Thursday, 20 June 2013

Ayn Rand

Ayn Rand - a philosopher (so-called) and novelist that inspired Margaret Thatcher. Glenn thought it would be a good idea to find out more about her, so we purchased a fiction book by her ('The Fountainhead') and a non-fiction book about her work and ideas ('Ayn Rand' by Mimi R. Gladstein) and took the plunge.

What a journey it proved to be. I am glad that I did it, but I would not want to repeat such an experience too often! Want to make the most of life, enjoy life, and be forward looking and all that. Still, it was a useful learning experience.

'The Fountainhead' and 'Atlas Shrugged' are 2 of Rand's most important novels. They are regarded as 'modern classics' and have sold loads of copies. In fact, Rand's novels sold over 20 million copies along with 25 million copies of her non-fiction works.

However, 'The Fountainhead' proved to be a pretty bad read (to put it mildly), I thought - but more about that later. Whilst the book about Ayn Rand and her philosophy by Gladstein proved to be very interesting and informative - a well-written book (unlike 'The Fountainhead' - certainly in terms of artistic fiction writing).

Rand (1905 - 1982) - a Russian-American novelist, philosopher, playwright and screenwriter. Rand was a Russian Jew and was very cynical about Soviet Communist Russia. She developed a philosophical system called Objectivism. Rand moved to the USA in 1926 and was very praiseworthy of the American capitalist, laissez-faire way of life (although she didn't think it went far enough, and thought it was still too collectivist-focused - heavens!) She thought that reason was the only means of acquiring knowledge and rejected faith and religion. Very significantly (in terms of understanding how capitalism works and perpetuates itself) Alan Greenspan, the former US Federal Reserve Chairman, was one of her leading followers.

The essence of Rand's Objectivism was: "the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute." (quote from Rand on Wikipedia).

Rand saw Objectivism as a systematic philosophy, with positions on metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, political philosophy and aesthetics.

Rand's philosophy argued that humans should be selfish and productive; that mostly, that is the right and moral thing to do. She was against collectivism.

The book 'Ayn Rand' by Mimi R. Gladstein, Bloomsbury Publishing, London, 2013, proved to be very useful and informative. It is part of a series on 'Major Conservative Thinkers and Libertarian Thinkers, (Vol 20 in series). The Series Editor is John Meadowcroft.

In the Series Editor Preface John Meadowcroft has this to say:

"The novelist and philosopher Ayn Rand was one of the most powerful and influential twentieth century advocates of free market capitalism.." (Meadowcroft, p. ix)

The philosophical movement, Objectivism (which she inspired and largely founded)

"...flourished during her lifetime and continues to attract followers to this day..." (Meadowcroft, p. ix)

And she believed in:

"...the moral supremacy of individualism over collectivism. " (Meadowcroft, p. ix)

Rand thought that human progress depended on the wisdom, creativeness and for-sightedness of individuals. Whilst the collectivist state was rather like a burglar, with people taking things that did not belong to them. Whereas, selfishness, in contrast, encouraged people to produce. (Heavens!) The argument can, perhaps, be seductive to some, because it is obviously the case that some people in society work hard and take risks and that others can benefit from this, and can sometimes be seen to be riding on the backs of the 'workers' and 'producers'. But this is an immature way of looking at the whole situation and is just one of the many unfortunate consequences of the capitalist system and the gross inequalities that it engenders (and the way in which it is organised under it), rather than a reason to praise capitalism.

Meadowcroft said that:

"In Rand's view, altruism was the philosophy of a society of serfs, whereas selfishness was the mindset of a society of free men and women." (Meadowcroft, p. ix-x)

Moving on to the book itself, the author Gladstein spoke about Rand saying that:

"Ayn Rand was a polarizing and controversial person in life, and her personality and ideas are of such dynamism and force that even a quarter century after her death, she still provokes strong emotions and controversy." (Gladstein, p. 1)

Her editor at Random House, Hiram Haydn, said in his autobiography that Rand always made him feel like a "soft-headed, ambivalent, tortured liberal".

In her novel We the Living, Gladstein said that:

"Rand spells out through both the narrative and dramatically that any system that values the collective above the individual is doomed to quash productivity and fulfillment as it glorifies the mediocre." (Gladstein, p.22)

Gladstein then moves on in the book  to discuss a section from Rand's novel Atlas Shrugged which is actually headed 'From each according to his ability, to each according to his need' (the famous Marx quote of course). How about that! Dear oh dear!

Apparently, in the plot, the able are made to work harder and produce more, in order to try to cater for the needs of the masses and those that are less able. But this meant that the efforts of the able were not properly rewarded, which de-motivated them. So the able started to hide their capabilities.

