Category Archives: objectivism

Ayn Rand: Atlas Shrugged

wp-1490101934134.jpeg

Who is John Galt?

This is the mystery at the center of Ayn Rand’s 1957 brilliant, controversial but flawed magnum opus, Atlas Shrugged.  Since Rand and her work remain deeply polarizing, I hope those of you who have already made up your minds about Rand will persevere with this post and hear me out.  Especially those of you who haven’t read her work, but have formulated opinions based solely on the actions or words of individuals who champion her work or hit pieces from the progressive media.

Despite the seemingly ceaseless parade of straw men from the writers at Salon, AlterNet and every other cesspool of progressive dross who attempt to prove otherwise, Atlas Shrugged is prophetic and radical on every level. It is perhaps more radical and relevant now than it was in its day, but mostly, because she’s asking the reader to empathize with heroes who are generally regarded as objects of revulsion and contempt. Individuals who, according to broad swaths of the population, need to be regulated, taxed, supervised and preferably, jailed. Individuals who, according to prevailing modern progressive mindset, are despoiling the earth, exploiting the worker and hoarding the wealth of the world.  These heroes are, of course, industrial magnates.

Atlas Shrugged is set in post-WW2 America, but it’s an America that never existed. It’s a mythological, dieselpunk retro-futuristic dystopian America. In this respect, Atlas Shrugged is properly understood as a work of dystopian science fiction. It is essentially a story of two industry leaders who are driven by a deep sense of purpose, but are thwarted by political apparatchiks, bureaucrats and would-be do-gooders whose greed, envy and narcissism are wrapped in pretensions of altruism of every stripe. As they proceed, other producers are mysteriously dropping out of society, and our heroes set out to unravel the mystery while the slow stranglehold of bureaucracy chokes progress all around them. Needless to say, it’s also an extended philosophical treatise on Objectivism which spells out Rand’s views on morality, ethics, the role of the State, and the rights of the individual. Rand does not suffer a shortage of critics of her writing or her worldview, and to be honest, a few of these criticisms have merit, but none detract from the towering achievement of this novel.

Rand’s first radical choice was making the heroes of the story captains of heavy industry. Though there are doubtless examples of railway and metallurgical innovation to be found, viewing the steel manufacturing and railway industry as dynamic fields of innovation was itself a leap of imagination. As the novel begins, Rand sets up an industry not yet completely captured by labor and regulation. She tacitly asks you to dispel the idea of the cartelized half-public/half-private industry that presently exists in America. As Amtrak proves itself a compost heap of mediocrity and inertia in the real world, Rand asks the reader to imagine steel and railways through the eyes of an Elon Musk-type mindset and builds the drama around the slowly accumulating regulatory death spiral.

As the title suggests, she also made these heroes movers of the world; titans of business which undergird modern society, and without which modern society could not function. Since the very notion of “capitalism” is presently so deeply tied to banking, high finance or software development, Rand grounds the novel with characters who make physical objects and must themselves literally move the earth in order to realize their plans.

This is an Ayn Rand novel, so naturally, our heroes are beset by the forces of collectivism and state authority at every turn. Just as she did in The Fountainhead, Rand rolls out her cannons of contempt and fires volley after volley at the ramparts of academic royalism, media pusillanimity and government bureaucracy. The regulatory state, economic planning, academic postmodernism, and state sponsored science are among her many targets. She reserves much of her heavy artillery for the statist orthodoxy of scientism and its attendant effects on social activism in order to illustrate the pernicious influence it breeds in academics, labor unions, lobbyists and social justice warriors.

Atlas Shrugged is an epic novel with a host of characters and subplots, but the main storyline centers around two characters: railroad heiress Dagny Taggart and steel magnate Hank Rearden. The heroes are eventually united with the mysterious John Galt and all of the dissident producers who dropped out of society to join the productive utopia of Galt’s Gulch.

Hank Rearden is the steel industrialist and a classically Randian heroic archetype. When we are introduced to Rearden, he is portrayed as an elemental force; a portrait of grim stolidity whose iron will was forged in the same molten furnace that makes the steel beams he sells. In a subsequent scene, we’re introduced to his family and close associates. As each character is introduced, Rand is showing how each preys on Rearden’s spirit and goodwill in different ways and is laying out the themes and dramatic conflicts that will unfold throughout the remainder of the book.

I found Rand’s portrait of Rearden family life incisive and resonant. Rand shows how Hank feels like a stranger within his own family while exposing the how family members use guilt to extract obedience. Rearden’s mother criticizes him for being too consumed by his business and wishes he’d show more humility, but he’s annoyed that she seems unwilling to recognize how much he loves his work and the dedication he brings to it.  His wife wants a rich social life and wants him to be as interested as she is in the appearances of success. She affects a posture of progressive virtue and enlightened cosmopolitanism, but he simply can’t be bothered. His brother Philip is also a progressive and what would be referred to in today’s parlance as a social justice warrior. He’s annoying, predatory, miserable and ungrateful.  Even when Hank gives him exactly what he asks for and wishes him happiness, he remains an ungrateful cunt. All of the manipulations and machinations which surface in Hank’s family dynamic are a microcosm of the the phenomena each hero experiences as the novel progresses.

Though I understand why feminists in general are put off by Rand, I still can’t help but to find it deeply ironic. Dagny Taggart is the female badass that feminists seem to revere and she’s infinitely more believable than Katniss EverdeenImperator Furiosa or any of the many ass kicking would-be archetypes that are de rigueur nowadays. Rand made an extremely radical choice by making Dagny a railroad magnate. The feminist power fantasy heroine that’s commonplace nowadays emphasizes physical strength wildly disproportionate to body size, combat capabilities obtained without training, superhuman scientific expertise or all three (looking at you Rey). By contrast, Dagny Taggart has the courage of her convictions and willpower. She climbs through the ranks of Taggart Transcontinental on pure ambition, skill and work. She doesn’t rely on affirmative action, global feminist PR campaigns, sexual favors, nepotism or any other form of special pleading. Not only does Dagny face down the sexist attitudes that surround her with work and results, the attitudes Rand invokes feel appropriate for the time period and the industry. Unsurprisingly, contemporary feminists seem intent on promoting the idea that 50’s era attitudes are not only normal, but more widespread than ever. While this does seem to be the case for progressive politicians and celebrities, feminists continue to crusade against words and the slightest perceived transgression against womanhood. Rand gives us a heroine who seeks only to be judged by her skills and her achievement.  If only feminists would pay attention.

