hurrah for the values of “civilization”!] Goldman diagnoses the real reason for armies and military might of the state, however, in population control, especially where any neighbourly solidarity of interest might spontaneously ignite. [That UK law was created in response to elderly climate activists who had started sitting in the road to alert people to using less energy, hopefully saving our planetary environment in the process, a responsible not criminal action.] Then a rhetoric of “the people” emerges and undesirable elements to authority are denounced as threats among us as the apparatus of war and repression is readied and unleashed.

The fact is though that people, and especially Americans, have been taught to fetishize a sort of violence [specifically any violence, usually carried out by others, which they can identify with or claim as in some way their own]. Peace seems like a nice idea but there’s nothing better than killing someone you don’t like who, of course, deserves it [because you don’t like him]. Goldman calls violence “the logic of patriotism” when she states:

“We Americans claim to be a peace-loving people. We hate bloodshed; we are opposed to violence. Yet we go into spasms of joy over the possibility of projecting dynamite bombs from flying machines upon helpless citizens. We are ready to hang, electrocute, or lynch anyone, who, from economic necessity, will risk his own life in the attempt upon that of some industrial magnate. Yet our hearts swell with pride at the thought that America is becoming the most powerful nation on earth, and that it will eventually plant her iron foot on the necks of all other nations.”

Once more I’m urged to reflect on the glory of “civilization” which, with absolute truth, can be designated as that network of human relationships which devises ever easier means to mass kill fellow human beings and lay waste to life in general. I reflect, sometimes on a near constant basis, about how many particularly American films are about violence or which regard violence as the solution to problems. But its only a certain kind of violence, the violence in which I win and you lose in a world in which who the bad guy is and who the good guy is is always obvious. This is the cardboard cut out world of the patriot in Emma Goldman’s terms. Patriotism brings death and must bring death for its fuel is seeing us win and the others lose. If we go too long without that happening it starts to induce doubt or, worse, questioning that what has stood fast as inarguable actually makes no sense if scrutinised. Of course, patriotism must itself NEVER be scrutinised for, if it is, you start to worry why lives on one side of a border count and lives on the other side don’t. So this is why regular death and victory is mandated as a result. It proves our patriotism.

In the course of this essay on patriotism Goldman mentions the case of the soldier William Buwalda who came to her talk on the subject of patriotism, probably a talk much similar to the meat of this one, in San Francisco where he was then serving in 1908. Buwalda, who didn’t agree with a lot of the talk, nevertheless went forward towards the stage at its end and, for some reason, shook Emma Goldman’s hand – a soldier of the state shaking the hand of a woman dedicated to its dissolution. Buwalda was imprisoned on return to his barracks at the Presidio in San Francisco and subsequently court-martialled. His sentence was originally 5 years in jail but was subsequently reduced after an outcry. Buwalda left the Army upon his release and became an anarchist, the events opening his eyes to the lack of the freedoms he had formerly thought he was protecting [singing “the Land of the Free” and living in actual freedom being quite different things].

Goldman mines from this turn of events that patriotism “turns a thinking being into a loyal machine” and we may reflect on this and that all too many regular citizens are more than ready to be its unpaid police officers because they think “the nation” actually exists and faces genuine threats from a whole host of variously generated [but always necessary] others. Goldman can herself join the dots here for she sees patriotism and the militarism it mandates as “the greatest bulwark of capitalism”, the mercenary force that alone ensures capitalism in its survival until our likely common bitter end. Patriotism is, in the end, just another capitalist bribe to keep capitalism going, another artificial way to stop people uniting in the genuine solidarity that is found in the brotherhood of common interests and which Goldman refers to as “that great structure wherein all nationalities shall be united into a universal brotherhood, — a truly FREE SOCIETY.” Patriotism, in fact, dissolves on contact with thought for it cannot be maintained for long that person A from over here has needs any different to person B from over there. That being so, the solution is solidarity not perpetual artificially generated war.

The other example of a brain rot mentality which Goldman attacks in her book is “puritanism”. Goldman’s view of puritanism which, like patriotism, is a freezing of thought in stone, a proscription of thinking [for oneself], a being told what to think, is that it “has made life itself impossible.” She continues:

“life represents beauty in a thousand variations; it is indeed, a gigantic panorama of eternal change. Puritanism, on the other hand, rests on a fixed and immovable conception of life; it is based on the Calvinistic idea that life is a curse, imposed upon man by the wrath of God. In order to redeem himself man must do constant penance, must repudiate every natural and healthy impulse, and turn his back on joy and beauty.”

Obviously a woman possessed of what she referred to as “a beautiful ideal” was never going to have what that was dictated to her. So Goldman gives a brief history of Enlightenment England as a time of Puritanism which inevitably led to the Pilgrim Fathers and the birth of America as a Puritan paradise before bringing this up to date in the censorship of Anthony Comstock who, through his famous postal laws, could literally dictate what people could send through the American postal system – in a time when this was the only way anybody could share anything with anybody else. [Stuff about sexuality, birth control or even various political opinions would regularly fall foul of this as even Goldman’s own Mother Earth did at one point.] Goldman doesn’t just impugn Comstock, however, for she sees him as but the symptom of a more diseased entity comprised of Temperance Unions, Purity Leagues and Prohibition Parties. Wherever someone is having a good time, as the saying goes, there is always someone who wants to put a stop to it.

Inevitably, this becomes something to do with the enjoyment of visceral, bodily pleasures, something with which Goldman was herself not unfamiliar. Of nakedness and sexuality Goldman says:

“’nakedness has a hygienic value as well as a spiritual significance, far beyond its influences in allaying the natural inquisitiveness of the young or acting as a preventative of morbid emotion. It is an inspiration to adults who have long outgrown any youthful

curiosities. The vision of the essential and eternal human form, the nearest thing to us in all the world, with its vigor and its beauty and its grace, is one of the prime tonics of life.’ But the spirit of purism has so perverted the human mind that it has lost the power to appreciate the beauty of nudity, forcing us to hide the natural form under the plea of chastity. Yet chastity itself is but an artificial imposition upon nature, expressive of a false shame of the human form. The modern idea of chastity, especially in reference to woman, its greatest victim, is but the sensuous exaggeration of our natural impulses.”

As a consequence:

“Puritanism, with its perversion of the significance and functions of the human body, especially in regard to woman, has condemned her to celibacy, or to the indiscriminate breeding of a diseased race, or to prostitution.”

Goldman here, of course, is not just concerned that puritanical thinking is not free thinking but she is also thinking through its social consequences just as she had done with patriotism before. As the former leads to the violence and war of military might as a demonstration of its patriotism, so here puritans create victims in their moral censure of the body and sexuality, both of which they wish to control as is only too evident in May 2022 as I write this when Roe vs Wade has seemingly been struck down by a conservative Supreme Court in the USA. Goldman charges that puritans actually create, by their arbitrary and fixed views on moral issues, the social problems they then claim to despise with prostitution, in Goldman’s mind, being a perfect example. Puritanism is dogmatism and no dogma ever pays any concern to its consequences; in fact, it simply wants to see itself instantiated regardless of consequences. Goldman thus impugns puritanism on pragmatic grounds if on no others. Puritanism is, thus, essentially the desire for control based on an arbitrary set of views set beyond discussion. It is a power play and is not happy until it has power to instantiate itself by force. In this respect, Goldman says:

“The almost limitless capacity of Puritanism for evil is due to its intrenchment behind the State and the law. Pretending to safeguard the people against ‘immorality,’ it has impregnated the machinery of government and added to its usurpation of moral guardianship the legal censorship of our views, feelings, and even of our conduct.”

It is removing, rather than enabling, social control that Emma Goldman and her anarchism are interested in, however, the free association and individual and social development of human beings, and most of the rest of the essays in this book — which are to do with children, women or the relations between men and women – take this up. The first of these is an essay on the Spanish anarchist, Francisco Ferrer, and his methods of “modern” schooling which were carried on in the face of a Spanish schooling system entirely controlled by the Catholic Church. Ferrer was judicially murdered in 1909 by the state at the instigation of the Catholic Church and the heavy inference was that it was because he had dared to teach children a freedom to learn for themselves rather than Catholic dogma that this turn of events came about. Anarchism has a long interest in schooling that goes back to William Godwin and Goldman here mentions Louise Michel, who was also a teacher, whom she had met on one of her visits to London in this respect:

“our own great Louise felt long ago that the future belongs to the young generation; that unless the young be rescued from that mind and soul-destroying institution, the bourgeois school, social evils will continue to exist. Perhaps she thought, with Ibsen, that the atmosphere is saturated with ghosts, that the adult man and woman have so many superstitions to overcome. No sooner do they outgrow the deathlike grip of one spook, lo! they find themselves in the thraldom of ninety-nine other spooks. Thus but a few reach the mountain peak of complete regeneration.”

Such “mountain peaks” seem reminiscent of Zarathustra and it seems Goldman’s intuition that it is best to set off for them as a child rather than as an adult already weighed down with the dogmas of adults inculcated through authoritarian schooling. Goldman, indeed, envisions a kind of social utopia as the desired and necessary environment for the growth of the child into the adult, a place of “proper economic and social environment, the breath and freedom of nature, healthy exercise, love and sympathy”, a place of “deep understanding for the needs of the child” [thought of as a human individual rather than as an anonymous member of a class to be drilled in common]. What better way to make “liberty-loving men and women” than to raise liberty-loving boys and girls, boys and girls raised in liberty? This Goldman contrasts with state schooling that “make the poor in order to perpetuate the poor”. Mentioning Paul Robin and Sebastian Faure along the way, Goldman speaks to schooling which instils in children “the love of study, the desire to know, to be informed” which fits precisely with her picture of an activated anarchist mind I discussed earlier. Consequently, Goldman praises those educational places where children “never accept anything in blind faith, without inquiry as to why and wherefore” and where they never “feel satisfied until their questions are thoroughly answered.” In short, Goldman stands for schooling that teaches children intellectual curiosity and intellectual independence. Such, of course, will be less easily duped in adult life and much better equipped to assert their own rights and make their own lives. No wonder state schooling teaches no such thing.

Francisco Ferrer’s ideas on education found much appeal with Goldman who was herself instrumental in opening a “Ferrer School” in New York in 1911. She quotes him when he says:

“I would like to call the attention of my readers to this idea: All the value of education rests in the respect for the physical, intellectual, and moral will of the child. Just as in science no demonstration is possible save by facts, just so there is no real education save that which is exempt from all dogmatism, which leaves to the child itself the direction of its effort, and confines itself to the seconding of its effort. Now, there is nothing easier than to alter this purpose, and nothing harder than to respect it. Education is always imposing, violating, constraining; the real educator is he who can best protect the child against his (the teacher’s) own ideas, his peculiar whims; he who can best appeal to the child’s own energies…

Let us not fear to say that we want men capable of evolving without stopping, capable of destroying and renewing their environments without cessation, of renewing themselves also; men, whose intellectual independence will be their greatest force, who will attach themselves to nothing, always ready to accept what is best, happy in the triumph of new ideas, aspiring to live multiple lives in one life. Society fears such men; we therefore must not hope that it will ever want an education able to give them to us.

We shall follow the labors of the scientists who study the child with the greatest attention, and we shall eagerly seek for means of applying their experience to the education which we want to build up, in the direction of an ever fuller liberation of the individual. But how can we attain our end? Shall it not be by putting ourselves directly to the work favoring the foundation of new schools, which shall be ruled as much as possible by this spirit of liberty, which we forefeel will dominate the entire work of education in the future?”

Goldman ends this extensive quoting of Ferrer where he says, “I like the free spontaneity of a child who knows nothing, better than the world-knowledge and intellectual deformity of a child who has been subjected to our present education.” She follows it up by highlighting “discipline and restraint” as the source of “all the evils in the world”, not least of all including the murder of this man who sought to teach children to follow their own intellectual curiosity until they reached their own intellectual independence, free of the always suffocating control of “authority”.

Four of the remaining five essays in Goldman’s curated collection here essentially deal with society’s treatment of women which means that fully a third of the book can be said to be about this subject. Women, of course, were another component of society which was forcefully and effectively controlled just as children were. The first of these essays, “The Traffic in Women”, deals with prostitution — though as an adjunct to the greater insight of Goldman’s that women are essentially regarded as sex to be acquired in one way or another [commonly as a wife or as a prostitute]. Goldman never goes along with this proposition, however, regarding women, naturally enough, as complete human beings in their own right. Her argument is not some puritanical argument that women should be kept away from sex because sex is somehow dirty or degrading but that sexuality is only one component of womanhood and that women cannot be treated as human beings in social life until their whole personalities are respected in a human way. Goldman attacks the issue of prostitution here by highlighting the puritanical angle on the subject, however, showing that such people do not really care about the women concerned but only their static morals. Moreover, such people do not look beneath the surface to ask why women take to prostitution nor are they concerned about equitable social and economic conditions which might negate its manifestation. Such people, then, in Goldman’s eyes, are deeply unconcerned about the actual problems they claim to find or their actual resolution. Goldman’s rhetoric here is some of her best and bears repeating:

“Prostitution has been, and is, a widespread evil, yet mankind goes on its business, perfectly indifferent to the sufferings and distress of the victims of prostitution. As indifferent, indeed, as mankind has remained to our industrial system, or to economic prostitution. Only when human sorrows are turned into a toy with glaring colors will baby people become interested — for a while at least. The people are a very fickle baby that must have new toys every day. The ‘righteous’ cry against the white slave traffic is such a toy. It serves to amuse the people for a little while, and it will help to create a few more fat political jobs — parasites who stalk about the world as inspectors, investigators, detectives, and so forth. What is really the cause of the trade in women? Not merely white women, but yellow and black women as well. Exploitation, of course; the merciless Moloch of capitalism that fattens on underpaid labor, thus driving thousands of women and girls into prostitution. With Mrs. Warren these girls feel, ‘Why waste your life working for a few shillings a week in a scullery, eighteen hours a day?’ Naturally our reformers say nothing about this cause. They know it well enough, but it doesn’t pay to say anything about it. It is much more profitable to play the Pharisee, to pretend an outraged morality, than to go to the bottom of things.”

It should be formally noted here that Goldman is not in favour of prostitution. She was not one who, in today’s parlance, would have argued for the right to carry out sex work. [“Sex work is work” I imagine would have been a slogan which was missing the point for her where “work” was basically simple exploitation anyway.] Rather, she was one who sought to understand it and to be in sympathy with women forced into it by economic circumstances. So, in discussing this subject, it is not inconsequential that prostitution is sex FOR MONEY and the economics of the situation is important to Goldman in her discussions about it [for, ideally, she would like to change the economics and thus take the exploitation of a sexual, as any, economy away]. In regard to the morality of it, however, Goldman is much less concerned and she would have been the last person to stop people having consensual sex. More of interest to her is the economic and moral circumstances which force women into unfree choices and lifestyles. She wanted to free women from social, political, economic and moral shackles so that they were then better able to make choices uncoerced by circumstances. Therefore:

“Nowhere is woman treated according to the merit of her work, but rather as a sex. It is therefore almost inevitable that she should pay for her right to exist, to keep a position in whatever line, with sex favors. Thus it is merely a question of degree whether she sells herself to one man, in or out of marriage, or to many men. Whether our reformers admit it or not, the economic and social inferiority of woman is responsible for prostitution.”

