Posts Tagged politics

Frisco & Willers: The Adventure Continues

At the inauguration last Monday, President Obama provided a delicious petit four to the national digestion of a heady election year when he rebutted the central rhetorical flourish of Paul Ryan’s ideological case, the prototypical Randian rubric of “makers v. takers.”

Rand’s moment of ascendancy has passed now, and thank God for that, but I think this project was rightly timed, and now that the American zeitgeist is on to the next one, I’m going to do a sequel at my shiny new blog, TBETTINSON.COM.

The subject of this next project will be Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. I won’t be taking a whole year on this book, more like a few months, but that will be enough time to tease some fruitful threads and follow them coincident with various political showdowns between our black president and the gilded-age nostalgics of our House of Representatives.

So make a quick visit to TBETTINSON.COMthen make frequent quick visits forever after. Come for the Cabin, and stay for the prose.

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Applied Randology #15: Party Lines

Welcome one and all to the Grand Finale, the very last week of “Atlas ‘Clubbed” — which I will admit in retrospect should’ve been called “Atlas Blogged,” or even more accurately, “Atlas Trolled.”

But it’s too late for that now, and more importantly — tomorrow’s the election! So here’s how this blog’s waning days are going to break down:

*Today, a thorough review of everything Atlas Shrugged has taught us about American politics in 2012.

*Tomorrow, what lessons should Democrats and Republicans each learn from Ayn Rand going forward?

*Wednesday will obviously be dedicated to the election results, to whatever degree they’re definitive by morning.

*Thursday, some final reflections. How reading Atlas Shrugged (twice!) has affected my beliefs and attitudes personally. “Dessert for Thought” if you will.

*Friday I’ll cast this sucker in amber and announce my future blogging plans.

So, without further ado…

PARTY LINES

For most of American history, our two political parties were ideologically diverse, with lots of different conflicting interest groups existing within each. And while there are still factions within them, the parties have become far more ideologically cohesive over the last half-century.

The Republican Party in particular has become extremely doctrinaire: conservatives today speak of their “Cause” and their “Movement,” and their candidates face a number of “purity tests” and “pledges” on their way to office.

These are characteristics of a “closed” ideology, a belief system that is less interested in adapting to reality than forcing reality to fit its ideas. And such belief systems can be extremely effective at doing that. But the approach has its limits. Push reality too hard and reality pushes back.

In contrast, Democrats are the more diverse party, and this is why congressional Republicans can vote in almost perfect lockstep and unanimity but congressional Democrats often have trouble maintaining the party line.  To the lay voter who pays scant attention to politics, all this makes Republicans look strong and righteous, and Democrats look weak and confused. On a public relations level, the “closed” ideology has an advantage.

So even though this blog was initially intended to be as non-partisan as possible, as the election drew nearer I felt it necessary to declare that independent voters should definitely, absolutely pick the Democratic Party — not always, but for now. Because ideologies that are open to evolution and change are good, and ideologies closed to new evidence are bad. And while history tells us that polarized ideological parties aren’t good for America in general, as long as we have them we should vote for the one that is “open” and not the one that is “closed.”

In Atlas Shrugged, Ayn presents two ideological factions, one that swears by proper science and factual evidence and moral justice, and one that ignores the reality in front of their eyes by hiding behind a broken philosophy. In today’s world, partisans can more or less agree on this dynamic but put each other in the opposite roles. Ayn, for her part, says the faction of objective truth is the anarcho-capitalist faction, and the faction of false belief is the faction of social democrats.

Of course I started this blog because I think Ayn’s fictional world has great relevance to our own, but obviously I believe that as far as her world relates to America in 2012, Ayn got the morality of the political factions backwards — but NOT because of the politics themselves.

See, I don’t think libertarianism and conservatism are “false beliefs,” nor do I think liberalism is fundamentally objective and right. I think defining moral right and wrong along political lines is one of Ayn’s biggest mistakes. The moral dividing line isn’t libertarianism v. social democracy, it’s how you think about your beliefs that matters. It’s not left or right, but open or closed to evolving.

Looking at it that way, it just so happens that the Democratic Party is morally right and the Republican Party is morally wrong, not because of liberalism and conservatism, not even because of what each party claims its moral values are, but because the Democratic Party as a whole is open to new ideas and evidence in a way that the Republican Party as a whole is not.

Ayn dedicates her whole book to the idea that one way of thinking is morally right and one way of thinking is morally wrong — she just doesn’t live up to her own definition of the right way. And neither do her followers.

So let’s examine how well our real-world parties fare against this Randian standard. Three axes: economics, social policy, and political strategy.

1. ECONOMICS

When Ayn was doing all that world-building in Atlas, I made clear that I found the broad strokes of her vision effective because I think fiscal discipline and small government make an enormous amount of sense. I think Democrats fail to fully appreciate the burden of excess regulation and regulatory uncertainty, and I think liberals tend to vilify capitalism and business as an abstract generality even though they are the world’s great drivers of prosperity. On top of all that I find the idea of a lean, mean, stream-lined state that leaves as much as possible to the liberty of the people to be a beautiful and elegant theory of government.

However, we must abide by logic and reason and the evidence of the applied sciences in our universe, just as Rand would have us do in her own customized version of the universe. And that means we must recognize the serious threat that climate change poses to economic prosperity and human quality of life more generally. We must recognize that as a matter of history, radical income inequality and political plutocracy lead to a collapse of the economic buffer between rich and poor otherwise known as the middle class (or the bourgeoisie, if you prefer).

On these matters, the places where ideal theory must either bend to meet cold hard reality or break upon impact, the value of some government regulation and a socially intelligent tax system should be obvious. Yet in the face of not only repeated freak hurricanes, but also financial disasters and the fiscal recklessness of its own recent leaders, the Republican Party refuses to amend its ideal theory to improve its relationship with reality. And considering the great potential of that theory, the fact that it is the Democrats who have the healthier relationship to math, facts, history, and responsibility is a huge self-inflicted wound and a deep mark of shame on the GOP.

Again and again, the 21st century Republican Party has had the opportunity to live up to the virtuous ideas of its historical forebears, and again and again it has failed. Today’s Republicans talk a good game, but when you educate yourself on how they actually behave in office, you see that they are Rand fans fetishizing Francisco’s speech about money as karma, one of the most logically sloppy sections of the book.

2. SOCIAL ISSUES

This one could not be simpler. Liberalism today means being pro-abortion, pro-sex, pro-gay… social liberalism has a decidedly more libertarian reputation in nearly every category. Ayn tested, real world approved!

Which isn’t to say social conservatism doesn’t have merits. Its attention to questions of social stability and positive environments for raising children are important concerns to have. The surprisingly fast acceptance of gay marriage is, I think, largely due to the fact that the fundamental right gays are fighting for is access to a conservative, traditional institution of family and stability.

And please notice that for both sides, they win on social issues when they are “pro” something. When liberals violate the libertarian virtues of their popular positions and start going all “nanny state” about cigarette packaging or soft drink sizes or whatever, it rubs people the wrong way. That’s a “con” of social liberalism.

