Posts Tagged conservative
As this blog bore deeper into the plot of Atlas Shrugged and the election drew closer, the commentary and analysis half of the site became more and more about American politics and less about the implications of Rand’s philosophy for individuals. Now that the election and the book are over and the blog is winding down, the time has come to revisit that angle.
The first thing to say is that I genuinely feel I’ve learned a lot by reading this book, particularly the first time in 2008. As somebody who came of age during the late-era Clinton and especially George W. Bush presidencies, I felt pretty comfortable in my liberalism and reflexively suspicious of big business. So despite the fact that Ayn Rand is a political fundamentalist and in all likelihood a high-functioning sociopath, her views did force me to reconsider the moral merits of libertarianism and private enterprise, to review my existing assumptions with a more critical eye.
On top of Atlas’ contribution to the evolution of my values, Ayn’s emphatic declarations of her own rigor and the book’s meticulous didacticism in general helped me step my intellectual game up. I’m no credentialed scholar or anything, but following my first pass in 2008 I felt especially unprepared to counter her arguments and hunted down essays and papers on Kant and Aristotle to better understand the issues at hand and why Ayn considered herself a genius and mainstream academia considers her a self-evident crackpot.
With that foundation I felt much more capable of dissecting her absurdity this time around, but I still used the book as a launching pad for my own education by reading about a dozen titles on history, current affairs, and political philosophy. This fed back into my interpretation of the book, as I fleshed out the ways the Objectiverse has to be tweaked to truly fit reality — by positing climate change as vital context for the book’s global crisis; by fleshing out Rand’s caricature of the political system to incorporate modern lobbying and campaign finance; by highlighting Rand’s opposition to excessive consumerism, and her embrace of local food, clean energy, and sustainable communities; and most of all, by downplaying Rand’s dogmatic faith in plutocratic capitalism and the wealthy’s sense of entitlement.
This alternate perspective on the story became harder and harder to apply as the book went further down the rabbit hole of Objectivism. The relevance of my interpretation probably peaked during the chapters set in Galt’s Gulch. but went downhill by the middle of Part Three such that by the time we reached Galt’s Speech I was basically aping Ayn’s style to better write my own polemical screed arguing against her’s (which is to say, Galt’s).
So let me at least credit Rand for inspiring me to conduct my own life differently, not primarily on the level of political belief but on the level of personal bearing.
There’s no real way of avoiding the fact that people who describe themselves as Objectivists, or who actively promote Rand as valuable on her own terms, are pretty uniformly insufferable assholes. If you accept her views as written, that attitude is kind of baked into the cake. After all, Objectivism as written is no more or less than a wholesale excuse and unqualified justification for being an asshole.
But divorced from her insane condemnation of empathy, and taking into account the way she confuses being a rhetorical steamroller with being actually logically rigorous, there’s something admirable in her work. If I had to pinpoint it I’d describe it as her portrait of masculinity.
Yes, Ayn’s reverence for and attraction to that sort of old-school, traditional masculinity is what I consider to be the primary value of the book. Even Dagny, as a proto-feminist archetype, is admired in large part for embodying traditionally masculine virtues. Her femininity is always mentioned in the form of a single symbol or token in the midst of her otherwise masculine bearing, be it the curve of her legs, the rMetal bracelet, the cut of her dress… the silent, burning desire to be sexually dominated by every alpha male in the novel. You know, stuff like that.
It might seem like this is an awfully narrow line of credit I’m extending, but I don’t mean to belittle it. The stoicism of Rand’s heroes (even Francisco, who is certainly extroverted but strictly disciplined about sharing his true self with others), and Ayn’s insistence on self-reliance, on the charisma of competence… these are virtues that I feel I should aspire to more than I did back when I first read the book as an impressionable young progressive. It was through this realization of how I could improve myself that I came to be more appreciative of conservative and Republican ideals, particularly the whole “personal responsibility” element, and this in turn played no small part in my increased respect for and understanding of business. I feel this development from the personal to the political is far more organic than what Ayn actually argues for, which really strikes me as a Frankenstein’s monster of contradicting beliefs.
So thanks, Ayn Rand, for offering up so much food for thought. Maybe someday I’ll even read The Fountainhead, next time I’m in the mood for some literary sado-masochism. For now though, I’ll at least admit this: You aren’t just a poison on America’s body politic or a philosophical cancer. I found some real nourishment when I sampled your buffet. Some of the side dishes actually taste good. I might even recommend your establishment to friends with a refined palate. Maybe. Probably not. Let’s put it this way — I recommend the lighter fare. But whatever you do, don’t drink the Kool-Aid.
