I discovered some years ago that I found Ayn Rand’s followers distasteful. I also discovered that among capital P Philosophers her works are rarely taken seriously, but she still has a very loyal following who consider her to have been the greatest philosopher of the 20th century. There is nothing special about her in this regard; there are hundreds of hack writers and self-appointed gurus with diehard fan bases out there. Life’s too short to pay attention to all of them.
But Ayn Rand’s problem can no longer be ignored. Her fans have already done too much damage not to be taken seriously. And since the Republican Party vice-presidential candidate announced last weekend has been not only an Ayn Rand disciple but one of her evangelists –– confessing that she is the reason he got into politics to begin with –– it is time for everyone to take a serious look at what this ideology has to say for itself.
Rand’s disciples refer to themselves as “Objectivists”. The basic idea behind this name is a claim that they alone see human realities for what they really are. They have thus made an “-ism” out of being objective. It was with this sort of absurdity in mind that Jacques Derrida fought tooth and nail to prevent his concept of Deconstruction from being known as “Deconstructionism”. With all due respect to Taoism, Buddhism, Jainism, Judaism and Zoroastrianism, those quasi-religious movements which have sprung up in the last century or two –– which by their name indicate that they are dedicating themselves either to the teachings of some new guru or an abstract idea which their guru defines as meaning something different than what, if anything, the term would indicate to the proverbial man on the street –– commonly known as “-isms”, tend to be like cheap muesli: mostly nuts and flakes.
From what little I have read of Rand’s works directly, I heartily agree with the recent article in The New Yorker stating that she belongs “in the crackpot pantheon of L. Frank Baum and L. Ron Hubbard”. But like members of any other self-respecting cult, her followers will tell you that the only way you can really appreciate her genius is to read a good deal of her writings for yourself, rather than second and third hand accounts like this one. I will not try to stop anyone who is so inclined, and I will not claim to be any sort of Rand scholar. My point here is merely to say why I refuse to take the Rand cult particularly seriously in intellectual terms, but why I believe that people should take the threat of Objectivist politicians very seriously.
For anyone who wishes to argue back against my points here, I ask that you would not use my site here to evangelize for Rand in the sense of broad spectrum spam or advertising for her writings. (Those who are truly interested in such matters can find more than they will ever want to know at http://www.aynrand.org.) As is the case with all other cults as well, the discussion of the internal minutiae of their beliefs is quite endless, and I really don’t want to go there. Nor, given the disclaimers I have already made, do I wish to address ad hominem attacks against my credibility in saying anything about this subject. I would ask that you merely try to keep me honest by showing where I might be building a “man of straw” in summarizing Rand’s perspectives, or showing where the ideas I consider here are more defensible than I give them credit for.
So anyway, the lady who reinvented herself as Ayn Rand, wherever she got that name from, was actually born as Alisa Rosenbaum, the eldest daughter of a gentrified Russian Jewish family in St. Petersburg in the twilight of the Tsarist times. This apparently made her rather conflicted and escapist from the start. Her family had little in common with the Jews of Anatevka, but they were no friends of the Tsarists either. Her family was disrespected for their ethnicity, but they were still upper middle class and rising. During the upheavals of 1917, as Alisa was hitting puberty, the Rosenbaum family took refuge in among the Tatar Muslims loyal to the White Army in Crimea. That didn’t help much though; once Lenin was thoroughly in power the Rosenbaums lost everything. From this time forward little Alisa developed a serious hatred towards religion, towards collectivism and towards what she saw as the mediocrity around her. These hatreds went on to define her life in every relevant sense.
Alisa graduated from high school in Crimea before her family moved from their temporary refuge on the Black Sea back to their former family stronghold on the Baltic. Back in the town of her birth Alisa became part of the first cohort of girls to ever get a state university education in Russia –– one of the few advantages the Soviet system afforded them. To say she was ungrateful for this opportunity would be a colossal understatement. During these years, like many socially awkward and reactionary teenagers since, she was particularly drawn to the writings of Nietzsche. She also started to build Hollywood fantasy pictures of the United States in her mind.