But the “cons” of social conservatism are far worse, at least politically, because social conservatism today is defined largely as anti-sex, which must be the most losing political argument in the Western world. Ayn would be utterly apalled.

Now, there is actually a Randian argument in favor of conservative attitudes towards sex, founded in the fact that Ayn believes sex is unavoidably an exchange of spiritual value. The rights to accessible birth control and abortions, while enormously important for the economic and social freedom of at least half the population of America and the earth, do create a culture in which the relationships between sexuality and pregnancy, sexuality and sheer personal intimacy, are loosened. That raises some valid questions about spiritual health, moral values, and the cultural environment in which our children develop.

But that certainly doesn’t justify the wholesale rejection of modernity, including women’s rights, science, and higher education. And sadly, just such a rejection is the headline characteristic of a number of religious conservative movements today.

And so, just as it was with economics, I believe the right champions important moral questions that the left would do well to consider, yet goes so overboard with religious/ideological fervor that it disqualifies itself from wielding power.

3. POLITICAL STYLE

This is where I find myself viscerally upset by today’s Republican Party. Particularly if you buy into the moral value of being rational and objective about facts, the political strategy of the 21st century GOP is truly vile.

I think it’s simplest to put it this way:

The only serious tactic in the Republican governing arsenal since 2008 has been to hold the economy hostage. On the stimulus bill, on health care reform, on the debt ceiling, on the jobs act… the GOP consistently sabotages the nation’s short-term or long-term economic health, and then blames Obama. Does anybody recognize that tactic, can you think of anyone else who uses it? I can. It’s John Galt.

You see, the thing that makes Ayn Rand fandom so disturbing is that Ayn Rand doesn’t believe in democracy. She believes the wealthy deserve complete freedom from taxes and social responsibility as a matter of moral justice, and so the only just laws are those designed to protect the wealthy from the population at large. To Ayn Rand, the purpose of government is to protect plutocracy from the dangers of democracy.

And this is what the Republican Party of 2012 is really doing, except instead of abstaining from government like the fictional Galt, they work to take over government from the inside, which Galt specifically rejects.

I don’t think this is an intentional conspiratorial cabal situation. It could be, but it doesn’t have to be. It could be as simple as this: the billionaire Rand fans fund The Party. The social conservatives and the small government fiscal hawks vote for The Party. And The Party, which believes in money but doesn’t believe in government, makes sure to do what the funders want, and really doesn’t give a shit about the governing part that the social conservatives and the fiscal hawks have a genuine stake in. In the end, the public is left in ruins and the richest took the money and ran, and by their moral logic this is not only okay, it proves they were right all along.

And that’s why you have to vote Democrat by default. That party believes in democracy. It’s a party of many creeds and colors, a party of economic opportunity and legal equality. It is within the historical tradition of great American government. It is not the most aggressive or impressive to a superficial observer, but it is the better option.

In the sections above, I listed a number of reasons why I can sympathize with Republican voters and right-leaning independents. I pointed out where I respect their philosophy and values at every opportunity. But once you come down to the basic, craven politics of it, I cannot escape this conclusion, based in fact and historical evidence, that to whatever degree you support the Republican Party of today, you are ignorant of, or in denial about, its true nature and its moral reality.

A democratic vote for an anti-democracy party is a reward for moral perversity and social injustice, anti-logic, anti-life, ignorance, denial, cynicism, contradiction, and self-destruction. Make your choice, America, but make it in full awareness of what it is you’re choosing.

That’s what Ayn would’ve wanted.

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Applied Randology #13: The Counterfactual

At the end of my commentary on John Galt’s speech, only twelve hours before Mitt Romney’s debate performance rebooted the race from a potential Obama landslide into a genuine toss-up, I concluded that

If [Randians who have no respect for truth] are evil by [their] 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.

Oops.

Okay, I’ll be the first to admit that by the end of The Speech I had gone pretty far overboard mimicking Ayn’s bluster and absolutism in my polemic against her. But my point about the nature of the modern Republican Party is sound; what’s changed is that the Party’s truth-free and reality-averse political strategy is working a lot better now. I still think Obama is going to pull out a victory, but the GOP’s “political suicide” turns out to have been a lot less real than it seemed on the morning of October 3rd. So to moderate the hyperbole of my Galt’s Speech conclusions, I’m going to imagine the potential Romniverse — in decidedly less hysterical terms than conservative pundits use when they imagine (and I do mean imagine) the Obamaverse.

First things first: when it comes down to it, I don’t consider a Romney presidency to be the real danger in this election; I consider a win for the Romney campaign to be the greater danger, because it would mean objective reality lost to post-modern relativism and willful ignorance. Even his supporters seem to defend him primarily on the grounds that you can’t believe half the things he says, which is the worst sort of moral complacency (and the sort condemned so rightly by Ayn in Atlas Shrugged).

This moral issue is the true crux of the election. As far as governing goes, I made it clear very early on this blog that there are elements of Rand’s “Objectiverse” and parts of conservative ideology that I can appreciate.  Even though I prefer Democratic policies to Republican ones on the whole, it’s really the politics and the rhetoric of the Republican Party that I object to with the moral certainty I played up in the Speech commentary.

What elements of a Romney presidency would I be okay with? The most promising is that if Romney wins, we will get another stimulus bill to help goose short-term economic growth. Even though the Republican House has been the faction blocking more stimulus under Obama, it is more or less a given that Paul Ryan would convince them to reverse their position if they also held the White House. Jon Chait outlines that case here. Despite the infuriating fact that this is a perfect example of the “politics over policy”/”party over country” nature of modern Republican leaders, releasing the hostage economy would be good for the country, so I could take some solace in that.

But when it comes to the other accomplishments of a hypothetical Romney administration that I could potentially get behind, the other elements of conservative ideology I support, well… the situation is more troubling. I am extremely skeptical that they would actually happen. Specifically, I would be in favor of tax reform, a balanced budget, and deficit reduction, which are really all the same issue. But if the history of Republicanism over the last thirty years is any indication, expecting follow-thru on these goals would just make me (and Republican voters) Charlie Brown to the GOP’s Lucy.

Fiscal responsibility is the football, see?

After all, both Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush made sure to cut lots of taxes, but never got around to the cutting spending part. They didn’t put government on a diet, they just let it go malnourished. To be fair to Ronald Reagan, even as he racked up debt, he did pass responsible, bipartisan tax reform, and increased taxes several times to compensate for his initial tax-cut binge in 1981. So really it’s just George W. Bush who single-handedly starved America: he moved the country away from a year-to-year budget surplus that would have erased the debt by now, to annual deficits that added $4 trillion dollars to the national debt over 8 years. 

