“Fuck society! I owe society nothing!” [part 1/2]

There is a peculiar kind of delusion which seems particularly common with ardent capitalists and right-wingers, although it can be held by pretty much anyone, which is of the type “fuck society!”. You may have heard this kind of nonsense before. Here is a good example, which I have chosen because it is more descriptive than most I’ve encountered:

Fuck society because I owe “society” nothing. I owe no other man a single thing. The individual, the self, must come before everything else. My support for rights and a free society is born of self interest. Fuck society comes from attempts to place others before the self.

What you will find is that it will invariably be this emotional. They have equated politics and collectivism with society, you see, and politicians tell people that they owe “society,” which is really themselves and their own class interests, everything (ask what you can do for your “country,” i.e. Kennedy himself). So they see themselves as being very much against authority, very noble, when they say such things.

Despite what the communists might tell you, individualism is not a greedy “every man for himself” sort of thing, it is mostly a reaction to this sort of “business as usual.” This is not to say that there aren’t “every man for himself” individualists, but that is mainly a capitalist, mainstream sort of thought, not particularly individualistic. This sort of “fuck society” reaction, however, is not individualism as much as it is atomistic individualism. This is a condition where the individual sees himself as being apart from society, as existing in a vacuum. This is exactly what’s going on here.

Now let’s examine exactly what this means. Is it true that one owes nothing to anyone? Sure, as long as one has no debt or agreement to honor. But owing someone else is not the sole basis for dependence. There is a very large step from “I owe nothing” to “the individual must come before everyone else.” We live in society precisely because society, in theory, permits us to unite our labour to that of others without struggling against each other. Living in society alone implies that the individual inscribes himself within some larger context.

What does this mean in practice? Look at the process of labour. In his labour, a man uses tools, techniques, buildings, and ways to interact with others. All of these things are predicated on the accumulation of knowledge which led to the understanding of scientific laws, of nature. A person also consumes a great number of things for himself, including shelter, food, drink, communication devices, etc. Each and every person who works to produce these things is subject to the same conditions I just listed. If we look at the exponential spread of who produces the tools and personal goods that someone else uses, and who produces their tools and personal goods, and who produces their tools and personal goods, on and on like this, we end up with the inevitable fact that the whole society is involved in any given person’s production.

Indeed, this is not a controversial fact even for Misesians: see for example I, Pencil, by Leonard Read, which is unwittingly the best argument for socialism ever written (bold mine):

Actually, millions of human beings have had a hand in my creation, no one of whom even knows more than a very few of the others. Now, you may say that I go too far in relating the picker of a coffee berry in far off Brazil and food growers elsewhere to my creation; that this is an extreme position. I shall stand by my claim. There isn’t a single person in all these millions, including the president of the pencil company, who contributes more than a tiny, infinitesimal bit of know-how… Neither the miner nor the logger can be dispensed with, any more than can the chemist at the factory or the worker in the oil field—paraffin being a by-product of petroleum.

We can apply this reasoning to every single good, of course, not just pencils; we should rather apply it to labor, not commodities, but it is natural that Leonard Read, as a capitalist, would fetishize commodities.

The conclusion we must draw from all this is that an individual’s production is only a small margin added to everyone else’s production. One hour of your work is one hour added to millions of hours distributed amongst all the workers in your society (as well as masses of underpaid people in the colonies as well). Add to this the trillion of hours needed for the accumulation and preservation of knowledge (not just back to Newton and Galileo, but all the way back to the first human-made tools) necessary to build all the tools used by the millions of people whose labor you depend on, as well as the trillions of hours needed to build the cities, towns, and their infrastructures, which house those millions of people and make your labor desirable, and each individual’s labor really does become infinitesimally small, both in terms of the present labor network and in terms of the sum total of history that led to that labor network being possible. Not only in terms of labor but, as I, Pencil illustrated, also in terms of knowledge, as I really have no idea how all these people do what they do, or how the result of their labor interfaces with anyone else’s (think of how complex the relations are between all the parts of a car, for instance), nor do I know much about the scientific laws and theories underlining any of this. And finally, we cannot forget the fact that every single of these human beings were raised and educated by a mass of people (including their parents), and that without this labor production would also not have been possible.

At the end of this, I think we go from an egocentric “fuck society, the individual must come before everything else” to a more reasonable “the individual depends on ‘everything else,’ and cannot ‘come before’ that which he depends on.” Anyone who still denies that society is essential for his own production, or his standard of living for that matter, at this point is holding on to some misguided belief at the expense of the truth.