Goldman here lays the fault for prostitution in other, greater things rather than seeing it as an issue in itself. It lies in the fact that women are seen socially as sex; it lies in the fact that economic inequalities can be exploited; it lies in the fact that women as a class can be presumed upon. Goldman, of course, was well used to the idea [from her own father, Abraham, and her upbringing] that women were regarded in economic terms as a walking sexual function. Had not Abraham Goldman thought that little 15 year old Emma should be found someone to marry so that she could push out babies? One startling thing about Goldman’s attitude to prostitution is that she doesn’t see it as any different to this for both regard women as sex that is bought and paid for. Goldman does not impugn the women concerned in this at all for how can they be blamed when they face adult lives cooped up in hothouse factories with 10–12 hour days of back-breaking work for a few measly dollars a week, an effective economic trap? Is it not the intuition of every human being to seek the best circumstances for itself that it can manage? Then why be surprised if women prefer providing favours instead of harsh factory environments? No, thought Goldman, the issue is not moral but economic. It is women’s economic freedom that would disrupt the system of prostitution rather than making it seem a more amenable economic solution than even worse others.

There was, in Goldman’s mind, a further cause of this issue, however: sexual ignorance. [In this way we may see how other of her essays intersect with this one for this has to do with Puritanism, with schooling and with self-realized, intellectually curious minds.] As Goldman explains:

“It is a conceded fact that woman is being reared as a sex commodity, and yet she is kept in absolute ignorance of the meaning and importance of sex. Everything dealing with that subject is suppressed, and persons who attempt to bring light into this terrible darkness are persecuted and thrown into prison. Yet it is nevertheless true that so long as a girl is not to know how to take care of herself, not to know the function of the most important part of her life, we need not be surprised if she becomes an easy prey to prostitution, or to any other form of a relationship which degrades her to the position of an object for mere sex gratification.”

‘An ignorant person is a more unfree, more easily manipulated, person’ is a sentiment that Goldman would have held to generally but it is even more true in regard to women and sex. It does not help either, thinks Goldman, that in regard to sex men and women are treated completely differently, the man who goes “exploring” regarded as a man just “being a man” whereas a woman would face scandal for exactly the same behaviour. Thus:

“Society considers the sex experiences of a man as attributes of his general development, while similar experiences in the life of a woman are looked upon as a terrible calamity, a loss of honor and of all that is good and noble in a human being. This double standard of morality has played no little part in the creation and perpetuation of prostitution. It involves the keeping of the young in absolute ignorance on sex matters, which alleged “innocence,” together with an overwrought and stifled sex nature, helps to bring about a state of affairs that our Puritans are so anxious to avoid or prevent.”

This is quite a regular refrain of Goldman’s, as we have seen before, that moral and economic choices [which are structurally intertwined] actually create the circumstances in which an undesired phenomenon comes to take place. Prostitution, thinks Goldman, was not created, and is not desired, by those women who take part in it; on the contrary, such women are only responding to a world and its circumstances NOT of their making; they are making the best of what society gave them to work with. The girl here, says Goldman, is NOT “to be held responsible for it”. It is “society” which “creates the victims that it afterwards vainly seeks to get rid of”. In fact, following Havelock Ellis, Goldman can even imagine that the prostitute is better off than the wife in her own day for the wife gives herself away completely whereas the prostitute does so only for a pre-arranged amount of time. Prostitutes, where they exist, are “driven into prostitution by American conditions, by the thoroughly American custom for excessive display of finery and clothes, which, of course, necessitates money – money that cannot be earned in shops or factories.” Goldman, then, sees prostitution as entirely a product of social and moral circumstances, effectively as a trap that many women have little choice but to embrace. As is often the case, governments try to suppress such activity and moralists rail against it but neither do anything to solve the underlying cause – of which their attitudes, morals and social and political desires are often the generative factor in the first place. Therefore, “we must… learn to recognize in the prostitute a product of social conditions” and, if we want to eradicate prostitution, we must engage in “a complete transvaluation of all accepted values especially the moral ones” and pursue “the abolition of industrial slavery”.

Another way of saying this, moving on to the essay “The Tragedy of Woman’s Emancipation”, is that Goldman sees prostitution as part of a larger, all-encompassing issue of economic justice more generally conceived. Thus, she states:

“The general social antagonism which has taken hold of our entire public life today, brought about through the force of opposing and contradictory interests, will crumble to pieces when the reorganization of our social life, based upon the principles of economic justice, shall have become a reality. Peace or harmony between the sexes and individuals does not necessarily depend on a superficial equalization of human beings; nor does it call for the elimination of individual traits and peculiarities. The problem that confronts us today, and which the nearest future is to solve, is how to be one’s self and yet in oneness with others, to feel deeply with all human beings and still retain one’s own characteristic qualities. This seems to me to be the basis upon which the mass and the individual, the true democrat and the true individuality, man and woman, can meet without antagonism and opposition. The motto should not be: Forgive one another; rather, Understand one another.”

“How to be one’s self and yet in oneness with others” sounds very theoretically simplistic and is not described in deeply philosophical terms – yet it is actually all that needs to be said, from an anarchistic point of view, and needs no theoretical embroidery to make it sound more grand or consequential. This is exactly the point of an anarchist imagining of society, that one can interact with others yet without that being at the cost of oneself. This is what I mean when I say that Goldman refuses to choose between communist anarchism or individualist anarchism but prefers her own way because she sees that both social relations and individual existence are [necessary] living realities. In this essay Goldman applies this truth to women in the context of their emerging emancipation for she is keen to ensure that women are not created as a class by society but allowed to develop as free, individual human beings who can create their own social links in society. So:

“Merely external emancipation has made of the modern woman an artificial being, who reminds one of the products of French arboriculture with its arabesque trees and shrubs, pyramids, wheels, and wreaths; anything, except the forms which would be reached by the expression of her own inner qualities.”

The problem, as Goldman memorably diagnoses, is that “woman is confronted with the necessity of emancipating herself from emancipation” for real freedom is personal and social – it is not dictated by the morals and politics of others. So, as in the push for women’s suffrage that was going on at this time, it is not to be regarded as “freedom” that women are put in the same position as men in what is, overall, a politically and economically deleterious situation. So, as Goldman explains, “Politics is the reflex of the business and industrial world, the mottos of which are: ‘To take is more blessed than to give’; ‘buy cheap and sell dear’; ‘one soiled hand washes the other.’ There is no hope even that woman, with her right to vote, will ever purify politics.” Freedom is more, in other words, that putting women in the same hole as men. An equality of exploitation and oppression is not freedom at all and may actually still leave women at a disadvantage anyway since men are regarded as superior and better suited to being pitted one against another. As in previous essays, what is required is an overall emancipation from which women benefit as well. We should also add into this equation the special needs of the woman who fears that love, and her unique capacity for pregnancy, may disadvantage her, robbing her of her freedom and independence. Unless this can be taken account of in some socially emancipatory way then “the self-supporting or economically free woman” will remain but a dream. Once again, however, this remains a matter of morally-infected politics and social organisation.

Interestingly, but not for the first time, Goldman here sees the real issue as one of underlying ethics and the need to root out the destructive ideas which create the patriarchal and hierarchical societies we live in. Here Goldman rightly argues that you cannot paste “emancipatory practices” on top of old values that have created the world as it is. It simply won’t work. It is, in fact, the very things that stand for us as unquestioned, our formative and supporting values, which need to be re-made as new values in order for new practices to emerge on a proper foundation. As Goldman says in relation to being “emancipated from emancipation” then:

“That such a state of affairs was bound to come was foreseen by those who realized that, in the domain of ethics, there still remained many decaying ruins of the time of the undisputed superiority of man; ruins that are still considered useful. And, what is more important, a goodly number of the emancipated are unable to get along without them. Every movement that aims at the destruction of existing institutions and the replacement thereof with something more advanced, more perfect, has followers who in theory stand for the most radical ideas, but who, nevertheless, in their every-day practice, are like the average Philistine, feigning respectability and clamoring for the good opinion of their opponents. There are, for example, Socialists, and even Anarchists, who stand for the idea that property is robbery, yet who will grow indignant if anyone owe them the value of a half-dozen pins.”

What is going on here is that it is not enough to parrot words or dream dreams. What is needed is visceral authenticity that can only come about from CHANGED VALUES. So, in this case, “woman’s freedom is closely allied with man’s freedom” and this is often forgotten even today where “women versus men” is the erroneous refrain as if “freedom for women” did not also entail freedom for men in an overarching understanding of what freedom really is. When Goldman talks about “women’s emancipation” she does not primarily mean “freedom from men” but “freedom for everyone, a free society of independent individuals who are free to create their own lives and associations”. How many feminists, then or now, stand for that? Thus, when Goldman talks about seeing in the emancipated woman “not only sex, but also the human being, the friend, the comrade and strong individuality, who cannot and ought not lose a single trait of her character” she is saying that within this all encompassing understanding. She wants people to see women like that because she wants people to see EVERYBODY like that. Goldman, in fact, wants not just external but also internal liberation, not just freedom from material tyrannies but freedom from “ethical and social conventions” as well. A revolution of the entire life and circumstance of human beings is what is required if women [as also men] are to be truly liberated and so Goldman’s emancipation goes far further than women suffragists [for example] had ever contemplated. Therefore:

“Salvation lies in an energetic march onward towards a brighter and clearer future. We are in need of unhampered growth out of old traditions and habits. The movement for woman’s emancipation has so far made but the first step in that direction. It is to be hoped that it will gather strength to make another. The right to vote, or equal civil rights, may be good demands, but true emancipation begins neither at the polls nor in courts. It begins in woman’s soul. History tells us that every oppressed class gained true liberation from its masters through its own efforts. It is necessary that woman learn that lesson, that she realize that her freedom will reach as far as her power to achieve her freedom reaches. It is, therefore, far more important for her to begin with her inner regeneration, to cut loose from the weight of prejudices, traditions, and customs.”

This, coming briefly to the essay “Woman Suffrage”, is just one reason why Goldman was a staunch OPPONENT of the idea of women getting the vote – because the imagined “freedom” it pretended to offer was not any real freedom at all. Goldman, who was of course against government, states and the entire machinery of politics anyway, saw women getting the vote as only the means to women being more tightly secured to the very tyrant that was oppressing them to begin with. Goldman, in fact, states plainly that “suffrage is an evil” that “has only helped to enslave people” and which does this by blinding people’s eyes to how it was done. Suffrage, thinks Goldman, is not what its supporters claim it to be:

“Woman’s demand for equal suffrage is based largely on the contention that woman must have the equal right in all affairs of society. No one could possibly refute that if suffrage were a right. Alas for the ignorance of the human mind which can see a right in an imposition. Or is it not the most brutal imposition for one set of people to make laws that another set is coerced by force to obey? Yet woman clamors for that ‘golden opportunity’ that has wrought so much misery in the world, and robbed man of his integrity and self-reliance; an imposition which has thoroughly corrupted the people, and made them absolute prey in the hands of unscrupulous politicians.”

The right of suffrage is here then painted as a fatal attraction which lures the naive into the hands of the unscrupulous:

“The poor, stupid, free American citizen! Free to starve, free to tramp the highways of this great country, he enjoys universal suffrage, and, by that right, he has forged chains about his limbs. The reward that he receives is stringent labor laws prohibiting the right of boycott, of picketing, in fact, of everything, except the right to be robbed of the fruits of his labor. Yet all these disastrous results of the twentieth-century fetish have taught woman nothing. But, then, woman will purify politics, we are assured.”

We are used, in our own day, to the rhetoric of politics as a “swamp”. Goldman would not have disagreed with this but, rather than arguing that the next guys would be the ones to drain it, she argued that it had never been susceptible to the salvation of drainage to begin with. The problem is not who takes part in politics: IT IS POLITICS ITSELF AND EVERY SINGLE ONE OF ITS INSTITUTIONS. Electoral politics it is which, in Goldman’s words, “is not susceptible of purification”. So there can be no emancipation for women in it because it is not an organ of emancipation. Goldman in fact examples this from those US states where, by the time she was writing, women had gained some suffrage rights. She argues that where this has taken place women with new suffrage rights have not made those states better but have simply used their new power in exactly the same morally proscriptive and politically heinous ways as men do. In other words, it was no emancipatory victory that Margaret Thatcher became the British Prime Minister in 1979 and the policies she pursued were not emancipatory because she was a woman but were as socially destructive and oppressive as any a male Prime Minister ever pursued before or since. This is the fault of inherently authoritarian electoral politics which is the policeman of capital. It cannot be reformed for it is serving its purpose. In centralising electoral power into various institutions as a result of its processes, in fact, Goldman sees suffrage as that which accentuates all kinds of economic and political problems rather than ameliorating them. And then there is the fact that the whole exercise is unnecessary anyway for:

“The history of the political activities of men proves that they have given him absolutely nothing that he could not have achieved in a more direct, less costly, and more lasting manner. As a matter of fact, every inch of ground he has gained has been through a constant fight, a ceaseless struggle for self-assertion, and not through suffrage.”

Here Goldman exposes the suffragist’s lie that it is through politics that human beings secure things when all of history shows that it is actually DIRECT ACTION which has done this, direct action in your own interest [as Stirner also suggested and as Goldman earlier reminded us he did]. All ballots achieve in this regard is your effective surrender of direct action, your handing over of your responsibility for yourself to others and the tying of your hands behind your back by the authoritative institutions of politics [which hardly needed such encouragement to begin with and to whom you have now given an excuse] – a thoroughly self-neutralising action. Goldman’s argument is that, in order to achieve real freedom, women do not need to join men in being tied down by electoral institutions but genuine freedom and independence which will come from them asserting their own selves in acts of direct action. So, as far as women are concerned:

“Her development, her freedom, her independence, must come from and through herself. First, by asserting herself as a personality, and not as a sex commodity. Second, by refusing the right to anyone over her body; by refusing to bear children, unless she wants them; by refusing to be a servant to God, the State, society, the husband, the family, etc., by making her life simpler, but deeper and richer. That is, by trying to learn the meaning and substance of life in all its complexities, by freeing herself from the fear of public opinion and public condemnation. Only that, and not the ballot, will set woman free, will make her a force hitherto unknown in the world, a force for real love, for peace, for harmony; a force of divine fire, of life-giving; a creator of free men and women.”

In this respect, turning to the essay “Marriage and Love”, we can see that for Goldman acting on your own recognisance and in your own interest is always regarded as superior to an artificially created and adjudicated institution. So, in this essay:

“Marriage is primarily an economic arrangement, an insurance pact. It differs from the ordinary life insurance agreement only in that it is more binding, more exacting. Its returns are insignificantly small compared with the investments. In taking out an insurance policy one pays for it in dollars and cents, always at liberty to discontinue payments. If, however, woman’s premium is a husband, she pays for it with her name, her privacy, her self-respect, her very life, ‘until death doth part.’ Moreover, the marriage insurance condemns her to life-long dependency, to parasitism, to complete uselessness, individual as well as social. Man, too, pays his toll, but as his sphere is wider, marriage does not limit him as much as woman. He feels his chains more in an economic sense.”

