Tag Archives | Rand

Caning Darwin

[cross posted at Liberty & Power]

Joseph Sobran suggests (conical hat tip to LRC) that people’s willingness to help or praise others refutes Darwinism and atheism, and defies Randian egoism. Let’s take these in turn.

Charles Darwin Darwinism: Sobran seems to imagine that if Darwinism were true, people would be interested solely in their own narrow survival and would have no genuine concern for others. This is wrong on two different levels.

First, Sobran mistakenly assumes that Darwinism commits us to holding that all our mental contents, all our beliefs and desires, are there solely because they promote survival. Yet Darwinism implies nothing of the kind. Natural selection explains our possession of various capacities for learning, choosing, being influenced; but natural selection by itself does not guarantee that these capacities will be exercised solely in survival-conducing ways. How could it? My belief that 666 is the square root of 443556 isn’t there because that belief has survival value; there may be cases where it would, but I doubt that it ever has. Instead my belief that 666 is the square root of 443556 is the product of a general capacity to figure things out (i.e., reason), and that capacity has survival value.

Second, even if Darwinism did imply that all our mental contents are directly explainable by natural selection, it still wouldn’t follow that we should be surprised at the existence of genuine other-concern. Suppose (and this does not seem to be an especially heroic assumption) that creatures who are inclined to cooperate with one another are more likely on average to survive than those who aren’t. What more does one need by way of an evolutionary explanation? Has Sobran never read Spencer? Or Darwin himself?

Sobran thinks it should be a puzzle for the Darwinian why human beings express varieties of concern that other animals lack. But he himself offers the answer: reason. And as I noted above, this is a perfectly Darwinian-compatible explanation.

The weirdest section of Sobran’s article comes when he suggests that “killing your own children” (this is Sobran’s tendentious description of abortion; he seems to have forgotten that before a woman has given birth she has no “children”) “makes some sort of sense from an atheistic and Darwinian point of view,” since “[i]f survival is a ruthless competition, your kids are your competitors.” Um, Darwinian natural selection promotes traits that enhance the likelihood of reproduction; survival is selected for only insofar as it promotes reproduction. (Of course we can outwit natural selection, and a good thing too; the view, mysteriously popular among many religious conservatives, that we should bow to the purposes of our genes surely contradicts Genesis 1:26.)

Atheism: I was initially puzzled as to how Sobran’s argument was supposed to be relevant to atheism, until I realized that he is treating atheism and Darwinism as equivalents. But they aren’t. One can be a Darwinian without being an atheist (for this we have the assurance of no less an authority than Pope John Paul II), and one can likewise be an atheist without being a Darwinian (as all atheists were, prior to the 19th century, and as many have been since).

Randian egoism: Sobran treats Randian egoism as though it counseled against genuine concern for others. But Randian egoism says no such thing; its conception of self-interest is modeled on Aristotelean eudaimonia, and most definitely includes various forms of other-concern. There is a dispute in Randian circles as to whether such concern is related causally or constitutively to self-interest; but such concern remains genuine in either case. Egoism is a doctrine of the ground of our legitimate concerns, not of their scope. If egoism is Sobran’s basis for rejecting Rand, he should reject Thomas Aquinas for the same reason.


Ayn Rand and the Capitalist Class

[cross-posted at Liberty & Power]

Although I rejected Rand’s right-wing economics
and political philosophy by the time I was fifteen, certain elements
of the novels, which had more to do with psychology than with
social ideology, stayed with me for many years.
The
Fountainhead had planted in me the idea that bombing a
building could be a morally legitimate form of protest.
Atlas Shrugged portrayed the social revolutionary as a hero. 

– 60s revolutionary Jane Alpert, Growing Up Underground

Last year for Ayn Rand’s birthday I wrote about the “left” and “right” strands in Ayn Rand’s thought. This year I want to write about how it may have come about that the right-wing strand, and in particular the pro-business aspect of that strand, eventually dominated the left-wing one.

Let me start with a suggestion that Charles Johnson made last May. Charles’ post was devoted primarily to considering why Rand might have chosen the term “capitalism,” rather than, say, “socialism” (à la Benjamin Tucker) for her radical anticonservative, antimercantilist free-market position.

Now that question I don’t find terribly mysterious. Even apart from the kneejerk reaction to “socialism” that Rand was understandably left with as a result of her Soviet upbringing, “capitalism” was simply the standard term for a pure free market in the libertarian wing of the Old Right, where Rand found her first intellectual allies; witness Carl Snyder’s Capitalism the Creator or Ludwig von Mises’ Anti-Capitalistic Mentality. Rand’s chief mentor, Isabel Paterson, likewise used the term in God of the Machine. Tucker’s Liberty had long since closed its doors in 1908, by which time Tucker had already largely abandoned the term “socialism” as a label for his own view. I doubt that it even occurred to Rand that there might be any term other than “capitalism” for the system she favoured.

