I suspect there will be someone out there who has taken a glance at the title of this article and has not even reached as far as this opening paragraph, convinced that the phrase is meaningless and that there can never be any such thing as an anarchist metaphysics.
This may be because they are attached to a very practical (and limited) vision of anarchism as nothing more than the programme of a specific political movement, created out of thin air in the 19th century.
It may be also because they see “metaphysics” through the filter of a secondary use of the word, as laid out by the dictionary in front of me, in which it is applied “loosely and vaguely” to anything abtuse, abstract, transcendental, occult, supernatural or magical.
But the primary dictionary definition of metaphysics is “the branch of philosophy which investigates the first principles of nature and thought”.
This is obviously not something that could be incompatible with any political philosophy. Indeed, I would say it is indispensable! Without understanding, through metaphysics, the first principles of nature and thought, how could we go on to develop the secondary principles of a political philosophy?
I will be arguing here that metaphysics has to be the foundation stone of any coherent anarchist world-view. An anarchism which lacks that foundation also lacks all philosophical solidity and (as is tragically the case today) risks being swept back and forth by the shifting tides of fashionable (non-anarchist) opinion.
I will be showing how three particular metaphysical realisations (“first principles”) are clearly and directly related to the anarchist political world-view.
I have already explored the metaphysical realm in my writing, notably in Forms of Freedom and in the final chapter of Nature, Essence and Anarchy, entitled Necessary Subjectivity, which is now available online as a pdf.
In that chapter I explain that the starting point of my philosophical quest is the idea of an all-inclusive Universe, a definition of reality cast so wide that nothing can exist outside of it.
This is, in fact, the traditional starting point of metaphyics (adopted by everyone from Plotinus to the German nature-philosophers), although it stands in direct opposition to the individualistic modern perspective built on Descartes’ egocentric “I think therefore I am”.
The political importance of this metaphysical insight should immediately be obvious. It is the basis of universalism, a crucial pillar not just of anarchism but of left-wing thought as a whole.
Scaled down to the human level, it inspires a vision of humankind as an all-embracing entity, which is the starting point of individual and communal identities. First there is something called the human species. This species then produces individuals and groups of individuals through which it can phsyically exist at any given time.
Humankind is not just a label given to a collection of individuals or particular cultures but is the essential reality behind all those disparate parts.
Recognition of the essential universal humanity of all people is therefore a bedrock of anarchist and left-wing thought. Philosophies which deny universalism or the existence of humankind (either, like the Nazis, by declaring some people to be less than human or, like some post-modernists, by declaring humankind to be a “construct” that risks oppressing individuals or groups) do not share this indispensable metaphysical basis. These ideologies are therefore incompatible with anarchism.
2. Empowerment and Equality
The univeralism described above, in which individual or group particularities are secondary to an overarching unity, does not imply any restriction on individual human freedom. In fact it raises individuals to an even greater status because it sees them as nothing less than particular manifestations of the universal whole.
Each of us, as an individual, is nothing less than the Universe itself, in a restricted temporary form, in the same way that a particular ray of sunshine is nothing less than the sun itself.
This metaphysical position is very different from the religious view of “God” as an entity outside of the universe, who created the universe and rules over it. Organised religions use this idea of a separate supreme being to disempower human beings. We are all wretched “sinners” dependent on their organisation for “salvation”. Their “God” wants us to obey the people he has supposedly appointed to carry out “His” will on earth, to hand over our cash and our freedom to their safe-keeping.
Individuals who regard themself as a living part of the Universe, as the Universe itself in individual form, do not go along with the idea that they should “know their place” and obey self-appointed authority. They know that the people who dress up in wigs, suits, robes or uniforms are no better than they are and have no “god-given” right to rule over them.
Universalism implies equality. Not the equality of sameness, but the equality of shared humanity, shared belonging to the Universe. This is the metaphysical basis of anarchism.
The loss of this metaphysical understanding is a big step backwards for human societies. Not only do individuals lose the anarchic sense of empowerment which resists the demands of authority, but they also fall back into a stunted and egotistical view of their role in the world.
An individual who thinks they are entirely separate from everything and everyone else, who imagines that they they have somehow appeared independently on earth as a little node of autonomous consciousness, has no affinity with others.