Through Dagny Taggart, Rand presents a refreshingly adult view of female sexuality and consent which stands in stark contrast to the neo-Victorian victimology of contemporary feminism. Rand knows that when a woman wants sex from a man, it’s not necessary for him to ask for consent at each juncture. An adult woman doesn’t demand that a man she truly wants comply with a set of consent rules imposed by government bureaucrats, feminist activists and academic elitists. Contrary to the contemporary feminists who shamelessly flog rape statistics as a psychological truncheon in order to extract compliance, shame and obedience from men, Rand emphasizes the pleasure Dagny gets from sex. Rand gives us an adult woman with full sexual agency uninhibited by religious or secular Puritanism. Feminists, on the other hand, seem intent on presenting themselves as hapless victims of a predatory patriarchy. It’s strange that feminists are the ones squashing the idea that women actively seek sexual congress and companionship while ignoring that women are always the gatekeepers of sex in a normal, healthy relationship.

Contemporary feminists also insist on rehashing the seemingly deathless talking point of an alleged stigma that’s applied towards women who have active sex lives. Rand gives us a character who simply has no fucks to give around what anyone has to say about her sex life.  On a related note, Rand is also remarkably dismissive of monogamy. She sees no moral transgression in the extramarital liaison between Dagny and Hank. It is an aspect of her worldview that sets her apart from traditional conservatives and on which the libertine wing of the Left has been strangely silent. There is more than a faint air of wish fulfillment to Dagny’s amorous associations throughout the book. Is Ayn Rand injecting her own fantasies into the novel by making Dagny the savior of civilization who gets to bang the three most powerful industrialists in the world? It’s not an unreasonable guess.

I suspect that there a couple things about Rand that really get feminist panties in a twist. First, is that she portrays feminine bliss and joy as full submission to a man. For all of Dagny’s strength and independence, Rand is pretty explicit about her willingness to submit completely to Rearden and Galt. Secondly, she’s unafraid to portray female predation, vindictiveness and pathology. Rand is unsparing in portraying Lillian Rearden as vampiric and toxic influence on Hank. That kind of emotional honesty certainly doesn’t square with a worldview which casts feminists as saints who are exempt from any kind of moral judgment.

Repeating a theme of The Fountainhead, but taking it to a whole new level, Rand sharpens her critique of academic postmodernism and the elitism and nihilism it breeds. Of the many themes in Atlas Shrugged which have only accumulated in strength and relevance, this one is certainly near the top. Behind the scenes of today’s social justice activism is a years long indoctrination campaign which prioritizes social pseudoscience, cultural Marxism, nihilism and self-negation over principles of individualism, productive work, and liberty. These forces conspire to derail the heroes and infect the thought of thought of everyone who surrounds them.

Upon completion of the John Galt Line, Jim Taggart is completely unable to take pride in the achievement. Wallowing in his pointless and narcissistic self-flagellation, he befriends a young cashier and future wife, Cherryl Brooks, for the exclusive purpose of flailing at the void and whinging over the great emptiness of it all. She indulges his pretentious blathering and condescending attitude with aplomb and grace, but it’s a foreshadowing of pitfalls to come. We discover later that Cherryl tries to remain self-possessed as Jim’s megalomania increases, but meets a tragic end.

Rand correctly attributes a religious proselytizing quality to postmodernism and hints at the spiritual role that has been assigned to it in the wake of America’s increased secularism. In his insufferable soliloquy to the infinite futility of life, Jim Taggart appeals to the “higher values” which are apparently inaccessible in the pursuit of economic gain, but can be understood by studying the solipsistic wanks of Dr. Pritchett’s hilariously and appropriately titled bit of pompous dreck, The Metaphysical Contradictions of the Universe. One needs only to spend a little time perusing the New Peer Review account on Twitter to find ample evidence that Rand’s aim was true with respect to the navel gazing pointlessness of the entire spectrum of postmodern academic studies.

It’s unlikely that any Left-leaning feminists or gender constructionists are even paying attention, but Rand even engages in some gender swapping that’s all the rage with the Tumblristas these days. The main difference is that Rand doesn’t deny biological sex differences nor does she wallow in pomo relativism. She merely acknowledges that there are general qualities found in men and women that are both biological and social norms. The fun is in observing how Rand inverts these expectations. When Jim Taggart finally marries Cherryl Brooks, she approaches Dagny and haughtily reminds her that she’s the “woman of the family now”. That’s okay, Dagny says. “I’m the man”. Boom! Suck on it, Judith Butler.

Rand made it very clear that her fiction was a vehicle for the philosophy of Objectivism. It can be seen as a distinct philosophical worldview with unique epistemological propositions. Specifically, it posits the idea that “existence exists” and all that exists is what can be perceived through sense data. Metaphysical contradictions do not nor cannot exist. There is no a prioristic knowledge about the world nor is there a spiritual reality. It is a secular, materialistic framework which is equally explicit about the objective existence of morality despite Rand’s openly atheistic convictions. What makes this especially interesting is that Rand still chose to frame morality using the language of theistic belief throughout the novel. Rand is unequivocal about the objective existence of the good and evil dichotomy. Dagny Taggart believed, for example, that “the greatest sin on earth” was to do things badly. The Objectivist conception of morality and ethics is somewhat clinical on paper, and it’s not clear how one would arrive at the exact same formulation of objective morality she specifies through a process of pure deductive reasoning. Rand never discusses the origins of morality in Atlas Shrugged nor does she sufficiently explain the existence of good and evil. Given that she is very explicit about where the moral fault lines lay throughout the novel, it seems like a foundational flaw in the overall epistemological framework. If morality itself is a metaphysical abstraction, how can one acquire certain knowledge of the objective existence of morality, let alone moral error, without appealing to some a priori external, metaphysical absolute? Even after listening to lectures from Atlas Society luminaries like David Kelley and Yaron Brook, Objectivist ethics and metaphysics strike me as questionable at best and somewhat daft at worst.