Certainly it is true that someone can become a hermit and live without any input whatsoever from others, although obviously his survival techniques would have been learned, and thus the result of the accumulation of knowledge on that topic. But a hermit is not free. A hermit has liberty, that is to say he is not imposed upon by any exterior determinism, but freedom requires viable possibilities as well. A hermit has very few of those because he does not have access to society.

Continued in part 2.

30 thoughts on ““Fuck society! I owe society nothing!” [part 1/2]

  1. David Gendron November 6, 2010 at 17:26

    Great post about the Randian-Egoism characterization of anti-society inidividualism.

    But what about Stirner-Egoism characterization of anti-society inidividualism? I think, at least in the actual statist-capitalist society, it’s a good think for Anarchists to consider this characterization.

    My comment is not a critic about your post, but it’s an idea about another topic that we should debate as Anarchists.

  2. David Gendron November 6, 2010 at 17:27

    Great post about the Randian-Egoism characterization of anti-society individualism.

    But what about the Stirner-Egoism characterization of anti-society individualism? I think, at least in the actual statist-capitalist society, it’s a good thing for Anarchists to consider this characterization.

    My comment is not a critic about your post, but it’s an idea about another topic that we should debate as Anarchists.

  3. Francois Tremblay November 6, 2010 at 17:39

    I’m gonna be honest with you David, I tried to read Stirner and I gave up after a few chapters. So I’m really not habilitated to comment on that issue.

  4. Jeremy Weiland November 7, 2010 at 11:51

    But what about the Stirner-Egoism characterization of anti-society individualism?

    The only difference between a Stirnerite approach and the one characterized by Francois, IMHO, is that a Stirnerite wouldn’t bring morality or duty into the mix. Yes, we depend on each other. So what? That doesn’t confer any duty on me; it’s only a feature of the environment in which I seek to realize my interests. We don’t “owe” society anything; society is simply a construct that is useful or an obstacle.

    The thing to remember about Stirner is that placing oneself above everything else is one thing; defining that self and its interests is something completely different. I think there’s plenty to demonstrate that the individual is as socially constructed as society is constructed by individual actions. So, even from a point of self interest, my interests and those of society’s are aligned at least somewhat. To speak in terms of “duty” and “debt” is probably more than a little hyperbolic, whether it comes from the “fuck society” or “embrace society” side.

  5. Reggie Ro0ck November 7, 2010 at 16:58

    I’m also somewhat flustered by those who argue over whether society should have moral authority over the individual or vice versa. If we were to unpack the the concept “society” then we would find that a necessary component must be the individual. Just as if we were to unpack the concept “individual” we would find that society is a necessary part thereof. The individual is a unit of society. Under most individualist philosophies it is considered the only unit of society that can be quantified and acted on directly, the rest being too nebulous and abstract. And under most communitarian/socialist ones the subgroup (class, race, gender, etc.) is considered the operative unit of society.

    Therefore when I hear arguments that treat, even just semantically, as a thing existing apart from individuals (and vice versa) I’m confused. It would be like discussing whether or not a stone should be more important than it’s carbon. Like how you say society “allows” the commingling of labor, the commingling of labor is a function of society is much like how the cell does not “allow” the mitochondria to produce energy.

    Also, it odd that you equate socialism with the idea that humans are necessarily interdependent. Aside from a few sophomoric online theorists I’ve never heard any capitalist deny this fact. Capitalism and socialism are specific prescriptive claims about how best (and in some cases how “most justly”) to distribute resources.

    Personally I would rank myself in the individualist column simply because it seems to me that individuals are the proper level of society on which to apply rules and observe dynamics. When you start trying to treat groups of individuals as primary units of measurement you end up creating more social tensions (class war, repression of the infidel/counter-revolutionary, legally backed conformity, etc.).

    The literature on the subject is filled with this kind of reification and anthropomorphizing of society as an entity outside of the individual that enables him. But society is not god, it’s a function of individuals. The two terms cannot be neatly unpacked and there is no clear line delineating what society owes the individual and what individuals owes society, they are seamless symbiotic.

  6. Francois Tremblay November 7, 2010 at 17:07

    “Under most individualist philosophies it is considered the only unit of society that can be quantified and acted on directly, the rest being too nebulous and abstract.”

    I am an individualist, but certainly I don’t think that the other components of society are “too abstract.” Documents, buildings, tools, and even principles of thought are not “too abstract” to act on.

    “Also, it odd that you equate socialism with the idea that humans are necessarily interdependent. Aside from a few sophomoric online theorists I’ve never heard any capitalist deny this fact. ”

    Yes, certainly; but what they miss is that it proves the truth of socialism. Capitalism is predicated on the premise that whatever one produces is independent from the rest of society’s production, that each economic agent is an island and is entitled to full property rights. Without full property rights, there can be no capitalism.

