August 31, 2010

I was introduced to Ayn Rand while in seminary by my philosophy professor. He brought her to the forefront by calling her "the well-known Russian playwright." But she was much more.

The founder of the philosophic school of objectivism, Rand became involved in political activism in the 1940s. Later, she became a frequent lecturer at Yale, Columbia and Princeton Universities.  She was a fierce opponent of all forms of collectivism and statism, including fascism, communism, socialism, and the welfare state. Her worldview is very much the same as paleoconservatives, libertarians and Tea Party activists today.

Rand was an agnostic (she would say atheist) but not a militant one. A prolific writer, she asserted the introduction of her novel Fountainhead, that her purpose as a writer is “the projection of an ideal man.” She goes on to explain that “any didactic, intellectual or philosophical values” in her novels are only a means to that end, and that her goal “is not the philosophical enlightenment of my readers” but “the portrayal of Howard Roark [or the heroes of Atlas Shrugged]” — Rand’s brackets; she is quoting herself — “as an end in himself.”

Whittaker Chambers, in reviewing Atlas Shrugged, was instead concerned with Rand as a political thinker. He is fairly explicit about this: “Atlas Shrugged can be called a novel only by devaluing the term. It is a massive tract for the times. Its story merely serves Miss Rand to get the customers inside the tent, and as a soapbox for delivering her Message.” He then details his objections to the Message — and here I think he does her an injustice.

The crucial passage:

It is when a system of materialist ideas [Chambers has just claimed that Rand presents “a forthright philosophic materialism”] presumes to give positive answers to real problems of our real life that mischief starts. In an age like ours, in which a highly complex technological society is everywhere in a high state of instability, such answers, however philosophic, translate quickly into political realities. And in the degree to which problems of complexity and instability are most bewildering to masses of men, a temptation sets in to let some species of Big Brother solve and supervise them.

One Big Brother is, of course, a socializing elite (as we know, several cut-rate brands are on the shelves). Miss Rand, as the enemy of any socializing force, calls in a Big Brother of her own contriving to do battle with the other. In the name of free enterprise, therefore, she plumps for a technocratic elite (I find no more inclusive word than technocratic to bracket the industrial-financial-engineering caste she seems to have in mind). When she calls “productive achievement” “man’s noblest activity,” she means, almost exclusively, technological achievement, supervised by such a managerial political bureau. She might object that she means much, much more; and we can freely entertain her objections. But, in sum, that is just what she means. For that is what, in reality, it works out to. And in reality, too, by contrast with fiction, this can only head into a dictatorship, however benign, living and acting beyond good and evil, a law unto itself.

The basic error is to say that Rand wants her own species of Big Brother to “solve and supervise” the problems of complexity and instability. This simply is not so. It is true that her “prime movers” withdraw from society in order to effectuate the collapse of the “looters”; in this sense they “do battle” with the “socializing elite.” But they fight precisely against the idea that any person or persons should be granted Big Brotherly responsibilities. They oppose, precisely, the “suprevis[ion]” of a “managerial political bureau.” Their message throughout, to borrow Rand’s formulation, is: “Hands off!”

Chambers is fair enough to continue: “Of course, Miss Rand nowhere calls for a dictatorship. I take her to be calling for an aristocracy of talents. We cannot labor here why, in the modern world, the pre-conditions for aristocracy, an organic growth, no longer exist, so that the impulse toward aristocracy always emerges now in the form of dictatorship.” But I think he is still mistaken, and his diction misleading. Aristocracy is an arrangement in which certain persons have a political right to rule other persons exploitatively. Any such arrangement would be abhorrent to Rand’s heroes. It will admittedly be the case, in a free society of freely transacting individuals, that those of superior talent enjoy a greater share of material abundance and influence. This outcome will be, in fact, an organic growth. But it is far from aristocracy, and to wield influence is not to rule. Chambers’s elision of these ideas is a surprising piece of sloppiness from so intelligent a writer.

There is an argument to be made that the line between the informal influence of a Google Inc. and the formal power of a “managerial political bureau” is becoming ever blurrier, but Chambers does not make it or anticipate it. Instead he holds that capitalism is necessarily materialist and that a “materialism of the Right” must culminate in something like Hitler’s National Socialism. I believe those claims to be false, and Chambers’s whole way of thinking about these issues strikes me as quaintly Marxian — in both its conception of capitalism and its invocation of historical inevitability. The latter pops up again and again throughout the review, every time Chambers says, effectively, “I don’t care what she claims to advocate — this is what it must come to in practice (but you’ll have to take my word for it).”