wp-1490102116550.jpeg

In the Randian worldview, there are two very distinct and equally objective conceptions of moral truth. The bureaucrats, planners and looters hold just as steadfastly to their ideas that suffering is virtue just as the producers hold to their ideas of selfishness as virtue. These moral relativists are also claiming that their mandates and proclamations are objectively true. The only difference is that they require the power of the State (i.e. guns) in order to manufacture consensus. The best you can say about Randian morality is that she makes the distinction between the two worldviews very clear and asks you to make a choice. In the realms of ontology, moral psychology and ethical metaphysics, you can’t argue that there is objective error unless the behavior is being measured against some kind of metaphysical archetype or absolute. Nor am I convinced that morality is some emergent property of material reality or that the mere act of reasoning is inherently moral. Once you introduce these subjects, you have already departed from material reality. One wonders if perhaps the theists have a point when they say that atheists have generally failed to find a secular moral framework which doesn’t devolve into relativism, utilitarianism or cultish groupthink.

Yaron Brook in particular claims Ayn Rand’s ideas to be the apotheosis of enlightenment thought, but if anything, Rand is railing against a secular, enlightenment mindset run amok. The enlightenment consensus also proclaimed reason to be the ultimate engine of virtue and the French Revolution proved that disastrously false. It is the planners and bureaucrats who are able to usurp power by claiming that we live in an “enlightened age” where the altruistic values of being one’s “brother’s keeper” have prevailed. You can practically see the venomous sneer on her face as she as she heaps mounds of contempt on the idea that the mandate of a politician or a bureaucrat is equivalent to a law of nature. Objectivists undoubtedly view their creed as something beyond theistic morality, but it’s awfully difficult to see a dramatic difference between the Objectivist and the theist in the realm of moral truth.

Even more puzzling is that she speaks very openly about the existence of love, spirit and being. As the marriage between Jim Taggart and Cherryl Brooks unravels, Cherryl’s disillusionment comes from misplaced admiration while Jim’s desire for it was rooted in an overindulgence in feelings. Rand draws a clear distinction between Jim Taggart’s vision of feelings based love as an act of empty faith in contrast to Cherryl’s more noble desire for love as a true expression of affection earned through virtuous deeds. Both Cherryl and Rand consider Jim Taggart to be a parasite of the spirit and the produce of individual; someone who wants both unearned emotional and material reward. Rand is presumably making a sound point about the connection between mental health, emotional maturity and moral values, but once again, it’s not at all clear how one can distinguish these ideas as objective truths which emerge from material reality.

Adding to the credibility hurdles in Objectivism is her apparent belief in blank slate construction of selfhood which she shared with her postmodernist, neo-Marxist opponents. Rand seems to hold that people can just detach themselves from the a priori conglomeration of genetic memories, parental imprinting, emotional traumas, psychological conditions, cognitive biases, unconscious being and learned prejudices and view the world through a lens of cold reason and logic. And that’s saying nothing about IQ disparities found throughout the population. It may sound appealing, but it steps over some significant realities of the entire apparatus of the human mind. Developing the mental discipline necessary to think logically about deep philosophical questions requires not only a certain level of scholarly dedication but some willingness to wrestle with one’s own tangle of emotional proclivities and ideological biases. I suspect this may be one of many reasons people have a difficult time buying into Randian heroes. People could buy into Mr. Spock because he was a Vulcan. Accepting human characters with similar attributes may be a bridge too far.

Rand’s opponents have frequently derided Objectivism on the grounds that it is too self-centered and lacks compassion. Atlas Shrugged certainly lends credence to these charges since Objectivism seems to take a dim view of charity. The third act of the novel deals with Dagny’s arrival in Galt’s Gulch, and when Dagny suggests that Midas Mulligan give his automobile to Galt for a short usage, Galt quietly reminds Dagny that “giving” is verboten in this would-be paradise. In Galt’s Gulch, everything is earned. Rand clearly wants to draw a bright moral line around productive labor, but even the most virtuous people need assistance, care for the indigent is a genuine concern, and charity is a virtue that’s both necessary and actively cultivated. Rand is certainly correct in denigrating politicians and apparatchiks who exploit the language of altruism in order to advance political agendas, but her apparent disdain for even voluntary acts of charity seems misplaced.

This stinginess of spirit also extends into other realms of being. When Hank Rearden’s ex-wife, mother, and brother attempt to appeal to his sense of generosity and compassion as his steel mill’s economic pulse begins to seize up, none is forthcoming. They keep hoping that their emotional entreaties will get through to him, but he remains resolute in his refusal to offer even the slightest glimmer of mercy. This is entirely consistent with both Hank’s disposition and the overall framework of thought Rand has laid out, but it is also a deeply constrained and niggardly conception of humanity. Though she borders on making her heroes monochromatic in their Objectivist stoicism, Rearden refuses his family and ex-wife because of their betrayals and parasitism. The impression with which you’re left is that their posture of penitence was disingenuous and manipulative thereby justifying Hank’s cold blooded indifference. Fair enough. But Rand seems hostile to even the possibility of either genuine repentance or forgiveness. Hank is only willing to forgive if his mother encouraged him to quit and disappear. It also beggars belief that Hank didn’t harbor tons of pent up resentment and didn’t want to just vent a little. I could buy into Roark’s spartan emotional life in The Fountainhead, but giving these heroes the exact same attributes smacks of repetition and lacks basic dramatic credibility. This seems to be yet another unnecessarily impoverished Randian archetypal ideal. Even if we take the case that his family were just as duplicitous and spiritually bankrupt as Rand portrays them, sometimes people do genuinely seek absolution from those they’ve wronged. Conversely, granting forgiveness can offer just as much redemption for the person bestowing it as the person who seeks it. And sometimes, you may have to forgive the wrongs others have perpetrated if purely to achieve peace of mind because contrition is certainly not guaranteed. Not only does Objectivism seemingly disallow these possibilities, there is nothing within the framework of logical deduction that would lead anyone to seek or bestow forgiveness. Both require a certain measure of humility, and a purely rational analysis of material sense data is an insufficient epistemological model with which to develop a robust toolkit of human relations.