"Those who were truly responsible, reduced their draw on 'the family' funds, whereas the irresponsible and shiftless found innumerable ways to take advantage of the system, procreating irresponsibly, adding worthless relatives to the family rolls, and nurturing all kinds of sickness and disabilities." (Gladstein, pp. 39-40)

Atlas Shrugged grew out of Rand's response to the idea of what would happen if the producers, the people of the mind, went on strike. The character, John Galt, in the book builds a morality.

"Virtuous actions achieve virtuous things. As the established goal is human existence, humans should choose those values that enhance it." (Gladstein, p. 45)

The character Galt says that these values are reason, purpose and self-esteem.

"Reason is essential because it is the means to the acquisition of the knowledge that is needed to live. Purpose is valuable because it provides a goal for reason to achieve. Self-esteem is important because with it human beings can believe themselves worthy of life and able to achieve it." (Gladstein, p. 45)

Gladstein continues:

"In sum, Galt affirms that the achievement of one's happiness is the moral purpose of one's life. His rationale for that its purpose is to protect human rights, to create a society wherein life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are maximized." (Gladstein, p. 51)

The character Galt says that there are only 3 fitting functions for government: the police to protect one from criminals, the army to protect one from foreign invaders and the courts to protect property and contracts from breach or fraud and to settle rational disputes according to objective laws. This was clearly a reflection of Rand's own thinking.

In addition, in Atlas Shrugged there are 3 recurring references - individualism v. collectivism, egoism v. altruism, reason v. mysticism.

"Collectivism, altruism, and mysticism all work to undermine human potential and are the tools for destabilization and a counterproductive future. The paths to a vibrant future with maximum potential for human happiness are through reason, egoism, and individualism." (Gladstein, p.55)

Rand thinks that in a free society people are free to avoid the irrational.

Talk about twisting what Marx meant in regard to Marx's quote: "From each according to his ability, to each according to his need", which is about becoming truly human, finding a means for self-expression and being fulfilled etc. I say no more.

Meanwhile, Rand's non-fiction works include Capitalism: the unknown ideal, The Virtue of Selfishness and Man's Rights

In Capitalism: the unknown ideal Gladstein says that:

"In the context of Objectivism, laissez-faire capitalism is the only system appropriate for the life of a rational being. Rand stresses that Objectivists are not conservatives but radicals for capitalism." (p. 67)

Apparently, Rand thought that the book became necessary because the previous defenders of capitalism had not fought for it on a moral-philosophical basis.

"Rand identifies capitalism as the politico-economic system that has more than any previous or subsequent system in history, benefitted humankind while being attacked and misrepresented." (Gladstein, p.67)

But, even if this were the case, it is not a system that we have consciously sought out; we have not been aiming to set up a moral system; we did not morally select it. So, this makes all this argument a nonsense.

In Man's Rights:

"Rand asserts that the basis for a free society is individual rights and that historically the dominant political systems have been based instead on some form of what she calls 'altruistic-collectivist doctrine', a doctrine that subordinates the individual to some higher authority, be it in the form of religion (mystical) or state (social)." (Gladstein, p. 68)

And this is where Thatcher got her notion from that 'there is no such thing as society' - from Rand (dear oh dear!). This is what Gladstein says:

"Rand declares that there is no such thing as 'society' because society as an entity is made up of individuals and thus must not be placed outside the moral law...The United States does not regard the individual as belonging to the state or society but as an end in himself. He is protected against the state and the state's powers are limited by the constitution." (Gladstein, p. 68)

For Rand, there is only one fundamental 'right'; the right to one's own life. From that, there is derived the freedom to take those actions necessary to sustain and enjoy life.

"She is very clear on the fact that the government was created to protect individual rights and the Constitution to protect the individual from the government." (Gladstein, p. 68)

In regard to rights, she says for example that just because there is the right of free speech, this does not mean that the microphone has to be supplied. For Rand, there are only individual rights; not economic, collective or public-interest rights.

Also Rand thought that Anna Karenina was "the most evil book in serious literature", apparently, because of its message of hopelessness - heavens! (p. 76 in Gladstein book). How dreadful - it is a brilliant book and can really help certain people in certain situations, in particular crises that they might have in their life. And the language and style is just so beautiful. It transcends so much. This one really disturbed me.

Gladstein continues:

"In Rand's metaphysical philosophy, reality is objective and absolute. For her epistemological system, the mind is capable of discovering valid information of that which exists. Because of her basic premise that man is a rational being and an end in himself, he has a right to choose those values and goals that best serve his purpose to be the best person he can be. This is in accordance with her moral theory of self-interest...a coherent philosophy that includes metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics must precede and determine politics and that politics then precedes and determines economics." (Gladstein, pp. 85-6)

Rand says that one's life should be one's ethical purpose and that values should be chosen that forward that purpose (p. 102). But this could be de-motivating (apart from anything else) - doing things for these so-called 'moral' purposes. Yet, at the same time, she argued that people should be selfish.