I like to play devil’s advocate. Among my liberal friends I prefer to make conservative points, to temper opinions with which I agree in broad strokes with conservative virtues they might otherwise dismiss. And among conservatives I try to demonstrate my appreciation for their virtues while suggesting reasons they should reconsider whatever dismissive attitudes they might have toward liberal ones.
I think this is a reflection of the philosophical values I outlined for myself last week, the emphasis on considering multiple angles before settling on an opinion or belief with certainty. And so despite the fact that just two days ago I mimicked Galt’s rhetoric to demolish his reasoning, I’m going to spend today investigating what I consider to be the central question of Atlas Shrugged:
What if John Galt is right?
The very first thing to point out here is that this is NOT the central question of the book as Ayn Rand sees it. You might’ve picked up on her version of the question. It was “Who is John Galt?” And the reason her inquiry is phrased that way is because as far as she’s concerned John Galt is clearly right. The book is built around validating his opinions from page one. So the “mystery” is, who is he, and what is he right about?
Well, one thing he is definitely not right about is his pathetically narrow-minded worldview — his bankrupt definition of value, and his vicious definition of virtue. No, he is basically forced to embrace this hilariously literal form of sociopathy to justify his goal, which is to see modern civilization crumble.
But it’s worth noting that his preferred form of protest is civil disobedience. So what he might be right about — or at least, what I think is worth contemplating he might be right about — is the answer to the following question pondered by liberals and conservatives alike: what if the current course of global civilization is unsustainable, and what if our only option for saving the human spirit is to radically and urgently restructure the way we live? What if, divorced from his nihilistic revelry in the idea, he is right to want to hit the reset button on society?
This question is probably more popular than most would care to admit. On top of all the religious groups who fetishize the idea that the apocalypse will occur in our lifetimes, secular pop culture is supersaturated with images of global devastation, and ultimately it’s the thorough intellectuals and hard scientists who are perhaps most acutely aware of and concerned about an actual, measurable, scientific apocalypse slowly creeping up on us as a direct result of our global development.
Politically, I have seen plenty of evidence that Ayn Rand’s reviled liberal populists agree with John Galt on this score, most recently on facebook of all places. Some decidedly progressive friends of mine posted the following Carl Sagan quote, which I have copied here from a blog that enriched it with links to real life news:
I have a foreboding of an America in my children’s or grandchildren’s time– when we’re a service and information economy; when nearly all the key manufacturing industries have slipped away to other countries; when awesome technological powers are in the hands of a very few, and no one representing the public interest can even grasp the issues; when people have lost the ability to set their own agendas or knowledgeably question those in authority; when, clutching our crystals and consulting our horoscopes, our critical faculties in decline, unable to distinguish between what feels good and what’s true, we slide, almost without noticing, back into superstition.
Honestly ask yourself how much of this is substantively different from Ayn Rand’s fears about the future. Sure, Ayn would abhor Sagan’s invocation of the public interest, but if we grant that she considers her libertarian ideas to be in the public’s interest and is simply rhetorically neurotic, then the quote could very nearly have come out of John Galt’s mouth.
Another example. A young activist of my acquaintance posted this quote from Howard Zinn:
In a highly developed society, the Establishment cannot survive without the obedience and loyalty of millions of people who are given small rewards to keep the system going.
These people-the employed, the somewhat privileged-are drawn into alliance with the elite. They become the guards of the system, buffers between the upper and lower classes. If they stop obeying, the system falls.
That will happen, I think, only when all of us who are slightly privileged and slightly uneasy begin to see that … the Establishment, whatever rewards it gives us, will also, if necessary to maintain its control, kill us.
And once again we can see that aside from some categorical inversions about who to blame, the rich or the poor, the public or the private, Zinn’s position is formally the same as Galt’s: the Establishment is intrinsically evil, it is enabled by the complacent masses fooled into playing along, and it must be abandoned as a moral imperative.
When I saw that facebook post I found myself compelled to comment in favor of moderation and conservatism. I feel this is an unfairly cynical take on mainstream society, and that revolutionary idealism is separated from enduring despotism by one fragile thread that is more often than not cut in the act of revolting.