Objectivism has been described by some of its detractors as an atheist religion. I contend that there is validity to this charge. Objectivism’s big calling card is its claim on secular ethics. Anyone who devotes herself to the development of a set of philosophical principles which are intended to supplant the role that religion has traditionally played will undoubtedly attract a following who treat these ideas with the type of reverence normally reserved for actual religious faith. Rand denigrates and derides religious faith as a superstition which paves the way for the kind of slavish obedience to “higher authority” on which the villains preyed, but simultaneously venerates her heroes’ adherence to a higher metaphysical truth from which they drew their strength and independence. Replacing one set of theistic metaphysics with another set of allegedly secular and materialist metaphysics still constitutes an act of faith. Even as Galt’s life hangs in the balance in the novel’s climax, Wesley Mouch desperately wants him “to believe” in their cause. Like Thomas Paine and Bertrand Russell, she perpetuates a false dichotomy between faith and reason by asserting that the exercise of one faculty necessarily precludes the other. Or that the process of reasoning is somehow divorced from any embedded prerational biases. The human ability to conceptualize and concretize abstract archetypes and metaphysical ideals through language is the very essence of faith. The looters of Atlas Shrugged want to dispel the idea that the individual possesses a sovereign consciousness and that the “enlightened” citizen will abdicate logic and cede the act of thinking to the experts. Rand is essentially asking you to make a leap of faith wrapped in a tautology that’s scarcely different from that of theists. Human consciousness, free will and morality exist because existence exists.

At its core, Objectivism seems an elaborate hymn to the Logos stripped of any references to the divine. I can appreciate that she set out to create a secular philosophical framework which was intended to maximize virtue, but it seems lacking. Objectivism starts from the proposition that reason alone is the engine of virtue, reality is limited to that which can be perceived by the senses, and an objective world exists independent of our perception. Rand was deeply opposed to Immanuel Kant’s contention that both morality and human cognition were filtered through an a priori structure, but on this point, she was wrong and Kant was right. Rand rejects all prerational and a prioristic knowledge, but leans on prerational and a prioristic concepts like Good and Evil. Good and Evil all by themselves are transcendent concepts which exist outside the domain of reason. By disallowing traditional, prerational and hereditary knowledge from the Objectivist framework, the Kantian criticism of pure reason stands. A collection of independent minds processing sense data divorced from any a priori, cultural, or hereditary knowledge will necessarily arrive at different conclusions.

Rand is frequently lumped in with the conservative tradition, but Objectivism all by itself sets her solidly within the tradition of post-Enlightenment rationalism, and by extension, classical liberalism. Rand’s philosophy could be viewed as a distinct branch of thought that descends from the classical liberal tradition set forth by Thomas Paine, John Stuart Mill and Jeremy Bentham. Ironically, her rigid insistence on the primacy of a posteriori empirical data as the only valid source of knowledge also puts her thought in close proximity to the quasi-socialist thought of Auguste Comte. Rand’s unalloyed contempt for the intellectual class and intellectual gnosticism in general is the one, and perhaps only, strand of her worldview which aligns her with the Burkean tradition. Though it doesn’t negate the existence of objective reality, one wonders whether the revelations of quantum mechanics would have prompted doubts in Rand’s mind over the viability of pure materialism.

Rand was militant in her political neutrality and vilified conservatives and libertarians alike. Though she derided them as “hippies of the right”, Rand and Objectivism are currently and rightly identified with the more secular, minarchist wing of the libertarian movement. Despite her vehement condemnation of anarcho-capitalism, Galt’s climactic speech does, in fact, spell out Non-Aggression Principle in very explicit terms. I believe this aligns her thought at least superficially with modern libertarianism.

Whatever may be open to disagreement, there is one act of evil that no man man may commit against others and no man may sanction or forgive. So long as men desire to live together, no man may initiate – do you hear me? No man may start – the use of physical force against others. 

Despite the flaws in its foundational propositions, it can’t be denied that Rand reaches some sound conclusions about both the productive class and the collective “unpersoning” to which they are frequently subject. Specifically, that there is a relatively small fraction of society that does a majority of the productive labor while simultaneously being demonized as either puppet masters or vampires. As Jordan Peterson has argued, the Pareto principle applies to the distribution of workers at the top that do most of the heavy lifting. It’s the kind of thing that sends progressives into conniptions, but Galt’s speech does correctly identify the fact that progressives use the rhetoric of “equality” to pit the will of the majority against this minority. The so called 1% are convenient villains. While many are quite eager to make common cause with progressives and affect the posture of virtue that Rand righteously derides, her overall criticism of the perverse and inverted morality of progressives is dead on.

‘The public,’ to you, is whoever has failed to achieve any virtue or value, whoever achieves it, whoever provides the goods you require for your survival, ceases to be regarded as part of the public or as part of the human race. 

The cult-like environment Rand built up around herself in her later years is well documented. The reputation of modern Objectivists appears to have done little to alter this perception. Rand didn’t come across like the most jovial or happy person to be around despite her open affirmation of the pursuit of happiness as the highest human aspiration. A keen intellect for sure, but not exactly a barrel of laughs.

The knee-jerk hatred of Rand from progressives is puzzling because, at a bare minimum, one would expect that they would be sympathetic to several components of her thought. Her militant individualism, her zealous insistence on the application of the scientific method as the ultimate epistemological framework for determining reality, her materialist worldview and libertine approach towards sex set her far from anything in the conservative tradition of thought. Aside from her views on the free market and the role of the State, I see little daylight between her and the likes of Russell, Harris and Dawkins. If anything, the hatred she gets from progressives serves as confirmation that Objectivism is an untenable proposition as a complete philosophy of the world. People filter the world through a set of biases, and if anything, the very materialistic worldview she espoused has bred a fealty to political power as the font of virtue. Aside from the relentless demonization she gets in the media, the mental dissonance the mere perception of her message creates in the progressive mind likely creates too much of a barrier to warrant engagement. Because after all, how many Rand haters can actually say they’ve read her work?

