Food for Thought #11: Rand Against the Machine

It’s worth pointing out in These Polarizing Times that there’s more overlap between radical libertarianism and radical progressivism than the adherents of either philosophy would care to admit. And while you certainly don’t need to invoke Ayn Rand to prove the point, it’s surprisingly fruitful to do so.

Take Galt’s Gulch, the secret hideaway of Rand’s anarcho-capitalist heroes. Though Rand envisions this place as a direct rebuke to the concepts of altruism and social justice, the lifestyle she outlines for its residents is ironically sympatico with the stereotypical ideals of the modern left: clean energy, locally and naturally grown food, a community in which everybody’s consumption is commensurate with their contribution, and — most radically of all — there are no formal institutions or hierarchies. It’s a model of sustainable living. It’s an Occupier’s wet dream.

Even better, take Rand’s scathing indictment of the society beyond the borders of Galt’s Gulch: she repeatedly insists that global society is unsustainable because people are consuming more than they produce. Her villains are labeled “moochers and looters” for this very reason. It is at the root of her worldview. And, lo and behold, this is also the rallying cry of liberals opposed to the excesses of global capitalism. It is the Cassandra call of progressives demanding action to mitigate climate change and reform the systems that provide our food and medicine.

And yet Ayn Rand is the patron saint of reactionary conservatism in politics today. Obviously, Ayn self-identified as exactly that. So, kudos. But perceived from 2012, her central criticism of society as it exists, and the vision she offers of what it could be, are both shared with the American left.

Of course Atlas is 1100 pages long specifically because Rand spends about 800 of them vehemently denying this very possibility. And I don’t mean to sound as though the left has a monopoly on anti-establishment sentiment. But there is a contradiction here, and it falls on Rand’s shoulders no matter how badly she wants to shrug it off: Her condemnation of our society’s unsustainable trajectory is unavoidably a condemnation of the system of global industrial capitalism for which she has become the mascot. Ayn Rand rages against the machine and fetishizes it at the same time.

Which, really, is what most of us do in one way or another. And this is where the overlap between libertarianism and progressivism comes in. What ultimately makes Rand’s vision of utopia appealing to both sides isn’t its specific political philosophy but its scale. In Galt’s Gulch, as I pointed out above, there are no institutions or hierarchies. In Galt’s Gulch, all enterprises are municipal in scope. All employment arrangements are made based on a personal evaluation with an individual entrepreneur. In Galt’s Gulch, the community feeds and powers itself self-sufficiently and without expelling its waste into the outside world. And the community’s basic model can be replicated by similarly-sized communities all around the country without necessarily developing a grander, more centralized infrastructure of political power.

That paradigm appeals to the culture of the grassroots right — libertarian, agrarian, pastoral. It appeals to the culture of the grassroots left — clean, sustainable, a locally-tailored global solution. And as I pointed out in the very first post of this series, a cynicism about institutions’ relationship to individuals is the common bond between Atlas Shrugged and The decidedly more liberal Wire.

Lest we forget, Rand’s villains include businesses, CEOs, boards of directors, and PR departments. Though Rand emphasizes tax subsidies as the vehicle of their corruption, it’s worth noting that subsidies or no, these (fictional) corporate elites are still corrupt: they operate a business model based on personally accumulating as much of their companies’ wealth as possible while providing increasingly poor products and services and avoiding taking personal responsibility for the results. Sound familiar to anyone?

This is the sort of thing I mean when I say that Ayn Rand wrote her book with an unintentionally unreliable narrator, or when I say that Atlas Shrugged could be a potentially epic and awesome story if the reader could excise all the author’s attempts to ruin it. It’s a nonpartisan fable that plays to both the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street, and once you realize just how liberal-friendly Rand’s vision is on its face, you can discard her irrational politics and start mining the thematically rich veins for precious material.

Take, as just one example, Rand’s recurring commentary on the spiritual nature of sex:

In the Objectiverse, the act of sex is invariably a spiritual and moral transaction. Good sex affirms the spiritual value of both partners and empowers them to aspire to ever greater virtue. Bad sex either saps the participants of spiritual value or confirms their lack of same, and in either case produces shame.

But this definition of lovemaking is not an endorsement of marital coitus as the best way to maximize spiritual health. On the contrary, our proto-feminist heroine explicitly tells her married lover that she makes no demands of him except to booty call whenever he needs to get off. And contraception and procreation? Children in basically any capacity? These issues are absent from Rand’s thoughts on the subject, and in the case of children, nearly absent from the book completely (because of how poorly they fit into Rand’s moral code).

So do those sexual politics sound liberal or conservative? The insistence on strict moral laws governing the proper expression of sexuality is decidedly conservative; the proud departure from the institutions intended to enforce sexual morality is decidedly liberal. Once again Rand vilifies historical patriarchy — in this case for repressing healthy sexual expression — even though her political agenda goes out of its way to flatter and justify the behavior and status of patriarchy’s contemporary beneficiaries.

Now take Rand’s views on money, espoused so verbosely by Francisco in Part Two.  In the Objectiverse, literal currency is also  spiritual currency. Yet in contrast to her views on sex, Ayn declares the ancient institutional hierarchy of money to be a direct and absolute measure of spiritual worth operating in a downright karmic fashion. What makes the objective symbol of wealth a direct corollary of spiritual value, but the objective symbol of deliberately committed love a degrading fraud? Nothing but the fact that both of these positions are the opposite of traditional religious teachings. It’s not logically groundbreaking, it’s just Ayn Rand’s knee-jerk bile.

Upon this closer inspection, I find the vaguely karmic and holistic metaphysics of Objectivism intriguing, if only for how they’re so counterintuitive to Rand’s reputation. These metaphysics declare that a person’s moral values and spiritual health will inevitably manifest in their behavior and choices, no matter how much they wish to deny the consequences of their actions. It’s an almost Zen Buddhist understanding of right action. And for Rand’s protagonists, the lifestyle that grows out of this harmony between mind and body is remarkably socially liberal.

But those metaphysics bear no deductive relationship to Objectivism’s political and economic tenets. When Ayn gets reactionary and proprietary about how her specific moral values are the only ones that can produce spiritual health, she loses the way (or should I say, loses the Tao).

That declaration of monopoly on morality is the only thing that theoretically ties her cosmology to her political economy. Hank Rearden says as much when he claims sexual guilt and Keynesian economics are two symptoms of the same moral illness: the statement is so absurd that the character himself qualifies it as laughable.

In reality, a karmic metaphysics that insists on harmony between mind and body for proper behavioral results is a belief that is wholly independent from Rand’s political dogma. And Rand also declares it imperative that false moral claims be rejected if one is to fulfill one’s potential for true virtue. In Objectivism, there is no such thing as a harmless false belief.

What this means for Atlas Shrugged is that by its own metaphysical and ethical imperatives, we must reject its political and economic tenets as lacking foundation, to save the story’s soul.

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