Current Affairs

Go Ahead and Shrug

Ayn Rand imagines a world in which capitalists got tired of their jobs and left for good. If only they would!

I am generally of the belief that you ought to listen to what people have to say before you dismiss them. Unless we have tried to understand a thing, we will not actually know what we are talking about when we criticize it. So even though I am a leftist, I read a lot of conservative books. I do not do this because I enjoy it. I find it painful, because I find many of the opinions in these books horrifying. But think it’s important not just to “know your enemy,” but to check whether your enemy is actually your enemy. If all of my opinions come from what I read about someone, and not what they have actually said, my assessment of them might be completely off. And that does happen—I’m often frustrated by the way people are misrepresented by commentators; when you go to someone’s original writings, you sometimes find that they are quite different from what you expected. But sometimes not.

Until recently, I had not read anything much by Ayn Rand beyond a few excerpts and quotations, and a number of articles about her (including Corey Robin’s excellent chapter in The Reactionary Mind). I was not curious to dive further into her work. What more do you need to know about a person who said things like:

  •  “I believe, with good reason, the most unsympathetic Hollywood portrayal of Indians and what they did to the white man. They had no right to a country merely because they were born here and then acted like savages. The white man did not conquer this country…”?
  • “The Arabs are one of the least developed cultures… Their culture is primitive, and they resent Israel because it’s the sole beachhead of modern science and civilization on their continent. When you have civilized men fighting savages, you support the civilized men, no matter who they are.”

But an acquaintance challenged me on my dismissiveness: how can you write off someone who is both deeply influential and whose books you have never read? Ayn Rand is routinely voted one of the greatest writers of the ages by the public. She has inspired everyone from Paul Ryan and Clarence Thomas to Hunter S. Thompson and Farah Fawcett. Both benignly influential people (Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales) and sinister influential people (Whole Foods founder John Mackey) have found Rand’s work illuminating. 

Now, I do think Rand’s popularity is often overestimated, in part because of the impressive efforts of the Ayn Rand Institute in distributing free copies of her books and the determination of her followers to establish her as a world-historic philosopher. In fact, Rand’s magnum opus, Atlas Shrugged, had sold only 6 or 7 million copies as of 2011, which commenters noted is about half as many as The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and 33 million behind Jonathan Livingston Seagull. On Wikipedia’s list of all-time best-selling books, Rand appears nowhere. Total sales lag well behind The Gospel According to Peanuts, The Poky Little Puppy, and the book version of Jaws. Rand is an author more known than read. But thanks to the disproportionate influence of her followers (Alan Greenspan went from a devoted member of Rand’s inner circle to a position as the most powerful chairman in the history of the Federal Reserve), and her (arguably) strong role in building the radical free-market ideology of today’s Republican Party, Rand is worth considering.

    Today, the ideas in Rand’s books seem like standard conservative talking points, almost too banal to be worth considering. In fact, she escalated pro-market rhetoric to almost ludicrous melodramatic extremes. In her essay “America’s Most Persecuted Minority: Big Business,” Rand calls antitrust laws “legalized lynching,” and says that “every ugly, brutal aspect of injustice toward racial or religious minorities is being practiced toward businessmen.” Bear in mind that this was written in the mid-60s, when black people were being attacked by police dogs for attempting to eat lunch. We can see, of course, why Rand’s books were especially popular among small business owners and teenagers, many of whom wrote her adoring letters about the intellectual vistas her books had opened up for them. You are the real victim and everyone else is persecuting you is the exact sort of message that a lonely bookish boy or a boss dealing with labor unrest is inclined to listen to.