The fact that Ayn Rand’s work has become a both a progressive dog whistle and lightning rod that is meant to signify the thought of all conservatives or libertarians says quite a bit about the effectiveness of leftist propaganda and the power of her work. Like Adam Smith, it’s assumed that if you’re conservative or libertarian, you automatically subscribe to everything she had to say and that your beliefs mirror hers exactly.

Above all else, Atlas Shrugged is an extended diatribe and warning against the slow encroachment of socialism in a free society. Contrary to the idiotic screeching about the alleged advent of fascism that emanates from the MSM echo chamber 24/7, totalitarianism doesn’t just spring forth from a single politician. It’s the slow accumulation of a consensus built slowly and carefully by bureaucrats and intellectuals. This book’s greatest strength is its sustained attack on the influence of the intellectual class in building a consensus for socialism. People have criticized Rand for the voluminous length of the novel as well as the lengthy philosophical expositions contained in the monologues of various characters, but there is a painstaking deliberateness in every word of this novel. Rand wants you to see and understand collectivism in every manifestation. She wants to show how each character is ultimately corrupted by it until it spreads through society like a virus and brings the gears of progress to a grinding halt.

Rand saves her heaviest artillery for the economic central planners. Upon Dagny’s return to the rapidly collapsing world after her convalescence in Galt’s Gulch, she returns to a Taggart Transcontinental laboring under the weight of the bureaucratic mandates of Directive 10-289. The regulations had throttled the normal functions of the line and plunged the operation into a spiral of unused resources, service shortages and diminishing short-term profit chasing. Dagny pried her hapless brother for any sign that he was thinking in the long-term for the company. Rand loads the cannon, and fires an ordnance directly at the legacy of John Maynard Keynes by putting his words in the mouth of hilariously named Railroad Unification bureaucrat, Cuffy Meigs. “In the long run, we’ll be dead”, he snorts. Indeed, Mr. Keynes. It’s too bad you were so dismissive of the price in human liberty your demand management models would extract for a little short term boost in GDP.

Rand clearly wants to venerate and celebrate the heroism she sees in the producer. The producers in Galt’s Gulch do not recoil or retreat from hard physical labor even if they were failed intellectuals in the world of the looters. They revel in the pride of having the opportunity to put their minds and bodies to their highest use. Work is always a virtue. Success that is honestly earned is never a vice. It’s also worth emphasizing that the crony capitalists who make common cause with the bureaucrats and planners are the ones that Rand considers villains.The caricature of Rand that’s widely circulated is that she blindly worshipped corporations and businesses while keeping her scorn limited to moochers and bureaucrats. Not so. The archetypal Randian hero stands alone and seeks only to be judged by the quality of his work.

The popular conception of Rand’s work is that she championed the pursuit of profit to the exclusion of all other considerations. Anyone who actually reads Atlas Shrugged (or any of her other works for that matter) will recognize that this is a complete misrepresentation of her position. One of the key events which spurs the heroes to uncover the mystery of the disappearance of the leaders of industry is their visit to an abandoned car manufacturing plant. After making their way through the squalor of the dying town which remained after the factory shuttered its operations, Hank and Dagny stumble upon the plans for a car powered by renewable energy. That’s right. Ayn Rand, the living epitome of capitalist rapacity and insensitivity, imagined a non-carbon based, renewable energy source in her book. I wonder why this little detail is overlooked in the Rand hate mill. Through this storyline, Rand simultaneously rebukes historical materialism and gives an elegant lesson on the virtues of free market innovation. When new technology is developed, it displaces old methods, increases efficiency, and frees up every individual. It is the absence of capitalism which leads to degradation, exploitation and servitude. The only thing Rand got wrong was that she didn’t anticipate that the planners would lure the masses into submission with lofty promises of an environmentally friendly techno-utopia.

It’s a theme that doesn’t figure as prominently in Atlas Shrugged as it does in The Fountainhead, but when she swings the wrecking ball at media mendacity, it’s well deserved demolition. As society grinds to a halt in the novel’s final chapters, the media remains focused on narrative while ignoring the chaos and violence happening throughout society. 

Atlas Shrugged is filled with big ideas, but there are plenty of small details that suggest that Ayn Rand’s foresight wasn’t limited to macro phenomena. As the bureaucratic bigwig Mr. Thompson tries to forestall societal collapse by attempting to negotiate with Galt, violence and civil unrest breaks out in California. Rand describes a band of communist militants led by Ma Chalmers and her “soybean cult of Orient admirers”. Ma Chalmers became a soybean mogul by securing government subsidies. If you simply swapped in “Yvette Felarca and the Antifa Soy Boys“, it would sound like a headline ripped from today’s alternative media.

Another central theme in the book that’s accumulated relevance is the corrupting influence of the State on science and the attendant appeal to scientism in political discourse. In the novel, Rearden and Taggart each have to contend with would-be scientists who spend their time idling in the government insulated confines of the National Institute of Science drawing up industry mandates wrapped in a veneer of “public good”. The bureaucrats at the National Institute of Science end up creating a deadly sonic weapon which is greeted by a great rhetorical fanfare of Unity, but for which no one will take ultimate responsibility.

Rand righteously skewers the false antagonism between commerce and science.  In Dagny’s quest to discover the inventor of the mysterious atmosphere powered motor, she seeks assistance from Institute of Science charlatan, Dr. Stadler. Stadler expresses his smug, entitled incredulity at the idea that such a brilliant mind would squander his discovery in the realm of commerce, and Dagny shoots back with a barbed retort about how he probably enjoyed living in this world. 

Near the novel’s conclusion, Stadler makes a final appeal to Galt in which he attempts to justify his alliance with the State. He pleads ineptitude at persuasion while denigrating the masses of unthinking plebs as his justification for resorting to force in order to pursue the life of scientific progress he envisioned. This monologue is simultaneously one of the most powerful critiques of modernity in Atlas Shrugged and one of its biggest contradictions. Progressives have supplanted a spiritual worldview with a purely scientific one. Rand scores another ideological point by devoting so much of the novel to this line of critique, but the very materialistic rationality she espouses is the framework that allowed the mentality of the likes of Stadler to flourish. 