Now even though conservatives are constantly pointing out that President Obama has added even more than that in under 4 years, the cause of this massive annual deficit is the spending commitments made by Bush (two wars, a huge expansion in the Medicare entitlement), paired with tax rate cuts established by Bush, exacerbated by a huge drop in actual tax dollars collected due to the economic collapse (which also happened on Bush’s watch). So Republican campaign messaging that blaming Bush is old news, boring, or irrelevant… that’s willful amnesia and defiance of reality.

If we set our expectations based on how Republicans have behaved and not on what they say, then they are far more likely to slash taxes but preserve spending, therefore ballooning the deficit even more. If nothing else, Republican fealty to Grover Norquist blocks any meaningful tax reform.

But what about Paul Ryan? Would his role in this hypothetical Republican government lead to a change in GOP seriousness about budgets? He certainly seems to think President Obama should have prioritized fixing Bush’s deficit problem — even though he helped create it and has actually tanked bipartisan efforts to fix it.

Well, okay, despite that last, incredibly relevant fact, let’s pretend assume that he’s only been biding his time as a team player on his way to the real levers of power where he can get serious about slashing spending. I still have two concerns about this.

One is that fiscal austerity hurts the recovery. Europe proves this. In fact, the “fiscal cliff” coming at the end of the year represents just this problem: it cuts the deficit too much. And although Republicans want to get rid of the cliff, “cliff” is actually the wrong metaphor because the cuts would take effect over enough time, in future budgets, that they can be adjusted, turning the “cliff” into a controlled landing that actually resolves the budget/debt/tax issue responsibly.

The key word there is “responsibly.” Since the Republican record is so irresponsible, having a Democratic veto pen handy makes responsibility far more likely. A more powerful GOP would happily erase the politically painful (deficit-reducing) parts of the “cliff.” This is, once again, outlined in Jon Chait’s afore-mentioned article.

Chait is really the indispensible writer on Rand and modern Republicanism. In his 2008 book The Big Con, Chait points out that the only part of the Republican agenda that the party never compromises on is tax cuts for the rich. When the Republican Party is in power, Christian conservatives are constantly disappointed by inaction; budget hawks are constantly disappointed by profligate spending; the wealthy are never disappointed.

Which brings us to my second concern about Paul Ryan’s approach to balanced budgets. This one is not about a short-term shock to the economy, it’s about the long-term structure of the economy. As the facts of the last three decades make clear, economic growth under Republican policies accumulates at the top. Tax-slashers today say that the 1% pays a larger share of the income tax than ever before, so it would be immoral to tax them more. But this is another example of willful ignorance: not only does the 1% store a lot of its wealth in investments that are taxed at the lower capital gains rate, but their income tax rates have been cut over and over. So how could their share of the income tax grow when the rates are getting lower? Because they make so much more of the nation’s income! Tax cuts and economic collapse have moved lots of people out of the income tax brackets entirely. The people who don’t pay income taxes still pay payroll taxes, state and local taxes, sales taxes, &c, all of which are taxes that disproportionally affect the poor. Yet the rich, who have gotten richer and richer, complain!

The Romney and Ryan plans explicitly encourage this trend, and history confirms that this is the campaign promise they are most likely to keep. Add to that the gutting of domestic discretionary spending, and we would soon find ourselves in a country with a class of super-wealthy plutocrats paying fewer and fewer taxes while the poor face taxes that eat up a significant share of their income, undermining social mobility, living standards, and both literal and fiscal health. On top of that, cuts in clean energy investment and a draconian immigration policy would undermine the foundation of America’s strength in the middle and late 21st century.

So, hey, you might’ve noticed that my intention to look on the bright side of a Republican victory has hit a pretty solid wall, a wall whose bricks I like to call “evidence,” “facts,” “reality,” and “truth.” Frankly, call it whatever you want. The important thing to realize is that this course which would be a disaster for everyone except the super-rich plutocracy is the Ayn Rand dream scenario. It is literally the plot of Atlas Shrugged, except in real life it is Rand’s version of utopia that is being achieved by corrupt plutocrats and lobbyists taking over the federal government. Rand’s utopia just happens to be the rest of reality’s dystopia.

I think any Republican voters who come across this site probably disregard it, take offense when I say all these negative things about their party. But I’m not talking about them! I’m talking about the people in power, not the masses. The masses see corruption among the powerful and think, “Better vote for the guys who want to shrink government,” but those guys are the ones pulling the most corrupt con of all! And if this indisputable fact is depressing to Republican voters because it proves them to be ignorant dupes, well, the proper reaction is not to hide from reality, but to face it and reform themselves to be more virtuous. Don’t take it from me, take it from Ayn Rand! Her advice for individuals is actually extremely valuable, for the most part, because she loves individuals — it’s her advice for society that is disastrous, because she actively wants to see it fail! She’s very explicit about it!

In accordance with that distinction, please note that the explicit purpose of this post has been to figure out a way to respond to a hypothetical Romney victory with equanimity, to prepare to swallow and digest frustration and disappointment and channel it into something productive and creative. In short, to react like Hank Rearden or Francisco D’Anconia, Randian heroes.

Likewise, I will abide by another Randian ideal, one that she herself failed to live by: facing reality and the evidence clearly. In the context of this hypothetical Romney victory, that means I would have to remain open to evidence that his policies work better than I can reasonably expect of them bsaed on history and logic. But in the far less theoretical, uh, “actual reality,” I must acknowledge that Randian economics, and Randian attitudes toward society and community, in short all those things that Romney and Ryan represent politically — these have been proved by the historical record to be a civic travesty.

More than the economic policy, the social policy, the long-term vision of the role of government, I consider the defining feature of the partisan divide in this country to be modes of thinking. Do we validate a solipsistic philosophy that is closed to evidence, that so willfully defies reality that the weak-minded are dominated and impressed? Or do we reward a philosophy that is open to evidence and evolves, that allows itself to be vulnerable precisely because it is willing to adapt and compromise? As I discussed in my commentary on Galt’s Speech, I consider this issue to be the fundamental measure of moral virtue, and therefore the fundamental reason I’m obligated to call modern Republicanism immoral. Though I cannot speak to the intellectual character of every individual in either party, I can speak to the aggregate character of the two institutions.

So this election is not ultimately a verdict on the candidates. It is a verdict on the nation, the people. It is a verdict on America’s relationship to objective reality. Will we choose to see the truth of our time and place in history and renew our commitment to democratic tradition, or will we choose to ignore the facts of the last several decades and allow ourselves to slip down the road to serfdom under a corrupt plutocracy that has bought the government?

Democracies get the governments they deserve. Let’s deserve our democracy.

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Food for Thought #16: But What if They’re Right?

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.

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3:7 This is John Galt Whining, part 3

By his own estimation, John Galt’s podcast and its monopoly on all media streams worldwide has been going on for about two hours now. He has outlined the following philosophy:

1) The true human spirit is the spirit of ambition, achievement, intelligence, and self-reliance. It is impossible to embody this spirit if one does not believe in the unlimited power of one’s intellect and will.

2) The false human spirit, practiced by most of the world wittingly or unwittingly, is the spirit of cowardice, neediness, humility, complacency, and self-evasion. By lowering the bar for the definition of human nature, these moral/spiritual/economic/political weaklings are implicitly enabling, even promoting, a culture of death and dissolution.