But I swear by epistemic humility, after all, so I must ask myself: what if I am simply promoting the immoral, complicit passivity of the bourgeoisie? Rand, loathe to use such a Marxist term for the middle class, desperate to portray her teleological history as fundamentally different, nonetheless clearly believes this. And it must be admitted that no matter how much one values ideological caution, part of that value is openness to new evidence — and sometimes the evidence demands change sooner rather than later, faster rather than slower, bigger rather than smaller.
So how do we know when to draw the line? How do we sense the tipping point when a complicated problem that can be tackled incrementally becomes a crisis necessitating radical action? And do you see how these questions are vital to transforming Atlas Shrugged from a morally grotesque piece of shit into a troubling but deeply important exploration of current events?
Let’s quickly review the elements of the book through which I’ve considered Rand’s relationship to 21st century reality. There are three major points of comparison and contrast:
1) Climate Change. If incorporated into the Atlas narrative, this is easily the most alarming scientific fact that supports Galt’s radicalism. But it’s problematic for Randians to even admit to, because the only way to realistically address it without, yes, blowing up society, is through collective action among nations, and agreements within communities, to sacrifice certain luxuries and economic efficiencies.
2) Elite Corruption. A universally acknowledged Very Serious Problem, but one that nobody can seem to agree on how to address. Conservatives blame governing elites. Liberals blame corporate elites. Both arguments have merit. But liberal priorities are superior, because the government corruption on which conservatives are focused is largely defined by the implicit sale of legislation to the donor class, which is made up of private sector elites.
3) Consumerism & Intellectual Atrophy. As with the elites, so with the masses: everyone can agree that people need to be better at being people. Everybody from Rand to Zinn finds excessive consumerism abhorrent, intellectual atrophy a cardinal sin, and their pervasiveness the largest cultural obstacle to solving the higher level issues.
These three issues together are basically the case for a Galt-like reboot of social order. And all three could only be truly solved in an enduring way if the entire population of earth had a — no pun intended — “come to Jesus” moment. That sort of moment is the ultimate fantasy of Atlas Shrugged, with Ayn Rand’s brain-with-a-penis, John Galt, as the Messiah. In real life, a universal moment of spiritual revelation like this is, uh… unlikely. To be diplomatic about it.
So as noted in the rundown, at the level of mainstream practical politics, this is why contemporary liberalism is indisputably superior to contemporary conservatism. While both sides are concerned with the issue of moral decay on the individual level (Issue #3), liberals see the true dynamics of Issue #2 more clearly, and beat conservatives on Issue #1 by acknowledging its reality and urgency at all.
This does not mean that conservatives don’t have vitally important points about the dangers of liberalism, points that we should keep in mind when trying to address all of these issues. But that doesn’t change the fact that aside from its merits as constructive criticism, modern conservative ideology has failed to develop any ideas of its own that properly prioritize our objective problems.
For all the obvious reasons this diagnosis of contemporary politics applies equally to Atlas Shrugged. And as I’ve said since this blog started, I believe Atlas as a drama can be improved, um, dramatically. So here is my prescription:
The tragedy of Atlas is that John Galt is a philosophical superhero turned megalomaniac supervillain, who desires to see civilization destroyed because he feels injustice too acutely, because he feels wounded, hurt, and betrayed by the world and wants to reclaim it for all those who are likewise in pain. He is that great trope of comics and adventure fantasy — Anakin Skywalker gone Vader; Hal Jordan fallen from Green Lantern to Parallax; Jean Grey turned to Dark Phoenix; Willow to Dark Willow.
And Galt’s certainty about the need to see society collapse is tragic in the classical, Greek sense too, because if we take away Ayn’s unwarranted epistemic certainty, it is clear that Galt cannot know for sure that collapse is necessary. His actions are justified through arrogance, hubris, presumption. He has abandoned faith in human nature, not restored it. He has sacrificed society, not saved it.
This is where the ambiguity comes in not only for Rand but for us the audience. If Galt can’t know for sure that what he does is necessary, neither can we know for sure that our acceptance of the system is… well, acceptable. To use another pop culture analogy, maybe Tyler Durden really did improve the world by blowing up the credit card companies. Maybe we are better off knocking our tower of Babel over before it falls on us first.
Do you guys see just how good this book could be?
In the end, though, this book is a fictional thought experiment. It allows us to explore transgressive ideas like that, but unless you move to the woods you can only be intellectually honest if you admit you are embracing our society, for all its flaws. Even if we accept that this may represent a dangerous complacency, it is easy to prove as the only morally sound choice.