She extends the critique of State influence on science into the mentality of the artist. Richard Halley is Dagny’s favorite composer, and she delights in having the opportunity to meet him in Galt’s Gulch. Once again, Rand lays waste to the belief that art and commerce are mutually exclusive.

For if there is more tragic a fool than the businessman who doesn’t know that he’s an exponent of man’s highest creative spirit – it’s the artist who thinks that the businessman is his enemy. 

Hating on Ayn Rand is a subgenre of the political Left that’s well established at this point. I have yet to read a single anti-Rand diatribe which doesn’t straw man her position or blatantly distort her message in some way. It’s also quite fashionable to be penitent about your former fascination with Rand and proclaim that you’ve “grown up and opened your eyes.” All of these mendacious, spineless, virtue signaling twats can suck on it. Rand was a serious thinker and her ideas warrant serious engagement. It seems churlish and uncharitable to focus on what she got wrong rather than the really important stuff she got completely right.

Heaping smug disdain on Rand is an easy way to score points with leftists. While I’m sure there are leftists who actually attempt to engage honestly with what she’s written and that there are surely legitimate critiques to be found, everything I’ve read is throwaway snark, a pathetic straw man or knee-jerk disdain. You don’t have to look very far to find people who bash Rand, and to be fair, there are definitely shortcomings to her writing and her philosophy.

Some criticize her prose as leaden and hamfisted and I think there’s some merit to this charge. In her defense, I propose that the world has become so accustomed to obfuscation and postmodern obscurantism, her writing seems artless by comparison. The straitjacket of Objectivism also partially accounts for this phenomenon. She has no difficulty portraying corruption and evil, but when she wants to convey transcendent acts of heroism or romantic ecstasy, it feels wooden because she has confined all of these phenomena to the realm of reason. It fails more often than not.

There is also something emotionally arid to the various philosophical monologues. The content is great, but no one I know talks like that. Maybe hardcore Objectivists do, but most people don’t. The only way the dialogues make sense is to view them as mythological Randian archetypes. Even if you set aside the leaden tone of the content, she’s also recycling the basic dramatic template she used in The Fountainhead. The forces of collectivism conspire towards one dramatic event with high stakes which sets the table for the hero to lay down a heavy philosophical lesson on morality and virtue.

The sex scene between Dagny Taggart and John Galt is a bit of a groaner, too. Rand is trying to render the heat of erotic passion using the language of Objectivist rationalism and it comes off as clunky as it sounds. It’s clear that she’s saying that sexual fulfillment emerges from mutual respect and shared values, but like everything else in the Objectivist framework, this seems too narrow a view of humanity. To suggest that pure physical attraction doesn’t play some role in sexual arousal seems daft. Besides some level of pure animal magnetism, long-term relationships which prioritize communication and intimacy also play just as big a part in sexual fulfillment as mutual respect and values parity. Rand apparently sees it through this clinical and antiseptic lens which steps over some rather significant aspects of human psychology, physiology and pair bonding.

Despite all of their flaws, Ayn Rand and Atlas Shrugged both deserve respect. Rand was trying to provide an all encompassing philosophy for life which addressed the question of how to formulate a system secular morality. There’s a reason that religion and a religious worldview animated the great achievements of Western civilization. Mankind flourishes when he upholds ideals larger than himself. The pre-Enlightenment worldview stood atop the premise that man was striving for divinity and that the works of civilization must reflect this pursuit. Strip away that foundational view, and you’ve got a very large void in the human consciousness to fill. Unless you can fill it with a higher metaphysical ideal, the vampires of the State are going to fill it for you. I believe Ayn Rand knew this as well as anyone in history you can name whose highest aspiration was the emancipation of the individual. The fact that she fell short of meeting the challenge shouldn’t preclude an earnest engagement with the ideas she laid down in Atlas Shrugged

wp-1490102212218.jpeg

Advertisements

Ayn Rand: Anthem

image

After going 43 years not having read Ayn Rand, I am increasingly convinced that the degree to which you are able to enjoy her as a writer depends a lot on your overall receptivity to what she is laying down philosophically.

While I can appreciate that folks find the single minded and self-righteous implacability of her worldview repellant and impossibly self-centered, I have concluded that these criticisms are both right and wrong.

Thematically, this book is exactly what I expected.  It portrays a future society in which the will of the individual has been completely subjugated by the will of the collective.  The protagonist eventually escapes from society and reclaims his individuality and as a result, makes some revelatory pronouncements which certainly validate the view that Ayn Rand is a one dimensional harpy dispensing scorn and condemnation toward all collectivist impulses and sentiments.  Love and respect is to be earned and not freely given.  The pursuit of achievement is its own end and whether or not it is of any benefit to mankind is not the point.  “We” can only be invoked voluntarily and if invoked in the context of political power or social activism is corrupt and evil.  And so on.

No surprises.

On this front, the critics and haters are correct.  As Whittaker Chambers so eloquently put it in his 1957 National Review piece, it’s the tone that dominates and the words are shouting us down.  It’s clear that Ayn Rand wanted this book to carry the weight of a Biblical parable (the protagonist claims the name Prometheus and surprise! his invention is a light bulb).  There is simply no questioning the validity and veracity of her revelations!

With a worldview so rigid, the laws of physics take hold and the caustic, inverse reaction is inevitable.

How could anyone really hold such a narrow view of the world and regard that as unassailable Truth?!

There are many possible lenses through which to view people and the world around us which are seemingly unaddressed by the Randian view. There are some people for whom voluntary charity and giving is a genuine expression of themselves.  Some derive great satisfaction from knowing that their contributions are making a material difference to others.  Some are edified and filled with joy by freely expressing love to others regardless of whether it is earned.   Some are willing to place trust and faith in others to find their own self direction instead of relating out of the default assumption they are looters.   The key of course being whether or not these actions are taken voluntarily versus being carried out by a state bureaucrat.