"Rand...sometimes called herself a radical for capitalism, thought that capitalism was the only moral politico-economic system in history. In her thinking, capitalism was a great boon to humankind, having produced goods and technology that enhance the quality of life." (Gladstein, p.103)

Moving on to 'The Fountainhead' Ayn Rand's Introduction in the Penguin, 2007 (first published in 1943) is interesting.

Rand makes it clear that she rates Aristotle, who she says, sees things not as they are, but as they might be or ought to be. In fact, he was the only philosopher she really rated, even though Nietzsche had quite a big influence on her thinking in the early days.

Rand says in the introduction:

"Since my purpose is the presentation of an ideal man, I had to define and present the conditions which make him possible and which his existence requires. Since man's character is the product of his premises, I had to define and present the kinds of premises and values that create the character of an ideal man and motivate his actions; which means that I had to define and present a rational code of ethics. Since man acts among and deals with other men, I had to present the kind of social system that makes it possible for ideal men to exist and to function - a free, productive, rational system which demands and rewards the best in every man, and which is, obviously, laissez-faire capitalism." (Rand, p.ix)

Interestingly, she also talks about Nietzsche in the introduction. She had a quote from Nietzsche at the head of her manuscript for 'The Fountainhead', which she subsequently removed (as she later disagreed with much of his thinking), but then brought it back into the Introduction.

She says:

"I removed it, because of my profound disagreement with the philosophy of its author, Friedrich Nietzsche. Philosophically, Nietzsche is a mystic and an irrationalist. His metaphysics consists of a somewhat 'Byronic' and mystically 'malevolent' universe; his epistemology subordinates reason to 'will', or feeling or instinct or blood or innate virtues of character. But, as a poet, he projects at times (not consistently) a magnificent feeling for man's greatness, expressed in emotional, not intellectual, terms. This is especially true of the quotation I had chosen. I could not endorse its literal meaning: it proclaims an indefensible tenet - psychological determinism. But if one takes it as a poetic projection of an emotional experience (and if, intellectually, one substitutes the concept of an acquired 'basic premise' for the concept of an innate 'fundamental certainty'), then that quotation communicates the inner state of an exalted self-esteem - and sums up the emotional consequences for which The Fountainhead provides the rational, philosophical base." (Rand, p.xii)

And this is the actual quote from Nietzsche:

"It is not the works, but the belief which is here decisive and determines the order of rank - to employ once more an old religious formula with a new and deeper meaning - it is some fundamental certainty which a noble soul has about itself, something which is not to be sought, is not to be found, and perhaps, also, is not to be lost. The nobel soul has reverence for itself. - " (Friederich Nietzsche Beyond Good and Evil)

Also, as Gladstein said:

"Early in her career, Rand's work retained vestiges of her encounter with Nietzschean thought. However, as she honed and developed her own philosophy, she was able to expunge much of that from her texts." (Gladstein, p. 23)

I think this is unfortunate, to say the least. If one is inspired by a great writer/thinker, then it is wrong to not properly acknowledge this. Really, it is a form of plagiarism. Nietzsche inspired Rand, and then she largely dumps him. And why did she do that? Because he uncovered truths that she did not want to know or like. On initial reading, Nietzsche might seem to be 'for' capitalism, in some way, encouraging people to 'go for life', to make the most of life, and all that. And she must have liked that. But the more one reads, the more one realises the falsity of such a position. Rather, Nietzsche explore the complexities, the multi-layers and the contradictions. He was very brave, took many risks and just transcended so much. And so it sent him mad, in the end. Very difficult to marry it all up. He was a genius, and thought on levels that were completely beyond the capability of Rand.

What about the novel, 'The Fountainhead' itself? Well, it proved to be a very dull read. So dull, in fact, that I could not bring myself to finish it. I thought it might be more like Barbara Taylor Bradford's 'A Woman of Substance' - a rags to riches-type story, which would celebrate capitalism in an enticing and engaging way, but it wasn't. Presumably, this was because Rand was trying to prove that capitalism is the most rational social system, and aiming to be objective, but the result was pretty dire.

Gladstein summarises some of the main themes in 'The Fountainhead' very well, I think (pp.25-30). Rand identifies the theme of the book as 'individualism versus collectivism". The novel revolves around the story of Howard Roark, a talented and independent architect and his interaction with a number of characters. Gladstein says that:

"It is through these stories that Rand illustrates the sources, psychological and societal, which go into the making of either a collectivist or an individualistic." (Gladstein, p. 25)

In regard to the characters, there is Gail Wynand, a cynic with qualities of greatness; Peter Keating, a secondander who bothers too much about the opinion of others and Ellsworth M. Toohey, the ultimate collectivist whose real purpose is to rule others.

