By David S. D’Amato
William Irwin’s latest book, The Free Market Existentialist, is a novel attempt to ground libertarian political theory in existentialism. Irwin grants the difficulty of the task before him from the outset, observing that antipathy to the free market is “one thing that . . . both the analytic and continental schools agree on,” and remarking that he may be alone among academic philosophers in advocating “free market existentialism,” the free market’s few defenders clustered in the analytic school. But despite the obstacles in his way, by the end of his book, Irwin demonstrates that his case for free market existentialism is not an exercise in futility or mere contrarianism. Indeed, in presenting the argument that libertarianism and existentialism “fit together well,” The Free Market Existentialist gives us one of the more exciting philosophical treatments of libertarianism in recent memory. Irwin more than accomplishes his goal of establishing for free market existentialism a place in the “marketplace of ideas.” He develops, in clear, absorbing prose, a compelling, if controversial, vision of libertarianism based on a wholesale “rejection of objective values,” just the kind of values (for instance, natural rights) that commonly provide the foundation for libertarian arguments.
Irwin’s attempt to reconcile existentialism and the values underpinning the free market spotlights and challenges the Marxist political commitments of Jean-Paul Sartre, “the person most identified with existentialism.” Irwin argues that Marxism is actually inconsistent with Sartre’s view of freedom, which posits the individual as a dynamic and responsible agent who creates value and meaning for himself. Sartre thus sees human freedom not as an aspect of human nature, the existence of which he emphatically denies, but as an implication of authorship and accountability. Because the individual is the ultimate source of his own values, forever remaking his reality in accordance with those values, he is, Sartre says, “condemned to be free.” It will surprise few that his fellow Marxists, dutifully pledged to a distinct and obdurate view of dialectical materialism, rejected Sartre’s thought “as self-indulgent, bourgeois individualism.” Among Marxists, it seems, any philosophy that accounts for the individual as more than a cell in the body politic or a grain swept along by the irresistible tide of history is designated for such treatment.
And individualism, Irwin argues, is “the main link between existentialism and libertarianism.” Both stress the primacy and responsibility of the individual, the importance of autonomy and choice to living a meaningful, fulfilling life.
We might wonder, then, how Sartre settled upon Marxism. Irwin’s answer considers the relationship between Marxism and existentialism both as “a historico-cultural accident of post-war France” and as an attempt by Sartre to embrace “socioeconomic liberation” as a central aspect of freedom. Sartre sought after a “thicker” and “broader” conception of freedom, one he could justify in light of historical realities whose consequences undeniably impact the lives of individuals and the choices available to them. Sartre believed that he had found this view of freedom in Marxist existentialism and said that he had “abandoned [his] pre-war individualism” in favor of a view that regards freedom not only ontologically but practically. Common criticisms of free market libertarianism (frequently “right libertarianism”) insist that ours is a narrow view of freedom, the hollow, unfulfilling freedom merely to consume—and to be consumed by pointless drudgery as we chase the latest products. If libertarians had their way, we are told, a world of greed and empty commercialism, full of superficial corporate drones, would eventuate. Irwin’s free market existentialism is a welcome refutation of such claims.
The existentialist emphasis on self-definition and the subjectivity of the individual experience, treated so extensively in Irwin’s book, recalls the philosophical legacy of the German iconoclast Max Stirner, the archenemy of all fixed ideological systems. Stirner’s sometimes inscrutable masterwork, The Ego and His Own, advances an unqualified revolt against the subjection of the incarnate, flesh and blood individual to any idea or abstraction—be it justice, rights, even morality itself. For Stirner, the individual invents himself and his reality; he is godlike, filling a formless void with his own creations. Stirner, anticipating existentialism, is “concerned with authenticity and the perils of self-deception,” attacking the tendency to elevate mere projections of the consciousness above the “Unique One,” the source of these projections. Confronted with the intense alienation that results from subordinating the individual and his values to the overwhelming power of social and economic institutions, existentialists like Sartre turned to the ostensible answers offered by Marxism. To the everyman, pulverized by the grinding gears of modern capitalism, socialism seems to present a route to genuine liberation, to a self-actualization not possible under the alienating realities of poverty. Still, it isn’t clear that we need the specific theory of alienation provided by Marx. In fact, the philosopher Isaiah Berlin observed that “the theory of the alienation of the proletarians was enunciated by Stirner at least one year before Marx.” Stirner’s fingerprints, it turns out, are all over the existentialism as we find it in the work of Sartre and in The Free Market Existentialist.
The omission of Stirner from an attempt to syncretize existentialist and libertarian thought is therefore remarkable, even glaring. Stirner seems the obvious forerunner of so much that is today associated with the existentialists of the twentieth century; his work must be regarded as among the most important wellsprings of existentialism. But perhaps this neglect of Stirner stands to reason. We cannot, after all, brand Stirner a free market existentialist, for his derisive campaign against all political and economic ideologies positions him well outside of the laissez faire coterie. Many of Stirner’s egoist followers (e.g., Dora Marsden, Sidney Parker) challenged even the significant connection between Stirner’s egoism and anarchism, regarding the various proposed libertarianisms as new “spooks,” delusive attempts to enslave the individual to something exterior to himself and his will. The proto-existentialism of Stirner is not perfectly suited to any political program, even the most radical.
On the other hand—and perhaps more importantly—we might attribute Stirner’s conspicuous absence to his eclipse by the similar and closely connected work of Friedrich Nietzsche. Describing him as one of “the big four of existentialism” (which quartet also includes Kierkegaard, Heidegger, and Sartre), Irwin’s book makes Nietzsche one of its most cited figures. Nietzsche is frequently credited for propositions that Stirner advanced decades before Nietzsche’s active period. Indeed, more than a few Nietzsche scholars have suggested the possibility that his work is a plagiarism of Stirner’s (see, for example, John Glassford’s Did Friedrich Nietzsche Plagiarize from Max Stirner?). Whomever we credit with the extreme form of individualism found in both Stirner and Nietzsche, The Free Market Existentialist skillfully explains its relationship with modern libertarianism. Irwin is a master of rendering abstruse philosophical ideas clear and understandable to the layperson. He shows that “a world without morality” is not necessarily the grim dystopia that we might imagine, that it is better to discard the fallacy of objective morality than to remain in a state of self-delusion. Irwin proposes the replacement of “moral reasoning” with “prudential decision making,” again evoking egoists like Stirner. Irwin argues that an attention to prudence and to what is “prudentially undesirable” (rather than to what is morally wrong) can provide a foundation for a libertarian political system. This project is, of course, not entirely new. Influenced by Stirner, the libertarian publisher Benjamin Tucker dispensed with a rights-based libertarianism and instead espoused a moral anti-realist subjectivism similar to Irwin’s. Like Tucker’s, Irwin’s libertarianism rests on the idea that we should refrain from theft and assault not because of some moral duty, but because prudence recommends that we refrain.
The resulting libertarianism offers a way to minimize the conflict that inevitably marks relations between humans. Conflict, Sartre says, is “the essence of the relations between consciousnesses,” everyone jockeying for “a seat on the next bus, a scarce resource.” Similarly, the egoist Wolfi Landstreicher echoes Stirner in writing, “I see any power that stands outside of me as an enemy.” From such seemingly inauspicious philosophical starting points, Irwin builds a persuasive and original vindication of private property and free markets, one certain to generate important conversations in both the libertarian movement and the academic philosophy community.
The author is David S. D’Amato.
The article originally appeared on Bleeding Heart Libertarians.