    The reasoning in the essay is atrocious. In her effort to prove that businessmen were being “legally lynched” (by the way, since lynching is an illegal killing, “legalized lynching” is just called “the death penalty”), Rand does not actually talk about the injustices faced by racial minorities in the United States. Like many defenders of the privileged, she speaks in abstractions in order to equate in theory two things that are clearly not equal in practice. (See, for example, use of a phrase like “violence on both sides” to equate “premeditated murder” and “property damage.”) Have a look at this silliness:

If a small group of men were always regarded as guilty, in any class with any other group, regardless of the issues or circumstances involved, would you call it persecution? … If this group had to live under a silent reign of terror, under special laws, from which all other people were immune… would you call that persecution? … If your answer is ‘yes,’ then ask yourself what monstrous injustice you are condoning, supporting, or perpetrating. That group is the American businessman. 

When people ask rhetorical questions to which they assume the answer is obvious, it’s always worth considering whether the answer is, in fact, obvious. The first question: “If a small group of men was always seen as guilty, would that be persecution?” Well, it would depend on what the group was. If the group was “guilty people,” then no. If the group was “people who drown rabbits for pleasure,” then no. Or consider “special laws.” Well, it depends on what the “special laws” were. Rand wants to call to mind the Nuremberg Laws, when she’s actually talking about laws like taxing income over a certain amount. She does not consider one critical difference: people choose to be wealthy! If laws apply to you because of things you do, things like “obtaining a large pile of money through selling dubious mortgage-backed securities,” then the fact that they only apply to you and people like you is not evidence of persecution. The reason the laws apply to you and not me is that you’re the one who did the thing! “Businessman” is not an innate identity, it’s a description of a set of actions. 

Rand’s followers believed her a great philosopher, but most of the stuff in her nonfiction essays is about at the level of FOX News talking points, for example “If workers struggle for higher wages, this is hailed as ‘social gains’; if businessmen struggle for higher profits, this is damned as ‘selfish greed.’” She sees this as the initiative-destroying, parasitical left punishing success. But perhaps the reason that businessmen’s struggle for gains are treated differently than workers’ struggles for gains is because businessmen already have large piles of money and workers don’t have nearly as much! You can call both a “struggle for gain,” which it is, but in one case the desired gain is “basic subsistence” and in the other it is “even more wealth than you already have.” 

Most professional philosophers have laughed at Rand’s theory of Objectivism, because it claims to produce a rational, objective theory of virtue yet is riddled with fallacies, ill-specified terms, and non-sequiturs. This is the way Rand talks:

Man—every man—is an end in himself, not a means to the ends of others; he must live for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself; he must work for his rational self-interest, with the achievement of his own happiness as the highest moral purpose of his life.

Rand says that when she talks about “selfishness” (as in her book The Virtue of Selfishness) this is what she means, and that she is not giving a license for “man to do as he pleases.” She says she is simply rejecting the idea that “any action taken for the benefit of others is good and any action taken for one’s own benefit is evil” because she believes “the doctrine that concern with one’s own interests is evil means man’s desire to live is evil.” She does not, she says, mean by “selfishness” what people think she means, but “if it is true that what I mean by ‘selfishness’ is not what is meant conventionally, then this is one of the worst indictments of altruism: altruism permits no concept of a self-respecting, self-supporting man.” What happens is that Rand says “By selfishness I just mean self-respect,” but then whenever she actually defines what this means in practice, it ends up sounding like… just plain selfishness. She doesn’t seem to care about other people’s suffering, and doesn’t have a problem with many of the acts (such as paying your workers too little for them to afford a decent living, even as you yourself live in luxury) that seem “selfish” under the conventional meaning of the word. John Galt’s infamous (and interminable) speech has more to say on the subject of self-regarding and other-regarding acts: 

Why is it moral to serve others, but not yourself? If enjoyment is a value, why is it moral when experienced by others, but not by you? Why is it immoral to produce something of value and keep it for yourself, when it is moral for others who haven’t earned it to accept it? If it’s virtuous to give, isn’t it then selfish to take?… Is it ever proper to help another man? No, if he demands it as his right or as a duty that you owe him. Yes, if it’s your own free choice based on your judgment of the value of that person and his struggle.