Marriage, then, is thought of by Goldman as a state of unfreedom, especially for women in a patriarchal society. But, as in previous essays, Goldman also wants to site this institution within the moral and social frameworks within which it is justified. Thus:

“From infancy, almost, the average girl is told that marriage is her ultimate goal; therefore her training and education must be directed towards that end. Like the mute beast fattened for slaughter, she is prepared for that. Yet, strange to say, she is allowed to know much less about her function as wife and mother than the ordinary artisan of his trade. It is indecent and filthy for a respectable girl to know anything of the marital relation. Oh, for the inconsistency of respectability, that needs the marriage vow to turn something which is filthy into the purest and most sacred arrangement that none dare question or criticize. Yet that is exactly the attitude of the average upholder of marriage. The prospective wife and mother is kept in complete ignorance of her only asset in the competitive field — sex. Thus she enters into life-long relations with a man only to find herself shocked, repelled, outraged beyond measure by the most natural and healthy instinct, sex. It is safe to say that a large percentage of the unhappiness, misery, distress, and physical suffering of matrimony is due to the criminal ignorance in sex matters that is being extolled as a great virtue. Nor is it at all an exaggeration when I say that more than one home has been broken up because of this deplorable fact.

If, however, woman is free and big enough to learn the mystery of sex without the sanction of State or Church, she will stand condemned as utterly unfit to become the wife of a ‘good’ man, his goodness consisting of an empty head and plenty of money. Can there be anything more outrageous than the idea that a healthy, grown woman, full of life and passion, must deny nature’s demand, must subdue her most intense craving, undermine her health and break her spirit, must stunt her vision, abstain from the depth and glory of sex experience until a ‘good’ man comes along to take her unto himself as a wife? That is precisely what marriage means. How can such an arrangement end except in failure? This is one, though not the least important, factor of marriage, which differentiates it from love.”

Marriage, then, within the social and moral strictures within which it was set when Goldman was writing, arbitrarily decides a future for women [Goldman’s own experience is surely talking here], keeps her in ignorance of it and denies to her the freedom of her own body. It is obvious to see here that in “love” Goldman sees the opposites of all the freedom-denying conditions of marriage, an institution she further describes as “soul-poverty and sordidness”. You will remember that earlier, when discussing prostitution, Goldman did not see it as any different to marriage in its suffocating conditions which forced regrettable solutions. Here the home of the wife and mother Goldman metaphorically describes as a prison where the woman “learns soon enough that the home, though not so large a prison as the factory, has more solid doors and bars. It has a keeper so faithful that naught can escape him. The most tragic part, however, is that the home no longer frees her from wage slavery; it only increases her task.” Marriage is sold by its adherents as the protection and nurturing of woman in her imagined “essential” functions [warning bells should be ringing here] but as Goldman sees it:

“As to the protection of the woman, — therein lies the curse of marriage. Not that it really protects her, but the very idea is so revolting, such an outrage and insult on life, so degrading to human dignity, as to forever condemn this parasitic institution. It is like that other paternal arrangement — capitalism. It robs man of his birthright, stunts his

growth, poisons his body, keeps him in ignorance, in poverty and dependence, and then institutes charities that thrive on the last vestige of man’s self-respect. The institution of marriage makes a parasite of woman, an absolute dependent. It incapacitates her for life’s struggle, annihilates her social consciousness, paralyzes her imagination, and then

imposes its gracious protection, which is in reality a snare, a travesty on human character. If motherhood is the highest fulfillment of woman’s nature, what other protection does it need save love and freedom? Marriage but defiles, outrages, and corrupts her fulfillment. Does it not say to woman, Only when you follow me shall you bring forth life? Does it not condemn her to the block, does it not degrade and shame her if she refuses to buy her right to motherhood by selling herself? Does not marriage only sanction motherhood, even though conceived in hatred, in compulsion? Yet, if motherhood be of free choice, of love, of ecstasy, of defiant passion, does it not place a crown of thorns upon an innocent head and carve in letters of blood the hideous

epithet, Bastard? Were marriage to contain all the virtues claimed for it, its crimes against motherhood would exclude it forever from the realm of love.”

Marriage is then just one more institution propagated as necessary but which, in reality, is not at all. Like governments and parliaments, marriage is not needed to produce some imagined necessary circumstance but is imposed as the means to it anyway. The method here is always the same: propose something as a good and a means to freedom which is actually a prison and a means of control. The controlling and coercing mentality always attempts to offer the jail cell as a comfortable guest house but nobody should be fooled, thinks Goldman, for what people really need is genuine freedom and the chance to let love blossom by itself not a forced institution to which people, more especially women in historical context, are fated. Historically speaking, of course, Goldman was publicly vilified as one of those forward thinkers who practiced “free love” and here it is right to point out that such views about sex and love are totally a part of her overall anarchist agenda and not – as Peter Kropotkin or Lucy Parsons argued – a side issue of second, third or even fourth rank. Freedom in love and sex was, for Goldman, at the heart of everything her anarchism was about, a crucial component of the intellectual curiosity and intellectual independence which freed people from controlling moral and social strictures which she thought as of first importance. So of “free love” Goldman says:

“Free love? As if love is anything but free! Man has bought brains, but all the millions in the world have failed to buy love. Man has subdued bodies, but all the power on earth has been unable to subdue love. Man has conquered whole nations, but all his armies could not conquer love. Man has chained and fettered the spirit, but he has been utterly helpless before love…

Love needs no protection; it is its own protection. So long as love begets life no child is deserted, or hungry, or famished for the want of affection. I know this to be true. I know women who became mothers in freedom by the men they loved. Few children in wedlock enjoy the care, the protection, the devotion free motherhood is capable of bestowing.

The defenders of authority dread the advent of a free motherhood, lest it will rob them of their prey. Who would fight wars? Who would create wealth? Who would make the policeman, the jailer, if woman were to refuse the indiscriminate breeding of children? The race, the race! Shouts the king, the president, the capitalist, the priest. The race must be preserved, though woman be degraded to a mere machine, — and the marriage institution is our only safety valve against the pernicious sex-awakening of woman. But in vain these frantic efforts to maintain a state of bondage. In vain, too, the edicts of the Church, the mad attacks of rulers, in vain even the arm of the law. Woman no longer wants to be a party to the production of a race of sickly, feeble, decrepit, wretched human beings, who have neither the strength nor moral courage to throw off the yoke of poverty and slavery. Instead she desires fewer and better children, begotten and

reared in love and through free choice; not by compulsion, as marriage imposes. Our pseudo-moralists have yet to learn the deep sense of responsibility toward the child, that love in freedom has awakened in the breast of woman. Rather would she forego forever the glory of motherhood than bring forth life in an atmosphere that breathes only destruction and death. And if she does become a mother, it is to give to the child the deepest and best her being can yield. To grow with the child is her motto; she knows that in that manner alone can she help build true manhood and womanhood.”

We see here how Goldman’s vision of love, sex and motherhood builds into an image of society as a whole, a society of free individual humans beings, self-realized to their fullest actuality and left socially free to make their own associations as they wish. It sounds simple, even simplistic, but Goldman was fully authentic in her propagation of it as the cure to social, moral, political and economic problems. This was her anarchist revolution of society, the institution of freedom and liberation in individual human lives and their social relations and the destruction of the coercing hand of authority and power by the destruction of all its institutions. Goldman imagined every human being, from their own unique childhood, growing into an adult of personality and character who strode across Zarathustra’s mountain peaks for themselves and she thought the freedom to love – if, when and who you like – the very building block of such a vision. As she in fact herself said, “If the world is ever to give birth to true companionship and oneness, not marriage but love will be the parent.”


Goldman’s final essay in Anarchism and Other Essays was an essay titled “The Modern Drama: A Powerful Disseminator of Radical Thought” and it showcased her personal interest in fiction of social concern such as we might today, for example, see in the films of British film director, Ken Loach, who over several decades has produced multiple films from a socialist perspective which highlight social inequality and injustice and present it to the public in dramatic form. Goldman seems to have always been enamoured of such stories and wrote a further book about the subject which was published in 1914 [The Social Significance of the Modern Drama]. In the stories and characters of such tales Goldman seems to have found powerful examples of social ills which both held her interest in an iron grip and motivated her own personal and political responses. Such fiction was, so it seems, an opportunity for Goldman’s own inquisitive and constantly developing mind to work out social meanings and consequences in the sandbox of literary surroundings. What’s more, it seems clear that this interest of Goldman’s began in her own childhood with the Russian story What Is To Be Done? by Nikolai Chernyshevsky playing a particularly important role with both her and Alexander Berkman who, as nominal members of the Russian Empire themselves, were affected and influenced by Russian culture during their upbringing and throughout their lives.

In this novel the author condemns the patriarchal and authoritarian nature of family, social, and political relations as the principal source of Russia’s social inequality, oppressiveness, and economic backwardness. He also argues that intellectuals should play an active role in social development and moral regeneration. Meanwhile, the further point is made that individual self-realization, sexual liberation, and an economy that combines prosperity with social justice can be achieved only through the consequent reorganization of the family and society, and the means of production be organised in accordance with cooperative principles. Perhaps it is now not so surprising how Goldman and Berkman turned out if this was the reading matter that garnered and excited their youthful attention? Goldman in fact remarks in Living My Life, as one example, that she once gave a talk in Madison, Wisconsin to American students on the subject of the Russian intelligentsia and how they see in education “not a mere means to a career but something to enable them to understand life and the people, so that they [can] teach and help them” which seems a direct reference to the themes of What Is To Be Done?

This latter reference is to the second decade of the Twentieth Century which, unbeknown to Goldman at the time, was to be her last decade as a US citizen. It was during this decade that she carried out the majority of her on/off relationship with Ben Reitman [who also played the role of her Tour Manager, not unsuccessfully] which often stretched her patience to breaking point as both she and Reitman were strong personalities who simply were going to live the lives they wanted to lead regardless of circumstances. Sometimes this worked in favour of them being together but, sooner or later, it always required them to go their separate ways… before the separation required them coming back together again. This state of affairs would only finally be resolved by Goldman being imprisoned [along with Berkman] in 1917 for her “anti-war” activities as the USA entered the First World War and introduced the military draft. Goldman and Berkman both organised those who wanted to persuade men not to register to fight and, as a result, they were both arrested and received 2 year prison sentences. Upon release from prison they were then both arrested again during the first of America’s “Red Scares” and were eventually deported to Russia on 21st December 1919.

One notable feature of Goldman’s activism in her final American years before her arrest for “inducing persons not to register” for the draft was in the area of birth control. Clearly, as we have seen from the essays she collected to represent her first 20 years of activity, the issues of women and their lives were not new territory for her. Goldman had always regarded women’s emancipation and sexual emancipation as core topics of any anarchist rhetoric. But in her third American decade, especially, these interests began to coalesce around the area of birth control, a subject that was regarded as anathema in public and which came under the auspices of the Comstock Law in relation to sharing any communications about it. It was inevitable that Goldman would eventually fall foul of the arbiters of public morality on such an issue and this happened in 1916 when Goldman was tried in court in April of that year for discussing methods of birth control, something which, even in court, women were not supposed to hear the details of. Prior to the trial Goldman wrote a short piece for Mother Earth titled “The Social Aspects of Birth Control” in which she stridently defended women’s rights to control their own sexuality in safety, including, necessarily, the methods needed in order to do so. In the article she pictures her opponents as capitalist moralisers who regard women as baby factories churning out the necessary raw materials [workers] of capitalism. Yet she also argues that women should not have to destroy themselves producing child after child simply due to some empty moral prohibition, especially not when such progeny are then only introduced to lives of capitalist misery themselves as well as adding to the burdens of their parents. Her charge is then that woman is being used, as the following excerpt shows:

“woman’s function is to give life, yet neither the state nor politicians nor public opinion have ever made the slightest provision in return for the life woman has given. For ages she has been on her knees before the altar of duty as imposed by God, by Capitalism, by the State, and by Morality. To-day she has awakened from her age-long sleep. She has shaken herself free from the nightmare of the past; she has turned her face towards the light and its proclaiming in a clarion voice that she will no longer be a party to the crime of bringing hapless children into the world only to be ground into dust by the wheel of capitalism and to be torn into shreds in trenches and battlefields. And who is to say her nay? After all it is woman who is risking her health and sacrificing her youth in the reproduction of the race. Surely she ought to be in a position to decide how many children she should bring into the world, whether they should be brought into the world by the man she loves and because she wants the child, or should be born in hatred and loathing.”

Goldman, who in her earlier life had been diagnosed with a medical issue of her own that inhibited her from having her own children [she refused the operation which would have subsequently made having children of her own possible], thus argues that, amongst other things, woman “should have the knowledge that would enable her to recuperate during a period of from three to five years between each pregnancy, which alone would give her physical and mental well-being and the opportunity to take better care of the children already in existence.” As a measure of how important this issue was to Emma Goldman we may note that in this article she calls it “the most dominant issue of modern times” and she has absolutely no time for the hollow words of the moralisers as the following excerpt shows:

“Those who oppose the Birth Control Movement claim to do so in behalf of motherhood. All the political charlatans prate about this wonderful motherhood, yet on closer examination we find that this motherhood has gone on for centuries past blindly and stupidly dedicating its offspring to Moloch. Besides, so long as mothers are compelled to work many hard hours in order to help support the creatures which they unwillingly brought into the world, the talk of motherhood is nothing else but cant. Ten percent of married women in the city of New York have to help make a living. Most of them earn the very lucrative salary of $280 a year. How dare anyone speak of the beauties of Motherhood in the face of such a crime?”

Goldman here also links economics and sexuality as she had done in other scenarios before. Often, as with the young female factory workers she had spoken of in the past, she spoke of the enjoyment of sexuality as the only release from a life of economically necessary drudgery. Here she refers to “unmarried mothers” who

“crowd our shops and factories and industries everywhere, not by choice but by economic necessity. In their drab and monotonous existence the only color left is probably a sexual attraction which without methods of prevention invariably leads to abortions. Thousands of women are sacrificed as a result of abortions because they are undertaken by quack doctors, ignorant midwives in secrecy and in haste. Yet the poets and the politicians sing of motherhood. A greater crime was never perpetrated upon woman.”

Goldman thus sees the lack of birth control provision as a matter of deliberate cruelty based on moral censoriousness and a lack of concern for those living already oppressed lives. She speaks of “moralists” who “persist on behalf of an indiscriminate breeding of children [and] tell us that to limit offspring is entirely a modern tendency because the modern woman is loose in her morals and wishes to shirk responsibility.” In reply to this, Goldman, ever the reader of modern research in matters of social and sexual concern, refers to the work of one Doctor Theilhaber whose research had established that several ancient societies engaged in primitive birth control methods, thus establishing that it was not a new idea but one with a more primitive heritage.

Yet what does all this have to do with anarchism for Goldman? The ending of the piece establishes the link for her situation as an educator into the METHODS of birth control [as ever, Goldman’s anarchism was not a personal belief she did nothing about but was an action carried through into its consequences] put her in a perilous legal position. Thus, she says:

“We are told that so long as the law on the statute books makes the discussion of preventives a crime, these preventives must not be discussed. In reply I wish to say that it is not the Birth Control Movement, but the law, which will have to go. After all, that is what laws are for, to be made and unmade. How dare they demand that life shall submit to them? Just because some ignorant bigot in his own limitation of mind and heart succeeded in passing a law at the time when men and women were in the thralls of religious and moral superstition, must we be bound by it for the rest of our lives? I readily understand why judges and jailers shall be bound by it. It means their livelihood; their function in society. But even judges sometimes progress.”