And you know what? Putting aside differences among people about which other people should fit into which category, this rubric seems like something a lot of us buy into to some degree or another. A cynical degree perhaps, but if we’re being honest we all struggle with pessimism about the quality of human beings when regarded en masse. There is something deeply relatable here.

With this paradigm in mind, John Galt is echoing the call to action of ’60s liberal activist Mario Savio:

There’s a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can’t take part! You can’t even passively take part! And you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels…upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop! And you’ve got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you’re free, the machine will be prevented from working at all!

Galt inverts Savio’s imagery, though, seeing the human spirit in the machinery itself. He wants to remove the levers and gears and wheels of the meritocratic elite, to save them from the corrosive effects of the commodity being processed — namely the other, inferior human beings. Doesn’t the quality of the product of the machine say something about the quality of the machine itself? Also, aren’t the inferiors the owners/runners of the machine too, in this version? It’s all a little confusing. Let’s just say that in John Galt’s worldview any metaphor for global society as a dehumanizing machine is bound to get a little convoluted.

And maybe that’s why the details of his views are so reductive — he has no other choice.  His argument is getting really weird and tangled up in itself. He hails certain people throughout history as his intellectual and moral predecessors, and who are they? The people who sacrificed their own potential, who “function at a fraction of their capacity” because they’re bitter about the world and characterized by their “revulsion.”

But aren’t these the most despicable people of all? People who abandon their value, their hope? Aren’t they the walking dead, the implicit zero-worshippers? Doesn’t their attitude betray Galt’s core value of proving one’s moral worth through realizing one’s potential? And yet he pities them, valorizes them for vilifying the world…

Galt finally makes the following explicit: he is calling for massive civil disobedience, just like every idealistic left-wing college activist you’ve ever met. He is opting out of a broken system, and because he and his ilk are the most powerful and competent citizens, the system is inevitably breaking down faster and faster. The only way to save yourself is to likewise opt out. To put your skills and intelligence to use from the ground up and for you and your loved ones only.

Populism is now creeping in at the edges. The common people, too, should go on strike! This is the purpose of broadcasting his philosophy to the world at large, to empower the masses. By virtue of their self-sufficiency, the worthy will prove their worth, and the unworthy will perish. This man, who hails civilization and rationality, who speaks of naturalists as savages, is suggesting that the true measure of a man’s moral value is determined by the law of the jungle.

I’m reminded of a quote by the great American philosopher Oliver Wendell Holmes, who said he enjoyed paying his taxes because they “bought him civilization.”

Now Galt turns to directly address those listeners (like me) who have ambivalent feelings about all this.

He accuses me of trying to avoid reality when I say I don’t have to make an extreme and radical choice.  He scathingly rebukes basically everything I articulated as my philosophy, my choice to value conservative judiciousness, to aspire to the virtue of adaptability to any circumstance.  And then he says this:

There are two sides to every issue: one side is right and the other is wrong, but the middle is always evil.

And this is when my ambivalence dissolves, and I know that I am right and John Galt is wrong. Because the middle is not always evil. And quite often it is vital to consider more than two facets of an issue to decide well between right and wrong. 

Galt and his authorial God, they believe that to admit the possibility of non-absolutes is to reject the reality of all absolutes. This is irrational. The Rand-God of the Objectiverse, and Galt by extension, has built her house on a logical fallacy.

So I hold this truth to be self-evident: that not all ideas are created equal, and Ayn Rand’s were born defective and degenerate, and this is why she spends 1100 pages aborting her own universe.

As I said in articulating my philosophy, though I value flexibility, sometimes certainty and stubbornness are called for. Now is one of those times.

John Galt rails against my false moral code as preventing me from “casting the first stone,” mere pages after he asserted the absolute wrongness of initiating force.

Galt spends several pages more telling us fence-sitters what we believe, and why it is damnably wrong. He urges us to embrace his philosophy, for all alternatives are evil, and “no man can survive the moment of pronouncing himself irredeemably evil; should he do it, his next moment is insanity or suicide.”

You must believe in yourself, believe in your goodness, Galt declares inspirationally, his attitude toward his audience getting increasingly bipolar.

Galt describes the innocence of children as a form of pure rationality — and there the Ayn-God goes again, proving herself incapable of dealing with the reality of human development. Galt preaches that one should never lose touch with one’s inner child, and I really do think it sad, all this common sense, all this age-old wisdom and good advice, mangled and chained by all thse perverse and self-defeating conditions.

So in the name of a superior flexibility and openness, let us appreciate the inspirational parts once more. Galt addresses us all again, tells us we have the choice to embrace life and love existence, to cherish our minds and our ability to make something of ourselves. “Accept, as your moral ideal, the task of becoming a man.” Accept that “man is an end in himself.”

And I love that! I love that sentence. Of my own philosophy I wrote, “it is a paradigm for living life as an art form … it’s about being your best self as an end in itself.” And I would be so happy to work with Rand and Galt, to share this common ground and agree to disagree on the rest. To compromise for mutual benefit.

But they will not admit of disagreement, they will brook no compromise. For them, it is all or nothing. Literally.

And this is why they must get nothing. Why Rand’s bastardized heirs in the real life Republican Party must be denied power and reduced to powerlessness. If you, John Galt, Paul Ryan, Ayn Rand by any name — if you insist on all or nothing, insist that the time has come for a principled stand, then I, the compromiser, the accomodator, the non-absolutist… I will take all, and you can have the nothing.

For nothing is the measure of the logic of your code, and nothing is therefore what you deserve. We the People will give you what you want, Randians, what you secretly desire and seek to deny through evading true self-knowledge: nothing.

Galt says “only a mystic would judge human beings by the standard of an impossible, automatic omniscience,” and yet Galt’s vision of rational thought is this very standard. He claims logic and reason are the fundamental code of reality, and thus that rationality is omniscient. He declares rationality intrinsic and pure in childre, that it is automatic. And in reality, that reality which he so seeks to deny, indeed to destroy, this omniscience and this automaticity is, yes, impossible. 

Galt’s absolutism, his belief in human perfectibility, is based on a mystic misattribution. He blanks himself out. He is what he condemns. He has removed himself from the world by his own admission. It is his defining decision. He has zeroed himself. He does not need to worship zero, for he is a zero.

I see it now! I see it in the litany of conditions he places on our redemption, in these final pages of his speech, in the dictums he proclaims which have turned out to be so disastrous for the real world, for the real America, for our real politics.

I see the plea for help, and I see the cannibalism, in his equating a plea for help with cannibalism. I see his cowardice in his immediate qualification and conditioning of that statement, his defense of helping someone if you deem the person in need of help to be virtuous — a statement itself qualified to depend entirely on the qualities he subjectively categorizes as virtuous. Look at how he compromises his own absolutes in absolute contradiction of his own absolute against compromising absolutes. Absolutely contradictory!

