Ayn Rand and her philosophy


Last week I wrote a poem about Ayn Rand and the Randites. I read her two most famous novels in my teens, The Fountainhead, and Atlas Shrugged. The first I didn’t actively dislike. I could sort of agree with the hero’s point of view, and sympathize with his inability to make a living following his dream. I could somewhat understand his pity for the man who stole and bowdlerized his work, and his eventual unwillingness to allow his work to survive in impure form. But for me there was something off about the novel. For one thing, the sex scenes didn’t seem very sexy to me, something quite important to me then. Was it because they were written from a woman’s point of view? I don’t know if that was it or not.
Atlas Shrugged I more actively disliked. Mainly for its dogmatism, which seemed to me its primary message. I could understand the idea of people who are parasites taking power away from the people who do the really valuable work, but resented the insistence that I had to agree with the thesis.
The books were interesting in a way, but I didn’t find them terribly important. Only recently have I discovered that some prominent people have taken them seriously, have decided they know who the parasites are, and are currently warring against them.
This is part of a greater war, conservative against liberal, which takes place in an atmosphere of distortion. Not all conservatives are inspired by Rand. Her atheism is a turnoff to some, who are traditional conservative Christians, but her narrative seems to fit into theirs: that parasites are poor, usually with dark skins, live on welfare, and vote for Democrats. There’s just enough truth in the stereotype to make it plausible to many.
That greater war has to do with the struggle between Capitalism and Communism. Rand was Russian, had been educated in Russia, and was rather brilliant, speaking several different languages. Her family was Jewish, but non-observant, and she decided in her teens that she was an atheist. After graduating from a university she managed to come to this country in 1926, before the worst of Communist rule there began, but had probably seen some pretty terrible things. Once here, she sought work in Hollywood, where she worked as a screenwriter and costume designer, along with many odd jobs. She sold at least one screenplay, had a play produced, published her first novel, We the Living, in 1936, and a novella, Anthem,before publishing her first bestseller, The Fountainhead.
She endorsed laissez-faire capitalism as the best system for promoting individual rights, including property rights, and defined evil as initiating violence. Her views could be paradoxical, though. She supported Israel’s 1973 war against Arab countries, as “civilized men fighting against savages”. She also approved of Americans taking the western hemisphere from the Indians.
I’ve heard more about Rand in recent years because she seems to have become a conservative icon. Some prominent politicians have said she greatly influenced them, including Paul Ryan, who later tried to back away. He’s Roman Catholic, and she was an atheist who supported abortion. That doesn’t go over well in some conservative circles, but her endorsement of capitalism does.
I, however, have trouble with some aspects of capitalism. I’m not sure Rand ever knew (or acknowledged) the extent to which capitalism has been based on violence. Slavery was capitalistic. The labor movement and Communism were born as a reaction to Capitalism. And it’s not like Communism didn’t try to make a profit. They just denied profit-making to most of their population, forcing it underground.
Capitalism in this country wasn’t quite as overtly brutal, though it’s had its brutal aspects and episodes. Underpaying workers and violently breaking strikes, of course, but that brutality extends to brutality to the earth and its resources too, which I think is going to have even worse repercussions.
Wendell Berry, the fine writer who is also a traditional farmer, farming land his family has owned for 200 years, compared the migration of farmers (in The Unsettling of America) to the city to work in factories with the forced migrations and expropriations of Stalinist Russia. In this country, economic force was used, usually not military, but it was still force. Many farmers were forced off their land because they could no longer make a living if their farms weren’t big enough. They didn’t necessarily like working in factories, but had little other choice if they wanted to make a living. And when they struck for higher wages and better working conditions, they were often met with violence. That’s why unions were formed, and why unions often met violence with violence.
Another problem with the shift of the nature of the country from agrarian to industrial was that many fewer people could be self-sufficient, and capitalism by this time one hundred years ago was discouraging self-sufficiency through advertising to sell more products. As the century went on, more and more family farms disappeared, to be replaced by factory farms, and these farms were industrialized with the addition of tractors, artificial fertilizers, and artificial insecticides. These increased production, but also greatly increased costs, and Berry makes the case that careful farming’s production isn’t that far less than industrial farming, which he says is usually careless. It plants where it ought not to, encouraging soil erosion, allowing fertilizer to be washed into rivers, and is in other ways careless with the land. Planting the same crop on the same acres year after year drives down its fertility, and land sometimes needs to lie fallow for a year or two to allow its fertility to return.
