Democracy and Egoism

The term 'democracy’ has accrued tremendous normative baggage over the centuries, once negative but now more positive. In this gradual development of the concept it has become further and further ingrained in common consciousness as an unassailable 'third-rail’- something no one is willing to touch, let alone dispute its efficacy in society at large. The liberal model of representative democracy that has become the basis of our relationship to political action and expression has fundamentally failed in its mission to enable a real discourse between citizen and state. It has instead separated the two parties, allowing them to operate almost independently. The state is not tied to the will of those who sustain it, but has been alienated so far from this role, becoming more of a passive administrator that only allows input from those it commands and indentures on a timescale of years rather than months or weeks. In this tract we will openly discuss the shortfalls of this sacred calf and reach an understanding of democracy as something hostile to the individual and to individual political action. 


The citizen has become an atomised consumer, better suited for ignorance than for active participation. This state of affairs is not simply a result of representative democratic politics but is the cumulative result of people being tied to cultural and behavioural norms that make the concept of political overhaul untenable. Representative democracy has only exacerbated this situation as it has removed the agency of the people, transferring it to Burkean actors so tied up in institutional practices that it becomes impossible for them to act as true surrogates for a people's interests. This state of affairs is eminently undesirable. The people of a state have become something to manage rather than emancipate, to malign rather than embody. The state has taken on a life of its own, detached from those who constitute it. This gulf is the principal culprit of political apathy, the distance between the consent to authority and its exercise. Democracy as it is now is quite visibly failing to achieve the cultivation of a politically educated populace and allowing them volition over their own affairs. Instead it has promoted a petty tribalism that divides people into political parties and at every turn detached the individual yet further from political agency.

To more fully explicate the errors of this system, we must turn to the simplest form of group deliberation, the core relationship at the heart of our idea of democracy. Max Stirner, one of the young Hegelians and a close friend of Engels, wrote on the primacy on the individual in his work The Ego and His Own where he deconstructs the forms of constraint levied on the individual and expounds a new form of political organisation, one that prioritises individual desires and expectations, as it is formed of nothing but the individuals who constitute it. Stirner strips away the superfluities of democratic discourse and establishes this union in its place. He extols the virtues of voluntary, deliberative action as juxtaposed against the reliance of many democratic systems on principles and norms that, whilst having the possibility to enrich and protect those who are beholden to them, too often constrain and suffocate the possibility for deliberation on all aspects of society and of life. Oddly enough, being part of a democracy can be considered a form of slavery in that the individual is perpetually confined in their capacity to pursue their interest by the will of the majority, just as a tyrant suppresses those under him, democrats suppress those around them- low turnout rates, majoritarian electoral systems and a vast political establishment result in government being treated as a business rather than an instrument of representation. The alternative is hardly more desirable: proportional systems that lead to institutionalised bargaining between parties, resulting in unstable coalitions and weak governments. 

How can Stirner help us to re-evaluate political discourse and association? He provides a conceptual framework for a kind of deliberation and representation that has been buried under history and its developments. His union assumes the primacy of the individual, rather than the primacy of a ‘national will’ or a ‘people’s will’- intangible concepts that have been constructed for the sake of representational convenience. This in turn grants back to the individual full political agency- it does not seek to defer it to some higher body or otherwise constrain the interests of each individual. Stirner understands egoism as an inherent necessity for individual life, a kind of psychological disposition steeled in a rational understanding of human beings as always looking for their own benefit. No doubt this stirs some negative emotional response, the normative idea of selfishness has virulently supplanted the concept of an individual rightly seeking their own interests in a world where each other individual can be taken to doing the same thing. Machiavelli described men thusly:


they are ungrateful, fickle, deceptive, cowardly and greedy. As long as you are doing them good, they are entirely yours: they’ll offer you their blood, their property, their lives, and their children—as long as there is no immediate prospect of their having to make good on these offerings; but when that changes, they’ll turn against you.


This neatly summarises the necessity of one’s reliance on one’s self. Once an individual has given away agency and the possibility of self-determination, they will never again receive it back. The more individuals there are living under the false pretence that their will and their interests are legitimately mitigated for the sake of some higher goal, the more benefits accrue for those who wish to pursue egoistic interests. As such, being conscious of the primacy of one’s self in ethical and political terms is the seed from which a far more accommodating model of discourse can sprout and flourish. Stirner frames his union as a conscious one, one that is necessarily contingent on each member wishing to maintain within it. It is not based on any preconditions apart from a sharing of interests and a desire to pursue them in tandem with others. 


This return to a basic, almost untainted form of intercourse and deliberation circumvents the ills that have been bred from representative democratic processes, namely the giving up of individual political agency for vast periods and the lack of engagement even when this agency is granted. Stirner posits this not as a route to a full freedom he believes unattainable, but rather as an alternative to deliberative systems that unnecessarily centralise power and detract from the individual’s ownership of themselves. Becoming conscious of the inadequacy of democracy in doing what it ought to have done- namely the transfer political power from autocratic bodies and into the hands of the people who suffered under them- is the first step in moving towards a model of political deliberation that is solely dependent on the will of the individual and not on institutional guarantees or other constructed bodies or notions that limit the ability of the individual to exercise this will. Unless people gain a closer affinity with the idea of engaging in politics for themselves and by themselves, we fall yet deeper into the suffocating chasm of having people speak and act on our behalf.

This article was written by Alfie Pickering