While I find Rand’s evangelistic atheism off-putting in the extreme, I believe Chambers is also wrong to claim that her system is “a forthright philosophic materialism.” Insofar as I am familiar with her writings and public statements, she had nothing kind to say about materialists. Certainly she rejected much that conventionally accompanies materialism; for example, she believed in the freedom of the will in contradistinction to causal determinism. And a minor theme of Atlas Shrugged is that its heroes, though denounced as materialists, are more capable of enjoying spiritual pleasures (“spiritual” here understood in a non-religious sense — she has in mind the capacity e.g. to love, or to feel profound aesthetic appreciation) than are their denouncers. I think the correct assessment is that Rand rejected any division at all between body and mind, material and spiritual (another instance of her indebtedness to Nietzsche, which Chambers perceptively noted). Here is one of Atlas Shrugged’s heroes, Henry Rearden, making the point, as he realizes that he was wrong to accept the label “materialist” and feel guilty for being one:

I damned the fact that my mind and body were a unit, and that my body responded to the values of my mind. I damned the fact that joy is the core of existence, the motive power of every living being, that it is the need of one’s body as it is the goal of one’s spirit, that my body was not a weight of inanimate muscles, but an instrument able to give me an experience of superlative joy to unite my flesh and my spirit.

Despite his errors, Chambers succeeded brilliantly in diagnosing Rand’s attitude. He is absolutely right that the book’s “dictatorial tone” is “much its most striking feature.” He is right about its “overriding arrogance,” its “shrillness,” its “dogmatism.” He is right that Rand tends to think “little about people as people,” but “a great deal in labels and effigies.” And I would go so far as to say that Rand, given the chance, might well have been a totalitarian. More: She might have felt — as Chambers puts it — that “right reason itself” enjoined her tyranny. The crudity of her reasoning, and her use of it to justify her hatreds, is on prominent display in the gas-chamber scene I discuss in my essay. All of the train’s passengers are deemed “responsible” and even “guilty” for the regnant political order, and therefore deserving of their deaths, even though the degree to which they could in fact have been responsible or guilty is highly variable: A playwright and a mother married to a low- or mid-level bureaucrat (as well as her children!) are lumped together with a high government official. Rand enjoys killing them all.

Yes, Ayn Rand had the temperament of a totalitarian. But to make this criticism fairly, one must concede that insofar as that temperament became dominant — as it did in her private conduct befitting a cult leader — it would not have been in harmony with her philosophy.

A final, brief word about Atlas Shrugged in the contemporary political scene. There are indeed parallels. For example, Henry Rearden, who owns steel mills and has invented a new alloy, is required by the government to sell his eponymous metal to all comers. This is not exactly the same as, but not altogether different from, our government’s command that health insurers provide coverage to all. Or consider this bit of dialogue:

“They’re not laws, they’re directives.”

“Then it’s illegal.”

“It’s not illegal, because the Legislature passed a law last month giving him the power to issue directives.”

The characters could easily be talking about our treasury secretary’s vast to-be-specified powers under the new financial-regulation bill — or any other “progressive” law empowering a regulatory class to legislate.

In some of its satire as well — and Rand can be quite funny as a satirist — Atlas Shrugged seems timely. “An atmosphere suggesting the kind of meeting where a presiding body puts something over on a mentally retarded membership” could serve as a characterization of Nancy Pelosi’s procedural gymnastics; its hyperbole would emphasize an important truth.

But the parallels should not be overstated. There are two huge differences between our world and the world of Atlas Shrugged. The first is one of degree: Rand’s looters are trying to Sovietize the United States, whereas Obama & Co. would be content to remake us as a European-style social democracy. There are good reasons to object to both, but it would be a tremendous mistake to ignore the differences between them, and promoters of Atlas Shrugged should be consciously on guard against implying that Obama favors the former.

The second difference is one of motive. There is no room at all in Atlas Shrugged for the idea that its policymakers are acting on good-hearted but misguided principles. They are parasites, plain and simple, aware of their evil even if they take pains to hide it from themselves (this in fact confirms their awareness), which is why Rand is happy to hurl them all — if I may quote Chambers a final time — into “one undifferentiated damnation.”

Quite apart from its colossal artistic defects, then, Atlas Shrugged’s power as an anthem against President Obama’s agenda seems to me to be highly limited, and I think those of us who oppose that agenda would be unwise to push it as our manifesto.

We believe that the Constitution of the United States speaks for itself. There is no need to rewrite, change or reinterpret it to suit the fancies of special interest groups or protected classes.