It’s often been said of Nietzsche that he was first to do with conscious irony what Hegel did unconsciously. What Nietzsche did was move toward a state of absolute myth, realizing that there was nothing really underneath the veil but that all was simply veil, thus giving him the opportunity to delve into a narrative myth of his own making. Hegel moved toward ‘absolute spirit’—an appropriation of subjective experience into the narrative of objective being. This was a response to Kant’s moving toward an objectification of the world through the senses and his ‘categorical imperative.’ Kant’s Copernican turn in thought was an attempt to make finite the architecture of our knowledge where it had been owned and shaped for more than two millennia by Aristotelian metaphysics and Platonist dualism.
With one fell sweep, Nietzsche drew a line behind him and left Kant on the other side with Plato. After all, Kant rested his philosophy on the finite in order to dignify the dualism of Plato, by pushing the impossible to the realm of the outer darkness; the completely Other. When Nietzsche announces the death God, God represents for him an accumulative value wrought by millennia of error and perpetuated by particular groups wielding intellectual veto power. Nietzsche’s death of God is the death of the categorical imperative, the death of Aristotelian metaphysics, the death of one narrative thread in history eventuating over time in some sort of goal or sense of progress.
With Hegel came the celebration of the subjective through the idea of the mind. For Nietzsche, the act of celebration, his great affirmation of life, could only be by accepting the myths that, even exposed, have no destiny but to be played with and used since nothing lies behind them. The only experience remaining to be had would then be one of a conscious historicization of cultivated interpretations. This was the project of Nietzsche’s ubermensch—the autonomous interpreter.
Max Stirner required little explanation for his own project. Rather than tracing ideas rigorously far back into history and pre-history—the way that Nietzsche always did in order to qualify his arguments—Stirner brings it back to a very personal level. Stirner says that the world is haunted by ‘ghosts’ and ‘spooks.’ Perhaps a jab at Hegel’s ‘Absolute Spirit,’ Stirner simply sees the whole narrative of the modern world as a ghost story in which all objects and institutions have been weighted with values that are not his. The only option was Egoism, so that one would be a creator of values, which could be seen as similar to the project of Nietzsche’s ‘accomplished-nihilism,’ thus ending the constant chain of values whose ends make the men, and thus, the project, rather than the men making the values in a cultivated project.
Stirner needed no new myth to carry out his task. He had merely to suggest that his own interest was as good as any and that—because he could not provide any idea outside of this that would not then constitute as a ‘spook’—one could act according to one’s interest. No prophesied figure of autonomous interpretation was needed before Stirner allowed his reader to carry out the task.
The frivolity of mere replacements in grammatical value underlies Stirner’s constantly repeated point throughout The Ego and Its Own. ‘Our atheists are pious people,’ Stirner tells us. It has become a common notion to liken the Marxist utopia to the Kingdom of God. The failure of the barter system giving way to state-instituted commodity fetishism is the Fall of Man. The fall of capitalism is the Fall of Babylon. Marx is Christ. The inevitable communist state to arise in the wake of the fall of capitalism is the New Jerusalem. However, this idea has gained currency after the horrors of different communist revolutions and their failure to handle industrialization. It is hard now to understand just how far-seeing Stirner was in his view. He didn’t stop with Marxism, which only had use for man whereby it saw him as an agent of labor meant to carry out some collective utility for the sake of the self-perpetuating magic state of constant production that was communism’s fantastic end. He was able to locate everyone’s secret imperative, and thus, the ghosts that haunted the world. Every interest kept in the dark was, when brought into the light, nothing. ‘All things are nothing to me,’ Stirner writes.
In a time when so many ideologies profess to have some monopoly on truth, often laying claim to the same intellectual and moral rights that Stirner and Nietzsche renounced in their own time, Stirner’s voice cries up subterraneously, not reminding us of any specific doctrine to follow, but reminding us that, despite his comfort with the crisis, we are in a crisis nonetheless. That crisis is this: all truths vanish through the violence of their means. No man, no kingdom, no state, no ideology is without blood on its hands.
It is Stirner’s voice that cries out through the past century in a time when truth itself might be seen as a series of acquired slogans warring for the loudest voice and the greatest opportunity to speak. It is Stirner’s voice we hear us asking and challenging us,
‘So you are a moral man? You don’t get a pat on the head and a trophy simply because your gesture is great.
‘So you are a statesman? You don’t get a pat on the head and a trophy from the men who salute another flag, and if you die for your state, neither of you will have gained anything.
‘So you are a secular man? You don’t get a pat on the head and a trophy for having simply traded names concerning your system of values.
‘So you are an honorable man? You don’t get a pat on the head and a trophy for having shown solidarity in action long after the circumstances have changed.’
The war of all against all that Raskolnikov dreams about in jail is a nightmare to him where it is a cleansing act of release for Stirner. Stirner, the great ideology tormentor of our time, became his own ghost. He was the ghost who destroyed other ghosts and left us with no means of understanding how we might go about acting in our own interests without falling into states of constant violence with those who have only their own self-interest in mind.
In a time when all things and all reasons are nothing to men, there are still those of us who seek solidarity however often we may be forced to concede to the fact that, despite our good wishes, our faiths, our hopes and dreams, we cannot prove any reason as to why others should listen to us and follow us into our restorative, egalitarian projects. Perhaps Stirner, though scandalizing us with his embrace of the very violence that his philosophizing with a hammer entails, has an implicit political message that has yet to be grasped—Self interest manifested as a form of social hope.