Let us answer Galt’s questions, because he seems confused by some quite simple principles and seems to think those who disagree with him believe something different than what we actually believe. First, it is perfectly fine to take care of and serve yourself. Everyone should value themselves. What is not fine is caring only about yourself, because you are not the only one whose life should matter. (Plus, even from a “self-interested” perspective, we are all better off when we care about each other; in the “prisoners dilemma,” those who follow the Randian philosophy end up screwing each other over, while those with an ethic of solidarity end up with better outcomes for all. But this is a side point, because you should help others irrespective of the benefit to yourself.) Now, to answer Galt’s next question, it is not immoral to experience enjoyment. It is immoral to hoard enjoyment, to take more than you yourself need when there are others who have none at all. It is not “immoral to produce something of value and keep it for yourself.” It is immoral, once you have plenty, to keep accruing more. It being virtuous to give a gift to someone who needs it does not mean that it is “selfish” to accept a gift if you are the needy party. Again, selfishness is not when you do anything for yourself, it is when you are excessively concerned with yourself. (Ah, but where do you draw the line? This is, of course, a difficult question, but the fact that lines are difficult to draw with precision does not invalidate the principle. To see why, imagine someone taking nearly all the hors d’oeuvres at a party. When confronted, they might say “Ah, but can you specify precisely how many hors d’oeuvres is too many?” But the fact that it is impossible to put an exact number on it does not mean that there is no such thing as taking too many hors d’oeuvres.) As to Galt’s final point, why is it not proper to help a person who says it’s your duty to help them? Why do you only owe duties to people based on their assessed “value”? If, for example, a person is caught in a threshing machine and about to be threshed to death, and they tell you to “for God’s sake, help,” you owe them a duty irrespective of your assessment of their worth, because it is wrong for a person to let another die when they could help them. And for the same reason, we have a duty to make sure the worst-off in society are fed and clothed, even if they were terrible people, because if you can keep someone from dying at little cost to yourself, you should.

photo by julius Jääskeläinen

Now, admittedly, I can’t “prove” this any more than Galt can prove his idea that you don’t need to help anyone who says you owe them your help. These are matters of moral instinct, and either you feel like it’s wrong to let others die needlessly, or you don’t. I think it is, Rand thinks it isn’t, and I think that makes Rand kind of a sociopath, and Rand thinks it makes me a sniveling moral weakling, but there is no “objective” way to decide who is right. I’m just going to have to hope that more people end up sharing my values than hers, because I think a world driven by her values would be deeply unpleasant for all. 

But you can see how a lot of the force of her arguments comes from abstraction, and making sure not to talk about the real situations in which the principles might apply. Rand/Galt says things like “You hate the man with a dollar more than you because the dollar he’s keeping is rightfully yours.” In fact, I do not hate the man with a dollar more. I do, however, hate the man with 100 billion dollars more, because he has far more than he could ever hope to use in a lifetime, and even if he gave away 99.9% of his wealth would be able to live in obscene luxury forever. This is frequently how conservatives argue: “So you’re saying it’s bad for one person to have more money than another?” without actually noting what the scale of the “more” in question actually is. 

Most of the Randian philosophy is proven through assertion or sophistry. Objectivism, like many religions, does not contemplate other possibilities and has little room for nuance. By contrast with religions, though, it is a creed built on something Rand calls “Reason” bearing little relationship to the process of self-scrutiny, open-mindedness, and dialogue that typically characterizes reasonable people. At a certain point, Rand stopped even engaging with people who disagreed with her work, considering them too foolish to be worth bothering with. 

In part she may have stopped, though, because the fundamental chain of reasoning in her work simply doesn’t hold up under scrutiny. Rand summarized her philosophy thusly:

“My philosophy, in essence, is the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest ability, and reason as his only absolute.”

A core Rand argument is that: 

(i) one’s own life is logically the ultimate value because it makes all other values possible; that (ii) it is therefore irrational for a valuing being not to defend and further this life above all other values; and that (iii) this entails strong conclusions about the rightness—actually, the moral necessity—of living selfishly.