In the case of climate change, for example, abstention from society will not save the individualistic, hermetic lifestyle. Short of engaging in terrorism, which is clearly morally unjustifiable even to the quasi-anarchist Ayn Rand*, engaging constructively with society is the only logical course of action. It is also the course of hope and hard work and humanity.
[*ED. NOTE: As my friend Max points out in the comments section, Rand actually does endorse terrorism. Certainly the Dread Pirate Ragbeard and Francisco, Galt’s two closest confidantes, employ terrorism on Galt’s behalf. Ayn hedges by focusing on the destruction of property and economic stability, but there’s no way their actions didn’t ruin the lives of millions of innocents and in Ragbeard’s case kill a number of people directly.]
So Rand makes the case that nothing short of civilizational collapse will cure our ills, and that there is no room for compromise in this appraisal. Thank God that none of her believers has acted on this, least of all herself! She was not only happy to join the aristocracy of pull, she collected her entitlement benefits from the U.S. government just like everyone else.
The most important takeaway from Randianism is that those who declare Ayn Rand’s intellectual positions correct yet seek to live in the middle, not living up to the revolutionary implications of their beliefs have accepted Rand’s premise and so must succeed or perish by its conclusions. Some do follow through in this way — the survivalists, those who live remotely and sustainably. Think of Joel Salatin, the self-sufficient survivalist organic farmer. But the middle-dwellers, the Paul Ryans who aspire to the aristocracy of pull, who dedicate their lives to tearing their livelihood down, it is they who evade the responsibility of choice and the reality of their value judgments. It is they who have no respect for truth.
And if that type of person is evil by his own definition and, per Rand, those who face their own evilness must either go mad or commit suicide? Well, the evidence is right in front of our eyes: the Republican Party as an institution has gone mad, and is in the midst of a grand political suicide. Objective reality wins again.
Okay we are now three chapters deep in Atlas Shrugged and the plot skeleton has finally developed real meat on its bones, specifically in the bar scene with Jim Taggart and the other villains of the piece. On the surface it’s pretty dry stuff, flat even, but it’s meaty because this is where Rand starts making points that are, at least from today’s perspective, both conservative and liberal.
Right off the bat she illustrates what she learned in Russia about how leftist socioeconomic policy can ruin the competitiveness of the market. The Tea Party approves. But the context of this lesson, strictly speaking, is a cabal of established businessmen who instigate the government’s malfeasance by warping the law to their own desire. Occupy Wall Street approves too! The Randverse, it turns out, is not as partisan as conventional wisdom would have you believe. In fact, despite Rand’s heroic feats of oversimplification, her world is riddled with dilemmas. I’ve embellished the text in two places to accent this:
The bigger and more dramatic of the two updates is the nature of the energy crisis in the book (or, “in the book”). Ayn puts the phrase ‘natural exhaustion of the mines’ in the mouth of the evil Orren Boyle, while the valorous Ellis Wyatt has struck new oil through sheer force of will. So Rand sees the problem as a withering of human ambition and not a genuine environmental limitation or the cause of catastrophic climatic side effects. Granted, she was writing in 1957 and you can’t predict everything about the next half-century.
But if the energy crisis (“in the book”) is legitimate, the villains while still villainous are at least reacting to real threats, just poorly, and our two main protagonists, Dagny and Hank, are effectively the champions of 21st century progressive projects like high-speed rail and sustainable development. All this reorients the way Atlas maps onto our real-life politics in ways that are far more interesting than going by the author’s, you know, actual intentions, and as such this new paradigm will become increasingly important as we progress.
The second update I make is the substitution of the word ‘lobbyist’ for Rand’s phrase ‘men in Washington.’ Again, by Rand’s account, the catalyst for state interference here is a syndicate of elite market players who work with influence-peddlers like Wesley Mouch to protect themselves from market forces. The vast majority of Americans today recognize that as a real problem and see lobbyists as the poster boys for it.
Generally speaking, conservatives blame government bloat for our troubles, because bureaucracy is inefficient and creates opportunities for rent-seeking (political science for ‘bribes’). Unfettered business is the natural corollary to their desire to shrink the state. Liberals blame the concentration of power in the corporate class for our troubles, since this class can fetter business to its own ends through lobbying, as a sort of covert class war. The truth is that the distinction is akin to arguing over whether a coin is all heads or all tails.
