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What's wrong with Rand: Objection to Objectivism

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Ayn Rand

She's a hot commodity. Terrance Corcoran's headlines in the Financial Post's read "Ayn Rand -- still the most dangerous woman in America." A full-page feature in the Globe and Mail by John Barber entitled "Today's ideological battle? She built that" is an exploration of "how the spectre of Ayn Rand's fiction haunted the US Republican and Democratic conventions." The Wall Street Journal recently reported on the second installment of the Atlas Shrugged film trilogy based on Rand's magnum opus. It will open in 630 cinemas across the United States on October 12, 2012. Salon magazine features an expose of Mitt Romney's "Inner Ayn Rand." St. Martin's Press has just published Gary Weiss' newest book, Ayn Rand Nation: The Struggle for America's Soul which argues that Rand's school of "Objectivism" has steeped into the Tea Party movement in the United States. And that's only a few of the 9,750 published references in the past month alone. Nor bad for someone who's been dead 30 years.

In addition to US Vice-presidelululemon - Who is John Galt?ntial candidate Paul Ryan, an avid devotee, Rand's disciples have included movers and shakers like Alan Greenspan, for decades the head of the US Federal Reserve. In Canada, Rand also has prominent acolytes including Alberta's Wildrose Party leader Danielle Smith and lululemon founder, Chip Wilson who placed the opening line of Atlas Shrugged -- "Who is John Galt?" -- on lululemon shopping bags as a tribute to the book. Rona Ambrose, Canada's Minister of Public Works and Government Services, is a devoted fan. 

Rand, who rose to prominence through a series of fictional works [We the Living (1936), Anthem (1938), The Fountainhead (1943), and Atlas Shrugged (1957)] is almost invariably either revered or reviled. She spent the latter years of her life crafting her "Objectivist" school of philosophy, but was famously contemptuous of philosophy itself. She once remarked that in the history of philosophy she could only recommend "three A's"-- Aristotle, Aquinas, and Ayn Rand, and her writing illustrates her spare knowledge of the discipline. She discarded an early interest in Nietzsche, disliked Plato, and misunderstood Kant. Hostile to libertarianism in life, her writings and philosophy have become the ideological bulwark of contemporary American libertarianism. David Nolan, one of the founders of Libertarian Party, claimed, "without Ayn Rand, the libertarian movement would not exist."

The Object of Objectivism

Rand's work is frequently cast as the ideological basis for hyper free-market capitalism, and indeed it is explicitly so. At its core is the notion of "rational self-interest", the cogito ergo sum of Rand's philosophy. Rand described Objectivism as being "the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute." This is the shining ideal at the heart of her Utopian vision and everything that fails to fall explicitly within this framework, is emphatically cast aside.

Rand begins with 'self' and builds a metaphysical, ethical, epistemological, and political edifice built upon this petrean rock. Thus, in highly simplified form, everything that serves the self is correct, moral, ethical, consistent, and to be encouraged: egoism above all else. But it must be rational self-interest. She revered the foundations of logic as propounded by Aristotle (hence the titles of the three parts of Atlas Shrugged -- Non-contradiction, Either Or, A is A -- a great distillation and achievement of classical Greek thought). And the sequential application of these ideas to a wide variety of subjects formed the basis of Objectivism. Rand's bête noir was altruism, in other words anything done for any reasons other than serving the self.

Rand's philosophy has more subtlety than the simple caricature of her work as unadulterated reverence of selfishness. Thus, considerable ethical and political depth is achieved by realizing that short term and/or narrowly defined selfishness (i.e., simple greed) is irrational. Why? Because the longer-term or wider consequences of it will ultimately undercut immediate gains. Thus, Rand might argue that rational self-interest would prompt an industrialist to pay fair wages to workers rather than rapaciously exploit them because following the latter course would inevitably lead to labour strife, strikes, and industrial sabotage whose costs would exceed the short term gains of the former. Thus, a course of rational self-interest indicates various accommodations to labour, not for any altruistic purpose, but simply to maximize gain over the long term. Similarly, an argument can be developed in Randian terms that rational industrialists will, for purposes of self-interest, develop environmental policies, since ignoring the impacts of pollution and climate change will inevitably be more costly then addressing them. And so it can go: a careful cost-benefit analysis of a plethora of social, environmental, economic, and other issues can lead to a balanced set of policies based not on any philanthropic principles or motives, simply the principle of rational self-interest.