As soon as she finished her basic 3-year degree, after some delay in getting the papers due to her bourgeois background, she started studying film and theatre. While doing so she started playing with the idea of renaming herself and creating a more thoroughly self-determined personal identity. A year into her film and theatre studies she managed to get permission from the Soviet authorities to visit her Chicago Jewish relatives and to briefly check out the American drama scene first hand. To say that she never looked back would be a colossal falsehood, but she certainly never remotely considered voluntarily returning to the land of her birth. This made her one of the very first Soviet “defectors” to the United States.
Quite soon after her defection Alisa Rosenbaum officially became Ayn Rand. A bizarre fluke of history reinforced her fantasy identity: Standing on a Hollywood street corner, looking like a cross between Betty Boop and Hillary Swank, this bombastic little Russian girl happened to catch the eye of the biggest of the big Hollywood producers as he happened to drive by –– Cecil B. DeMille. As it happened, DeMille’s mother was of Jewish descent (Freudian dynamics, anyone?), and he was just then in the middle of filming King of Kings, a grand costume drama about the life of Jesus, trying to depict the sufferings of the Jews of that period as sympathetically as possible. So he was actively looking for new attractive and still tragically Jewish looking extras for the project. This girl struck him as perfect for such a background role.
The problem was she didn’t quite see herself that way. She saw herself as a great writer who could provide DeMille with important new material. DeMille treated her with more respect than the average film mogul would show to a pretty young girl lost in a fantasy, but try as he might, he couldn’t really take any of the script ideas she sent him seriously. But that really didn’t make any difference. She had her foot in the door in Hollywood, and through her bombastic style she managed to make enough friends there to have steady work as a costume assistant at least, and to find a husband who was willing to financially support her in the years to come. From there she went to work in earnest on developing her self-made identity as a writer.
Her first theater piece, Night of January 16th, wasn’t any great hit, but is was original enough in style to capture enough of the public imagination to turn a small profit on Broadway; but neither Rand nor the producers were especially happy with the compromises they had reached in terms of her hopes of the show serving as a vehicle to preach her new gospel of the glories of individualism. Her first novel, a semi-autobiographical work called We the Living, managed to catch one of the early waves of pre-Cold War hatred towards Communism that were starting to take shape. But from there one particular problem came to dominate her writing: her inability to “play well with others” became the basis of a radical campaign to justify herself and selfishness in general.
Her first major novel, The Fountainhead, was based on the assumption that creative integrity can never happen through collaboration with others, or based on sensitivity to the needs of others. That assumption is just blatantly false. But her magnum opas, Atlas Shrugged, is based on an even more blatantly false premise: that empathy is a roadblock to technical progress and that the route to an ideal society –– a technocratic utopia –– was by way of pure, unregulated selfishness. From there Rand’s fictional output dried up, and she proceeded to spend the rest of her life writing various types of non-fiction to try to justify the attitudes of her sociopathic fictional heroes, Howard Roark and John Galt –– who as imaginary friends became her closest philosophical allies.
Rather than going through the follies of her fiction in more detail than that, perhaps it is best to move on to the essence of Rand’s “philosophy” in her non-fiction. To modify a quote from an Australian cynic in an entirely different field, Rand’s ideas were both original and philosophically viable, but those ideas that were philosophically viable were not original, and those ideas that were original were not philosophically viable. Let’s look at her own 4-point perspective to see how this might be so.
“Reality exists as an objective absolute—facts are facts, independent of man’s feelings, wishes, hopes or fears.”
