Indifference to Power

A few weeks ago, I read an interview with Noam Chomsky, who claimed that neoliberalism is destroying democracy. He said something similar when I heard him in Barcelona just weeks before the US election that would bring Trump into power. Although always educational, Chomsky tends to be full of despair. Or, in other words, he is far better (and very good indeed) at analyzing than suggesting how to overcome neoliberalism.

Therefore, it was with great interest that I came upon the new book Postanarchism by Saul Newman, who is a professor of political theory at Goldsmith, University of London. It turned out to be a stimulating acquaintance.

Newman doesn’t counsel pessimism or despair; rather, he explores “the contours of a new kind of political terrain, one that is opened up by the nihilism of the contemporary condition.” We are witness, he says, of a new paradigm “that takes the form of an autonomous insurrection.”

Autonomous insurrection could have been the title of the book as well; what the book offers is not another theory of revolution, but rather how to stand up against power. That is, the rejection of the institutionalized forms of leadership as well as all the norms and ideals of neoliberalism that control our lives.

The book is mainly structured around Foucault, but debated illuminatingly with Benjamin, Sorel, Le Boétie, and Stirner—the latter I have never seen used so convincingly. In fact, the book is a strong case for an ethical and political transformation based on a singular will to embrace life.

The German philosopher Max Stirner helps Newman articulate why and how we may distance ourselves from power; from Sorel and Benjamin, he emphasizes how an ontological anarchism is “pure means without end,” and last from La Boétie, he suggests that “we are always and already free.”

The anarchistic ontology that underlies Newman’s project is related to the idea of thinking and action free from any predetermined end. If there are any predetermined ends, we are not really free. Anarchism, therefore, “is a form of politics and ethics which takes the value of human freedom and self-government—inextricably linked to equality—as central …” It is also here where Newman presents his strongest argument against neoliberalism, which is non-power.

Postanarchism, he says, “can be understood as starting from the non-acceptability of power …” Power affects all aspects of our lives—our bodies and minds. “The totalizing nature of the neoliberal regime lies in the fact that we are governed in the name of our own freedom.” We exploit ourselves through our own obedience to the controlling power structures, which only requires our “voluntary servitude.” It is also here—to overcome this problem, that we live as if we wished for our own destruction—that Newman introduces Stirner, who claims that we live in a haunted world, one of abstractions, or “spooks,” or “fixed ideas,” such as “human essence, morality, rational truth, society, freedom—which are claimed to be universally understood and to which we must aspire.” Yet, Stirner shows that there is no essential or unchangeable truth. The challenge, however, is not to follow along with neoliberalism’s favoring of individuals while it nurtures egoism, but to cultivate ourselves as autonomous beings. To take care of ourselves is to affirm ourselves, not some transcendental concepts that takes us away from life.

Stirner succeeds in pleading for such care without falling into selfishness because his idea of the self is a “creative nothing,” a constant flux of becoming.

Thus, the insurrection is a struggle for the autonomous life. Instead of liberating people from power, they should constitute their own freedom, Newman writes. Or constitute their “ownness,” their autonomy.

Newman follows Stirner and uses the concept of “ownness” instead of freedom, mainly because freedom is so problematic today. Ownness refers to self-ownership or mastery. Stirner is quoted for saying: “I am free from what I am rid of, owner of what I have in my power or what I control.”

Indifference to power, as presented in this book, is non-violent. Newman does not advocate for violence, but joy. “[T]he insurrection is a movement of joy, conviviality and the happiness experienced in being together with others.”

Perhaps for this reason, it is a joyous book—one that doesn’t leave the reader in despair, but full of strength to act in more beneficial and existential ways. It’s a book that cares about life. So, instead of launching an assault on power, one should affirm oneself. According to Newman’s reading of Stirner and La Boétie “power does not exist.” I believe he is right.

“To say that power is an illusion is not of course to say that is does not have real effects; rather, it is to deny power’s power over us,” the author clarifies. Rather the point is that power systems are always fragile and—just look at modern governments—and yet, they only become powerful through our free acceptance of them.

“We become free,” Newman writes, “only when we act as though we are already free.”

I highly recommend this book. It is clearly written, well-argued, and very convincing in its diagnosis of contemporary capitalism. But also—and perhaps more importantly—I recommend it because it shows us that another world is possible.


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