But you can’t get from I to II or from II to III, and I doesn’t make sense either. My life may make it possible for me to hold other values, but why should I not sacrifice my life to save my child? I am not the only one who holds values, for instance. Are people who save their children’s lives at the expense of their own acting immorally? How does life as the precondition for morality make it necessary not just to follow one’s own interests, but to have the particular content of those interests be indifference to the welfare of others? 

Frequently, Randian philosophers use caricatures of opposing viewpoints in order to bolster the case for the rationality of selfishness. Here, for example, is Leonard Peikoff in Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand: 

Those who reject the principle of selfishness will find in the history of ethics two main alternatives. One is the primordial and medieval theory that man should sacrifice himself to the supernatural. The second is the theory that man should sacrifice himself to the supernatural. The second is known as “altruism,” which is not a synonym for kindness, generosity, or good will, but the doctrine that man should place others above self as the fundamental rule of life.

But I do not know many people who say that the “fundamental rule of life” is placing others above one’s self. The rule is that one should care about others as well as one’s self, and once one’s own needs are taken care of, serve others as well. Rand’s moral philosophy only succeeds because she presents a bizarre notion of “altruism” that involves a duty to sacrifice yourself to the collective and not pursue your own ends, a notion very few people hold.  

The Rand philosophy—if accepted—is likely to turn you into the sort of person that nobody else wants to be around, which is exactly what Ayn Rand turned into. In the introduction to The Fountainhead, Rand announces that her intention is to depict, in her protagonist, her “ideal man,” to portray what rational selfishness actually looks like in practice. The resulting “hero,” Howard Roark, is a cold, charmless loner who cannot take criticism and eventually rapes a woman. It’s remarkable that in writing the Perfect Hero, Rand ended up writing the Perfect Asshole, and that it should be so obvious to anyone who doesn’t share Rand’s elitist misanthropy. 

Admittedly, Rand fascinates me somewhat, for several reasons. First, she occupies an unusual place in the conservative intellectual canon. Her atheism and market fundamentalism put off more traditionalist conservatives like William F. Buckley, while her rigid moralism and idiosyncratic beliefs about Objective moral virtue separated her from libertarians. She made no friends through her attacks on fellow free market thinkers like Friedrich Hayek, whom she described as “pure poison” and “our most pernicious enemy” because he believed it was fair for the government to support some modest social welfare programs. 

Reading Jennifer Burns’ excellent biography Goddess of the Market, one is struck by how lonely, even sad, Rand’s life was. At first, her certainty in her own rightness led her to relish intellectual debate. Eventually, however, it led her to retreat into a private bubble. She built a small cult around herself, tolerating absolutely no dissent among her followers. This made sense: after all, if her views were all the product of objective rationality, disagreement was illogical. She’d probably say something about how the negation of reason was the negation of life, or whatever, as she explained why it was illegitimate to disagree with her about anything.

Goddess of the Market makes Rand seem pitiable, especially later in life. Her long affair with a young acolyte, Nathaniel Branden, ended in vicious acrimony when he lost sexual interest in her. Her husband, Frank O’Connor, was devoted but somewhat of an ineffectual daydreamer, exactly the opposite of the male heroes from her books. She constantly tried to portray her life as consistent with her philosophy (“I have always lived my life by the philosophy presented in my books—and it has worked for me”), even when it was clearly shambolic. (Editions of The Ayn Rand Newsletter were even later than copies of Current Affairs, a summer 1973 issue having finally come out in spring 1974.) 

illustration by skutch

Then there is Atlas Shrugged, the grand summation of Rand’s philosophy, the 1200 page 1957 novel that offers Rand’s answer to the question “What if all the creative minds of the world went on strike?” It was made into a three-part film series from 2011 to 2014, which was poorly reviewed and infamously lost more money than it cost to make. (The free market spoke, and decided Atlas Shrugged sucked.) I find the premise of Atlas Shrugged to be somewhat funny, and an excellent encapsulation of everything delusionally erroneous about the “individualistic” celebration of entrepreneurs. Rand imagines a dystopian world in which the government has hampered business with excessive regulation, leading to economic ruin and misery. Businessmen, tired of being pushed around and having their innovations stifled by ungrateful moochers, retreat to a secret valley where they go on strike, refusing to continue their labors under such oppressive conditions. The title, Atlas Shrugged, compares the businessmen with Atlas, who is depicted carrying the celestial sphere on his shoulders. What if Atlas were simply to shrug and wander off, refusing to continue serving humanity? What then? 