But the reality of how we ended up this way is more complex than the Randverse can contain. To explain that reality in three paragraphs I’m going to draw heavily from Lawrence Lessig’s new book Republic Lost, which you should buy here for more info. Here it goes:
Over the last three decades, the cost of running a campaign has skyrocketed into a financial arms race. Candidates need either a personal fortune or corporate backing just to compete. The average member of Congress now spends 40-70% of her time raising money, and the more competitive her district is (that is to say, the more a vote actually counts), the more money she’ll need (so the money counts first). She also no doubt won office by championing a couple of high-profile issues that she genuinely cares about, but now she has hundreds of votes to make on a wide variety of issues about which she knows very little. With no time to study obscure technical matters, she needs help to know how to vote and why. That’s where the lobbyists come in.
They aren’t buying results per se. They’re providing congressmen who don’t have enough hours in the day with vital background on all sorts of wonky topics. Is the research in their reports slanted towards the interests they represent? Certainly. But that’s obvious and they naturally work with the congressmen who are already friendly to their interests due to a vague sense of shared values (just like how voters pick their congressmen!). In short, they provide what political scientists call a “legislative subsidy.” If, for example, you agree with this post so far but didn’t have the details to back up your opinion before, I’m providing you with an “argumentative subsidy.” That’s the value lobbyists ostensibly bring to the table, but in the case of governing it creates a vicious circle.
The laws of the land end up de facto written by various lobbies in various uncoordinated bits and pieces, resulting in ever more technocratic votes that leave Congressmen relying ever more on lobbyists’ help. The tangle of statutes produced gets so convoluted that you need, say, a phalanx of lawyers to understand it. That creates a bias towards big companies, which creates barriers to entry for start-up businesses, stifling competition. In the end the established businesses have done right by their investors but wrong by the market as a whole. The congressmen have done right by their constituents, voting their values on the issues that defined their campaigns and sending pork projects back home to boost the local economy, but they’ve done wrong by the country and our Constitutional institutions as a whole. Everybody hates Congress but likes their Congressman.
Maybe you noticed what this perverse dynamic doesn’t require: explicit pay-offs or quid pro quos. The ways in which lobbyists introduce politicians to major donors definitely skirts that line, but everybody networks, right? Individually, everybody’s doing what you would do too. Considering the social structure of their day-to-day lives and the personal cost/benefit dynamic, everyone’s behavior is in their rational self-interest, and pretty normal. Even if no one is corrupt, everyone’s actions in the aggregate produce a corrupt society. How can that be? Everyone is satisfying their rational self-interest just like Rand wanted, with the end result being the societal decay that she feared. All the powerbrokers are getting what they need but not what they’ve earned, while the true innovators who could address real, impending, potentially apocalyptic issues like energy scarcity and climate change are tarred as controversial figures whose goals are obstructed by a dysfunctional civic culture. Hey wait, that’s the plot of the book!
So in Rand’s favor she gets the broad strokes of today’s problems right, but her personal life philosophy actually enables those problems. Rational self-interest, it turns out, will not suffice as an ethical standard of behavior unless the impact of the individual on his culture is part of what defines that rationality. Anything too selfish is corrosive to the climate, political or otherwise, and exposes ‘self-interest’ as having been defined too narrowly.
Yes, in the recaps I joke that Ayn has a thing for fascism when describing her heroes. But fascism is often described as collusion between big business and big government, and that’s exactly the state of affairs
we live in she depicts as villainous. Likewise, if you read Benito Mussolini’s definition of fascism, certain phrases about human values and the failures of egalitarian democracy seem straight out of Rand, even as the statist politics he promotes are the total opposite of her libertarian vision.
By the same token I think updating Atlas to include modern lobbying and the climate & energy crises is actually true to the spirit of Rand’s work despite her political legacy because of the cognitive dissonance it provokes. Keep in mind that many of those who fund the most powerful lobbies and shower money on politicians preach Rand’s philosophy even as it condemns their behavior (Koch Brothers, I’m looking at you) — a self-contradiction in the very style of James Taggart.
And that makes Atlas Shrugged a self-fulfilling prophecy about a philosophy of self-fulfillment whose adherents are self-contradicting in direct contradiction of their self-styled philosophy causing the philosophy’s prophecy to become self-fulfilling. Holy Meta!
Next week I’ll be following the Monday Chapter 4 recap with more Food for Thought on Wednesday. If you’re intrigued, please subscribe by e-mail or RSS at the bottom of the page, and if you like, get caught up on the reading.