A = Ayn

Ayn Rand was born Alisa Zinovyevna Rosenbaum in 1902 in Saint Petersburg, Russia, the eldest daughter of a successful Jewish pharmacist. Her life, and that of her family, was caught up in the vortex of the Russian revolution, events which dramatically shaped her worldview. Her family was sympathetic to Alexander Kerensky, the moderate socialist prime minister of the provisional Russian government prior to the October Revolution. Her father's pharmacy was confiscated by the Bolsheviks, and the family fled south to the Crimea, then under the control of the White Army under General Denekin. After the Civil War, the Rosenbaum's returned to the re-Christened Petrograd where Alisa enrolled in Petrograd State University, studying history before being purged along with fellow "bourgeois" students. Later re-instated, she was allowed to graduate and began to study cinema before being granted a visa to visit relatives in the United States in 1925.

Rand experienced first-hand the bitter lessons of Bolshevism and the Russian revolution, its poverty, injustice, violence, corruption, and repression. These experiences formed the basis of her first novel, We The Living (1936) which Rand said "is as near to an autobiography as I will ever write. It is not an autobiography in the literal, but only in the intellectual sense. The plot is invented, the background is not." It is a bleak and dystopic novel of characters struggling in the desperate circumstances of Soviet Russia in the 1920s in a morally, ideologically, and politically corrupted landscape.

John Barber observed that "Rand developed an anti-communist ideology comprehensively contrary to the original it virtually matched: a precise replica turned upside-down." Indeed, it would appear at first glance that Rand's painful immersion in the Russian trial by revolutionary fire created the perfect chemical reaction to transmute every Marxist tenant and Bolshevik experience into their exact opposite, a photographic positive of every communist negative. But the process actually went much further, a meeting of extreme left- and right-wing opposites that in at least some respects became indistinguishable.

Both Marxism and Objectivism are strictly materialistic and searingly anti-religious. Such convergences were first noted by Whittaker Chambers, the one-time Russian spy, then assiduous anti-communist, who wrote a review of Atlas Shrugged: "Nor has the author, apparently, brooded on the degree to which, in a wicked world, a materialism of the Right and a materialism of the Left, first surprisingly resemble, then in action tend to blend each with each …. The embarrassing similarities between Hitler's National Socialism and Stalin's brand of Communism are familiar." Both Marxism and Objectivism share the same simplistic bipolar black/white, good/evil category sets "without any of those intermediate shades which, in life, complicate reality" wrote Chambers in "Big Sister is Watching." The iconography of both is almost indistinguishable. Rand's noble workers are dead ringers for Soviet Stakhanovites, mining inconceivable quantities of coal during their subterranean shifts, elevating the poetry of labour to consecrated verse.

Indeed, the similarity is more than accidental. Both Rand and Vladimir Illich Lenin [Did they ever meet on a St. Petersburg's street? A self-made Russian revolutionary and a self-seeking Jewish schoolgirl?] were cut from very similar cloth. Bitingly intelligent, intensely ambitious, occasionally visionary, sporadically brilliant, excellent orators, personally magnetic, utopian, intense, obsessed and obsessive, monomaniacal in their zeal, intolerant of opposition, blind to perspectives outside their purview, convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt of the correctness of their positions, and steeped in the intense dialectics of the Russian intelligentsia -- they probably would have loathed one another for their similarity. It's a remarkable irony that much the same historical milieu and circumstances fashioned both Lenin and Rand, whose similarities are manifest while their political legacies lie at opposite ends of the ostensible ideological spectrum.