The reason I can’t help but laugh at this is that, well, if there was an Atlas, and he did stand “holding up the heavens,” and he did shrug and leave, what would happen is… precisely nothing. Because the world isn’t “held up” by Atlas, but by the operation of the laws of physics. It perfectly captures the grandiose delusion of the American businessman: he believes himself to be far more important than he actually is. If all the bosses went on strike, the workers would be absolutely thrilled. They’d have self-managed enterprises! They would democratically control capital, instead of having to work for someone else merely because he happened to be rich! It would be a day of triumph! It’s goddamn hilarious that Ayn Rand thinks everyone would be worse off if bosses went away. Alright, Ayn: let’s try it for a day! They never do try it, because most capitalists are ultimately useless, and they depend on books like Atlas Shrugged to trick people into believing otherwise. Even the “innovators,” the ones who make money from actually coming up with things rather than simply because they have money, are less valuable than they assume. If Mark Zuckerberg fell off the earth tomorrow, we’d all be fine. If Mark Zuckerberg had never existed at all, we’d… also be fine, and probably better off.

To the extent there can be an Atlas, then, if you inspect all his muscles and sinews and bones, you will find that they are made of billions upon billions of small people, all pulling together to make the whole giant body function. My friend Max Alvarez, in a beautiful essay called “Labor,” writes of what he saw and smelled when he took a job working in a hospital laundry, and invokes the Atlas comparison rather differently from Rand: 

Here’s all I’ll say about it: our job was to stand amidst the steam and froth in full Hazmat gear, like humdrum astronauts, sorting and cleaning the soiled laundry of L.A. and Orange County hospitals. The conveyor belt in front of us never stopped, not once. It rumbled monotonously, shepherding endless piles of sheets and towels and smocks and blankets, all stained, dripping, bubbling with the insides of our fellow human beings. Blood, shit … tears, dying words … piss, bile … the effluence of broken bodies, the residual pudding new life leaves behind—it all ended up here. I once found a syringe in one of the piles.

Besides the smell, there’s only one thing that stands out. One image I can still make out through the thick steam that’s taken over that part of my memory. A Black man, fifty-something. He’d worked there for years. I never actually saw his face, just his eyes—we all wore masks. The smell, he said, didn’t bother him none. There was a superhuman tenderness and care in the labor he did to sift through an entire civilization’s worth of human-stained laundry, without being bothered by any of it. To make it all clean again. He was Atlas, holding the world up.

All across the planet, at any given moment, there a billions of people like this, toiling away in kitchens and laundries and fields and sweatshops, diligently performing the work that allows people like Rand the free time to write 1,100 page novels about how ungrateful the workers are for the heroic labors of their bosses. Frankly, when I think of how much thankless labor there is in the world, it really makes me sick to read tributes to the beneficence of the great Entrepreneur. 

    Rand’s dichotomy between the moochers and the producers comes up frequently: 

“So you think that money is the root of all evil? … Have you ever asked what is the root of money? Money is a tool of exchange, which can’t exist unless there are goods produced and men able to produce them. … Money is not the tool of the moochers, who claim your product by tears, or the looters who take it from you by force. Money is made possible only by the men who produce.”