I see the insecurity in his insistence that the standard of perfection is not impossible. It is, and just as he claims, he is the proof.  His strength is so fragile, so brittle, and afraid. His self-defeat, his self-negation, his subconscious nihilism… it’s so clear, and so obvious, to anybody who dares to think, who dares to be a man.

Galt approaches his whimpering conclusion. He outlines the framework of a minimal libertarian state, as if he has proved its necessity and history has not proved its inadequacy. He declares all other social structure to operate by a code of conduct by which “you may do whatever you please to your neighbor, provided your gang is bigger than his,” as if this dynamic is not a danger when “bank account” is substituted for “gang.”

He grants one more moment of praise for the immeasurable value of a great idea or innovation. One more insight about the retarding effect of economic and legislative uncertainty on growth. And then one more fist, furiously shaken in the direction of janitors and menial laborers for not earning their paychecks and their livelihoods by intellect. You were so close, John! But no, his disregard for dignity is undignified, his disgust disgusting.

His final rallying cry: all men and women of heroism, break the back of the system with us! Abandon the villains in your midst, live alone, or in like-minded communities, and when global civilization collapses, we will find each other and rebuild the world anew!

This rabid dog of reason, this hollow braggart and bully of rhetoric, he dares preach the value of the human spirit while he warns those who retain sympathy for their fellow man that they must sever the bonds of affection with their kin. Give up on life so that you may live! he commands. Join me in my historically horrific desire to purge and purify, like a Jacobin or a Bolshevik!  Join me in my cradle of obfuscation and denial of my own truth! Reclaim your individuality… by being just like me.

Galt directs this last plea surreptitiously at Dagny. And then back to the broader audience, to you and me, he recites his mantra, that one should not live for others nor others for you. He signs off, leaving us to digest his poisonous message.

And you know what? He was right about one thing — he has made the truth about himself clear, and his philosophy naked and plain. It is ugly.

REFLECTIONS ON THE SPEECH — John Galt & Ayn Rand versus Reality: Compare and Contrast

NEXT — 3:8 The Egoist, “Apocalypse of Apathy”

 

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Applied Randology #10: How the Other Half Lives

Today we’re going to play “Pretend Republican,” a game in which I consider negative takes on the wildly successful Democratic convention from the perspectives of a birther, a moderate conservative, and a libertarian.

PROLOGUE: CREDIT WHERE IT’S DUE

Before I play contrarian I want to offer one plaudit to the Dems that will give you a sense of where I stand ideologically. The praise goes to Julian Castro’s analogy about the American Dream being a relay from generation to generation and not a sprint or a marathon among individuals.

The ‘relay’ metaphor exposes the blind spot in the Rand/Republican belief that capitalist outcomes are inherently meritocratic.  Paul Ryan has said that the GOP believes in ‘equality of opportunity but not equality of outcomes.’ Fair enough. Let’s say we have perfect equality of opportunity; the outcomes for Generation 1 are meritocratic. But those unequal outcomes distort the distribution of opportunities available to  Generation 2, warping the relationship between outcome and merit starting with Generation 2 and forever onward.

Castro’s invocation of future generations also contrasts sharply with the influential Ayn Rand’s extreme discomfort with the role of children and family in a person’s life. Remember, in Atlas Shrugged there are no major characters with children and all familial relationships are exploitive or even predatory. Not exactly traditional values.

Of course, Democrats don’t have a monopoly on thinking of the children. But with that frame of mind in mind, let’s explore the merits and nuances of a few Republican frames of mind. I’m going to start on the fringe and work my way back to the mainstream.

1. BIRTHERISM

So obviously, a pure birther sees the entire DNC as a puppet show orchestrated by a conspiracy of Marxists, and there’s nothing insightful about that. But if you take out the part that breaks down as soon as you use basic critical thinking skills (namely the forged birth certificate part), the argument for a socialist conspiracy is at least comprehensible, if still built entirely on paranoid conjecture.

The argument goes like this: 

Barack Obama wrote a book called Dreams from my Father — not “Dreams of My Father,” as Dinesh D’Souza, producer of the documentary Obama’s America, was quick to point out in a recent interview on Bill Maher’s “Real Time.” 

In Dreams from my Father, Obama describes his adolescent struggle to establish a sense of identity (a universal coming-of-age process that must be particularly acute for a mixed-race child who grew up in several states and countries). On “Real Time” D’Souza quoted Obama from the book describing his frustrated and angry teenage years and his attempt to find an identity by learning what he could about his absentee father and adopting his father’s character as his own. According to D’Souza — and I haven’t looked beyond Wikipedia to try and verify this — Barack Sr held a number of socialist and anti-colonial views, becuse he was from Kenya.

So obviously Obama is a very angry man who forever internalized a radical value system that may or may not exist, and was definitely not just a rebellious teenager going through a phase. And obviously he left hints and clues about this covert ideology in his post-graduate memoir. But what is his secret legislative agenda?

Well, I recently found myself in correspondence with a commmitted Republican who told me he believed Obama is pursuing the Cloward-Piven Strategy. This strategy, outlined by two political scientists in The Nation magazine in 1966, is to overload the U.S. welfare system with so many people that it provokes a crisis, which the left can take as an opportunity to reform entitlements into a system of guaranteed minimum income for everyone.

The flowchart connecting Obama to the Cloward-Piven strategy looks like this:

It’s so OBVIOUS!

Convincing! But the real irony of this conspiracy theory is that the goal of the Cloward-Piven strategy has been endorsed by the two most famous conservative economists of the 20th century, Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman (who advised Ronald Reagan!) And if you think about it, a straight-forward “minimum income” or “negative income tax” is a pretty libertarian-friendly approach to entitlements, because it is simple to understand and the benefit is distributed equally to every voting-age citizen (with maybe an extra per-child credit for families? Either way, let’s not get bogged down in wonky details). Point is, there would be far less opportunity for fraud or cronyism in the implementation of such a system.

But endorsement by libertarian heroes aside, the whole idea is just too hard for the right to swallow because it’s an explicit redistribution of wealth. And besides that, the Cloward-Piven strategy is an incredibly stupid way of reaching the goal, even if you think like I do that the goal could actually be a good idea. Luckily for us, nobody is pursuing that strategy!

2. MAINSTREAM CONSERVATIVISM

The truly incisive conservative argument against our government is your basic Hayekian aversion to bureaucracy, something that conservatives feel keenly and liberals tend to ignore. Through this lens, the Democratic convention was full of obnoxiously naive talk about preserving unsustainable entitlement programs, offering tax credits and subsidies to alternative energy, and generally avoiding any of the reforms that would seriously streamline government and balance the budget.

How serious a concern is this? Well, on a fundamental level the criticism is legitimate: government money + hundreds of legislators + dozens of executive bureaucracies = a million opportunities for cronyism and bribery. Part of this problem is actually uilt into the constitution — since the founders split up power among a lot of different people to avoid its concentration in a dictator, our system of government has a lot of built-in “veto points,” where one person or a small group of people can block the legislative process to extract favors. In political science terms, this kind of exploitation of your position is called “rent-seeking.”  