Ayn Rand But terminological issues aside, the more substantive question remains as to why Rand was led to hail big business as America’s persecuted minority, and to denounce the best aspects of the New Left. And Charles’ suggestion is relevant to that question:

[Rand’s] aesthetic and affectional imagination were engaged on behalf of actually existing capitalists, as she understood them, in the known reality of the mixed economy: that is, her view of the grand bourgeoisie – big industrialists, business-owners, money-men, the top tier of entrepreneurial inventors, and ultimately the wealthy broadly – as the heroic prime movers in business, and thus as the “world’s motor”, driving the production of the material means of survival and human flourishing. … Though she’d no doubt fume at the description, one way of putting it is that she made her choices … on the basis of class solidarity.

And Charles of course considers such solidarity a mistake, given that in fact “the archetypical boss is a busybodying mediocrity, a cunning predator, or a petulant grafter, and … their role in the workplace is a drag on the productive labor on the shop floor rather than the animating force behind it as Rand claims.”

I think there’s something importantly right about Charles’ diagnosis – but more nevertheless needs to be said. Because in Rand’s fiction the overwhelming majority of capitalist bosses are precisely “busybodying mediocrities, cunning predators, or petulant grafters.”

Consider the architectural firm of Francon & Heyer, later Francon & Keating, in The Fountainhead. The head of the company, Guy Francon, is a gladhanding fraud who takes credit for work actually done by his draftsmen, and who cares more about the colour of his employees’ neckties than about the quality of their work. And most of the businesses portrayed in the novel are similar. There are exceptions, most notably the case of the self-made millionaire Roger Enright; but most of the admirable characters are working-class.

Atlas Shrugged of course has heroic capitalists at its center; and as we’ll see, I think something does begin to change with Atlas. But even here, for every heroic entrepreneur like Dagny Taggart or Hank Rearden, there’s a slimy rent-seeking plutocrat like James Taggart or Orren Boyle. Indeed James Taggart is, let it be remembered, Dagny’s boss, who takes credit for all her achievements while blaming her for all his mistakes. (And interestingly, the labour organiser Fred Kinnan, though technically a villain, is presented far more sympathetically than are the businessmen and bureaucrats with whom he colludes.) Perhaps it is mainly because Rand’s heroic characters are generally more vividly memorable than her villains that Atlas is remembered as a book that glamorises capitalists generally.

It’s certainly true, though, that in Atlas Rand’s “aesthetic and affectional imagination” favours the heroic capitalists. Indeed, Atlas is torn between two different readings of the “strike” that forms its central plot device. On one reading, it’s the exact reverse of the standard Marxist ideal: it’s a strike by industrious capitalists against parasitic labourers. On another reading, it’s a strike by the industrious of all economic classes against parasites of all economic classes, in the style of the French industriels.

Now the second, more left-wing reading is clearly the “official” one, both because the novel draws its heroes and villains from capital and labour alike (and even the über-hero John Galt is a proletarian of sorts) and because in her nonfiction works Rand always insisted that the greatest conflicts between producers and parasites occur not between but within economic classes. But the novel is nonetheless heavily and unmistakably flavoured with the first, more right-wing reading. Why so? Is it just because Rand the creative novelist couldn’t resist the attraction of what she would have called the “gimmick” of reversing the conventional picture of a strike? Surely it’s more than that.

What of class solidarity as an explanation? It seems to have something going for it: while Rand lived a proletarian life during her early years in the U.S., she had come from a bourgeois family (albeit more petit than grand) who had been expropriated by a proletarian revolution – so it might seem only to be expected that she would identify with capital rather than with labour. But this doesn’t do a very good job of explaining why the strong identification with the capitalist class emerges relatively late in her career, first with Atlas and then with her nonfiction essays.

We the Living Of the three main sympathetic characters in her first novel, We the Living, Kira is a bourgeois, Leo an aristocrat, and Andrei a proletarian. (We are shown plenty of unsympathetic characters from all three classes as well.) While Leo and Andrei are presented as flawed in comparison with Kira, there’s no suggestion that their flaws owe anything specifically to their class; Rand seems to have deliberately decided to present the best of all three classes. (Similar class diversity actually shows up in Atlas too, with Francisco d’Anconia the aristocrat, Dagny the bourgeois heiress, Hank Rearden the self-made bourgeois ex-proletarian, and John Galt the – in some sense – still-proletarian.) Likewise in her early play Ideal the heroine is betrayed by, inter alia, a businessman, an aristocrat, and a proletarian – and is also finally rescued by a proletarian.

