One of the interesting things about Objectivism is that its primary method of transmission is novels – particularly Atlas Shrugged, but to a lesser but still serious extent The Fountainhead.
I don’t like philosophical novels. I don’t mind books with philosophy in them, as a sort of undercurrent, but when the characters start preaching platitudes, my eyes glaze over. So, one of my favorite novels is Dune by Frank Herbert, but by the time we get over to God-Emperor of Dune, I’m just bored. Leto’s long, dull as speeches rehashing a primitive Nietzschean fantasy are uninteresting. So, unsurprisingly, I’m also not fond of Atlas Shrugged and its even longer, even more overtly philosophical speeches. But, philosophically, they’re a trick and nothing more.
I just finished reading Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right by Jennifer Burns.
As I started to read it, I said I was concerned about its attempt to “balance”. Balance usually means the author won’t say what is obvious and true in order to placate someone, somewhere. After reading Goddess of the Market, I feel confirmed in this.
In particular, Burns doesn’t really talk about the American “right”. She sometimes touches on how awful they are, but only with the briefest of touches and the lightest of hands. So, she mentions “Birchers” without discussing the John Birch Society at all – specifically it’s brand of racism and sexism, co-founded by Fred C. Koch, the father of arch-conservative and profoundly racist, sexist assholes Charles and David Koch (names that should be familiar to anyone following current Republican politics). Likewise, the nativist, intensely racist America First organization is mentioned only as a libertarian organization.
Indeed, Burns barely touches on Rand’s intersection with conservative Republican thought. Burns, instead, focuses her attention on Rand’s association with libertarians. This has the effect of creating a straw man, since the libertarians aren’t in any positions of power and the Republicans definitely are. Even if you don’t have any ideological opposition to the Republicans, hiding Rand’s effect on Republican economic conservatives (such as Alan Greenspan or Timothy Geithner) is just a filthy lie.
Reading Goddess of the Market, it is calling back to my mind a previous reading of The Virtue of Selfishness: I find Objectivism very mystical.
Reason, to the Objectivist, is an ideal of Platonic dimensions. Objectivists are likely to regard this as an insult, given how they view Plato as the founder of “collectivism”.
A major problem that Objectivists is that reason is exceptionally difficult to define. In practice, when people talk about reason, they mean, “That which I prefer.” The preferred Objectivist slant is to render that A = A – reason is what reason is. While that might have flown in Aristotle’s time, nowadays? That’s just a plain old tautology that disguises the fact you don’t know what you’re saying.
As Goddess of the Market reminds me, one of the key features of Atlas Shrugged dystopia is “corrupt businessmen” who buy favors from the government.
Corruption in these neocon philosophies has always struck me as interesting because they largely ignore it. Some of it is the inevitable distancing from reality that goes along with almost any philosophical endeavor. But despite the significance of corruption to real economics, as far as I know there is no theory of corruption.
So Objectivism doesn’t actually explain why a businessman would become “corrupt” other than personal venality . . . even though selfishness is a virtue. Some might see this as a contradiction. I certainly do.
Moving on with reading Goddess of the Market, it’s even hard to read about Ayn Rand.
One of the things that distinguishes Rand is that she has a philosophy of history. As she sees it, individualists are the engines of creation. Thus, the success of the American enterprise (and, indeed, all human success, though she uses the sexist term “man” constantly, ugh) arises from individual risk-takers as exemplified by our frontiersman past.
Wealth does arise from exploitation and violence. Not from a multi-century conquest of a large part of North America and its riches. Not as arising from the genocide of Native Americans to acquire North America. Not from the exploitation of slave labor.
Ayn Rand has a problem with violence. I think that all anarcho-capitalist ideologies (of which Objectivism is certainly one) have the problem of violence.
To the extent that anarcho-capitalists defend violence, they do so for purposes of individual and collective self-defense. But that’s not what I’m talking about, here. I’m talking about aggression, particularly violence as an adjunct of theft. I’m talking about, quite literally, legalized banditry.
I’ve started the book Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right by Jennifer Burns, which is a bio of Ayn Rand. The book focuses on her intellectual influence rather than her artistic influence because, as Burns notes, Rand’s artistic influence is non-existent. Mostly, the people who like her books don’t read for pleasure but as a political exercise.
Burns uses new papers largely unavailable to previous researchers to write the book, and she attempts neutrality. As a researcher who is looking to contextualize Rand’s work into Rand’s life, neutrality is desirable. But, in the end, I have trouble getting behind it.