The common philosophical designation for the sort of view espoused by Rand here “naïve materialism”: a foundational assumption that the material world as we know it –– atoms and molecules and the dances we’ve been told that they do –– is the basis for all other forms of reality. This is one viable way of looking at the nature of life, the universe and everything, but certainly not the only one. Nor was Rand the most eloquent and consistent spokesperson for such a viewpoint. In fact her reductionism in considering such matters is rather problematic. In particular she never really understood the basic argument presented in Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason: that the ultimate nature of “things in themselves” (noumena) is really unknowable for human minds; we can only know how things appear to us through our senses (phenomena). In other words Rand made no categorical distinction between the way she saw the world, and the way things really are. She assumed that those who saw the world differently than she did were living according to their “feelings, wishes, hopes and/or fears”, but if they could take her word on such matters they could be delivered from such deceptions. The possibility that she was projecting her own feelings, hopes, wishes and fears onto her disciples was never something she took particularly seriously.
Rand tried to defend her materialistic perspective by way of axioms –– statements which were not necessarily provable, but which need to be accepted as a basis for any argument, including arguments attempting to refute them. This in effect amounts to what Wittgenstein calls a “language game”: you can’t provide any argument that proves the existence of something beyond language without using language to do so. Thus it can be postulated that language is the ultimate reality of the universe, and by Rand’s definition this would be the ultimate axiom. All her other axioms effectively come back to this one. From there she goes on to blur the distinction between the linguistic representation and the ontological existence of particular objects, and of existence in general.
The problem there is that language is also the ultimate embodiment of a particular culture’s feelings, wishes, hopes and fears; and to the extent that concepts are translatable between languages, that only shows that the cultures that produced those languages hold particular feelings, wishes, hopes and fears in common. Thus Rand’s concept of “objective reality” is ultimately self-defeating.
“Reason (the faculty which identifies and integrates the material provided by man’s senses) is man’s only means of perceiving reality, his only source of knowledge, his only guide to action, and his basic means of survival.”
To the extent to which there is any legitimacy to that statement it is a rephrasing of Kant’s concept of the synthetic a priori: We take information given to us by our senses, make sense out of it through a process of mental codification, and then we build a set of functional rules for confronting our environment with on that basis.
But the problem here is that Rand slips into prioritizing yet another language game: “The fundamental concept […] on which all the others depend, is logic. The distinguishing characteristic of logic (the art of non-contradictory identification) indicates the nature of the actions (actions of consciousness required to achieve a correct identification) and their goal (knowledge)—while omitting the length, complexity or specific steps of the process of logical inference, as well as the nature of the particular cognitive problem involved in any given instance of using logic.” In other words, if you can put together a set of definitions that don’t prove themselves wrong, you’re being logical about things.
On the surface of it this would seem to be a matter of prioritizing the coherence theory of knowledge, according to which Rand’s hopes and dreams could be seen as having even footing with Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Marxism, Spiritism, etc., so long as things within the system are categorized in a relatively coherent fashion, and so long as its followers could live up to their professed ideals. In practice, however, this was not the case –– logical legitimacy among Objectivists is also based largely on correspondence with Rand’s particular concepts of the nature of reality. Competing theories and patterns of categorization were condemned by Rand as too emotional or mystical. Given that she was looking at the world through lenses of a Hollywood based level of realism, a fog of amphetamine addiction and world class megalomania, her assertions that her individualized senses and basic mental processes set the standard for objective reality become all the more absurd.
The problems with Rand’s theories thus far are relatively trivial and theoretical though. Practical problems and serious damage potential goes with what follows here.
“Man—every man—is an end in himself, not the means to the ends of others. He must exist for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself. The pursuit of his own rational self-interest and of his own happiness is the highest moral purpose of his life.”
To the extent that there is a legitimate philosophical point to this quote it lies in the strong echo of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics –– in the concept of personal happiness as an end unto itself and the goal of self-interest realized in a balanced and rational way. Aristotle was also big on the pursuit of personal excellence, which Rand was particularly keen on as well.
The starting problem here is that people are notoriously bad at predicting what will actually make them happy, and they are particularly prone to self-destructive behavior when they set no greater goal for themselves than personal happiness. Perhaps paradoxically, the thing that best increases our personal sense of happiness is a deep sense of connection with others, involving such anti-objectivist elements as gratitude, compassion, empathy and altruism. The more of these you have, the happier you tend to be as a person.