    “Personally I would rank myself in the individualist column simply because it seems to me that individuals are the proper level of society on which to apply rules and observe dynamics. ”

    Then we are both in agreement.

  7. David Gendron November 12, 2010 at 16:51

    Sorry, I didn’t comment very often on blogs this week, so I lost track a little.

    @François Tremblay

    “I’m gonna be honest with you David, I tried to read Stirner and I gave up after a few chapters. So I’m really not habilitated to comment on that issue.”

    Okay François, but you don’t have to read all the book to understand basic principles of the Stirner-Egoism characterization of anti-society individualism. (and I know Stirner is very hard to read, jeezz! )

    @Jeremy Weiland

    “The only difference between a Stirnerite approach and the one characterized by Francois, IMHO, is that a Stirnerite wouldn’t bring morality or duty into the mix.”

    The François’ owm characterization (if there’s any) or the Randian Egoism characterization than he criticizes? Randian Egoism is not just about “moral values” and “duty”. Randian Egoism places yourself (and ONLY yourself) above and against all others. Striner Egoism places nobody above each individual, not just yourself.

    Personnally, I disagree with Stirner when he rejects all moral values. But I strongly agree with his Egoism characterization.

  8. David Gendron November 12, 2010 at 16:54

    “Without full property rights, there can be no capitalism.”

    I’m not sure about this, François. Maybe we should say: “Without full property rights FOR SOME INDIVIDUALS OR INSTITUTIONS, there can be no capitalism.

  9. atheist November 25, 2010 at 13:34

    @Reggie Rock

    Also, it odd that you equate socialism with the idea that humans are necessarily interdependent. Aside from a few sophomoric online theorists I’ve never heard any capitalist deny this fact.

    You’ve obviously never been here: http://reason.com/
    Or here: http://www.cato.org/

    Welcome to the extraordinarily strange, surprisingly popular, fetishistic-religious ideology of “pure” capitalism.

  10. […] is any sensible reason why total and complete equality logically follows from economic equality. The premise of economic equality is that every job is necessary for every other job, and that any work anyone performs is predicated […]

  11. Ian Jensen June 13, 2012 at 20:24

    You lost me at the first faulty logical directive (I.E. lacking alternate possibilities). Namely, when you said, “We live in society precisely because society, in theory, permits us to unite our labour to that of others without struggling against each other.” This, I would say, is wrong.

    We live in society because we are given no feasible alternatives. Of course, I am referring to society as synonymous with industrialized civilization, and not simply relationships with other people, although that would technically fall under my use of the word as well. In this use of the word, I am implying that we must function within a complex and coercive system or risk running afoul of the state. There are no meaningful alternative systems available to choose from. So we live in society because the state demands it from us. Not because it permits us to unite our labor with others, although that is a virtue of which society presumably offers.

    The atomistic response of “fuck society” is wholly appropriate if you dislike having no choice in how you relate to the world around you, and irrational if you happen to enjoy the status quo.

    • Francois Tremblay June 13, 2012 at 20:31

      When I say “we,” I am talking about the general we of we as human beings. We have assembled in societies to unite our labor, like all other primates. As individuals, we don’t go out into the wild, or start our own individual farms, because we don’t want to have to live on the basis of our individual labor.

    • cynicalatheist June 14, 2012 at 04:41

      We live in society because we are given no feasible alternatives.

      Actually you have all kinds of alternatives to living in industrial civilization. You could join the Amish. You could find an area with a weak state, such as certain places in Colombia or Somalia or Afghanistan… or, for that matter, Detroit… and move there, getting involved with the local tribes or the criminal element or what-have-you.

      You might reply, “I said there are no meaningful alternatives to choose from. The alternatives you have listed are ridiculous!” Well, yes, they are kind of strange. But that is less a proof that technological society is inescapable, and more an admission that you yourself don’t really want to live outside of it. If you dislike the tedious work of Amish farming, or are frightened by the dangers involved in running drugs in Colombia, then those are just reasons that the majority of people have tended to opt out of those situations, not evidence of their unfeasability.

      One of the interesting features of technological society is that people can live in it while believing all kinds of strange things, so long as they continue to pay the bills. There are for instance theocrats who wish to create societies like those of medieval Europe but with technology. Or, there is your wish to live outside of society while simultaneously enjoying all the benefits of society. You, or the theocrats, may end up succeeding in changing society to fit your desires — the theocrats have been very successful lately, and in your case you sound a little like the members of the “Sovereign Citizen Movement“.