This then turns into a speech about the necessity of living up to one’s ideals in the face of political and legal authority and Goldman is resolute about what is required:

“I am to be tried at Special Sessions April 5th. I do not know what the outcome will be, and furthermore, I do not care. This dread of going to prison for one’s ideas so prevalent among American radicals is what makes the movement so pale and weak. I have no such dread. My revolutionary tradition is that those who are not willing to go to prison for their ideas have never been considered of much value to their ideas.”

Goldman then goes into the “stupidity of the law” which meant that, even during the proceedings of her trial, what Goldman actually discussed was not allowed to be publicly disclosed lest women should hear about the details of birth control, something the law stated they were not, under any circumstances, allowed to hear. Of this, Goldman states:

“It is perfectly within the law for the detectives to give testimony, but it is not within the law for me to read the testimony which resulted in my indictment. Can you blame me if I am an anarchist and have no use for laws? Also, I wish to point out the utter stupidity of the American court. Supposedly justice is to be meted out there. Supposedly there are to be no star chamber proceedings under democracy, yet the other day when the detectives gave their testimony, it had to be done in a whisper, close to the judge as at the confessional in a Catholic Church and under no circumstances were the ladies present permitted to hear anything that was going on. The farce of it all! And yet we are expected to respect it, to obey it, to submit to it.”

Goldman then finishes her piece for Mother Earth in the following defiant tone:

“I do not know how many of you are willing to do it, but I am not. I stand as one of the sponsors of a world-wide movement, a movement which aims to set woman free from the terrible yoke and bondage of enforced pregnancy; a movement which demands the right for every child to be well born; a movement which shall help free labor from its eternal dependence; a movement which shall usher into the world a new kind of motherhood. I consider this movement important and vital enough to defy all the laws upon the statute-books. I believe it will clear the way not merely for the free discussion of contracepts but for the freedom of expression in Life, Art and Labor, for the right of medical science to experiment with contracepts as it has in the treatment of tuberculosis or any other disease.

I may be arrested, I may be tried and thrown into jail, but I never will be silent; I never will

acquiesce or submit to authority, nor will I make peace with a system which degrades woman to a mere incubator and which fattens on her innocent victims. I now and here declare war upon this system and shall not rest until the path has been cleared for a free motherhood and a healthy, joyous and happy childhood.”

Goldman was found guilty and received a $100 fine [about $2,600 now]. As a matter of principle, not believing in courts or laws, she refused to pay it and was jailed for a few weeks for non-payment of the fine. The right of women to control their sexuality and their own bodies in America is, however, still shamefully unresolved. America, it seems to me, needs a few more Emma Goldmans who will not obey, whatever the cost.

Such was certainly Emma Goldman and, as already noted, in the next year, 1917, her anti-war activities, and those of Berkman, conspired to have them imprisoned for 2 years as a result of inducing men publicly to avoid the military draft. Behind the scenes, politicians and agents of the state, such as J. Edgar Hoover, worked to ensure that Goldman, Berkman and hundreds of others would be ultimately and finally expelled from the USA altogether and so it was, on 21st December 1919, that Goldman, together with Berkman, was deported from the USA – at the time they knew not even where to. They were kept under armed guard on the rickety ship they had been placed on – the Buford – and, in January 1920, found themselves docking in Helsinki before being taken in closed cars to the Russian border and, from there, on to the newly renamed Petrograd [St. Petersburg]. Goldman had always considered herself an American citizen and considered that country as the one which had finally ignited in her that which she knew as anarchism. She was sad and upset to finally be forced out. Yet, at the same time, she was excited to see what had become of the Russia she had left behind 34 years before. Whilst still in America she had praised the Russian people for their revolution and for the social and cultural hope it promised. But what she found, as recounted in her book My Disillusionment in Russia [her original title, which the publishers ignored, was “My Two Years in Russia”] was a revolution betrayed by the manipulative, coercive and violent forces of a Marxist party.

Somewhere hidden in the text concerning Goldman’s two years amongst the Bolsheviks she writes the seemingly benign phrase “revolutions are not made to order” yet I think this is a revealing phrase, a phrase that tells us something about Goldman’s values and why, at least according to her, the Russian Revolution failed. The text of My Disillusionment in Russia [and its “follow up” My Further Disillusionment in Russia which is but parts of the original manuscript Goldman wrote but which the publishers inexplicably left out of the original book – leaving it incomplete, something not all original reviewers noticed, to their everlasting shame] is a concise and clear description, without much artifice, of Goldman’s time and experiences among ordinary Russian people and occasional members of the Bolshevik authorities, including Lenin himself. It tells a tale, as the publisher’s title rightly states, of Goldman’s increasing disillusionment with what she is learning the longer she stays in Russia. Goldman had arrived fully prepared to give the Bolsheviks a chance and to learn and take stock in regard to what was going on. She did not, as she herself says, expect to immediately find a fully realised anarchism nor did she even expect to find anarchism at all. She knew the Bolsheviks were Communists informed by Marxism but was prepared, despite obvious political differences, to judge things on their own merits. What she found, in fact, so disturbed and upset her – contrary to all her desires to want to believe that the social revolution in Russia was real – that she finally had to get out of Russia, something she did on 1st December 1921, almost 2 years later.

For example, in her original preface Goldman describes the Revolution, and her reaction to it, in the following way:

“The actual Russian Revolution took place in the summer months of 1917. During that period the peasants possessed themselves of the land, the workers of the factories, thus demonstrating that they knew well the meaning of social revolution. The October change was the finishing touch to the work begun six months previously. In the great uprising the Bolsheviki assumed the voice of the people. They clothed themselves with the agrarian programme of the Social Revolutionists and the industrial tactics of the Anarchists. But after the high tide of revolutionary enthusiasm had carried them into

power, the Bolsheviki discarded their false plumes. It was then that began the spiritual separation between the Bolsheviki and the Russian Revolution. With each succeeding day the gap grew wider, their interests more conflicting. Today it is no exaggeration to state that the Bolsheviki stand as the arch enemies of the Russian Revolution.”

Readers will note here a disparity between “The Revolution” itself and the Bolsheviks as a party or ideology. This is a disparity Goldman insists upon for she sees the values of one as being completely different to the values of the other – and it is VALUES, as we shall see, that Goldman cares about. Goldman was certainly no Marxist and in My Disillusionment in Russia [a title she hated and tried to have changed for her disillusionment, if anything, was not “in Russia” but in the Bolsheviks] she states that “for thirty years I fought the Marxian theory as a cold, mechanistic enslaving formula”. One suspects that the nature of Marxism as a theory, formula or dogma [which, as my own observation, it always seems to be as well, a dogma every bit as dogmatic as the gospel of a Christian religionist] was not the least of its problems in one who so highly valued the thought of Nietzsche, a man who proclaimed that he distrusted “systematisers” and regarded systematising as “a lack of integrity”. Goldman herself, in an echo of this thought, had written previously that anarchism was no “iron-clad program” and that needs and circumstances must decide what was necessary. A “Marxian formula” imposed on people by force could never hope to reach the high bar of such an anarchist value. So it is then no surprise when Goldman writes here that:

“Anarchism to me never was a mechanistic arrangement of social relationships to be imposed upon man by political scene-shifting or by a transfer of power from one social class to another. Anarchism to me was and is the child, not of destruction, but of construction — the result of growth and development of the conscious creative social efforts of a regenerated people. I do not therefore expect Anarchism to follow in the immediate footsteps of centuries of despotism and submission. And I certainly did not expect to see it ushered in by the Marxian theory.”

This comment sets us on our way to understanding the anarchist values of Emma Goldman as, in fact, does the following commentary on the course of events after 1917 according to Goldman’s own researches:

“To be sure, the peasants have the land; not by the grace of the Bolsheviki, but through their own direct efforts, set in motion long before the October change. That the peasants were able to retain the land is due mostly to the static Slav tenacity; owing to the circumstance that they form by far the largest part of the population and are deeply rooted in the soil, they could not as easily be torn away from it as the workers from

their means of production.

The Russian workers, like the peasants, also employed direct action. They possessed themselves of the factories, organized their own shop committees, and were virtually in control of the economic life of Russia. But soon they were stripped of their power and placed under the industrial yoke of the Bolshevik State. Chattel slavery became the lot of the Russian proletariat. It was suppressed and exploited in the name of something

which was later to bring it comfort, light, and warmth. Try as I might I could find nowhere any evidence of benefits received either by the workers or the peasants from the Bolshevik régime.”

To finally ask after the meaning of all this, and to put meat on the bones of Goldman’s anarchist values in the matter of “revolution” and its real anarchist meaning, we have to turn to the “Afterword” to her project of recounting her time in Russia for it is here where she concisely presents her overarching views. She does this partly in interaction with defenders of Bolshevik Marxism [of which there were several abroad whom she deeply offended by her criticisms of it which led to her being a largely European outcast to many “on the Left” for the rest of her days] but mostly she simply speaks for herself and to her own values. Her Socialist critics seem mostly to have been concerned with why Marxist dogma had not worked in Russia and so they tried to argue for some conditions, according to the dictates of their ideological champion, which had not been satisfied which resulted in the failure. Here Goldman suggests that “industrial conditions” in Russia were not at the level Marx had required for a successful revolution as the tack the Socialists took but Goldman herself disputes that such conditions can, by themselves, create “a new society” in any case. She says: “The truth is that industrial development and sharp social contrasts are of themselves by no means sufficient to give birth to a new society or to call forth a social revolution”, speaking instead of the need for a “necessary social consciousness” or “the required mass psychology”. It is here, in fact, that Goldman’s earlier comment about revolutions not being “made to order” becomes relevant for her point in saying this is that revolution is not a dogma or formula to be imposed but a living, breathing, dynamic phenomenon. It comes from the life of actual people; it is not merely a static “one size fits all” plan. Therefore, in Marxist context, “revolution does not await this process of industrialization and, what is more important, cannot be made to wait.”

Goldman’s point here is that lived reality – and real people — must always supercede the theoretical plan. Thus:

“The Russian peasants began to expropriate the landlords and the workers took possession of the factories without taking cognizance of Marxian dicta. This popular action, by virtue of its own logic, ushered in the social revolution in Russia, upsetting

all Marxian calculations. The psychology of the Slav proved stronger than social democratic theories. That psychology involved the passionate yearning for liberty nurtured by a century of revolutionary agitation among all classes of society. The Russian people had fortunately remained politically unsophisticated and untouched by the corruption and confusion created among the proletariat of other countries by ‘democratic’ liberty and self-government. The Russian remained, in this sense, natural and simple, unfamiliar with the subtleties of politics, of parliamentary trickery, and legal makeshifts. On the other hand, his primitive sense of justice and right was strong and vital, without the disintegrating finesse of pseudo-civilization. He knew what he wanted and he did not wait for ‘historic inevitability’ to bring it to him: he employed direct action. The Revolution to him was a fact of life, not a mere theory for discussion.”

Inasmuch as “revolution” was then a matter of “direct action”, and all of a piece with the vital energies of the self-interest of the Russian people, it was good. But inasmuch as it was hide-bound by Marxist dogma, it was bad [and bound to fail]. Real life, imagines Goldman, does not conform to pre-determined plans or theories. It is not, contra Marx, “scientific”. It can only proceed according to the expressed will of people as a fact of their life. The key to this, thinks Goldman, is “common interest” which she describes as “the leitmotif of all revolutionary endeavour” and which she saw in the various “labour organizations and the cooperatives” which “combine the city with the country” in Russia along with “the Soviets” [“Soviet” is Russian for “council”] and “the intelligentsia” [as any good reader of What Is To Be Done? would think]. In comparison, however, Goldman impugns Lenin for interpreting “social expropriation” as “the transfer of wealth from one set of individuals to another” – not “common interest” but dispossession of some for the exclusive benefit of others. Goldman thus concludes that “True Communism was never attempted in Russia, unless one considers thirty-three categories of pay, different food rations, privileges to some and indifference to the great mass as Communism.”

So why did “The Russian Revolution” – thought of as a true revolution possessed of revolutionary values – fail? Goldman is quite clear on the answer:

“It is now clear why the Russian Revolution, as conducted by the Communist Party, was a failure. The political power of the Party, organized and centralized in the State, sought to maintain itself by all means at hand. The central authorities attempted to force the activities of the people into forms corresponding with the purposes of the Party. The sole aim of the latter was to strengthen the State and monopolize all economical, political, and social activities — even all cultural manifestations. The Revolution had an entirely different object, and in its very character it was the negation of authority and centralization. It strove to open ever larger fields for proletarian expression and to multiply the phases of individual and collective effort. The aims and tendencies of the Revolution were diametrically opposed to those of the ruling political party.

Just as diametrically opposed were the methods of the Revolution and of the State. Those of the former were inspired by the spirit of the Revolution itself: that is to say, by emancipation from all oppressive and limiting forces; in short; by libertarian principles. The methods of the State, on the contrary--of the Bolshevik State as of every government--were based on coercion, which in the course of things necessarily developed into systematic violence, oppression, and terrorism. Thus two opposing

tendencies struggled for supremacy: the Bolshevik State against the Revolution.”

Goldman’s answer is that the values and aims of the Revolution — as held and carried out by the mass of Russian people — were at odds with the values and aims of the Communist Party. As she goes on to say, the problem with the Revolution and singular reason for its failure was “Fundamentally… the result of the principles and methods of Bolshevism. It was the authoritarian spirit and principles of the State which stifled the libertarian and liberating aspirations” in what amounts to a standard anarchist critique of authoritarianism. She actually describes the Bolsheviks as exponents of “fanatical governmentalism” in an analysis which asks “what is progress if not the more general acceptance of the principles of liberty as against those of coercion?” She argues, in the end, that a politically naive Russian people was duped into putting the “yoke” of the Communist Party around their necks and that their “instinctive” anarchism was “yet too unfamiliar with true libertarian principles and methods to apply them effectively to life.”

This, for Goldman, however, is a VERY important point for, as she had made mention of in her preface, anarchism, and its values, do not suddenly spring to life if found necessary. They are not just there waiting to be of use. Such things need cultivation and habituation. They need to be active to create revolution rather than being the results of a revolution propagated by other means. THEY ARE THE MEANS. It is, in fact, reminiscent of a question political radicals and even others sometimes ask: “Why does no one ever do anything in the direction of political freedom, why do we stay oppressed?” The answer is found in Emma Goldman’s analysis of The Russian Revolution here: it is not revolution which makes liberty but liberty which must make the revolution. The Russian Revolution failed, says Goldman, because it was not based on the freedom of people acting freely. The Russian people as a whole were not ready for revolution and so authority, acting opportunistically, simply took over once again in another form. What this means is YOU MUST BE FREE BEFORE THERE CAN BE A REVOLUTION. Your education into freedom, your practising new values, your living the life of liberty MUST COME FIRST. Revolution without this can only fail. So that is why “no one ever does anything”: people are not yet acting and living free, they have not educated themselves to the point where liberating action must come and, because it is free, the creation of a free culture of free relationships, is able to sustain itself. The struggle, as Emma Goldman always suggested, is with oneself and against cultural programming before it is with governments and states. You must be such people as are already free, and who are habituated to living in self-actualized freedom, before a revolution can have a hope to succeed. Thus, as Goldman states of her fellow Russians: “their work would have been of infinitely greater practical value had they been better organized and equipped to guide the released energies of the people toward the reorganization of life on a libertarian foundation.” But they did not have these habits; they were hamstrung.