To the extent that Rand herself escaped from misery and depression in life it occurred when she had a sense of connection with other people, but she wasn’t smart enough to see this as the cause. She thought her happiness was coming from the rational success of her individualistic ideals. If she would have seen the true source of what happiness she did experience it actually would have destroyed her theories on the matter. She would have had to admit that a radically self-sufficient and socially aloof character like her Howard Roark is rife with psychological impossibility –– and to the extent that Frank Lloyd Wright, her historical model for this character, experienced happiness in life, he too found it by way of social connection with his clients, co-workers, apprentices, family and other admirers; with his work being merely a means of bringing this about.
A slightly more nuanced explanation of Rand’s view on ethics explores the idea that the preservation of one’s own life, acting in an entirely volitional manner, is key to anything worthy of being called “values.” There is some truth to this: as Kant pointed out as part of his categorical imperative concept centuries earlier, some level of volition is a necessary element of anything worthy of being called ethics, and this is a capacity only known to exist among living creatures. (Whether a storm system really “decides” to destroy a coastal city or not is something we aren’t really equipped to determine, but for now let’s provisionally agree that it isn’t so.) It does not, however, follow from there that sociopathic selfishness is the best means of preserving life or exercising volition. In fact choosing to love others and align our interests with theirs is in all likelihood a more reliable and fruitful exercise in both regards. As psychiatrist and neuroscience researcher George Vaillant points out, “Mammalian evolution has hard-wired the brain for spiritual experience, and the most dramatic spiritual experience is joy. Developmentally, the child’s smile, the kitten’s purr, and the puppy’s wagging tail emerge at the same time. These social responses are elicited by, and in turn elicit, positive emotion.” Negative emotions, like aggression and fear, are as developed in lower animals as in humans. But “the limbic system differentiates mammals from reptiles, and contains most of what we know of positive emotions and spirituality. Negative emotions help us to survive individually; positive emotions help the community to survive. […] Joy is connection.”
This leaves us with one more primary area of Objectivist thought –– the most dangerous one.
“The ideal political-economic system is laissez-faire capitalism. It is a system where men deal with one another, […] as traders, by free, voluntary exchange to mutual benefit. It is a system where no man may obtain any values from others by resorting to physical force, and no man may initiate the use of physical force against others. The government acts only as a policeman that protects man’s rights; it uses physical force only in retaliation and only against those who initiate its use, such as criminals or foreign invaders. In a system of full capitalism, there should be […] a complete separation of state and economics, in the same way and for the same reasons as the separation of state and church.”
This aspect of Rand’s ideology is based largely on her mistaken understanding of the essence of human happiness as part of ethics, leading to a distorted minimalist perspective on the rights of human beings as such.
Rand actually wasn’t particularly consistent in her views regarding the prohibition on violence. She was fully in favor of the cowboys violently stomping out the Indians and Israelis violently stomping out Palestinians so long as some abstract concept of “civilization” and “advancement” was being promoted in these cases. What she really wanted was for self-aggrandizing sociopaths to be able to hold onto all that they had gained, regardless of the means by which they gained it –– not allowing for the re-appropriation of these resources for any purpose of serving “the public good”.
But let’s accept her theory here at her word. Consistently applied, is the principle of state non-participation in economic matters and its role being limited to the protection of private property and prevention of violent crime practically viable? In short, no. Besides the fact that there is no moral reason why the personal interests of the rich should be prioritized over the personal interests of the poor, there are many forms of human dignity and personal freedom that governments should be protecting for all. These would include freedom from enslavement in any form, the right to choose what form of labor one chooses to sell without the duress of one’s children’s lives being threatened if one does not submit to those who have hoarded all the available resources, the right of all children to have access to the sort of education that would enable them to contribute to society, and the right to believe differently from others without being attacked and persecuted for it. To protect these freedoms the government needs to play some sort of role in regulating the economy; in acquiring the means to protect the lives of children and to insure that every child is given a fair opportunity to achieve greatness, regardless of their parents’ limited resources.
