Stirner on Property Relations
One must must consider Stirner's statements on property relations in the context of his whole analysis and audience. The word property can mean possession, belonging, or commodity, but it can also mean aspect, e.g. sweetness as a property of ripe apples. Stirner uses a lot of wordplay to show this complexity, and emphasizes the personability of "ownership", emphasizing how our relations to objects become aspects of us. In this explanation I'll focus on Stirner's understandings of "property" in the more traditional sense.
I. CONTEXT & AUDIENCE Stirner wrote in the context of his rivalry against incipient Marxism. This explains such statements of his as:
"Egoism takes another way to root out the non-possessing rabble. It does not say: Wait for what the board of equity will — bestow on you in the name of the collectivity (for such bestowal took place in 'States' from the most ancient times, each receiving 'according to his desert,' and therefore according to the measure in which each was able to deserve it, to acquire it by service), but: Take hold, and take what you require! With this the war of all against all is declared. I alone decide what I will have."
Stirner did not want the "non-possessing rabble" to replicate Statist oppression as they formed their new collectivities.
II. LEGITIMACY & SUBJECTIVITY Stirner essentially saw all justifications of property as subjective: "Rightful, or legitimate, property of another will be only that which you are content to recognize as such. If your content ceases, then this property has lost legitimacy for you, and you will laugh at absolute right to it." Here he emphasizes the descriptive nature of his intent ("you will laugh").
Stirner attempted to dissolve the objective basis for the existing property regime. He elaborated that the sanctity of property works as a "spook" haunting the mind:
"Property in the civic sense means sacred property, such that I must respect your property. 'Respect for property!' Hence the politicians would like to have every one possess his little bit of property, and they have in part brought about an incredible parcellation by this effort. Each must have his bone on which he may find something to bite...The position of affairs is different in the egoistic sense. I do not step shyly back from your property, but look upon it always as my property, in which I need to 'respect' nothing. Pray do the like with what you call my property!"
III. DECONSTRUCTION & ANTI-CAPITALISM This realization compels him to reject capitalism:
"If men reach the point of losing respect for property, every one will have property, as all slaves become free men as soon as they no longer respect the master as master.
Unions will then, in this matter too, multiply the individual's means and secure his assailed property."
Stirner further proposed active non-compliance with the slave-like conditions of the dispossessed, "Whoever knows how to take and to defend the thing, to him it belongs till it is again taken from him, as liberty belongs to him who takes it".
He's using wordplay, mocking the notion of "right". Some people confuse Stirner for advocating a mentality of "might makes right", however, he meant this more descriptively:
"Enjoy, then you are entitled to enjoyment. But, if you have laboured and let the enjoyment be taken from you, then – ‘it serves you right.’ If you take the enjoyment, it is your right; if, on the contrary, you only pine for it without laying hands on it, it remains as before, a, ‘well-earned right’ of those who are privileged for enjoyment. It is their right, as by laying hands on it would become your right."
As a moral nihilist, he essentially saw only might and respect as the two forces that shaped things, and emphasized subjectivity. In distinction to the present condition, Stirner advocated the "Union of Egoists" concept, predicated on voluntary and symbiotic relations as well as self-interest, parallel to the anarchist aims of autonomy and mutual aid.
IV. PLAY NOT WORK To elaborate on that last point, on what he proposes instead of capitalism, in "Stirner's Critics" he proposes,
"Perhaps at this very moment, some children have come together just outside [Hess’s] window in a friendly game. If he looks at them, he will see a playful egoistic union. Perhaps Hess has a friend or a beloved; then he knows how one heart finds another, as their two hearts unite egoistically to delight (enjoy) each other, and how no one ‘comes up short’ in this. Perhaps he meets a few good friends on the street and they ask him to accompany them to a tavern for wine; does he go along as a favor to them, or does he ‘unite’ with them because it promises pleasure?" ~ "Stirner's Critics"
V. SOLIDARITY, BUT FROM FELLOWSHIP, NOT OBLIGATION As an idealist, he sought truth as his primary objective. His whole project was to expel reified values and promote the living of an authentic life based in real desire, not one serving imposed, alien constructs. For example, toward love he states,
"I love men too — not merely individuals, but every one. But I love them with the consciousness of egoism; I love them because love makes me happy, I love because loving is natural to me, because it pleases me. I know no 'commandment of love.' I have a fellow-feeling with every feeling being, and their torment torments, their refreshment refreshes me too..."
This further rebuts the common misconception that "Stirner espouses pure might makes right philosophy".
VI. INDIVIDUALISM BEYOND CONSUMERISM Stirner criticized at length the "involuntary egoist" slaving away for the "fixed cause", including hoarding. I will demonstrate how Stirner differentiated between the "egoism" he espoused, which exorcized what he saw as the trappings of servitude to a mere concept, versus the traditional "involuntary egoism" of his day:
"Who, then, is 'self-sacrificing?'In the full sense, surely, he who ventures everything else for one thing, one object, one will, one passion. Is not the lover self-sacrificing who forsakes father and mother, endures all dangers and privations, to reach his goal? Or the ambitious man, who offers up all his desires, wishes, and satisfactions to the single passion, or the avaricious man who denies himself everything to gather treasures, or the pleasure-seeker, etc.? He is ruled by a passion to which he brings the rest as sacrifices.
And are these self-sacrificing people perchance not selfish, not egoist? As they have only one ruling passion, so they provide for only one satisfaction, but for this the more strenuously, they are wholly absorbed in it. Their entire activity is egoistic, but it is a one-sided, unopened, narrow egoism; it is possessedness."
In these passages, Stirner clearly rejects the consumerist path to self-fullfilment, arguing that the treasure hoard owns the person more than the reverse: possession becomes possessedness, whereas moderation enables robust fulfillment.
AGAINST BOTH LAW & CONTRACT Another aspect of this comes from Stirner, in his deconstruction of democratic law, which, importantly, is also the critique of contract. For the ancoms that propose to maintain a sort of democratic, law-based order on communes, Stirner rebuts this thusly:
"Every State is a despotism, be the despot one or many, or (as one is likely to imagine about a republic) if all be lords, i. e. despotize one over another. For this is the case when the law given at any time, the expressed volition of (it may be) a popular assembly, is thenceforth to be law for the individual, to which* obedience is due* from him or toward which he has the duty of obedience. If one were even to conceive the case that every individual in the people had expressed the same will, and hereby a complete “collective will” had come into being, the matter would still remain the same. Would I not be bound today and henceforth to my will of yesterday? My will would in this case be frozen. Wretched stability! My creature — to wit, a particular expression of will — would have become my commander. But I in my will, I the creator, should be hindered in my flow and my dissolution. Because I was a fool yesterday I must remain such my life long. So in the State-life I am at best — I might just as well say, at worst — a bondman of myself. Because I was a willer yesterday, I am today without will: yesterday voluntary, today involuntary."