Thus, as Goldman goes on to apply such thinking to The Russian Revolution:

“It remains true, as it has through all progress, that only the libertarian spirit and method can bring man a step further in his eternal striving for the better, finer, and freer life. Applied to the great social upheavals known as revolutions, this tendency is as potent as in the ordinary evolutionary process. The authoritarian method has been a failure all through history and now it has again failed in the Russian Revolution. So far human ingenuity has discovered no other principle except the libertarian, for man has indeed uttered the highest wisdom when he said that liberty is the mother of order, not its daughter. All political tenets and parties notwithstanding, no revolution can be truly and permanently successful unless it puts its emphatic veto upon all tyranny and centralization, and determinedly strives to make the revolution a real revaluation of all economic, social, and cultural values. Not mere substitution of one political party for another in the control of the Government, not the masking of autocracy by proletarian slogans, not the dictatorship of a new class over an old one, not political scene shifting of any kind, but the complete reversal of all these authoritarian principles will alone serve the revolution…

It is only when the libertarian spirit permeates the economic organizations of the workers that the manifold creative energies of the people can manifest themselves, and the revolution be safeguarded and defended. Only free initiative and popular participation in the affairs of the revolution can prevent the terrible blunders committed in Russia.”

A “revaluation of all values”. Where have we heard that before?

It is here that Goldman does her most convincing theoretical work, work which somehow manages to tie Nietzschean revaluing of values in with Kropotkin’s mutual aid. Whilst conceding that “anarchosyndicalism” is “alone able to organize successfully the economic life and carry on production”, she praises “the cooperatives” which must link town to country and the agrarian masses to the industrial ones. Thus, “A common tie of mutual service and aid is created which is the strongest bulwark of the revolution — far more effective than compulsory labour, the Red Army, or terrorism.” But Goldman sounds an anarchist note of caution too when she adds that:

“cultural forces, while remaining rooted in the economic soil, must yet retain independent scope and freedom of expression. Not adherence to the dominant political party but devotion to the revolution, knowledge, ability, and — above all — the creative impulse should be the criterion of fitness for cultural work.”

It is very much worth highlighting here how freedom and creativity [which, of course, relies on freedom to create to begin with] constantly remain necessary for Goldman. Her revolution is the absolute antithesis of a plan, formula or dogma. For her, revolution must stay vital, living, alive, dynamic, creative, lest it put itself in peril and fail. Revolution, for Goldman, can only happen inasmuch as it is tied to a living people self-actualized and habituated to living lives according to liberatory values freed from centralising coercions. Old values, cultural ideas and traditions must be expunged and people must find a way to transvaluate not just their values but their very selves to create the new people capable of making new relationships that a real revolution must achieve. Thus, for example, Goldman bemoans the split between “proletarians” and the intelligentsia which, in times of reactionary politics, politicians always seek to exaggerate in order to cause division between the educated and the uneducated. Following Peter Kropotkin, who had lauded the need for “brain work and manual work” in his theory of the revolution, Goldman argues that “The Russian Revolution has made it very clear that both brain and muscle are indispensable to the work of social regeneration. Intellectual and physical labour are as closely related in the social body as brain and hand in the human organism. One cannot function without the other.”

Here Goldman, as always before, refuses to come down on one side or the other of an imagined individual/social divide. She can speak about “the collective force which is to shape the revolution into the great architect of the new social edifice” but she can also say that “All must learn the value of mutual aid and libertarian cooperation, yet each must be able to remain independent in his own sphere and in harmony with the best he can yield to society.” Here there is no future in going it alone but, by the same token, there is no future in arbitrary collectivity either. Goldman’s social conception was that free human beings with free association and their own autonomy and agency made the best social organisms, the only ones, in fact, that had any opportunity to succeed according to an emancipatory agenda. As such, it is worth quoting her at length from her afterword to My Disillusionment in Russia in regard to “the state idea”, “the authoritarian principle” and “the whole Socialist conception of revolution itself”, ideas to which she stood implacably opposed and which led to her leaving Russia for good at the end of 1921:

“the STATE IDEA, the authoritarian principle, has been proven bankrupt by the experience of the Russian Revolution. If I were to sum up my whole argument in one sentence I should say: The inherent tendency of the State is to concentrate, to narrow, and monopolize all social activities; the nature of revolution is, on the contrary, to grow, to broaden, and disseminate itself in ever-wider circles. In other words, the State is

institutional and static; revolution is fluent, dynamic. These two tendencies are incompatible and mutually destructive. The State idea killed the Russian Revolution

and it must have the same result in all other revolutions, unless the libertarian idea prevail.

Yet I go much further. It is not only Bolshevism, Marxism, and Governmentalism which are fatal to revolution as well as to all vital human progress. The main cause of the defeat of the Russian Revolution lies much deeper. It is to be found in the whole Socialist conception of revolution itself.

The dominant, almost general, idea of revolution — particularly the Socialist idea — is that revolution is a violent change of social conditions through which one social class, the working class, becomes dominant over another class, the capitalist class. It is the conception of a purely physical change, and as such it involves only political scene shifting and institutional rearrangements. Bourgeois dictatorship is replaced by the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ — or by that of its ‘advance guard,’ the Communist Party; Lenin takes the seat of the Romanovs, the Imperial Cabinet is rechristened Soviet of People’s Commissars, Trotsky is appointed Minister of War, and a labourer becomes the Military Governor General of Moscow. That is, in essence, the Bolshevik conception of

revolution, as translated into actual practice. And with a few minor alterations it is also the idea of revolution held by all other Socialist parties.

This conception is inherently and fatally false. Revolution is indeed a violent process. But if it is to result only in a change of dictatorship, in a shifting of names and political personalities, then it is hardly worthwhile. It is surely not worth all the struggle and sacrifice, the stupendous loss in human life and cultural values that result from every revolution. If such a revolution were even to bring greater social well-being (which has not been the case in Russia) then it would also not be worth the terrific price paid: mere improvement can be brought about without bloody revolution. It is not palliatives or reforms that are the real aim and purpose of revolution, as I conceive it.

In my opinion--a thousand fold strengthened by the Russian experience--the great mission of revolution, of the SOCIAL REVOLUTION, is a fundamental transvaluation of values. A transvaluation not only of social, but also of human values. The latter are even pre-eminent, for they are the basis of all social values. Our institutions and conditions rest upon deep-seated ideas. To change those conditions and at the same time leave

the underlying ideas and values intact means only a superficial transformation, one that cannot be permanent or bring real betterment. It is a change of form only, not of substance, as so tragically proven by Russia.

It is at once the great failure and the great tragedy of the Russian Revolution that it attempted (in the leadership of the ruling political party) to change only institutions and

conditions while ignoring entirely the human and social values involved in the Revolution. Worse yet, in its mad passion for power, the Communist State even sought to strengthen and deepen the very ideas and conceptions which the Revolution had come to destroy. It supported and encouraged all the worst anti-social qualities and

systematically destroyed the already awakened conception of the new revolutionary values. The sense of justice and equality, the love of liberty and of human brotherhood -these fundamentals of the real regeneration of society — the Communist State suppressed to the point of extermination. Man’s instinctive sense of equity was branded as weak sentimentality; human dignity and liberty became a bourgeois superstition; the

sanctity of life, which is the very essence of social reconstruction, was condemned as revolutionary, almost counter-revolutionary. This fearful perversion of fundamental values bore within itself the seed of destruction. With the conception that the Revolution was only a means of securing political power, it was inevitable that all revolutionary values should be subordinated to the needs of the Socialist State; indeed,

exploited to further the security of the newly acquired governmental power. ‘Reasons of State,’ masked as the ‘interests of the Revolution and of the People,’ became the sole criterion of action, even of feeling. Violence, the tragic inevitability of revolutionary upheavals, became an established custom, a habit, and was presently enthroned as the most powerful and ‘ideal’ institution…

This perversion of the ethical values soon crystallized into the all-dominating slogan of the Communist Party: THE END JUSTIFIES ALL MEANS. Similarly in the past the Inquisition and the Jesuits adopted this motto and subordinated to it all morality. It avenged itself upon the Jesuits as it did upon the Russian Revolution. In the wake of this slogan followed lying, deceit, hypocrisy and treachery, murder, open and secret. It should be of utmost interest to students of social psychology that two movements as widely separated in time and ideas as Jesuitism and Bolshevism reached exactly similar results in the evolution of the principle, that the end justifies all means. The historic parallel, almost entirely ignored so far, contains a most important lesson for all coming

revolutions and for the whole future of mankind.

There is no greater fallacy than the belief that aims and purposes are one thing, while methods and tactics are another. This conception is a potent menace to social

regeneration. All human experience teaches that methods and means cannot be separated from the ultimate aim. The means employed become, through individual habit and social practice, part and parcel of the final purpose; they influence it, modify it, and presently the aims and means become identical. From the day of my arrival in Russia I felt it, at first vaguely, then ever more consciously and clearly. The great and inspiring

aims of the Revolution became so clouded with and obscured by the methods used by the ruling political power that it was hard to distinguish what was temporary means and what final purpose. Psychologically and socially the means necessarily influence and alter the aims. The whole history of man is continuous proof of the maxim that to divest one’s methods of ethical concepts means to sink into the depths of utter demoralization. In that lies the real tragedy of the Bolshevik philosophy as applied to the Russian Revolution. May this lesson not be in vain?

No revolution can ever succeed as a factor of liberation unless the MEANS used to further it be identical in spirit and tendency with the PURPOSES to be achieved. Revolution is the negation of the existing, a violent protest against man’s inhumanity to man with all the thousand and one slaveries it involves. It is the destroyer of dominant values upon which a complex system of injustice, oppression, and wrong has been built up by ignorance and brutality. -It is the herald of NEW VALUES,ushering in a transformation of the basic relations of man to man, and of man to society. It is not a mere reformer, patching up some social evils; not a mere changer of forms and institutions; not only a re-distributor of social well-being. It is all that, yet more, much more. It is, first and foremost, the TRANSVALUATOR, the bearer of new values. It is the great TEACHER of the NEW ETHICS, inspiring man with a new concept of life and its

manifestations in social relationships. It is the mental and spiritual regenerator.

Its first ethical precept is the identity of means used and aims sought. The ultimate end of all revolutionary social change is to establish the sanctity of human life, the dignity of man, the right of every human being to liberty and well-being. Unless this be the essential aim of revolution, violent social changes would have no justification. For external social alterations can be, and have been, accomplished by the normal processes of evolution. Revolution, on the contrary, signifies not mere external change, but internal, basic, fundamental change. That internal change of concepts and ideas, permeating ever-larger social strata, finally culminates in the violent upheaval known as revolution. Shall that climax reverse the process of transvaluation, turn against it, and betray it? That is what happened in Russia. On the contrary, the revolution itself must quicken and further the process of which it is the cumulative expression; its main mission is to inspire it, to carry it to greater heights, give it fullest scope for expression. Only thus is revolution true to itself.

Applied in practice it means that the period of the actual revolution, the so-called transitory stage, must be the introduction, the prelude to the new social conditions. It is the threshold to the NEW LIFE, the new HOUSE OF MAN AND HUMANITY As such it must he of the spirit of the new life, harmonious with the construction of the new edifice.

Today is the parent of tomorrow. The present casts its shadow far into the future. That is the law of life, individual and social. Revolution that divests itself of ethical values thereby lays the foundation of injustice, deceit, and oppression for the future society. The means used to prepare the future become its cornerstone. Witness the tragic condition of Russia. The methods of State centralization have paralysed individual initiative and effort; the tyranny of the dictatorship has cowed the people into slavish submission and all but extinguished the fires of liberty; organized terrorism has depraved and brutalized the masses and stifled every idealistic aspiration; institutionalized murder has cheapened human life, and all sense of the dignity of man and the value of life has been eliminated; coercion at every step has made effort bitter, labour a punishment, has turned the whole of existence into a scheme of mutual deceit,

and has revived the lowest and most brutal instincts of man. A sorry heritage to begin a new life of freedom and brotherhood.

It cannot be sufficiently emphasized that revolution is in vain unless inspired by its ultimate ideal. Revolutionary methods must be in tune with revolutionary aims. The

means used to further the revolution must harmonize with its purposes. In short, the ethical values which the revolution is to establish in the new society must be initiated with the revolutionary activities of the so-called transitional period. The latter can serve as a real and dependable bridge to the better life only if built of the same material as the life to be achieved. Revolution is the mirror of the coming day; it is the child that is to be

the Man of Tomorrow.”

This is as vital and as theoretical a text as Emma Goldman ever wrote, getting, as it does, to the heart of her anarchist values and her idea of “revolution”. It is NOT a matter of the right figureheads in government buildings or the correct parties occupying parliaments but of the values that each human being is imbued with and so the possibilities that their lives can create. Therefore, “What we understand as revolution” is the problem to be overcome if I am reading Emma Goldman correctly. She describes it much more as a Nietzschean “transvaluation of all values” than as a changing of the guard in some official residence of state, a mere political “scene shifting” as she calls it. In other words, this is to say that revolution is about us, who we are and what relations we can form with each other much, much more than it is about ANY sort of political organisation or control. Sort out the first, says Emma Goldman, and the second will take care of itself.


We must come to some conclusion about Emma Goldman’s anarchism to round off this appraisal of her life and character. It is, in fact, an interesting question to ask what Emma Goldman actually wanted, why she put herself on the line so deliberately and what she was hoping to achieve. Although she is often labelled as a “mere” activist, agitator or propagandist [perhaps even by me], there is within the textual fragments of her life evidence of quite a distinctively personal and theoretically interesting approach to life and anarchism – not to say to life AS anarchism. I say this if not only because it is Emma Goldman who has pre-eminently appealed to me as a person with an anarchist vision I have personally found fascinating and, as a result, impossible to ignore. In that, I must confess that it is not merely the content of that vision which has stirred me so but Goldman’s conviction that anarchism is NEVER MERELY CONTENT: IT IS LIFE LIVED OUT. Goldman’s, then, is an anarchism of ideas but also of practice, an anarchism that could not be anarchism unless it is practiced. THIS IS HER FIRST AND MOST IMPORTANT LESSON.

To help me get at what I regard as an insightful interpretation of Emma Goldman I am going to refer to the essay “When Theories Meet: Emma Goldman and ‘Post-Anarchism’” by Hilton Bertalan in the book Post-Anarchism: A Reader. Readers of my previous work will know that I am not unfamiliar with “Post-Anarchism” nor am I unreceptive to its insights. This would also be demonstrated in the first section of this book where the poststructuralist, Michel Foucault, was called upon for theoretical insights at various points, poststructuralism and its own insights being particularly useful tools for the post-anarchist in their critique of anarchism. The reason I wish to refer to this essay particularly is because the more I read it [and I began reading it speculatively but I found I couldn’t stop reading], the more I found it described an Emma Goldman which made the utmost sense to me, both as a theorist and as a description of what animated her life and made it one of lived practice and personal journey.

