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Ayn Rand

Atlas Shrugged

Atlas Shrugged is more popular than ever among economic conservatives, precisely because it offers a full-blown defense of rapacious, predatory capitalism in a time of vast inequality.
 
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This is Francisco D’Anconia’s Money Speech from the novel Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand. An article on the Alternet site, ’10 Things I Learned About the World from Ayn Rand’s Insane “Atlas Shrugged”‘ reminded me of the book that I first read almost forty years ago. Atlas Shrugged is a fantasy about intense inventive individualistic industrialists who Rand presents as the ‘Atlases’ that sustain the world. Rand appeals to the individualist in all of us and we can empathise with the dedication and determination of her heroes. I’ve not re-read Shrugged in thirty years or so but I remember it fondly, as a fantasy, as I also remember ‘Lord of the Rings’, ‘Dune’, ‘Stranger in a Strange Land’ and ‘The Dispossessed’ all of which I read in the 1960’s and 70’s. I took ideas from these novels and they have all influenced my imagination and the way that I see the world. It’s quite likely that Rand’s book (which is really quite vicious in a heroic Wagnerian) warped my perception for a while but I’m a fundamentally decent chap and it didn’t corrupt me too much or too long. Unfortunately Rand does seem to have corrupted and warped the perception of generations of Americans with her presentation of capitalism as a corollary of freedom and competence. Those who have read ‘Shrugged’ can hear its baleful echoes in a lot of the discourse of US politicians and media pundits, many of whom openly treat Rand’s text as sacred script as is revealed in this article.

Who is Ayn Rand?

Who is Ayn Rand? Little known in the UK but famed in the US she is the author of a number of novels and philosophical treatises defending capitalism as the economic system most consistent with human freedom.

Although Rand’s ‘Atlas Shrugged’ is on my list of favourite books (I’ll have to review that list) I concur with Steven Goldstein in recognising its baleful influence on US and therefore international political discourse.

The main reason for Rand’s influence is the novel ‘Atlas Shrugged’. Whether it is ‘well written’ may be debatable but there is no doubt that it was powerfully written in terms having lasting impact on its readers. The power of the novel lies in its portrayal of individuals engaged in a heroic struggle to actualise themselves in terms of authenticity, integrity, freedom and creativity. Inevitably young people identify with this struggle:

Whilst Atlas Shrugged has some very inspirational things to say about the human spirit, creative will etc., there is a perversity hidden within the heroic presentation. It is a perversity that asserts that status as a creator (a man of mind) puts you above your fellow humans in such a way that you are no longer subject to any democratic consensus. In Rand’s world progress is achieved by a few Olympian individuals and not by the collective effort and cooperation of the many; these individuals therefore have greater human worth and moral authority.

Revisiting a post on Chomsky and Occupy reminded me of how prevalent Rand’s philosophy has become and of something I had written in a response to an article on Ayn Rand in the Guardian on Facebook:

There is a lot that’s wrong about Ayn Rand’s philosophy. The capitalist/individualist ideal she extols simply does not exist in reality. Additionally there is a thread of nastiness in her work wherein the ‘men of mind’ are seen as having more human worth than those of lesser ability. Because she sees her ubermensch as the creators and thus true owners of material wealth she endorses their right to destroy that wealth through acts of terrorism and piracy. Ultimately, in Atlas Shrugged, she has Dagney Taggart coldly murder a soldier for his indecision and justify this on the grounds that his alleged ‘refusal to think’ made him less than human.
 
On this same principle of a superior morality being inherent in the capitalist/individualist ideal, Rand believed that ‘dictatorships’ had no rights and that capitalist ‘democracies’ had a right but no obligation to overthrow such dictatorships.
 
Rand’s work is the example par excellence of a ‘weaponised narrative’. It’s influence on American thinking is clear. While Rand’s philosophy is shallow and mean, it is her special skill to present the shallow and mean as deep and noble. However much we may deplore her philosophy it is ludicrous to conclude that Rand had mediocre or no writing skills when it was those skills that made her work amongst the most influential and dangerous of the last century.

