Wednesday, April 28, 2004

Libertarian Alliance - Atlas Winced

I've just discovered this lengthy but truly excellent takedown of Ayn Rand's fiction and "philosophy", and I've included some excerpts from the second half below:

The various speeches and allusions in Atlas Shrugged - so obviously far-fetched and logically slipshod, but perhaps defensible as rhetoric within a novel - are themselves quoted at length in Rand's fiction essays on philosophy, art and politics. The horrible, pitiful truth finally dawned: this is all there is to Rand. She really believes that this mouth-frothing sloganeering is philosophy, is reasoning, is the way to persuade rational people.

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Of all modern tendencies in fiction, Rand's novels are closest in spirit to the socialist realist works favoured by the Stalinist regime. Stalin said: "Artists are engineers of the soul." Rand said: "Art is the technology of the soul."

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According to Gait's speech, in a passage singled out by Branden, "there is only one fundamental alternative in the universe: existence or non- existence - and it pertains to a single class of entities: to living organisms." This is false. Any class of matter (atoms. crystals. stars, etc.), not just living organisms, may exist or not exist. Galt (Rand) also emphasises that: "to think is an act of choice ... man is a being of volitional consciousness." This too is false. Thinking is involuntary, like digestion or blood clotting. If you don't believe this, try to stop thinking for a few seconds. Galt (Rand) also keeps insisting that "existence exists". This seems to he of momentous importance to Galt (Rand), but in the only sense I can make of it (that 'existence' is something which exists in addition to all the things which exist) it is not evident, and I believe it is false. (If what is meant is that "Things which exist exist' - existence exists - then that is trite and has never been denied by anyone.) And so it goes on, 58 pages of it. one pompous vacuity after another.

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Randism was and is a religious cult. ('Religion' is 'a system of faith and worship'.) Branden has often described Objectivism as a cult, but in this book she withdraws this label. She now states that although Objectivism has some of the features of a cult, it cannot be a cult because of its commitment to reason and individualism (352). Well, there is a lot of talk about reason and individualism, just as among Bolsheviks there is a lot of talk about science. But reason does not consist in shrieking the word 'reason' all the time. It consists in subjecting one's ideas to rational criticism, holding every position tentatively, and being prepared to abandon any position if it is successfully criticised. Reason consists, as Socrates put it, in 'following the argument wherever it leads', especially. of course, if it leads where you don't want to go. There is no evidence that the Randists understood the most elementary requirements of rational discourse. Branden quotes Sidney Hook, from his review of Rand's For the New Intellectual: "Despite the great play with the word 'reason', one is struck by the absence of any serious argument in this unique combination of tautology and extravagant absurdity." (321) That is exactly right. The Objectivists, no less than the devotees of a theistic sect, are engaged in abusing their minds by reiterating articles of faith. As for their individualism, it reminds me of the individualism of the mob in The Life of Brian. Trying to get the crowd to stop worshipping him, Brian shouts: "You are all individuals." The crowd drones back ecstatically. "We are all individuals." Unlike Brian, Rand was addicted to the idolatry of her besotted admirers.

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Rand asserts that ethics is entirely based on reason, and that the supreme moral virtue is selfishness. or rational self-interest. This is developed at times (See the 'Objectivist Ethics' in The Virtue of Selfishness) by biological, or biological-sounding, arguments. What is good for an organism is what contributes to that organism's survival and well-being. This seems clear enough: it is moral to do what is to one's advantage, and immoral to do what is against one's advantage. It follows that it is moral to cheat, murder, and steal, on those occasions where a rational analysis shows this to be to one's advantage. But no such conclusion is drawn by Rand. Respecting other people's lives and property, even when this hurts one's bank balance or survival prospects, is stated to be in one's rational self-interest. From a biological point of view - maximising one's chances of survival, good health, or reproduction - this is obviously not always the case. Rand explains that the standard of ethics is not the individual's bodily or biological survival, but the survival of man qua man", or man as a rational being. Thus, all Rand's biological- sounding arguments go by the board: it may even be 'selfish', in her redefinition of the term, to court death for the sake of a 'cherished value'. But there is no clear stipulation of how the nature of man as a rational being, or the values which it is permissible for a rational egoist to cherish. are to be determined. The outcome is that Rand appears to be urging egoism. but is actually urging unselfish sacrifice of one's interests to what she tells us is the life proper to a rational being. All this terrible confusion and double-talk arises because Rand cannot stomach the manifest truth that it can be to a person's advantage to violate the rights of another person. If ethics is to tell us that people's rights may not he violated, it must tell us that we ought sometimes to do things against our own interests. (emphases added)

A thoroughgoing demolition job, and this, mind you, from a libertarian website, and as such, hardly to be dismissed as motivated by "collectivist" bile. I especially like the fact that the author also noticed the aesthetic resemblance of Randianism to the Socialist-Realist worldview. Objectivism is a steaming pile of extremely contradictory claptrap cooked up by a writer of political potboilers tinged with sadomasochist fantasizing.

One question I can easily envision being asked is why I and other subscribers to libertarianism would be so antagonistic to the work of someone who subscribes to largely the same set of values we do - individualism, a healthy respect for self-interest, and a belief in free-markets as the right way to go. I can't say with confidence that my answer will necessarily be typical of that offered by other libertarians, but for me at least, all questions of literary merit aside, I do not believe that my cause is really furthered in the long-run by fallacious and simple-minded arguments; what is more, I find the cultish tendencies of the Randroids extremely disturbing as a believer in individualism. If I were intent on discrediting libertarianism as a body of ideas, I could think of no easier and surer way to do so than to allow it to become associated in the public mind with Objectivism, neo-Confederate "paleolibertarianism", gold-standard fetishism, and other kooky movements that would give pause to any reasonable person who was exposed to them. The more sensible liberals were wise enough to recognize the folly of the notion that there could be "no enemies on the left", and sensible libertarians likewise recognize that there are movements that aren't worth associating with.