Bertalan begins by arguing that Emma Goldman was not your typical “classical anarchist”. [The period of “classical anarchism” is not set in stone but many would mark its end with Goldman’s death in 1940 and its span as broadly contemporaneous with her own life, i.e. 1869 – 1940. This is the period which includes the stand out figures such as Bakunin, Kropotkin, Malatesta, etc.] Bertalan in fact sees Goldman as a bridge between classical anarchism and its stereotypical and tightly-focused concerns with politics and economics and a more modern anarchism “that is connectable to the theoretical and political efforts of several contemporary theorists.” This insight encompasses at least two facts about Goldman; firstly, that she pioneered an intersectional anarchism that was exactly about more than just politics and economics [she often referred to anarchism as being about “every phase of life”, for example,] and, secondly, that, in the end, anarchism was not for her a goal or achievement but a life lived contingently that is subject to change and so is articulated by values and an ethics. In this, Bertalan sees resonances with the ideas of modern theorists such as Gilles Deleuze, Judith Butler and Michel Foucault. The most particular cause of this phenomenon Bertalan then argues to be Goldman’s exceptional interest in the thought of Friedrich Nietzsche, an interest made all the more remarkable for the fact that many other anarchists [and commentators generally] disdained Nietzsche as an apolitical elitist who had no obvious relevance to the anarchism of the classical period. Goldman, however, notes staying awake all night in her devotion to his texts [“I had to do my reading at the expense of much-needed sleep, but what was physical strain in view of my raptures over Nietzsche?” says Goldman in Living My Life], had arguments with lovers who had a low opinion of Nietzsche’s worth and even gave lectures on Nietzsche’s relevance over several years and so he is not an insignificant figure in her intellectual world of ideas. Nietzsche himself, in the consequences of his own thought, is often seen as the modern father of things from postmodernism to poststructuralism [and with the downfall of epistemological philosophy generally] and so Goldman’s interest here can lead to many interesting connections between his thought and that of his modern interpreters.

One of these connections is that Nietzsche spoke of a world of becoming rather than of being and of subjectivity as “in a constant state of flux”. Goldman used these exact words to describe herself and further spoke of ‘human nature’ as “by no means a fixed quantity. Rather, it is fluid and responsive to new conditions.” Goldman, we may say, was, like Nietzsche, not an essentialist — as is also demonstrated when she spoke about the “variations and gradations of gender” and sexuality in correspondence with the pioneering sexual researcher, Magnus Hirschfeld. Goldman had a great sensitivity to personal differentiation and actual diversity of character that existed not at a class level [and so was never in a binary way] but that was fully individual. But it was not only a recognition of such difference: it was a respect for it. Whatever Goldman thought about the social organism and the necessity of social formation, this was never said at the expense of individual reality or proclivity. All social engagement for Goldman was of real individual human beings that mattered in their difference and personal desires. What we might take from this is that Goldman, always concerned that one must think in a revolutionary way to live a revolutionary life, actively sought to reweave and educate the ideas that constituted her as an intellectual being. She was not, was never, happy to rest in customs, traditions and handed down ideas about things that society or culture just happened to hand her. Goldman was determined to think for herself and believed passionately that only people who did were actually making the revolution because they were really the only people who could. She believed that the imaginary that guided a person and created their world, their interpretational matrix, was of vital importance to living authentically as an anarchist.

In this respect, Hilton Bertalan makes an interesting connection with Nietzsche. For one familiar with the words of Nietzsche who reads Goldman’s surviving textual corpus it is already clear to see that many words and phrases are taken over by Goldman and applied to her anarchistic endeavours. Sometimes she even references him explicitly as the impetus to the idea she is putting forward. One example here is those occasions in which she takes over Nietzsche’s idea of destroying old values in order to create your own new ones. [I discussed this in Nietzschean context in my exegesis of Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra in my previous book, Egoism Explained.] Thus, Goldman can say that anarchism “embraces every phase of life and effort and undermines the old, outlived values.” Nietzsche, of course, as in Zarathustra, spoke of “breaking the old law tables” in order to construct your own, new ones. So, when Goldman states that anarchism “is the destroyer of dominant values” or the “herald of new values” or even calls anarchism the “TRANSVALUATOR” and speaks of it as “the transvaluation of accepted values” we may expect that Goldman is regarding Nietzsche’s words as of direct relevance to anarchism. Indeed, she states plainly “I believe, with Nietzsche, that the time has come for a transvaluation of things” and writes in Living My Life – written in her later mature years rather than when she was an enthusiastic novice — that “Nietzsche was an anarchist”. Bertalan goes as far as to say that “Goldman’s anarchism was rooted in Nietzsche” and, in this respect, connects her most famous quote [which isn’t actually a quote because she never actually said it] about revolution and dancing with her Nietzscheanism because one of Nietzsche’s regular figures for his own philosophy was precisely the dance. Nietzsche affirmed books that, in his words, “teach how to dance” and looked for those who were “able to dance with one’s feet, with concepts, with words”. In his own work he wanted “to give birth to a dancing star”. Dancing is a very Nietzschean thing so if Goldman’s revolution is a revolution of dancing then it is a Nietzschean revolution of transvalued values and perpetual creation of new values and so new life.

Dancing, of course, has no end save enjoyment of the experience, self-expression through the experience, the self-expression of being and expressing oneself in a way that is unplanned. This is not insignificant and can be applied politically and epistemologically. Bertalan notes that “Nietzsche called for ‘as little state as possible’” and he told people to look beyond the state. Yet he criticised anarchists for replacing the state in their classical ideas with “a rationalist counter-system”, what the theorist Lewis Call refers to as replacing nations of people who share a nationality with “a nation of Bakuninites” or “a nation of Kropotkinites”. Call thinks that “the dominant figure in Nietzsche’s… political imaginary is much more profoundly non-sectarian. She is indeed nomadic in character.” Bertalan responds that she is precisely Emma Goldman. For:

“Goldman did not envision a nation of Goldmanites, nor did she imagine the final eradication of domination brought forth by a new system based on rationalist principles of human nature. Goldman recognized that any conception, however rational it may have seemed, was the product of particular conditions, and that those conditions were always subject to change.”

This is to say that her politics was like dancing. It was in the moment, self-expressive, an experience not necessarily to be repeated. It was making the most of things in your opportunity to do so. It was, to refer to that most common anecdote about her, not something where someone could come along and tell you what to do. Bertalan links this to Nietzsche’s thought that “the character of the world in a state of becoming is incapable of formulation” and this acts as a dividing line between those anarchists [and wider political theorists] who think of politics as a plan to be executed and those, pre-eminently like Emma Goldman, who absolutely do not. Here Bertalan, I think with absolute authenticity to Goldman, speaks of her as one who sometimes spoke of the utopian vision and the goal [she could hardly help it as others of her contemporaries imagined it this way and she would have at least wanted to respect them] but who finally maintained “that utopian visions remain open to constant modification and criticism”. What’s more, Goldman always spoke of such things as the result of specific activity that could and would be different in each case, not least due to the proclivities of those engaged in the action. As, in fact, we previously saw in her condemnation of the Bolsheviks, the “iron-clad program” was something she despised as politically inauthentic and unworkable. One had to be light on one’s feet, responsible to circumstances, always open and flexible, if one wanted political revolution to succeed. So it is actually important here that you DO NOT define the goal and never take the idea seriously that anarchism has one. Becoming, like dancing, is simply a process enjoyed for itself, as what it is, it is not about an achievement or a destination.

This leads us to the notion, in Bertalan’s interpretation, that Goldman is focused on twin transformations, that of the social and of the self. These are constant, never-ending processes. Anarchism is then not a linear path to a goal but an existence, a reality, an always unfolding experience subject to change. Evidence here is given precisely in reference to Goldman’s statement that anarchism “cannot consistently impose an iron-clad program or method on the future”, that it “has no set rules” and that “its methods vary according to the age, the temperament, and the surroundings of its followers”. Anarchism is here not one thing and it changes from person to person and from group to group. It is not a singular agenda imposed on everyone. I am reminded here, as I have mentioned in my writing before, of Goldman’s activities at the 1907 Amsterdam anarchist conference, typical of her, in fact, where, in the discussion on organisation, Goldman had been happy to allow people to organise as they saw fit provided individual latitude to act as you will was also approved. Goldman, again like Nietzsche, was totally against the idea of a “blueprint for the future” and, as we saw again with her comments on post-revolutionary Russia, saw no future for political action that was not based on free action and free association. Freedom was the pre-requisite, in fact, not the result.

So it is no surprise here to find Bertalan saying that “Goldman’s anarchism was non-prescriptive and contingent” and that “she viewed it not as a closed mapping that sketched forms of resistance or social organisation, but rather, as a flexible and open political philosophy in a state of perpetual transformation.” Anarchist politics, for Goldman, was absolutely not about “getting with the program” for, for her, there was, and could be, no “program”. The future, as Nietzsche had taught her, could not be thought out ahead of time and written down for it was a matter of its becoming in and through our own selves and our own values. Here something Bertalan says of Gilles Deleuze is relevant for Deleuze points out that the idea of planning out a revolution is a bad one for it stops people doing that which, actually, is most important: BECOMING REVOLUTIONARY YOURSELF.

Goldman, in my reading of her, instinctively understood this for her anarchism was an anarchism of who you are and how you live, a matter of being yourself in a permanent and consistent state of revolution, a revolution that is a revolution of becoming and of being that begins and ends in your values and so your means of thinking and existing. Next to this core idea, how such a thing develops relationally and socially is a matter for posterity to figure out in the white heat of the moment for, as Goldman said in regard to Russia, it is that you are such people as can be a revolution that really matters. Without that, the revolution is going nowhere anyway. So revolution, anarchism, is not, is never, a matter of a “totalizing discourse”, it is not a “political philosophy” in the sense of theories which “get things right”. This is a false conception of things that Goldman simply didn’t subscribe to which is why she never had an answer on the “thousand” occasions she was asked “How will things operate under anarchism?”. She didn’t have an answer to that question because she didn’t know. Her anarchism did not conceive of an answer to that question ahead of time for it was in and from the being that the doing came. “How can anyone assume to map out a line of conduct for those to come?” was Goldman’s comment on such a scenario. She pictured, again with Nietzsche as she expressly mentioned herself, “that we are staggering along with the corpses of dead ages on our backs.” Her conclusion to this thought was that “Theories do not create life. Life must make its own theories.” So Goldman’s anarchism was all about the spontaneity of the moment as articulated by those who had so formed and self-actualized themselves, despite the weight of a dead past with its dead values, that they literally created the future from themselves as revolutionary individuals creating revolutionary relationships and so new social futures. In saying “Life must make its own theories” Goldman even seems to suggest that this is always our responsibility. She certainly seems to have seen it as her own.

Goldman, as a consequence, did not believe that there were ever to be any resting places, final destinations or ultimate achievements. Life was, and is, a process and a matter of continual creation. Being Nietzschean about it, one might even say that, for her, anarchism is the matter of a continual overcoming – not only of the past and its values but of the self and its own values too. We must forever be creating ourselves anew, creation and recreation is then the anarchist’s stock in trade according to Goldman. Thus, she speaks of a “state of eternal change” and conceives of a universe and an existence that is constantly moving. There is no place to settle down for nothing is really ever standing still. Anarchism, consequently, cannot be the plan for plans are contextual, they fit some circumstances but not others. They will not do. This is why she sees “human nature” as “fluid and responsive to new conditions”: it has to be if it is going to be adequate to a life that is always moving. So Goldman’s anarchism is the anarchism of “life always in flux” and “new currents flowing from the dried-up spring of the old” and is, fundamentally, about “constantly creating new conditions”. Those statements span decades in Goldman’s commentary so they aren’t simply reflective of but one period of her life. It is not unimportant here either that Goldman focused on “every phase of life” in her anarchism and brought intersectional concerns to bear on it, not least what would now be called anarchafeminist concerns. Goldman’s anarchism was a broader “life anarchism” than was the more narrow “classical” anarchism of most of her contemporaries who were concerned only with politics and the economy, with workers and strikes. Goldman did care about this things, with dozens of examples of her involvement in them [and at least one direct imprisonment of her own because of them beside Berkman’s], but she did not ONLY care about them. Anarchism, for her, was both EVERYTHING and about everything, moral as well as political, modes of thought as well as economics. She was also often ahead of her time, not least in matters of sex and gender. She was a prominent voice speaking in favour of homosexuality and gradations and variations of sexuality and gender and refused “the absurd notion of the dualism of the sexes” where “man and woman represent two antagonistic worlds”. TERFs and gender criticals are very lucky she is long since dead!

Given the picture of Goldman as a fiery rhetorician who faces down mobs and faces up to crowds and police, a woman who, fundamentally, takes responsibility for acting and saying something, it is perhaps jarring to find that, at its heart, Goldman’s anarchism was self-described by her as a matter of a “beautiful idea” or “beautiful ideal”. [“I want freedom, the right to self-expression, everybody’s right to beautiful, radiant things.”] She actually penned newspaper pieces in her lifetime using such titles, sometimes to contrast it with the popular notion, which newspapers amplified, of anarchists as destructive bomb throwers. In her 1908 essay “A Beautiful Ideal”, for example, Goldman states:

“Anarchism is a theory of human development which lays no less stress than socialism upon the economic or materialistic aspect of social relations; but while granting that the cause of the immediate evil is an economic one we believe that the solution of the social question confronting us today must be wrought out from the equal consideration of the whole of our experience.”

But what then is the beautiful ideal? Goldman explains further on:

“Anarchism in its scientific and philosophic calculations represents that force in human life which can harmonize and bring into unity the individual and social instincts of the individual and society. The greatest obstacles in the way of such harmonious blending, are property, or the monopoly of things—the denial of the right of others to their use, and authority—the government of man by man, embodied in majority rule, or the absolute disregard of individual life in the organization that for want of a better name stands for society. Therefore the first tendency of anarchism is to make good the dignity of the individual human being by freeing him from every kind of arbitrary restraint—economic, political, social. In so doing anarchism proposes to make apparent, in their true force the social bonds, which always have and always will knit men together and which are the actual basis of a real normal and sane society. The means of doing this rests with each man’s latent qualities and his opportunities…

Anarchism holds that the simplest human life, it given opportunity and scope, is infinitely

more important to society than all the scientific regulation and adjusting of social arrangements. For, in proportion as that simple life grows into a conscious, intelligent, well-rounded factor, recognizing its true relation to its fellow, regulations and forms will take care of themselves.”

Of such a vision of a “beautiful ideal” Goldman comments:

“The truth can not be silenced by constant discoveries of ‘anarchist plots,’ or by designating every demented being as an anarchist, nor even by burning anarchist literature, or establishing a system of espionage, which invades the sanctity of individual privacy and makes the life of its victims an intolerable evil. There are thousands of people in this country who see in such methods the last desperate efforts of a dying age. The new, strong in thought and ideals, strong in human sympathy and fellowship, is fast approaching, and when it arrives the present will be remembered as a nightmare,

that humanity dreamed, rather than as an awful reality it actually lived.”

This is a simple presentation of Goldman’s beliefs, suitable, as it was, to be read in a newspaper column for general consumption. It was also, incidentally, apparently too incendiary for the Chicago police who physically prevented her from delivering it as an oral presentation at Workingmen’s Hall on March 17th, 1908. What, one wonders, is so dangerous in a talk about “the dignity of the individual human being”, fraternity and brotherhood that denigrates early Twentieth Century America for having degraded “Man… into a mere part of a machine” and destroyed “all that makes for spontaneity, for originality, for the power of initiative” until he is “a living corpse”? Its hard to say. But Hilton Bertalan thinks that the answer is “love” and argues that “Goldman understood love as the most important element of life.”

