Atlas shrugged (because he couldn’t, objectively, give a sh*t).
I am rarely so perturbed by a set of ideas that I find it hard to write. In Ayn Rand’s case, I am so. The full critique requires a book but it has been done. John Robbins in ‘Without a prayer’ argues Rand committed numerous fallacies: equivocation, question begging, argument from intimidation, appeal to emotion, ad hominin and false dichotomies. Micheal Prescott writes clearly and perceptively in his rather damning critique. Normally I like to read first hand any book or author I critique. I did read somewhere that if one can be spared wasting precious hours of one’s life by not reading Ayn Rand, then do so. Now, I accept that as, yes a cop out, that yes I should read from the primary source and that is precisely what I advise my students to do. However, this is a blog not a paper, and there are many sources online referencing the direct quotes of Ayn Rand and her puerile ‘philosophy’ of ‘Objectivism’.
‘Rand was broken by the Bolsheviks as a girl, and she never left their bootprint behind. She believed her philosophy was Bolshevism’s opposite, when in reality it was its twin. Both she and the Soviets insisted a small revolutionary elite in possession of absolute rationality must seize power and impose its vision on a malleable, imbecilic mass. The only difference was that Lenin thought the parasites to be stomped on were the rich, while Rand thought they were the poor. (Johann Hari, ‘How Ayn Rand Became an American Icon’, Slate 2009).
Her biographical details may provide clues to her overreaction to the perils of communism, which she experienced first hand before escaping to the USA, and to her eulogies to laissez faire capitalism thereafter. I suspect a modicum of PTSD, and a personality disorder coupled with projection as psychological explanations for her writing. The total logic and rationality of left brain thinking that permeates and dominates her work suggests a deficiency of something.
I’ll begin with a few probably well-known statements attributed to Rand.
“My philosophy, in essence, is 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.” Ayn Rand , Appendix to Atlas Shrugged.
“Man—every man—is an end in himself, not a means to the ends of others; he must live for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself; he must work for his rational self-interest, with the achievement of his own happiness as the highest moral purpose of his life”. The Ayn Rand Column ‘Introducing Objectivism’.
Nietzsche? Not that there is anything necessarily wrong with Nietzsche, unless you take his superman idea to its nazi conclusions. Rand’s work rests on her philosophy of (untenable) Objectivism:
‘Objectivism is the philosophy of rational individualism. Rand dramatized her ideal man, the producer who lives by his own effort and does not give or receive the undeserved, who honors achievement and rejects envy. Rand laid out the details of her world-view in nonfiction books such as The Virtue of Selfishness and Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal.’
Objectivism holds that there is no greater moral goal than achieving happiness. But one cannot achieve happiness by wish or whim. Fundamentally, it requires rational respect for the facts of reality, including the facts about our human nature and needs. Happiness requires that one live by objective principles, including moral integrity and respect for the rights of others. Politically, Objectivists advocate laissez-faire capitalism. Under capitalism, a strictly limited government protects each person’s rights to life, liberty, and property and forbids that anyone initiate force against anyone else. The heroes of Objectivism are achievers who build businesses, invent technologies, and create art and ideas, depending on their own talents and on trade with other independent people to reach their goals’. (The Atlas Society)
Objectivism’s central tenets are that reality exists independently of consciousness, that human beings have direct contact with reality through sense perception, that one can attain objective knowledge from perception through the process of concept formation and inductive logic, that the proper moral purpose of one’s life is the pursuit of one’s own happiness (rational self-interest), that the only social system consistent with this morality is one that displays full respect for individual rights embodied in laissez-faire capitalism.
Rand’s arguments over simplify, ignores facts of history, are anthropocentric, racist, rooted in a reaction to Bolshevism which provides the founding cognitive bias against any social or state interventions, ignores power relationships and is thus blind to privilege especially the privilege of capital, fails to account for the interplay of agency, structure and culture and ignores the constitution of subjectivities within normative and hegemonic discourses. It is reductionist and mechanistic redolent of 19th century Physics. Quantum physics, complexity theory, systems theory, cognitive psychology, psychodynamic theory, and just about the whole of sociology, undermines her thesis.
In short, her writings are articulate, and somewhat entertaining, overly rational bullshit. It is the output of a frightened and probably psychologically, emotionally stunted and scarred person: ‘Ayn Rand is the ultimate spokesperson for the left hemisphere of the brain’.