Parallel problems are in animal husbandry. Animals are imprisoned where they can hardly even turn around, and dosed with antibiotics to prevent disease (which may increase antibiotic-resistant bacteria). Male chicks are ground up alive because the farms have no use for them. The chicken we eat is all female. The industrial motto is, Bigger is better. And profit is its only ethic.
Berry says small farmers used to be able to survive in part because they could sell the produce they didn’t need locally. Regulation in the name of sanitation changed that. One such regulation was the requirement to store the milk a farm produced in a tank. The catch was that a farm had to have a herd of at least thirty cows to be able to afford such a tank.
Regulation is an issue in other industries. Coal, oil, and other miners and manufacturers dump their wastes anywhere they please, which is convenient for them, but not so convenient for those who have to drink the water they pollute. Being large enterprises, they’re able to have regulations changed, or prevent them from being enforced. Small farmers didn’t have that power.
Convenience has been a selling-point of capitalism, but capitalists have wanted to make people pay as much as possible for it. Electrification of rural areas was rejected for a long time, because electric companies didn’t believe it could be profitable. When a program was pushed through to provide electricity to a remote area in Texas (where Lyndon Johnson grew up), electricity made the lives of ordinary people immeasurably easier. Before that, the drudgery there had been brutal.
But convenience isn’t always a sufficient justification. That which is convenient isn’t always a good idea. Plastic is an example. We make almost everything out of it, but it doesn’t biodegrade. The impact of this isn’t immediate, so we don’t generally notice, but eventually we will, as the world fills up with trash, which interferes with natural processes.
Reliance on coal and especially oil for energy has also been convenient, while plunging us into several wars to ensure our supply doesn’t get cut off. The air pollution it has produced has been less convenient, but hasn’t been enough to move us to other energy sources.
Coal companies essentially conned people living in the Appalachians out of their property, forced them to work in mines to support themselves, and took the profit made out of the states where it was made. After deep mines (where working conditions have always been dangerous), companies began strip-mining: digging up the land to get to the coal, which destroyed the productivity of the soil. They also began blowing tops off mountains to get to the coal, dumping the waste anywhere they pleased, including rivers and streams, without concern for the health problems that caused people in the area, and potentially further downstream. That’s laissez-faire, and it’s violent.
I don’t see much evidence that Rand was aware of this side of Capitalism. She preferred the system, understandably, to Communism, but didn’t see that both were exploiting natural resources in similar destructive ways, and that Capitalism’s brutality was only less overt than Communism’s.
I find her writing interesting partly because she’s trying to construct an overall philosophy which seems to have no room for families, children, and ordinary people. She has heroes and heroines, and what she calls “second-handers”, who take advantage of the creativity of others. No one else seems to exist.
In her philosophy she opposes all forms of religion or mysticism, and considers all knowledge to be based on the physical senses. I think in doing this she closes a door to other forms of knowledge that others testify do exist, though they’re often misunderstood.
And ironically, though she claimed to be in favor of freedom and human rights, she was extremely dogmatic, as I mentioned above. She founded a movement she called Objectivism to spread her views, and attracted a number of people to it. Nathaniel Branden, with whom she had been very close, she eventually expelled from it. He, in turn, apologized in an interview to Objectivists for “contributing to that dreadful atmosphere of intellectual repressiveness that pervades the Objectivist movement.” Was the repressiveness he mentions what Ayn Rand really wanted?
In some ways I have to admire her. She was a strong woman, who overcame a number of things. She escaped from the Soviet Union, struggled to succeed in this country, and wasn’t successful for some time. When she was successful she had to overcome disdain for her work. Though some, and eventually many liked it, there were from the beginning many critics who thought it badly done and philosophically shallow. It’s possible that she found being a woman in a man’s world difficult, and perhaps being Jewish too.
But I think she got onto a wrong track, that people following her also misunderstood what she was saying, and drew wrong conclusions from it. She was an apologist for laissez-faire capitalism, which is as liable to corruption as any other human endeavor. She opposed “collectivism”, by which she meant Communism, but individualism (which she supported) is too often understood as being allowed to do anything one wishes, regardless of the rights and welfare of others. Capitalism can be as totalitarian as Communism. And in a complex society individuals can’t succeed without at least some cooperation from others.
She said she opposed the initiation of violence, but the system she supported has often initiated it. As have many other systems. She opposed regulation of Capitalism, but Capitalism (like humans in general) doesn’t have a good history of self-regulation.
She was, like many, a paradox unable to live completely up to her ideals. Her ideals weren’t entirely bad, and her insights weren’t entirely wrong, but I find her contribution more negative than positive. Others will surely disagree.


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