There’s not much picking-sides-in-the-class-war in The Fountainhead either. As part of her journalism job, the heroine Dominique Francon spends a few weeks living in the slums and reports on her experiences. Here’s what she tells an audience of wealthy landlords:

The house you own on East Twelfth street, Mrs. Palmer … has a sewer that gets clogged every other day and runs over, all through the courtyard. It looks blue and purple in the sun, like a rainbow. … The block you control for the Claridge estate, Mr. Brooks, has the most attractive stalactites growing on all the ceilings.

And here’s what she tells an audience of radical social workers:

The family on the first floor do not bother to pay their rent, and the children cannot go to school for lack of clothes. The father has a charge account at a corner speak-easy. … In the fourth floor front, the father of the family has not done a whole day’s work in his life, and does not intend to. There are nine children, supported by the local parish. There is a tenth one on its way ….

When her supervisor complains, she replies, “They’re true, though, both sides of it, aren’t they?” Again, Rand seems to be studiously avoiding taking class sides, in order to reinforce her moral that the important divide is between creators and second-handers, not between rich and poor. (And of course Dominique is rich and Howard Roark poor ….)

If there’s any “class” with whom Rand appears to identify in her early works, it’s neither capitalists nor labourers but, well, criminals. Bjorn Faulkner, the hero of Night of January 16th, is a wealthy businessman … and a con man. Danny Renahan, the hero of her unfinished story The Little Street, is a proletarian … and a murderer. Kira’s Viking is a military conqueror who “walked through life, breaking barriers and reaping victories” (purely defensive ones? I doubt it). The short story “Good Copy” is a sympathetic portrayal of a kidnapper. In another short story, “The Simplest Thing in the World,” the protagonist, a novelist, imagines his literary hero smashing through a window, leaping onto a neighbouring roof garden, and encountering the heroine:

She sees him for the first time – and this is the miracle: for once in her life, he is what she had wanted him to be, he looks as she had wanted him to look. But he has just committed a murder. I suppose it will have to be some kind of justifiable murder … No! No! No! It’s not a justifiable murder at all. We don’t even know what it is – and she doesn’t know. But here is the dream, the impossible, the ideal – against the laws of the whole world. Her own truth – against all mankind.

Despite her early fascination with Nietzsche, this glamorisation of criminals needn’t be taken literally. As Rand later explained in the introduction to Night of January 16th: “I do not think … that a swindler is a heroic character …. But for the purpose of dramatizing the conflict of independence versus conformity, a criminal – a social outcast – can be an eloquent symbol …. of the rebel as such.” (See also Rand’s discussion in The Romantic Manifesto of the common literary phenomenon of writers smuggling the forbidden “fire of self-assertiveness” into their works in the form of the “fascinating villain or colorful rogue, who steals the story.”) But this is all rather ironic in light of her later, more conservative period – what might be called her “respectable turn” – when one of her many charges against modern literature was its sympathetic portrayal of criminals.

In any case, my point is that Rand’s identification with the capitalist class seems to emerge fairly late in her career – not really before Atlas. So it must be explained by something other than, say, her own personal bourgeois background. Could it be her association with Old Right libertarians? Probably to some extent, since many of those thinkers did occasionally veer in the direction Kevin Carson calls “vulgar libertarianism,” that is, exaggerating the extent to which the case for free markets constitutes a case for the prevailing economic order. But – despite her insightful critique of the neofascist system of government-business partnership (on which see Chris Sciabarra) – she often tended to go beyond her Old Right colleagues in her rhetorical veneration of the capitalist class – speaking of big business as a “persecuted minority,” calling the military-industrial complex “a myth or worse” (despite having analysed its dynamic herself), and so on. Paterson, her chief Old Right influence, had a much more jaundiced view of big business, and thought of herself as a “working stiff.” So how did Rand’s “aesthetic and affectional imagination” come in her later works, more than in her earlier, to identify itself with the capitalist rather than the working class, despite all she knew to the contrary?

Calumet k Probably the causes were many. But there’s one cause I haven’t seen anyone mention, and I think it’s important – namely Samuel Merwin’s and Henry K. Webster’s 1901 novel Calumet K – which according to Barbara Branden’s biography was given to Rand by Cecil B. DeMille. While Rand did not say much about this book or its influence on her, she did note that it was her “favorite novel” – an accolade not bestowed lightly.

