Circles of Control and Freedom
Despite all my rage, I am still just a rat in a cage.
— The Smashing Pumpkins, Bullet with Butterfly Wings
After listening to the Adam Lanza recordings, I started thinking about different types of anarchism.
For part of his short life, Lanza was a cultural anarchist. He believed that culture was imposed on people during childhood, by a process that he called “bullying”. There is some truth to that view. Norms of belief and behavior are imposed on children by a combination of censorship, indoctrination and incentives. Children are not “free” to develop their “own” beliefs, behaviors and identities. Instead, they have beliefs and behaviors imposed on them, and their identities are shaped by the social environment.
However, Lanza’s critique of culture was one-sided and naive. He did not appreciate the importance of culture: that we depend on it to survive. He also believed in an idealized pre-cultural version of human nature, which he called the “feral self”. The truth is that humans have always had culture (long before Homo sapiens), and we depend on it to survive. We might even depend on culture simply to think, and to be sane. Lanza saw only the dark side of culture, and he had a mythical notion of human nature in the absence of culture.
To some extent, I can relate to Lanza’s rejection of culture. When I was young, I was very critical of culture. I didn’t reject it entirely, but I believed that there was too much of it. I wanted society to be based more on rationality, and less on conformity and obedience. I rejected big cultural lies, such as religion and morality. I resented arbitrary norms of social interaction. I saw culture as a major source of irrationality and dishonesty.
Lanza’s cultural anarchism evolved into a deeper type of anarchism. He came to view life and value in the same way that he had viewed culture.
This got me thinking about “anarchism” in a more general sense, as the demand to be liberated from some type of control.
We can define different types of anarchism that correspond to different types of control, and thus to different types of freedom:
- Social anarchism: Freedom from some aspect of society, such as the state or the market.
- Cultural anarchism: Freedom from some aspect of culture, or from culture entirely.
- Biological anarchism:Freedom from biology, or certain aspects of biology.
- Psychological anarchism: Freedom from desires, values, identity.
- Philosophical anarchism: Freedom of thought.
“Anarchism” normally means rejecting the state, or rejecting coercion in general. Anti-statism is a type of social anarchism. It is based on the moral intuition that coercion is bad. We are taught from an early age that we must not use violence or the threat of violence to get what we want. The anti-statist has internalized this moral principle. He then notices, at some point, that society and authority figures don’t obey it themselves, even though they impose non-violence on others. He imagines a utopia without coercion, and he believes that this is man’s natural condition. He believes that somehow humanity was cast out of this utopia, and that we could restore it by abolishing the state. He wants freedom from coercion, freedom from state control.
The anti-statist doesn’t understand that coercion is inevitable. Non-violence can only be imposed by the threat of violence. Coercion by the state is necessary to prevent coercion by individuals. There is no anarchist utopia.
The communist is also a social anarchist. Instead of rejecting the state, he rejects the market. He views economic incentives as a type of coercion, imposed on people by the capitalist system. Even if people choose to work at a certain wage, or choose to buy a product at a certain price, they do so within a system that has been imposed on them. He also rejects the market because it values people differently, not equally. Why should some people be richer than others? He believes that people should have their basic needs provided by society, and maybe even that all property should be owned communally. He views economic incentives as a type of coercion, and often refers to employment (in the current system) as a type of slavery. He imagines a utopia in which people work together for the common good, not out of necessity or greed. In that utopia, you would be free to do what you really want to do.
The communist doesn’t understand that economic incentives are necessary to motivate people to be productive. Without incentives, society wouldn’t produce enough to supply the basic needs of its population.
Both the anti-statist and the communist reject some necessary aspect of society. The anti-statist rejects the coercion that is necessary to impose law and order. The communist rejects the economic incentives that make people productive. Both are naive utopians.
However, underneath this foolishness (and obscured by it), there are important issues about how society works and the relationship between the individual and society. It is true that the individual is highly controlled by society, often in ways that he takes for granted. He may even mistake external pressures for internal desires, because he has internalized the rules and norms of his society, so that they appear to operate within him. (This is the main source of the morality delusion.) This raises a question of identity. To what extent is the individual a creation of society? What is the real self?
Many leftist ideologies have a limited form of cultural anarchism. They view some aspect of culture as a harmful imposition on the individual. Classical Marxism claimed that the proletariat had “false consciousness”, because they had internalized the ruling ideology of the capitalist system. There are many modern variations on this theme. Feminism claims that women have a type of false consciousness, because they have internalized traditional sex roles and beauty standards. These movements promise liberation from both internal and external value standards that (in their view) oppress people.