In regard to Peter Keating:

"For such people, it is not what they acoomplish but what others think they have accomplished." (Gladstein, pp. 25-6)

They do not act but give the appearance of acting. The live off the fruits of others.

Then, there is Howard Roark himself who asserts that:

" is the doers, thinkers, workers, and producers upon whom the world depends." (Gladstein, p.26)

Roark blames the acceptance of altruism for those like Peter Keating that live secondhand. Roark is an independent thinker, who produces and works and takes calculated risks.

Whilst;s Tooley's:

" was crowded, public and impersonal as a city square. The friend of humanity had no single private friend. People came to him; he came close to no one. He accepted all. His affection was golden, smooth and even, like a great expanse of sand; there was no wind of discrimination to raise dunes; the sands lay still and the sun stood high." (Rand in 'The Fountainhead', p. 309).

As Gladstein said, Tooley:

"Having reduced Peter Keating to a selfless and willing pawn, Toohey has no fear in revealing the methodology of his plan to kill the individual and man's soul...By setting selflessness and altruism as the ideal, an ideal that is unachievable, one fills people with guilt and a sense of unworthiness. Such people are more easily ruled." (Gladstein, pp. 26-7)

In addition:

"Killing a person's capacity to recognize or achieve greatness while concurrently setting up standards achievable by all, kills incentive to improve, to excel, or to perfect." (Gladstein, p. 27)

In the end (after a court case), Roark "...rejects the right of the government to demand the gift of his talent and refuses to exist for others; he states that he recognizes no obligation toward others except not to participate in a slave society and to respect their freedom." (Gladstein, p. 30)

In general, I just found 'The Fountainhead' to be a bad work of fiction. It was not engaging; instead it was a dull read. The characters did not seem real; they had no depth to them; no passion; no essential qualities of what it is to be human. And it was not inspirational. It was also irritating, because it was just about readable, so I kept ploughing on with it for a long time, thinking it might get better, eventually to give up (I was probably about 4/5 through it). I felt annoyed; it had wasted my time, and it put me in a bad mood. It was an extremely unsatisfying read, and if many others started to write fiction like that, it would kill novel-writing as an art form, I think - that is how strongly I feel about it. Apparently, Rand took barbiturates for years; perhaps, this is reflected in her writing. Such drugs can inhibit, or even kill, creativity. The creative spark that brings a book to life for me, was not there. Whether or not that can be blamed on drugs is another matter. But we must remember that Rand was trying to prove that capitalism is a rational system, and she was writing this novel to try to prove that. So, it aimed to be objective, but this made it very dull. Dear oh dear. Leave the likes of her to it. I want to live in the complete opposite way to that. I want to be moved and inspired by artistic works and experiences that transcend every day life and make life something beautiful or at least something interesting and worthwhile. I certainly do not want to be reading novels that give me the opposite experience. So, that's enough of that. I won't be reading any more of Rand's novels, that's for sure.

Recently, though, I read an interesting and useful piece in the 'Sunday Observer' by George Saunders (26th May), which also helped to clarify and confirm my thinking on Rand.  The piece was 'George Saunders (People Agenda) in the 'Sunday Observer, New Review', 26th May, 2013, p. 5

George Saunders is a USA writer on Buddhism, but in his school days and slightly beyond, he was very keen on Rand. He said:

"...if you are a crummy reader sometimes bad art can do magical things. She [Rand] appeals to a certain kind of adolescent male, I think, and she definitely got to me."

He continues:

"So I went to college and read all the rest of the books and she was sort of my patron saint. Then you get an uncomfortable moment where you realise there's this little bag you're holding that's filling up with phenomena that don't really fit the model. And that bag got heavier and heavier. My family ran into some financial problems. And I thought, she would not understand what we're going through. She'd equate it with some kind of moral weakness on our part. And then after college I went to Asia and saw some things there that made the bag really heavy and at some point I just said, 'I don't get her any more, I'll set her down.' Only years later I was like, 'Oh my God, she's very dangerous'. But I like that. I like the idea that someone can change. You could be a rabid right-winger one moment and then..." (p.5)

So, let that be a warning to us.

I will end on this note, as an additional warning. I recently watched an interview with Rand on YouTube, where she was arguing against women being leaders. A nice and amusing contradiction, I thought, as she influenced Margaret Thatcher's thinking. But Rand had made it; she was a successful woman  - indeed, it was the desire for that that largely fuelled her philosophy and her writing, I think. It  made her very much stand out from the crowd, whilst at the same time, very much supporting capitalism and so she became famous. This surely says something about the manner of the woman. She should not be taken too seriously, but then again, given how much such thinking is influencing government policy in the west, on another level, such thinking cannot be ignored.

However, having now completed my own project on this topic, I will leave it to others to explore it further!

I guess it needs to be done, but not by me!

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