I got the following responses:

Philip Nelson: So you’ve read her works? Studied her philosophy? You can connect her metaphysics and epistemology with her politics and morality and aesthetic work? I didn’t think so.
June 16 at 8:09pm · Like

 

Gavin Sealey: Philip Nelson If I had studied her works to the depth you have I would probably be offended if anyone called them shallow. I know enough about Rand’s materialist metaphysics to know that it does not lead to a morality that recognises and respects intrinsic human worth and human connectedness. I am happy to withdraw ‘shallow and mean’ and replace it with ‘deeply flawed and mean’. Btw do you think that Dagney was morally right to murder the hesitant soldier? That Francisco was morally right to destroy the mines? that Ragnar was morally right to attack the aid ships? Is that the kind of morality you endorse and would be prepared to recommend to everyone?
June 16 at 11:28pm · Like · 1

 

Philip Nelson: You’re right, her philosophy does not acknowledge intrinsic worth. However it does value the absolute right of an individual to exist free from force or fraud. Did you know that? I do believe all those characters were morally correct in doing what they do. I can’t even begin to explain why but if you’ve read the book you should know at least Rand’s justification. I wholeheartedly, unashamedly recommend Objectivism to anyone who wishes to live a better, happier life.
June 16 at 11:32pm · Like

 

Ryan Wilson: That reads like an advertisement for Scientology.

X philosophy is one of freedom yeah! it provides freedom from x and y! Did you even know this amazing fact!?
I can’t even begin to explain why it’s so awesome, but just read this book from the prophet: you’ll see, you’ll see man… It’s the open door to a happier, better LIFE.
June 17 at 2:03am · Like · 1

 

Philip Nelson: Oh no! You equated Objectivism with Scientology! I am so embarrassed. The purpose of Philosophy is to make your life better. If you think it’s too cheesy to advertise it as such, then, well, I am sorry because I don’t know how to talk to someone like you.

Ryan is not the only person to have poked fun at Rand’s Objectivist followers by comparing them to Ron Hubbard’s Scientologists:

Random Nonsense

‎”Dictatorship nations are outlaws. Any free nation had the right to invade Nazi Germany and, today, has the right to invade Soviet Russia, Cuba or any other slave pen. Whether a free nation chooses to do so or not is a matter of its own self-interest, not of respect for the non-existent “rights” of gang rulers.”

[Ayn Rand ~ The Virtue of Selfishness]

I don’t agree of course. Just thinking that maybe there’s a principle like this behind the NATO wars.

Rand also defines what she means by ‘dictatorship’:

“There are four characteristics which brand a country unmistakably as a dictatorship: one-party rule–executions without trial or with a mock trial, for political offenses–the nationalization or expropriation of private property–and censorship. A country guilty of these outrages forfeits any moral prerogatives, any claim to national rights or sovereignty, and becomes an outlaw.”

[Ayn Rand ~ The Virtue of Selfishness]

Execution without trial? Glenn Greenwald of Salon writes about the September assassination of Anwar al-Awlaki:

It was first reported in January of last year that the Obama administration had compiled a hit list of American citizens whom the President had ordered assassinated without any due process, and one of those Americans was Anwar al-Awlaki. No effort was made to indict him for any crimes (despite a report last October that the Obama administration was “considering” indicting him). Despite substantial doubt among Yemen experts about whether he even had any operational role in Al Qaeda, no evidence (as opposed to unverified government accusations) was presented of his guilt. When Awlaki’s father sought a court order barring Obama from killing his son, the DOJ argued, among other things, that such decisions were “state secrets” and thus beyond the scrutiny of the courts. He was simply ordered killed by the President: his judge, jury and executioner. When Awlaki’s inclusion on President Obama’s hit list was confirmed, The New York Times noted that “it is extremely rare, if not unprecedented, for an American to be approved for targeted killing.”

More.

One Party Rule? It is a prejudice to suppose that two parties dominated by the same ruling class is more responsive to the will of the people than a one party system. We have to look at levels of participation in the political process.

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