If ever a work glamourising the managerial class and denigrating workers and the labour movement (although, like Atlas, it has businessmen villains too) were tailor-made to appeal to Rand’s “aesthetic and affectional imagination,” it’s Calumet K. With its cool, rational, single-minded protagonist, its “portrait of an efficacious man,” it’s almost like a virus specifically designed to infect her mental and emotional software. It was not through her class membership but through her artistic sense of life that she was won over.

Cecil B. DeMille If she had the book from DeMille she must have been familiar with it as early as the 20s or 30s – and one can see its influence in The Fountainhead – but I suspect it achieved its biggest influence when she was preparing to write Atlas Shrugged. How could her favourite novel, a novel about the world of business and industry, fail to come to mind as she was beginning her own magnum opus set in the same milieu? And might this not be when the heroic creator and the heroic capitalist began to become fused in her subconscious?

Yup, it’s all Cecil B. DeMille’s fault. It came from RKO ….


More from the Prez, Less from the Veep

Laura Roslin Galactica fans: if you haven’t checked out the full bonus scene between Roslin and Caprica-6 from yesternight’s BSG (what they aired after the show was just a brief excerpt therefrom), here it is.

In other news, looks like Atlas, if it gets made at all, will be one movie rather than a trilogy. (Conical hat tip to Wally Conger.) Bummer.


Apocalypto East

“The man who speaks to you of sacrifice,” Ayn Rand wrote in The Fountainhead, “speaks of slaves and masters. And intends to be the master.”

In his latest “special comment” tonight, Keith Olbermann responded forcefully to reports that our Prince President plans to call for “sacrifice” to justify increased U.S. troop presence in Iraq:

Sacrifice!

More American servicemen and women will have their lives risked.

More American servicemen and women will have their lives ended.

Keith Olbermann More American families will have to bear the unbearable and rationalize the unforgivable – “sacrifice” – sacrifice now, sacrifice tomorrow, sacrifice forever. …

That is what this “sacrifice” has been for.

To continue this senseless, endless war. …

It has succeeded, Mr. Bush, in enabling you to deaden the collective mind of this country to the pointlessness of endless war, against the wrong people, in the wrong place, at the wrong time.

It has gotten many of us used to the idea – the virtual “white noise” – of conflict far away, of the deaths of young Americans, of vague “sacrifice” for some fluid cause, too complicated to be interpreted except in terms of the very important-sounding but ultimately meaningless phrase “the war on terror.”

And the war’s second accomplishment – your second accomplishment, sir – is to have taken money out of the pockets of every American, even out of the pockets of the dead soldiers on the battlefield, and their families, and to have given that money to the war profiteers. …

This has now become “human sacrifice.” …

Our meaningless sacrifice in Iraq must stop.

I would grumble a bit at Olbermann’s focusing solely on American lives sacrificed; but otherwise it’s dead-on. Read the whole thing. (And I assume the video will be online ere long.)


Passages

Milton Friedman I’m saddened to learn of Milton Friedman’s death. I didn’t know him personally (though I’ve met his son and corresponded with his grandson; my sympathy to them both), and his flavour of libertarianism wasn’t mine, but he was an articulate, influential, and charming defender of liberty, and wasn’t afraid to take un-Republican stands on issues like military conscription, corporate welfare, and drug prohibition. I have pleasant memories of watching the original full-length version of his Free to Choose miniseries on PBS during my high school days. See Richard Ebeling and Sheldon Richman’s tribute here.

Ayn Rand On a happier note, I’m pleased and honoured to note that I’ve been added to the editorial board of Chris Sciabarra’s Journal of Ayn Rand Studies. (Now the Right-Randians can add another organisation to their list of classical liberal institutions that have been infected by the whim-worshipping, chaos-fomenting taint….)

I’ve spent the past four weekends giving talks at, respectively, the Alabama Philosophical Society in Tuscaloosa, the Mises Institute Supporters’ Summit in Auburn, the Murphy Institute in New Orleans, and Revoluticon in Asheville. Which means I’ve been even more pressed for time than usual. I hope to get a chance to blog about the above over Thanksgiving.

Don't taser me! In the meantime, here are two recent pieces of mine, now online:

My talk at the Mises Institute conference on imperialism, What Empire Does to a Culture (see discussion here and here); and my Center for a Stateless Society op-ed on last Tuesday’s UCLA tasering incident, What Makes Police Brutality Possible? (see also Charles Johnson’s post).

More soon!


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