The all-important subject (me! the centre of my universe! the one who thinks and therefore is!) finds themself in a lifelong struggle against the external objects which frustrate their will. These “objects” include other human beings.
For a metaphysically-separated individual, there are no wider levels of belonging than the purely personal. The purpose of life is self-advancement and personal pleasure. There is no such thing as community, or society. “Humankind” is a construct. “Nature” is a meaningless concept. “Universality” is a lie. All that matters is the Ego. Looking after Number One.
3. Responsibility and Action
One metaphysical question that I address in Necessary Subjectivity is that of time. I come to the conclusion that from the hypothetical point of view of the Universe, which includes everything, time is just another dimension contained within it. It is only from our perspective, as we play our real and solid physical role, that time appears to “pass”.
This kind of speculation might appear to have nothing to do with anarchism or any kind of political thinking. But it does!
It is all a matter of responsiblity. Responsibility, for me, is the other side of the coin of freedom. If we demand the freedom to act as we see fit (which, as anarchists, we very much do!), then it is because we wish to act in a way which we think is right. If we have the metaphysical insight that takes us beyond narrow egotistical aims, we will want to act on behalf of wider interests. We want to be free to act in the interests of our fellow human beings, of our community, of our species, of all species, of nature, of the planet. That it what authentic political engagement is all about. It is never about mere personal self-interest.
We only have the possibility of influencing the world about us because we physically exist. The Universe, massive and all-embracing though it is, only has the power to influence physical reality through its physical constituents.
Our freedom, as parts of the Universe, is also our responsibility to act on behalf of the Universe. We have a metaphysical responsibility to realise and understand our belonging to the Universe, to transcend narrow egotism, and then a practical responsibility to act in the real world in which we operate.
I wrote in Necessary Subjectivity: “We are human beings, existing on a physical and temporal plane of reality. We experience the present from the point of view of the present, the stage of the time-process at which it is being shaped. Our presence-in-the-present empowers us to participate in the process at the only point at which that is possible.”
Seen from the (for us impossible) perspective of The Universe, which is beyond all time because it includes it, all the events which take place along the dimension of time would appear to already be in place, to be inevitable or predetermined.
But that is not the case for us, because time is a dimension within which we act. Moreover, it describes the process through which our actions shape reality.
This is pure anarchism, expressed in metaphysical terms. First we have the combination of a collective awareness with a sense of individual freedom, a symbiosis in which the freedom of the individual is seen as the means by which the interests of larger collective entities can be pursued.
Then we have the compelling urgency to act, a realisation of the historical importance of acting, an existential sense of presence and possibility that pushes the individual anarchist beyond passivity, beyond the status of observer or spectator, into an engagement with time, with history, which he or she knows is the necessary fulfilment of their existence.
Because we are living parts of The Universe, because our deepest innermost essence is that of The Universe, our truest purpose in life can never be to act merely in the narrow interests of the individuality which gives us physical form and presence.
That individual presence, this life, is a gift to be treasured. But it is not a gift to be squandered in egotistical self-indulgence. To be fully human, to stretch towards the glorious possibilities of human attainment, is to seek out the metaphysical truth of our belonging to the universe and to open ourselves up to the energy and purpose of that belonging, to allow our physical presence to act as a channel for that belonging.
To become truly ourselves is to go beyond our selves, to allow a universal light to shine through our minds, our hearts, our words, our actions. The highest purpose of any human life is to do what is right. Anarchism is about doing what is right. Insisting on what is right. It is about sourcing an understanding of what is right from deep within us (and thus from the collective whole) and putting ourselves at the disposal of that rightness.
Anarchist metaphysics is the pre-condition to anarchist action, which is probably why it has been sidelined by the contemporary capitalist culture that has infected anarchism.
As I wrote in Forms of Freedom: “It is not by chance that our culture lays down so many false trails to be followed by those seeking to know and embrace the reality of their own supra-individual existence: the suppression of that knowledge is essential to the continuation of that culture, that system.
“People who understand that they are not merely individuals, but also are the collectivities to which they belong, are not going to allow this living freedom to be denied by the dead hand of ‘property’, ‘law’ or ‘nation’.
“People who understand that their individual freedom is also the freedom of the collectivity will not feel any need to conform to that collectivity’s existing point of view, since they know that their dissent is entirely part of the organic collective decision-making process.”