The basic premise of Atlas Shrugged is that there are those who contribute more than anyone else to the advancement of civilization –– who figuratively carry the world upon their shoulders –– and they are entitled to all of the rewards they are able to acquire for themselves. When society tries to demand that they share these rewards with those they consider to be their inferiors, they have the possibility of just dropping the world from their shoulders and letting the system go to hell without them. This sort of risk/threat is unrealistic in all sorts of ways. First of all the possibility to rise up as a “self-made man” requires a social context in which what you have to offer is of use to those who might trade for it. Without a capacity to contribute to the happiness of others, and without an empathetic understanding of how the happiness of others is constructed, these “Atlases” really have nothing of value to offer to anyone else, and their fantasy of carrying the world on their shoulders is just that –– a fantasy. Their sense of entitlement is entirely in vain.
Beyond that, the human and material resources they take for granted in the process of realizing their grand schemes really cannot be taken for granted. There is no reason why they should have any access to such things unless they are genuinely providing benefit to all, and this mutual benefit needs to be structurally insured as a precondition for their empire building projects to be accepted as permissible. If they are not able to attain such permission from legitimate representatives of those with whom their businesses must interact, these “Atlases” –– better known as robber barons –– have been known to proceed by means of violent takeover of the resources they require. Governments actually have a legitimate role to play in preventing that sort of violence from being exercised.
Those who are actually capable of “playing well with others” and realizing their dreams through the joy of social interaction don’t need to hoard resources and ignore the needs of others to be happy in life. On the contrary, they genuinely find fulfillment in contributing to the well-being of others, and doing so is far more important to them than individual monument building. That doesn’t stop some from compensating for what they are lacking in terms of interactive ability (including, but not limited to, sexual capacity) through a process of individual monument building, but that does not justify such a practice as a basis for societal reward structures. Governments should have higher priorities than defending these monumental manifestations of insecurity.
There is one limited sense in which I agree with the defense of Howard Roark that Rand wrote into The Fountainhead: the process of social evolution requires that certain individuals will be (correctly) seen in their own time as “freaks” or “mutants,” and broadly rejected as such before the advantage of the mutation they represent becomes evident. Thus broad social acceptance cannot be the basis for determining what is ultimately of value, nor can conformity with tradition, else progress could never happen. Freaks need to be allowed to stand on their own merits. Geniuses need to be given some space to experiment, even if no one else “gets it” for a long time afterwards.
But there’s a balance to all this: in evolutionary terms mutation is not an end unto itself. Just because someone doesn’t fit in doesn’t make them inherently virtuous or valuable. Most mutants just die off childless and are forgotten by the rest of society other than as objects of morbid curiosity. If they have some unique value it must ultimately be measured by the extent to which they make society stronger and safer for their own offspring and others they are capable of caring about. If they lack such a capacity for caring it is hard to say how much pity should be accorded to them.
Ayn Rand was definitely a freak of sorts. Her thought processes carried some of the mutations that came into the western intellectual genome through the works of such diverse thinkers as Machiavelli, Hume, Comte, Spencer, Nietzsche and Huxley; but into this she added her own freakish belief in the virtue of radical selfishness. While she never succeeded in passing on her physical genetic code, Rand did succeed in passing on these intellectual mutations to future generations, through the likes of the infamous banker Alan Greenspan, Justice Clarence Thomas, rock star Neil Peart, talk radio phenomenon Rush Limbaugh, former presidential candidate Ron Paul, his more right wing son Rand (!) Paul, Senator Ron Johnson and, most disturbingly, current vice-presidential candidate Paul Ryan. Time will tell whether this mutation will eventually die out before completely destroying American society, which is in dire need of solidarity rather than more justifications for selfishness. Let’s hope…