Now I am myself no expert in love. Talk about “care” and I am more onboard and feel in more familiar waters. Yet I think both words apply to Emma Goldman and I also think that both words are concerned with “open and vulnerable connection”, something which Goldman’s lifetime of love and care demonstrate completely. For who was more “open and vulnerable” than Goldman in her love for others – as her memoir uniquely describes? Goldman, in fact, sees love as a necessity. “High on a throne, with all the splendor and pomp his gold can command, man is yet poor and desolate if love passes him by,” says Goldman. “Love,” she adds, “is the strongest and deepest element in life, the harbinger of hope, of joy, of ecstasy; love, the defier of all laws, of all conventions; love, the freest, the most powerful moulder of human destiny.” Nietzsche, of course [because of course “of course”], would have agreed for it was he who said “that which is done out of love always takes place beyond good and evil”. Love, that is, transcends all morality and we know what Goldman thought about morality: that we should rewrite it for and in ourselves! But love also does much more than that for Nietzsche, as section 808 of his notes collected together in The Will to Power demonstrates:

“Do you desire the most astonishing proof of how far the transfiguring power of intoxication can go? — ‘Love’ is this proof: that which is called love in all the languages and silences of the world. In this case, intoxication has done with reality to such a degree that in the consciousness of the lover the cause of it is extinguished and something else seems to have taken its place — a vibration and glittering of all the magic mirrors of

Circe —

Here it makes no difference whether one is man or animal; even less whether one has spirit, goodness, integrity. If one is subtle, one is fooled subtly; if one is coarse, one is fooled coarsely; but love, and even the love of God, the saintly love of ‘redeemed souls,’ remains the same in its roots: a fever that has good reason to transfigure itself, an intoxication that does well to lie about itself — And in any case, one lies well when one loves, about oneself and to oneself: one seems to oneself transfigured, stronger,

richer, more perfect, one is more perfect — Here we discover art as an organic function: we discover it in the most angelic instinct, ‘love’; we discover it as the greatest stimulus of life — art thus sublimely expedient even when it lies —

But we should do wrong if we stopped with its power to lie: it does more than merely imagine; it even transposes values. And it is not only that it transposes the feeling of values: the lover is more valuable, is stronger. In animals this condition produces

new weapons, pigments, colors, and forms; above all, new movements, new rhythms, new love calls and seductions. It is no different with man. His whole economy is richer than before, more powerful, more complete than in those who do not love. The lover becomes a squanderer: he is rich enough for it. Now he dares, becomes an adventurer, becomes an ass in magnanimity and innocence; he believes in God again, he believes in virtue, because he believes in love; and on the other hand, this happy idiot grows wings and new capabilities, and even the door of art is opened to him. If we subtracted all traces of this intestinal fever from lyricism in sound and word, what would be left of lyrical poetry and music?- L’art pour l’art perhaps: the virtuoso croaking of shivering frogs, despairing in their swamp — All the rest was created by love -”

Love is “the greatest stimulus of life”; it “transfigures”; it “transposes values”; it makes one rich and magnanimous. This seems a very suitable thing for the kind of anarchism we have been prescribing for Emma Goldman or, rather, that she has been prescribing for us. This is love that is an “intoxication” [the metaphor is one of Dionysian revelry], that is a “transfiguration” [that metaphor is more Christ-like!]. This Nietzschean sort of love actually creates reality for it makes of the world what it sees through and in love. Anyone who has ever loved knows how love changes things, not least how you see and think about that which you love and how your appreciation of the world itself changes. The idea, then, is a very powerful one, an individually and socially transformative bond. [It is not then irrelevant either that the Greek mythological witch Circe could change one thing into another as part of this metaphor.] Love is a reality-creating phenomenon according to Nietzsche, an interpretational matrix, a valuing system, and that fits very well with what Goldman said of it before. “Love does not want what already exists” according to Bertalan and neither does it seek to reform. Instead, love TRANSFORMS, it creates for itself and out of itself. Love, in fact, is a law unto itself – as Emma Goldman knew only too well.

In regard to such love Bertalan says that:

“In this, a Goldman sense of love, we do not love under certain conditions, or because we understand one another, or because we share a particular vision, or even because we recognize each other as something relatable, translatable or familiar to something in our psychic, preferential, emotional or political sensibilities. It is not because we will be loved or find a desire satisfied, a lack filled, or be offered something absent. Instead, for Goldman, love takes place prefiguratively, before the encounter, before the advance or event that usually marks its beginning or containment in reachable social and political visions.”

Without illegitimately psychologizing Goldman here it seems to me that Bertalan is suggesting that Goldman, as the outcome of the person she was creating herself to be, pre-determined to love in and through her life. That is to say that she set her internal settings to “love” and so to care about individuals and about social conditions as an expression of a decision to love. Some might here want to go into the particularities of her background or upbringing and fathom some narrative of psychological necessity from this but, as I say, I leave such speculations for others. All that seems important to me is that she chose a life of love and of care in which the desire to love, the requirement to love, was both her method and her practice. This, it seems to me, is why she so deliberately inserted herself into all sorts of situations which she could have had nothing to do with. No one would have criticised her for doing so but it seems she felt a need and a responsibility to love whether in regard to Berkman and his attentat, the starving workers of New York in 1893 which led to imprisonment or a hundred other possible cases she refers to. The motive of love also ties together her personal and public lives as I suggested earlier when I said her ideal was her one true love and her erotic entanglements were her practice of “free love”. Many interpreters of Goldman see her as hampered in her public life by her attachment to erotic love but I choose to see these attachments as examples of exactly the same thing – albeit Goldman herself describes one as often getting in the way of the other. The point I am making is that Goldman actively chose to love and, whether public or personal, both are results of that same decision. All that follows from that is that such a thoroughgoing decision to love, to have an ethic of love, is not necessarily to be trouble free as a result.

Now love, of course, is a matter of relationships – and this is not unimportant for anarchism either as I have tried to show previously. It promotes the magnanimousness and adventuring that Nietzsche referred to in his comments on love. As Bertalan reads this in Goldman it is a matter of “multiplicity and interconnectivity”, a force equal to the openness and flexibility she saw as necessary political qualities of character if anarchism was to succeed. Goldman it is who encourages us to be “broad and big” in our relationships; her solidarity is not a unity of the same but a diversity of multiplicity that always respects the individual. We might then say that she envisages a love big enough to handle this. It is not a love which loves the same as it already is [which even the Nazarene knew anybody can achieve] but it is a love which loves multiplicity and diversity as examples of authentic humanity. Goldman, whom we have already seen, imagined a world of transformation and change, then had a love ethic that could connect what was different and whilst accommodating its differences too. In fact, it positively “cultivated multiplicity” wherever Goldman required individual integrity [which she always did].

Thus, Goldman can call for “diversity [and] variety with the spirit of solidarity in anarchism and non-authoritarian organization.” Such a thing can only be a refusal of domination and of any kind of centralization. Once more, I remind readers that Goldman didn’t stand against organization but neither did she promote it at the cost of individual proclivity or freedom of association either. She always wanted to leave the door open for individual ingenuity or decision. This, I think, is an example of her magnanimous love and her adventurous love of a Nietzschean type. As Gilles Deleuze then wrote of Nietzsche: “Nietzsche’s practical teaching is that difference is happy; that multiplicity, becoming and chance are adequate objects of joy by themselves and that only joy returns.” Goldman, I believe, would have fully endorsed this appraisal and embraced it herself – for it is, in fact, the life she tried to live both privately and publicly. Whether in sex or in social matters of political revolution, Goldman was the same; she embraced the multiple, accepted the diverse and chose to love, risking the vulnerability of relationship for a beautiful ideal.

But this was not love which smothered – as some love could be. It was not love which demanded “me, me, me.” Goldman’s love, as I will never tire of repeating, was not a controlling love but a freeing love, a love which respects personal agency and decision. It was a love which was empathetic as well as sympathetic as the following shows:

“It requires something more than personal experience to gain a philosophy or point of view from any specific event. It is the quality of our response to the event and our capacity to enter into the lives of others that help us to make their lives and experiences our own.”

An example of this from Goldman’s own life is when, as a grand dame of anarchism, she refused to issue advice or counsel to those in the Spanish revolution. Instead, responding to several contemporaries who urged her to weigh in, she replied that Spanish colleagues must be allowed room to find their own way, utilising their own experience. And then, of course, there is Leon Czolgosz, the assassinator of President McKinley. Goldman was not the only one who spoke up in his defence, although she was one of very, very few [Berkman, then in prison himself, did not defend Czolgosz whilst Voltairine de Cleyre was one of the few others who did] but she was by far the most notable, one who, no less, was detained for weeks herself in the forlorn hope that the crime could be pinned on her too. One can only imagine that Goldman’s ethic of love was here fully active for what must have then been one of the loneliest and most hated men alive. Goldman sought, in herself, to modulate a response of love to the man and an understanding of his act, to “enter into the lives of others” as she put it above, and this because, as previously stated, she saw value, potential at least, in every single human being. Unaccepting of scripts or pre-determined tables of values, Goldman sought, in love, to create her own and to judge “beyond good and evil” as a result. It is in such examples that we see that Goldman’s ethic of love and her revolutionary thinking are all of a piece, one and the same, inseparable.

The responsibility of love; the duty of care: I think these are things that meant something to Emma Goldman – even if she did refer to them as “the Cause”. I also think they provided the necessary meaning and value in her construction of life where what you are and how you live are the important things, the building blocks of relationships that can form liberating communities and can lead to freely associating revolutions. Goldman believed that the only way to make a revolution was to be the revolution and that the only way to overcome controlling and dominating values was to create your own emancipatory ones by works of self-education, self-creation and self-actualization. Not content to read anybody else’s script, as her story about the rejection of Johann Most’s discloses, Goldman stood for writing your own script and living it out in your own experience of reality in a world where she encouraged others to do exactly the same. She would never accept anything less as long as she lived and hoped that all our stories of self, when intertwining, would create a yet greater, diverse, multiplicitous story of relationships of love and care that were practiced in freedom and that would lead to a human revolution. This story is still being written [for it never stops being written, is always in progress] and so all we can do is carry on writing as Emma Goldman suggested.

7. Anarchism for Free Spirits

The history of anarchism is strewn with labels and with denominations of “what kind” of anarchist somebody is or was. If one studies the history of anarchism as, in writing my various books on the subject, has been necessitated, you find that this labelling didn’t really take very long to become apparent and, furthermore, to become problematic, a source of internal anarchist division. So problematic was it, in fact, that anarchists started appearing who refused to be denominated at all – and so, of course, they came to form a separate grouping, the “anarchists without adjectives”.

Perhaps this was a product of the times. Whatever its cause, I find it facile and banal. At least a couple of these groupings, the communist anarchists [Bakunin, Kropotkin, Malatesta] and the individualist anarchists of America [Benjamin Tucker and the like], were groupings based on an economic theory of organisation [as were the Marxists and Socialists more generally, of course]. But why should one need an economic theory to be an anarchist [not an original question] and why would economic theories be what decided which group you were in and become that about you which made you an identifiable kind of anarchist? We can only assume that the reason is a historically contingent one. In the 19th century the Western World become a place absolutely driven by capitalism and this economic cancer was the be all and end all of the new ability to pursue industrial activity. No wonder, then, that the reaction was economically-based too. [Voltairine de Cleyre, an anarchist without adjectives, also raises this point.]

Yet I have always taken a wider view on things than this and refused to be sucked into an entirely economic view of the world or to concede that economics, as the world presented it to me in capitalist terms, was the really important thing about the world. I frankly do not care about money or property or capital and this probably contributes a lot to why I find Proudhon boring [as well as the American offshoot of anarchism that is identified with Tucker’s individualistic “capitalism for everyone” which, in the modern day, empties out into the nonsense of Murray Rothbard and the idiocy of “anarcho-capitalism”, a place where NFTs and crypto currencies are meant to be the height of anarchistic endeavour] and Karl Marx the most irrelevant man who ever lived. This, of course, has its own consequences for me as I try to make sense of the world — for a world without these things, or with their importance vastly reduced, presents challenges where they are veritable gods for most other people. Yet this is also where, for me, anarchism becomes exactly a relevant matter. But it must be said that even the word “anarchism” has lately become a questionable term for me for, in its lengthening history, it has itself become a misunderstood and, sometimes, largely worthless term.

What then is “an anarchist”? Why its a person who hates the government and posts memes to that effect on Twitter or Reddit — perhaps even Mastodon — isn’t it? No, in the olden days it was someone who bombed things and tried to kill leaders or cops, someone like that. No, you’re wrong again, I’m afraid. Today an anarchist is someone who messes with computers – like Anonymous – in order to embarrass the rich by exposing their dirty secrets. Then again, perhaps an anarchist is someone who waves a black flag at a demonstration or spray paints large “A” symbols inside circles on buildings? Nope, not quite right. An anarchist is someone who likes punk music and is covered in piercings and tattoos and who likes wearing black leather. You see what I mean? There is no simple way to describe what an anarchist is or, rather, what I would mean if I used the term “anarchist” of myself. It is one of those words which has been bent completely out of shape by public usage [and often, it must be admitted, by its enemies] until even using the word becomes an exercise in having to explain what you think it means and where it comes from. And language starts to fall apart when it works like this because language shouldn’t be about having to explain what words mean by the additional provision of descriptions and histories and examples; it should be about their common and useful understanding.

This is exampled in a historical fiction that was popular among anarchists at the turn of the 20th century. It was written by the German anarchist, John Henry Mackay, a disciple of Benjamin Tucker and the primary propagandist for Max Stirner’s The Unique and Its Property who also wrote poetry as well [some of which is included in Emma Goldman’s Anarchism and Other Essays]. The fiction was called The Anarchists: A Picture of Civilization at the Close of the Nineteenth Century and it was only semi-fictional since the plot, to the extent that the book has one, isn’t much of a plot at all. The book is set among the anarchists and what today would be called “leftists” of poverty-stricken London in the mid to late 1880s and is historically based on Mackay’s own time there. The book functions as a way for various figures, but mainly two – Carrard Auban and Otto Trupp – to discuss their anarchist differences against the background of a squalid London where disfigured women offer their teenage daughters for sex favours in order to earn a few shillings and most other people will do pretty much anything and everything to survive. This background acts to necessitate the arguments of the anarchists in the book to provide meaningful solutions to such social realities.

As I say, the two main players in the book are Auban [likely a stand in for the author Mackay himself since this is the most fleshed out and vivid character] and Trupp [who a number of commentators have said is meant to be a fictional version of Johann Most who was for a time in London before he went to New York, became the leader of the Freiheit community there and became the mentor of Emma Goldman as well]. Auban and Trupp are sharply distinguished in the text, the former offering a post-Proudhonian economic individualism of the kind then being proposed by Benjamin Tucker with Trupp being presented as a communist anarchist. This, for instance, is an example of Auban’s internal monologue from the book:

“He now saw what it was that Proudhon had meant by property: not the product of labor, which he had always defended against Communism, but the legal privileges of that product as they weigh upon labor in the forms of usury, principally as interest and rent, and obstruct its free circulation; that with Proudhon equality was nothing but equality of rights, and fraternity not self-sacrifice, but prudent recognition of one’s own interests in the light of mutualism; that he championed voluntary association for a definite purpose in opposition to the compulsory association of the State, ‘to maintain equality in the means of production and equivalence in exchange’ as ‘the only possible, the only just, the only true form of society.’

Auban now saw the distinction Proudhon made between possession and property.