The punch line, however, is that Ayn Rand didn’t care about the haters.  She wrote what she wrote and if you don’t like it, move on.

Where the critics and haters are wrong is simply a failure to fully appreciate the importance of individualism and self-interest.  The key to happiness and self-fulfillment lies within each individual.  You are your own best guide for navigating the challenges which life presents.  Even if there have been worthy achievements made by the State, the placement of too much faith in the power of the State to rectify social ills is misguided and potentially toxic.  I agree wholeheartedly that the freedom of the individual has lit the flame of progress for humanity throughout the ages and there are passages in this book which testify to the spirit of individualism and burn with a righteous fire.

Anthem is both a worthwhile read and a completely worthwhile addition to the dystopian SF canon.

And hey, just remember this.  Any book which inspired Rush’s 2112 can’t be all bad.

Ayn Rand: The Fountainhead

image

Yes.

It is extraordinary.  Fully deserving of its stature.

Before I get to the meat of the book, there’s something I need to get out of way right now.

I know I’m stating the painfully obvious, but I have reached the unequivocal conclusion that the knee-jerk antipathy that gets hurled at Rand by the political Left is either rooted in ignorance or simply an extension of negative opinions held towards Rand’s more visible and vocal fans (e.g. Paul Ryan). Or perhaps both.

The vast chasm of misunderstanding which lays between her apparent adversaries and the reality of what she was actually saying is nothing short of mind boggling.  It just doesn’t compute.

Needless to say, Rand was aware of this disconnect and like the hero of the story, Howard Roark, couldn’t be bothered to give two shits.

But STILL.

The scorn I’ve seen heaped upon her by artists…ARTISTS…on social media and the blogosphere in general leaves me wondering if they have any awareness of what Ayn Rand was laying down in this book.

Seriously.

Admittedly, it took me a while to get past my own preconceptions and prejudices, but nowadays, anytime I hear anyone throwing shade on Ayn Rand, it begs the question…

Are you opposed to what Ayn Rand was actually saying, or is your antipathy rooted in an overall animosity directed towards conservatives and libertarians who champion her work?

Anyway.  The book!

Ayn Rand spoke of wanting to write a fiction of ideas and The Fountainhead overflows with them.

This is the story of two architects. Howard Roark is the implacable, uncompromising visionary. Peter Keating is the obsequious, self-aggrandizing, fame seeking but competent hack.  More specifically, it is the story of being true to one’s ideals.  It is the story of being grounded in the strength of your convictions so thoroughly that it penetrates to the core of the earth and that you are able to remain anchored no matter how much adversity the world presents.

The story traces their evolution from architecture school up through the highest echelons of the architecture world in early 20th century New York. Howard manages to get himself expelled from architecture school because he refused to be a dittohead and Peter graduates with distinction for giving his professors what they wanted. When they go to the big city, Peter gets a plum gig with the most prestigious hacks, and Howard gets a gig with the washed up idealist who is essentially Howard’s older analogue.

At every turn, we see very different set of choices, motivations, allegiances and consequences which culminates in a satisfying conclusion.

Howard Roark is a quintessentially Randian hero.  He is so singularly driven by his internal sense of purpose that it takes on a superhuman quality.  He is so consistent that it seems impossible. He faces so much rejection, so many injustices, so much misguided scorn, and is subject to so many abuses and betrayals yet remains unbowed by all of it. At so many points, I expected Roark to just lose his shit, but he never does. Many have criticized this character portrayal as one dimensional, but his ironclad sense of moral purpose and clarity is the central theme of the book. His actions are nothing short of a clarion call for all of humanity.

He is also the ultimate badass. He is so self-possessed and so clear in his purpose, he is able to tell the whole world to fuck off without ever having to actually say it. You don’t want Roark’s design? Fine. Beat it. He’ll wait for someone who does.  If no one comes knocking, he’ll seek different employment if he has to.

In a pivotal scene in the novel, a client who was manipulated into hiring Roark in order to discredit him files a lawsuit which goes to trial. Roark refuses to hire a lawyer and opts to defend himself. Witness after witness is called to heap condemnation on Roark’s building. After each testimony, Roark refuses every opportunity to cross examine.  Finally, he drops an envelope of photos of the building on the judge’s desk, and says, “The defense rests.”

Suck on it, Eastwood. It just doesn’t get any more badass than that.

By contrast, Peter Keating is Roark’s opposite. He lacks both a sense of selfhood and a moral compass. He seeks fame, but not the pursuit of virtue. He seeks wealth, but not the passion for work. He seeks the trappings of success, but not the conviction of his own ideas. He’s vapid, conniving and obsequious. Anyone who thinks that Rand equated wealth and virtue clearly has no understanding of her work. Peter attains great fame and wealth, but there is never a doubt over the message that Rand intended to convey with this character.

Ellsworth Toohey is the manipulative, self-aggrandizing but charismatic socialist who publishes an architecture column. Naturally, Toohey is the villain of this tale and his vanity and hollow pretensions make him truly detestable. What makes him truly evil is that he is intelligent and calculating. He knows how to manipulate the will of others and he is only interested in subordinating others in order to acquire power. Through Ellsworth, we are able to see the various ways that Ellsworth, and anyone whose existence is predicated on control and domination, whittles away the self-respect of everyone with whom he associates. Socialism inculcates obedience and deference to authority, and Ellsworth epitomizes the collectivist ethos in all of its insidious contemporary incarnations. He’s highly educated, has a pretense of cultural sophistication, and constantly telegraphs his alleged concern for the “common man”. Worst of all, he takes it upon himself to lecture his subjects on what they should do with their lives and demands absolute loyalty.

Toohey manages to achieve success as an architecture critic in the pages of Gail Wynand’s paper. He uses this platform to promote his insipid and self-righteous blatherings about “brotherhood” and “unity” and to openly celebrate the mediocre and the ordinary. He forms councils and organizations with lofty names and grandiose intentions that achieve nothing other than draw attention to his alleged humanitarianism. He is an utterly contemptible prick. Toohey hatches a clever and clandestine plot to discredit Roark which is so diabolical that you absolutely crave comeuppance.