      If you don’t enjoy the status quo in industrial society, well, first of all understand that there are literally billions of people who feel just like you. Second, I would suggest that your better option is to try to change industrial society to fit your desires, rather than saying “fuck society”, because within industrial society you are somewhat insulated from the exigencies of the environment and from your own body’s weaknesses. But, of course, your mileage may vary.

  12. fuck society January 30, 2013 at 18:06

    I still say, fuck everyone for turning life into some overcomplicated shithole where I am somehow in debt to the universe for something I’m not entitled to opt out of. Whatever the reason I was ‘put on this earth’, fuck that reason, I’m not buying it. I will merely pretend to care about the fuckheads and I simply want to be away from all of the asinine stupidity they preach about everything from God to Science to Politics to Economics. I would love it if everyone else was dead and I could just go hunt buffalo and shit in the bushes, the rest of the world does nothing for me except make things suck.

    • atheist January 30, 2013 at 19:52

      You’re not here for any reason; the fact of your existence is an accident of history. If you really need to get away from complicated civilization then move somewhere uncivilized. Otherwise, grow the fuck up.

      • Francois Tremblay January 30, 2013 at 19:56

        Well, I think that was part of “fuck society”‘s point. I think he has a point. But I also agree with you that there’s no purpose for our existence.

        • atheist January 30, 2013 at 20:14

          I’m glad we’re all on the same page about the lack of inherent purpose to our lives. However, I get annoyed by folks who claim to hate civilization, yet make no moves to escape its clutches. If they really hate all civilization, why don’t they move to a failing state and take part in the undoubtedly exciting tribal wars going on there? Or, get involved with drug smuggling. There are so many options.

          Now, if the folks in question can’t bring themselves to actually do these things, then isn’t that a sign that they actually want civilization? And if they actually want civilization, then what are we to make of their neurotic claims to hate it? Why listen to their deluded statements? If they want civilization, but think it should be different, then why don’t they stop whining and work toward fixing the problems?

          • Francois Tremblay January 30, 2013 at 20:24

            Because civilization, even if terrible, is still better than dying in the wild.

            • atheist January 30, 2013 at 20:28

              Suggesting that they don’t actually hate “civilization”, they just hate losing.

          • Francois Tremblay January 30, 2013 at 20:30

            Or they hate dying.

            • atheist January 30, 2013 at 20:38

              We know they hate dying. But where is the sick point that makes someone take their commonplace hatred of losing and express it as an overblown hatred of civilization?

          • Francois Tremblay January 30, 2013 at 20:41

            What “losing” are you going on about.

            • atheist January 30, 2013 at 20:56

              I guess you said what needed to be said in your original post: it is the sense of atomistic individualism that creates the sick point. What I mean about “losing” is that I judge comments like: fuck society – January 30 2013 at 18:06, or Ian Jensen – June 13 2012 at 20:24 to come from a sense of loss. The sense of loss, combined with the sense of atomism, is expressed as anger against civilization.

              What I want is just what you apparently were getting at when you wrote this post a couple of years back. We both seem to wish these folks would grow the fuck up and instead of spinning tales of corrupt civilization, just learn to deal with their loss.

          • Francois Tremblay January 30, 2013 at 21:01

            That’s an interesting perspective.

            • atheist January 30, 2013 at 21:13

              Thanks. And thanks for writing this blog. This post is a particularly intriguing one.

  13. I, J. May 2, 2013 at 12:40

    To the author:

    “When I say “we,” I am talking about the general we of we as human beings. We have assembled in societies to unite our labor, like all other primates. As individuals, we don’t go out into the wild, or start our own individual farms, because we don’t want to have to live on the basis of our individual labor.”

    I do [want to live on the basis of my own individual labor]. I am not allowed to do so and am coerced against taking such action through the mechanism of taxation, primarily, although there are any number of other regulatory structures to prevent individuals to follow such a course of action.

  14. […] computers or electricity, as no one person has all the knowledge to produce any of these things. Everyone’s labor is intricately linked to everyone else’s labor. So however much money you have, it’s not “your money,” and if you claim more than […]

  15. SFF Madman June 14, 2013 at 19:21

    Are you anarchists or socialists? Either way, I shouldn’t be surprised to see a lot of philosophy here. I’m a social democrat. I have no problem with “society” per se. But I have a huge problem with corporatism and I am doing what I can to promote awareness, at least. But you all seem to discuss a lot of the same ideas I do. Ironic that capitalists are saying things that “prove the truth of socialism,” as you said. I like that.

    • Francois Tremblay June 14, 2013 at 21:31

      I’m both. Libertarian socialist, they call it. It’s just a nicer way of saying anarcho-socialist.

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