Achilles' heel: Atlas Stumbles

Atlas ShruggedIt's a seductive vision. Utopian in the extreme. Working from a small set of axioms one can build an articulated vision of society which celebrates excellence, hard work, thrift, industriousness, genius, achievement -- all based on the simple unqualified embrace of rational self-interest. As such, it appeals to those who seek simple solutions based on unblemished, shining ideals. Gone are the myriad, messy dialectical collisions of a diverse and balanced society. These can all be swept away and replaced with a simple credo. Indeed, the underlying weaknesses of Objectivism should be starting to become apparent to anyone not mired in linear thinking.

Rand presents a noble vision of an enlightened philosopher-king industrialist, and while Warren Buffets and Bill Gates do exist, the large majority of the "one per cent" are not cut from this cloth. Applying the metaphysical, ethical, and epistemological framework conceived by Rand to a business model and working out its specific repercussions resembles writing a doctoral thesis in philosophy rather than an industrial business plan -- and it requires will and acumen to undertake such a task. Moreover, the Achilles' heel of such approaches (believing that rational, ethical thinking of whatever complexion will be perceived as the optimal philosophical approach) is that while business cycles of profit and loss are typically imagined and projected over the span of annual quarters or years, the repercussions of these activities frequently come home to roost over spans of decades, or centuries. For example, there's no doubt that pollution and climate change effect the bottom line, but it may take a long time for this negative impact to be felt. So in the meantime, enterprises merrily pollute away.

The tragedy of the commons (i.e., over-exploitation of common resources) also illustrates how the narrow confines of self-interest -- even rational self-interest -- will take us all to hell in a hand basket. In a situation of competition for a shared resource, it's not in anyone's short-term interest to throttle back on their own exploitation.

Furthermore, Rand's admiration for capitalism was envisioned entirely through the lens of the heroic industrialist. While such figures still exist, the main propulsive vehicles of capitalism in the 21st century are corporations. The problem in trying to apply the ethical and political principles of rational self-interest to the conduct of corporations is that corporations are not sentient beings: they have no soul, and on an ethical level they know no "fear" because they are not mortal and do not face death. For instance, a business decision that might have a 50 per cent probability of generating a spectacular windfall profit, but a 10 per cent probability of abject annihilation (for instance, a nightmare environmental disaster) presents excellent odds for a corporation that doesn't fear "death" as such, whereas a person facing a one in ten chance of self-termination might well be motivated to act quite differently.

Moreover, Rand's moral and political grid has a gigantic void at its heart called "public welfare." In this sense it might be understood as the antithesis of social democracy. Rand's vision of economics would have us turn the entire planet over to capitalist princelings as their playground. Some might use the opportunity wisely and become spectacular successes. Others might crash and burn just as spectacularly, bringing down whole nations or ecosystems with them. From the perspective of Rand's ethical framework, this is simply the cost of doing business. Too bad for them. Thumb's down, they fail. The collateral damage of, for example, runaway climate change on the environment and billions of people on the planet, doesn't enter into such calculations.

These are all fatal flaws of Objectivism, an attempt to build an all-embracing worldview anchored with foundations too shallow to support the complexity of the real world. While Darwinian competition, the survival of the fittest, and the individual focus of passing on one's genes, are undoubted features of the world, there is also ample biological, anthropological, and sociological evidence of commensal, symbiotic, altruistic, benevolent, philanthropic, and empathetic social, human, and natural relations, which play major roles in structuring these domains. As aesthetically pleasing as it might be to strip down the world to a handful of Euclidian axioms and build a metaphysics, ethics, and economics on this basis, it simply doesn't accord with reality. Not everything can be understood on the basis of rational self-interest (or its absence, as exemplified by the "looters" of Rand's fiction). Rand's black and white palette -- like Lenin's -- is too spare to paint a dimensional and vibrant world and its denizens.


John Rogers' 2009 blog post about Ayn Rand has been widely circulated: "There are two novels that can change a bookish 14-year-old’s life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs."

It's an extreme simplification, but like all good humour, it works because it carries within it more than a modicum of truth.

Christopher Majka is an ecologist, environmentalist, policy analyst, and writer. He is the director of Natural History Resources and Democracy: Vox Populi.

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