Primitivism is a more radical form of cultural anarchism. It rejects most modern culture, especially modern technology. Some versions of primitivism simply reject modern civilization, and want to return to the Middle Ages or the Bronze Age. In its purest form, primitivism proposes that we return to a lifestyle based on hunting and gathering. The primitivist believes that we cast ourselves out of paradise by discovering agriculture and civilization. The Eden story in Genesis can be interpreted as an ancient example of this view. Adam and Eve were cast out of a primitive paradise, because they ate from the tree of knowledge. The primitivist imagines that a primitive lifestyle was more emotionally satisifying or meaningful, and that modern civilization robs us of a meaningful life.
Ted Kaczynski is an example of a primitivist anarchist. He rejected modern civilization, and especially modern technology.
Lanza’s primitivism was even more radical than Kaczynski’s. Lanza believed that all aspects of culture, including language, were harmful impositions on human nature. He imagined an idyllic primitive condition, in which we were entirely free from culture. He also believed that there was a true self, the feral self, that was smothered by culture. He idealized the feral self and a primitive way of life.
Like the other types of anarchism, primitivism is naive. It imagines a freedom that never existed and cannot exist. Humans have always had culture, including language and some forms of technology. The ancestral way of life was not a paradise. Our ancestors were not in a superior mental or physical state. There was no primitive utopia.
Anarchism can go even deeper.
Biological anarchism is the rejection of some aspect of biology, or even the rejection of life itself.
Transhumanism is an optimistic version of biological anarchism. The transhumanist wants to escape from certain aspects of the human condition, such as mortality or our limited intelligence. He imagines that we could transcend these limitations with technology, and create a new utopian condition of existence. Essentially, he wants to become a god.
Efilism is a pessimistic version of biological anarchism. The efilist believes that life is generally negative, and the only way to escape from our condition is to end life itself. His paradise is a universe devoid of life. The universe was cast out of that paradise by the creation of life, and each individual is cast out of the paradise of non-existence by conception.
There are more limited forms of biological anarchism. MGTOW (Men Going Their Own Way) rejects women and reproduction. It views the male desire for women as a kind of deception. Men are deceived by both culture and their DNA, into being slaves to women and society. The men who have seen through this deception have “taken the red pill” and “seen through the matrix”.
MGTOW proposes that men reject this deception and “go their own way” from women and society. There is no need for an organized revolution or social movement. Men can free themselves as individuals, simply by rejecting the bad deal that society and women offer them. If enough men “go their own way”, then society will collapse. But the liberation is individual, and it begins with a mental liberation, not only from a cultural deception, but also from one’s own desires.
Many ideologies and religions promise some type of internal liberation. This could be called “psychological anarchism”. It demands freedom from some aspect of the psyche. Christianity offers redemption from sins and guilt, and an afterlife in paradise. Buddhism offers a path to liberation from suffering and the cycle of birth and rebirth. Freudian psychology promised to liberate people from neuroses that were imposed on them by their parents or by culture. Some liberation ideologies seek “ego-death”: the annihilation of subjective identity, through psychedelic drugs or meditation. They seek freedom from the self, if that can be understood as anything other than a paradox.
Adam Lanza’s final philosophical destination was radical biological and psychological anarchism. He came to view the ultimate cage as life itself. We are created with emotions that cause us to suffer and struggle. Life creates value, and value creates problems. Without value, there are no problems that need to be solved. Because value is the root of all problems, Lanza came to reject value and life, just as he had rejected culture. He viewed death as the ultimate liberation.
We are trapped in ourselves, and that trap is only escapable by death. But to be trapped in yourself is a paradox, or maybe just a bad metaphor. You are you. But what are you? Is the social self the “real you”? The cultural self? The biological self? The mind?
Human beings have a biological nature, but the biological self is always situated within culture and society. The biological self can’t function without culture and society. You can’t exist without those external forces, and you are shaped by them. You necessarily adapt to them.
Nihilism, or radical philosophical skepticism, is another type of anarchism. It is the liberation from assumptions, and you could say from delusions. Philosophical skepticism brings hidden assumptions into awareness, where they can be examined and questioned. The end result is nihilism: the recognition that subjectivity doesn’t have a foundation.
Unlike anarchist ideologies, there is no promised utopia. But the absence of meaning is a kind of radical freedom. Without an objective foundation, the subject is the ultimate authority. Philosophical skepticism, in a sense, is about seizing control of your own mind, by asserting your authority over your beliefs and actions. But that also means that you have the ultimate responsibility for your beliefs and actions. Nihilism frees you from external authority, but it also burdens you with ultimate responsibility.
Life is full of meaning, whether you philosophically believe anything matters or not. You are forced to care, forced to make choices, forced to act in the world. Nihilism doesn’t relieve you of that burden. It just makes you aware that meaning has no objective foundation, and your choices have no objective justification. But you still have to make them.
Freedom only exists within a system of constraints: physical, biological, psychological, cultural and social. You are only free within a cage. You are only you within a cage.
And that is why despite all your rage, you are still just a rat in a cage.