In ‘Alpha Males, Psychopaths and Greedy Bastards’ I allude to Randian selfishness as a guiding motivation for a group of (most often white) powerful men. Returning to some of her quotes rooted in ‘objectivism’, it is clear why this is an attractive philosophy to successful capitalists, and the ‘wannabe’ entreprenuers aspiring to be the next ‘apprentice’.
The most obvious, and to me the fatal flaw, among those listed above, is the complete lack of an analysis of power and of the social when she advocates laissez faire capitalism. There is of course acknowledgement of power and force in her writings, but she then somehow magics them away in her eulogies to small state laissez faire. This relegates her ideas to that of a self-serving (and racist) political ideology used to prop up systemic oppression, plutocracy, exploitation and patriarchy. It also swipes away critiques of colonialist interventions and the histories of genocides, as the ramblings of savages who should thank the white race for creating a prosperous civilisation. The New York skyline for Rand is the reward, or the necessary price, for genocide:
“They (Native Americans) didn’t have any rights to the land, and there was no reason for anyone to grant them rights which they had not conceived and were not using. What was it that they were fighting for, when they opposed white men on this continent? For their wish to continue a primitive existence, their ‘right’ to keep part of the earth untouched, unused and not even as property, but just keep everybody out so that you will live practically like an animal, or a few caves above it. Any white person who brings the element of civilization has the right to take over this continent”.
(Q and A session following her address to the graduating class of The United States Military Academy at West Point, New York, March 6, 1974 – found in Endgame: Resistance, by Derrick Jensen, Seven Stories Press, 2006, pg 220).
It is easy to see how this is a dangerous and self-serving ideology based on power and privilege if one simply turns the statement around:
“New Yorkers don’t have any rights to Manhattan, and there is no reason to grant them any rights. What is it that they send troops abroad for after 9/11? The US military is sent to fight for New Yorkers wish to continue an affluent existence, their ‘right’ to keep the WTC untouched as sources of power and wealth, and just to keep everybody else out of the US and in their own countries. Any Muslim who brings an element of Islamic civilisation based on Sharia, has the right to take over the State of New York”.
in 2010 when travelling across the deserts of Arizona, Utah and Nevada, I was confronted by Monument Valley and the glories that was Arches National Park. It was a reminder of what greeted the first white settlers and I could understand why they today stand proud on the land, especially when they look to Las Vegas. They, along with Rand, could say ‘we built this’ with blood sweat and tears while Native Americans had done nothing. I understand it, I don’t agree with it without acknowledging that it was not done without genocide and the application of raw technical power which not only crushed rocks but crushed long lasting civilisations.
“Now, I don’t care to discuss the alleged complaints American Indians have against this country. I believe, with good reason, the most unsympathetic Hollywood portrayal of Indians and what they did to the white man. They had no right to a country merely because they were born here and then acted like savages. The white man did not conquer this country…”
Address To The Graduating Class Of The United States Military Academy at West Point, 1974
Alongside the dismissal of Native Americans there is again invocation of ‘savage v civilisation’ according to one’s membership of a ‘race’. It harks back to the White Man’s Burden justification of colonialist expansion.
“The Arabs are one of the least developed cultures. They are typically nomads. Their culture is primitive, and they resent Israel because it’s the sole beachhead of modern science and civilization on their continent. When you have civilized men fighting savages, you support the civilized men, no matter who they are.” Ayn Rand Ford Hall Forum lecture, 1974, text published on the website of The Ayn Rand Institute.
“Racism is the lowest, most crudely primitive form of collectivism. It is the notion of ascribing moral, social or political significance to a man’s genetic lineage—the notion that a man’s intellectual and characterological traits are produced and transmitted by his internal body chemistry. Which means, in practice, that a man is to be judged, not by his own character and actions, but by the characters and actions of a collective of ancestors”.
In degrading Native Americans and Arabs that is precisely what Rand is doing, She is ascribing moral, social and political significance to a group of people linked by their race (what she calls genetic lineage), Rand actually does judge groups of people not by their individual characters but by their links to their ancestors and peers.
Rand also has a dangerous disdain for the absolutely fundamental determinant of human health and well-being: the natural environment.
“That particular sense of sacred rapture men say they experience in contemplating nature- I’ve never received it from nature, only from buildings, Skyscrapers. I would give the greatest sunset in the world for one sight of New York’s skyline. And then people tell me about pilgrimages to some dank pest-hole in a jungle where they go to do homage to a crumbling temple, to a leering stone monster with a pot belly, created by some leprous savage. Is it beauty and genius they want to see? Let them come to New York, stand on the shore of the Hudson, look and kneel” The Fountainhead (1943).
