The Politics of the Sovereign Individual

Building off of some of the discussions, comments and questions we’ve had in class, I’d like to look more at Nietzsche’s politics, more particularly what the politics of the Sovereign Individual would look like. As great as it is to take a text like the Genealogy and assess it in purely literary, rhetorical, or philosophical terms, there is always something to be gained still by asking of any text one is reading, “What of it? What does this mean? What does this look like in reality?” And especially with such a naturalistic thinker as Nietzsche I think it makes sense to take ourselves out of the ivory tower of theory and analysis and throw ourselves into the mud and muck of everyday life and politics to see how what Nietzsche has to say about morality and the Sovereign Individual might look beyond the pages of a book.

Picking up from our latest discussion on Treatise III, the Owen text, and the Gemes and Janaway article(s), I think it’s fair to say that so much of what makes an SI an SI is the significance of the source of one’s interests, desires, and actions, as well as how one relates to them. To be an SI one must stay disciplined and true to one’s innermost, own-most unique driving, interpreting, creative force in organizing the hierarchy of one’s desires and interests and not deny this creative aspect of oneself for any external ‘other’. Insofar as the ‘nobles’ give a blanket pass to all of their desires and interests, regardless of whether they are internally- or externally-motivated, and leave this hierarchy untouched, they are not SIs. And, insofar as the ‘slaves’ give a blanket denial to all of their desires and interests and seek to abnegate their own creative, ordering, interpreting drive, they too can never be SIs.

Teasing out the consequences of this, I think we can say that the ‘sovereignty’ of the Sovereign Individual depends very much so upon its not recognizing any external authorities to itself, be they moral, epistemological, or political. Now, as much as Nietzsche may have disparaged anarchists at various points, I can’t help but feel this deep rejection by the SI of any source of authority external to itself leads inexorably to some form of anarchism. Afterall, ‘anarchy’ at its etymological roots is simply the absence of a dominant authority or ruler: ‘an-‘ (not, or without) ‘arkhos’ (ruler, leader) or ‘arkhe’ (power, authority). Despite the strong contemporary conflation of ‘anarchy’, ‘anarchism’, and ‘anarchists’ with chaos, disorder, and destruction, anarchism as a political theory does offer itself as a means of positive organization, one that is based on consent, free association, and self-governance rather than force, oppression, and hierarchy. From everyone’s favourite ‘holy-shit-anyone-can-edit-this’ online encyclopedia, Wikipedia, to the open-source code underpinning this very blogging platform, we are in fact readily acquainted with ‘workable’ examples of anarchism.

Perhaps in understanding Nietzsche’s politics and the connection of the Sovereign Individual to anarchism it is again helpful to look at Max Stirner. As I suggested in my first blog post for this class, much of Nietzsche’s genealogy of nobles, slaves, knights, and priests sounds eerily similar to Stirner’s earlier genealogy of Ancients and Moderns, and Nietzsche’s Sovereign individual sounds very much so cut of the same cloth as Stirner’s egoistic ‘unique one’. Where Stirner does seem to go further than Nietzsche with these ideas, though, is in his application of them to politics. Throughout The Ego and Its Own, Stirner vehemently criticizes the state and all its institutions, and in the latter half of the book, in spelling out his description of the ‘unique one’ with its ‘egoistic future’, Stirner points to the mode of organizing of these ‘unique ones’ being a ‘union of egoists’. In short, this ‘union of egoists’ is the free, spontaneous, non-systematic association of such ‘egoists’, which is held together only by the continuous, freely given consent of its members based on their own, individual desires and interests. Insofar as one no longer wishes to be part of such a union, they may leave, and insofar as the original purposes of the union have been accomplished the union spontaneously dissolves.

For his work in The Ego and Its Own, Stirner is usually seen as an ardent egoist, or individualist, anarchist. However, when addressing the ‘union of egoists’ there does seem to be at least some room and possibility for more social forms of anarchism, such as anarcho-syndicalism. Regardless, insofar as we can understand Nietzsche’s Sovereign Individuals to be defined, at least politically, first and foremost by a rejection of imposed external authority, and insofar as the comparison between Nietzsche’s Sovereign Individuals with Stirner’s ‘unique ones’ and their ‘union of egoists’ is apt, then it is fair to say┬áthat at least some form or manner of anarchistic organization and principles would underlying the real-world politics of real-world Sovereign Individuals.

2 thoughts on “The Politics of the Sovereign Individual

  1. jeremyyu

    I don’t think that the SI not recognising any external authority would necessarily lead to anarchism. If we think about the SI as the ultimate socialised creature, then it’s possible that he would act out of his own free will and stay completely true to himself without regard to others, while still functioning within the boundaries of social acceptability. This was the point I was trying to make in my presentation when I likened the SI to Confucius’ concept of the Perfect Gentleman. Instead of a being completely “free” from societal norms, the PG/SI is someone for whom societal norms are irrelevant precisely because he has so internalised them that they are in no way necessary for him anymore.

    1. Dustin Harrison Post author

      I think the point about internalizing social norms is a good one, as I don’t think the binary of norms being either entirely self-generated or entirely put on oneself ‘from the outside’ really holds up. I’d even go so far as to say that no one is ‘an island’ in this regard, that we are fundamentally situated and conditioned in a social world, and even the norms we think of as somehow purely ‘our own’ are in reality inter-subjective creations based on our interactions with others. This is my problem with the very libertarian/Ayn Rand school of thought that imagines the possibility of strong, individualist ‘lone wolves’ who are somehow able to live and act independently according to ‘their own will’ and standards the set for themselves without connection to others or dependency on anyone else. So, I do see the possibility of someone acting ‘entirely on their own’ cohering with the broader outlines of social acceptability.

      But, as you say, “the PG/SI is someone for whom societal norms are irrelevant precisely because he has so internalised them that they are in no way necessary for him anymore,” and to me this is actually part of why I see the SI as fundamentally anarchistic. In a world of PGs or SIs, a political state, legal system and police force to enforce social norms doesn’t make sense and is almost even a contradiction in terms – there is no need for the police, politicians, or criminal justice systems to enforce social norms in a place where people already hold ‘the law’ in their hearts and act according to it.

      So, in the end, I do concur that the question of ‘sovereignty’ for the SI is not a matter of whether the norms they abide are purely self-generated or involve others, but is more so about whether they follow these norms through an internal motivation or must be coerced somehow into doing so. And this leads to anarchism for me because I understand statism to be fundamentally based on the assumption that some form of social coercion and control is required in order to organize people along those norms.

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