The problem when it comes to partisan politics is that each side sees cronyism in the other side’s behavior, when this is really one of the ways in which both parties are similarly corrupt.  No matter your noble intentions as a conservative or liberal, once you are an insider, all your honest attempts to bring your allies inside with you, or to make sure government money is going to the ‘right’ people on the outside, appear to be self-evident corrupt cronyism to your political opponents.

Since this form of corruption is essentially universal and you can only distinguish between it and honest brokerage by your personal ideological value judgments, Democrats are naive for not considering its costs and Republicans are naive for thinking there side is much better.

The real difference between the parties on this score is where the money goes. The D’s are comfortable with all sorts of programs that the R’s see as completely without merit. The Ryan budget would slash the funding of all sorts of regulatory agencies whose budgetary footprint is negligible when compared to the big three: Social Security, Medicare, and Defense.

Which is why Democrats should be more sensitive to Republican criticisms in general, even though Republican proposals to cut discretionary spending are wildly insufficient and, I would argue, counter-productive.

3. LIBERTARIANISM

So the moderate’s critique of the Democrats is insightful, but it’s not really that partisan because Republicans aren’t much better, and the examples of discretionary spending that are held up as support for the critique are nowhere near the heart of the problem.

That’s only natural, because the heart of the problem is deeply bipartisan. The biggest beneficiaries of government hand-outs are the interests that can afford to swamp both parties with campaign funds and lobbying money. It is here where you see the very real trends supporting Hayek/Rand’s road to serfdom argument. Check out this Yahoo! Finance article from July analyzing the growth of the lobbying industry and the measurable return on investment that companies see from their lobbying expenses. Money quote:

“I think it speaks to the fact that government is a much bigger part of the economy,” Trennert points out, adding that many companies now actually view their lobbying expenditures along the same lines as R&D (research and development) or equipment spending. ” Companies are understanding better the idea that it is important…that it is a fiduciary duty to spend money and make sure your voice is heard,” he says.

The traditional Big Three sectors for lobbying are finance, pharmaceuticals, and defense. Let’s take defense as our representative example, because it’s the sector in which you see the biggest break between libertarians like Ron Paul and mainstream conservative hawks.

The first thing to note about defense spending is that it is back-door Keynesianism. Even as Ronald Reagan worked to cut all sorts of discretionary spending, he engaged in huge amounts of deficit spending for defense contractors. Now conservatives tend not to mind this because securing borders and trade routes is an undisputed responsibility of even a libertarian state. But this does nothing to change the fact that the sheer amount of money being earmarked invites all of the same concerns about corruption that Republicans see clearly when the money is being spent on poor people instead of bombs and massive warrantless surveillance operations.

It seems obvious to me that defense spending is exactly the area of government expenditure that should alarm libertarians the MOST, because not only does it contribute to the mountain of corrupting subsidies, but the results of that funding are generally the sorts of things the government could use to enclose the citizenry in a panoptical police state.

Unfortunately, both parties only get suitably terrified by this when the other is in power. When President Bush radically expanded the government’s ability to spy and torture and kill without oversight, liberals freaked out while conservatives trusted the decider. Now that a Democratic president is the one signing off on extra-legal targeted killings by remote-controlled drones, the Democrats spent a significant chunk of the convention celebrating our insanely powerful national security apparatus, while conservatives are obviously in a panic about the possibility the president will take all our freedoms away.

CONCLUSION: THE GRAND COMPROMISE

Now I’m not trying to be an alarmist in pointing out that the truly scary growth of government is in the sector(s) that no politician in their right mind would dare cut. I am not advocating we collapse society to avoid further progress along our current course. Anybody who isn’t dropping off the grid and moving to a remote log cabin needs to shut up about Randian apocalyptic ideals like that and accept that incremental reforms to the existing sytem are the least worst option.

Now I’m no wonk, but it seems to me we could radically simplify welfare and social security by replacing them with a (Hayek & Friedman approved!) Guaranteed Minimum Income, and we could make our defense spending far more frugal and efficient if we reasserted stronger judicial and congressional oversight of national security programs and reduced our budgets over a decade or two so that we eventually accounted for, say, 20% of the world’s defense spending instead of 40%, or approximately 2x China’s defense budget instead of 4x. Still gargantuan, just not so bloated and wasteful.

If we did all that we could theoretically shrink government A LOT (if we did all that we basically already would have), and from there it would be relatively easy to balance the budget and reform taxes by closing loopholes and flattening rates. Everybody gets something they want! We could even afford plenty of discretionary spending for infrastructure and R&D credits and other investments in human capital that have positive multiplier effects on the private economy.

Getting to a place like that is impossible means acknowledging that liberal concerns about undue corporate power and conservative concerns about undue government power are concerns about the same thing: the concentration of power and wealth among an unmeritocratic elite.

Putting aside the tremendous logistical obstacles, that’s the real reason we as a country can’t coalesce around a platform for comprehensive reform, even theoretically: the anarcho-capitalist right and the state-socialist left would both have to accept that the other side is… kinda right.

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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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Applied Randology #5: How the Objectiverse… Isn’t

Or,  HOW AYN RAND MISINTERPRETED HER OWN GREATEST WORK.
In 1957, Ayn Rand meticulously constructed a fictional world with the express intent of proving her vision of radical conservatism to be THE objectively correct life philosophy. She called this philosophy Objectivism.In 2012, many of her world-building elements have proved prophetic, and her philosophy enormously influential. But the elements that have turned out to be the most eerily insightful are those to which Rand paid little or no attention. While her fans focus on the threat of government expansion — a theme explored in a parody so blunt and overwrought as to verge on camp — the discerning and open-minded reader might notice that Atlas Shrugged implicitly references:

*The necessity of new infrastructure, sustainable development, and clean energy, as championed by the protagonists.

*The dangers of fossil fuel exhaustion and natural resource depletion, as exemplified by the circumstances of the plot.
*The tragic co-opting of the state by powerful business interests who ignore the afore-mentioned dangers and oppose the afore-mentioned reforms, as embodied by the antagonists.You’ll also notice, discerning reader, that this set of implicit issues is a pretty accurate rundown of modern liberal priorities. And Rand’s explicit issues with the proper role of government and the nature of the economy outright define the modern Republican agenda.

So at least in this one way, 2012 America really is Ayn Rand’s world and we just live in it. But insofar as the heroes of the Objectiverse pursue progressive goals and the villains erect conservative barriers, the parallels are actually perpendiculars. And there are at least two features of Objectiverse politics that explain why.

First of all, the heroes of the Objectiverse are, by definition, uninvolved with and opposed to democratic political processes. They are anarcho-capitalists. So when a real-life politician like Paul Ryan says reading Ayn Rand is what made him decide to go into government, this directly contradicts and violates the morals of Rand’s story — unless of course the politician in question is actually on a covert mission to undermine democratic governance from the inside. Then such a statement would make sense. It would also make that politician Emperor Palpatine, but never mind.