When global mean temperatures rise above 2 degrees by the end of the century and Central Park becomes a swamp, when the great barrier reef is nothing but a bleached white sculpture devoid of life while Sydney floods, when the ocean becomes so acidic that fish stocks disappear….how will you eat a Manhattan skyline? Rand may not like nature all that much and as a subjective value her paucity of vision is harmless. On a Global scale it is leading to ecosystem collapse.
“Even if smog were a risk to human life, we must remember that life in nature, without technology, is wholesale death”
Rand may not know that indeed Smog is dangerous and kills. Also, In this sentence Rand echoes Bacon’s entreaty to tame nature, to overcome it, to control it for our purposes for us to have dominion over it. While it is true that life in the state of nature would be ‘nasty brutish and short’ and therefore human existence is predicated upon a degree of control and taming, nonetheless we live in a dialectic with nature, that there has to be a symbiosis, that nature is a complex adaptive system with feedback loops and emergent properties and which if unthinkingly exploited, will kill us. Further, it is dangerous to think we are ontologically separate from nature. This dualist ontology, i.e. a separate object-subject – is fatally undermined by advances in physics and our actual experience with nature. ‘If I shit in a river, I will drink my own shit. Thus I am the river and the river is me. The river and my shit are one, I am my own shit’.
Rand claims the smallest minority on earth is the individual. Not ontologically true, not scientifically true…this is a political statement. It is also not empirically true. Human beings are nothing if they are not embedded within and part of community, the social. No one can survive for very long if separated from everyone else and from the artefacts and infrastructure people co-create. To test that is simple. Put a new born baby in the middle of a field and then walk away. Put a 5 year old child in the middle of Manhattan and then simply walk away and ensure no other person interacts with that child. Put an Adult, naked and without money in Central Park and again ensure nil interaction. Do not even allow the adult to interact with any human artefact. Individuals cannot exist, they cannot ‘be’, without others.
Objectivism separates the I from the We, there is no social, just the individual whose moral purpose is to seek his own happiness. But strangely this is to be done while respecting the rights of other individuals and not by force. How the fuck does Rand think the New York skyline got built? Did she think that it resulted from a group of men on an equal footing, each in pursuit of their own happiness, cooperated in an egalitarian way without any force, coercion or power plays? How does she think the capital-labour dialectic actually works?
Prescott writes: ‘Ayn Rand starts with the assumption – or “metaphysical axiom,” as she would say – that reality consists exclusively of what is perceivable by the physical senses. This rules out God and any supernatural dimension. She goes on to argue that only reason can integrate sensory data and arrive at objectively valid conclusions. Thus all human action should be predicated on reason, including the class of human action that falls under the heading of ethics. An objective, rational ethics is therefore a necessity of human existence, and Rand proceeds to define one – an ethics of rational self-interest from which any altruistic motives or duties are excluded. There follows a defense of pure laissez-faire capitalism, the only socioeconomic system that gives free rein to profit-seeking selfishness. Reason, egoism, individualism, capitalism – Objectivism in a nutshell’.
‘Objectivism—a view that makes a religious fetish of selfishness and disposes of altruism and compassion as character flaws. If nothing else, this approach to ethics was a triumph of marketing, as Objectivism is basically autism rebranded. And Rand’s attempt to make literature out of this awful philosophy produced some commensurately terrible writing’. Sam Harris, How to Lose Readers (Without Even Trying) (August 24, 2011).
Rand’s ‘Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal (1966)’
Rand here airbrushes history and can only view social relationships from the lofty heights of the winners.
“In a capitalist society, all human relationships are voluntary. Men are free to cooperate or not, to deal with one another or not, as their own individual judgments, convictions and interests dictate”.
All relationships are voluntary? Voluntary? Lets go back into reality not ideological fantasy shall we? I am actually, unusually, lost for words here. At the level of banality, of course this is correct. Anyone can stand up and say “I am not going to do this”. Rupert Murdoch of course has a great deal more freedom and resources to say that, and to choose which relationships he voluntarily will engage in. Prince William similarly will have a degree of freedom to say the same. I really don’t have to spell this out do I? Really? We ‘make our own history’ but not in the circumstances of our own choosing. This is completely ignorant of the relationship between social structures, cultures and personal agency. It completely ignores the constitution of our subjectivities within normative and hegemonic discourses. It also completely ignores the material conditions of daily life for billions, it fails to concede that the objective material conditions of social life provide both enablements and contraints on action.