Now, I am not sure what the point here about money is, really, since I don’t know who doubts that money is possible because there is production. But the interesting thing is that Rand’s language about those who “produce” in some way mirrors that of the left—except that the roles are reversed, and the left celebrates the ordinary laborer while Rand makes it clear that it is the capitalist she considers the “producer”: 

America’s abundance was created not by public sacrifices to the common good, but by the productive genius of free men who pursued their own personal interests and the making of their own private fortunes. They did not starve the people to pay for America’s industrialization. They gave the people better jobs, higher wages, and cheaper goods with every new machine they invented, 

It is those who make their “private fortunes” and “give” the people jobs, rather than the people who do the jobs, who create the abundance. (Note that it is usually a myth that the people who get rich are the ones who invent machines; most innovators actually get very little, and it is the people who successfully monetize the innovations of others that build the giant fortunes.) The left’s analysis is exactly the inverse: it similarly holds that the world is divided into makers and takers, but thinks the makers are, well, the people who actually make the stuff and the takers are the people whose contribution is their “capital” rather than their labor. For us, it’s absolutely the case that those who “produce” are the foundation of wealth, but the laboring masses are the producers! (However, we reject the idea that your labor is the sole foundation of your value since there are plenty of people who have value beyond their capacity to toil. All discussion of work as the core of virtue is demeaning to people who are physically disabled from working.) 

    Rand did not subscribe to the belief that the people who picked her fruit and built her car were the ones she should be thanking for the world’s bounties. She had contempt for the masses. In fact, in one of her early novels she went even further—in a passage that had such genocidal overtones that she eventually removed it, Rand had a character say:

    “Deny the best its right to the top—and you have no best yet. What are your masses but mud to be ground underfoot, fuel to be burned for those who deserve it? What is the people but millions of puny, shrivelled, helpless souls that have no thoughts of their own, no dreams of their own, no will of their own, who eat and sleep and chew helplessly the words others put into their mildewed brains? And for those of you would sacrifice the few who know life, who are life? I loathe your ideals because I know no worse injustice than justice for all. Because men are not born equal and I don’t see why one should want to make them equal. And because I loathe most of them. 

    (Rand always spoke through her characters, and even cited John Galt in her nonfiction writings as if he were an actual philosopher, so when a character is talking about why equality is bad and moochers are worthless, it’s a safe bet she’s speaking her own mind.)

    The disgust, bordering on hatred, that Rand felt for most people is the reason the National Review said the book seemed to scream “To a gas chamber—go!” It was an exaggeration, but not much. Rand consistently denounced the ungrateful hordes, which is why fringe right-wing economist Ludwig von Mises wrote to Rand of Atlas Shrugged that: “You have the courage to tell the masses what no politician told them: you are inferior and all the improvements in your conditions which you simply take for granted you owe to the effort of men who are better than you.” Yeesh. 

In fact, reading Ayn Rand, and nasty Social Darwinist raving like that of Mises, reminds me of why I’m on the left, and what I like about people, and why misanthropy and “heroic individualism” are dead ends that are at odds with reality and can turn people bitter and lonely. No one of us holds up the world alone, we hold each other up, and if Atlas abandoned his post he’d come back to find the rest of us all working together in acts of mutual aid and support. Objectivism is funny, because it’s so irrational yet so convinced of its own rationality. Ayn Rand not only couldn’t see the humor in that, she had a principled objection to laughing at herself. (“The worst evil that you can do, psychologically, is to laugh at yourself. That means spitting in your own face.”) Personally, I love to laugh at myself, and I like people who do the same. Self-confident, narcissistic, nasty megalomaniacs are not the sort of people I enjoy spending my time on earth with, and Ayn Rand’s philosophy encourages precisely those sort of tendencies. We can be glad that most people don’t seem to want to read books like that, but at the same time Rand’s ideas have seeped deep into the American consciousness: her rhetoric comes out of the mouths of Republican politicians everywhere. The “neoliberal” turn has eroded neighborliness and sanctified the pursuit of naked self-interest, with no regard for the welfare of others, as unobjectionable. 

So capitalists: shrug away! Retreat to your gulch in the mountains, and stay there as long as you like. Have fun cleaning the toilets and performing the other acts of Heroic Individualism that you will discover are necessary to maintain your comfort. Let us try the Atlas Shrugged hypothetical out for real, by disappearing the ruling class overnight, and we’ll find out who really produces what matters and what really holds up the world. 

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