Secondly, the Objectiverse has no discernible political parties. Elections play no significant role and the state is portrayed entirely as a Soviet-style monolithic politburo. Because, after all, if democracy as a form of government is illegitimate, then how much could the differences between political parties actually matter?

Answer, as provided by the real world: A whole lot.Because even though “The Party” in Atlas Shrugged preaches socialist economic intervention — even though that makes the liberal party in the real world seem like the obvious analogue — remember that the incident which incites America’s dystopian transformation is a corrupt conspiracy among some of the country’s wealthiest businessmen, not its elected officials. Remember that their plan is executed by intentionally creating quid-pro-quo revolving-door career opportunities between the public sector and the lobbying industry, which happened in the real world thanks to Republicans.

And remember that the head of state in this dystopian regime is one Mr. Thompson, a generic political chameleon void of principle who looks so much like the stereotype of an upper-middle class businessman that voters can barely remember his face.

It looks like this.

And the ironies don’t end there, they just begin. Note that the heroes sink tons of money into R&D for new technologies that are cleaner and more sustainable, in defiance of the conventional wisdom that their investments make no economic sense. Note that the industrial behemoths of yesteryear only maintain their market superiority by lobbying successfully for enormous tax breaks and government subsidies.
Can you see how Atlas Shrugged is actually, if accidentally, a critique of modern Republicanism? Where Rand’s intended satire of liberalism is so over-the-top it quickly jumps the shark, the satire of modern conservatism that she could not have intended from her vantage point in the 1950s is subtle and insidious; a rewarding discovery that you have to make yourself.
Simply put, substantive critiques of modern liberalism are actually beyond the book’s reach because Rand only presents liberal arguments in straw-man form. She never touches them. Within the Objectiverse, modern liberalism isn’t wrong, it’s simply not an option.
The only ideology that Atlas Shrugged can truly expose as either meritorious or meritricious is its own, because that is the only ideology actually present in the book. And oh man is it presented, in rigorous detail, for hundreds of pages, just begging to be explored. And because this ideology has become central to modern conservatism, a dissection of it can be used to legitimately critique modern conservatism as well.
SO:
What does it mean that the world Rand created and the behavior of her characters  both good and bad all validate the concerns of 21st century progressives more than they do the concerns of Rand herself, and by extension the concerns expressed by the Republicans who swear by her work today?There is a storytelling device known as ‘the unreliable narrator‘ — think Verbal Kint in The Usual Suspects, or Humbert Humbert in Lolita. In a story told by an unreliable narrator, the audience cannot trust that the story as its being relayed to them is actually the story as it should be truthfully understood. Atlas Shrugged, formally speaking, employs a third-person omniscient narrator. And in Ayn Rand’s case you can bet she believed the ‘omniscient’ part to be literally true. So, formally, she didn’t write a book with an unreliable narrator. She just sure as hell produced one.

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2:2 The Aristocracy of Pull, “Sham Marriages”

PREVIOUSLY: A lot of stuff. Catch up.

It’s the night of Jim Taggart’s wedding! What the shit, you say? Yes, that’s right — in the months between Part One and Part Two, Jim has pitched his sketchy-ass woo at Poor Poor Cheryl (two different kinds of ‘poor’), and things have escalated rapidly.

Stuck in neutral, however, is Dagny’s quest to salvage the world-saving motor. She’s currently in her office going over the latest report from Quentin Daniels, her latest covert reverse-engineer (who shall henceforth be known as Q. Obviously). According to me Q, the motor is basically an Ion Drive, like spaceships use, and it’s pretty busted.

Dagny has also asked her cigarette-collecting friend the Friendly Shopkeep to track down the manufacturer of the mysterious dollar-sign cigarette, but he has found nothing. Though she is more certain than ever that some esoteric force is undermining society from the shadows, there is nothing else for her to do but go to her brother’s wedding.

Meanwhile, Hank Rearden has just concluded a business meeting with Ken Dannager, the country’s top remaining coal producer. The meeting was illegal because it wasn’t attended by the state Planning Bureau, but they’ve agreed to supply each other on the black market to keep the lights on and the trains running. Literally. Now alone in his hotel room, Hank fondles himself to thoughts of going to Dagny’s — yet who should bust in but his miserable wife Lillian.

See, she wanted to surprise him on one of his many, many New York trips. And maybe even catch him with a hooker or something, because she’s pretty sure he’s sleeping around on her at this point. But aaanyway, he’s coming to Jim Taggart’s wedding with her and there’s no two ways about it. It should be a spectacle if nothing else; the bride is some ill-bred shopgirl nobody. My, how absurd! she tuts while fanning herself.

And though Hank has given up feeling guilty for keeping Dags on the side, he can’t quite bring himself to blow up his own spot yet, so he consents to attend. Yay, tradition!

Poor poor Poor Poor Cheryl.

Cut to: Poor Poor Cheryl, standing before the mirror in her bare, slummy apartment, studying herself in her wedding dress and trying to figure out how she got here. It’s been such a whirlwind courtship, full of dazzling highs and morally unsettling lows. Cheryl recalls all the times Jim would show up at her place an emotional wreck, cuddle up beside her and vent his spleen about how vile and corrupt his colleagues are, and about how his behavior is different, right? Because it’s selfless, right?

Poor Poor Cheryl thinks back also to those times when she had to meet all of his social peers, and how terribly dismissive and condescending they were to her. How he seemed to relish rubbing her background in their faces, seemed almost disappointed if things didn’t get awkward.

Oh yes, and most of all she remembers the night he proposed to her, drunk, in the trash-strewn alley outside her apartment door.

I just want to say Cheryl, for Christ’s sake, wake up, get the fuck out, he’s going to make a coat out of your skin. But Cheryl is an idiot. She is so unbearably naive, and admires Jim because she thinks he’s responsible for the rMetal railroad, so she ignores all of the warning signs and departs for the ceremony.

Cut to: after the ceremony! Thank God we skipped that. The reception’s the good part anyhow. Jim is hobnobbing with all his cronies — Boyle, Larkin, Balph Eubanks, etc. He’s trying to discretely scan the room for Welsey Mouch but Mouch doesn’t seem to be there. Boyle can tell what he’s doing and needles him for it.

“Worried your pull in the capital is waning?” Boyle teases him. They have a pissing contest about who has stronger connections and who’s making the right moves to see their agenda enacted. It’s like a Varys/Littlefinger scene from Game of Thrones.

Meanwhile, Poor Poor Cheryl is wandering around in a PTSD haze and ignoring all the people at the party who are insinuating which political favors they’d like her to ask her new husband about. She sees Dagny and takes the moment to confront her. “Hey bitch, Jim tells me all the time about how you make his life a living hell, so you best step off because I’m the woman of this family now.”

Aw, Cheryl’s so cute. This just amuses Dagny, who replies, ‘That’s quite all right. I’m the man.’ Cheryl just Doesn’t Get It. Points for moxie though.