‘Possession is a right; property is against right.’ Your labor is your rightful possession, its

product your capital; but the power of increase of this capital, the monopoly of its power of increase, is against right. ‘La propriété, c’est le vol!’ [‘property is theft’]. Thus he recognized the true causes of the terrible differences in the distribution of weapons of which nature knows nothing when it places us on the battleground of life; how it happens that some are condemned to pass a life of trouble and toil and hopelessness within the limits unalterably fixed by the ‘iron law of wages,’ while the others, removed from competition, throw out playfully, as it were, the magnet of their capital, to attract whatever of foreign labor products fall within its field, and so steadily add to their wealth, — all that he now saw clearly under the light of this examination. He saw that the minority of the latter were in a position, by the aid of anciently received opinions, to coerce the majority into a recognition of their privileges. He saw that it was the nature of the State which enabled that minority to keep a portion of the people in ignorance concerning their interests, and to prevent by force the others who had recognized

them from pursuing them.

He saw consequently — and this was the most important and incisive perception of his life, which revolutionized the entire world of his opinions — that the one thing needful was, not to champion the creed of self-sacrifice and duty, but rather egoism, the perception of one’s own interests! If there was a ‘solution of the social question,’ it lay here. All else was Utopia or slavery in some form.”

A distinctive about Auban in the book, perhaps inspired by the historical Marx/Bakunin split in the First International in 1872 and perhaps not, is that communists cannot be anarchists for him. An interlocutor tells him that all the anarchists he has ever heard of are communists to which Auban replies that they are communists who call themselves anarchists yet, so the reader understands, without, in his mind, really being so. Auban takes the view that “every consistent individualist” [by which he means the Proudhonian, Tuckerite, edging towards Stirnerite figure just described] is an anarchist. When further asked what he “understands by Anarchy”, Auban replies with the following:

“You know that the word An-archy, is derived from the Greek language, and means, in

literal rendering, ‘no authority.’ Now the condition of no authority is identical with the condition of liberty: if I have no master, I am free. Anarchy is consequently liberty.

It is now necessary to define the conception ‘liberty,’ and I must say that it is impossible for me to find a better definition than this one: liberty is the absence of aggressive force or coercion…

Now, the State is organized force. As force constitutes its essential nature, robbery is its privilege; so the robbery of some for the benefit of others is the means of its support. The Anarchist sees therefore in the State his greatest, yes, his only, enemy. It is the fundamental condition of liberty that no one shall be deprived of the opportunity of

securing the full product of his labor. Economic independence is consequently the first demand of Anarchism: the abolition of the exploitation of man by man. That exploitation is made impossible: by the freedom of banking, i.e. liberty in the matter of furnishing a medium of exchange free from the legal burden of interest; by the freedom of credit, i.e. the organization of credit on the basis of the principle of mutualism, of economic solidarity; by the freedom of home and foreign trade, i.e. liberty of unhindered exchange of values from hand to hand as from land to land; the freedom of land, i.e. liberty in the occupation of land for the purpose of personal use, if it is not already occupied by others for the same purpose; or, to epitomize all these demands: the exploitation of man by man is made impossible by the freedom of labor…”

Here Auban makes the, in modern context, startling claim that his sort of anarchist wants “to make it possible for every one to become a capitalist, by making it accessible to all by means of the freedom of credit and by forcing it to enter competition, like all other products.” The basis for this is Auban’s belief that “the social question cannot be solved in any other way than by the initiative of the individual who finally resolves to assume the administration of his affairs himself instead of placing it in the hands of others.” Pushed further, Auban says, “I claim the right of free control over my person… I neither demand nor expect of the community a bestowal of rights, and I consider myself under no obligations to it. Put in place of the word ‘community’ whatever you wish: ‘State,’ ‘society,’ ‘fatherland,’ ‘commonwealth,’ ‘mankind,’ — it is all the same.” He continues: “I deny all human institutions which are founded on the right of force. I am of greater importance to myself than they are to me!” in a way that sounds like echoes of Max Stirner and adds even further that he does not believe in “the progress of mankind towards liberty.” Later on, when a formal discussion under the heading “What is Anarchism?” has commenced at Auban’s place with Trupp and some others, Auban adds that “the question of Anarchism is not the concern of a single class, consequently also not of the laboring class, but it is the concern of every individual who values his personal liberty.” Auban’s anarchism is then of a form which has definitely separated itself from any vestiges of Socialism [which the text makes clear in that “the best that Socialism might achieve would… constitute only a change of rulers”].

In response to such ideas, Trupp attempts to defend his communist corner [although, I must say, given the author is the Proudhonian Stirnerite John Henry Mackay, this isn’t really presented as a fair fight]. Trupp’s rhetoric is about “the workingman” and “the real proletariat”. He disdains that “a few middle-class liberals have invented a new Anarchism” which matters not a jot either to working men or to that proletariat at all. He then adds:

“If the comrades wish to know what this Anarchism wants, which has risen in opposition to the State Communists, I will gladly tell them in a few words. Above all, we do not see in the individual a being separate from society, but we regard him as the product of this very society from which he derives all he is and has. Consequently, he can only return, even if in a different form, what in the first place he received from it. For this reason, too, he cannot say: this and that belong to me alone. There can be no private property, but everything that has been and is being produced is social property, to which one

has just as much right as another, since each one’s share in the production of wealth can in no manner be determined. For this reason we proclaim the liberty to consume, i.e. the right of each to satisfy his wants free and unhindered. Consequently we are Communists.

But, on the other hand, we are also Anarchists. For we want a system of society where each member can fully realize his own ‘self,’ i.e. his individual talents and abilities, wishes, and needs. Therefore we say: Down with all government! Down with it even in the form of administration. For administration always becomes government. We likewise oppose the whole swindle of the suffrage and declare the leaders who have presumed to place themselves at the head of the workingmen as humbugs.

As Communists we say; — To each according to his needs! And as Anarchists: — From each according to his powers. If Auban says such an ideal is impossible, I answer him that he does not yet know the workingmen, although he might know them, for he has associated with them long enough. The workingmen are not such sordid egoists as the bourgeois — after they have had their day of reckoning with them, after the last revolution has been fought, they will very well know how to arrange things. I believe that after the expropriation of the exploiters and the confiscation of the bank, they

will place everything at the disposal of all. The deserted palaces will quickly enough find occupants, and the well-stocked warehouses soon enough customers. We need not cudgel our brains about that!

Then when each one shall be sufficiently supplied with food, clothing, and shelter, when the hungry shall be fed and the naked clothed, — for there is enough for all for the present, — they will form groups; will, impelled by the instinct of activity, produce in common and consume according to needs. The individual will at best receive more, never less, from society than he has given it. For what should the stronger who produces more than he can consume do with the excess of his labor except give it to the weaker? And that is not liberty? They will not ask how much or how little each produces and each

consumes; no, each will carry his finished work to the warehouses and take therefore in return what he needs for his support. According to the principle of fraternity —”

Auban is not prepared to accept that this is “anarchism” however and, in a way that is detrimental to the story, in my view, Auban proceeds with a speech which attempts to force Trupp to concede that communism is not anarchism. To be sure, there are points here to be taken into consideration but, from a literary point of view, the argument is a fake one from the start and could have been better presented as either a genuine debate [which this isn’t because Mackay puts words in the mouths of both sides] or as an analytical presentation of the various positions with the author’s cards on the table. Nevertheless, here is Auban’s argument against Trupp’s anarchist communist position:

“You want the autonomy of the individual, his sovereignty, and the right of self-determination. You want the free development of his natural stature. You want his liberty. We agree in this demand. But you have formed an ideal of a future of happiness which corresponds most nearly to your own inclinations, wishes, habits. By naming it ‘the ideal of humanity’ you are convinced that every ‘real and true man’ must be just as happy under it as you. You would fain make your ideal the ideal of all.

I, on the contrary, want the liberty which will enable each to live according to his ideal. I want to be let alone, I want to be spared from any demands that may be made in the name of ‘the ideal of humanity.’ I think that is a great difference. I deny only. You build anew. I am purely defensive. But you are aggressive. I battle exclusively for my liberty. You battle for what you call the liberty of others. Every other word you speak is abolition. That means forcible destruction. It is also my word. Only I mean by it: dissolution. You talk about the abolition of religion. You want to banish its priests, extirpate its teachings, persecute its followers. I trust to the steadily increasing perception which puts knowledge in the place of faith. It is economic dependence that forces most people nowadays into recognizing one of the many still existing churches, and prevents them from leaving them. After the chains of labor have fallen, the churches will of themselves become deserted, the teachers of a delusive faith and folly will no longer find listeners, and their priests will be forsaken.”

In the end, the difference here is, as Auban himself says, that he wants the end of the State in order to facilitate the existence of property [which the State suppresses] whilst Trupp wants the abolition of the State in order to abolish property – a fundamentally opposed idea about property and its place within an anarchist understanding and so a quibble fundamentally about political economy. Auban wants everyone to become “proprietors” whereas Trupp wants no one to be able to become them. Auban believes in taking up, and fighting for, one’s right, whereas Trupp believes that “in the coming society each will perform his share of labor voluntarily” and that:

“In the future society, where everything will be at the free disposal of all, where there can be no trade consequently in the present sense, every member, I am deeply convinced, will voluntarily abandon all claim to sole and exclusive occupation of land.”

The end of this argument is when Auban finally forces Trupp to say that “In Anarchy any number of men must have the right of forming a voluntary association, and so realizing their ideas in practice. Nor can I understand how any one could justly be driven from the land and house which he uses and occupies”, a concession Auban imagines means an ultimate giving up of Trupp’s communist future vision and his conceding that, ultimately, Auban himself has the right of it. But I must admit that the whole argument, as Mackay presents it, leaves a bitter taste and I recognise in neither Auban nor Trupp an anarchist FREE SPIRIT of the type I am shortly to describe. In fact, discussing “ANARCHISM” in such strictly politico-economic terms seems really boring to me – although I concede others do so and it may be entirely historically accurate to depict past anarchist discussions this way. Yet, from my perspective, what we need is a strong sirocco wind to blow such cobwebs away. We need FREE SPIRIT and we need it now.


The herald of FREE SPIRITS is Friedrich Nietzsche and this phrase first gets an airing in his books in one of his Untimely Meditations – “Schopenhauer as Educator” – where he refers to “the free spirits and those who suffer profoundly from our age”. This is also related to those who have “recognized the unreason in the nature of this age”. Yet it is with his third book Human, All Too Human: A Book for Free Spirits [this book was originally to be titled simply “The Free Spirit”] that Nietzsche begins to properly make something out of this terminology and give it meaning. So it is with this text that I will start in the Nietzschean canon, working through his books to exegete what Nietzsche means by a “free spirit” in order to later make the term of use in my anarchist context.

A first clue is found in the preface, added in the spring of 1886, in which Nietzsche now deigns to add a word or two about free spirits. [Originally, there had been a short quotation from Descartes instead.] Nietzsche tells us here that he invented “free spirits” as companions to keep him in good spirits “as brave companions and familiars” through trying personal times. [Nietzsche had recently split from a close friendship with Richard Wagner, spiritual, artistic and intellectual — so close that Nietzsche had his own room in the Wagner house — and had had to leave his academic post due to debilitating bouts of illness which would eventually end his career.] These free spirits take on a life of their own, however, and he begins to see them as “active and audacious fellows” among the sons of Europe’s tomorrow, fellows he wishes to further speed into existence in his telling of them. First of all, then, a free spirit is one who experiences a “great liberation” from previously experienced fetters of reverence to duties or traditions that previously held them fast and from obligations that were thus imagined. Here:

“The great liberation comes for those who are thus fettered suddenly, like the shock of an earthquake: the youthful soul is all at once convulsed, torn loose, torn away — it itself does not know what is happening. A drive and impulse rules and masters it like a command; a will and desire awakens to go off, anywhere, at any cost; a vehement dangerous curiosity for an undiscovered world flames and flickers in all its senses. ‘Better to die than to go on living here’ — thus responds the imperious voice and temptation: and this ‘here’, this ‘at home’ is everything it had hitherto loved! A sudden

terror and suspicion of what it loved, a lightning-bolt of contempt for what it called ‘duty’, a rebellious, arbitrary, volcanically erupting desire for travel, strange places, estrangements, coldness, soberness, frost, a hatred of love, perhaps a desecrating blow and glance backwards to where it formerly loved and worshipped, perhaps a hot blush of shame at what it has just done and at the same time an exultation that it has done it, a

drunken, inwardly exultant shudder which betrays that a victory has been won — a victory? over what? over whom? an enigmatic, question-packed, questionable victory, but the first victory nonetheless: such bad and painful things are part of the history of the great liberation. It is at the same time a sickness that can destroy the man who has it, this first outbreak of strength and will to self-determination, to evaluating on one’s

own account, this will to free will: and how much sickness is expressed in the wild experiments and singularities through which the liberated prisoner now seeks to demonstrate his mastery over things! He prowls cruelly around with an unslaked lasciviousness; what he captures has to expiate the perilous tension of his pride; what excites him he tears apart. With a wicked laugh he turns round whatever he finds veiled and through some sense of shame or other spared and pampered: he puts to the test what these things look like when they are reversed. It is an act of willfulness, and pleasure in willfulness, if now he perhaps bestows his favour on that which has hitherto had a bad reputation — if, full of inquisitiveness and the desire to tempt and experiment, he creeps around the things most forbidden. Behind all his toiling and weaving — for he is

restlessly and aimlessly on his way as if in a desert — stands the question mark of a more and more perilous curiosity. ‘Can all values not be turned round? and is good perhaps evil? and God only an invention and finesse of the Devil? Is everything perhaps in the last resort false? And if we are deceived, are we not for that very reason also deceivers? must we not be deceivers?’ — such thoughts as these tempt him and lead him on, even further away, even further down. Solitude encircles and embraces him, ever more threatening, suffocating, heart-tightening, that terrible goddess and mater saeva cupidinum [wild mother of the passions] — but who today knows what solitude is?

From this morbid isolation, from the desert of these years of temptation and experiment, it is still a long road to that tremendous overflowing certainty and health which may not dispense even with wickedness, as a means and fish-hook of knowledge, to that mature freedom of spirit which is equally self-mastery and discipline of the heart and permits access to many and contradictory modes of thought — to that inner spaciousness and indulgence of superabundance which excludes the danger that the spirit may even on its own road perhaps lose itself and become infatuated and remain seated intoxicated in some corner or other, to that superfluity of formative, curative, moulding and restorative forces which is precisely the sign of great health, that superfluity which grants to the free spirit the dangerous privilege of living experimentally and of being allowed to offer itself to adventure: the master’s privilege of the free spirit! In between there may lie long years of convalescence, years full of

variegated, painfully magical transformations ruled and led along by a tenacious will to health which often ventures to clothe and disguise itself as health already achieved. There is a midway condition which a man of such a destiny will not be able to recall without emotion: it is characterized by a pale, subtle happiness of light and sunshine, a feeling of bird-like freedom, bird-like altitude, bird-like exuberance, and a third thing in

which curiosity is united with a tender contempt. A ‘free-spirit’- this cool expression does one good in every condition, it is almost warming. One lives no longer in the fetters of love and hatred, without yes, without no, near or far as one wishes, preferably slipping away, evading, fluttering off, gone again, again flying aloft; one is spoiled, as everyone is who has at some time seen a tremendous number of things beneath him- and one

becomes the opposite of those who concern themselves with