“America’s abundance was created not by public sacrifices to the common good, but by the productive genius of free men who pursued their own personal interests and the making of their own private fortunes. They did not starve the people to pay for America’s industrialization. They gave the people better jobs, higher wages, and cheaper goods with every new machine they invented, with every scientific discovery or technological advance- and thus the whole country was moving forward and profiting, not suffering, every step of the way”.
A bit of Adam Smith here but without the inconvenience of Smith’s ‘Theory of Moral Sentiments’.
There is a bit missing here. American abundance was also built on genocide and the rapacious exploitation of natural resources, while ignoring externalities which most recently take the form of carbon dioxide. American abundance was also built on exploitation of human labour, notably slave labour, and the unpaid domestic labour undertaken by women and children. The genius was of some free men, some very rich men, some men born into privilege, mostly white. All were able to do so because the collective good delivered education and infrastructure that each individual alone could never have built. People did starve and die for industrialisation. Many people died early (and still do) and were severely injured for industrialisation. Not the ‘whole country’ benefited and the benefits were not and are not evenly distributed. Rand, and her modern followers, of course must ignore historical descriptions of the conditions of the working class (written by Engels et al) and she must ignore the current vast detailed literature on health and social inequalities. This clearly shows a ‘social gradient’ in health outcomes – the lower down you are on the social scale the higher your chances of an early death and of experiencing more years in disability. Now, Rand lets her eulogies to the undoubted advances of capitalism gloss over the many, many past and current miseries experienced in that advance. Who is the ‘the country’ in any case? That is a convenient abstract concept often used to rally nationalists and racists while concealing the detail of the complexity of human experiences and a nations’ social structures.
Ayn Rand is very popular in the United States, and also among the young. The current POTUS says he is a fan. His withdrawal from the Paris accord indicates a disdain for the environment Rand would have recognised. His valorisation of competitive financial capitalism mirrors the valorisation of laissez faire. Trump however, is not a Randian laissez faire capitalist, none of them are as I argued in a previous blog on neoliberalism. Should I now buy a copy of Ayn Rand’s work…?
Life’s too short.
And in a Randian fashion, I don’t give a shit about her.
From Prescott’s critique:
Ayn Rand, The Virtue of Selfishness (1961); an excerpt can be read online at www.whatthefunk.net/TheLair/VOS.htm. Rand ‘s ethics, presented in a series of essays in her usual haranguing, polemical style.
Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged (1957). Rand’s ambitious, thousand-page story of global collapse, which dramatizes all the key elements of her philosophy – and has convinced a couple of generations of fans that our mixed-economy social system will inevitably crash and burn.
John W. Robbins, Without A Prayer: Ayn Rand and the Close of Her System (1997). A scathing dissection of logical fallacies in Rand’s writings. The author also promotes his own Calvinist agenda, but it is not necessary to buy into his religious views in order to profit from his critical analysis of Rand.
Jeff Walker, The Ayn Rand Cult (1998). A massive compilation of anti-Rand sentiments from a huge variety of sources. Walker’s scattershot approach is sometimes unfair but often enlightening – and frequently very funny. Whatever its weaknesses, this book is an absolute must-read for anyone who is now or ever has been associated with the Objectivist movement.
For more information:
Pro-Objectivist Web sites include …
The Objectivist at www.theobjectivist.com. Very large collection of Rand-related links, including a link to this essay.
The Ayn Rand Institute at www.aynrand.org. Official headquarters of the Objectivist movement, located in Irvine, California.
Leonard Peikoff’s site, www.peikoff.com. Dr. Peikoff inherited Ayn Rand’s estate and has written books and taught courses on her philosophy.
The Objectivist Center at http://www.objectivistcenter.org/index.asp. Run by David Kelley, this organization serves as an alternative to the more doctrinaire Ayn Rand Institute.
Criticisms of Objectivism can be found at many sites …
“Why I Am Not an Objectivist,” by Michael Huemer at http://home.sprynet.com/~owl1/rand.htm. Technical overview of errors in Rand’s philosophy. Also check out Huemer’s “Critique of ‘The Objectivist Ethics’” athttp://home.sprynet.com/~owl1/rand5.htm.
At www.noblesoul.com/orc/critics/personal.html, you can find a list of links to other essays critical of Ayn Rand.