Hank, worn down to a dickless nub by having to stand next to his wife all night, has retreated to a corner. He observes Dagny’s awesome cattiness toward Cheryl with proud desire. Her sheer badassery makes him want to simply announce their liaison to the room and then nail her on the dance floor.

"We are shitty in similar ways." -Jim & Lil

Jim has likewise retreated to the corner to alleviate the pressure of shitty social obligations, and Lil Rearden approaches to congratulate him. She slyly hints that her gift to him is making Hank come with her — Rearden’s presence boosts Jim’s networking cache with the other guests and helps his appearance of influence. Jim is genuinely impressed at the way she works the angles and tells her she’s wonderful. She is pleased, and they realize for perhaps the first time that they see eye to shifty eye.

As Lillian leaves Jim’s side, she passes Dags and notices that Our Gal Dagny is wearing the rMetal bracelet that she took from Lil at the last big party they both attended. Giving in even further to her lashing-out-hate-spiral, Lillian steps up to D and all sickly sweet goes, “Oh, did you know Hank and I would be here tonight?”

Dagny’s like, “Uh, no. I could give two shits about this wedding.” Lillian’s detached facade is straining. “Well then why exactly are you wearing that bracelet? Is that not like a gag?” And Dagny proudly says she wears it all the time.

That’s Lillian’s last straw. She demands it back. Dagny refuses. Hank comes over but doesn’t break things up like last time. Lillian insists Dagny take off the rMetal. Doesn’t she know what people will think?

Dagny just whips out her enormous lady-dick. “Are you accusing me of fucking your husband?” Oh shit, son! Bald-faced. Lillian’s eyes panic and she immediately backs down, “No no no, never.” But Hank ups the stakes even more, and demands that Lillian apologize to Dagny for sullying Ms. Taggart’s good name. Wow kids. This is some pretty twisted gaslighting by our heroes.

So Lillian slinks away in defeat and Hank and Dagny eye-fuck forever.

Back at the center of attention, one of Jim’s sleazebag friends toasts the groom for being so selfless and progressive, a real moral paragon. It is a shame more businessmen can’t be like him. Jim takes the kudos and declares that he hopes to continue setting an example for his peers by which the ‘aristocracy of money’ can be replaced by —

‘The aristocracy of pull,’ chapter-name-drops Francisco D’Anconia as he walks into the reception unannounced, like he do. Awww this party just got started y’all.

NEXT — 2:2 cont’d, “Chasing Paper”

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“Part One: Non-Contradiction” Recap

Last “season” on ATLAS CLUBBED:

Our Heroine: Dagny "Dags" Taggart

America faces a dark and vaguely science-fictional time. Nations all over the world have turned to socialism because nobody can deny any longer that the planet is running out of fossil fuels and important mineral resources, and somebody has to ration the remaining supplies. …right?

Luckily, in the U.S. the libertarian state of Colorado has kept the American tradition of innovation alive. Gas prices have been kept in check because a self-made man named Ellis Wyatt has developed frakking techniques to tap fresh oil near the Rockies. A small car company has sprung up in the mountain west to fill the void after GM went under without a government bailout ten years ago. Colorado is, in short, the country’s — and perhaps the world’s — last hope for saving post-industrial civilization from collapse.

Hank Rearden: Steve Jobs of the Randverse

Into this dire picture, enter Dagny Taggart and Hank Rearden. Rearden has just invented a new alloy, rMetal, that is stronger and lighter than steel and will last three times as long. It’s a revolution in sustainable development, and Dagny, VP of Operations at the Taggart Transcontinental Railroad, wants to refit her Colorado line with Rearden’s game-changing product. Because the energy crisis has hobbled the auto industry and commercial flight, the railroads of the previous century are still America’s main mode of transportation, and updating them with high-speed tracks and trains could be a huge boost to the economy.

Jim Taggart, Uncertainly Principled

Unfortunately, the president of Taggart Transcon is Dagny’s brother Jim, a cowardly man with a vicious entitlement streak and no creative vision. Terrified of the future, he and a small group of CEOs from the country’s other major corporations decide to flood Washington with well-funded lobbyists and strings-attached campaign donations, in order to buy laws that favor their interests. These laws effectively give the largest corporations government-sponsored monopolies, and confiscate resources from the creative Rearden to hobble him in the “free” market and prevent him from toppling their older businesses.

Despite this corporate/government conspiracy to cling desperately to the unsustainable status quo, Dagny and Rearden manage to build one railroad made of rMetal to ship Ellis Wyatt’s oil out of Colorado to the rest of the country, buying everybody more time to solve the industrial crisis.

Cyberpunk tech in a steampunk world.

On the day their track opens, Dagny and Rearden finally give in to their mutual attraction and begin an affair that wracks the unhappily married Rearden with guilt. But in the wake of their commercial success the freshly-minted lovers go on a secret road trip through the midwest to celebrate, and there, in the barren ghost towns around GM, they discover the junked prototype of a brilliant invention: a motor that could literally run on air — the static electricity in the air — solving all the world’s energy, environmental, and economic problems in one fell swoop… if it hadn’t been gutted and left for dead.

While Rearden returns home to make sure his marriage is still falling apart, our all-business Dags stays on the case of the miracle engine.

Unfortunately for Dagny's investigation, the Randverse does not have GPS.

The trail leads her to a philosophy professor slumming it as a short order cook out west. He is just one of many elites from around the country who have abruptly disappeared from the public eye in the past ten years or so — about the same time the motor was invented and GM collapsed. It is only now that the energy crisis has become severe that a hidden pattern has begun to emerge out of their mysterious absences.

Francisco "Definitely not Batman" D'Anconia

If nothing else, Dagny knows that there is some kind of shadow game being played among the country’s leaders. And perhaps the biggest wild card on the table is her former lover, Francisco D’Anconia. He was once as driven and ambitious as she was, but he’s spent the last decade doing nothing but blowing his family’s centuries-old fortune on gaudy luxury and partying.

Now he has re-entered Dagny’s life, and he’s acting very strangely, even laughing his ass off while his own business collapses. Dagny suspects he has sabotaged his own company and the global economy on purpose, by joining with corrupt Jim and his cronies on major investments that he knew would fail.

Before Dagny can pursue her leads any further, Congress grants absolute power to the former lobbyist Wesley Mouch to take over the Colorado economy. In retaliation the oil man Ellis Wyatt sets fire to his own fields and joins the ranks of the disappeared.

Why is Francisco inflating and popping market bubbles for no explicable reason? What unspoken philosophical schism could be driving America’s elites into covert camps that wage war over an irreconcilable divide?

"It's you and me against the world, babe. Literally."

And most urgently of all, can Hank & Dagny still save the country now that the oil supply has been torched by the supplier himself?

What does it all mean, man??

All these questions and more will be answered over the next 10 weeks, as we dive further into the alternate-but-uncomfortably-familiar universe of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged.

NEXT — 2:1, “Storms A’brewin”

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