Work and Power: Ernst Jünger’s Debt to Max Stirner
ERNST Jünger’s (1895-1998) debt to Max Stirner (1806-1856) is enormous and must never be understated. This, in fact, is precisely why Stirner can never be equated with either the insipid humanism or abstract universality that one finds among the leftists.
It almost goes without saying, too, that the most obvious point of convergence between these two giants of German philosophy rests on Stirner’s presentation of the radical egoist and Jünger’s subsequent promulgation of the Anarch, or sovereign individual. However, their ideas also coincide in another way. Stirner’s The Ego and Its Own, published in 1844, expounds the idea that workers are not protected by the bourgeois state on account of being labourers, but simply in terms of their inclusion within the overall bulk of ‘citizenry’.
In other words, he who dares to reject society is stripped of his humanity and in order to receive justice he must become subsumed by the mass. You are not considered a ‘brother’ unless you accept universal brotherhood. On the other hand, once labourers learn to exert their authority by recognising their own unique value as workers, particularly during trade disputes, the state is forced to sit up and take notice.
In a sense, therefore, this becomes not merely a reclaiming of their identity but a reassertion of their true worth. In Stirner’s own words, the
state rests on the slavery of labour. If labour becomes free, the state is lost.
The manner in which the poor can stop themselves being exploited by the rich, he says, is to charge more for their services. The wealthy can then decide for themselves if they wish to pay the new going-rate. It is difficult to see how this would operate without conflict, particularly when the rich control the means of production. The workers, therefore, in order to get what they want, must use their valuable bargaining power.
Nonetheless, in terms of the oft-fraught relationship between the liberal establishment and workers themselves, Jünger’s 1932 essay, The Worker: Dominion and Form, strongly echoes the thoughts of his predecessor by noting that it is crucial for the worker to reject a purely economic interpretation of his role because that which is far more important than focussing entirely on the ever-tenuous relationship between employer and employee is power itself.
Jünger understood that whilst the bourgeoisie attempt to control workers by convincing them that their desires are identical to their own, rather than rebel against the state merely as a result of being exploited through low wages or poor conditions everything depends on
recognizing his superiority and, out of it, fashioning the proper standards of his coming dominion. This will strengthen the power of his means – out of attempts to checkmate his opponent by resigning from his employment [and therefore] his subjugation becomes a conquest.
Not in the collective Marxian sense, of course, but in terms of empowering the individual to the extent that he becomes master of his own destiny. To understand Jünger, therefore, you must first know Stirner.