What makes Toohey’s plan and the chain of events it sets in motion even more devastating is how closely it maps to real world phenomena. Whether it’s the vacuous bleating of Occupy Wall Street activists, vainglorious apparatchiks like Naomi Klein and Bob Reich, sanctimonious celebrity sycophants praising dictators like Chavez and Castro, or populist charlatans like Liz Warren and Bernie Sanders, Ellsworth Toohey’s vile spirit is found in every corner of media, academia and politics. Rand’s portrait seems pretty prescient and it gives her writing a heightened urgency and relevance.

There is a lot of interesting and refreshing editorial from Ayn Rand on what constitutes worthwhile art. Specifically, she draws attention to the ways collectivist attitudes have degraded art. She heaps venomous and seething contempt on postmodern abstraction for its own sake. Any art that fails to affirm basic morality or dwells obsessively on ambiguities is a target of her derision. Personally, I found this point of view refreshing. The prevalence of narcissistic negativity and elitist snobbery amongst musicians heaped upon music which affirms positive emotions, simple pleasures, or love itself is overwhelming. I’m not saying art needs to be monochromatic by any means, but in many cases, the obscurity of certain artists is little more than a self-fulfilling prophecy of internal attitudes and emotions.  No one is interested in hearing you whine about the world nor is anyone interested in hearing you sneer at the success of others either in words or expressed as art.

Ellsworth Toohey’s Council of American Artists featured artists with avant-garde sensibilities. Her descriptions of their work are humorous and pulsate with disdain. I do not share Rand’s disdain for the avant-garde, but her critique of avant-garde art which seeks nothing other than to “rebel against the tyranny of reality and the objective” is poignant.

Architecture critic Dominique Francon, daughter of architecture scion Guy Francon, is the love interest at the center of a torrid love triangle between Roark and Keating. Through Dominique, we are able to discover Rand’s ideas on femininity, relationships, sexuality, and professionalism. It is arguably an ideological alternative to Left feminism. Alt-feminism, if you will. 

Though it is essentially synonymous with the political Left, another source of Rand hate emanates from the feminist crowd. I believe I understand why she gets a bad rap from feminists, but just like the hate she gets from leftists in general, it is little more than overblown histrionics.  While it’s true that the women in this story are primarily love interests to the men, it is a novel set in early 20th century America. It is basically a reflection of the culture of in which it’s set. Both Dominique and Catherine are employed and the employment in which they’re engaged seems like an accurate portrayal of the type of things women would do back then and are not unrealistic portrayals of things women would do now. Just because she didn’t portray women as powerful politicians or businesswomen seems hardly reason to brand her as sexist let alone misogynistic.  I realize that Rand is on record saying stuff that would invite these characterizations and make many recoil, but she’s promulgating these ideas within the free market. She’s not forcing them on anyone.  You don’t have to subscribe to her beliefs on gender roles in order to gain value from her work.

Admittedly, the first sex scene between Dominique and Howard raised an eyebrow, but it was consistent with each character and the themes of the story.

On a related note, Rand is very sex positive.  She clearly regards it as fundamentally human, life affirming and essential. Toohey has a detached and clinical view of it and it leaves him less connected to humanity itself.

Dominique is a flawed character, but her journey towards full attainment of selfhood is ultimately heroic. It’s impossible for me to take any of the charges of sexism or misogyny towards her or this novel seriously. Like many of the vacant blatherings, childish whinings, and manufactured outrages which emanate from the feminist sphere, it is either misinformed, intentionally misleading or both.

Rand correctly attributes sexism where it truly belongs: with socialism and the political Left.  Not only does Toohey encourage Peter to marry Dominique for her looks alone, Toohey attempts to persuade Gail Wynand to hire Peter Keating by asking for an opportunity to meet his beautiful wife, Dominique Keating! Because he has no real confidence in Peter’s actual architectural talent, he must resort to peddling the physical beauty of his wife in order to make the case for him.

Through newspaper magnate, Gail Wynand, we discover Rand’s editorials on education and the media. Gail attains a world class education with curiosity and drive. He learns business by observing businessmen. He learns geography from longshoremen. Needless to say, she portrays Wynand’s public education with disdain and his pursuit of knowledge on his own terms is a powerful reminder that education must be grounded in real world activity.

Despite his worldly success, he is fundamentally a man without principles. His success was predicated on giving voice to sensationalist drivel. Gail Wynand built a successful career shamelessly pandering to public opinion, but experiences a dramatic turn in his fortunes when he makes a sincere effort to defend Roark in the climactic trial. The one time he tries to assert an editorial point of view with a sense of personal integrity and conviction, public opinion turns against him.

The voices of outrage Rand portrays could easily be mapped on to today’s media landscape.  The leftist rants are indistinguishable from those found in Salon, the Huffington Post, The Nation, or Slate.  These idiotic anti-capitalist and Marxist ravings contain the same dire warnings of the imminent threat of a capitalist takeover and only require the insertion of a reference to the Koch brothers in order to pass muster.

The book culminates in another trial against Roark in which he is charged with the demolition of a housing project he designed at Peter Keating’s request. Since the building was a government project, Keating was unable to fulfill the one condition Roark insisted upon; that it be built exactly as Roark intended.

Just as he did in the Stoddard trial, Roark defends himself by delivering a rousing speech which encapsulates the central idea of the book; that the ego is the fountainhead of virtue.

An individual acts and creates alone, and by doing so, neither exerts his will against another nor petitions an intermediary to gain access to the fruits of another’s labor.

The common perception that Rand’s vision of egoism and selfishness meant little more than “Fuck you, I got mine” is both unsurprising and disappointing. But she knew that it is in the nature of second-handers to scorn those who claimed independence and sought no validation from the public.

Her message cuts through the emasculating, infantilizing, sanctimonious layer of fat covering the paternalistic, authoritarian heart which beats at the center of modern day liberalism like a righteous sword of justice and slices it into bloody chunks.
The Fountainhead, like its hero and subject matter, stands like a monument to the heroism Rand saw in humanity.

It is a rousing fanfare, a banner of triumph unfurled in the wind, and a symphony written in tribute to the joy of human achievement.